VIENTIANE 2 October 2018: Mekong River tourism is turning its spotlight on “Destination Pak Beng” as the Lao port transforms from a remote overnight stop on the Thailand-Luang Prabang cruise route into a multi-day stay-over town.
The Mekong Elephant Park operated by Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge, Khmu Trail guided by Le Grand Pakbeng Resort, and untapped natural attractions take “authentic” to the next level in Pak Beng.
“Guests (expect) genuine encounters, exploration, outdoor activities, and the chance to relax,” said Sanctuary Hotels and Resorts sales & marketing manager Melissa Woolley.
“We need to promote activities in the Pak Beng area, and become a highlighted destination in northern Laos,” added Le Grand owner and Visit Asia Travel managing director Ket Thipphachanh.
“We also need to eliminate the idea that Pak Beng is just an overnight stop on a cruise. This is not true. There is plenty to see and do,” he said. “This is what guests are asking for.”
One thing to do is visit the Mekong Elephant Park for a half or full day. The tour begins at the Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge. A cross-Mekong boat ride lands at a short path to the main camp, where visitors encounter a blacksmith, a local textile shop and elephants living in a responsible tourism home.
Guests meet elephants at their swimming hole. Further along at the park’s restaurant, they learn about the elephants, which will soon become their friends. Visitors walk with their pachyderm mates on a 90-minute forest trek that ends with a Mekong bath.“The Mekong Elephant Park opened in 2008…as a voluntary way of contributing to sustainable development and supporting the local population,” Woolley said. “The Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge and Mekong Elephant Park wish to promote forms of tourism – such as treks, cooking classes, and handicraft workshops – which are socially responsible, economically productive and environmentally friendly.”
Sustainable tourism also plays a major role in Le Grand’s tour packages.
“We just launched our activities in August,” Thipphachanh began. “Tours encourage guests to stay longer, which generates income to sustain the area’s tourism, and provide better living conditions for communities.”
Le Grand’s inaugural route stops at four ethnic Khmu villages along a 17 km driveable dirt road just outside Pakbeng Town. Ban Kham Village, at the trail’s end, has begun welcoming tourists interested in their subsistence lifestyle. Visitors can help plant or harvest mountain rice, inspect other crops, see roaming livestock, play with village kids and sample local dishes in stilted houses.
“We need to show the real local way of life and their heritage and culture to world,” Thipphachanh said. “Visitors experience 100% authentic local lifestyles.”
Le Grand offers packages that take in the 1,000 Years Tea Forest, Thalae Waterfall, and mountain-top viewpoint. Tours stop at Pak Beng’s two temples and markets.
Thipphachanh has hosted bike tours from Nan Province in Thailand, and recognised there is a market for off-roaders. However most multi-day visitors reach Pak Beng on a Mekong cruise, with 70% of the traffic coming from the Thai border and heading to Luang Prabang.
Luang Say Lodge’s cruises have been plying this route, with overnights at its Pakbeng bungalows, for 20 years, while Shompoo Cruise began sailing this Mekong stretch in 2011, delivering passengers to the Sanctuary Pakbeng and Le Grand using a five-boat fleet.
They mainly focus on the two-day cruise on board their well-decked out, 40-passenger, wooden slow boats. Both serve a set lunch and stop at the famed Pak Ou Caves, Whiskey Village and ethnic villages, which they support through sustainable tourism projects.
Now they face the logistical challenge of Pak Beng transitioning into a more pivotal destination, with new roads carving out more northern Lao tourism circuits.
Luang Say is meeting this challenge with a three-day, road-cruise loop from Luang Prabang, which stops overnight-plus in Pak Beng. The overland route visits a Hmong village, before reaching Namkat Yorla Pa Resort (Oudomxay Province) at 1230, in time to tackle their ziplines and ATV trails, or visit a Khmu village.
The following day stops at Ban Yor, an ethnic Tai Lue village known for its pottery and weaving. The ride ends at Luang Say Lodge around noon, leaving time for a Mekong Elephant Park visit or a half-day tour by Le Grand. The cruise to Luang Prabang leaves the next morning.
Thipphachanh pointed to Namkat Yorla Pa, stating, “Local and foreign tour operators, who traditionally promote the two-day Mekong cruise, have noticed a change in demand and Namkat Yorla Pa’s success. They are adjusting their itineraries to include overland tours between Pak Beng and Luang Prabang.”
Shompoo Cruise co-founder Alex Chitdara thinks demand for Destination Pak Beng will come from Luang Prabang. “I plan to do a roundtrip Luang Prabang-Pak Beng cruise…but I expect the new Pak Beng-Hongsa (Sayabouly Province) road to reduce time.”
Woolley noted this second overland route to Luang Prabang, due for completion this year, takes about 3.5 to 4 hours. “Therefore, the two-day cruise is no longer compulsory and different options exist.” She pointed to new packages offering land-and-cruise packages, and extended Pak Beng stays on the traditional cruise.
With the addition of Le Grand Pakbeng Resort’s 45 luxury villas this year, PakBeng now offers more than 90 premium rooms, along with a variety of guesthouses clustered around town.
Le Grand steps up a hill overlooking the Mekong, and spacious villas feature modern bathrooms and full amenities. The resort offers an infinity pool overlooking the Mekong, and most drinking and dining takes place around the hilltop Indochine Restaurant.
Sanctuary Pakbeng Lodge is actually two hotels; its 20 superior rooms sit along the Mekong, while the eight hillside deluxe rooms and two suites feature terraces overlooking the river and opposite bank. Both levels present restaurants offering set Lao and Thai menus, along with well-stocked bars with good wines.
The Luang Say Lodge’s 20 bungalows sit on the hill, and present Mekong views. The restaurant offers traditional Lao food cooked for Western tastes and a continental breakfast, and has a full bar and nice wine selection.
All three properties employ mostly locals, and the dining outlets locally source many of their ingredients, much of which is organic. They all participate in sustainable tourism and community projects.
The 2018-2019 season represents the prelaunch of Destination Pak Beng, as it fine tunes its offerings and begins a marketing campaign. A full launch is being prepared for ITB-Berlin 2019 and other prominent trade shows.
Thipphachanh said Visit Asia’s Vietnam office is already marketing Destination Pakbeng, and he aims to focus more on marketing Pak Beng in November. “Visit Asia Travel is planning a promotional campaign for our worldwide partners and the European market. This will be vital for Destination Pakbeng’s success.”
Author: Bernie Rosenbloom
We Are Lao