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With the release of yet another news story in the Mail this week (along with a nice little plug for InsideAsia Tours) informing us that more and more people are abandoning holiday habits of old and, “re-examining their bucket lists”, it seems an opportune moment to delve a little deeper into some of the meaningful experiences in a place that frequently slips under the radar – Laos.
Despite boasting two UNESCO World Heritage sites, countless temples and multiple natural wonders, land-locked Laos remains the undisputed underdog of Southeast Asia. Laos’ stereotype as a playground for a steady stream of tanned, tousle-haired tubing travellers hasn’t always cast the country in a particularly favourable light.
But in an age where the joys and unadulterated pleasures of ‘living la vida-loca’ are being replaced by a sense of social responsibility – ‘living the vida-local’ – the country is gradually shaking off its outdated backpacker credentials and emerging as a standout location in its own right.
These days, Laos is leading the way in ecotourism in Southeast Asia; there’s no shortage of opportunities to pitch in with the locals and make a genuine difference.
1. Backstreet Academy
As Vicky mentioned in one of our previous posts, we have teamed up with Backstreet Academy – a thriving social enterprise that gives travellers the opportunity to get off the beaten track and learn a new craft, whilst supporting and promoting local businesses, and keeping local traditions going.
Backstreet Academy support a whole host of artisans and craftspeople across Laos – whatever your interests, there’s sure to be a local expert to teach you.
It’s not limited to arts and crafts – ever wanted to learn Lao Boxing? Now’s your chance! Or perfect the art of sticky rice to wow your friends at your next dinner party? Backstreet Academy will put you in touch with a local chef to help you do just that.
2. Luang Prabang Half Marathon
If you’ve started the year with a half marathon on your bucket list, add an additional element of challenge and excitement by doing it in Laos!
The Luang Prabang Half Marathon takes place annually in mid-October and is open to all. In addition to ticking the pre-requisite boxes of many a runner – generally a flat course with plenty of things to see (the course starts at the National Museum in Luang Prabang and weaves past temples and local homes) – if you’re looking for a way to make a tangible difference to the country, this could be just the ticket.
The proceeds from this charity race go to the Lao Friends Hospital for Children; the first facility to provide medical care free of charge to Lao children. Laos has the highest under-5 mortality rate in all of Southeast Asia with one in 15 children not making it to their fifth birthday. This is a startling statistic, but with the opening of the hospital there’s every hope that this will improve.
By partaking in the race (or the 14km or 7km alternatives if a half marathon is a step – or sprint – too far), you can return from your holiday with a distinctively above average souvenir – pride in knowing that you’ve made a real difference (plus a medal for good measure).
3. The Living Land
As InsideVietnam Travel Consultant Dylan discovered on a recent trip to Laos, the Living Land Farm Experience just outside Luang Prabang is a wonderful way to experience traditional culture, engage with the locals and understand all of the wonderful uses for rice here. What’s more, the farm offers employment opportunities to people with little education, many of whom would otherwise struggle to find work.
Learning rice techniques, steps and cooking methods may not sound like a riveting way to spend a day of your holiday, but ploughing a field with a water buffalo, cropping rice down with an old fashioned Sycle, and wading through muddy rice fields at different stages of cultivation is a surprisingly fun way to learn about rural life.
There are also opportunities to learn other skills such as bamboo weaving, or blacksmithing where you use fire from the ground, bellows, stones to sharpen and a water bucket to cool the metal down.
“The Living Land is an extremely professional place where the hosts speak excellent English – they make you feel entirely at home and very well looked after. I could not recommend this day out highly enough for those wishing to understand local life, experience rural Laos and talk to locals about their day to day life”
4. Lao Handicraft Festival
Laos is home to some of the most skilled craftspeople in the world and is particularly well-known for textiles. Anyone travelling here in October should check out the Lao Handicraft Festival at the ITECC in Vientiane. Every year, over 200 skilled artisans descend upon Vientiane to exhibit their products – meet local makers and pick up some lovely handmade souvenirs to take home.
If you aren’t heading in Vientiane in October, there are plenty of excellent craft markets in Southeast Asia. One of the best is in Luang Prabang where at 5.30pm each afternoon stall holders open for business at the night market. It’s a great opportunity to learn about local crafts, chat to the locals, and pick up handicrafts that are unique to Laos. The colourful handmade parasols are particularly popular – we challenge you to squeeze one into your suitcase!
5. Jungle trekking in northern Laos
With more and more people on the lookout for ‘authentic’ travel experiences, trekking trips and homestays are becoming increasingly popular. Unfortunately, there is a danger that as more people strive to ‘do the right thing’ and engage in some form of eco-tourism, many textbook ‘off the beaten track’ destinations are finding themselves very much on the beaten track. Sapa in Vietnam is an example that springs to mind.
Luckily Laos is a place that has, for now at least, managed to avoid the commercial pitfalls of ecotourism. You don’t have to venture far from the historic town of Luang Prabang to find yourself cocooned in a world of jungle-clad mountains and lazy rivers. Embark on a guided trek in northern Laos for breath-taking views over cloud forests, lunch in the company of a local guide and conversations with curious children in villages. Take pictures and maps from home to have something to share with communities you meet along the way.
Away from the crowds, you may even be lucky (granted, opinion on this may be divided!) enough to catch a glimpse of a leopard or bear in their natural habitat.
6. Vientiane Boat Racing Festival
Lao people love a boat race, so if you really want to rub shoulders with the locals and experience a shared sense of jubilation and solidarity, look no further than the Vientiane Boat Racing Festival, the most spectacular boat race in the Laos calendar.
Teams travel from all over the country to compete in races along the Mekong River every October. Women’s heats take place in the morning and male’s heats in the afternoon, with the grand finale – accompanied by much singing and drumming – at the end of the day. The festival draws in the crowds and with spectators lining the river banks, the atmosphere is electric. The city centre of Vientiane becomes a veritable playground for the day, complete with street food stalls and games. If you’re coming to Laos looking for a party, this is it.
Get in touch with our team of experts to embrace ecotourism on your holiday to Laos.