Responsible tourism in Luang Prabang is a big deal. I don’t think I’ve ever visited a destination with so many activities focused on supporting the local community.
If you’re planning a trip to Laos and you’re keen to interact with locals, learn about their culture, pick up new skills and help the community, below is a run down of 10 of the best activities that support responsible tourism in Luang Prabang.
Tiger Trail is one of the leading outdoor adventure companies in Laos, with tours ranging in length from half a day to two weeks. Activities include motorbike and cycling tours, trekking, kayaking, boat trips, elephant interactions and ecolodge stays, with a strong focus on supporting local villages.
Tiger Trail has developed an initiative called the ‘Fair Trek Project‘, which works to create a positive impact through enabling authentic travel experiences, employing local Lao staff and promoting limited-impact activities. They have some of the most charismatic, informative and friendly guides around, as I found out when I joined them on their one-day Thin Pha Trail.
Ked and Yia Her regaled us with stories from Laos’ history, introduced us to villagers and even went out of their way to build extra stepping stones to help us cross the streams. Along the way, we visited a school, met baby elephants, puppies and piglets, and saw some strikingly beautiful scenery. The trip culminated in a peaceful boat tour and a dip at the stunning Tad Sae Falls.
One of the best ways to support local communities is to join a course or workshop. This empowers them and gives them direct access to the tourism market that is so often monopolised by the bigger tour companies. It also means you can learn ancient, traditional skills directly from the masters.
Backstreet Academy is a truly inspirational concept. Now operating in 39 regions in 10 countries across Asia, it encourages anyone with a unique skill set to sign up as a host. Training is provided and each experience is sampled to make sure it’s up to scratch. As many of the hosts don’t speak a second language, Backstreet Academy also allocates facilitators to many of its experiences, who translate and offer further guidance.
On a backstreet experience in Luang Prabang you could craft a crossbow, Hmong bamboo bow, bamboo flute, wooden top, cotton bag, fishing gun, bird trap, bamboo hat, or two-stringed Hmong musical instrument; you could spend a day fishing, experience life as a farmer or a Lao warrior, test your limits with a ‘fear factor’ food experience, or learn to sing Lao pop songs; you could learn a new skill, such as knife making, weaving, wood carving, embroidery or fruit carving; or you could make rice wine, take a cooking class or have a lesson in oil painting, water colour or sketching.
Prices are usually around US$15 or $20, although they do range widely depending on the duration of the experience and the materials required. I got a little carried away and signed up for five different experiences, including knife making, wood carving, cross bow crafting, rice wine making and a fear factor food tour.
OCK POP TOK
Ock Pop Tok is THE place in Luang Prabang to pick up quality textiles. There are two outlet shops in the city centre, but to really appreciate the work that goes into their masterpieces, you should visit their workshop just 10 minutes out of town. In a beautiful setting beside the Mekong, you can try your hand at weaving, dying, batik printing and bamboo crafts. A selection of half-day to three-day classes range in price from 240,000 to 1584,000 kip, or you can take a free tour and enjoy a delicious lunch overlooking the river.
I took part in a weaving and dying workshop. My guide, Sangchan, showed me live silk worms, demonstrated how filaments of silk are extracted from the cocoons and taught me which natural products create different colours in the dying process. I had a lot of fun chopping up sappan bark, boiling the dyes, and creating tie dye patterns on a scarf that I was allowed to bring home afterwards.
Ock Pop Tok is Lao for ‘East Meets West’. Visitor funds help to support the education of young people in Laos, which provides them with a brighter future. Ock Pop Tok also trains artisans in remote areas in textiles, product design and business, and cultivates local and international markets that provide a sustainable source of income for artisans and their communities.
TAMARIND COOKING SCHOOL
There are quite a few cooking schools in Luang Prabang, but Tamarind stands out because of its gorgeous lakeside pavilion setting, enthusiastic local teachers, creative menu and fresh ingredients. As our guide Sith reminded us throughout the day, ‘everything at Tamarind is very high quality, including me!’.
Our day began at 9 am with a tuk tuk ride to a local market. Sith guided us through the stalls, pointing out the ingredients we would be using later that day and giving us samples to try.
At the cooking school, we were provided with aprons, towels and a set of cooking equipment. After a brief demonstration of how to make each portion of our meal, we all got involved, dicing, peeling, steaming and frying. There was a lot of pummelling with a pestle and mortar, and some surprisingly delicate processes, such as slicing lemongrass for stuffing, and wrapping our ‘mok pa’ in banana leaves.
While we were relieved that the foetal duck eggs, pigs trotters, ears and buffalo hearts we’d seen earlier at the market didn’t make an appearance, there was the option (no pressure) to include buffalo stomach in one of our dishes and to season it with bile. For the adventurous among us, this was a great opportunity to try something new.
At around 1:30 pm, we sat down to a tasty platter of traditional Lao cuisine before finishing up with some deliciously sweet sticky rice pudding.
Full-day classes cost 285,000 kip and you can bring a recipe book away with you at no extra cost.
LUANG PRABANG YOGA
Yoga buffs will love the early morning one-hour sessions run by Luang Prabang Yoga. This initiative supports various independent teachers and establishments across town by organising retreats and workshops at different venues. Morning sessions take place at 7:30 am on the bamboo deck at Utopia Bar, which overlooks the Nam Khan River. Evening classes are at 5 or 6 pm and the location and duration varies. Their website has a weekly schedule, so check before you set off. I joined Vinyasa Flow with Khoun as my first ever yoga experience. She was extremely helpful and patient with the newbies, while keeping the yogis happy too. By the end of the session, and for a few days afterwards, my whole body ached – in a good way. If you’re not too broken by your first class, they have a loyalty card, so for every five classes you get the sixth free. 60-minute classes are 40,000 kip, and 90-minute classes are 60,000 kip.
RED CROSS MASSAGE
When someone in Luang Prabang realises they’re onto a good thing, it’s not long before others follow in their footsteps. The city is packed to overflowing with souvenir shops, sandwich stalls and tuk tuk drivers offering trips to the waterfalls and caves. You’d also be hard pushed not to find a good massage. Go beyond the obvious spas on the high street, though, and you can grab yourself a very reasonably priced massage (40,000 kip +) and steam bath (10,000 kip) at the Laos Red Cross.
Located opposite Wat Wisunalat, on Visounalat Road, perpendicular to the Nam Khan, its mission is to improve health across the most vulnerable sections of society by providing aid to severely ill people in remote villages. If you’re feeling particularly generous, you can donate money or unwanted items to the cause while you’re there.
TEMPLES, STUPAS AND PALACES
You don’t have to join a tour in order to support the local economy. Simply doing the rounds of the city’s main sights, paying entrance fees to museums and temples, taking public transport and eating in locally run establishments will help.
Luang Prabang has some fantastic temples, including the main attraction – Wat Xiang Thong (20,000 kip). You should definitely also put time aside to climb to the top of Phu Si – a 100 m hill in the centre of town. The views from the top are fantastic, especially at sunset. You will encounter many monks and they will probably want to practice their English with you. There are also some stupas, small temples, statues, and a somewhat underwhelming ‘Buddha footprint’ in a cave. Climb up one side and down the other to avoid missing any of the sights. Entrance is 20,000 kip here as well.
At 30,000 kip, the Royal Palace Museum feels a little overpriced. Photography is banned and you must leave all of your belongings in a locker before entering. The embellished walls of the main hall are quite spectacular, but there’s not a lot of information to explain the history behind what you’re seeing. The main highlight of the palace is the ‘Phorolak Phralam’ traditional dance theatre show that runs on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 6 pm for just over an hour. Tickets can be bought on the door and cost 50,000 to 150,000 kip depending on where you choose to sit.
KUANG SI FALLS AND MOON BEARS
Kuang Si Falls are one of the main attractions just outside of Luang Prabang. You can visit independently, and a tuk tuk shouldn’t cost much more than about 30,000 kip if you have a group of six or more. Entrance to the falls costs 20,000 kip and there’s plenty to make you feel like you got your money’s worth.
Just past the entrance, take the path that goes off to the right and you will pass a sanctuary for rescued moon bears. These critically endangered creatures are recognisable by the crescent-shaped white markings on their chests. They have been confiscated by the Lao Government from poachers and traders who farm them for their bile. Across Asia, many believe this substance has medicinal properties, helping to cure anything from hangovers to cancer. Unfortunately, the extraction process is very painful for them, and leaves them more susceptible to liver problems and gallstones. If you’re super keen to help out, you can volunteer at the sanctuary for a minimum of one week.
Continuing past the bears, you’ll reach a series of crystal clear cascades, where you can swim or jump from tree branches and elevated platforms. Once you reach the bridge, you’re at the biggest section of the falls. Here, it’s possible to hike to the top. It’s easier to ascend to the right and descend to the left, especially after heavy rains. It’s a steep climb. While sturdy shoes make the going easier, there are plenty of sections where you’ll need to paddle, which can become a pain if you don’t want to get them wet.
BIG BROTHER MOUSE
While the number of children in Laos who go to school is steadily increasing, many of them still don’t have access to books. Big Brother Mouse is working to facilitate access to good stories and learning materials for young people. As well as being a publishing house, they organise rural book parties, school art contests and reading programmes. You can help by popping into their centre in Luang Prabang and buying or donating books, volunteering to read to children, or assisting young adults with their conversational English.
BOUN OK PHANSA AND LAI HUA FAI
If you happen to be in Luang Prabang for the full moon at the end of October, you can’t miss Boun Ok Phansa. This festival marks the end of the rainy season, as well as three months of Buddhist lent.
It begins with monks taking alms early one morning. This is followed later the same day by longboat races on the Mekong. On the second day, the festival culminates with Lai Hua Fai, also known as the festival of the boats of light.
In the run up to this festival, you will see people throughout town building colourful and intricate boats out of bamboo and coloured paper. These teams dress in traditional clothing and represent their villages with chants and songs. They lead a procession of roughly 20 large boats, laden with money and candles, along the main street to Wat Xieng Thong, where prizes are awarded for the best designs. The boats are then carried carefully down a steep set of steps and rested carefully on the river. As they continue their journey downstream, surrounded by thousands of floating candles, the locals pay homage to the river and Buddha, and wish for good luck in the future.