Thursday, July 18, 2013

"Sabaidee!" - My tips and tricks for traveling to Laos with young children and a baby

Laos has the reputation of being a very relaxed country. Therefore traveling there with kids is very enjoyable. Lao people love children and yours will always be welcomed. Villages are full of little ones that will greet you with a loud "sabaidee" and a large smile.

Food:
- Our youngest one being already 19 months old, we didn't ask for specific baby food, but always selected the most appropriate meal on the menu. Fried rice with vegetables, fried noodles are prepared almost everywhere. Sticky rice is served in a small bamboo basket and can be eaten with fingers: perfect for little hands! Add some grilled meat and few vegetables for a healthy lunch.  

- Traditional Lao food such as laabs and curries is often spicy and not suitable for children (but delicious and very recommended for adults).
- An heritage of colonial times, French baguette bread is available everywhere, for a healthy snack. Many restaurants also serve simple western food, such as pasta. The prices, however, are always slightly higher.
- For the sweet taste,  it's possible to eat excellent desserts in Laos.
- In general, restaurants (certainly street and market food shops) do not have high chairs, be prepared to eat all your meals with a child on your lap.

Drink:
Lao people don't drink tap water. In restaurants, you will always be offered a good glass of fresh water, which comes from bottles or water canisters. Fresh water, in large or small bottles, is available from the tiniest shops. Young children can quickly suffer from dehydration, make sure they drink sufficiently.

Clothing:
- Even if you plan a longer stay, you can save weight and volume by packing clothes for a few days only (5-7). A few shorts and T-shirts are ok:  if you loose or tear a piece, you can easily purchase a new one in the local markets. Note that the rule stating that ladies should have knees and shoulders covered when entering a temple does not apply to young girls.
- Laundry service is available everywhere, in hotels or small shops. The service is inexpensive, between 10000 and 20000 kip per kilogram. You will get your clothes within 24 hours, always clean and folded but never ironed.
- Pack good sandals for the kids, sturdy ones that hold to their feet when walking in water and mud, and that they still can easily take off to enter homes and temples. Kid's shoes sold on markets are, by experience, of poor quality.

Baby gear:
- You will find baby wipes and diapers in city markets and drugstores. The most popular brand is Mamy Poko.
 Diapers are as expensive in Laos as they are in Europe.
- Hotels rarely have baby beds, you'll have to bring your own one. I strongly recommend baby tents which also serve as mosquito nets.
- Most walkways are in poor condition, prefer a baby carrier or backpack over a pushchair.

Health and safety issues:
Road accidents and decease-transmitting mosquitoes were my biggest fears in Laos.
- Traffic is quite chaotic in Laos but, luckily, relatively light and slow. Riding in tuk-tuks and local busses is  not very safe but not extremely dangerous either.
- We purchased a very strong mosquito repellent before leaving to Laos. I don't like to spray my children with chemicals, but it seemed a minor risk, compared to the one of catching malaria or dengue fever.
- For all other minor to moderate  health issues, we have packed the pharmacy bag with all kinds of pills, strips and syrups. Seek advice from your pediatrician before you leave.
- For severe wounds or diseases, the advice given by expatriates is to avoid local hospitals and drive/fly to Bangkok, which has some of the best hospitals in Asia.

Travel budget:
- Life is slightly more expensive in Laos than in the neighboring Thailand and Cambodia. Nevertheless it is much cheaper than in most western countries. When traveling with a large family, you can keep your budget constantly under control. 
- Most hotels do not have specific family rooms but can propose appropriate options: triples where the children sleep together in one bed, twins with large beds that easily accommodate 2 adults and 2 children. Most hotels and guesthouses that we visited in Laos were very clean, even the ones in the lower price range.
- Children almost never pay entrance fees to touristic sites.
- For our journeys, we always purchased 3 tickets: one seat for my husband, one for me, the kids shared the last one.

Do's and don't in Laos:
This is the title of a small brochure, designed as a comic book, that you can get from tourist information centers. My children loved to learn about habits and customs in Laos. They also memorized a few words in Laotian, such as "hello" and "thank you". Although it is polite to ask for permission to take a picture, note that Lao people will often take pictures of your children, without requesting prior permission. They also regularly touch or gently grab the kids. Women even took my baby from my arms and disappeared in their home, in order to show this fair-skinned, blond toddler to their family. Those situations are difficult to avoid. On the other hand, no harm is meant and it is often a good way to get in contact with people.