Captivating and photogenic, Luang Prabang has much to offer families, who’ll find their pulses unconsciously slowing down to match the relaxed local rhythm.
Since re-opening its borders to tourists in 1989, Laos has remained one of Asia’s best-kept secrets. While the backpacker set largely descends on Vang Vieng, tourists in the know stay in the mountainous northern city of Luang Prabang. Coupled with a Unesco heritage listing that has preserved both Lao and French colonial buildings, there’s abundant natural beauty, culture, fantastic shopping, chic accommodation and fabulous food. This is one city to put on your bucket list.
Sa-bai-dee is a handy word to remember when out and about in Laos. It means hello, and, when said with a smile and lots of eye contact, guarantees a warm welcome. Laotians are some of the world’s friendliest and most hospitable people and while English is not widely spoken, their warmth is obvious. With sa-bai-dee practised, our family of four, including a seven-year-old and a nine-year-old, set about exploring what Luang Prabang, or LP, has to offer.
If you like to get your bearings in a new place, climb up the 100-metre Phu Si for the spectacular view of the city and surrounding limestone hills at sunrise or sunset. Of the 30 or so temples in LP, the most spectacular is Wat Xien Tong. Built in the 1500s, it’s decorated with colourful mosaics and opulently painted interiors. Also worth a look is the Ho Kham; formerly the Royal Palace, it was converted into a museum after the royal family was exiled in the 1970s.
On the recommendation of local people and numerous guidebooks, we hired a driver for the 45-minute trip to Kuang Si waterfall. True to the hype, it is spectacular for its eerily blue water and the seemingly endlessness of its cascading falls and ponds. Despite the brisk temperature we had a quick swim, after a sweaty hike to the top of the mountain beyond the highest falls. The waterfall is located in a pretty, forested park with a café, changing facilities and an enclosure for endangered sun bears.
While most hotels and guesthouses borrow bikes to tootle about town, a cycling tour on a decent bike with a local guide (ours went by the unlikely name of Bruce) is definitely the best way to experience Laos. Families are welcomed and helmets, kids’ bikes and tag-along bikes are supplied. Grasshopper Adventures’ half-day Pedalling The Prabang ride (US$49 per person) started at 7.30am, exploring the back lanes of the city before heading out of town. It includes stops at Wat Xien Tong temple, at the bustling morning markets, and for bitter local coffee that may put hairs on your chest.
Bridges are few and far between, so crossing the muddy Mekong to explore the other side meant piling our bikes onto a longboat. On the opposite bank, quiet, dusty roads led to small cottage industries where artisans were hard at work: making paper by hand, distilling Lao-Lao whisky from sticky rice, firing pots in a wood-fuelled kiln three metres below ground, and weaving stunning silks and cottons on traditional looms. The 20km ride finished at about 2pm with a delicious meal of laab salad and Beerlao beer, and the kids were chuffed with their French fries!
One of the newest offerings in town, the Kiridara Hotel rises grandly up a wooded hill outside LP’s compact town centre. But there’s no need to worry about isolation; the hotel buggy is available at any time for the quick, five-minute trip to the main street.
The 24-room boutique property has dramatic sweeping roofs, which we easily picked out from the air on our descent to the airport. Its spacious rooms have wooden floors, Laotian textile furnishings, DVD players and walk-in shower rooms, and open onto either a patio or a private grassed area with stunning views of the town and surrounding hillsides.
Buffet breakfast can be had on the deck beside the 14-metre pool, as can dinner, and, importantly, happy hour drinks. In fact, it’s the perfect spot to spend an entire day, if only there wasn’t so much sightseeing to do! Whilst LP itself offers many dining choices, it’s advisable to have dinner at the hotel’s excellent Phu Doi restaurant at least once. The weather was perfect every minute of our three-night stay, and one evening the four of us dined outdoors in the clean, humidity-free air. The five-course Lao meal, courtesy of the talented Filipino chef, was scrumptiously delicious and came with a great international selection of wines at very reasonable prices (especially compared to Singapore restaurants).
What’s a holiday without a touch of indulgence and a visit to the in-house spa? It has the usual spa treatments, but the traditional Laotian steam experience caught my eye. Eucalyptus- and lemongrass-scented steam is piped into the small, timber-lined room from water heated by a wood fire, somewhere below. At 40 degrees Centigrade it’s on the edge of my comfort zone, but the smoky herbal scent cleared the sinuses and strangely relaxed fatigued muscles.
Sisavangvong Road is a shopper’s and foodie’s paradise. Around 5.30pm, the sprawling Night Market takes over and vendors sell silver, paper lanterns, souvenirs, paintings, curios and quilts at excellent prices, with only gentle bargaining needed. Originally established by the Hmong tribe, it has expanded to include handicrafts from the Tai Lao, Tai Dam, Akha and other tribes.
Woven textiles are one of the traditional artisanal highlights of the province. However, it’s difficult to know what is authentic and what is trucked in from factories across the border. For quality products, try Ock Pop Tock (www.ockpoptok.com), which empowers women by training them and supporting their traditional skills. It has two stores in town and runs daily dyeing and weaving classes at a picturesque craft centre by the river.
Children’s books, translated into Lao, can be purchased at Big Brother Mouse. If you are heading upriver or further afield, you can donate them to local school; otherwise, you can sponsor a book party.
Another unusual market stall sells unexploded ordnance (UXO), a legacy of the conflict in the 60s and 70s which saw widespread carpet bombing of the country. Enterprising villagers have cleverly reworked the aluminium of discarded weapons into bracelets, cutlery and quirky souvenirs. There’s a UXO visitor information centre in town, too.
Aside from the market, numerous shops sell gorgeous jewellery, clothing, antiques and art. Leaving without buying at least one Buddha statue, monk picture or piece of embroidery is nigh on impossible.
Any trip to Laos must include a trip on the Mekong, the 4,350km river that starts in Tibet, winds through five countries and ends in Vietnam. It’s an essential transport route in this mountainous country and the lifeblood of millions of people, including residents of the many villages that line its sandy banks. An excellent option for families seeking some adventure is to take a longboat three hours upriver and stay at Kamu Lodge.
This decade-old venture was established by a French hospitality company in partnership with the adjacent village of 450 people, providing employment for them and a unique experience for visitors. The Khmu, one of the country’s 50 recognised ethnic groups, were traditionally mountain dwellers, but about 15 years ago the government relocated these families to a lowland village vacated by the dominant Lao ethnic group.
For visitors, activities focus on discovering traditional life. The children delighted in planting rice seedlings in the paddies, checking out the village school and trying their hand at archery. They spent the remainder of the time playing with the village children and overcame the language barrier in a way that only children can. One of the highlights for them was handing over the books we’d purchased in LP to the schoolteacher.
It’s splendidly isolated. There’s no TV and no phone coverage; electricity is generated by solar power and the village is largely self-sufficient. When you stay at Kamu Lodge, all meals, activities and rustic accommodation in spacious canvas tents with ensuite bathrooms are included.
Most tourists only stay one night, arriving in time for lunch and leaving after breakfast the following day. We were glad we’d chosen to linger for two nights, to explore the surrounding hills and the riverbank. This also gave us time for a memorably vigorous massage on beds set under a thatched roof by the Mekong.
After dinner on our final evening, while gazing at billions of stars, we all agreed Laos and Kamu Lodge felt light years from home.
Five things my kids loved in Laos
Cycling the dusty back lanes on the outskirts of LP
Playing with village kids and getting muddy in the rice paddies at Kamu Lodge
Steering the longboat up the Mekong River, with the help of the skipper
Jumping in the waterfalls at Kuang Si
Riding up front with the porter in Kiridara Hotel’s electric buggy
Make it happen
Fly to Bangkok and then on to LP with Lao Airlines or Bangkok Airlines. Or, fly to Vientiane, and on to LP with Lao Airlines.
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