Mekong River tourism is turning its spotlight on “Destination Pakbeng” as the Lao port transforms from a remote overnight stop on the Thailand-Luang Prabang cruise route into a multi-day stay-over town.
“Guests view Laos as a life-journey in untouched beauty. They (expect) genuine encounters, exploration, outdoor activities, and the chance to relax,” said Melissa Woolley, Sales & Marketing Manager for Sanctuary Hotels and Resorts.
“From this perspective, Pakbeng has it all. It fits the wishes of international travellers and can therefore bring the travel offer to a whole new dimension,” she said.
“We need to promote activities in the Pakbeng area, and become a highlighted tourism hub in northern Laos,” added Ket Thipphachanh, Le Grand owner and Visit Asia Travel
“We also need to eliminate the idea that Pakbeng 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, local textile shop, and elephants, who found a responsible tourism home.
Guests meet the 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,” Ms 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,” Mr Thipphachanh began. “Tours encourage guests to stay longer, which generates income to sustain the area’s tourism, and provide better living conditions for the 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,” Mr Thipphachanh said. “Visitors experience 100% authentic local lifestyles, unspoiled like other tourist areas.”
Le Grand offers packages that take in the 1,000 Years Tea Forest, Thalae Waterfall, and mountain-top viewpoint. Tours stop at Pakbeng’s two temples and markets.
Mr Thipphachanh has hosted bike tours from Nan Province in Thailand, and sees a market for off-roaders. However most multi-day visitors reach Pakbeng on a Mekong cruise, with 70% of the traffic coming from the Thai border and heading to Luang Prabang.
The Luang Say Lodge & Cruises
has 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 with its 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 Pakbeng 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 Pakbeng. The overland route visits a Hmong village, before reaching Namkat Yorla Pa Resort (Oudomxay Province) at 12:30, in time to tackle their zip-lines 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.
Mr 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 Pakbeng and Luang Prabang.”
Shompoo Cruise co-founder Alex Chitdara thinks demand for Destination Pakbeng will come from Luang Prabang. “I plan to do a round-trip Luang Prabang-Pakbeng cruise…but I expect the new Pakbeng-Hongsa (Sayabouly Province) road to reduce time.”
Ms Woolley noted this second overland route to Luang Prabang, due for completion this year, takes about 3.5-4 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 Pakbeng 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 modest yet comfortable 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 Pakbeng, 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.
Mr Thipphachanh said Visit Asia’s Vietnam office is already marketing Destination Pakbeng, and he aims to focus more on marketing Pakbeng 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.”