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The Lao Government has created 20 National Protected Areas, which cover 14% of the country’s land area. Eco-tourism is on the rise, and offers local tribes a sustainable livelihood instead of logging or poaching. Many locations are remote and require long rides over poorly maintained roads. But, those with patience will be handsomely rewarded with breathtaking natural beauty.
The Bokeo Nature Reserve is in the northwestern province of Bokeo, which borders both Myanmar and Thailand. Home to the Gibbon Experience, visitors can spend up to a week staying in large tree houses accessible by zip line. Not for the faint of heart, the base camp is reached by a three-hour drive from Huay Xai, and then a demanding one-hour trek through the jungle. The reward is close-up views of the endangered black-crested gibbon, buffalo, elephants and birds.
Ten miles (15 Km) northeast of Savannakhet, Dong Natad National Protected Area offers homestays with local people who have lived in harmony with nature harvesting edible insects, rattan, medicinal plants and honey for hundreds of years. An alternative to an overnight stay is hiring a tuk-tuk for the day and asking the driver to pick you up at a designated time. The smallest NPA, it boasts several lakes and lush forests. Its proximity to Savannakhet makes it a great place to cycle or motorbike to.
Dong Phou Vieng National Protected Area is in central Laos. Take a long difficult trek through the jungle and stay overnight in a Katang village. The Katang people belong to the Mon-Khmer group and live remotely in the jungle, apart from modernization and technology. Part of the Ho Chi Minh trail passed through this NPA. Take a boat ride up the Se Bang Hieng River and try your luck spotting the two herds of elephants that reside in the park.
Phou Khao Khuay Translates as Buffalo Horn Mountain. This 770 sq mi (2,000 sq km) area is only 30 miles (48 km) from Vientiane and is home to wild elephants, sun bears, clouded leopards, and Asiatic black bears. Start your visit at Ban Hat Khai village and take a boat tour or trek with a local guide. If botany is your thing, consider a tour with Vientiane Orchidées to see the many species of wild orchids that bloom in the area. Stay overnight in a village homestay or rent camping equipment from the Ban Hat Khai Visitor center.
On the far northeastern corner of Laos lies the Nam Ha National Protected Area, on the boarder with China. In partnership with UNESCO, the Lao National Tourism Authority designated this area to help villagers engage in sustainable tourism that won’t harm the environment. See elephants, tigers, guar, and 228 bird species. See the lush watershed of four rivers on foot, or rent a kayak to see it from the water. The provincial capital of Luang Nam Tha is within the boarders of the NPA, and offers bicycles for rent, restaurants, and handicrafts made my local people.
Phu Den Din National Protected Area covers over 500 square miles (1,310 sq km) in the far northern province of Phongsali, on the Vietnamese boarder. It is well off the beaten path and rarely visited by tourists due to its remoteness. Twenty-two ethnic minorities live in the province, which is only accessible via a 10 hour drive or a two-day boat ride from Nong Khiaw. Those who make the journey will experience the old-growth forest, elephants, gibbons and eagles.
Accessible via tuk-tuk and lying 3 miles (5 km) north of Thakek in Khammuan Province is the Phu Hin Pun National Protected Area. Swimming holes offer a refreshing break from the oppressive heat, and caves that are home to the park’s 43 species of bats are fun to explore. The limestone karst and surrounding tropical forest are home to endangered birds, such as the sooty babbler and limestone leaf warbler, and monkeys like the Assamese macaque.
Located in Salavan Province, Xe Pian National Protected Area lies along the boarder with Cambodia and covers 1000 square miles (2600 sq. km.) Xe Pian NPA contains large swaths of wetlands conserved through the RAMSAR convention, and home to many bird and fish species in addition to elephants, tigers and pangolins. Treks can be arranged that depart from Pakse, and homestays can be arranged with Brau, Su or Lao Loum tribespeople.