It’s not often I stand in the middle of a sprawling enclosure in the jungle, tossing buckets of smashed fruits and gruel mere seconds before moon bears will be set free to roam for food. I know I’m safe (the bears are contained until I return to the other side of the fence), and I even feel inspired, though I know I’m setting the bar high for the rest of the week. This one-of-a-kind experience is thrilling, far from the ordinary, and, for my first visit to Luang Prabang, Laos, exceeds my expectations. In fact, I truly had no idea how my trip to this off-the-beaten-path Southeast Asian country would pan out. I’ve frolicked white-sand beaches and indulged in cheap foot massages in Thailand. I’ve visited ancient temples and historic markets in Cambodia. I’ve even set sail on the Mekong River and explored world-renowned sites like Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. But Laos was never on my radar. The balmy destination unanimously known as “the forgotten country” gets little global attention, where it’s more popular bordering neighbors are traversed by millions of visitors a year.
Therein lies the allure. Laos is so off the grid, and it’s managed to keep its unspoiled, centuries-deep, beguiling authenticity. The country is charmingly old-fashioned and bare boned. It lacks any of the cosmopolitan, flair that has become so pronounced in other Southeast Asian countries top cities like Saigon and Bangkok, which adds to its immaculately pristine topography and genuinely untouched culture. It has become a magnet for serious backpackers and luxury travelers alike thanks to its retro vibes, rich heritage, French colonial past, and small-scale tourism infrastructure; hordes of vacationers are virtually nonexistent.
Laos is a time warp for culture junkies, a natural hot spot for adventurists, and, ultimately, an exciting, life-changing destination that hasn’t fully surrendered to mass tourism. “Life-changing” may be a big statement, but the attractions are deeply unforgettable.
While I stand in the bear sanctuary, hiding bananas in tire swings and slathering honey on tree trunks, I realize this isn’t the typical “take a picture with a tiger” or “watch monkeys dress in doll costumes” attraction often found in these neck of the woods. There’s no fee and certainly no animal cruelty. The keepers who run this non-profit give me the cue, and I race behind the gate. Soon, the self-contained natural environment is flooded with 26 towering moon bears, roaming the parameters to scavenge for food. It’s exactly what they would do in the wild, but here, in the safety of the enclosure, they are not being hunted (bear paws are often used in soups and local rice wine) or held in captivity as pets (in many Southeast Asian countries, this is still a problem).
Protected from poachers who use animals in humiliating circus acts or drug them up for photo opps, these bears are safe, living longer than other bears in the wild. It’s perhaps the only ‘feed the bears’ attraction in a world ruled by ‘don’t feed the bear’ signs, truly encapsulating Luang Prabang’s commitment to beauty in the smallest things, and offering a genuine lens into the precious world of the animal kingdom without compromising their lives. Needless to say, Luang Prabang isn’t a tourist destination; it’s simply a destination that keeps it real, in and out of bear sanctuaries. And while there is virtually no gay scene, it’s not unwelcoming to gay travelers from around the world. Here, it’s not unusual to see ladyboys in cafés or gay travelers cramming Lao Lao Garden, a gay-owned restaurant that’s become the stomping ground for the LGBT community. While Luang Prabang garners more attention around the world, the gay scene is destined to grow, reflected in the country’s first gay pride here in 2012.
Tom Alderink, director of LGBT sales for global hotel group Belmond, recently visited Laos last December. “If you are visiting Southeast Asia, Laos is not to be missed. Gay travelers most enjoy the amazing level of cuisine and the gracious hospitality, and Luang Prabang is very warm and welcoming for all types of visitors.”