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 impactsThe website provides information about various "eco-attractions" as well as links to tour operators, and "eco-tourism accommodations."
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."
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.Sources:
- Lonely Planet: Laos, 6th Ed, Andrew Burke & Justine Vaisutis (Aug 2007).
- National Ecotourisim Strategy and Action Plan 2005-2010 Summary, Lao National Tourism Administration.
- Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (FLO) International.
- Database of FLO Certified Organizations, FLO-CERT.