I recently spent a sizeable chunk of time in Luang Prabang, one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia, to research a guidebook. A 1995 Unesco listing has helped this northern Lao city retain much of its Franco-colonial charm, but this heritage designation has also been somewhat of a curse: forcing rents up, pushing locals out, and ultimately threatening the unique culture of this mystical place. I don’t agree with critics who claim Luang Prabang has lost its soul, but its magic is definitely under threat. Fortunately, there are a lot of people working hard behind the scenes to ensure a sustainable future for Luang Prabang. I was amazed at the number of awesome social enterprises I discovered in the city that offers travellers a fantastic way to get involved in supporting the community, rather than contributing to its problems. Here’s five worth checking out.
Ock Pop Tok
Luang Prabang’s most famous social enterprise – and rightly so – is Ock Pop Tok (East Meets West). The weaving cooperative’s Living Crafts Centre is located in a lush riverside setting just 2kms west of the centre of town (there are free tuk-tuk transfers from the two Ock Pop Tok stores in town). Here you can take a free tour of the centre (which run about every 30 minutes), where a collective of 25 weavers create stunning textiles, or sign up for a course in weaving, natural dyeing or perhaps batik painting. Relentlessly pounding a bunch of indigo leaves into a pulp fit for dyeing a scarf gave me a new respect for these incredible women, who are provided fair working conditions and wages for the exquisite products of their labour. There’s also an excellent restaurant onsite, and a beautifully furnished villa, should you wish to stay overnight.
Living Land Lao
The folks behind Living Land Lao employ locals (who would otherwise struggle to find employment in rice farming techniques) which result in a higher yield without the use of fertilisers, giving the farmers (not to mention the planet) a huge leg up in the world. An increasingly popular excursion from Luang Prabang is Living Land Lao’s half-day tour to its Living Rice Farm near the city, which takes visitors through the entire process of growing and harvesting rice before the group pigs out on a ‘rice degustation’. At around US$45 it’s a relatively pricey day out in Laos, but a traveller I met who signed up for the tour as a birthday treat to herself said it was the best money she’d spent on her whole trip around Southeast Asia. Part of my own trip to Luang Prabang was supported by small-group tour operator Rickshaw Travel, which includes a visit to the Living Rice Farm on its great Experience Luang Prabang tour.
Tucked up a side street off the Mekong road in Ban Wat Nong sits the newest branch of the Tree Alliance, a Friends International-sponsored operation that trains underprivileged youths to become employable in the hospitality industry. Named for Laos’ famed crispy river weed snack, Khaiphaen’s menu has an accessible East-meets-West vibe (think: buffalo steak sandwiches), so you’re bound to find something you like. Prices are mid-range, and the quality is generally quite good. I’ve had equally enjoyable meals for a good cause at Khaiphaen’s sister restaurants Makphet in Vientiane, and Romdeng in Phnom Penh. Bookings are recommended, especially in the high season (roughly November through February).
Big Brother Mouse
Set up to promote literacy in Laos, this non-profit, Lao-owned organisation publishes books in Lao and enables young people to gain new skills in reading, writing and computing. Big Brother Mouse encourages visitors to buy books from its shop on Phayaluangmeungchan Rd (from as little as 5,000K) to take on treks in the region, rather than giving sweets or pens to village children. You can also swing by the shop to help young adults practise their English (daily at 9am and 5pm; sessions last two hours), volunteer in the shop (vacancies are regularly posted outside the shop), or opt to sponsor a book party (US$450). Books are sadly still a rare commodity in Laos, so the work that Big Brother Mouse does is vital in helping young people develop new skills and enhance their prospects.
Luang Prabang Library
The city library on Sisavangvong Rd runs a similar literacy scheme to Big Brother Mouse. Here, visitors can buy Lao-language school books (20,000K) for its library boat project – pop the books in the ‘book bag’ next to the counter, and once it’s full (100 books) the bag is taken by boat to any of 75 local villages along the Mekong and its tributaries; see communitylearninginternational.org for more info. The small bookshop next door has a book exchange, plus a few travel Laos-related titles on sale, the profits from which help support teacher-training scholarships for girls who volunteer in the shop.