If we’re honest about things, most tourists who go to Laos really only go to Luang Prabang. So they should, it’s a remarkable place, is well connected by air and makes an easy extension to whatever trip is being planned in the region. As an add on to Vietnam for example it makes a lot of sense. Much the same applies to Cambodia where tourism essentially means Siem Reap and the temples of Angkor. Of course that’s true of many countries, but somewhere like Laos, which remains generally undeveloped, the effect is exacerbated. Getting out into the wider country remains a challenge even for those who wish to do it, as travel is routinely slow, baulking at the idea of long journeys on poor roads is unsurprising.
It begs the question as to why even bother. South-east Asia is hardly short of things to see and do; visiting a country that doesn’t make it easy can be put in the ‘too hard’ category and left for another time – maybe when the infrastructure has improved. For most potential visitors it’s exactly the pattern, the far off tipping point where Laos moves from being niche to mainstream will undoubtedly be a Good Thing as revenue is earned and jobs created. But there remains something special about seeing somewhere on the cusp of change, while it remains something of a special secret, shared by few but appreciated by them all.
Most of the country is mountainous and heavily forested, and it’s this that creates the principal activities for the visitor. Trekking, ziplining, canoeing, swimming in pools under waterfalls (the number of spectacular falls in this country is astonishing), quadbiking – everything revolves around the environment. Plenty of countries offer these options of course, including those surrounding landlocked Laos, but none of them can do so on the same scale, and none of them imbue the visitor with quite the same sense of awe.
Photos never do it justice, in that what looks remarkable is in fact mundane. This realisation doesn’t spoil anything, it just leaves a greater sense of privilege at seeing such an extraordinary place close at hand where being alone somewhere remarkable is entirely normal, as is finding something even better around the next corner.
It requires some commitment. Travelling time is part of it, an understanding that not everything is going to be up to the standards found elsewhere, that the country is not wealthy and nor are the people. It isn’t a destination for the first time visitor to Asia, it probably isn’t even one for the second or third timer. But when on the fifth or sixth, or eighth or ninth, finding out what it has to offer becomes appealing in itself, and that relatively small cadre of people who know all about it come back, and often. Laos is a special place, and one that visitors can very easily fall in love with.
There are undoubted problems, elephant welfare is certainly one, as there is a large domestic market for riding them and seeing them in a controlled environment. It would be great to report this is changing, but the truth is the discussion around the whole subject is only just starting, while foreign visitor numbers are too small to have much impact outside Luang Prabang. It will change when the commercial imperative switches from exploitation to preservation and sympathy. International tourism can be a force for good, its absence tends to demonstrate that rather acutely.
Dollars have power if they’re used wisely.