For as long as I can remember, which admittedly these days isn’t that far back, Laos has been on my very extensive South East Asian bucket list. So I was delighted when last October I finally got to go. Laos is often overlooked as a holiday destination in favour of some of its more well known neighbours: Vietnam, Thailand and Cambodia.
We chose to explore the ancient town of Luang Prabang situated in northern Laos, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. The tiny town which is home to a Royal Palace, breathtaking waterfalls, no less than 33 wats (temples) and a multitude of monks is encircled by mountains and set at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers.
The best way to get around the town is clinging for dear life on the back of a tuk tuk. Although they are not the safest mode of transport they are the most fun. The kids had a whale of a time pointing out wildlife and just witnessing the Lao way of life as we trundled along the local lanes. It was so interesting that they didn’t even ask for their iPads!
We were also lucky enough to have free use of the hotel bikes, unfortunately our kids could not agree on which one of them would have to ride with me on my bike, so we did not make full use of them. But be warned there were no helmets available so you may want to pack those if you fancy exploring the town on two wheels.
Kuang Si Waterfall
Without a doubt the highlight of the trip for us was a trip to the Kuang Si Waterfall and its neighbour, the Sun Bear Sanctuary. This bone rattler of a journey along bumpy roads takes about 50 minutes in the back of a tuk tuk and costs USD30 for the round trip.
My daughter likened the raging Kuang Si waterfall to the chocolate one that appears in the movie Charlie and Chocolate factory. The only thing that would have made a visit to the misty marvel more magical would have been if Willy Wonka himself had turned up with a couple of Oompa Loompas in tow. It is surrounded by lush rain forest and has a convenient café that you can stop at and watch those brave/foolish enough to dip a toe in the torrid waters.
If you have time and fancy a fun trip on a long boat along the river, you could also pay a visit to the Tad Sae Waterfalls. Whilst not as spectacular as the Kuang Si falls, you might see elephants bathing there, plus the kids loved to feel the wind whipping through their hair on the ride and didn’t notice the boat driver bailing out the boat with a bucket when we got out.
Eat at Dyen Sabai
If after a fun day exploring and you’re looking for a memorable place for a munch, I don’t think you can beat Dyen Sabai. The restaurant has a stack of board games to keep both little and big kids entertained whilst you drink in the view of the Nam Khan River.
But the best thing about Dyen Sabai is getting there. In the dry season you can cross the bamboo bridge to get to the restaurant and in the rainy season you can take a little wooden boat. Head to Kingkitsarath Road which is near the main street that the night market is held on, there you should find the crossing point.
La Pistoche – perfect for a splash
If your hotel does not have the luxury of a pool, fear not! You can grab a tuk tuk to La Pistoche. It has some small slides and oodles of rubber rings to keep the little people happy. And for nosey adults like myself, you can while away the hours eavesdropping on some toe curling flirtatious exchanges between a bunch of backpackers.
If a spot of shopping is high on your wish list whilst away, pop along to the night market based at the Southwest part of Sisavangvong Road. Whilst it does mostly consist of the usual mix of bamboo bowls and bottled bugs, it also offers local handicrafts of all kinds from woven clothing to lanterns and paintings. I picked up an eye catching woven dress trimmed with pink pom poms for my daughter. In fact I liked it so much I went back and bought one for myself. I know what you’re thinking, but you are never too old for pink pom poms and we don’t wear them at the same time, as she looks much better in hers. But if you couldn’t give a crépe about shopping for fashion, then there are plenty of pancakes and fresh fruit juice stalls as well as patisseries to tickle your taste buds running alongside the market.
I am ashamed to say that we managed to visit none of the 33 temples for which the town is famed for nor did we witness one of the most sacred Lao traditions the (very) early morning Buddhist alms giving ceremony. But I have heard from friends that have also visited Luang Prabang, that the ceremony that takes place at sunrise is worth setting the alarm clock for.
The daily alms begins on the main street before spreading out to all the side streets. If you would like to take part you should buy your offerings beforehand and arrive with plenty of time to spare as it’s considered very offensive to disrupt the ceremony once it has commenced. Follow the guidance of the locals by kneeling down ready to give your offering to the monks; most common gifts include rice, fresh fruit and traditional sweet snacks.
Accommodation and getting to Luang Prabang
The tiny town is popular with backpackers and as such offers a whole host of hostels. But with my desire to use a shared bathroom being firmly behind me, we wanted something more suitable for families that didn’t cost a small fortune. We found something that we thought was ideal: a cute chalet a little way out of town. Unfortunately the place was so charming that an extended family of termites had also taken up residence in the property.
The good news is that Luang Prabang is only a three hour flight from Kuala Lumpur, the bad news is that the only airline that flies direct is Air Asia. So you will have no choice but to deal with the dreaded immigration queue at KLIA2 upon your return.
I don’t think I have ever been to a place so compact that everywhere we turned we saw someone that had been on our flight from KL (I hope they didn’t think we were stalking them). The flights are not daily so you will need to bear that in mind when planning a trip but we found that we managed to tick everything we wanted to during our three nights stay.
If a trip to laid back Laos is not already on your ‘things to do before I die list’ let me assure you that it would make a very welcome addition. It is definitely a destination that our family won’t easily forget.