Laos is a lesser-visited country in Southeast Asia when compared to countries like Thailand and Vietnam which border it, but it’s a hidden gem in the region that has much to offer. A Laos vacation is sure to be relaxing and enriching as you trek through green mountains, cruise on lazy rivers, and venture into small villages.
Known for its laid-back atmosphere, kind people, and beautiful art, you’ll come across local handicrafts, including silk weaving, pottery, and elephant sculptures. According to the government, if you venture into almost any town, you will find yourself in an ethnic minority village; in fact, Laos is home to 47 recognized ethnic groups. With just about 7 million citizens evenly dispersed throughout the land, it is one of the region’s lesser-populated countries.
Nature lovers will love a trip to Laos. The terrain is diverse—dense jungles and forests fill most of the land, and northern Laos is home to beautiful mountains and countless waterfalls, offering many opportunities for adventure seekers.
As you plan your Laos vacation, embrace the important principles of ecotourism—which is defined as “responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment, sustains the well-being of the local people, and creates knowledge and understanding through interpretation and education of all involved: visitors, staff and the visited” by the Global Ecotourism Network (GEN). After all, with fewer travelers visiting the country, each footprint is all that more significant.
Tourism in Laos: What to Know
The Lao National Tourism Administration, a ministry-level government agency, oversees all tourism in Laos.
The country has seen a considerable increase in tourism in recent years; Laos welcomed over 4.5 million international travelers in 2019, a nine percent growth from 2018. Like many countries in the area, it has a bit of a seasonality trend. There are lower visitor numbers June–September, which coincides with the wet season and the highest temperatures all year.
Many visit Laos with the vision of seeing its vast amount of species that live there; around 800 species and more than 100 mammals find their home in the land-locked country, including the tiger, leopard, gibbon, douc langur, ibis, and many more. To this end, wildlife viewing tours are popular tourism activities.
Another reason many book a trip to Laos is due to the stunningly unique architecture. In particular, the ancient city of Luang Prabang, situated along the dreamy Mekong River, is a very popular destination due to its interesting fusion of traditional buildings and French colonial influences of the 19th and 20th centuries. The whole town is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
An Overview of Laos Ecotourism
In recent years, Laos has declared a commitment to ecotourism. The most concrete policy for doing so is the network of 20 National Protected Areas or NPAs, which the government strongly encourages travelers to venture into if they visit Laos. The country has a few protected UNESCO World Heritage Sites: The aforementioned ancient city of Luang Prabang and the pre-Angkorian Vat Phou temple.
To explore specific ecotourism values prior to your Laos vacation, you can browse a website maintained by the Lao National Tourism Administration titled Ecotourism in Laos. On here, they mention the National Ecotourism Strategy and Action Plan, which both the government and private sector are implementing through policies driven by the following:
- “Promote local architectural styles that were developed in harmony with Lao culture and environment, using local materials, and minimize energy consumption;
- Conserve the flora and fauna, native to the Lao PDR; and
- Use environmental and social baseline data, as well as long-term monitoring programs, to assess and minimize negative impacts.”
The website also provides suitable sustainable activities, so check out the “activities” page for inspiration before your trip to Laos. Suggested actions to complement your itinerary are to stay overnight in villages, eat Lao food, and of course, use local guides. That being said, there aren’t published national standards, so responsible travelers need to do a little bit of digging, some of which we did below.
Ecotours to do During Your Trip to Laos
In Laos, there are plenty of local tour operators to choose from despite there not being an all-encompassing national approach to ecotourism. There are many activities to choose from, most of them being nature-based: waterfall and jungle treks, elephant sightseeing, and bike tours to name just a few!
We’ve identified a few good options for ecotours for your Laos vacation:
The Nam Nern Night Safari, started in 2009, is a long-tail safari great for seeing beautiful wildlife at a relaxed pace run by the Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park. You’ll be cruising on the Nam Nern River through the park, which is also an NPA. On the 24-hour boat ride, you can look forward to seeing Sambar Deer, Asian Golden Cat, Spotted Linsang, Leopard Cats, and more. Their tours involving wildlife are also used for data collection for the NPA wildlife-monitoring program; you can read more about their ecotourism policy here.
You’ll stay in jungle bungalows overnight, which are built and managed by the community. Additionally, it employs 40 families and financially benefits 14 villages. It is listed by Tourism Concern, a UK-based ethical tourism non-profit, as an Ethical Travel Guide. Measured on standards of community well-being, local prosperity and social equity, and environmental protection, they scored a 12/15. The Nam Nern Night Safari was also awarded the “World Responsible Tourism Award” in 2013 and 2014.
Another tour run by the park is a 2-day trek; you will stay in a truly unique hovering “nest,” which is a spherical basket hanging from the trees. During the treks, you’ll be able to birdwatch—including possibly seeing the critically endangered Northern White Checked Gibbons—and learn how to identify wildlife tracks, among others, as you trek on a maintained trail with a local guide. A birdwatcher’s heaven, you can observe from above in peace and quiet. And, since it’s a wildlife observation area, there are strict rules regarding noise during certain times.
You can also follow one of the Laos government’s suggestions for ecotourism by opting to add another night in a local village homestay either before or after your tour. It will cost roughly $5 per person for a homestay. If you want to add this to your park experience, contact the national park beforehand at firstname.lastname@example.org or inquire during the online booking process.
Laos is a destination sometimes overlooked, but travelers looking to go to Southeast Asia should absolutely consider it for a relaxing vacation. With its unique fusion architecture, abundance of wildlife, and villages to visit, you’ve got a lot to look forward to when you visit Laos.
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