Friday, April 18, 2008

Luang Prabang, Laos

I had hoped to turn any weekend getaways into a posting about eco-travel in Southeast Asia. But I am afraid my first opportunity came and went without too much to show for it.

My husband and I recently spent a weekend in the very beautiful Lao city of Luang Prabang, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Our guidebook pointed out that the Lao Government was actively promoting eco-tourism and pointed us toward the official website,
Ecotourism Laos. The Lao National Tourism Administration defines eco-tourism as

"Tourism activity in rural and protected areas that minimises negative impacts
and is directed towards the conservation of natural and cultural resources,
rural socioeconomic development and visitor understanding of, and appreciation
for, the places they are visiting."
The website provides information about various "eco-attractions" as well as links to tour operators, and "eco-tourism accommodations."

Accommodations As my husband and I were planning on a somewhat lazy weekend, it was the latter category that I was primarily interested in. Unfortunately the accommodations listed don't necessarily live up to an official eco-tourism standard or carry a particular certification. The website does state that each accommodation can boast at least one or more of the following qualities:
  • Use of Lao architecture & local building materials
  • Located near natural areas
  • Uses local products & minimizes the use of chemicals
  • Employs local people & supports the surrounding community
  • Minimizes & manages waste
  • Minimizes energy use
  • Minimizes the impacts on nearby villages
  • Supports nature conservation

In the end we chose our hotel based on the recommendation of a friend. The hotel was lovely, but was not remarkable for its environmental stewardship so I won't review it here. If we hadn't chosen to stay there, I would've like to try out the Lao Spirit Resort located 15 km outside of Luang Prabang. According to their website, the resort is located in untouched jungle and strives to maintain a good relationship with the nearby village of Xieng Lom. The resort has also made the preservation of Lao architecture a key part of their philosophy. Additionally the resort features a lack of air conditioning and television. Because I didn't visit the Lao Spirit Resort, I can't recommend it. But perhaps someone else will check it out and let me know!

Restaurants Although I didn't end up at an eco-resort, I did intend to hunt down any and all organic or vegetarian fare and report back. I started with my guidebook - no organic listings and no vegetarian restaurants. I also asked the front desk at my hotel and was met with a look of complete confusion. According to the guidebook, nearly all Lao food contains some animal products, most notably fish sauce and shrimp paste. However several restaurants listed in the guidebook were noted to have vegetarian options so I selected the three most promising and we sought them out.

The first was Somchanh Restaurant located on the riverbank along Th Suvannabanlang in the neighborhood of Ban Wat That. The restaurant was touted as having the "best choice of vegetarian Lao food in town" so I was excited. While looking for Somchanh we passed a couple of promising looking riverside restaurants but we pressed on. When we finally found it we were a bit disappointed to find that it was completely empty - not usually a good sign. Still we thought perhaps the glitz and the glam of the aforementioned restaurants had sucked up all the customers unfairly so we sat down excited to rediscover this hidden gem. The atmosphere was rustic and the bugs were out, but the staff was kind and attentive. The restaurant did have a decent selection of vegetarian food including some intriguing items such as beans in batter and a fried seaweed dish. Unfortunately they were out of both of these items so we settled on vegetarian curry, veggie fried rice, fried eggplant, and fried morning glory. All in all the food was fine, but a bit bland and certainly not good enough to draw me back for a second time. Still, if you are a strict vegetarian and having trouble finding a place to eat, it might be worth a stop. Our favorite was the fried eggplant and my least favorite was the fried rice which I suspect had ketchup in it (my husband loved it!!).

The second restaurant we set our sights on was Naunenapha Restaurant located on Th Sisavangvong. Naunenapha was another Lao restaurant meant to have "ample vegetarian options." When we arrived around noon for lunch though, the owner said it was closed. I'm not sure if he meant forever or just then. Fortunately our third choice was directly across the street, Nazim Indian Food. It's no secret that Indian restaurants are almost always a great option for vegetarian food. Everywhere I travel I know I can always count on Indian restaurants to present me with a wide array of delicious, and vegetarian, curries, breads, and other treats. Nazim's was no exception. I would've liked to find a fabulous place featuring Lao food but hey if traditional Lao food is all about fish sauce and shrimp paste maybe I'm asking too much!

Note that Happy Cow's Vegetarian Guide is an excellent resource for hunting down restaurants. Unfortunately they don't have any listings for Luang Prabang but they do have several for the capital city of Vientiane.

Other Stuff So far I suppose this has been a somewhat bleak posting however we did make one happy discovery by complete accident while we were in Luang Prabang. One night, desperate for a toilet, we happened upon Joma Bakery Cafe on Th Chao Fa Ngum near the night market. While my husband was perusing the bakery case - vegetarian pizza, spinach quiche, and mmmm... almond bars - I was immediately drawn to the coffee display. On offer were bags of organic, fair trade, shade grown Lao Arabica coffee. Laos is known for its coffee and I knew I had found my souvenir! Still, we all know that labels can be misleading... upon arriving at home I noticed that my bag of coffee doesn't contain any certifications for its claims. After several hours of Internet research I came across several websites claiming that only one coffee producer in Laos has been certified as fair trade, Jhai Coffee. Indeed, the only coffee in Laos that I was able to confirm has been fair trade certified is that produced by the Jhai Coffee Farmers Cooperative. I tried to contact Joma Coffee via the email address provided on the bag but the email came back as undeliverable!!

So in the end, I don't have any great recommendations to make for your trip to Laos but maybe someone else can pick up where my research left off.

  1. Lonely Planet: Laos, 6th Ed, Andrew Burke & Justine Vaisutis (Aug 2007).
  2. National Ecotourisim Strategy and Action Plan 2005-2010 Summary, Lao National Tourism Administration.
  3. Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International.
  4. Database of FLO Certified Organizations, FLO-CERT.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Plastic Bags Revisited - Recycled, Local Crafts

While researching my plastic bags post I came across an article in the Nation, which indicated that plastic bags could be donated to the Thai Craft Association to be turned into handbags. I followed up and confirmed that the Association does indeed accept donations of clean plastic shopping bags. The bags are passed on to a group of artisans who knit them into handbags - each handbag is made up of 50 recycled plastic bags.

The Where & When Bags can be dropped of at the entrance of any Thai Craft Fair or at the Thai Craft Office.

Craft Fairs are generally held once a month at the Ambassador Hotel, Sukhumvit Soi 11 (near BTS stop Nana) on the 3rd floor of the Tower Wing from 10AM to 2PM. A fair schedule is available on Thai Craft Website. The finished handbags can also be purchased at these fairs.

The Thai Craft Office is located at 242 Soi Akharn Songkroh, Akharn Songkroh Sai 15 Road near BTS stop Chong Nonsi. Bags can be dropped off any weekday between 8:30AM and 6:00PM.

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Fair Trade As if selling some truly beautiful Thai crafts and providing a place to recycle your plastic bags weren't reasons enough to attend a craft fair, The Thai Craft Association is a Fair Trade organization and a member of the International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) and the Asia Fair Trade Forum (AFTF). As a fair trade organization, the Association works with disadvantaged artisans throughout Thailand to provide them with access to the market and a fair price for their crafts. Other guiding principals of the Associations work are concern for people and the environment, and transparency for both artisans and customers.

Volunteer Want to help out? The Association relies on volunteers for much of its good work - professionals with special skills to share, as well as anyone with enthusiasm. Sign up to volunteer on the website.

So start saving up those plastic bags and I'll see you at the next craft fair - April 26th!

Monday, March 24, 2008

Tamarind Cafe

Eating vegetarian in Bangkok isn't especially hard. But it can get a bit monotonous; enter Tamarind Cafe. A vegetarian restaurant with an impressive array of Western and Asian fare, with many items available vegan.

I read about the restaurant in the vegetarian section of Not Just a Good Food Guide: Bangkok, which I picked up at Asia Books for 425 Baht. According to the guide Tamarind is "[r]eputed to be one of the best international-style vegetarian restaurants in Bangkok." Tamarind isn't in my neighborhood, but with that recommendation my husband and I made a special trip to Sukhumvit... two in fact.

The Food On our first visit we were immediately impressed with the selection of thoughtful dishes. Vegetarian dishes are the focus here, rather than a hastily compiled after thought. We were so impressed with the selection in fact, that it took us at least fifteen minutes to decide what we wanted to eat. In the end we decided to start with the Malay Quesadilla and the Sesame Crusted Stuffed Falafel which we polished off with a couple of cocktails. I really enjoyed the quesadilla, especially the crispy crepe wrapper and peanut-y filling. For dinner we both went for one of the whole-wheat organic pasta dishes. I had the Athena which included baked tomatoes, olives, feta, and pine nuts. I thought the dish could have benefited from a little more olive oil but overall it was very satisfying.

Having left so much un-sampled on our first visit, we came back a week later to try out a few more dishes. This time we started with the Bruschetta and Caesar Salad. The Bruschetta was definitely the standout: toasted but slightly chewy bread topped with fresh and delicious whole tomato slices. For mains we had the Lasagna and the Gratin, of which the Lasagna was our favorite. I also tried out one of Tamarind's fruit smoothies (available with a protein boost). I went for the Velvet Underground which boasted an interesting ingredient list including beetroot, orange, and mint. The smoothie was a beautiful shade of red and refreshing drink on yet another hot-hot Bangkok day.

The Price Not including drinks, both meals came in around 750-850 Baht. More than we usually spend on a Bangkok meal but about what we would expect to pay back home for a similar meal. At that price we won't eat there every day, but possibly every time we're in the neighborhood!

Other Activities The Cafe seems to have a lot going on besides food In fact both times we showed up the person who greeted us at the door seemed to have forgotten they had a restaurant! The Tamarind is home to the F-Stop Gallery and on opening nights the tables on the main floor are pushed aside while food is served on the second floor loft and the rooftop terrace. The second time we arrived the main floor tables were also pushed aside, this time for a salsa lesson. The Tamarind also boasts free wireless internet access.

Location The Tamarind is located at Sukhumvit Soi 20, which is close to halfway in between BTS stops Phrom Phong and Asok. According to the website it is located 300 meters off of Sukhumvit Road.

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