Nestled in between China, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam, north, south, east and west, it’s not surprising that Laos is a cultural melting pot – and not just because of its French colonial past. For many years off limits to the western world, this charming, peaceful country opened its doors two decades ago and although it now welcomes family travellers with open arms (literally), Laos’ charm lies in its simplicity, a place where ‘slow travel’ is order of the day.
Of all the South East Asian countries, Laos remains a destination you can truly feel that you are experiencing Asia ‘proper’, where encounters with people are genuine, and pleasures are of the simple kind. Nowhere is this ‘untouched’ quality more apparent than in the gorgeous hilltribe areas of Northern Laos. You’ll find that life continues here as it has for centuries. Hidden places are quite undisturbed by mass tourism or, indeed the 21st century (unlike its Vietnamese or Thai counterparts, sadly).
Whilst most family travel operators believe that Laos is only suitable for older children aged 8 – 10 and upwards, we have to (politely) disagree. Founder Liddy Pleasants took her family (kids then aged 5 and 3 years) cycling through the country and as a result has first hand experience of places way off the beaten track and adventures to keep everyone (except perhaps babes in arms) happy.
Here’s ten reasons why a Laos family holiday should be top of your wish list.
Reasons to choose a family holiday in Laos
1 – Watching monks take alms in Luang Prabang
More than even Laos’ capital, Vientiane, Luang Prabang (itself a royal capital until 1975 and a UNESCO World Heritage Centre) is probably the best known and most visited place in the country – and for good reason. With the Mekong on one side and golden temple-lined streets, this ‘city’ sums up just how diverse the influences are in Laos.
There’s the obvious and all-pervading Buddhist culture, arguably best captured in the early morning, when saffron robed monks walk along the street gathering alms before returning to their temples to study and pray. But there are colonial influences too. Look out for French bakeries selling baguettes and pastries! The independent shops, restaurants and galleries are also gorgeous to explore and, after a day spent wandering this very compact town, head to the river to take a cooling drink before sunset.
2 – Explore Laos’ “Angkor Wat”
Until 1946, Wat Phou, Champasak was a seat of royalty. This may be hard to believe, given that the temples now lie in ruins and the town is so quiet you’ll be sharing it with a few vehicles and maybe some chickens. For younger children and culture vultures, though, these ruins – think of them as a beginner’s guide to Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia – are fantastic to explore. Your children (and yourself) can clamber over them, quite undisturbed by other tourists. We loved them!
3 – The most authentic hill-tribe experience in South East Asia
Without wishing to detract from those who may have gone hilltribe trekking in Thailand or Vietnam, Laos’ hilltribes and trekking routes are as these may have been perhaps twenty or thirty years ago. Well off the tourist trail you’ll encounter warm and welcoming tribes who will happily engage with you and your family, children being the ultimate ice-breaker when a language is not shared.
4 – Go on a night safari in search of tigers
We think this is one of the best family activities in Laos, a night safari (actually, you spend an entire 24 hours on the trip, staying in an eco-lodge overnight) which takes you by boat and by foot through the remote Nam Et-Phou Louey National Park. Located in the north east of the country, you’ll spot the best birdlife in Indochina, as well as (fingers crossed) Samba deer, otters, civets and more. Let’s be honest you are unlikely to spot a tiger but you never know. Conservation is top of the agenda and the guides will tell you all about how they’re helping protect tigers and other wildlife in the area. As well as the wildlife, enjoying dinner by the campfire on a river bank as the night draws in, is a particular highlight. Fantastic family fun.
5 – Stay in a tree house in the forest canopy
For those with vertigo, look away now. For everyone else, this might well be the best accommodation in the country, a tree house, right up in the forest canopy where you can share tree space with the gibbons in this ziplining / unique overnight accommodation experience. Located in Nam Kan National Park, this tourism-based conservation project now employs hundreds of forest people whilst allowing families to enjoy the very best of nature. Amazing.
6 – Exploring the Plain of Jars
No-one quite knows why this area of Laos is covered with ancient stone ‘jars’, a bizarre collection of ancient cylinders scattered in their hundreds around the war-scarred country in Xieng Khuang province. Whatever their original purpose, (storage containers? Ancient funeral ceremonies?) for families today, Laos’ version of ‘Stonehenge’ proves an impressive if curious site. Later do take a side trip to the land mine museum in Phonsavan. Whilst it’s sobering to see just how damaged Laos was in ‘The Secret War’ (the most bombed country in history), it does give a valuable insight into Laos’ darker past – our kids were fascinated.
7 – R&R in Four Thousand Islands
In Laos’ far south, where the Mekong is at its widest, is an area called Si Phan Don, or 4,000 Islands. For a land-locked country without a beach, this is a fabulous alternative. Colourful ‘beach’ bungalows are dotted along water fronts, backed by coconut palms and banana trees. Where better to swing on a hammock, swim in the river and enjoy some well-earned R&R. Only very few of the area’s islands are inhabited, fewer still those set up for tourism, so you’ll have the place pretty much to yourselves. You might also want to take a boat trip to spot the Irawaddy dolphins (a slight misnomer as they’re in the Mekong).
8 – Tour Vientiane by Tuk Tuk
For a capital city, Vientiane is tiny. Even so, it’s a fabulous place to explore by tuk-tuk, winding through the streets where colonial buildings sit cheek by jowl with modern day (well, as ‘modern day’ as it gets for Laos) buildings. With the Mekong running through, its also a great place for a sunrise or sunset river walk.
9 – Discover a hidden ‘Eden’ at Kong Lor
This area of South East Asia is famed for its spectacular karst limestone scenery and extensive cave systems and whilst Kong Lor cave may not be the biggest complex, we do think the ‘hidden Eden’, a pool only accessible once you’ve travelled through one cave into another by boat, comes pretty close to paradise. Cue lots of excited swimming.
10 –Take a slowboat down the Mekong
As you may have gathered, the mighty Mekong river looms large in Laos – and has influenced life here for centuries. One of the best ways to experience it though, just as the locals do, is by taking a slow boat from the border with Thailand down to Luang Prabang. As you move through the changing landscapes, you’ll be waving at river tribes in their rudimentary beach shacks, with children shouting as you pass by not sure whether you or they are having the best time. Timeless, relaxing and a quintessential ‘Laos’ experience.
Twin-centre Laos family holidays
For more inspiration check out The Guardian’s Where to go in 2018 – scroll down the ‘hot list’ and you’ll find Laos, watch this short You Tube video – Visit Laos Year and find some interesting facts and figures on the Lonely Planet Laos section.
Want to know more about Laos family holidays and what you and your family could experience whilst there? Call us on 01728 752 751 or e-mail us via our website contact page. We’d love to help.
Liddy Pleasants, MD Stubborn Mule Travel