Thailand is often referred to as "The Land of a Thousand Smiles." Regarded for its friendly people and natural beauty, it is a popular destination for travelers looking for adventure, historical and cultural exploration, great food, and tropical weather. Thailand can be a family-friendly destination with some planning. Read on for a guide to suggested cities and some general tips for visiting.
Places to visit
Bangkok is the capital of the country, located centrally and close to the coast, and one of the main international hubs. Bangkok is huge and busy, but for good reason--there is much to do and many good eats. Buddhist temples and museums abound. When you've had your fill of that, it's fun to just wander around the city and do some shopping. Clothes and souvenirs in many of the markets are extremely cheap. If you've got a knack for cooking, there are many schools that offer cooking classes, which can make for a great family activity.
There are so many great places to eat for any price range, but nothing beats authentic Pad Thai straight from a street vendor for less than $1 per person. You'll also run into many Western fast food chains if you're craving some familiar food, such as Burger King and McDonald's (many of which have a more laid-back "Starbucks" feel and are much nicer than the American versions). For quick snacks, both Western and Thai, there are 7 Eleven's on just about every corner. If you decide to venture out of the city (even as far as the suburbs) be prepared to practice your Thai.
If you want to get away from the hustle and bustle of crowded Bangkok, consider the beach town of Hua Hin, just a couple hours south of the capital and on the east coast. It's easily accessible by taxi for a decent price or organized van rides if you've got a large brood. If relaxing at the beach while the kids play is your idea of a vacation, then this is a great place to visit. Get a massage at the beach or take the kids on a pony ride.
Hua Hin has a large expat community, so you will find many English speakers, however it's not nearly as touristy as many of the beach cities in Southern Thailand and many of the town's sights are easily accessible by foot or a quick, cheap taxi ride. You'll find a wide variety of food including sea food, Thai, Indian, Japanese, and Western cuisine.
It might be tempting to spend the entirety of your vacation at Thailand's beautiful beaches, but you won't want to miss out on the sights of Northern Thailand. By far one of the most popular destinations is Chiang Mai in the northeast. Chiang Mai has history, culture, shopping, night life, and great dining. The city features many food and handicraft markets on the weekends as well as a daily night bazaar filled with crafts and delicious food.
Make sure to reserve time for adventure outside of the city such as zip lining or elephant parks. There are many places that are family friendly where you can feed elephants, learn about their care, and take a ride. (Do your research first, though. There are many legitimate parks but also many "camps" with questionable treatment of the animals.)
In Bangkok you can rely primarily on the Sky Train to get around the city. In Bangkok and most other cities you'll find taxis are an inexpensive way to get around. You'll also see the tuk-tuk (pronounced "took took"), an open three-wheeled auto rickshaw popular with tourists. Most will accommodate a family or 3, possibly 4, but if you've got a larger clan you'll have to look for some of the bigger ones. Also, hold on tight to the kids as there are no seatbelts and keep all hands inside the vehicle, tuk-tuks can go pretty fast, and Thai driving can sometimes be a little crazy.
For destinations within a few hours, there's also the option of organized van trips or hiring a private van (a more expensive option than a taxi but sometimes necessary if you've got a large group).
If you're traveling between major cities in Thailand, trains and buses can be pretty slow so opt for a domestic flight instead, especially if you've got kids in tow. For example, a bus ride between Bangkok and Chiang Mai would cost around 15USD and take about 10 hours. For about 30-50USD you can get a one-way flight from the domestic airline Nok Air instead that takes just an hour or two. Lastly, you can always rent a car if you have an International Driving Permit. However, you'll want to familiarize yourself with traffic regulations and signs (in the Thai alphabet). Cars also drive on the left-hand side of the road in Thailand. If possible, rely on taxis and domestic flights, driving in Thailand is not for the faint of heart.
While one can find accommodations for any budget, you'll likely discover that you can find luxurious accommodations at much lower prices than expected. Many hotels and guest houses have an online presence, so do your research online beforehand. If you enjoy spending time in your hotel after a long day of activities, look for places with WiFi connections. Many hotels and guesthouses will also have associated massage parlors and spas, as well as tour guides.
The chain Imperial Hotels are found throughout Thailand and come highly recommended. In the off-season you can book a room for about 40-50USD a night for a standard room with a queen sized bed. These hotels are very family friendly and often include big pools, spas, and great restaurants. Be warned though: it may be hard to leave the hotel!
Tips and things to consider before you visit
- Drinking tap water is discouraged, so plan to always have some extra bottled water on hand for drinking and brushing your teeth. Bottled water is cheap and readily available.
- Your doctor may recommend a variety of vaccines (Hepatitis A and B, Typhoid Fever, Japanese Encephalitis) as well as anti-malarial medications depending on where you plan to travel. Some of these may not be routinely covered by insurance.
- Don't forget to negotiate! Taxis in the city are usually metered but for taxis outside the city and for most tuk-tuks, you should negotiate fare prices with the driver. You should also negotiate when shopping at bazaars and local markets.
- Grab a recently-published travel guide right before you visit. Lonely Planet has great guides to all over the world with accurate and up-to-date recommendations and maps. Check out Lonely Planet's Thailand, Thailand's Islands and Beaches, or you can purchase individual chapters based on the particular city you plan on visiting.
- Research the weather when planning your trip. Thailand can get pretty hot, and also has heavy rainy seasons which can differ drastically by region.
- Depending on where you're coming from, Thailand can be expensive and a bit of a hike to get to. From the US, expect at least two legs to your flight, at least 12 hours of flight time, and to pay 1200USD and up for a round-trip ticket for one person. If you and your kids can manage the flight, you'll find Thailand can be relatively inexpensive and a worthwhile experience.
- Thailand is a safe country to visit with family. As when visiting any foreign country, use good judgement and exercise common sense. Women should dress comfortably but modestly. Stay together and stay in proximity to locales with other tourists and English speakers.