Posts tagged ‘Luang Prabang’

August 1, 2012

It is apparent that lies and videotape if not sex, are part of the scene as are elements of a French farce.

ON LINE  opinion  – Australia’s e-journal of social and political debate

Wet dreaming

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By Melinda Boh
Posted Wednesday, 1 August 2012

“Look I dunno what the hell’s really going on in Sayaboury” the late American agricultural economist Charles Alton grumbled. “There is so much conflicting information and lack of transparency; and of course you can’t ask, as it’s so damned sensitive.” That he and many others, also chose not to be identified, is a mark of how ‘sensitive’ the Sayaboury dam in Laos continues to be.

In last week’s stories on the BBC and in The Economist have highlighted how controversial this dam is. Regional discussion forums have also generated a lot of conjectural heat. It is apparent that lies and videotape if not sex, are part of the scene as are elements of a French farce.

The authoritarian Lao government, unused to public scrutiny or questioning, has been at pains to play at transparency, while at the same time offering conflicting accounts of what is and about to happen. Despite evidence to the contrary from Lao and expatriates who have been observing the considerably advanced work, the government has repeated the mantra that work will not go ahead until all environmental studies have been done. Well they were. A strategic environmental study lead by Australian consultant Dr Jeremy Carew Reid recommended a ten year moratorium. The Lao government and dam principle contractor hired a Finnish firm Poyry whose findings gave a warm smile to the project. Poyry was later blacklisted by the World Bank.

The controversial dam will be situated on the Mekong River, south of the World Heritage city of Luang Prabang.

The Mekong is a river of legends, of tales told in conflict. It hosts glorious sunsets, holiday romance, questionable whiskey and slow boats. The Mekong is amongst the world’s ten largest rivers and an Asian icon. It runs through some poor nations and the poor parts of wealthy nations like Thailand. Over 60 million people depend on the Mekong for food but it is estimated that around 300 million may also use the brown swirling waters for irrigation, transport and domestic water.

Sacred to most Mekong basin people, damming the Lower Mekong may be like installing a diesel turbine into St Patrick’s.

Damned Dam

In legal terms work is supposed to have ceased on the dam itself after a deferment was declared by the Lao national government in December 2011 which followed an earlier moratorium in April, 2011. However, a Lao engineer working on another project near the site, reports that work is proceeding. Tellingly, transmission lines are still under construction and the road connection to Thailand almost complete. Andrew Bigham, an agricultural consultant said, “That’s the give away. If the dam wasn’t going ahead why should they continue building transmission lines?” since then work had proceeded on the coffer dam used to divert the water while the dam is constructed.

The conservation group International Rivers announced that over 22,000 people around the world has signed a petition opposing the Sayaboury dam. Laos, a nominally socialist country retains it secretiveness and paranoid control on information. Virtually all media is government owned and controlled, so the global protest was not reported, nor is it likely to make any difference.

“A ten year moratorium is absolutely critical to relieve the pressure for mainstream damming.” said Australian Jeremy Carew Reid in Hanoi. Carew Reid, a prominent environmental professional was team leader of the 2010 MRC commissioned Strategic Environmental Assessment. ” Ten years was a compromise. The SEA report would have been rejected politically if we had called for a total ban, which evidence suggests would be the preferred option. The member nations were inclined to go for no more than five years. We all felt that ten years was long enough to cool off or disconnect the current wave of developer proposals and financing negotiations.”

A lot of informed Lao, are very concerned about the Sayaboury dam, the first of the many dams planned for the Lower Mekong and worry it is a harbinger for more Chinese construction. Many NGO’s, natural scientists included, harbour what seems to be a rather naïve assumption that rationality will prevail.

There is sufficient evidence to indicate that the dam represents a complex mélange of elite interests, and a renegotiation of regional power structures. Observers have suggested that being the ‘battery of Asia’ is far better than being the ‘hayseed of Asia’, and accords Lao improved regional status. By ensuring energy dependency, Lao could have greater regional leverage and prestige, despite the potential PR disaster of an ecological calamity and public resistance.

Magsaysay Award winner Sombath Somphone wrote in an email ;

It has been a common practice here, that the private sector invests or starts working on a project before official approval (is given)… The private sector sees it as a gamble to win sympathy of “soft-hearted” officials…they usually get the concessions or the approvals at the end. The officials often use the excuse that the private sector had invested so much already they might as well give them the concession. Cho Karnchang, (the contractor) is doing exactly that at the moment. It is an oriental way of lobbying.

Hard Line

While a lot is said about transboundary negotiations and consultations, the most comprehensive being a report by Portland State University and Mae Fah Luang University in Chiang Mai, the Lao government’s inclinations are not to consult or seek agreement. Despite dropping Communist or even revolutionary from descriptors of its government, Lao’s ruling Party of wealthy elites depends for its stability and power on hard line control. Premrudee Daoroung of TERRA, reported that at noisy consultative meetings in Thailand in 2010, the people of Pak Moon, radicalized by a devastating Thai dam, suggested they meet the potentially effected Lao people in order to warn them of its implications. “They and the other Thais were unanimous in their condemnation of the dam, causing the representatives of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to ask the organizers to silence them. The Thai organisers reminded the Lao officials that this consultation was demanded by MRC guidelines, and that in Thailand people can protest.”

The Lao people however were not consulted. Australia funded the consultations as part of its commitment to the Mekong River Commission, but the Australian embassy in Vientiane has been repeatedly vague and bureaucratic when asked about their reactions to this oversight.

The plethora of expensive cars and bizarre Mc Mansions in Asia’s Least Developed Country is evidence that someone is making money. Who makes it has not changed much since1995. A Lao lecturer in sociology recently confided that it was popular gossip around the National University that in order to secure a private sector contract one had to pay the relevant Minister five cars.

“Thai companies, such as Ch Karnchang are now expanding aggressively after Thai political problems and floods reduced local investment. The contract for the Xayaburi Dam hydropower plant, could be worth tens of billions of baht, and with the politicians and possibly even higher people involved, it is difficult to stop it. They are like elephants, they may stand for a while under a tree, but they will soon move again.” said Thai activist Pornthip Soumalee.

Witoon Pemlpongsacharoen Director of Bangkok based TERRA, suggested a few months ago, “The energy is not needed. Thailand has regular ‘power panics’ to the advantage of the Thai stock market who wish to keep investments flowing. Banks and financiers talk CSR and then fund bad projects where people don’t have rights.”

” Don’t forget that the construction company Ch Karnchang, its subsidiaries and the banks that back it, are all connected to big Thai families and the Democratic party.”

“Ch. Karnchang have just sold 2% to PPT owned by the Thai government, 10 % to another part of themselves and 12.5 % to EGCO, which means that Thai energy interests are sitting on both sides of the table,” he added.

Phillip Astelle, retired environmental economist said, “All other factors such as obvious impoverishment of people and the environment become economic externalities and burden shifting. The Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) has clearly shown that people will be made significantly poorer by the dam, so all this talk by the Lao government about poverty reduction is duplicitous. They sacrifice the environment to provide electricity surplus and money to the already wealthy. Sayaboury will effectively be a non performing asset.”

“EGAT (Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand) and EGCO (Electricity Generating Public Company) bought shares in EDL (Electricité Du Laos) when it went public. There is no public participation in these deals even though there is blatant conflict of interest, as EGAT buys from its own companies.” Pemlpongsacharoen concluded.

But pro dam consultant William T Smith’s op-ed to the Bangkok Post earlier this year trashed environmental concerns, dismissing the views of luminaries like Carew Reid, and Richard Stone’s carefully articulated article inScience. Smith was part of the World bank team backing the socially devastating Nam Theun 2 dam. But it was his conclusion about river bank erosion that exposed elite thinking.

The photograph shows typical dam linked bank erosion downstream of Lao’s Theun Hinboun dam. Smith dismisses claims that the Sayaboury risks similar bank erosion, saying that what will be lost is insignificant. He is possibly correct. What he misses is the meaning that loss has to the farmer, whose labour is suddenly converted to slumped silt and whose family might be depending on the harvest and the cumulative effect of the accelerated siltation. There are no greengrocers in rural Lao, much less social security schemes. The land is all people have and as more is converted to dubious plantations, food security becomes an overriding concern. Smith’s view is typical of those whose life is defined by plane schedules and room service. An equivalent event for him may be to have his rolling office nicked in the airport toilet. Only a small loss in the scale of airport theft, but to him devastating.

Astelle went on. “As far as I know no one has done a study of downstream economic losses. For instance even if the erosion loss is one meter on either bank, we have to multiply that by the thousand odd kilometers of river length. The loss is not evenly spread. Some countries like Vietnam will be disproportionately effected by salinity. Will they demand the Lao government pay compensation?”

Shady Politics

The vast menu of environmental issues raised by this dam have converted the normally polite and paternalistic cross boundary politics into saber thrusts of approbation. Vietnam and Cambodia have been strongly opposed to the dam, fearing severe downstream consequences, while entertaining their own dam futures.

And What of Climate Change?

Vilakhorn Khomtavong an Australian based water engineer wrote: “I don’t think that the dams in Laos are built and operated scientifically. They see $$$!! (sic) and they go for it. They predict the dams to operate at its maximum level, (but) this cannot be done when they have limited data. The data they have are only a few years and they are not run-off data, but just rainfall data. Australia has 50-100 yrs of rainfall and some 50 yrs plus run-off data, and even they cannot get the flow rate accurate and they can’t factor in climate change.”

“Lao dams are built using the BOT method (Build Operate Transfer) The designer, who is part of the BOT scheme, upload their fees and make their money upfront. Anything after that is the cream for them. ”

Being in breach of gazetted legal obligations is likely to expose Lao PDR to liability for damages to lower riparian countries resulting from the dam.

The Company you keep.

Around a major dam outside of Vientiane, the local residents are said to be selling up and moving, fearing cracks in the dam wall will worsen. The dam was built by Ch. Karnchang. If Karchanghas issues with quality control, it’s vitally important they fix them, as Sayaboury has experienced significant earth tremors in the last 12 months. In the Thai resort area of Rayong, three damaged reservoirs built on private golf course owned by Ch Karnchang, broke and flooded three villages in the area. A Buddhist nun almost drowned. Very bad karma indeed.

There are many questions about the probity of the principle contractors. Karnchang’s biggest share holder is an anonymous company called Mahasiri Siam who own 21.71%. Attempts to investigate Mahasiri Siam are meet with blank screens; and who owns a mystery 50.02% of shares in electricity company EGCO? And does withholding this information from public scrutiny breach the Stock Exchange of Thailand’s own regulations?

Climate Bottom Lines

Contrary to some claims, hydro dams are not carbon neutral and while hydro-power can, with due diligence, be cleaner than other energy sources, there is evidence that this dam’s construction site is encroaching on primary forest and of course the construction work itself is carbon intensive. It might be time to take a deep breath and consider if energy conservation might be a more considered path to energy proliferation, particularly in light of the electricity surplus.. The Portland and Mae Fah Luang University report suggests the need “to move beyond linear thinking to a more comprehensive basin wide .. approach” and further that Mekong nations could focus more on alternative renewable energy sources and place more emphasis on a well-being approach than standard economic growth being the focus. They then suggest that the governments responsible for dam development; in this case Laos, should be responsible for paying other nations for the loss of ecosystem services. By calculating those service costs to the Mekong Basin they converted a USD33 billion profit for all dams to a USD 274 billion debt. It is doubtful if Lao has been faced with these sobering economic realities.

Concern about the 40,000 Chinese dams currently needing rehabilitation or decommissioning should raise questions in Lao about the need for sinking funds for long term maintenance, and eventual destruction. The inability of the Lao Government to offer any logistic long term planning or contingency financing, offers grave concerns about the future of the Mekong, and the competence of the Lao government to do anything but realize short term profits.

Last Words

But the real politik comes from a highly connected Lao family who confided on the basis of strict confidentiality “He (Choummaly Sayasone, President of Lao PDR) gets big money (from Karnchang) He cannot pay it back as it (the money) is all spent. The dam will go ahead. He has a full time staff person whose job it is to convey his wishes to Cho Karnchang. If his daughter wants a laptop, it is there within days. The reason this will go ahead despite the opposition, is that the very top is getting the money.”

Melinda Boh is the nom de plume of a writer who lives in Jakarta.

© The National Forum and contributors 1999-2012. All rights reserved.

June 19, 2011

The other side of the river – For me that was the magic of Laos

Losing yourself (and everyone else) in Luang Prabang

By Peter McSheffrey, Ottawa Citizen June 18, 2011

Luang Prabang was crawling with tourists like ants on a picnic watermelon. There was one main street and it was groaning with the weight of people; shops, restaurants and tour agencies stood shoulder to shoulder, interrupted by the occasional temple.

This was not the magical Laos I was looking for.

However, I soon discovered that much like the Laotian capital, Vientiane, the magic of Luang Prabang was there. It was just being shy. I would have to work a little and coax it out. By the end of Day 4 I was in love with the place.

The first thing I noticed was that only one block off the main street, Luang Prabang was a different world. Like a Potemkin village, the main street was a commercial facade behind which the locals lived in aging bamboo houses down dusty alleyways. It was a world of revealing entranceways, stolen glances and warm laughter -tiny glimpses of everyday life tucked away from the din of the shops and restaurants.

While main street met the dawn with a daily procession of 200 or 300 monks marching like cadets down the road receiving alms, the back streets started the day with simple daily rituals -cooking, bathing, gossiping, grooming and getting ready for work.

The second thing I noticed was that on the back streets, only a block away, there were virtually no tourists. The siren call of restaurants, shops and the many beautiful Wats and temples had lured most of the tourists to the main street. But for me, the magical odyssey of Laos was meeting the people going about their daily lives. Fortunately for us, most tourists opt for the elephant treks, waterfalls and cave visits that dominate so many tour itineraries.

The next day we hopped a local ferry and ventured across the Mekong with rented mountain bikes and some hand-drawn maps of the nearby villages that we downloaded from

If venturing one block off main street dropped most of the tourist crowd, what would crossing the river do I wondered. Our goal was to lose the other tourists and ourselves (but not get completely lost!) for the day, travelling river, road and path, exploring villages and temples.

The ferry docked at the bottom of a road filled with rice cookers, silk weavers, paper makers, shopkeepers and other local entrepreneurs. As we rode or walked through the towns, we stopped to talk, pantomime, laugh and entertain the locals. It’s easy to immerse yourself in much of daily Laotian life when so much of it takes place outdoors and within easy reach of the road. Engaging with the locals, who spoke little English, required only a friendly Sabaidee (hello), an engaging smile and a willingness to sometimes look silly.

Everywhere we went, we took photos. If there is one quick way to establish a connection in Laos, it seems to be taking and sharing photos. Virtually everyone we met was more than happy to have their photo taken. Grandmothers and children squealed with laughter and delight upon seeing their picture.

Crossing the river and biking two kilometers from the ferry point was all it took to never see another tourist all day and immerse ourselves in the forests, temples, villages and daily life of Laos.

Not that much work to feel otherworldly, to feel timeless, to be guided by monks down a secluded forest path. Not that much work to be the only foreigners strolling into a village and greeted by the squeals of children and the smiles and laughter of grandmothers and mothers shepherding a yard full of kids. Not that much work to watch old men chewing betel nut and weaving bamboo baskets, or to join kids playing KaTaw, which is kick volleyball played with a rattan cane ball or have them follow you around like you were the Pied Piper of Hamelin.

After a satisfying day we boarded the ferry back to the other side of the river. One final encounter awaited. With us was a pickup full of men, women and children. The men were singing; the women and children looked somewhat dour. The men were also drinking. Maybe that had something to do with it. We were offered a capful of whisky from a two-litre soda bottle. Once we had all imbibed we reciprocated with our latest purchase -a small bottle of whisky with a large scorpion inside (it was that or a snake and we decided to be conservative). We passed the bottle around and soon everyone, women and children included, was laughing and shaking hands and taking photos -us of them and them of us. Best friends for ever. For me that was the magic of Laos.

Peter McSheffrey is an avid traveller and sometimes financial consultant in Ottawa who is eternally grateful to his wife for letting him out of the country from time to time. He visited Laos in January.

© Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
June 17, 2011

Luang Prabang…Time Almost Stands Still in Laos’ Once-Royal Capital


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Luang Prabang – The Mekong River, stained a muddy brown with runoff from heavy rains the night before, makes its way quickly past the town of Luang Prabang (LP), a United Nations World Heritage site that was once the royal capital of the Kingdom of Laos. The boats and narrow canoes that travel the river must compensate for the powerful downstream flow of the river, which has long served LP’s primary link to the outside world.

Luang Prabang retains much that is authentically Laotian, but there is also evidence of centuries when Thai, Vietnamese and French overlords dominated the country. While Luang Prabang remains appealingly low-rise and linked to the past, the present has made inroads.  Sisavangvong, LP’s main street (named after a revered king), is a narrow paved thoroughfare lined with casual restaurants, internet cafes, and shops that cater to both locals and foreigners taking in the passing scene and happy to be on the road less traveled. It bustles with a mix of cars, trucks, foot-pedaled taxis, sidecar motorcycles (tuktuk), and bicycles.

A mere block away and Luang Prabang presents itself in an entirely different way, with quiet footpaths and one-lane dirt roads fronting country-style homes overhung by towering coconut palms and flowers that scent the tropical air. Women, elegantly draped in sari-like simplicity, walk by, shaded from the sun by colorful, waxed-paper parasols. Quiet prevails, broken by an occasional crowing rooster or barking dog and leaves rustled by a soft breeze.

It was evident that Luang Prabang was someplace special even before our plane, inbound from Phnom Penh, touched down at LP’s Molokai-sized airport. The sense of isolation builds, the densely green, mountainous landscape revealed through breaks in cotton-ball armies of cumulus clouds.

After exchanging $100, instantly becoming a millionaire with 10,500 yip to the dollar, we headed by shared taxi to Maison Souvannaphoum, a lovely mansion in a garden setting on the outskirts of town that provided a convenient base for our five-day stay. Bicycles, provided by the hotel, proved the perfect way to get around, putting most of the city within a 15-minute ride.

Although isolated Laos remains a communist state, Buddhism thrives in Luang Prabang, where monasteries and temples (called wat) are an integral part of the cultural landscape. So are the red- and orange-robed monks, who, seeking enlightenment and an education, flock to LP.

Despite its royal pedigree and numerous wat, Luang Prabang proves a place without pretense.  Life is still lived simply, largely outside of a money economy. People are genuinely friendly, their sincerity not yet spoiled by the inroads of large-scale tourism. When they pass you in the street in colorful Lao couture, you are invariably greeted with a soft-voiced Sabadee, hello. Even the bustling markets provide a warm welcome, with bargain-priced native crafts (think colorful silks and cotton textiles, embroidered clothing and bags, and silver jewelry (sold by weight) offered by Lao and Hmong women. The Hmong, a mountain people identified by their black dresses and blue sashes, are at the bottom of the Laotian economy.

The day starts before dawn in Luang Prabang, with a procession of monks making their way through town food bowls in hand. LP’s large community of monks relies on the generosity of those who awaken under a night sky to prepare food, then positioning themselves along of the monks’ processional route. Rice, baked yams, nuts, and drinks part of the ceremonial offerings called tark baat that provide the monks with their one meal of a day spent in prayer, study and service.

Warm days prevail year round, the rising sun brilliantly reflected in the gold leaf and glass mosaic facades of temples and shrines that welcome both visitors and locals. A climb to the top of Mount Phousi, a hill that rises from the heart of the city, reaches a gold-spired wat with a bird’s eye view of LP, with only an occasional temple spire rising above the canopy of trees.

The boats that line the muddy banks of the Mekong include narrow canoes that carry passengers and goods to the quiet villages and somewhat ramshackle wat that line the opposite shore, providing hours of fruitful wandering. Boats can also be rented for the 18-mile day trip upriver to the beautiful Pak Ou Grottoes. Head down river and the river widens, granite mountains rising from the palm-lined lowlands dotted with small riverside villages.

For all its quiet charm, Luang Prabang does have its cosmopolitan outposts-restaurants and guesthouses where the past means a time of French colonial rule, where expats and the newly arrived mingle, yet another part of the mosaic that makes Luang Prabang a place to remember and return to.

When To Go: Tropical temperatures, year-round, with the dry season, and the coolest temperatures from November through March.

Great Guide Book: Moon Handbooks: Vietnam, Cambodia & Laos. Once you’re there, the Tourism Office provides maps and information. Plan a stay of four days or longer.

Getting There: Visas are issued at the airport upon arrival. You can fly in from Phnom Penh (Cambodia), Chiang Mai and Bangkok (Thailand), Vientiane (Laos’ far larger and more modern capital) and several smaller Laotian towns, and Hanoi (Vietnam). The airport is two miles from town, with taxis available. Be sure to reconfirm reservations. In the rainy season, delays are not uncommon.

Getting Around: Luang Prabang is a place for walking or bicycling (bicycles, motorbikes and motorcycles can be rented), with most key attractions within a 15-minute ride. Sidecar motorcycles (tuktuk) are inexpensive and can be hired by the hour. Drivers will wait while you tour.

Not To Be Missed

  • Sunset on the Mekong:  Memorable sunsets are the rule, most particularly from the promenade overlooking the Mekong, with the sun, setting behind sharp-peaked mountains, reflected in the Mekong’s waters.
  • The Royal Palace was completed in 1909 by King Sisavangvong in an eclectic blend of Lao ands French Beaux Arts style. Now a museum, that includes a visit to the royal apartments, it is also is a venue for music, dance and other cultural events.
  • A boat trip on the Mekong, either upstream (to the Pak Ou caves) or downstream to visit riverside villages and shrine.
  • A pre-dawn wake-up to participate in pindipath. Bring food and join those feeding the city’s many monks.  And visit to any and all of LP’s many wats.

Where To Stay: We stayed at the 20-room Maison Souvannaphoum (Maison_ Souvannaphoum_Hotel-Luang_Prabang.html), one of many smaller hotels in converted mansions. At $100 per night our double included breakfast. Other upscale options include the Villa Santi (, Grand Luang Prabang (, and La Residence Phou Vao ( Hotels at under $20/night, double are another tight-budget option.

Dining Out:  In addition to low-cost restaurants, there are several French restaurants that offer more sophisticated dining, this having once been part of French Indochina, with Duang Champa, housed in a lovely old mansion, a winner. Fanciest Laotian restaurant is the Villa Santi, with dinner for two at under $20.

Changing Money: The airport is the easiest place to initially exchange money.  At 10,500 yip to the dollar, $100 goes a long way. There are several banks in town.

Next: June 17:

Saxony Resurgent: An Eye-Opening Visit to Dresden & Leipzig

1)  Dramatic scenery on a boat ride downriver on the Mekong.

2) Luang Prabang can be made part of a visit a number of neighboring countries.

3) Buddhist monks receiving food in a dawn ceremonial offering called tark baat.

4) Gold-leafed carvings are an element of wat architecture.

5)  Sunset: Boats line the shore from a riverside promenade

All pictures copyrighted      © Allan Seiden, 2011

June 1, 2011

Stay Another Day: The Green Revolution in Laos

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By Mark Johanson | May 29, 2011 6:20 PM EDT

There’s something terribly right going on in Laos.  Engulfed in a green revolution, sustainable tourism is racing through the recently paved roads from the provincial cities to the remote edges of this pristine country.  From organic farm cooperatives to ethnic fashion shows, the idea is pulsing and putting money back where it belongs – with the people.

At the heart of the revolution is Stay Another Day, a Luang Prabang based initiative that produces a veritable Lonely Planet of the country’s sustainable organizations.  They ask travelers to buy local/fair trade products, get off the beaten-path, volunteer or make a donation (however small), learn a few basic words in Lao, respect the local culture, keep smiling, and stay another day.  Not too much to ask.

Sustainable tourism is an incredible boon for a country like Laos as it has little in the way of industry.  Yet, how the idea took root in this country is a miracle.  The concept remains foreign in tourist-heavy Thailand whose Western music, entertainment and culture continues to float over the Mekong, much to the Lao government’s dismay.

In Laos, sustainable tourism takes on many faces.

The folks at Green Discovery lay their claim as Laos’ pioneer in adventure travel and ecotourism.  Opening their doors in 2000, they were indeed one of the first in this recent movement and today, they are committed to ensuring that the local people “not only benefit financially from tourism, but also are true business partners by helping to develop programs and activities.”  Each trip includes a graph explaining where your money goes, making the entire process refreshingly transparent.

Vang Vieng is Laos’ backpacker-heavy town and arguably the world capital of river tubing.  On the outskirts of this party-crazy town, Vang Vieng Organic Farm offers travelers a chance to participate in the operation of a farm.  They supply accommodation not only for helpers in the field, but volunteer English teachers in the local schools.  Profits from the farm “provide training, employment, support and education for the local villagers through various projects, with the mission to preserve ecological diversity and provide people with accessible and sustainable technologies to earn a living.”

Über trendy Hive Bar, hipster-happy L’etranger Books and Tea, and fair trade haven Kopnoi form a fortress of ideas at the triangular intersection of Phousi and Phommathay roads.  The stores were founded separately by Québecois Isabel Dréan and her partner Simon Côté.   The pair arrived in Laos in 2001 and opened L’Etranger Books and Tea, the town’s first licensed bookshop.   They aimed to promote Lao goods on the world market and over time opened up Kopnoi Export Promotion Center as well as the popular Hive Bar (home of the Ethnik Fashion Show).  Kopnoi’s second floor gallery is the location of the Stay Another Day Multimedia Exhibition, full of history, ethnography and ideas on responsible travel.  The fair trade showroom below offers free daily tea tastings with organic brews from the Vang Vieng farm that can be purchased across the street at L’etranger.

It’s one big hippie, happy circle of do-goodery.

If not checking out the free 7:00 o’clock flick at L’etranger, next door at Hive, Luang Prabang (and presumably all of Laos’) only fashion show is the perfect combination of education and entertainment.  With 20 ethnicities represented by 20 models in almost 100 costumes, this is no small-scale production.

The fashion show takes place on Hive’s moody, red-lit backyard stage.  As the giggling girls parade around to trance music in their patterned ethnic garb, a projector details information about the tribes and their traditional clothes.  When you start to wish your high-school history teacher taught lessons like this, the after show of locals breakdancing brings a jolting change from the historic to the global


After decades of isolation, Laos has opened up its arms, however slightly, to the international arena.  It is a crossroads state between Thailand and Vietnam and a close partner with neighboring China (although this is a double-edged sword).

There are green initiatives all across the nation from the northern mountains of Luang Namtha to the 4,000 islands in the south.  Many organizations have offices in Vientiane and Paske, though Luang Prabang remains the heart and soul of the movement.

Much of the money generated by the organizations mentioned in this article is funneled out of the cities and onto the dirt roads and buffalo paths that crisscross this developing land.  Beyond the city limits, Laos’ poverty is truly face-smacking.  Yet, the country is moving in the right direction by improving the quality of life with education and building schools to teach the next generation.

Luang Prabang based Big Brother Mouse is racing to build a library of Lao language books so that every kid can have a chance to read in those schools, while international aid organizations like UNESCO have found profitable ways to preserve traditional crafts.  Non-governmental organizations such as Stay Another day (and its affiliates) promote responsible tourism so that visitors find an authentic experience while ensuring that their money goes where it belongs.  Green Discovery monitors that the lands they trek remain unlogged by the Chinese, while environmentalists teach locals alternatives to slash-and-burn farming.

With so much positive energy circulating around this small, land-locked country, it’s hard not to fall in love with Laos.


To read more about Luang Prabang, Laos click here.

If you would like to get involved or find out how you can give back, here are the websites for the organizations mentioned in this article.

June 1, 2011

The World’s Top Rated Destination that Nobody’s Going To

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By Mark Johanson | May 12, 2011 11:54 AM EDT

Wat Xiengthong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Wat Xiengthong temple in Luang Prabang, Laos

Sure, it was New York Times number one destination in the world for 2008.  Sure, it’s the Wanderlust Travel Awards winner for Top City in 2010 and 2011.  But, nobody seems to be listening – and that’s a good thing.  Somehow, despite all the accolades and gushing reviews, Luang Prabang, Laos remains a quiet town on the verge of superstardom.

Once an extremely private nation, Laos swung open its doors to travelers in 1989 and is fast becoming a tourists’ favorite on the Southeast Asian circuit.  The former royal capital of the ancient kingdom of Lane Xang (the Land of a Million Elephants), Luang Prabang has long been a backpacker favorite and is transforming into a world-class destination.  The small city isn’t about bright lights and flashy hotels.  It’s a place for 5-star relaxation at a boutique hotel, riverside culinary indulgence, and Buddhist serenity.

Laos is a poor country, but don’t mistake poor for unsafe.  The two words are not so easily intertwined.  Cloaked in a Buddhist ideology, this predominantly rural republic could hardly exude more chill.  The typical streets are awash with smiling faces and welcoming “Sabaidee.”  Long hours of back-breaking work and the scars of colonialism are lost on the friendliest faces of Southeast Asia.

The historic center of majestic Luang Prabang sits at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong rivers.  The great city, growing with sophistication, stretches from river to river across the Royal Palace (abandoned with the revolution) and a sprinkling of 16th century temples.  Dignified monks cloaked in tangerine far outnumber tourists fighting for space under shared yellow umbrellas, while the bald-topped next generation trains at the city’s dazzling temples, spilling out onto the streets at daybreak to gather alms from the kneeling public.

Luang Prabang is a nerdy tourist’s intellectual paradise.  Oozing old-world charm, the dreamy backstreets and riverfront pathways overflow with art, architecture, religion, and history.  Across the dirt-green river and beyond the latticed riverside gardens, Luang Prabang is surrounded by a handful of craftsmen’s villages.  Woodworkers, potters, papermakers, knitters, and dyers prepare their works for the evening market, making Luang Prabang the premier place in Southeast Asia for authentic, genuinely handmade textiles and goods.

Last year marked the 15th anniversary of Luang Prabang’s status as a UNESCO World Heritage City.  Its fusion of traditional Lao urban structures with those built by the European colonial authorities in the 19th and 20th centuries make for a unique blend of two distinct cultural traditions.

Beyond the city limits, Laos is a thinly stitched quilt of ethnic minorities.  In fact, thirty percent of the country’s population is non-Lao-speaking, non-Buddhist “hill tribes” with little or no connection to traditional Lao culture.  Government education ensured a limited knowledge of foreign lands, so much of the culture – including elaborate ethnic attire – remains visible in the 21st century.  Within reach of the mountainous north, there are several opportunities in Luang Prabang to learn about the diverse ethnic tribes and to give back through volunteering.

With improved roads and transportation services, Luang Prabang is no longer the isolated oasis it used to be.  That’s not to say that the roads are peaceful (cavernous potholes, wild turns, open cliff sides), but they’re there – mostly.  You can arrange a slow boat from Chiang Mai, Thailand, but the easiest way to get to Luang Prabang is to fly.  The recently modernized airport is just 4 kilometers from the center of town.  There are daily flights from Hanoi on Vietnam Airlines and several carriers make the hop over from Bangkok throughout the week.

Someday soon, the secret is going to get out.  How many more awards can this romantic city win before people take notice?

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