Luang Prabang, Laos is one of those off-the-beaten-track destinations that still offers a glimmer of Asia before the days of cheap air tickets and last-minute voucher deals.
Its aloofness is partly thanks to the limited flight options into Luang Prabang, making it one of those places that you really have to make an (advanced) effort to seek out. And much as ‘holidaying with kids’ is an oxymoron in itself (especially if one is 6 months old and in the early days of weaning whilst the other is a boisterous 3-going-on-13-year-old), a trip to Luang Prabang is definitely worth that little extra effort.
I first visited Luang Prabang, now a UNESCO World Heritage town, some 15 years ago as a backpacker on a round-the-world trip. Flash forward to present day and as I return, this time with husband and kids in tow, the irony of having replaced my backpack with a frontpack (my baby daughter in her Ergo carrier) is not lost on me.
Luang Prabang, it seems, has changed much less than me. It is a still a place that runs on its own time, where temple drums and cymbals reverberate throughout the hills, where orange-robed monks walk the dusty pavements lined with French colonial architecture, and where the muddy Mekong River lazily loops around the old town.
Where To Stay
Once we arrive we make our way to the beautiful Belmond La Residence Phou Vao, one of the first 5-star properties in Luang Prabang. This lovely colonial-style hotel with teak and rosewood décor, coupled with white tones throughout, offers fantastic service (always with a sweet smile). The hotel is perched atop a hill a short ride outside the old town. We liked having the best of both worlds – easy access into town thanks to the complimentary shuttle, and the wonderful tranquility of being amongst the lush greenery of the hills.
Rooms – Good for kids
Kids are welcome at The Belmond. There are a couple of room options with pricing depending on the views, though all rooms are airy and spacious. The lovely Phou Vao Suite has two separate sitting areas (including an outdoor balcony) so you can convert one to a second room and request extra beds or a baby cot (free of charge) plus mosquito nets for all.
One thing to note, however, is that many of the rooms have very creaky wooden floorboards (including our Phou Vou Suite). So if your kids are anything other than the heaviest of sleepers it’s worth checking if your room has been renovated to remedy this.
Rooms come with lovely views, flat-screen TVs, Nespresso machines, fridges and kettles (handy for boiling bottled water for baby bottles).
There is a Kids Menu and Chef Wally and his team are happy to accommodate requests including making fresh baby purees if you ask nicely. High chairs are available too.
Available at $10 per hour – best to give advanced notice. Be warned babysitters may not speak the best English.
Bring your Own:
Collapsible baby baths (or make do with the bathroom tub), bottle sterilising method (we used Milton tablets), baby puree pouches and formula, changing mat, toys, plastic cutlery and importantly your own first aid kit with any medications your family takes (including rehydration salts for diarrhea), though note that The Belmond does have a doctor on call, too. Many restaurants in town have high chairs (of questionable cleanliness) so you may consider bringing a cloth highchair converter.
Activities for Kids
This is not the realm of kids clubs but chances are, if you’ve ventured this far off the usual Bali/Phuket/Batu Batu track, then you’re looking for a different type of holiday anyway. As far as the hotel goes;
- There is a beautiful jade saltwater swimming pool (unfenced so watch littlies). It has handy steps that small kids can play off and offers a refreshing respite from the heat.
- For rainy days or when you are off to their award-winning spa for that much needed you-time (they do a very good oil or Laotian massage), then a DVD player is available to rent in your room and their library also has a few board games for older kids.
- Archery for older kids
- Cooking school – one of the highlights of our stay was the cooking class we attended with our 3-year-old mini chef. My son had fun pounding spices with the mortar and pestle, brushing marinade on chicken skewers, and watching the eggplants being roasted over the charcoal BBQ while he surreptitiously nicked fresh cherry tomatoes from their organic vegetable garden.After your class you get to sit down at the hotel restaurant overlooking the pool with a view of Mount Phousi Temple and enjoy your cooking.
What To Do In Town
The main thing to do in Luang Prabang is soak up the charming atmosphere by wandering the streets or cycling around town. You can rent bicycles — the hotel has some complimentary ones on offer but if you need kids’ bikes or bikes with child seats head into town where you can rent them for a song. Other ideas:
- Pop into temples, especially Wat Mai or the New Monastery.
- Take a one-hour boat ride down the river to visit the Pak Ou (Buddha) caves – bring flashlights for little adventurers.
- Explore the night market and do some gentle bargaining as you pick up some little treasures (prams won’t fit comfortably down this narrow alley – use a baby carrier).
- If you’re travelling with littlish ones you’ll be up at the crack of dawn anyway (The Belmond doesn’t have blackout curtains so prepare for some early mornings), so take advantage and go into town to witness the Tak Bet alms-giving ritual at 5:30am. Monks receive alms from the townspeople and in return give their blessings — a much-photographed event that is still intrinsic to people’s daily lives in Luang Prabang, despite the tourist appeal.
- Riding around in a tuk tuk in itself is an adventure for little kids – another plus of being stationed outside the old town.
- Book a private tour or hire a tuk tuk to visit the Kuang Si Waterfalls, Bear Rescue sanctuary, and Butterfly Park. Depending on the season it’s possible to swim at the waterfalls, but make sure to cover up (no bikinis/bare flesh).
- There are several Elephant Camps where you can feed the elephants (many of whom are old logging elephants), and bathe them in the river.
- If you time it right (October-April), the rickety bamboo bridge will be up in town. Kids will love trip trapping over the slightly precarious bridge and watching the local fishermen.
- For older kids there’s kayaking, trekking and a visit to Living Land Farm’s “Rice Experience” to learn about rice growing.
- Take a boat trip on the Mekong – local boats can be hired per hour or for something a little more lavish The Belmond has their own private boat for Champagne toasts on the river at sunset.
What to eat:
Lao food is same same but also very different to Thai food. Try their sticky rice, the many dips – like smoky eggplant – that go with dried river weed (similar to nori seaweed), Lao stew and laarp salads. Thanks to the French influence, coffees are good and there are also baguettes as street food.
Where to Eat in Luang Prabang
A lot of the street stalls are geared to backpackers but there are some lovely low-key restaurants, too.
Tamarind – Best Laotian food in town
Khaiphen – Laotian food, great ethos (supports street kids)
Blue Lagoon – Western and Lao with lovely setting
Tangor – Sidewalk bar, good for people watching, French food
Utopia – Backpack hangout but lovely river views, a garden and good pizza
L’Elephant – Upmarket French and Lao food
Coconut Garden – cute little courtyard with Western and Lao menus
When to go
October to February sees the coolest, driest months (still gets up to 30 degrees C in the day but can be chilly at night).
Luang Prabang has a tiny, scenic airport about 10 minutes from town. There are no non-stop flights from Singapore (though you can fly “direct” on Lao Airlines with a stop in the Lao capital of Vientiane). Other airlines servicing the airport include Bangkok Airways and Thai Smile (via Bangkok) and Vietnam Airlines (via Hanoi and Siem Reap).
Update: As of mid-2016 SilkAir now offers flights to Luang Prabang from Singapore, with a brief stopover in Vientiane on the way there, and non-stop from Luang Prabang to Singapore.
15-day visas can be processed on arrival at US$35 (depending on nationality). You need 6 months on your passports. Bring one passport-sized photo per person.
- The currency in Laos is the kip although U.S. dollars are also accepted.
- ATMs are everywhere and there are moneychangers in town. Use all your kip in Laos or change back to dollars before you leave as it’s hard to change kip outside the country.
Belmond La Résidence Phou Vao, PO Box 50, Luang Prabang, PDR 84330, Laos, Tel: (+856) 71 212530, Reservations: (+65) 626 09 495