I’m all for supporting local businesses, generally snubbing all chains in favor of mom & pop shops and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. And this mentality carries over to my travels: I’d rather immerse myself in local culture and customs and eat street food than stay in fancy, impersonal hotels or join a tour group. It’s all about living local!
So then WHY did I hang out at a western business each day I was in Luang Namtha, eating pizza and hanging out with other travelers?!
Said establishment is Forest Retreat Laos, a tourism agency in Laos – Luang Namtha, to be specific. Yes, it’s run by Kiwis and frequented by westerners – but it’s SO MUCH MORE than a tourist haunt. While catering to westerners, Forest Retreat Laos also promotes sustainable tourism and supports local villages. They’ve managed to blend a restaurant, bar, lounge, and tour company into one business endeavor, catering to the whole spectrum of tourists – even the self-proclaimed anti-tourist in me.
Bottom line: they are doing things right. Specifically, 3 things:
Targeting Western Tourists
What sets Forest Retreat Laos apart from every other restaurant lining the main street in Luang Namtha is that they are the only ones targeting western tourists with their restaurant, bar, and lounge. Case in point: their creative signage —
Awesome food? Uh yeah, I could go for some of that! Asian food is awesome in its own right too, but when you have 5 straight months of it, the promise of awesome *western* food is quite alluring. Between that and the stellar TripAdvisor reviews, I decided to forgo the local joints in favor of some
brick oven pizza – er, correction: GLUTEN-FREE brick oven pizza with REAL CHEESE – in rural Laos, mind you. Forest Retreat Laos makes their gluten-free dough in-house and imports cheese and other delicacies from Thailand and New Zealand, which is why most menu items are closer to western prices.
I had a really tough time choosing what to order every time I dined there; there are no less than 8 options each for pasta, pizza, sandwiches, salads, and pancakes. I can vouch for the chicken pesto sandwich, nutella pancake, and margherita pizza. Where else are you going to find these dishes in Laos? And bonus: they are sensitive to dietary constraints, offering items that are gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan and veg-friendly.
But most importantly: THEY HAVE REAL COFFEE!! As a coffee snob, I won’t say that their french press coffee is particularly amazing, but it’s lightyears better than the Lao coffee at any other restaurant which made me very happy :)
Thankfully, you can offset the price of your meal with some absurdly cheap drinks! Cocktails made with the local whiskey (lao lao) start as low as about $2 US. Their signature drink, the Forest Retreat cocktail (lao lao, lime, mint, lemonade), is a must-try. If you’re craving a more traditional cocktail, they’ve got mojitos, daiquiris, and more for around $4 each. Not only are drinks cheap here, but they’re seriously good.
Forest Retreat Laos isn’t just a restaurant or a bar – it’s a place to chill out after a day of frolicking and adventuring. Their comfy couches and communal seating lend themselves to making new traveler friends while in town. In fact, it’s where I met the Dutch couple that I ended up traveling through Northern Laos and taking *2* boat trips with!
I especially appreciated the reliable wifi and book exchange at Forest Retreat. Internet at my guesthouse was extremely spotty, so I used that as another excuse to frequent the lounge on a daily basis. It was so nice to have somewhere to go to just decompress and get back some of the comforts I’d left behind in the US.
The truth is, even the most independent of travelers like to feel comfort while on the road (at least once in awhile!). Forest Retreat Laos has set themselves up to be a comforting oasis for westerners to ‘retreat’ to and escape the unfamiliarity of a foreign land for a bit.
Anyone that’s living green scores major points in my book. Forest Retreat Laos’ eco-friendly habits include providing free purified water bottle refills, using cloths instead of napkins and paper towels, and serving cocktails with reusable bamboo straws rather than plastic ones. These seemingly little things add up to something much bigger when you think about how much waste could be generated over the course of a year of running a restaurant business.
What’s more, as an eco-tourism agency they run a huge variety of tours around Luang Namtha. Kayaking, rafting, trekking, boating, cycling, homestays, or any combination of these is an option. No matter which tour you choose, Forest Retreat Laos will ensure that there is minimal environmental impact and maximum appreciation of the the region. In a place fraught with tour operators of questionable quality, I felt like I could trust Kiwi owners Dre and Karen. Thanks to their honest advice, I skipped trekking and opted instead for a kayaking daytrip. It did not disappoint!
Supporting Local Villages
What impressed me the most about Forest Retreat Laos is their tremendous support of the local villages. In their own words,
We support 4 different ethnic minority villages, creating and promoting homestay and cultural immersion experiences. The income generated by ecotourism is sustainable and greatly assists the villages to be self-sufficient. It also empowers the villages to preserve their ancient traditions and tribal culture. We also employ these villagers to maintain our trekking trails and be our local guides, porters and cooks for our tours.
Not only does Forest Retreat Laos put money into the villagers’ hands for assisting with their tours and excursions, they also employ locals to work in their restaurant kitchen. These villagers are taught how to prepare western dishes, maintain proper hygiene, and even speak a bit of English. They get to take this experience, along with generous wages, back to their families and live better lives as a result.
Forest Retreat Laos has set the bar high for eco-tourism in Southeast Asia. If you are visiting Luang Namtha, be sure to stop in to sample their fantastic western comfort foods or book an eco-tour!
Note: I was not paid or in any way compensated for reviewing this establishment. All opinions are my unbiased own.