Destination of the week: Vientiane, Laos
This ecologically vulnerable riverside capital is a great place to unwind.
Sat, Nov 28, 2009 at 01:22 PM
TO MARKET: Women carry wares in shoulder-borne baskets in Vientiane, Laos. Vientiane is the capital and largest city and is home to about 200,000 people (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Vientiane sits on the Mekong River. The United Nations Development Programme reported in April that climate change will cause "significant changes in the hydrology of the Mekong River basin." How will those changes affect Laos' environment and the 700,000 people who inhabit its capital?
That's hard to predict, say researchers at the Mekong River Commission. But a 2008 monsoon sent a warning: According to MRC data, last summer's ultra rainstorm produced Vientiane's highest water levels since record-keeping began in 1913 and caused $17.5 million in damage. Buddhist monks floated to temple in canoes. And six people died.
Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, but country officials have made public commitments to fixing environmental problems. They signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 1995 and the Kyoto Protocol in 2003.
Four years after Kyoto, Laos' communist government passed a law promoting community forestry. (Global Forest & Trade Network, a World Wildlife Fund-led partnership between companies, NGOs and civic organizations in more than 30 countries, says the legislation could result in 450,000 hectares of forests being sustainably certified.) And last year, with help from the World Bank, Prime Minister Bouasone Bouphavanh established a "Climate Change Office."
But Laos' GDP is growing by about 4.5 percent per year, and its natural resources are under pressure. Laotian forests are being slashed to feed Vietnam's furniture market. And in Vientiane, part of a crucial wetland could be converted into high-rises. Al Jazeera English suggests the swampy land was sold to China as compensation for the Chinese-built Laos National Sports Complex — the focal point of the annual Southeast Asian Games to be held December 9 to 18. Pauline Gerrard, a WWF researcher who studies That Luang Marsh, says building there could trigger problems, because the marsh processes sewage and mitigates flood waters.
Construction isn't necessarily a bad thing, Gerrard says. But if developers fill the marsh with concrete, she warns, "There will be nowhere for [flood waters] to go."
Politics aside, Vientiane is an eaters' paradise. Snack on fried bananas as you hop between the city's Buddhist temples. For lunch, head to the banks of the Mekong, where vendors sell sticky rice, fried fish and other Laotian specialties. Wash that down with a fruit smoothie. Around sunset, head to a wood-planked beer garden for fried prawns and ice-cold Beer Lao.
This former French colonial outpost also has a bustling international restaurant scene. Many Vientiane restos offer tasty vegetarian options. A few highlights: Fresh croissants at Cafe Croissant d'Or; spring rolls and veggie-carrot-nut burgers at Chez Philippe; and killer vegetarian curry at Rashmi's Indian Fusion.
Vientiane is a great launch point for outdoor adventure. One popular destination is Vang Vieng, a tourist mecca four hours away by bus. From there, you can tube the Lam Song or kayak the Nam Lik rivers. (Just remember your life jacket, and beware the rowdy English backpackers.) Some boat trips are linked to guided caving excursions. Taking a long break from a well-paid day job? Green Discovery Laos runs 10-day river odysseys between Vientiane and tourist-friendly Luang Prabang. Packages start at $493 per person.
Rock climbing is a newish sport in Laos. Green Discovery offers single or multi-day climbing courses in Vang Vieng and Luang Prabang. Another operator, Vang Vieng-based Adam's Rock Climbing School, offers introductory classes with this ominous disclaimer: "If [you] come here with adventure on your mind, it won't be too hard for you."
'Round the mulberry tree
While you're in Vang Vieng, visit Vangviang Organic Farm, a great demonstration of community-oriented sustainable agriculture. Vangviang founder Thanongsi Solangkoun planted mulberry trees here in the mid-1990s. Now farmers turn mulberry leaves into organic tea and wine. The leaves also feed about half a million silkworms every year. Women from nearby villages spin the worms' silk into clothing, and silk sales support about 20 families.
Vangviang volunteers help local communities. They teach English at a local school in partnership with the local nonprofit Equal Education for All. They drive and repair a school bus. And in 2004, they built a community center for villagers in the Song River Valley.
"You will learn more about Laos and its people at the farm than you ever could as a tourist," the Vangviang website declares, "and you will be helping to improve the lives of the people of our village." To arrange a visit, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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