Back in the days before children, we dreamed of visiting Laos. Traversing Southeast Asia over 10 years ago we came close, but were put off by tales of closed borders – one backpacker told us of stealing his way across the border into Vietnam on the back of an opium dealer’s motorbike in the dead of night. Even then, that was a little too adventurous for us, but the desire remained.
When we had the opportunity to visit this mystical land recently, we couldn’t pass it up. This was, without doubt, the most intrepid trip we’ve attempted with our kids. Because there were a lot of unknowns on this front, we enlisted the help of the experts at Lightfoot Travel. They put together a family-friendly itinerary and arranged a guide, driver, accommodation and excursions. Not having to plan anything other than our flights put this at the top of my “dream holiday” list before we’d even left home!
After spending a weekend in Bangkok, we flew into Luang Prabang (“LP”) in a little under two hours with Lao Airlines. As we descended through the clouds, between towering limestone mountains, the Mekong and Nam Ou rivers snaking below, it felt like we were discovering a whole new world. The first thing that struck me was how rural it was, and walking across the tarmac to the terminal I couldn’t quite believe this was an international airport. The overall feeling of remoteness was exquisite.
We were greeted at the gate by our guide, Saeng, and whisked away in an air-conditioned van. Both our guide and driver were with us for the whole week, and when Saeng expressed an interest in Premier League Football, our boys instantly forgot any shyness and were ready to explore.
Our hotel for the week, the Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao, is only 15 minutes from the airport, just outside of Luang Prabang itself. The old colonial-style building looks like it could be someone’s holiday home, albeit a very grand one. With only 40 suites spread out across the grounds, privacy is guaranteed. As it was, we were one of only five families staying there, so we felt like we had the place to ourselves. Delighted to have small children to fuss over, the staff were incredibly generous with their attention – there were times when we felt like we were staying with family.
Set on top of a hill overlooking the mountains that surround LP, the Belmond is a serene oasis that manages to be both charming and luxurious. The suites are large and very comfortable, with dark teak floors and furnishings, crisp white linen and silk, and local tropical flowers delicately scattered around the place each day. The Mekong Spa at the Belmond is consistently ranked as one of the very best in Southeast Asia, and I soon discovered why. They offer treatments outdoors, but I opted for a very tranquil 90-minute massage in one of the luxurious treatment rooms, and left feeling lighter than air.
We would have been content to spend most of our days at the hotel, but there is far too much to do in Luang Prabang, as we discovered.
A sleepy little town with UNESCO World Heritage status, Luang Prabang is peacefully undeveloped. It’s considered the centre of Lao culture – a culture that includes a noticeable French element. Pétanque is popular, for example, and we spent an afternoon playing the sport with some locals; it was a good excuse to sit back with a couple of drinks (Beer Lao for parents; Sprite for kids) and try something new. And let’s just say some of us discovered a talent we didn’t know we had!
The local night markets are a must on any itinerary and we were pleasantly surprised by the quality and variety on offer. I happily spent my Lao kip on handwoven textiles and silk scarves, ornate hardwood bowls, and trinkets made from old bomb casings. The boys found toys, of course, and fresh coconut pancakes.
A guided tour of the National Museum, the former Royal Palace, offers a fascinating glimpse into part of the country’s rich and intriguing history. While it’s not exactly kid-friendly, our two quite liked the fleet of cars formerly owned by the king that are on display in the garage.
Laos is predominantly Buddhist, and Luang Prabang is filled with glittering temples and ancient monuments. We spent one morning visiting a few local wats with Saeng, admiring the incredible craftsmanship and intricate mosaics of Wat Mai, Wat Xieng Thong and Wat Sensoukarahm.
We were also fortunate to see a traditional Baci ceremony and stayed as long as our little travellers would allow – they didn’t find the chanting as calming as we did and we had to make an emergency pit stop for ice cream before going any further!
Once the blood sugar was back up, we trekked up Mount Phousi (really just a big hill with steps). Ladies on the path sell small finches in bamboo cages and flowers for visitors to make an offering at the top – it was the closest our boys got to a spiritual moment, releasing the birds and watching them fly away (very happily). There’s a small pagoda on top of the hill that can be seen from the Belmond; it offers amazing views over Luang Prabang and the Mekong River – well worth the climb.
Our final day in Laos was the best by far. Just outside of LP we found the MandaLao elephant sanctuary. All the elephants have been rescued from logging camps and the sanctuary has been built as a retirement home for these beautiful creatures. They’re treated humanely and ethically (no riding), and the focus is on education and conservation. We got to feed and bathe a family of three elephants, including a baby, and follow them through the jungle. Watching them interact with each other and seeing them in their natural habitat was a special and humbling experience.
After lunch at the sanctuary came a trip to the famous Kuang Si Falls. The crystal-clear turquoise pools cascade down a limestone hill – it’s incredibly beautiful, even if the pools were a little crowded at the time.
Before we flew home, I got up early and went into town to give alms to the monks. A daily occurrence, this ritual is calming and spiritual, despite the hordes of tourists who join in each day – it was the perfect way to end the trip. We had our fill of culture, and amazing Laotian food, but we left Luang Prabang wishing we had had more time to explore the town itself, and maybe a little more downtime. We certainly packed a lot into our time there! Laos surprised us with its warmth and beauty, and we were impressed by how well our boys handled their first foray into Southeast Asia. It made a deep impression and we hope to return again and again.
Timing: The weather can be hot and unpredictable in June, but for us it was perfect. We left behind torrential rain and storms in Hong Kong, and there was barely any difference in temperature between the two countries, with only occasional showers at night. Travelling in the low season also meant fewer crowds.
Packing: It was hot and dusty, and we got dirty often – especially after a morning playing with elephants! I’d recommend packing extra clothes, or be prepared to do some laundry at some point.
Planning: While most of the hard work was done for us, we tweaked the itinerary slightly when we realised our little one was completely wiped out by the heat. Going out early in the mornings ensured we were back at the pool in the hottest part of the day (and in time for happy hour!).
Food: Set lunches in Laos are legendary; the portions are incredibly generous and the food just keeps coming. However, occasionally what you see on the menu isn’t what you get; I packed a variety of snacks each day, and they were essential for keeping the hunger at bay until we could find something deemed acceptable to eat by our five-year-old. We ate at the hotel often, as the food was excellent, but there’s a great selection of cafes in LP itself.
Health: I was vigilant (read: obsessive) with the hand sanitiser, sunscreen and mosquito repellent but we still had the odd bite and upset tummy. It’s worth taking a decent medical kit and making sure the whole family’s vaccinations are up-to-date. It will save you a lot of worry and hassle, as medical facilities are hard to come by in the remote areas.
Off the Grid
The small town of Nong Khiaw is roughly three hours’ drive north of Luang Prabang. And, when I say “roughly”, I mean it – we felt every pothole and bend. Still, it was a great opportunity to see more of Laos, and the scenery as we drove along the river, past rice paddies and villages, dodging chickens and buffalos, was breathtaking.
Home for the night was Nong Kiau Riverside, a basic bungalow, with limited facilities and intermittent electricity. Admittedly, it was a step too far outside the boys’ comfort zone, but we found it refreshing to be somewhere more remote and completely removed from most mod-cons.
The area is popular with tourists looking for adventure and there are plenty of options for hiking, biking and climbing. We took a tour of the nearby Phathok Cave, where villagers sheltered from frequent bombing raids during the war, before walking through the little village along the river and watching the sun setting from the bungalow. The next morning, David hiked up a nearby peak for stunning views of the river and the limestone karsts – the signs warning visitors to stay on the path a frequent reminder that Laotians still live with the effects of war many years later. The devastating history of the area is in complete contrast to its sheer beauty and the sunny smiles we encountered everywhere we went.
For us, this was a worthwhile side trip, though the limited dining and entertainment options might be more appreciated by children slightly older than ours. Our journey back to Luang Prabang was somewhat more sedate, as we took a boat. Sadly, the massive dams being built along the Mekong make it impossible to travel along certain stretches now, but we jumped on a long-tail as soon as we could and cruised back towards LP via the Pak Ou Caves. Carved out of the limestone cliffs at the point where the Nam Ou and Mekong rivers meet, the caves contain thousands of gold Buddha statues.
Safely back at the Belmond, we were greeted enthusiastically by the staff and plied with cold drinks and cool towels – and it genuinely felt like we had come home; and, of course, the boys were delighted to be reunited with the pool.
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This article first appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Expat Living magazine. Subscribe now so you never miss an issue.