There are more than enough of tourist offices in Luang Prabang. I think there might more of them than cafes and restaurants.
Everywhere you go you see banners advertising tours, walks, hiking, you are hassled by the tuk-tuk drivers, willing to take you to the caves, or waterfalls.
But there is one company that truly wants to make a difference and promotes responsible tourism.
Tiger Trails is one of the first independent tourist operators in Laos, which gives out a large part of its income to the local communities and puts a great emphasis on eco-tourism. Their offices can be found all over Laos. They offer hikes, day trips, cruises, elephant treks – anything you would imagine you can do in this wonderful country.
I spent a great amount of time researching different companies in Luang Prabang, comparing the prices and the options they offer. I finally settled on the Tiger Trails, just because they had graphs and tables in their offer that showed how much of my money will go to support the locals and local environment.
I chose trekking to the Kuang Xi Waterfall, which cost $40, including transport, guide and a lunch.
The day of the trek started in a truly Laotian style – the guide was late 40 minutes. I tried not to be too grumpy about it. I was in Laos, not in London and learning how to be patient was one of my goals of the Asian adventure.
My guide, Mr Bua Pu, was at first very reserved, but he started to open up during the trip and I found him to be a very nice and friendly person. Brought up in the mountains he knew a lot about local flora and fauna and pointed to the things I wouldn’t have normally noticed, which turned out to be something quite interesting: a little hole in the ground, digged by a guinea pig, a spider living under a leaf, a noise I took for a bird, which was actually a monkey.
Our first stop were two villages at a foot of a mountain. Children were very keen to have their pictures taken, but otherwise no one seemed to notice us. Men were setting off to the fields, women were weaving, or cooking.
The local women are very talented and earn their money from selling the hand made dresses, bags and jewellery.
The minorities in Laos are very often discriminated and have a limited access to education, healthcare and other services. There is a great difference between the people living in Luang Prabang and those living in the villages. Despite the recent reforms and growth of the economy over 27% of the population (of which 43% live in the rural areas) still live in poverty.
Tiger Trails with its unique volunteering programmes and activities generates income for the local communities, allowing access to the remote villages to tourists.
We spent some time wandering among the huts, watching the blacksmith, playing a little with the children and finding out about culture and religion of the local people.
The trek itself started with some beautiful views. The path led through fields, spread out at the bottom of mountains and hills. But once we entered the forest the trek became less interesting. In fact, in some ways in reminded me of our Polish woods.
After stopping for lunch and a short break to see some caves, we walked what seemed miles and miles. We reached the top of the waterfall dripping in sweat. But the worse was ahead of us – a very slippery and difficult climb down. I thought my shoes were pretty good for these kind of conditions, but quite a big part of the way I was either sliding on the back of my feet, or on my bum. The pain in my calves, once I finally reached the bottom, was unbelievable. Of course, this was nothing for our lovely Mr Pu, who skipped from rock to rock and stair to stair in his converse-like trainers.
However, despite the heat and the really tiring trek, the waterfall was absolutely worth it. It is huge, and loud. The water is the bluest colour I have ever seen in my life and there is a lovely cool mist coming out of it.
And yes, I swam in the pond at the bottom of it. The water was really, really cold and my feet were picked by the small fish you usually get in the spa salons all over the world. But I didn’t have a courage to do this:
After the waterfalls we visited the Bear Sanctuary. The bears, kept in the enclosure, were saved from the poachers and the locals, who kill those beautiful animals to save the crops.
Tiger Trails offers lots of other treks and adventures for more and less fit tourists. They also lead ‘Fair Trek’ project, which is a volunteering programme, where you can build schools and help local communities in a very remote areas.