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Laos: Sex, drugs and inner tubes

As Laos opens to tourists, some fear it may be losing its soul. Others are merely losing their bikinis.

"Tourism has contributed a great deal to communities like these: rising incomes and higher standards of living," Dakin wrote in an email. "But there is a sense that something has been lost in the process."

There's no easy solution to the problem. Oula, of the tourism authority, says restrictions on young foreign backpackers would backfire by taking away much-needed income from the local Lao who run guesthouses, restaurants and other tourist businesses.

Instead, the authority is pinning its hopes on "awareness programs" for tourists and locals. Such programs will "ask tourists to respect and strictly follow the rules, regulations, tradition and cultures of the Lao people," Oula said.

"At the same time, [we should] educate local people to maintain the Lao identity, way of life, tradition and culture and not imitate tourist behavior."

For Dakin, a little sensitivity could go a long way. There are some basics in Laos: dress conservatively (that means no bikinis and shirtless-ness in public, a suggestion posted clearly in English throughout Vang Vieng). Take off your shoes indoors. And try not to poke your camera in the monks' faces at the traditional morning alms-giving in Luang Prabang.

(See more dos and don'ts, and other information, from the tourism authority).

"It's not hard to travel responsibly in Laos, it just requires a little thought, and perhaps above all the ability to empathize," said Dakin. "Would you want your visitors acting this way in your hometown?"