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Laos forum

ecofriendly treks, dishonesty, actual costs, and validating the eco

Posted by drewdogy on 25/4/2013 at 22:59

Before coming to Laos, my fiancee and I were elated to learn that nearly 15 years ago the UN had established an acclaimed program around Luang Namtha that minimized impact on the local villages, helped protect endangered primary forests, and maximized profits for the impoverished inhabitants. Naturally, given all the positives involved, we were more than willing to pay extra in the hopes that our dollars would have a positive effect. Unfortunately, we were great dismayed to discover that many, if not most, of the 'ecofriendly' treks in northern Laos appear to be only 'eco' in name.


Luang Namtha (3 people) 3 day / 2night
740,000 kip per person and up
(total = 2,220,000 kip)

Muang Sing - 110,000 kip per day for a guide

Nong Khiaw (2 people) 3 day / 2night
750,000 kip per person and up to $240(1,850,000 kip)
(total = 1,500,000 kip)

Muang Khua - 1 day
(2 people) 400,000 kip per person(total = 800,000 kip)
(6 people) 250,000 kip per person(total = 1,500,000 kip)

Phongsali (3 people) 3 day / 2night
720,000 kip per person up to 1,370,000kip
(total = 2,160,000 kip)


Every office we visited claimed to spend the money, approximately as follows (plus or minus 5% to 10%):

25% tourist office (including taxes &fees)
20% guide
20% village development fund
35% food

Some offices included transport in their costs, while others did not. But we were only looking at hikes(not kayak trips, not rock climbing, no 'welcome' message), and in particular we were interested in hikes that originated in the town where we were staying. Thus transportation and extras would have had a negligible effect on the prices listed above.


Given the great degree of graft and corruption in Laos, we wanted to verify that our monies were indeed being spent as indicated. We inspected each office (we visited around eight in total) for signs and proof of how the development funds were being spent. Surprisingly, we found that not one office proudly displayed how the monies from their treks had positively impacted the locals (for example, the locals now have a generator,metal roofs, a small school). When we asked for specifics on how the monies were being spent, we were meet with vagueness and sometimes with open hostility.

For example, a one day hike in Muang Khua involved a short tuk-tuk ride, a guide, and lunch. The total price for two people was 800,000 kip and for six people 1,500,000kip. Assuming 800,000 kip was fair for a guide, tuk-tuk and lunch,did four additional lunches really cost 700,000 kip? This question was answered by the office manager stating that he did not have the keys so he could not show us his pie charts that detailed expenditures.

In Phongsali we asked if we could distributed the funds. Since we want to verify that our guide and the villagers are being paid fairly, we reasoned that we could pay each individually. The office manager stated this was not possible and the spending of the funds was complicated. When pressed, the office manager explained that we paid him in full and he would give an envelope to the guide who would then disperse the funds. When we asked if we could pay the office the appropriate amount and then if we could give the envelope to the guide, the manager promptly became hostile and asked us to leave.


Since we could not find an operator that appeared to spend the funds honestly, we trekked on our own in several different locations around northern Laos. The prices listed below are approximately what we spent or what we were told were the costs by the different office staff. Obviously, it goes without saying that many of these prices fluctuate.

guide - 120,000kip per day
rustic accommodation, dinner, breakfast, village development fund - 200,000 kip per person per day
lunch - 30,000kip each
total cost =1,230,000 kip (3 day, 2 night trek for three people)

In the case of Phongsali, the Tourism Information Office charges 2,160,000 kip for this trip, and Amazing Laos charges 4,110,000 kip. This means that the office is in reality keeping between 43% and 70% of the total costs.

Please do not misunderstand me. I understand these are businesses and that they are providing a service that deserves compensation. However, it seems that these businesses are dishonestly charging inflated prices in order to increase their own profit at the cost of the impoverished locals. In my opinion, if running the office requires 45% to 70% of the costs, then state as such and do not claim that the office is only keeping 15% or 25%.


Alas, the authors of the Lonely Planet failed to properly investigate these 'ecofriendly' businesses and simply took the owners and managers at their word. Even more disappointingly, the special section on how to verify a 'eco' trek lists a number of questions that will not validate that the funds are being spent appropriately (page 73 of the Dec 2010 edition). Given that the companies involved in 'ecofriendly' treks only pledge to donate funds, and given the complete lack of validation or verification, I would like to suggest the following to fellow travelers in order to help ensure that your funds will be spent appropriately:

1 - Ask to distribute the funds yourself. If possible, pay for each of the following separately:guide, food, office, village development fund, transportation. Sincethe guide carries all the money and distributes the funds as you travel, perhaps instead try just paying the office separately and then giving the remaining money to the guide.

2 - Ask to see photos of how the village development funds have been spent. Ask for specifics, that is, which village received which benefit and when. If the tour operator has been visiting one village for years, the number of benefits should be comparatively larger.

3 - Ask to see a recent certificate or accreditation by a recognized agency (for example, World Wildlife Fund, UN, Wildlife Conservation Society).

Finally, one alternative is to trek on your own. I strongly encourage sensitive travelers to trek through this most beautiful villages; for many of the locals this is a major source of income and provides access to much needed resources. For those who are interested, I think that I might put up a post on a few possible overnight alternatives in the Phongsali region here in the near future.

#1 drewdogy has been a member since 12/4/2013. Posts: 7

Posted by drewdogy on 26/4/2013 at 06:04

Quick correction to a typo above. Under the ACTUAL COSTS section, the cost of accommodation, development fund, dinner and breakfast was 100,000 kip per person per night (not 200K).

#2 drewdogy has been a member since 12/4/2013. Posts: 7

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Posted by MADMAC on 26/4/2013 at 11:08

"eco" and "Homestay" are advertising ploys targetting "sensitive travellers" who want to think they are helping people by going on vacation (and they are - but they are no matter where they go. Arguably the sex tourist dropping 100 bucks a day is helping people in the region a whole lot more than your average 30 dollar a day "traveller"). We have a "homestay" here in Mukdahan that is actually a short time resort. I kid you not. But it uses the title "homestay" in its name. It's right near the bridge crossing into Laos (Savanakhet) close to a bunch of Karaoke bars. I guess they're hoping to get some weary, sensitive travellers right before they head into Laos.

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Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 26/4/2013 at 11:48

Eco friendly means paying double or triple for no benefit. Health retreat/detox farm means paying double or triple to eat fruit.

There's no shortage of gullible people who are willing to get ripped off for what they believe is something unique.

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Posted by LeonardCohen1 on 26/4/2013 at 11:50

What MM says about the sex tourists is correct and it's win-win. The ST goes home happy and the women get to support a family.

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Posted by QWE on 26/4/2013 at 23:07

Very nice post, thank you. I've always suspected the prices were way out of line. In fact, I couldn't afford taking a trip because they were all too expensive.
I would like to go for a hike without an agency but I never seem to come across maps of nat. parks in any Asian countries. I suppose they don't have any.
Where do I look for a guide that wouldn't work for an agency? Did you just ask around in town?

#6 QWE has been a member since 26/4/2013. Posts: 25

Posted by MADMAC on 27/4/2013 at 00:48

"Hiking" out here, or worse yet "trekking" can be a bit more difficult because of the nature of the environment. In the rainy seaon, paths and trails get overgrown rapidly (you can almost see plants growing). That, coupled with the snake and nasty insect factor, means it's not as benign as North America or Europe. In the dry season, though, you can hike and for the really adventurous, trek. There is some good information here on travelfish on where to do that and costs. Just do a keyword search and you'll find lots on the subject if it interests you.

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Posted by somtam2000 on 27/4/2013 at 01:13 admin

Interesting post. Though I'd say a 50% mark-up on costs is pretty standard -- many tour companies work on 100% markup.

One point -- I wouldn't recommend independent trekking in Phongsali province -- I was attacked by bandits there a coupla years ago in an elaborate attack and I believe their intention was to kill me. I covered the experience here.

Trek independently, but with a guide. Do not go walking off into the woods yourself in Phongsali.

#8 somtam2000 has been a member since 21/1/2004. Location: Indonesia. Posts: 7,931
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Posted by drewdogy on 27/4/2013 at 05:57

To quickly answer QWE's question about hiking around Laos without the use of a tour company:

Muang Sing - you can ask at the tourist office or at a guest house just around the corner (blanking on the name right now). Both can arrange guides without the need for an all inclusive trip.

Other villages - we failed to find a guide. While in Burma we were able to ask guest houses and they helped us find someone who could guide. We tried asking while in Phongsali , but English was practically nonexistent and we could not make clear our needs. And alas, the tourist information center refused to help us and would only sell us a package tour. That said, with a couple of days, language help, and some persistence, you should be able to find a guide.

In each town (Lang Namtha, Muang Sing, Muang Ngoi Neau, Phongsali) we trekked independently and without the use of a guide. In the case of the first three towns, this should be relatively easy for most travelers - download a map (for example, or purchase a good topo map before your leave your country. A number of guide shops also post poorly drawn maps of the surrounding region, and if you snag a photo, you will have the names of the villages and then you can ask locals for directions as you hike or bike through the region.

Regarding Phongsali, indeed, somtam2000, I read your blog post before I traveled up to Phongsali. Definitely a scary story and I am glad to hear that all ended well. Yet, as you mentioned, this event was an isolated one and is extremely rare - so rare that I am unaware of any sort of similar event since the Swedish (or was it Swiss?) couple's misfortune in 2002.

Phongsali is remote and rugged. It is possible to hike through this area independently as we did, but this is only for the very experienced. The trail is arduous, unmarked, and with frequent stream crossings and trail bifurcations. That said, for those with the wilderness skills, I have created a GoogleMap that marks the exact locations where we slept each night during our three day, two night journey at the following URL:

For the Phongsali region, there is a good topo map that's been created by the Laos gov't. Alternatively, using Google maps and a decent foreigner map (such as Reise Know How) can work too. This area was occupied and surveyed by the French and most of the villages marked have not moved and we did not discover any new villages during our trek. However, keep in mind that all of the towns and trails are marked approximately on the maps - we found that they are good approximations, but not 100% accurate.

Finally, one easy alternative to get off the beaten path around Phongsali - take the bus to Hat Sa in the morning, then catch a taxi boat that is heading upstream. Then you can get off at any of the villages along the water (such as Ban Vatal or Ban Phouxoum), explore the surrounding region and spend the night in the town. Once in the villages you probably could arrange to pay a local (who does not speak English) to guide you around to other towns, if you were so interested. These are poor people, and 100,000 kip for a day's worth of walking is a lot of money.

Best of luck! Independent trekking is not easy in this part of the world, but it can be done.

#9 drewdogy has been a member since 12/4/2013. Posts: 7

Posted by somsai on 27/4/2013 at 07:28

This has to be about one of the most irresponsible uninformed posts I've ever seen on a travel message board. That's a fairly high bar to jump over but this post is for sure up there with some of the best. Any more pearls of wisdom like how to cop drugs from a Thai policeman perhaps? Long term relationships with ladies of leisure?

Do not ever travel to a hilltribe village uninvited. You are a stranger and know nothing of their habits or beliefs, you could making yourself into one big pain in the butt. Some villages in the Muang Sing area have been closed to all outsiders for this very reason. They got so sick of outsiders coming in and being stupid they gave some the bums rush.

The Lao government does not want you visiting villages uninvited, and the people of the villages do not want you visiting uninvited, so why exactly would someone do it? Oh, because they are a cheapskate and can't stand the thought that they could be paying one fifty kip (not in circulation in fifteen years) note more than they absolutely have to.

I've been going back to some of the same villages and seeing some of the same people for eight years and I speak the language. You think I need a guide or an introduction? No, but I always take one, it's how things are done, I don't rock the boat. Going through the Tourism Authority costs me an extra $20 a day. I take consideration for the people I am visiting, the people of Laos, and the tourists who come after me.

I could just hire the guide directly, but I don't. I spend more than $10 a day just in hiring an extra guide, a local guy from each village I go to, so that one young guy from each village gets good wages and an exposure to being a trekking guide. Five dollars in wages and the rest in food and sleep.

Some locals are impoverished, the ones you meet are more than likely the richest in the village, that's why they are making the money off you staying at their house. The guide and they have a long relationship built up over many other wide eyed tourist backpackers, they accommodate you for money. Often villages have made a special little house for you just so that they can go about their lives while you take photos of their women and make faces at the kids. Villages that don't want to deal with trekkers you won't see, they've decided they'd rather not have you, and frankly I see that as their right to be left alone.

Costs without the local guide or any extras run around $50 per day for me alone, that's just how it is. You want cheaper go to Thailand and they'll throw in some elephant rides, rafting, and you can converse with six other adventurous backpackers. Private companies might well cost twice that.

The WWF or other wanker enviro groups do not certify trekking companies or guides. The Lao National Tourism Authority (LNTA) does. The penalties for guiding without certification are harsh, most people at a minimum are going to go to the local tourism office and get a license to guide you. If they can't it's a real big red flag that they might not be the best person to go for a hike with.

Yup all the eco this and eco that is one big come on. Except when it isn't. Offices cost money too, as do office managers, and trekking guides when no one is trekking. Money does stay more with the locals the lower down the food chain you spend it. You stay at a local house in a small village and eat food produced locally and you are going to be supporting local people. Any seasoned traveler understands this. Notice no one is selling you drugs or girls? That's not part of the Lao trekking experience.

Mac and Leonard, thanks for your insight into the economic benefits of sex tourism.

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Posted by Snookieboi on 27/4/2013 at 07:47

Eco friendly is just another marketting tool. It's generally pretty meaningless as a term. You automatically help the Lao people when you pay for their services, that's how you help and empower people the world over so they can help themselves.

Certainly, i think a traveller in Laos should be a bit more thoughtful about these more isolated regions because they are special and should be respected.

Laos needs to be cherished and not treated like another Thailand.

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Posted by QWE on 27/4/2013 at 22:54

Somsai, why are you so worked up about this? I think the point Drewdogy was trying to make is that when you pay a private company, most of the money is pocketed by them and doesn't get to the poor villagers at all. I don't want to sponsor their fancy cars either and would rather hire a guide directly.

#12 QWE has been a member since 26/4/2013. Posts: 25

Posted by Geer1 on 27/4/2013 at 23:42

I found Laos treks/tours to be horribly overpriced and it was quite obvious that someone somewhere was reaping the benefits. Obviously there is a bit of mafia type monopoly going on as there are few locals offering cheap tours. While in Laos a guy explained to me that Laos is actually very corrupt especially with Chinese money and I believe it from what I saw. I ended up not going on a single organized tour in Laos for these reasons.

I would save money for tours in Thailand or Cambodia. You get far more for your money.

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Posted by MADMAC on 28/4/2013 at 02:57

I don't want to hurt your feelings here, but it's only a matter of time before "Hilltribes" (everywhere in the world - hills or no) become globalized like the rest of us. Beliefs that are not mainstream are going to die or become cute things like Santa Clauss is to us.

Your welcome for my insights - although I thought they were rather obvious. One of my objections to those who view themselves as "travellers" is they think they are somehow better people than othre kinds of tourists.

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Posted by Geer1 on 28/4/2013 at 10:34

I have to agree with Madmac's hilltribe comment.

I actually did a month volunteering with the mirror foundation in Chiang Rai which specifically tries to help out hilltribe people by providing them with english teaching and construction support(I was in construction). Although it was nice to help some poor people out I did not feel that the hilltribe name really meant anything much. It is good for them to remember their history and culture but for the most part it seemed that the hilltribe status was being used more as a tourism grab then anything else.

One of the hilltribe guys we worked with had kind of similar ideas. His son was growing up and going to Thai schools etc and when he would return home his son would speak only Thai and was forgetting his hilltribe language. This bothered the father since he doesn't want them to forget where they came from but he does realize that the hilltribe people need to continue forward and slowly assimilate into their surroundings so that they can live decent lives and stay up with the times. Not all hilltribe people may feel that way(older people especially) but it seemed most of the younger ones do and there were few teenager age people around because most of them go away for school/work etc.

There are other places I went to where they would charge you just to see a hilltribe village(Muang Ngoi in particular) and that imo is bs. They treat people like cattle just like the guy that brought the long neck hilltribe into Thailand for tourism purposes. This stuff is wrong and needs to be corrected and unfortunately it is in large part these "ecofriendly" tours that are taking advantage of these people.

The hilltribe guy we worked with summed it up pretty good in that if you are really interested in seeing hilltribe people you should do something like their volunteering program or go to a known hilltribe village and stay a few days trying to meet and deal with locals. Don't focus on short tours where you treat their villages like a zoo, that isn't fair to the people.

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Posted by MADMAC on 28/4/2013 at 10:51

When people start talking about "preserving cultures" and "preserving languages" they forget that neither of these things is or ever has been static. Thai as it is spoken today would have been unrecognizeable 2,000 years ago. The peoples populating Thailand were far different then, not only technologically, but culturally and linguistically. Trying to preserve languages and cultures is like trying to preserve a sand castle on the beach. They can be documented and studied, but they can't be preserved. They are all changing, all of the time. And they always have been.

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