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Thailand and Vietnam often take top billing in Southeast Asia, but for an abundance of access to nature, an environmentally conscious ethos and sincerely friendly locals — all in an easy-to-manage landscape — families will be delighted by Laos.
We tapped our go-to travel partner for the region to share some of the sensational things to do in Laos that await families. Laos is a welcoming and safe country, dedicated to protecting its natural resources while attracting visitors to enjoy its beauty. This eco-focus is seen in everything from being plastic-free to standards for wildlife protection. In addition, Laos prides itself on having a true sense of service (and love of children), much like that in Thailand.
Laos has a French Colonial past, but only truly opened for tourism in 1989. As a country, it has been thoughtful about creating a holistic tourist industry with a strong sense of connection to the local community. It has also invested heavily in transport links that make visiting simpler, including the recently unveiled high-speed train (picture the Japanese shinkansen bullet train) that connects Laos to China and reduces the travel time between cities Vientiane and Luang Prabang from seven hours to two.
The benefit of all of this is a level of genuine connection to the land and people of Laos while on holiday, without it feeling overrun by tourism. Much of Laos’ appeal is in its simplicity. While families could easily spend a month in Laos without running out of things to do, we suggest four days between the capital city of Vientiane and in around Luang Prabang, and three days exploring the countryside.
This is one destination where on-the-ground expertise makes the trip infinitely smoother … our Family Travel Advisor team can help you book an itinerary with vetted kid-friendly guides, drivers and other services.
Situated along the Mekong River just north of the Thai border, Vientiane is easily explored on foot, by bike or even tuk tuk. Start with a visit to Wat Si Saket, the only temple in Laos to survive the Siamese occupation, which destroyed much of the capital in 1828. Highlights are the decorative five-tiered roof, the flowered ceiling of the ordination hall and more than 10,000 Buddha sculptures. Next up is Patuxai, a war memorial and the beautiful Lao version of the Arc de Triomphe. From there it’s on to the golden 16th century Pha That Luang, or Great Sacred Stupa, considered to be the holiest site in Laos. Originally built in the 3rd century as a Hindu site, it is said to have assumed Buddhist significance when missionaries brought a bone from Lord Buddha’s body to lie here.
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Families can then peel back the layers of more recent Laos history with a visit to COPE, an association working to help victims of land mines that remain from the Vietnam war. A quirky picture spot just east of the city is Buddha Park, a fantastical outdoor sculpture garden that features more than 200 Buddhas, including a 130-foot reclining figure. Other interesting cultural activities in the area include taking a traditional Lao cooking class or visiting nearby Wat Sok Pa Luang, also known as the Forest Temple, to make an offering to the monks and learn more about Lao religion and culture.
The trip to UNESCO-protected and royal Luang Prabang will be an activity unto itself, thanks to the brand-new high-speed train. Families will quickly get a feel for this city due to its compact, human scale. Located where the Mekong and Nam Khan rivers join, families can explore by foot or bike and enjoy getting lost in the many quaint alleyways with gardens, or taking advantage of the popular cafe culture (Saffron Coffee and Silk Road Cafe are local favorites).
Charming Luang Prabang was the royal capital of Laos until 1975 when the Communists took over, and it offers no shortage of Insta-worthy sites. Start at the former Royal Palace, now known as the National Museum, that was originally built as the home for the king and his family on the bank of the Mekong River in 1904. Then move onward to several remarkable Buddhist temples, including Wat Aham; Wat That, dating back to the 3rd century; and Wat Xieng Thong, also known as the Golden City Temple and the most revered temple in the area. Note, don’t miss Wat Xieng Thong’s “Tree of Life” mosaic made of stained glass. For intrepid families, the hike up Mount Phousi (which includes a staircase with 298 steps) is a rewarding venture with a temple at the top and unbelievable views over Luang Prabang and the Mekong River.
If you can rouse the troops early enough, a memorable moment is the alms giving ceremony that happens daily at dawn. Monks leave their temples to collect offerings from people in the community and families can partake by standing along the streets between 5 and 6 am. Make sure to dress appropriately and prepare an offering.
Another quintessential local experience is a “slow boat” ride along the Mekong at dawn or dusk. Luang Prabang also has a sprawling market that sells everything from scarves to local delicacies, and you could easily spend a few hours there. Don’t miss the night food stalls located behind the main tourist office for a true taste of Laos.
TIP: If you are lucky enough to be in Luang Prabang in September or October, you are in for a treat with the stunning Boun Awk Phansa festival. This Buddhist tradition sees tiny banana leaf boats with candles inside sent down the Nam Khan river to ward off bad luck, as well as thanking the waterways and appeasing the mythical snakes that live beneath the water.
Just north of Luang Prabang, kids will be wowed by an outing along the Mekong River to the Pak Ou caves. This partially underground and partially exposed lair is filled with hundreds of carved Buddha statues and pictures, making it a great spot for exploring. How many Buddhas can you find? And just south of Luang Prabang is Kuang Si, a gorgeous series of waterfall pools where families can swim or hike. There’s also a bear rescue nearby where you can see bears being rehabilitated.
Finally, switch gears and take advantage of one or more of the many hands-on activities that highlight the Lao hill tribe culture. There’s everything from learning about local weaving techniques with a tie-dying workshop to getting a glimpse of indigenous pottery handicraft and a chance to get hands-on with the clay.
Next on the itinerary are a variety of life-changing adventures in the surrounding countryside:
Each of these experiences also gives families a glimpse into local conservation practices as well as a chance to learn about indigenous animals, plant life and even herbal medicines.
Laos may be an under-the radar Southeast Asia locale, but its warm and friendly locals, devotion to sustainability and eco-consciousness, and recent infrastructure updates make it a windfall for enterprising families.
If you are reluctant to forgo a seaside leg on a Southeast Asian trip, we recommend combining landlocked Laos with a stint in an adjacent country like Thailand for the beach factor.
Laos makes for a strong year-round destination. April and May are considered the “hot season,” June through October is the “green season” and November through March is “dry season.” Regardless of timing, it can get quite hot in Laos, so plan accordingly with plenty of sunscreen and water. It’s also a good idea to pack bug spray, particularly for time spent in the countryside.
Editor’s Note: Photos by Amie O’Shaughnessy except where noted.
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This is a challenging time for our clients given the uncertainty around the spread of coronavirus, particularly for those with near-term travel plans in impacted areas. We’re working with our suppliers on being flexible with their booking conditions, and enabling families to postpone travel to a later date without a penalty, when possible. Likewise, given the unpredictability around destinations that may be impacted in the future, we’re helping clients planning new trips and understand ways that they can protect themselves until the situation improves. We are ready to help our clients work through questions and concerns.