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Is there any other destination in Asia as under the radar as Laos? The Southeast Asian country, embedded between the booming terminals of Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia and even Myanmar, has largely remained off the tourist trail.
And it’s this relative isolation that attracted Vermont-based tour operator Boundless Journeys to Laos in the first place, according to Katya D’Angelo, marketing associate for the company.
The family-owned tour operator specializes in “outstanding travel experiences for people with an adventurous spirit.” And unspoiled Laos, looking little changed with its verdant jungles, fascinating caves, bustling food markets and intricate Buddhist structures, is just the ticket for dauntless travelers.
We recently chatted with D’Angelo about the hidden-gem destination and Boundless Journeys’ efforts to promote and organize mindful tourism to the country.
Tell us about what makes Boundless Journeys stand out from other adventure tour operators.We are committed to exploring the world in a responsible manner and are continually seeking ways to tread lightly across the unique landscapes and diverse cultures on this planet. One of our core values is to contribute positively to the world — striving to preserve traditions and cultures and protect fragile, natural habitats.
Our expert team is extremely proud of our award-winning itineraries and exceptional customer service, and we have all traveled extensively around the globe. Unlike many other adventure travel companies, we personally scout our trips to create vacations that we ourselves enjoy. We know our adventures firsthand. We also regularly join our own groups to ensure the itineraries are still running smoothly and to make any tweaks to better the trip.
What makes Laos a great destination for Western travelers?For travelers who haven’t been to Southeast Asia before, Laos is a great introduction to the region because it’s not as crowded or frenetic as the countries surrounding it. It has a rich cultural heritage and incredible natural beauty.
Laos is also a great option for travelers who have been to other Asian countries and who want to experience a slower pace in a serene setting with fewer tourists. The well-preserved French colonial architecture and ornate temples transport visitors to a different time. Moreover, there are relatively few North American travelers in Laos — most Western tourists are European.
What are the biggest challenges that travelers might face during a visit to Laos?Laotian guides, like many guides in Southeast Asia, are trained by the book. They are so knowledgeable about any given site that sometimes it can lead to information overload for travelers. This is a common situation that travelers face throughout the region, and Boundless Journeys works to educate our guides on the expectations and interests of our guests.
Other than that, there really aren’t many challenges. Laos’ facilities are very modern; the food is outstanding; Laotians who work in hospitality speak English; and the country is much cleaner than other parts of Asia to which I’ve traveled.
What travel trends are you currently seeing in Laos?Most of our guests add Laos as an extension to our tours in other countries — Bhutan and Vietnam, most often. We don’t see many people choosing Laos as their one-and-only destination, although it certainly could be. A number of guests combine Cambodia and Laos into a longer trip, which is a great option since both countries have a fascinating and intertwined ancient and modern history.
Within Laos itself, recent years have brought about the development of several outstanding five-star hotels. They are usually tucked away in their own oasis, designed with traditional teak or French-inspired architecture, and have tropical gardens and luxurious spas. This has led to an increase in high-end clientele, which has been followed by boutique shops and gourmet Laotian and French-fusion restaurants.
Cooking classes are also trending. Many restaurants and upscale hotels offer them, especially in Luang Prabang, which is the cultural heart of Laos.
What are some highlights you'd recommend to first-time travelers?You can’t miss Luang Prabang. The entire Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site with a high concentration of Buddhist temples. It is also the ancient capital of northern Laos and the residence of the former royal family, which was dethroned when the Communist party dissolved the monarchy in 1975. The town sits peacefully at the confluence of the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers and is surrounded by densely forested mountains. Using Luang Prabang as a base is a great way to explore the countryside.
What should travel agents keep in mind when booking a trip to Laos for their clients?Two of the widely touted experiences that guests may want to have in Laos are almsgiving to Buddhist monks and elephant “safaris.” We can arrange these for our guests, but we do so with a caveat: neither has retained its original authenticity.
In fact, so many people participate in the almsgiving in Luang Prabang each morning that baskets are placed on street corners for monks to empty their bowls to make room for more food as they head down the long street. Thankfully, the unwanted food goes to feed the poor.
While I personally vetted an ethical elephant sanctuary that cares for its elephants and mahouts, there are many unscrupulous places, and the tourism dollars that support them just perpetuate the mistreatment of the animals and the workers.
What types of tours does Boundless Journeys have available for Laos?For guests who have more time, there are enough activities in and around Luang Prabang to fill a leisurely week.
Boundless Journeys only offers custom, private tours in Laos. A four- or five-day adventure in and around Luang Prabang is our most popular itinerary and typically includes a Mekong River boat cruise to the Pak Ou caves, which are filled with thousands of Buddha statues; a hike through the jungle to the Tad Sae waterfalls; a walk up Mount Phousi to the highest point in Luang Prabang; and visits to temples, a monastic school, a traditional food market, a weaving co-op and the former royal palace
Any new tours in Asia that Boundless Journeys is working on this year?We are really excited for two new trips in Asia for 2018: Nepal: Everest Lodge to Lodge Trekking, which runs from March 26 to April 7, Oct. 8-20 and Nov. 5-17; and Japan: Hiking the Nakasendo Trail, which takes place April 16-25 and Oct. 15-24. We should have the latter itinerary fine-tuned and finalized soon.
And looking ahead to 2019, we are already planning a snorkeling adventure to Indonesia’s Raja Ampat Islands, which is considered one of the best snorkeling destinations in the world.