Around the World: Laos

We spent four days in Laos and specifically in Luang Prabang which was the ancient capital of the country and currently the most popular city for tourism. The town itself is relatively small but the number of tourists pouring in each year is growing which is evident by the vast number of  accommodation options. We stayed at the Belmond Pho Vao as it is a charming hotel and a good partner of ours since clients receive added amenities when they book through Purposeful Wanderings. The style of the hotel was similar to the Belmond in Myanmar and so it felt a bit like home to us. We were in Room 310, a corner room which has a separate living area and outdoor terrace. It was great for our family of four. The location of the Belmond is peaceful as it is located just slightly outside of the town. They offer shuttle service and if you want to take a tuk tuk outside of their complimentary shuttle times, you can for the price of about $4. 

We loved the beautiful pool and the breakfasts were especially delicious. The chocolate croissants were too good to pass up. Although we did not eat lunch or dinner at the hotel, we did order dinner for the kids a few times and their food was excellent. Grilled chicken and steamed veggies were on the menu and it makes us happy when hotels offer healthy selections as well as the usual burger and fries option. 
Breakfast at the Belmond on our Balcony
During our stay we visited a number of luxury hotel options and there really is something for everyone. From eclectic and soulful to boutique or well known names, you can find the perfect fit and Purposeful Wanderings is happy to help. Having met with various owners and management, we are able to provide insightful advice and also ensure personalized treatment. Besides the Belmond, our favorites were The Satri House, Aspara Rive Droite, Amantaka, and Rosewood Luang Prabang.   
Our partner in Laos, Rob, put together an absolutely fantastic itinerary for us. We were met upon arrival at the Luang Prabang airport and greeted with a friendly smile. Usually you would have to arrange for a visa ahead of time, but we opted to try the VIP service that his company provides and we were whisked through immigration and quickly transferred to our hotel. Our luggage and the visas were later brought to us at the hotel. We knew we were off to a good start.

Our guide, Lanexang, was incredibly knowledgeable, patient with our kids, and kind. We cannot say enough about him. Please do reach out if you are traveling that way as arranging for a quality guide is a wise investment in your travel. It makes the journey exponentially better.

The following day we were driven a short distance to the town to visit the Prabang public library. Our guide explained that they have a library tuk tuk and you can purchase books to donate to the children in the rural villages. Literacy is an issue in the country and there are a number of organizations that are in place to help. We had the fantastic experience of visiting Big Brother Mouse as well and we spent time talking to local kids and young adults who wished to practice their English. Our guide, Lanexang, and our driver were both incredibly kind. They watched our kids play so we could focus on interacting with the locals. Spending an hour or two at Big Brother Mouse is an easy way to volunteer and to learn a lot about life in Laos. We would highly recommend the experience.
John and the Lao men he spent time speaking with at Big Brother Mouse
We spent time walking the town with our guide as we learned about the community, the history of Laos and the city. I would have loved to learn more but given the attention span of our kids and the level of attention they require from us, I can only imagine what others without young kids would get out of their time with Lanexag and the experience. He took us to the UXO visitor center which is interesting and emotional, especially as American Tourists. We admittedly did not know that Laos has and continues to suffer from the bombing that took place during the Vietnam War. As Laos borders Vietnam and the Hoi Chi Minh trail traveled through parts of Laos, the area was bombed and Laos suffered. There are still live bombs today and at times rural children are injured or killed when they discover them and play with them as toys. Laos is one of the most heavily bombed countries in history.
Julia and our amazing guide Lanexang at the UXO center
After our tour of UXO and each day following, we would return to the hotel for Julia’s nap time. Given the heat of the day and our busy touring schedule, it was a welcome few hours to rest and for John and I to catch up on work and emails.

The following morning we were met by a new driver and guide from the Elephant Conservation. We took the scenic 40 minute drive out to the conservation project which sits on the charming Nam Khan River. One of the Directors met with us and spoke about what they do. We found out where the elephants came from and how they work to restore them back into the wild.

Words cannot express how special of an experience this place is. Though we had been on something similar in Sri Lanka, this place easily excelled. It was better run, more scenic, and clearly well funded with strategic plans for improvement in place.

We were given special boots to put on before being taken by boat across the river to where the elephants are. Once there, we waited for them to walk from the river bank to where we stood with bananas and corn to feed them. Julia was fearless and loved interacting with the gentle giants while James was a bit more hesitant around the magnificent animals. After a good feed, we walked on a beautiful path through fields and across streams with the elephants and their caretakers which are called Mahouts. We were lucky as there was even a baby elephant for us to walk with! She was roughly the same age as Julia.

After our hike with the elephants, we took the boat ride back across the river, washed our feet and were served a delicious lunch overlooking the Nam Khan river.

We were driven back to our hotel and one of the owners of the Elephant Conservation jumped in the car with us to catch a ride as he had work to do in the town. It was a fantastic opportunity to speak with him about what they do, what their plans are, and about life in Laos. He is originally from Colorado and given our commonality as Americans, we connected easily and were able to learn more about the history of how the conservation came to be established. 
The sleeping area for the girls at the Government Orphanage
In the afternoon the Belmond car and guide took us to the nearby government orphanage school that they help to support. School was out at the time and so we were only able to tour the site and meet some of the orphans who live there. This school supports orphans and also those that come from situations of such poverty or circumstance that the parents are unable to provide for their children. Though it is a government project, it also relies on private donations. We were impacted by the sleeping conditions in particular. We walked the somewhat dark room in which the children slept on elevated wooden platforms on each side. It would be great to decorate the space and create a brighter and happier environment for these kids. During our visit James and Julia helped to pass out some art supplies to the kids and we spent some time drawing together and playing on the swingset.

In the evening we hired the hotel babysitter again as the kids were wiped from the day and needed an early night's sleep. John and I visited a hotel for a site inspection and then were driven to town for dinner at a restaurant in which we could see the town below from the balcony in which we sat. We were able to explore the night market a bit as well. The textiles were beautiful and what struck me was the price. Most everything seemed to be about 30,000 Lao Kip (less than $4 USD) and of course, you can negotiate the price. Though I often engage in some discount discussions at markets, I had a hard time in this case as the prices were already so low and I know that a number of these people selling the items live in such poverty. Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world.

Night Market 
For our last day in Luang Prabang we were driven to a rice farm in the morning. The experience lasted about three hours in total. They take you through a fourteen step process in learning about how to grow sticky rice and eventually cook and eat it. The tour is hands on, fun, and entertaining. We loved it and it was a fantastic activity for kids as well as adults. The others who were on the tour with us had such fun that there was always laughter and banter.

From there we went for lunch at a coffee shop in town that serves food and has a strong community based focus to what they do. It is called Joma. Not only is it air conditioned and cool, but they seek to benefit every person who steps through their doors as well as the people and communities that lay outside them. Just as we do at Purposeful Wanderings, they donate 10% of their profits to charitable organizations. We also loved that they had a jug of water for people to come in and refill their reusable water bottles with in an effort to reduce plastic use.

In the afternoon we headed out again to visit the Kuang Si Water fall. The car that we would travel in was a very comfortable minivan that was always stocked with water. Along the way to the falls out in a rural area, we came across a buffalo dairy farm that had a modern logo to it. It triggered my memory in reading about expats who came to Laos and started an organic dairy business with buffalo. We had our driver stop and we all got out to try the ice cream that they sell in a tiny store front on the side of the road with their clearly modern and new kitchen behind them. We tasted flavors such as basil and caramel and they were delicious. 

Kuang Si Water Fall was stunning with its turquoise pools of water and lush surroundings. Even though it rained slightly during our visit, we still wore our swimsuits and took a quick dip in the beautiful blue pools. James and Julia screamed with excitement and it was easy to tell that this was a favorite for them. It is a great place to come and spend hours hiking, swimming in the falls and enjoying a picnic.

We arrived back to the town just in time for dinner and had our driver take us to a pizza place we had read about that was near the hotel. It was difficult to find at first as it was hidden down a small side road which thus made the name of Secret pizza all the more understandable. We noticed on the sign that it said it was open Tuesdays and Fridays. I have never seen this before but as is common in smaller cities and certainly in other countries, anything is possible. It is always advisable to call or in some way double check on if places are open as hours are not always consistent or are seemingly a bit random.

We were up early for our flight out of Luang Prabang and I was impressed that our guide met us to also take us the short distance to the airport. He assisted with the luggage and the check in process personally escorting us to security. The Belmond had prepared breakfast box for us and two delicious coffees for John and I. Their chocolate croissants are honestly some of the best I have had. A much appreciated treat!

We were blessed to have spent time in Laos and can see that there is more to explore in this beautiful country. From three nights to twenty one, our Laos partners have created itineraries for that and everything in between. They have many special and secret places that can be arranged for during your visit. Please do reach out if you are interested as together we can put together something wonderful.

Tips for Travel:

1.     There are a vast amount of accommodation options for Luang Prabang. Depending on budget and style, there is something for everyone. If you are at the luxury level, make sure to reach out to us at Purposeful Wanderings as we can help to book you in the hotel that would best suit your needs and with our added VIP amenities. 
2.     There are numerous volunteer options in Luang Prabang. You can get involved for a few hours or donate months of time depending on what your interests and availability are. Get involved but do your homework (or have us do it) as some charities are run much more effectively than others.
3.     Pack active and casual clothing. 
4.     Mosquito spray is a must!
5.     Bring a rain coat as the country is lush and rain can happen.


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