I first travelled to Thailand in 2002 and spent ten weeks treading the well trodden path many a backpacker had before me. SangSom buckets featured heavily, as did sore heads, new friends and chilling in hammocks. The land of smiles stole my heart and further visits followed in 2003, 2004 and 2005. Needless to say, lots of appropriate fun for my early twenties self was had. We’ve just returned from a two and a half week holiday as a family of five, with children aged 5, 7 and 9. As you can imagine, Thailand with kids was a vastly different experience. Sharing our highlights and insights, for those who are thinking of planning their own adventure. Be warned, it’s a long piece. So grab a cuppa and put your feet up before starting to read.
Bangkok: allow yourselves the jet lag and plan an easy first day
We took a night flight out of the UK, which departed at midday and arrived in Bangkok at 6am Thai time. The reason we chose this option was because it meant having a full first day on holiday, even if we were going to be super tired. This was still preferable for us to landing in the evening and (probably) being up all night with jet lag.
Our hotel had a pool, and although more expensive than others we could have booked, it meant we had options. In the planning stages, we knew if all else failed, the kids would love to swim, it really was a godsend that first day. I might have had a teeny tiny nap on one of the sun loungers while we were waiting for our room.
Although we had drawn up a massive list of potential activities to do in Bangkok, we decided on the path of least resistance. By avoiding over crowded tourist attractions, we made staying awake (rather than sightseeing) our main priority. Running around the lovely nearby park, which had a couple of kids playground areas, kept things similar to home, so it wasn’t too overwhelming. Street food was had for lunch, and it was as gentle an introduction as possible to being the furthest from home the children had ever been.
TOP TIP: If you sleep loads on the flight and the whole family are full of beans, you’ll probably want energetic things to do. If you end up in a similar situation to us, chances are you’ll need more low key ideas. Make sure you do your research in advance, so you have activity options for both eventualities. That way you won’t be stressed at the time trying to figure out what to do.
By 4pm everyone was really struggling, so we took the sky train one stop to Terminal 21, a huge air conditioned shopping mall. We weren’t interested in buying stuff, but we’d heard the food court on the top floor had great eats at reasonable prices and weren’t disappointed.
Terminal 21 is much less high end and designer than the other shopping malls in the area, which it needed to be with our grubby, exhausted kids. Each floor resembles a different city from around the world, and the escalators are massive too, which pleased our little crew greatly. T21 turned out to be absolutely perfect for our needs that evening. Everyone managed to find something to eat and by the time we were back at the hotel, it was just about okay to crawl into bed.
TOP TIP: book a hotel with local amenities suitable for your kids ages. There are tons of gorgeous parks dotted around Bangkok, so it isn’t too difficult. Keeping jet lagged children awake, when all they want to do is sleep, is ridiculously hard. Ensuring ours were entertained enough, but not worn out to the point of exhaustion, really helped get us through those first 24 hours.
Bangkok: a birthday at the Damnoen Saduak floating market
We only had two days in the capital, and the second day was Clara’s 7th birthday. Wanting it to be special we decided to head to the famous floating market in Damnoen Saduak. Stall holders sell their wares on the banks of narrow canals, while small long tail boats guide tourists. Entrance was 4000 baht (approx. £100), which covers the boat ride around the market.
Produce ranges from locally grown fruit to hand crafted wooden animals. Clothes, accessories, jewellery, artwork, toys, trinkets. Even a man holding a massive snake (see below). Everything was exceptionally over priced, even by UK standards. You’ll see the exact same goods being sold for much less elsewhere, especially if you venture up north. Definitely something to be aware of if this is your first time in Thailand, or if the market happens to be your first shopping excursion after arriving.
However, all three children are saying it was one of their main highlights of the entire trip and you really can’t put a price on that. We managed to keep costs down by being sensible and not buying too much. I’ll be writing a separate piece about getting the most from the market, because there’s so much to say.
TOP TIP: don’t feel obliged to buy anything, but barter, barter, barter if you do! Our purchases ended up being between 30-60% cheaper than the first prices we were given.
Chaing Mai: this contains most of my best memories from going to Thailand with kids
Next up we flew to Chiang Mai, and from the very first day absolutely adored it. Truth be told, this was one of my biggest surprises. I’d only been once before, on my very first trip in 2002. I spent about a week there, doing a jungle trek in the mountains and shopping. My memories of it made it feel like it was a transit stop, where people only stayed for a few days before heading somewhere else. Nowadays it’s a vibrant, chilled out city. Full of content locals, laid back travellers and interesting things to see and do. Perhaps it was always this way, I just didn’t feel a huge connection back then? Either way, I’m so glad we ventured back.
The food was incredible, there was an abundance of great coffee and locally brewed kombucha, in a variety of flavours, available in many restaurants. Being such a huge advocate of good gut health, this made me very happy indeed. Almost every place we went to was family friendly, and there didn’t seem to be much of a crazy party scene. (Although we obviously didn’t go looking for it.) Overall Chiang Mai provided the perfect antidote to Bangkok.
Chiang Mai Highlights
We stayed in the centre of the Old City, which is around 1.5km square, making it perfect for getting around mostly on foot. When the kids were too tired for walking, we caught tuk tuks. There were always plenty to choose from and were very reasonable, with a standard short hop fare being 100 baht (around £2.50).
Our centrally located guest house was on Ratchadamnoen Road, providing easy access to get about. We had quite a big hotel room in Bangkok, and were a little concerned when we first saw where we’d be sleeping for five nights. It was a basic triple room with three kingsized beds, a tiny bathroom, refrigerator and not much else. You know what though? No-one minded at all. The beds were comfortable, the air con worked perfectly and we didn’t need anything bigger. On our next adventure, we’ll definitely be staying in lower key guest houses and making do, rather than booking bigger accommodation. Which will save a small fortune!
TOP TIP: walk everywhere within reason, to get a good feel for this beautiful city.
We arrived on the Sunday and booked ourselves straight onto a half day cookery course for the Monday, with Asia Scenic. The 800 baht fee (approx. £20) included transportation, and all the food. We were collected at 8:30am, and started with a guided tour of a local market. A look around their kitchen-garden was next, as well as a masterclass in herbs and spices. Everyone was given a menu and we each chose several dishes to cook: spring rolls, noodles, a curry (including making the paste) and a soup.
I went for pad see ew, a traditional flat rice noodle dish, flavoured with soy and oyster sauce. Followed by massaman curry, an aromatic classic which starts by dry frying spices. Then my all time favourite flavour of soup, tom yum. It was incredible to learn how simple these recipes are to recreate, and we were given a cookbook to take home so we can continue making them. We’ve already had three different curries since being back.
Asia Scenic said if the kids could reach the stove, and were sensible around knives, they could join in. This ruled out 5yo Freddy, who hates food and wasn’t interested anyway. 7yo Clara started off cooking, but lost interest after the second dish. 9yo food-mad Polly absolutely loved the class, and I consider it to be one of my main highlights from the whole trip.
TOP TIP: take lots of activities for younger children, so they are entertained while the chefs do their cooking. There won’t be much for them to do otherwise, and they may get bored. Be prepared to ensure you can fully enjoy your class.
Art in Paradise
Tuesday we took life very easy, wandering around locally and checked out a few of the beautiful temples. On the Wednesday, we took a Tuk Tuk across town to Art in paradise, which is an interactive museum. Housed in a wonderfully cool building, full of 3D optical paintings which you climb inside so it looks like you’re part of the picture. So much fun!
We have photos escaping from a crocodile; petting a panda bear and trapped inside a giant bottle; to name but a few. Well worth checking out if you’re in town, and they also have other galleries throughout Thailand. We stayed for about two and a half hours, making it well worth the 1200 baht (approx. £30) combined entrance fee.
TOP TIP: everyone around you will be getting into the spirit and jumping into the artwork to take photos and videos. Just embrace it and try not to be embarrassed, even if you do feel a bit silly. You’ll kick yourself afterwards if you don’t take the opportunity to get great footage.
Sadly, elephant abuse is rife in Thailand. These poor creatures are often subjected to horrendous lives, where they are ridden on by tourists; put to work in the circus; dragged around the streets begging; and other horrors too sad for words. The fortunate ones end up in a sanctuary like the one we visited on Freddy’s 5th birthday.
Elephants here are free to do what they naturally love doing: eating and playing, whilst being cared for beautifully. Being in such close proximity to these giants was nothing short of awe inspiring.
However, if you’re thinking about doing something similar, please take note. Our minivan collected us at 8am, and dropped us back around 5pm, so it was a long day for the children. With lots of walking around in the blazing hot sun. In fairness, I think they could have happily called it a day after lunch, but there was another two hours left of the tour.
TOP TIP: if you are taking small children, consider bringing a stroller or sling for them. There will be lots of walking, much of which in the exposed sunshine, which might be too much for them to cope with. But don’t let that put you off, it’s an incredible experience and so worth doing regardless.
Ao Nang Highlights
From Chiang Mai we flew to Krabi, which is a two hour flight. We had booked a villa with a small private pool, on site of a little apartment complex in Ao Nang. It was about ten minutes drive to the beach, which we opted for because we knew it would be quieter than being among the main thoroughfare. Not to mention around half the price. Our guest house, and many of the others, offered a free drop off and collection to and from the beach.
Being able to fly into Krabi makes this a fabulous, and very family friendly holiday destination. There isn’t much of a party scene, and it provides a great base for going to islands such as Koh Phi Phi, Koh Hong and Koh Lanta. There were lots of lovely restaurants and amenities for children, without it being as expensive as some of the other southern islands.
Our eight night stay set us back approx. £1500, but in hindsight our villa was too big and we could have easily have managed in a two bedroom apartment. Once we were down south, everything was a lot more expensive, which we expected, but it’s worth taking into consideration if you’re on a budget. To save a bit of money, we made breakfast at the villa. There are many 7Eleven’s and mini marts dotted around Ao Nang, as well as a medium sized, well stocked Tesco.
TOP TIP: coming into Ao Nang beach from the main road, you can turn left or right. The left hand side has accommodation and restaurants just back from the beach (there’s nothing actually on the beach). This is where most people go to sunbathe, and it was quite crowded. Walking down on the right you’ll find lots of fab restaurants on the road opposite the beach. The beach itself was also a lot less busy.
4 Island Tour
We arrived on a Sunday evening and booked ourselves straight on a full day trip to see the 4 islands for the Monday. Guest houses and hotels will be able to organise tours for you, and they’re all pretty consistent in terms of pricing. It set us back 1200 baht per adult and 800 each for the children (approx £120 in total, and everything was included in the price). We were collected from our guest house and taken to Ao Nang pier where we picked up our speedboat. Which we were on for about fifteen minutes before arriving at our first stop.
Phra Nang Beach was first and exceptionally beautiful, if rather crowded. Princess Cave (photo above) is at the end of the beach, although we were in for a bit of a surprise. The cave is full of dildos, offerings to the princess from locals, apparently, which we were not forewarned about. I consider myself to be an open minded person, who doesn’t get too easily offended. However, we had young eyes with us, so it would have been nice to have known in advance. Luckily none of the kids noticed. We were given enough time to leisurely walk from one end of the beach to the other and take lots of lovely photos before the second stop.
Tup Island was next, where those who were snorkelling explored the sealife. We stopped here for enough time to see beautiful vibrant fish swimming around in shoals while we were paddling. Apparently when the tide is low, you can walk along the causeway to the neighbouring island.
Next up was Koh Gai, although we did not leave the boat. We stopped for long enough to take photos of this curious island which slightly resembles a chicken.
Last stop was Koh Poda, which is considered to be a jewel of the Andaman Sea. With its powdery white sand and turquoise water, it’s quite simply picture perfect. I can imagine many an Instagram selfie was taken here. This is where we spent most of our time – swimming, paddling and eating the delicious lunch which was provided.
TOP TIP: no amount of sunblock will be enough, which we learnt the hardest way with everyone getting burnt. Our kids hate the sensation of suncream being applied and we were far too laid back about reapplying it. It’s my only true regret from the entire holiday.
Our tenth wedding anniversary was the following day, so we headed to Railay Beach. In 2004 I spent a week there with one of my best friends, and it felt fitting to go back. The beach is still beautiful, but it’s quite built up these days. Well worth doing as a day trip though, and we travelled for ten minutes in a traditional long tail boat, which is an experience in itself. We happened upon a lovely restaurant in Ao Nang, where we had dinner on the way home. Watching the sun set on the beach was a super special ending to this momentous day.
TOP TIP: even if everyone is resisting the idea, factor at least one sunset on the beach into your itinerary. Such a magical experience.
Two days later Hubby and the girls went back to Railay and did some rock climbing. They say it was one of their main highlights, and they were all buzzing afterwards. Freddy and I stayed back and had a chilled day mooching around, mostly indoors. Little man desperately needed some time out of the sun. A bit of love bombing did him the world of good.
As tempting as it would have been to pack every day as solidly as we could, we had to make some judgement calls depending on how the kids were feeling. Travelling is incredibly enriching, but you still have to be a parent. When said kids have sensory issues, like ours do, chances are they will be exacerbated on holiday.
TOP TIP: just like at home, sometimes splitting the family up means everyone will have a nicer day.
The not so great bits about going to Thailand with kids
With Polly’s autism to consider, and Freddy’s eating and sensory sensitivities, we knew the trip wasn’t going to be a walk in the park. Polly had a good handful of overwhelmed moments, but on the whole, she did remarkably well. We took great care to ensure we were entertained enough so no one got bored, but wasn’t overdoing it so the kids felt exhausted. Clara coped amazingly well, and considering she likes her food fairly plain, she was adventurous and tried eating lots of new things.
Freddy struggled quite a bit. He only ate plain rice, pancakes and juices, and had meltdowns like we’d never seen from him. Every day we were by the sea he asked when we were going home. I’m not going to lie, there were times where it was super tricky to manage his needs, as well as keeping the rest of the family content. Hopefully he’ll fare up better on our next adventure.
Bangkok was as noisy, smelly and all out crazy as I remembered, but I didn’t enjoy it the way I used to. It’s difficult to articulate, as nothing happened, but I felt a bit uneasy the whole time we were there. Also, because of pollution, the air quality is appalling. The sky was so grey and sad, it kind of reminded me of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax.
Considering I used to view this city as one of my favourites in the whole world, I was taken back by how much I disliked being there. We also spent an insane amount of money, even though our hotel was middle of the road, we didn’t eat extravagantly and hardly picked up any shopping. Next time we go to Thailand I’ll be voting to skip it altogether.
Apart from Chiang Mai, a good cup of coffee was hard to come by. Being such coffee addicts, and snobs, we were very disappointed. Most restaurants and cafes served up cheap instant, and the only decent coffee shop we found in Ao Nang was extortionate (around £8 for two black Americanos).
On our second day by the sea we all got sunburnt (Polly and Clara worst) which put a dampener on the rest of the week. The freedom the kids had been enjoying, playing on the beach or by the pool, was replaced with having to carefully monitor their sun exposure. We applied cream before leaving the villa, and throughout the day, but this has taught us that you really can’t apply enough sunblock. Especially when the kids are in and out of the sea or pool. It’s worth taking into consideration that the sun is at its strongest between 2-4pm.
Sterling is pretty shocking right now and we were only getting between 36 and 40 baht to the pound. Compared with the 70 we used to get ‘back in the day’ it did hurt somewhat, but obviously we knew things were going to cost a lot more than they used to.
Was it easy? No! Was it worth it? Hell yeah!
Overall our Thailand with kids adventure was absolutely epic. The jet lag, sunburn, hideous sleep (nothing new there!), dodgy belly, etc etc, are almost already forgotten. Give it another few weeks and all I’ll remember will be the best bits.
This trip has ignited a desire to travel more, and now the kids have successfully done their first long haul, the world is our oyster.
The only question is: where to next?