I must admit, the thought of travelling with a just-turned-two year old was pretty daunting. Luckily, we had the sense to ignore all the scaremongers and instead turned to the wonderful world of family travel on Insta for reassurance. If you take one thing away from this post please let it be that- travel with a toddler is nowhere near as bad as it is made out to be and heck, if your toddler is gonna be a pain in the butt, you may as well be soaking up some sun and sipping a coconut while they get it out of their system.
With that in mind, we made the decision to have a more chilled out holiday than usual and Luang Prabang in Northern Laos is pretty gosh darn chilled out. Surrounded by green hills and sitting between the Mekong and Nam Khan Rivers, Luang Prabang is a little gem, albeit a pretty touristy one.
There’s a reason why this riverside town has become increasingly popular with seemingly every type of traveller since it opened its doors to tourists in 1989. And a lot of that has to do with the fact that the guys over at UNESCO had the good sense to preserve the whole of Town of LP, designating it as a World Heritage Site back in 1995. The Old Town is a beautiful mix of traditional Lao and French colonial architecture with active temples scattered throughout its streets. Unlike neighbouring Vietnam, LP’s streets are pedestrian (and stroller) friendly. In fact, we spent many of our 12 days in LP just wandering around. Here’s what else we got up to:
Temples, temples & more temples
Coming to Luang Prabang and not visiting a temple (or three) would be like visiting Italy and not eating any pasta! It can’t, and shouldn’t, be done! Life here revolves around the temples- you’ll see monks in their bright orange robes on almost every corner. There are many temples to choose from, some you can just wander into, whereas the larger, more popular temples charge a small entrance fee (20,000 pp). Each afternoon around 4 pm you can witness monks beating large drums calling everyone in for evening prayer, it’s wonderfully enchanting.
Much to our surprise, Little Miss wanted to “go find Buddha” every day. When other people were around she’d join in kneeling before Buddha, then dodge the onslaught of sneaky photographs and cuddles from Chinese and Korean tourists. When no-one was around, she’d treat the temple grounds as her own personal dance stage.
As always, please be respectful and cover your knees, shoulders and cleavage, and remove shoes and hats before entering a temple. Slip on shoes are your friend (trust me on this).
Kuang Si Waterfalls & Free the Bears (or Kwang Si)
Hands down my favourite waterfalls in SE Asia. Kuang Si, is located a bumpy 40 min drive from LP and should be on your must-see list. The clear turquoise water here is spectacular, and despite visiting outside of the wet season the falls are still stunning. Even with guaranteed crowds, Kuang Si retains a sense of serenity as you walk around. We didn’t bother swimming this time round as we visited earlier in the morning and the water was pretty chilly, but you can swim in a few sections or hike up the trails to the side of the main waterfall to enjoy a pool with a view.
Kuang Si is also home to a bear sanctuary which houses many sun bears that have been rescued from poachers and traffickers wanted to sell them for their bile. They’re gorgeous to watch and you can support the charity by making a donation or buying a shirt.
When is SE Asia, one must indulge in a Nutella crepe. There’s no shortage of crepes in LP, but outside the entrance to the falls, there are plenty of market stalls and restaurants, which are surprisingly well-priced. To get to Kuang Si, you can grab a tuk tuk who will wait for you, or you can (as we did in 2014) save money and head to the main street in town and share a tuk tuk with others. You’ll just have to wait for the tuk tuk to fill up and then it will bring you back at an agreed time.
Entry is 20,000 kip pp (under 8 free).
Kuang Si Butterfly Park
A few hundred metres from the falls is this new butterfly park (entry 40,000 pp). The Dutch couple who created and run it are trying to educate local kids on biology and natural preservation. So, if you’ve got time after Kuang Si it’s worth swinging by to take a walk through, especially to see the stunning chrysalis which looked like pieces of jewellery!
Keep in mind it’s relatively new so the gardens and butterflies will probably get more impressive as time goes on. If you can, have a chat with the guide on site, she was super knowledgeable and made the visit much more interesting. For a bit of fun there’s a natural foot spa where the fish eat your dead skin- always good for a giggle. There’s nice toilets on site and a café with beautiful surroundings (and a price tag to match).
Pak Ou Caves
These caves, located a two-hour boat ride from LP, house thousands of Buddha relics that have been left there over the centuries. Some say that people used to bring a Buddha statue with them on their pilgrimage here, while others say this is where people bring their damaged statues as it’s bad luck to throw them away. We guess both could be true, but we didn’t spot too many broken statues ourselves. One thing’s for sure, for us this was one of those attractions where it’s more about the journey than the destination.
After buying a ticket from the boat dock in town, we climbed aboard our very rickety long boat and snuggled up against the morning cold, admiring the landscape as we went. This is also when Little Miss discovered her love of croissants, despite fervently telling us she doesn’t like croissants five minutes earlier (even though she’d never tried them!).
In typical SE Asia fashion, the boat docked at the “whisky village” where we didn’t learn a thing about how whisky is traditionally made but instead had the opportunity to look through a market of touristy knick-knacks for 15 mins. At least we got to have a nice chat to a lovely monk in the line for the toilet. On we went up river, spotting elephants and farm animals along the way until we arrived at the beautiful limestone caves. Our little adventurer had a great time exploring the upper and lower caves. If you have a baby carrier, be sure to bring it for this trip as there are quite a lot of steps to reach the upper caves.
Royal Palace Museum
Set amongst beautiful grounds with a temple and lily pond is the Royal Palace Museum. The palace was built for the Royal family in 1904 after their original palace was destroyed in the Black Flag raids. If you’re short on time I wouldn’t say it’s a must do, but we found it interesting to get a glimpse at royal life so long ago. My favourite part? A story of the Prince’s mother who was granted ten wishes before she became pregnant with her son. Surely she wished for peace across the kingdom you say? Nah.. She wished that her boobs would stay perky like a lotus in bloom after breastfeeding. Don’t we all…
The Palace closes from 11 am to 1.30 pm, so late morning is good time to visit as you’ll skip some of the crowds. Entry is 20,000 or you can stroll around the Palace grounds for free.
Big Brother Mouse
Onto an absolute must do in my opinion. Big Brother Mouse is an NGO committed to helping improve the literacy of young people in Laos. Reading is not a common activity in Lao, so much so that when the Big Brother Mouse book shop opened in 2006, having published six books in the Lao language it had more Lao-language books for sale than any other shop in northern Laos! Crazy isn’t it.
You can support this wonderful cause by buying books and handing them out in villages as you travel, or like us you can help locals practice their English by going along to the shop between 9-11 am or 5-7 pm each day. Many young people travel to LP to study or to work in hospitality so it’s great for them to be able to ask questions or get help with homework. It’s a wonderful and unique experience- do it!
Because kids are still kids, right? The Playground is just that, a playground at the back of the ABC Pre-school in LP. You can visit on weekends or in the evening after 3 pm. There’s swings, a see-saw, slides, roundabout, balancing beams, and an old school trampoline (yep, none of this safety net business). There was no-one around when we visited, except for a little girl who lives upstairs that invited us in, so we didn’t pay to enter but apparently the entrance fee is usually 20,000. Bring mozzie repellent.
Not a quintessentially LP experience but certainly the perfect way to start your day. Every morning, vinyasa yoga sessions are run from the riverside deck at Utopia (below). But if you can’t drag yourself out of bed, there are also vinyasa and yin classes at Sena restaurant from around 5.30-6 pm most afternoons. 60 minutes classes are only 40,000 kip. At that price you should definitely give it a go!
There is no shortage of places to buy souvenirs in LP. The night markets sell everything from fisherman pants and Beer Lao shirts, to art and table runners. If you’re on a budget and are happy to play belly-bug roulette, swing by the buffet for a cheap and yummy dinner. Don’t expect a nice sit-down meal, the chairs are limited so you’ll have to scoff down your food, skull your beer Lao and make room for the next person.
The morning markets meanwhile sell all variety of fruit, veg and unidentifiable meats. We’d recommend swinging by Ock Pop Top which is a fair-trade shop that encourages local women in rural areas to keep the weaving tradition alive by offering competitive wages and professional development. They also run a variety of weaving and tie dye classes which would be great for older kids
Nam Dong Park
If you’re staying at Hillside Lodge (below), Nam Dong is a short stroll away and a lovely way to spend the morning. There are cable bridges, waterfalls, picnic spots and zip lining for big kids.
One of my absolute favourite memories from this trip happened while we were checking out the animals kept at the park. After looking at the goats and deer I asked little miss if she wanted to see the tortoise? “No. It’s old like buddha.” Seriously i don’t know where she gets these things from?! 20,000 kip entry pp.
Despite being smack bang in the middle of Thailand and Vietnam, Lao cuisine just isn’t as amazing as you might expect. But there’s still some good grub to be had, below are our picks. Oh, and as a general rule, don’t bank on anywhere having high chairs- you won’t see too many toddlers about town.
When we arrived in Laos we said that we didn’t want go back to the same places we visited in 2014, but surprisingly no one has copied the Utopia set up and we just can’t argue with relaxed food and drinks overlooking the river! It really is the perfect place to chill for the arvo. The black bean burger is pretty darn delicious, and the spicy papaya salad is pretty darn spicy!
This no frills, family run restaurant is good for a cheap lunch or dinner. We got two mains with rice, a big beer Lao and a soda water for 45,000 (~AUD $6.90).
Set in a beautiful building, Tamnak Lao serves up some pretty good local cuisine. Niall had the local sausage earmarked before we arrived and after hearing that the roadside stall varities can be mystery meat with lots of bristle he decided to try it here. The sausage itself was tasty but nothing out of the ordinary but was accompanied by a delicious sauce!
The Noodle Place Next to Tamnak Lao 🙂
Ok we have no idea what this place is called but it serves up cheap and yummy Lao style Khao Soi, not to be confused with Chiang Mai Khao Soi!
Xieng Thong Noodle
If you are only in town for a short stay however, get your noodle soup here! This cheap and cheerful establishment is friendly, quick, and serves up gosh darn delicious noodle soups. There is the option to have meat or just egg/veggies.
Sister restaurant to one of our Cambodian favs Friends Restaurant, Khaiphaen is a social enterprise that trains up at-risk youth to work in hospitality. The restaurant is named after a popular Laotian snack, dried Mekong river weed, which we ordered and were super surprised that Miss took a liking to. We ordered a jungle curry for ourselves and a Laotian take on fish and chips for Miss, which actually ended up being fantastic!
My community service announcement to you though? If the chocolate brownie & coconut ice cream is on the specials menu just do yourself a favour and order it- you won’t regret it.
Has a bit of a stuffy atmosphere, but is a good spot to watch the world go by while munching on a freshly baked baguette. Has high chairs.
Joma Cafe Bakery
Joma is a Canadian owned bakery that is a bit on the pricey side but a good option if you feel like a bagel or fresh wrap. They have their hearts in the right place, employing disadvantaged people, sourcing their coffee locally and donating 10% of profits back into grassroots projects.
If you’re in need of wifi and aircon, they have you covered. Otherwise, there’s the option to sit on the balcony upstairs and people watch. One of the few places with a high chair.
Serves the best coffee in LP (according to Niall). The cute cafe is set on the banks of the Mekong and gives patrons the option to dine inside or riverside. Saffron is another cafe with a conscience. They believe that coffee shouldn’t just taste good, it should do good.
BTW, the cheesecake brownie is worth the calories.
Pizza Phan Luang
If you’re staying on the other side of the river, or just need a break from Asian food this is a good spot to get your fix. It’s not cheap but the woodfire pizza is good and the candlelit garden is cute (bring mozzie repellent). To get here, cross the bamboo bridge then keeping walking past Dyen Sabai, turn left at pizza sign and follow the oil lamp lanterns to the garden.
Bouang Asian Eatery
Saving the best til last, if we could teleport one LP restaurant home, this would be it. This funky spot serves up healthy, fresh vegetarian meals that are yum! We highly recommend the veggie burger and curry. They also have kids utensils and colouring in paper/pencils. If like us, you don’t like to eat out every night with a toddler in tow, Bouang will happily package up certain meals for take-away- just ask.
The Merry Riverside Hotel
When we rocked up to the Namkhan Riverside Hotel (where we had actually booked online) and were told we’ll be staying at a different hotel we immediately thought ‘oh here we go, what shit hole are they moving us to now’. We’re not naturally pessimistic but we have been caught out by this sort of thing in the past!
Fortunately for us, this was not one of those times- in fact we were well upgraded! To a family room (with three beds) overlooking the river. The hotel was less than a year old and it seemed like our kettle and hair dryer had never been used! The shower was great, as were the staff- especially Tai who insisted on picking up Little Miss and taking her for a walk. She usually came back with a banana or mandarin.. Needless to say, we were very happy with our new hotel. The only downfall? It’s a bit further from the centre of old town but it was nice and close to Utopia which was handy for morning yoga. Would we pay full price though.. I’m not sure?
Le Vang Bua
This hotel has a pool and a nice bungalow area overlooking a small lake, making it a good option if you want to stay on the other side of the river in LP.
Keep in mind, that the bamboo bridge (5000 kip ticket to cross) only operates 6 months of the year. The rooms are nice but need a little love making it a bit overpriced in our opinion.
A bumpy 30 minute ride from town sits this serene oasis surrounded by green mountains. The staff (read: volunteer babysitters) were very friendly and attentive. There’s a pool, hammocks strewn around and perfect for kids- ponies and chickens! The restaurant serves good food (mango sticky rice is amazeballs), and has some games and toys to keep little ones amused. The rooms are simple but beautiful with an outside bathroom and soft(er) beds than most Lao accommodation. Each room has a balcony with a sun bed, perfect for an afternoon beer (or blowing bubbles!).
From Hillside there are a number of walks to do. Niall and little miss trekked it up to a view point while mumma got a massage ($9US/hr). Then the next day we all walked Circuit A led by our trusty local guide Buddy, the resort’s resident dog. It was an easy hour long walk that takes you through a local village where local kids are still excited to wave and yell sabaidee as you go past. We also discovered that nanas are the same the world over, and had a conversation full of giggles with one nana who was asking us questions in Lao with us trying to guess what she was asking and answering in English with charade-like actions.
Needless to say, if you have two nights to spare we definitely recommend escaping town for some chill out time here!
Other Tips For Travelling to Luang Prabang with Kids:
- You can buy nappies (diapers) at mini mart stalls . They’re not the best quality but if you run out of stock or are travelling for a while you’ll be fine.
- Learning a few basic phrases like Sabaidee (hello/go well) and Khop Chai Lai Lai (thank you very much) goes a long way. The locals loved it when little miss said hi in their language! Of course she only said thank you after eating her noodle soup :p
- We recommend bringing both a pram (stroller) and a carrier
- You can catch a taxi from the stand at the airport, approx. $7US
- A tuk tuk around town costs roughly 10,000 kip pp (bub not charged)
- You can use US Dollars and Lao Kip. Lao Kip is a closed currency so you can’t buy/exchange until you get here. Make sure you change up again before you leave.
- Vaccinations- It’s always best to ask your GP but in addition to standard immunisations we got Little Miss Hep A (she had Typhoid last year for Yogyakarta)
- Most airports have a special immigration line for families with young children. Some airports like Singapore specify for under 2, others like Bangkok don’t seem to have an age. Anyway, keep an eye out as skipping lines is a huge PRO for travelling with kids. Unfortunately, Luang Prabang doesn’t have one of these designated lines but if your toddler (like ours!) decides to have a meltdown waiting they’ll take pity and let you skip to the front- woo hoo!
- For more Luang Prabang ideas check out our 2014 trip here and here (note: accommodation has since closed)
As always if you have any questions just ask us here or on Insta @bbtraveltales