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Nam song River, Vang Vieng

Family holidays in Laos

Nam song River, Vang Vieng

By Southeast Asia specialist Anna

Untamed jungles that are home to elephants, hillside villages that preserve centuries-old cultures, and mountain-lined rail routes that connect one laidback city to another — I think Laos is the ideal holiday destination for families after an adventure.

One day you and your children might hike past flourishing rice paddies and cycle along forested riverside paths. The next, you might learn about Lao folklore on the banks of the Mekong River before whipping up a feast with a local chef. Below, I share some of my favourite ideas for family holidays in Laos, highlighting the experiences and stays that will inspire a love for travel across the generations.

Is Laos family-friendly?

I like to say that Laos is family-friendly in an intrepid kind of way. Far from the nearest beach, the landscapes are pleasingly rugged, opportunities for authentic connection are plentiful, and long-celebrated traditions are tangible everywhere you go. As such, I think Laos is best appreciated by children above the age of seven or eight, when they’re sure on their feet and eager to learn about the world around them.

Once old enough, a family holiday in Laos can give your children a chance to unleash their energy on wild outdoor pursuits, gain fresh perspectives on cultures they’ve likely never experienced before, and play against dramatic backdrops.

What to do on a family holiday in Laos

From trekking with elephants to learning about animist traditions in the jungle, the following experiences will keep boundlessly energetic bodies moving while engaging their minds. That way, you can fully enjoy your trip, too.

Lao culture, language & cooking in Luang Prabang

Cooking class, Luang Prabang
Cooking class, Luang Prabang

I think the best way to really connect with locals as you travel is to learn the language — or at least enough words to greet people and ask how they are. And what better way to do it than on the banks of the Mekong with a cup of steaming coffee (or juice) and a freshly baked pastry?

I’ll arrange for you to meet Mr Siphai, your teacher for the next hour or so, who’ll welcome you with a cheery ‘sabaidee!’ (‘hello’ in Lao). Then, he’ll whisk you into an interactive language and culture lesson far removed from the classrooms your children might be used to. As an avid storyteller, he’ll even pepper in a few Lao folktales here and there to further stir the imagination.

Then, armed with a book filled with handy words and phrases, you can watch as the kids spend the rest of the trip trilling ‘khop chai’ (‘thank you’) and ‘la gon’ (‘goodbye’) every time they leave a shop or restaurant.

For another hands-on learning experience in Luang Prabang, I can arrange for you to take a cooking class where the whole family can prepare — and eat — a traditional Lao feast. Featuring fragrant lemongrass-stuffed chicken, fresh fish steamed in banana leaves, and orlarm, a spicy Lao stew, on the menu, I wouldn’t recommend it for fussy eaters. However, if your children are open to trying new foods, it’ll do wonders for expanding their palates (and getting a little messy in the process).

Walking with giants at MandaLao Elephant Conservation

Elephants, MandaLao Elephant Conservation
Elephants, MandaLao Elephant Conservation

Leathery trunks curling around bowing branches, deep-brown eyes framed with a fringe of thick lashes, and huge wrinkled feet plodding through the undergrowth — little compares to seeing an elephant in person. It’s always on my top list of things to do in Laos.

MandaLao Elephant Conservation near Luang Prabang was founded to rehabilitate former working elephants and educate visitors on their ethical treatment. For me, a visit here is one of the best ways to connect with these majestic creatures outside of spotting them in the wild (which is very rare).

While here, you’ll get to trek beside the elephants as they amble through the jungle lazily, accompanied by their mahout (keeper). Along the way, you’ll learn about the elephants’ stories, personalities, and communication styles. Then, once properly acquainted, you’ll get a chance to befriend them as you offer oh-so-tempting sticks of sugar cane and bananas.

There’s a fair amount of walking involved, so if your children tire easily, I’d opt for the half-day experience, which has a shorter trek. If not, the whole-day experience provides even more opportunities to get up close and personal.

Cave exploration & cycling in Vang Vieng

Tham Phu Kham, Vang Vieng
Tham Phu Kham, Vang Vieng

Towering limestone karsts, rushing rapids, and gaping caves set the tone for a visit to Vang Vieng. Here, it’s all about adventure.

I can pair you with a private guide who’ll take you down into the belly of the caves strewn along the Nam Song River. You can kayak to them via a series of rapids if you’re feeling courageous or go by longtail boat if you need a break between climbing the steep steps in and out of the entrances.

Each cave offers something different. One is home to a gilded Buddha statue reclining peacefully beneath a shaft of light, another the dwelling of a colony of bats dangling from the craggy ceiling, and the next cradles a spectacular collection of stalactites and stalagmites that appear almost fluid, like the dripping wax of a candle.

The next day, I suggest renting bikes for a gentle cycle around Vang Vieng’s countryside, crossing traditional wooden bridges over the river and cutting through ever-stretching rice plains as you go. There’s an organic fruit and vegetable farm you can stop off at along the way with a waterside cafe filled with locally sourced treats and fresh juices to keep the kids fuelled for the ride back.

Jungle retreat & remote villages in Muang La

Nam Phak River, Muang La
Nam Phak River, Muang La

While there are no beaches in Laos, I think the jungle makes an equally enjoyable family retreat, and the sleepy farming village of Muang La is the ideal place for it. While it’s not the most luxurious resort, Nam Kat Yorla Pa’s riverside position and deep-jungle feel gives your family the chance to unwind and play in equal measure.

You can relax by the pool, take a quiet stroll through the canopies on suspended aerial bridges, or glide past plunging waterfalls on the hotel’s zip-line. I can also arrange for you to go on private trek through the nearby rice paddies where you’ll pass local Hmong women cultivating the land.

While in Muang La, I recommend heading up into the nearby remote villages with a guide. The region is home to a variety of Indigenous peoples, and I can arrange for you to meet a couple during your visit. The Hmong and Akha communities live in secluded parts of Muang La, and with a guide by your side, you can learn about their ways of life and animist traditions as you wander through the villages.

When I last visited Laos, I had the pleasure of going into one of the Hmong villages with a guide who’s Hmong himself, so he could interpret for me. We were almost instantly invited into one of the family’s wooden thatched-roofed homes, and we spent a good while exchanging stories and learning about each other’s cultures. It was a very intimate experience, and one I think inquisitive children would gain a lot from.

Getting around Laos as a family

Wat Phou, Khmer Hindu temple, Champasak
Wat Phou, Khmer Hindu temple, Champasak

I recommend focusing your family trip around the north of Laos where the main cities and towns, including Luang Prabang, Vang Vieng, and Muang La, are connected along a scenic rail route that’s very easy to navigate with children. (The alternative is taking long, bumpy car journeys between destinations.)

On my last trip, I found the train to be an experience in and of itself. The view from their window will be enough to keep your children entertained as they whizz past rice paddies brimming with water, wooden-stilted villages abuzz with activity, and karst mountain scenery blanketed in unruly forests.

If you do want to travel south — to visit the Khmer ruins in Champasak or the rushing waters of Si Phan Don (the 4,000 Islands), for example — a short flight will be your best option. There are also regular direct flights to Bangkok from the capital of Vientiane and Luang Prabang, if you want to spend a few days unwinding on Thailand’s pristine beaches after your Laos family adventure.

Best time for a family holiday to Laos

If you’re limited to school holidays, I think the best time to visit Laos as a family is in December, during the winter break when the weather is typically warm and dry. Unlike March to June, it won’t too hot for children. In December, the rivers are also replenished from the rainy season, making boat trips all the more enjoyable.

Read more family holiday ideas to Laos

Start thinking about your experience. These itineraries are simply suggestions for how you could enjoy some of the same experiences as our specialists. They're just for inspiration, because your trip will be created around your particular tastes.

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