The Lao people joke that the abbreviation ‘P.D.R’, used for the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, really stands for ‘Please Don’t Rush’, and nowhere is this truer than in the small city of Luang Prabang, located in northern Laos at the confluence of the Nam Khan and Mekong Rivers. With my three sons, aged 17, 16 and 12, in tow I couldn’t wait to introduce them to a pocket of Asia unspoiled by tourism.
Kate Wickers reports
Once the Royal capital and now a UNESCO World Heritage site, it’s not quite an undiscovered nirvana but it comes pretty close, with gorgeous boutique hotels set in lush gardens; restaurants lit by lantern-strung Tamarind trees; and gleaming temples, home to saffron-robed monks. For families it’s a wonderful introduction to travelling in Asia – the Buddhist belief in karma keeps Laos virtually crime free; the Lao people are wonderfully welcoming; and there’s lots of family-friendly activities to be enjoyed.
Sofitel Luang Prabang. A 1950s Mercedes with a number plate that reads ‘Feel Welcome’ sits at the front of the 25-suite Sofitel Luang Prabang (once the French Governor’s house) and sets the tone for a family stay that is cosily luxurious. The rooms are large, comfortably accommodating my three sons and the sumptuous beds are draped in mosquito nets – giving a pleasingly intrepid feel. In addition to the interior walk-in showers, there’s an immense bathtub in a private garden, from which you can watch the snails traverse the garden walls. Two resident rabbits have the run of the luscious grounds, filled with palms and a lily pond where you can hear the soft rhythmic croak of the Asian common toad. Plus, there’s a gorgeous swimming pool – perfect for whiling away the hottest hours of the day. The colonial-style Governor’s Grill dishes up Western and Lao favourites, under twirling fans. Rooms from £180, based on two people sharing.
Tangor. A cool Lao-French fusion restaurant with a quirky décor, including a vast tangerine mural of Indo-China, which we sit beneath to play cards. Try the delicious duck panang curry, followed by tart tatin. For fussy eaters there’s steak and chips and chicken sate (with or without peanut sauce). If you order the later, chances are you’ll meet George, a lovely mutt of undetermined breed, ever hopeful for a chicken titbit. Price: from £3
Saffron. This is a coffee shop with a conscience and delicious homemade cookies that supports northern Lao coffee-growing hill tribes. The terrace has mesmerising views of the fast-flowing Mekong, which flows 2,703 miles from the Tibetan plateau, along the Vietnam delta and into the South China Sea. Price: from £1.50
The Night Market. The food section is an eye-opener, from whole roasted pig’s head to exquisite patisserie (a legacy from the years of French colonial rule). Gastronomic daredevils can sample a snack of barbecued crickets on a stick. But for the less adventurous the bite-size coconut pancakes, cooked fresh over burning coals, are not to be missed. Price: from 10p
3 Nagas Restaurant. In this mango-tree shaded courtyard you can invigorate your taste-buds with a six-course traditional Lao meal, including the surprisingly moreish deep-fried Mekong riverweed served with a spicy buffalo jam. The stir-fried noodles with chicken prove a popular choice with younger kids. For dessert, pop over the road to the 3 Nagas ice-cream parlour to try the freshly made mango sorbet and the black sticky rice ice-cream, which tastes a bit like rice pudding. Price: from £4.50
Le Banneton. Widely regarded as the best bakery in the city, early morning you’ll find a queue for melt in the mouth pain au chocolat and sugared crepes. For lunch there’s fresh out of the oven caramel-coloured crusty baguettes and pizza – an absolute godsend when my sons were craving a familiar food. Sit on the terrace for a fascinating glimpse into life as a monk at the busy monastery opposite. Price: from £1.50.
Cycling. The Sofitel has free bikes (and helmets) and it’s a great way to explore the city as, unlike other Asian cities, traffic is light and the driver’s polite. Cycle along the river road and stop off to climb 329-steps, past golden Buddhas, to the top of Phu Si Temple for an unrivalled 360-degree vista. Nearby is the Royal Palace, home to the Lao monarchy from 1904 until 1975. Highlights include the dazzling throne room, with walls adorned with a mosaic of emerald palms and lapis lazuli elephants; and the kings vintage car collection. Pedal on to the city’s oldest and most beautiful temple – Wat Xieng Thong – with its sweeping roof and sparkling tree of life mosaic on the exterior wall.
Boat Trip on the Mekong. Like Willy Wonka’s chocolate river on a much grander scale, the Mekong gets its colour from the muddy-silt banks. Captains of longtail boats tout for business on the riverbanks below the old town. We pass fisherman casting broad nets; golden Wats; and skinny kids who do star jumps in to the river. At Ban Xanghai, a whisky-producing village, we jump ship to learn about the distillery process while my sons gawp at the snakes and scorpions pickled in many of the bottles. Lao people believe that if you drink it, you’ll be immune from the creature’s venom. From here, it’s an hour upriver to the spooky Bak Pau limestone Caves – home to thousands of Buddha statues.
Kuang Si Waterfalls. A bumpy 40-minute tuk-tuk ride, bouncing over wooden bridges and through farmland of fluorescent green rice paddies, brings you to these stunning falls. There’s a £1.50 entrance fee to the waterfalls and this also gives you access to the 20 Asian black moon bears, rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, (their bile and claws are highly prized in Chinese medicine), by Free the Bears. And boy do they look happy swinging in their hammocks. The three-tier falls are picture-perfect – with frothy water cascading from a height of 60-metres in to menthol-blue pools, too idyllic not to take a dip in. Something of a secret – the newly opened Carpe Diem restaurant (try the soy and honey chicken salad), has a waterfall running right through its centre and a safe natural swimming pool. En route back to Luang Prabang, stop off at Kuang Si Butterfly Park, opened in 2014 as a breeding ground for Laos’ indigenous butterflies.
Green Jungle Park. Fairly new on the scene, this natural jungle park uses its habitat as the backdrop for an exciting family adventure – 900-metres of ziplines, rope bridges, and canopy walkways to navigate with guides. They also offer guided trekking, have a gorgeous flower garden and café, and there are plans to open a jungle market with exotic fruit tasting and a retirement home for ex-logging elephants. You can catch a boat there from behind the Royal Palace.
Fly Thai Airways + Bangkok Airways from London Heathrow to Luang Prabang. Fares start at £520 per person. Visit Thai Airways for latest offers. Other options include Vietnam Airways via Hanoi.
Low-key tourism – catch Laos now, before it becomes more popular. It really is a slice of Asia at its most alluring.
Nature Lovers & outdoor pursuits – from cycling to ziplining to moon bears, this is a holiday for families who like to be active.
Foodies – so many excellent restaurants so little time, from gastronomy to market snacks, you’re spoiled for choice with both Lao and French cuisine. And as a fusion it is sublime.
Best Time to Go
November to March are dry and have the most pleasant temperatures. July and August bring rain in short sharp bursts but the landscape is emerald green and at its most breath-taking. Avoid April and May when temperatures soar and September and October when the rain is heavy.
For a real treat charter Belmond La Residence Phou Vao’s boat for a whole day on the Mekong, with its comfy daybeds, posh toilet, and pleasing squeak to its highly polished wood. It comes with a guide and an onboard feast (chicken with glass noodles, fresh fruit, baguette…), and is worth every Lao Kip. Rates from £380 per family, exclusive private hire.
Copyright © Kate wickers September 2018