Responsible tourism issues

A vacation in Laos will doubtless drift by in a sea of happy faces and a chorus of ‘baw pen nyang’ - no worries! It’s incredibly easy to romanticise the seemingly idyllic Laotian way of life, but Laos is the poorest of all the Mekong nations, school is not a priority in family life, and one in four Lao people is illiterate. In addition, more and more villages are having to be resettled as the waters of the Mekong rise due to dams being built to tap into the country’s greatest natural resource: hydropower. Laos is in the midst of a huge period of development and this inevitable progress will likely bring electricity and running water to the masses. It will also increase revenue, which could help Laos’s poorest out of poverty and into better schooling and healthcare provision, but there will always be a lingering flipside that laments the gradual loss of an old way of life and fears that the lives of Laotians will become more like ours - more concerned with material ‘stuff’, a notion at odds with their Buddhist underpinning.

The Laotian way of life has evolved over generations in line with the annual monsoon season and the rise and fall of the Mekong River; we can only hope it won’t all be washed away in the ensuing flood of progress and change.

People & culture


Undoubtedly, Laos is a very poor country and more than a third of its population lives below the global poverty line, but the real issue surrounding poverty in Laos has a different face, a face that we aren’t used to seeing in a media whose focus usually falls on starvation and slums – the Laotian people have food and they have shelter, but what they don’t have is access to education and adequate medical facilities.

The country is in transition and is benefitting from economic growth as a result of exposure to global markets; increased foreign investment in its abundant natural resources, notably timber and hydropower; and a burgeoning tourism industry, but booming economic development doesn’t translate into improved access to essential services for the people. There is no system of social support in Laos, so the poor rely on each other in times of need and a large majority of the population (roughly 90% of women alone) work in agriculture earning meager incomes – incomes that might be just enough to feed their families, but are not enough to put their children through education, or to secure collateral to invest in their existing farms.

The medical situation is just as bad, if not worse, and for rural locations beyond the hubs of the country - Luang Prabang or Vang Vieng - it’s very difficult for people to get medial treatment even for seemingly simple problems like cuts because the closest doctor is four days away and you need money to get there, which they don’t have.

Laos is developing fast. 20 years ago there were four roads in the country and that number is increasing every year, which must equate to an increase in local access to places that provide medical attention. Effectively though, Laos suffers from a chronic lack of infrastructure and a massively underfunded social service system; providing access to education and a helping financial hand to rural families particularly by integrating them more fully into supply chains where possible are both crucial if the country is to secure a successful future for the majority of its hardworking people.
What can you do:
Make sure your money stays in local hands: stay in rural homestays, use local guides, ask your guide where you can eat locally – they’re often more than happy to swerve an itinerary item in favour of this if you ask politely, shop in local food markets, buy genuine handicrafts, and ask your guide about worthwhile tourism projects that you can visit and get involved in. One particular project of note is the Big Brother Mouse literacy project, which Amy Poulton from our supplier Wayfairer Travel discusses below. There are other river library projects popping up too, such as the Luang Prabang library boat where you can donate books, or translating services.

Amy Poulton from our supplier, Wayfairer Travel shares her opinion on the issue of poverty in Laos:  "Laos suffers immensely from poverty, which has a strong correlation with the UXO (unexploded ordnance) from the Vietnam War and other conflicts, still present, even today. Agriculture (the mainstay of Laos’ economy) and improvements in infrastructure are greatly impeded by UXO, and whilst a UXO accident can cripple an entire family, the rewards of finding valuable scrap metal still tempt many Lao people to go looking for unexploded bombs illegally. Read more about the UXO issue in Laos below.

Despite Laos’ heartbreaking history, you’d never know it from visiting the country or meeting Lao people – they are modest, welcoming, incredibly laid back and always courteous.

You can help by choosing to stay in locally-owned and managed accommodation (trickier than you may think – for example, many guesthouses in Luang Prabang are actually run by Vietnamese), spending your tourist dollars in local restaurants and bars, and keeping an open mind. There are also many initiatives that are aiming to improve literacy in Laos, especially for the younger generation. In Luang Prabang alone, you can donate supplies, money and time - practising languages, especially English, with a native speaker is much sought after, even in Laos’ bigger cities - at Big Brother Mouse, MyLibrary and the Luang Prabang city library.

Before your visit, check out the Pack for a Purpose website, which partners with accommodations and tour operators around the world, who are in turn partnered with charities, schools, orphanages or other organisations that need supplies – often stationery and toiletries."

Unexploded Ordnance

Laos has the dubious distinction of being the most bombed country, per capita, in the world. During the Vietnam War, covert US-led bombing raids over the country left behind countless unexploded cluster munitions (UXOs) that are scattered in their millions throughout the country’s landscape. Of the 270 million cluster bombs dropped on the Laos during the time of the Vietnam War it is estimated that up to 30% (80 million) failed to detonate and continue to pose a threat with around 300 Laotians maimed and killed by contact with UXOs annually.

The situation is indeed tragic, but it is by no means hopeless. In December 2008, 94 States signed the Convention on Cluster Munitions, an international treaty to ban cluster bombs, which obliged governments to destroy stockpiles, clear affected land and assist victims, and as of April 2013, 111 countries had joined the convention.

The bomb removal programme in Laos began back in 1995, and today well over 1,000 workers are destroying ordnance. The removal process is slow and painstaking, but it is working and the US, who currently allocate upwards of $9 million a year to clear UXO in Laos, are committed to helping with the problem alongside many other countries globally.
What you can do:
Other than never wandering away from your tour group so as to avoid getting injured yourself, the best thing you can do to help Laos’s problem with unexploded ordnance is arm yourself with knowledge as to the organisations based there such as COPE, and the organisations based back here in the UK that champion support for the victims and their families. There are many ways that you can raise money and awareness and your interest will be welcomed.

Lesley Schofield from our supplier, All Points East shares her opinion on the issue of unexploded ordnance in Laos:
“During the Vietnam War, more bombs were dropped on Laos than they were on Vietnam and the worst sufferers of poverty in Laos are those that have become injured from unexploded ordnance, especially if they are the head of the household. There is no social security, so there are no disability means or special services in place to support disabled people. The level of unexploded bombs is still very high and it’s the farmers and farm kids playing in fields are the ones that find them, which has created a poverty that’s very difficult to cope with when you first see it as a tourist because it’s largely associated with disability.”

Wildlife & environment

Animal rights

Laos is an extremely poor country, one of the poorest in Southeast Asia, and all of its problems with animal rights seem to stem from the poverty that pervades the country.

Take the Asian elephant for example, the majestic gentle giant after whom ancient Laos, Lan Xang, was originally named and proudly credited for having ‘millions’ of, today, Laos’s elephant population is thought to be under 500, which is devastating.

The elephant problem is threefold: firstly, logging, the business of felling trees for which elephants are widely used to move heavy loads across steep terrain. Not only is deforestation destroying the elephants’ natural habitat with only an estimated 40% of Laos now covered in forest leaving herds trapped, migration routes blocked and food supply insufficient, but logging is dangerous and hard work for the elephants – many are malnourished and injury is common; there have even been stories of elephants being fed amphetamines to prolong their working hours. Secondly, the increasingly rapacious trade in wild elephants to meet the demands of neighbouring Thailand’s elephant tourism is encouraging smugglers to traffic young domestic elephants across the border, furthering the decline of an already diminishing population. Thirdly, elephant tourism is a problem in Laos itself – a ride on an elephant’s back through a national park may seem like a wonderfully romantic way to see nature, but a lot of elephants used for trekking are overworked heaving heavy chairs around on their backs all day (heavier still when you factor in the weight of two humans) and can develop sores and extreme fatigue. They must also be tortured into submission at a young age – certainly a less romantic way to see the forest.

The treatment of endangered animals is also a growing problem is Laos; the continual pressure for the local population to make money means that if killing endangered animals to satisfy the bizarre, but very present western appetite for animal souvenirs and ‘exotic’ foods makes them money then that’s what they’ll do. And let’s not forget the ‘medicinal’ purposes for which animal parts are put to use. Despite claims that the exotic lotions and potions sold in Laos under the umbrella heading ‘Traditional Chinese Medicine’ can cure all ills, the animal parts used in them such as bear bile, tiger bones and rhino horn are extracted in the most barbaric ways causing nothing but pain, extreme discomfort and in most cases, death of the animal involved.

To ride on the back of an overworked elephant, buy a bear claw, or eat a stew made from endangered ungulate is not to experience the ‘real Laos’, it is simply to encourage the exploitation and abuse of the country’s already depleting wildlife, albeit out of blissful ignorance. A seemingly harmless experience or trinket may put a smile on your face and a pretty penny in the pocket of a poor Laotian, but if tourists continue to feed the demand for animal exploitation eventually the wildlife will vanish, the supply will collapse and no one will be left smiling.

Fortunately, all is not lost and tourism is offering up some positive solutions in light of Laos’s animal rights problems. Rescue centers such as Free the Bears are becoming louder and more widely heard against the country’s problem with bear poachers, some of whom have been encouraged to become game keepers for wildlife protection agencies.
What you can do:
It’s easy to get carried away with the exoticism and apparent ‘traditional’ practices of far flung destinations, but it’s important to remember that just because you can eat it or buy it, it doesn’t mean you should. A turtle shell should be on the back of a turtle swimming in the sea, not painted and put on your mantelpiece. And seriously, jungle meat? Chances are it won’t taste half as good as it looks prowling in the wild, so it’s best to stick to eating what you know is sustainable. The same goes for any Traditional Chinese Medicine involving animal parts – tiger bones or penis, bear bile, rhino horn – avoid it like the plague and be extra sure of what ingredients make up any cosmetics or creams that you buy. As for elephants: get off their backs! Riding on an elephant’s back hardly represents the nature and majesty of an elephant’s spirit. You can read more about this in our ‘elephants in tourism’guide.

Amy Poluton at Wayfairer Travel shares her opinion on the issue of animal rights in Laos: "Like much of Southeast Asia, Laos’ animal tourist attractions, logging practices and “Traditional Chinese Medicine” trade are certainly not animal-friendly. However, in such poverty, it’s hard to blame people who truly need the income and historically, needed to turn to alternative food sources when the country’s farmlands were so devastated by bombs.

Today, things are improving as tourist tastes change and demand grows for ethical wildlife encounters. Ethical elephant sanctuaries are growing in popularity (take a look at MandaLao Elephant Conservation just outside Luang Prabang), whilst the bear rescue center at Kuang Si Falls (many of its bears can’t return to the wild, as their paws have been cut off by poachers and sold to China as traditional medicine) forces visitors to confront poaching practices. In Nam Et-Phou Louey NPA, community-led conservation is leading the way as guests are encouraged to help monitor wildlife on overnight trekking expeditions and night safaris – the more wildlife you spot, the more funding the local community gets, further incentivising conservation.

As its neighbours suffer the effects of overtourism, Laos is starting to step up in terms of responsible practices and could well emerge as the next sustainably-focused destination in the next decade, if the momentum keeps going.

As a general rule of thumb, vote with your tourist dollars and always research ahead to ensure what you do, what you eat and what you spend is having a positive impact."

Environmental safeguarding

Small and landlocked, Laos’s diminutive population and geographical position wedged amidst five other countries make it dependent on its regional neighbours for development and economic growth including of course its ruthless and rich northern neighbour, China. Laos has the smallest economy in southeast Asia and has become a frontier for China’s investments; the question is, is the country on the crest of a lucrative future wave because of this, or is it effectively selling its soul and the beautiful environment that surrounds it?

In 2012, it was reported that a Shanghai group invested $1.6 billion to develop 365 hectares around Vientiane’s That Luang Lake into a huge commercial complex, and over the last 20 years the Chinese government have approved the construction of a cascade of dams along stretches of the Mekong River that lie within the Laos border. Of the nine proposed Laotian Mekong dams, Chinese financiers and developers are involved in at least four. These interests represent a drop in the ocean however when compared to China’s mammoth engineering project to construct a railway linking its southwest Yunnan province to Singapore, slap bang through the middle of Laos at a (borrowed) cost of $7.2 billion to the country.

Though these developments could lead to the forging of important economic ties between the two countries – China needing Laos’s land and resources and Laos needing China’s money and technology – what of the environmental impact?

The damage to the environment caused by large scale dam production is well documented: sediment build-up, landslides, seismic shifts, not least the devastation of fisheries; Laotians rely on fish caught in the Mekong River for their protein and it’s been reported that the construction of just five dams could equal a 20% loss in annual fish production. In addition, the destruction caused to Laos’s rural environments by the construction of a major railway isn’t hard to imagine – just the pollution and rubbish along the line caused during its build could be insurmountable for a small, underprepared country, and the railway line itself is likely to displace tens of thousands of people and disturb huge areas of beautiful, natural land.

The wheels are in motion for all of these plans and have been for many years, so whether they will go ahead isn’t the issue. When they do, which they inevitably will, and if Laos is to continue developing, the government needs to put steps in place to protect as much of its remarkable environment as it possibly can, or risk the loss of the very reasons why so many of us want to go there in the first place.
What you can do:
Come prepared. Far more 'enlightening' than 'complex', Laos, past and present, is an engaging and insightful topic to research, and simply understanding environmental v's economical issues will allow for a much more empathetic approach. Speak to people that have been there and have a look at our Laos vacation reviews to gauge a clear understanding of the cultural and spiritual beliefs of the Laotian people and the best path to follow as a responsible traveler. 

Responsible tourism tips

The Laotians are a very calm and contemplative people. You may find yourself in social situations that are completely out of your western comfort zone, but it is important to remember that the locals exercise discretion in expressing their feelings, anger and affection towards each other. If you don’t understand something, ask quietly and be patient. Think before you take pictures. It’s easy to get snap-happy when presented with Laos’s incredible landscape and lifestyle, but it’s important to remember that though this may be your trip of a lifetime, it’s their reality, so introduce yourself and ask permission. Whenever possible, it is good idea to ask for a postal address and follow through by sending photographs back to local families. Laos is a conservative and god-fearing country. Women should have their legs and shoulders covered and men should wear full-length trousers and tops with long sleeves. Respect any animals and wildlife you might encounter. Do not feed any animals unless you are specifically given permission and avoid picking flowers no matter how beautiful they may be – your guide will always let you know if this is allowed. Don’t give pens, money, or sweets to the local people you encounter on visits to villages and it can encourage begging and may be seen to establish a non-equal relationship between tourist and local. Instead, donate children’s books to river libraries or buy crafts directly from villagers and show an interest in their skills. Sweets may seem like an ideal gift for children, but access to dentists is extremely limited to rural dwellers and the last thing you want to give them is tooth decay! Remove your shoes when entering private homes, certain Buddhist monastery buildings or any living space. In Laos, leaving your footwear outside the threshold is not just about keeping interiors clean; it is a long-standing tradition that will cause offence if flouted. Do not stretch your legs in public or point your feet at anyone as feet are considered the lowest and dirtiest part of the body. Conversely, the head is regarded as the most sacred part of the body and it’s impolite to touch a Laotian’s head. Women should never touch Buddhist monks, touch their clothes, or hand objects directly to them. If giving something to a monk, the object should be placed on a nearby table or passed to a layman who will then hand it to him. Buddha and all images of Buddha are considered sacred, so touching Buddha images disrespectfully is a no-no. Also, if sitting on the floor of a religious building that has a Buddha image, never point your feet in the direction of the image – the Lao people sit in a modified kneeling position with their legs pointed away from the image. Laotians traditionally greet each other with a nop – bringing their hands together at the chin in a prayer-like gesture; it is generally reserved as a greeting for fellow Laotians and locals prefer to shake hands with Westerners. If you are greeted with a nop smile politely and nod your head in thanks. Lao people are very welcoming - especially in riverside villages, and you may be invited to join locals for a meal or to celebrate a family occasion. This is an honour, and even if you don’t stay for long, it’s always polite to join in and to accept at least one drink if it’s offered to you. Plus, it gives you the chance to experience real local life and them the chance to learn about us.  Avoid Laos if you live for the party. The point of Laos is to relax and soak up the way of life and everything is closed by 10.30pm. Having said that, Vang Vieng has become an unlikely poster child for a scene reminiscent of Thailand’s Full Moon parties. It’s not big, clever, or in any way cultured and definitely somewhere not to go, unless of course you enjoy the idea of ear-bleeding music, broken glass and vomit.  Public displays of affection are considered distasteful and disrespectful in Laos, so couples should exercise caution. Homosexuality is also frowned upon.
Written by Polly Humphris
Photo credits: [Page banner: NICOLA MESSANA PHOTOS] [Poverty: Akuppa John Wigham] [Unexploded Ordnance: MAG (Mines Advisory Group)] [Animal rights: Allie_Caulfield] [Environmental safeguarding: Water, food and livelihoods in River Basins]