As I pedaled toward the village of Pak Ou, my bike jittered over the pebbled path and I squeezed the brakes with all my might. The thick tires could endure anything, but I had to maneuver around tight curves, never knowing when a minivan would hurtle toward me. When vehicles did drive past, they threw billows of dust into the air. No wonder everybody wears bandanas here, I thought as I held my breath through another yellow cloud.
Then the jungle opened up. There, beyond the trees, rose a wall of cliffs. The ridges rolled venerably against the perfect blue sky. And at their foot, the espresso-hued Mekong River drifted. I stood there, open-mouthed, as insects sang in the glade. I wondered: Is there anywhere as beautiful as Laos?
A New Look at Laos
I had come to Laos to research a book on the Secret War, a nine-year aerial bombardment that left millions of unexploded cluster bombs in the Laotian countryside. That’s the bad news: Thanks to the CIA, these tennis-ball shaped bombs have infected nearly every square mile of Lao soil. Running into them can be deadly.
For years, this landlocked communist nation has played second fiddle to Thailand. Now, Laos’ ecotourism industry has exploded. Once-sleepy townships like Luang Prabang attract thousands of visitors per year. The village of Vang Vieng, nestled beneath breathtaking crags, is an epicenter of touristy pastimes like rope swings, hot air balloons and “tubing”—riding inner tubes down the river, cocktail in hand.But Laos is also one of the least developed nations in Asia, with 70% of its land covered by dense rainforest. Laos’ many animal preserves and national parks are home to Asian pachyderms, Indo-Chinese tigers, marbled cats and the ultra-rare Irrawaddy dolphin, a freshwater species that frolics in the Mekong.
For serious outdoorspeople, Laos is a vast playground of guided trekking, mountain biking and backwoods elephant rides. Visitors can zip-line through the jungle canopy, kayak the rivers or scale the incomparable Laotian cliffs. Most of these activities have emerged in the past few years, and trips tend to be environmentally low-impact. And for many Lao citizens, ecotourism provides a high-skill alternative to a life hunched over rice paddies.
Meanwhile, if Lao entrepreneurs are smart, they’ll avoid Thailand’s mistakes: over-development, displacement of indigenous people and commodification of everything in sight.
I rented my bike from Green Discovery Laos, an agency that specializes in adventure travel and ecotourism. Founded in 2000, Green Discovery has branches across Laos, and visitors can try everything from motorcycle excursions to self-guided caving. I asked to rent a decent bicycle. Although Green Discovery doesn’t rent bicycles on their own, the agent brokered a rental through a separate company. The bike cost $8, a steep price for Laos (guesthouse bikes can be rented for $1 a day). But the mountain bike proved to be the best I’d ever ridden.
The best part of trekking in Laos is the people: No matter how far off the beaten track you venture, villagers treat guests with the utmost hospitality. Laotians are laidback by nature, but they are also generous and good-humored. Street crime is almost nonexistent, buses make it easy to get around, and everywhere you go, you are greeted with a smile and a “Saabaidee!”
Not everyone is happy about the influx of tourists. Laos may be poor and behind the times, but purists scowl at farang tromping through fragile villages and ancient temples. Vang Vieng has a reputation for psychedelic pizzas and rowdy nightlife, and even the almsgiving to Buddhist monks has been commercialized. Of all travelers, ecotourists are by far the most welcomed, given their interest in Laos’ natural wonders—woodlands, waterfalls and limitless biodiversity.
When I finally coasted into Pak Ou, I found a village in transition: Parts had become a tourist trap, with requisite rows of souvenir shops and noodle shacks. But Pak Ou was still a functional village, where real families lived and worked. And when I reached the riverbank, the dramatic Pak Ou cliffs beckoned across the water. Open borders may change the face of Laos, but when it comes to the country’s natural treasures, ecotourism may also keep them intact.