After almost giving up on guided tours after yet another disappointment on the ‘100 waterfall tour’ in Nong Khiaw, I gave it another try in the Nam Ha National Protected Area (NPA) in the Northwest of Laos. The park can only be entered with a guide and is commonly known for its ethnic minority villages and ecotourism activities.
This article will discuss:
- the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project
- choosing a tour operator
- the Ban Nalan Trek I headed on
- the influence of tourists and
- suggestions for the future.
You can also only scroll down and look at the pictures if that’s all you want, but I tell you, the concept might be pretty interesting 😊
The Nam Ha Ecotourism Project
While I met travellers who thought ecotourism simply means being in nature (that would be nature tourism), I feel the need to point out:
“Ecotourism is responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well being of local people.”
(Definition by the The International Ecotourism Society, 2015)
I admit that I am not very much familiar with this kind of tourism, but as an environmental engineer with a profound interest in sustainability and the preservation of our planet, I definitely wanted to learn more about it and what is behind it. The era of ecotourism started in 1999 with the formation of the community-based ecotourism programme as first of its kind in Laos. This programme won the United Nations Development Award in 2001 as well as the United Nations Development Programme Equator Prize in 2006 and became a model for alleviating poverty in Asia and the Pacific. By 2009, there were over 30 established tour circuits, involving some 50 communities.
As in many other parts of the world, the importance of the protected area can be seen in the dramatically progressing deforestation, which is caused by traditional farming practices like shifting cultivation as well as economic benefits from the sale of timber and other forest products. Many areas are currently turned into rubber tree plantations to supply the newly built Chinese rubber factory with latex. In addition, the illegal hunting of rare animal species threatens a large number of plant and animal species.
An important part of the Nam Ha Ecotourism Project is to educate villagers about the necessity of preserving the forest and the environmental effects of hunting wildlife. The conservation project is accompanied by constraints for the villagers. For example, the practice of swidden farming is only allowed in marked areas, in the same way prohibiting the inhabitants of the National Protected Area to resettle. Hunting wildlife and cutting trees is only allowed for private use. In return, new direct and indirect revenue streams through ecotourism are obtained.
To ensure that tourism activities contribute to the welfare of the people (and the protection of the environment), meetings between villagers, authorities and tour operators are held regularly. This is also where the framework for the cooperation is laid down. It is defined which tour operator can use which trails and visit which host villages how often and with a maximum of how many people. Moreover, fees that the operator pays to the village for food, lodging, guides and trail maintenance are set. The entrance fees to the proteced area are decided as well.
“The Nam Ha Ecotourism Project […] created economic and employment opportunities for local people, while at the same time ensuring that tourism activities contribute to natural and cultural heritage protection.”IMPACT: The Effects of Tourism on Culture and the Environment in Asia and the Pacific: Alleviating Poverty and Protecting Cultural and Natural Heritage through Community-Based Ecotourism in Luang Namtha, Lao PDR. UNESCO Bangkok, 2008.
The key concept for poverty alleviation is to keep the money inside the local economy. A typical trek employs two or three guides, food and lodging. Some transportation is purchased directly in the village or handicrafts bought as a souvenir. Furthermore, villagers close to the NPA create and maintain the trails and lodging.
The tour operator
The first and basically the father of all tour operators was Green Discovery. Every guide has to participate in a training in English language, guiding techniques, cooking, biodiversity observation and the culturally-appropriate interaction between tourists and host communities. Some of those well trained guides later decided to go into business for themselves, which are amongst others Discovering Laos, The Hiker and Forest Retreat Laos.
All tour operators offer a great variety of tours: from one-day treks to several days with different difficulty levels and activites (trekking/kayaking/visiting villages/etc.). Depending on the season you might have to make compromises on the tour (the more people the cheaper the price). But even if you’re alone or just two, it doesn’t bother signing up for a tour early in the day and waiting for other groups to just “tag along”. (You can make clear to the tour agency that you will only join the tour if there are at least 3 people.) Whatever tour operator you may choose in the end, make sure they pay park fees and taxes (and actually go inside the National Protected Area).
I decided for a tour with Forest Retreat Laos, the current #1 on TripAdvisor. The American volunteer Justin on the desk is certainly a perfect fit for the sales business and furthermore an excellent judge of character (I for sure never ever told someone so much about myself in such short time 😳).
The tour agency is owned by a friendly, always smiling Lao guy called Thong.
I, too, had to compromise on my tour and ended up in the Ban Nalan Trail with a medium degree of difficulty and a focus on ethnic minority villages (I so desperately wanted to go on their hardest trek! 😝).
The next morning I met my fellow hikers over a free breakfast in the Minority Restaurant that is owned by Thong (and which serves locally produced food! 👌). After taking care of the money matters, we got introduced to our tour guides for the comming two days, Pheng and Saun. Pheng was our English speaking guide from Luang Namtha Province (his English was really good!), while Saun was the assistant guide from a local village immediately adjacent to the NPA who only knew few words in English and acted as our “master of the jungle”; since our mission of the day was going off-trail to the Ban Nalan village (to make the medium degree of difficulty slighty more challenging).
Because I was in South East Asia and because it was warm here, I only had a pair of trekking sandals with me – which are (and I confirm this after the trek) NOT advisable. (First, there are some leeches out there. Second, there are many small branches on the way that may scrape your feet.) That’s why we quickly bought a pair of shoes for me on the market – for 28,000 Kip (meaning around 3€ 😃).
After a 30 minutes Tuk Tuk ride to the starting point of our trail, we were finally entering the jungle. Saun was walking ahead with his machete and everyone else followed. We were passing through dense vegetation, following a brook, leaving it behind and, at another point, joining it again. I personally liked the challenge to walk on the bank of the brook trying to keep the soil under my feet from breaking off and making me get wet feet (this for some reason happened only to women). I said we walked off-trail but still it seemed like someone had walk this way before, so we were – except for one time – not lost at all.
The jungle itself is not as spectacular as you might imagine it – it’s a forest after all – and you might just flit through it with your tour. That’s why it is important to take some breaks in between: take a moment to breeze in the nature, to listen to the sounds and to make clear to you where you are at this very moment – because WOW..! untouched nature like this does not exist anymore in Europe!
“A primary forest is a forest that has never been logged and has developed following natural disturbances and under natural processes, regardless of its age.”
Convention on Biological Diversity
Our trail lead through primary forest (high trees, fern) as well as secondary forest (often bamboo). We learned that bamboo is so strong or sharp you can kill someone with it (scary right?). Also another renewable resource apart from bamboo can be found in the forest: rattan – which is even stronger and more weather-resistant than bamboo.
“A secondary forest is a forest that has been logged and has recovered naturally or artificially. Not all secondary forests provide the same value to sustaining biological diversity, or goods and services, as did primary forest in the same location.”
Convention on Biological Diversity
In general, we got a lot of interesting information about the forest on our trail. For example, we got to know and tried many edible plants, like some healthy herbs and the insides of a young tree trunk. The rule of thumb is this: If animals eat it and they don’t die, it’s edible.
Of course those snacks didn’t fill us up, so it was time for a lunch break. For this Pheng placed banana leaves on the ground as kind of a table and served the food thereon (so eco-friendly 😊). Moreover everyone got a bundle of banana leaves that contained sticky rice. The food was almost exclusively vegetarian and included: pumpkin, tomato (my favourite), omelette and chicken. It tasted so fresh and natural, it was a true delight! Plastic cutlery has been waived, we used our hands instead 😊
In the afternoon we reached Ban Nalan, a small village of the Khamu tribe in the middle of the forest. The village life followed its natural course, unaffected from us tourists. The life mostly took place on the streets: We could see children playing, old people smoking pipe, a man plucking a chicken and a woman washing clothes in the river. Modernisation hasn’t spared this place: The houses are built from wooden panels, which had been rattan leaves before; we could see satellite dishes and motor scooters. Fresh water is transported from the surrounding mountains.
We will sleep in the “Eco Lodge”, a cabin built for tourists in Khamu style with VIP-views on the river. It has one big room with bamboo mats on the floor, thin mattresses, blankets and a mosquito net. There is also the option of a home stay, which we were worried might disturb the locals.
The evening was at free disposal. While our guides disappeared into the kitchen, our sweaty selves went for a swim in the river. For the sunset we went a bit uphill to have a view over the village, where I had asked Pheng to bring us. Then, we shared another awesome homemade meal together. Some ingredients, like a banana flower, were collected during our trek, others were bought locally from the village. Later, we sat around the campfire telling stories and watching the stars. We discussed if we can see the milky way or not – in any case, the stars were wonderful to look at. (They were so many and so bright because there was no outside light disturbing their shine.)
Suddendly Pheng showed up with a fishing net. Right … I had asked him to teach me fishing. These guys really do everything you ask them for Thus it happened that we went fishing in the middle of the night in our bathing suits and a headlight, learning to throw the net in the right way that it would open up (I did not really succeed…).
The next day, after a great hearty breakfast, our village experience continued. We wanted to visit two other ethnic minority villages, one Khamu and one Lanten village. By the way, each of the villages has a school now, so that the children do not have to walk far distances to reach the class room.
On the way to the villages we had a wonderful view over the golden rice paddies down in the valley:
The architecture in the Lanten village is slighty different from a Khamu village, but the biggest difference makes a small characteristics of the women: To show that a woman is married, she shaves off her eyebrows. A life long. (In case you thought the traditional clothing might be the biggest difference, that would be true, but nowadays everyone wears Western style clothes…) I also had the impression that Lanten people permanently smile. A small highlight was a monkey they kept.
The woman in the Lanten village traditionally weave. On this day, they were unfortunately only selling handmade bracelets and purses – I would have really liked to purchase a cloth.
After another really delicious lunch prepared by Pheng (I can really only praise their food!), we headed back in the jungle. For most time we were walking on a small path alongside a steep slope. The walk was pretty relaxed. There was even an unexpected viewpoint along the way, which made my heart beat faster ☺
Happy and not too tired our group reached back to the main road and a tuk tuk brought us back to town. It was a very informative and entertaining tour (thanks to Pheng’s humour). At this point a really big thanks to Pheng and Saun who made all of this possible for us and who really worked hard (cooking, fishing, guiding, entertainting us, …)
Summary of the leeches issue: one guy: 3 – everyone else: 0. That’s a pretty good result in my opinion.
If you are – like me – interested in what share of the entry eventually is for the benefit of the inhabitants, here is the cost breakdown. The numbers are based on a group of 4 persons.
As mentioned earlier in the text, schools have been built inside the protected area, health has improved through access to medicine and the standard of living overall has improved. A new road connecting the villages to Luang Namtha has just been completed giving the inhabitants the possibility to drive to the hospital in case of emergency or labour.
“Without tourism, households earn about USD5 per month, but income for participating CBT households has increased 10-fold to USD50 a month.”
Thaviphet Oula, Lao National Tourism Administration, 2009
A positive effect of tourism is that most part of the forest could be prevented from being turned into industrial plantations. This is due to an agreement that prohibits forest clearance within 200-500 metres of established trekking trails.
“Handicrafts are […] frequently bought directly from producers at the village level, which gives an economic boost to the most needy communities while helping to ensure that the traditional knowledge used in craft production is passed on to the next generation of young men and women.”
IMPACT: The Effects of Tourism on Culture and the Environment in Asia and the Pacific: Alleviating Poverty and Protecting Cultural and Natural Heritage through Community-Based Ecotourism in Luang Namtha, Lao PDR. UNESCO Bangkok, 2008.
A very negative point is that selling antiquities (such as antique musical instruments, ritual masks or palm-leaf manuscripts) drains the country of its material heritage. This is not only a development of tourists coming in but rather of professional antique hunters who target the area.
One of my great concerns is the amount of newly emerging tour operators. New trails destroy valuable area,so that precious plant specied might be trodden down or wildlife might be disturbed by visitors’ noises. An increased numbers of tourists might moreover interfere with the daily lives of local communities.
Suggestions for tourists and tour operators
Please take all your litter out of the protected area, that means all non-biodegradable trash! I saw a basket for trash in the village, but there is nothing like a waste collection in the jungle. In most villages, trash is burned, producing noxious emissions and toxic residues.
I would have appreciated a small introduction at the beginning of the tour concerning ecotourism (what it is and what it involves) and how to visit a village in a culturally-sensitive way. I know this business has been running for years now, but participants should recall how important it is to save Mother Earth and what special territory this place is in the end.
Did you like this information? Would you like more of those detailed posts and background information in the future?
Have you maybe headed on a trail in the region already or plan to in the future?
Let me know your thoughts below in the comments!
Thank you to Forest Retreat Laos for the opportunity to explore the Nam Ha National Protected Area.
This review is based on a complimentary tour and a lot of research. I am not directly affiliated with the tour operator. All opinions expressed are my own.
Sources and more information:
IMPACT: The Effects of Tourism on Culture and the Environment in Asia and the Pacific: Alleviating Poverty and Protecting Cultural and Natural Heritage through Community-Based Ecotourism in Luang Namtha, Lao PDR. UNESCO Bangkok, 2008. [Available online.] http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0018/001826/182645e.pdf