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Ecotourism in Laos

By Fiona Murray

September 29, 2008 

After only opening its doors to foreign travelers in 1980’s the sleepy South East Asian nation of Laos is seen as a hot backpacking destination. With travelers interest developing faster than a sustainable tourist infrastructure, it seems that backpackers could make a big impact on the vulnerable environment and economy of Laos.  On a recent month long trip through Laos we tried to choose activities that supported the environment as well as the local people, and found a positive and unique example in ‘The Gibbon Experience.’

We left Luang Prabang for a seven hour bus ride, which in typical Laos style took 15 hours, involved constant noodle stops, and as far as we could tell a single driver who miraculously survived the journey on a twenty minute nap.  We stumbled in our semi-human state into the small town of Houayxai.  Located on the western border of Laos, close to Myanmar and Thailand, Houayxai is a transit town, and doesn’t offer much in the way of excitement.  There was one main street, with a handful of restaurants with English menus, guesthouses and travel agents.  It seemed the reason to be in Houayxai was to catch a boat to Luang Prabang, to cross over into Thailand, or to go on ‘The Gibbon Experience.’  After hearing great things about the project from other travelers and Laos residents, we had booked a place on the tourism venture, but were still not exactly sure what we had signed up for.

So the next day my travelling companion and I had a typical breakfast of eggs and baguette strong and shockingly sweet Laos coffee, before reporting to ‘The Gibbon Experience’ office.  Sitting in the simple room, admiring the large photos of gibbons and other wildlife on the walls, we were given the most intimidating waiver I had ever seen.  The form implied there was a risk of emotional or psychological damage and even death. We started to feel slightly nervous, but having already made the epic bus journey we signed our names and continued to wonder exactly how we would spend the next two days.

‘The Gibbon Experience’ was set up a few years ago by a French conservationist with a vision for eco tourism development in Laos. Unlike many tourism operations that focus on making profit, out of anything, ecotourism aims to operate sustainably for both the natural environment as well as the local population.  For example, ‘The Gibbon Experience’ aims to conserve large parts of Bokeo nature reserve, whilst also supporting the local village population by providing employment as hiking guides as an alternative to poaching the forest wildlife.  The aim is that the travelers will have a genuine experience and learn about the environment and people of Bokeo nature reserve, while the locals are able to make an income through protecting their forest. 

It is also significant that ‘The Gibbon Experience’ specifically tries to steer away from the style of ‘ethno-tourism’ that is common in South East Asia.  The information brochures ask participants to refrain from taking photos or giving sweets or money to children. This is to discourage both parties becoming objectified as curiosities, which blocks any genuine cultural exchange or respect. 

Soon the vehicle was packed and we started our two hour drive from Houayxai to Bokeo nature reserve.  Like in other parts of Laos it only took a short drive out of town for the scenery to appear vast, undeveloped and majestic, punctuated only occasionally by a family walking along the fields, or some livestock wandering casually across the road. As we got deeper into the park the hills seemed impossibly steep, and I wondered how vehicles could negotiate the tough terrain in the rainy season.

Finally we arrived in the village.  The locals went about their daily tasks, seemingly undisturbed by the flow of travelers.  We only get passing glances from children, a sign, I thought, that most participants respect the request to keep a low profile while waiting in the village.  Soon after arriving we met our guides and began our hike into the forest.  After passing through some corn fields and crossing precarious makeshift bridges over streams, the vegetation became lush and wild, and I felt privileged to be allowed access to such a remote part of the world.

After walking for an hour we arrived at our destination.  We were given harnesses, and a demonstration of our method of transport for the next two days – a zip wire.  Attached to our harnesses was a roller, which clips onto the wire overhead.  After launching ourselves from the platform we glided swiftly about 30 meters to the first wooden tree house. After getting over the initial shock at the height, I felt the pure joy of fulfilling all my wildest childhood dreams. 

The tree house, which was one of six, had three platforms, including a drop toilet and shower, and places for six people to sleep on simple mattresses.  The tree houses took months to construct, being built by the local Hmong villagers.  All the materials were brought in by hand, and ‘zipped’ out to the building site.

Once our group of 6 people had taken the slightly frightening initial ‘zip,’ we relaxed in the tree house soaking in the sublime views of the forest.  It was a wonderful and slightly disconcerting feeling to be so high, and so exposed to the forest.  After our guide cut up a fresh pineapple for our afternoon snack we spent the rest of the afternoon travelling along the zip wires around the canopy between tree houses, gradually getting used to the height and the incredible perspective on the forest.

As it got dark, my companion and I made our way back to our tree house for dinner made by local staff.  Watching the sun set from such a height, and such isolation, was both exciting and peaceful. The air quickly cooled off, and we settled in with our tree house companions for a game of scrabble and some local rice wine.  Knowing we would be waking up the next morning we soon went up the wooden ladder to our upstairs ‘room’ which was more of an open air platform, and enjoyed a sound sleep in the crisp and clean air.

***

The next morning we were woken by our guide just as the sun was beginning to rise.  It was the first time in my life I had the unique feeling of being excited to get up at 5:00am in order to possibly see gibbons.  During the dawn the wildlife is most active, so the guides offer short walks through the forest floor to try to spot birds, and of course, monkeys. Our guide ‘zipped’ in to collect us, and lead us through the tracks making sure we were as quiet as possible.  After about an hour of walking the light was up, and we returned to the tree house for breakfast having seen some birds, but no Gibbons.

The rest of the day was spent ‘zipping’ around the canopy, as well as enjoying cooked lunch, and finding time to relax with a book.  It was impossible to forget how high we were, and how strange it felt to be looking down on tree tops.  Just sitting and looking out over the spectacular landscape was a simple yet addictive and humbling experience.  During our time in Bokeo nature reserve we did not see any gibbons, but we still came away feeling very satisfied.

For me, ‘The Gibbon Experience’ was an example of a positive way to embrace the inevitable influx of travelers into this beautiful part of the world.  I hoped that the tourist sector would follow similar innovative paths so that backpackers could have an authentic experience of Laos.  As we spent the next few days travelling back to the capital of Vientiane, it was hard not to notice the amount of attractions that seemed geared towards tokenistic trips into villages, or short kayak trips down rivers.  It seemed like a very different experience from our days up in the trees.  Perhaps it is not simply how Laos chooses to develop its tourist industry, but what backpackers choose to embrace, that will affect the future of tourism in the country.  


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