Laos is Asia’s softly spoken gem; a country where tourism has only recently gone mainstream and you can experience the distinctive sights, sounds and flavours with just the right balance of dependable infrastructure and blissful seclusion. It’s a great place to travel with kids of all ages, allowing you to combine wildlife watching and jungle adventures with laid-back city wanders, river cruises and even ‘beach’ time.
We enthuse about Living Land Organic Farm every time we’re asked about our favourite things to do in Laos. Now in its 15th year, this inspirational project outside Luang Prabang is a must-include experience for anyone visiting the region. Living Land brings farmers together to pool their knowledge on getting the best from the country’s essential rice crops. For non-farming visitors, it’s a chance to get hands on with Laos farming culture and show children where our food comes from. Everyone ends up squelching through a muddy rice field at some point, and that’s the bit that the children, especially younger ones, love best. Gemma recalls that during her visit 'there were a number of kids getting knee deep in mud, picking snails off the rice'. Kids plus mud equals a day done right!
Luang Prabang is a city with a particular magic. Colourful lanterns and paper dragons sway from the eaves, golden temples shine in the sun and jungle wilderness tempts you to wander beyond its borders. The laid back pace and compact centre makes it relatively easy to explore with children, and there are plenty of places to pause. Wake early to see the monks taking alms at sun rise, take a tuk tuk through the vibrant old town, soak up local life with a stroll through the markets, and grab a stuffed baguette or sticky rice skewer to munch as you wander. For older children, a kayak trip along the river is a great way to see Laos from a different angle, and also surprisingly relaxing. Take a riverboat to Ban Lan Khammune, where the kids will be joined by enthusiastic local youngsters waiting for the boat, enjoy a day with your local hosts, then rise bright and early the following morning to step into your kayaks and paddle in convoy up the Mekong.
If you’re looking for a wildlife experience that makes a big impression, elephants top the bill. An ancient name for Laos was ‘Land of a Million Elephants’, recalling a time when the central grassy plains were home to vast herds of these magnificent animals. Laos’ elephant population has fallen significantly since then, but the country’s pioneering elephant conservation projects are incredible. The Elephant Conservation Centre in Sayaboury is a renowned hospital for sick and injured animals, staffed by a team of specialist elephant veterinarians from around the world, and is a leading light in the sector. Spend time with the elephants in their preserved natural habitat and see them behaving just like elephants should. Watching them take a bath is always a favourite! Further east, on the banks of Nam Khan River, MandaLao Elephant Sanctuary is another refuge for ex-logging elephants which makes a great day trip from Luang Prabang.
If you’re travelling with teenagers and upwards, Nam Et Nests is a fantastic chance to step into the wilderness of Nam Et Phou Louey for a proper adventure. The hiking can be pretty challenging but the rewards are unbeatable, getting older kids out of their comfort zones for a while and into the kind of landscape they might only have seen on the telly! At the apex of the trek is the main camp, and a platform high in the trees where you can watch the forest animals congregate around a salt lick at twilight. When darkness falls, clamber up into the ‘Nests’ themselves - sci-fi style eco pods suspended in the trees - and spend the night immersed in the sounds and sensations of the forest.
By Laotian standards, Vientiane is a busy and hectic city, but is still by far one of the most chilled out capitals you’ll ever visit. It’s a pretty place with a village vibe, full of green spaces scattered between French-colonial architecture and gilded temples. The unique Buddha Park, 25km south of the city, offers a somewhat otherworldly day out as you wander between hundreds of bizarre and varied Hindu and Buddhist statues. Though the statues appear to be ancient, they are the brainchild of an eccentric priest-shaman who began the park in the 1950s, and are made from reinforced concrete. Children can run about between the monuments to their heart’s content, taking in the fascinating and sometimes alarming images which seem almost like something from an Alice in Wonderland dreamworld...
Since branching out from its rather negative reputation as a Spring break party town, Vang Vieng has blossomed into one of the most interesting light adventure destinations in Laos, offering a myriad ways to get a sporting thrill while keeping a firm eco focus. Keen kids can get out onto the water in kayaks and rafts, and you can still ‘tube’ down river in old tyre inners, though at a much gentler (and safer) pace than the infamous thrill-seekers of the early 90s. Climbers can tackle the steep slopes of the limestone karst formations, and there’s a wide range of hikes through the surrounding countryside to suit all ages and energy levels. Some hikes lead you to caves full of stalactites, while others take you high up into the hills for views over the town. Float in a hot air balloon, ride a bike along the riverbank, and reward yourself with a cruise at sunset. This is a fantastic town to unplug for a while and enjoy some quality family time.
In the dense jungle of southern Laos, near the up-and-coming town of Pakse, is a unique jungle zipline adventure with echoes of some of literature’s most compelling children’s tales - think Peter Pan meets Swiss Family Robinson. Your destination is a cluster of wooden treehouses built around tree trunks 10-20 feet above the ground, surrounded by nothing but greenery and fresh air. The terrain around the camp is almost impossible to navigate on foot, so you reach the site via a network of zig-zagging ziplines! Starting in Ban Nongluang village, climb up to a swaying wooden walkway, make your way to the first zipline, clip on and whizz away through the canopy. The last zipline takes you to your own private treehouse cabin where you can, eventually, fall asleep - as soon as the adrenaline wears off!
Craving some beach time to go with your culture trip? Although Laos is landlocked, you can still get that beachside feeling in Si Phan Don. Also known as 4,000 Islands, this network of islets, promontories and inlets, bound together by the winding Mekong waters, has that coastal vibe we often dream of when planning a holiday. Think sleepy clusters of houses on stilts above shallow waters, and secluded resorts where you can switch off and tune in. Some backpackers who’ve ended up in this peaceful enclave over the years have stayed for good! And who can blame them? On two of the largest islands, Don Det and Don Khon, you can combine the relaxation with bike rides and hikes to spectacular Mekong waterfalls, while La Folie hotel on Done Daeng has a gorgeous private villa that’s perfect for full-on family downtime.