Despite the relative lack of child-centred attractions in Thailand, there’s plenty to appeal to families, both on the beach and inland, and Thais are famously welcoming to young visitors.
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Of all the beach resorts in the country, two of the most family friendly are the islands of Ko Samui and Ko Lanta. Both have plenty of on-the-beach accommodation for mid- and upper-range budgets, and lots of easy-going open-air shorefront restaurants so that adults can eat in relative peace while kids play within view. Both islands also offer many day-tripping activities, from elephant riding to snorkelling. Phuket is another family favourite, though shorefront accommodation here is at a premium; there are also scores of less mainstream alternatives. In many beach resorts older kids will be able to go kayaking or learn rock climbing, and many dive centres will teach the PADI children’s scuba courses on request: the Bubblemaker programme is open to 8- and 9-year-olds and the Discover Scuba Diving day is designed for anyone 10 and over.
Inland, the many national parks and their waterfalls and caves are good for days out, and there are lots of opportunities to go rafting and elephant riding. Kanchanaburi is a rewarding centre for all these, with the added plus that many of the town’s guesthouses are set round decent-sized lawns. Chiang Mai is another great hub for all the above and also offers boat trips, an attractive, modern zoo and aquarium, the chance to watch umbrella-makers and other craftspeople at work, and, in the Mae Sa valley, many family-oriented attractions, such as the botanical gardens and butterfly farms. Bangkok has several child-friendly theme parks and activity centres (see Bangkok for kids).
Should you be in Thailand in January, your kids will be able to join in the free entertainments and activities staged all over the country on National Children’s Day (Wan Dek), which is held on the second Saturday of January. They also get free entry to zoos that day, and free rides on public buses.
Hotels and transport
Many of the expensive hotels listed in this guide allow one or two under-12s to share their parents’ room for free, as long as no extra bedding is required. It’s often possible to cram two adults and two children into the double rooms in budget and mid-range hotels (as opposed to guesthouses), as beds in these places are usually big enough for two. An increasing number of guesthouses now offer three-person rooms, and may even provide special family accommodation. Decent cots are available free in the bigger hotels, and in some smaller ones (though cots in these places can be a bit grotty), and top and mid-range rooms often come with a small fridge. Many hotels can also provide a babysitting service.
Few museums or transport companies offer student reductions, but in some cases children get discounts. One of the more bizarre provisos is the State Railway’s regulation that a child aged 3 to 12 qualifies for half-fare only if under 150cm tall; some stations have a measuring scale painted onto the ticket-hall wall. Most domestic airlines charge ten percent of the full fare for under-2s, and fifty percent for under-12s.
Although most Thai babies don’t wear them, disposable nappies (diapers) are sold at convenience stores, pharmacies and supermarkets in big resorts and sizeable towns; for stays on lonely islands, consider bringing some washable ones as back-up. A changing mat is another necessity as there are few public toilets in Thailand, let alone ones with baby facilities (though posh hotels are always a useful option). International brands of powdered milk are available throughout the country, and brand-name baby food is sold in big towns and resorts, though some parents find restaurant-cooked rice and bananas go down just as well. Thai women do not breastfeed in public.
For touring, child-carrier backpacks are ideal. Opinions are divided on whether or not it’s worth bringing a buggy or three-wheeled stroller. Where they exist, Thailand’s pavements are bumpy at best, and there’s an almost total absence of ramps; sand is especially difficult for buggies, though less so for three-wheelers. Buggies and strollers do, however, come in handy for feeding and even bedding small children, as highchairs and cots are only provided in more upmarket restaurants and hotels. You can buy buggies fairly cheaply in most towns, but if you bring your own and then wish you hadn’t, most hotels and guesthouses will keep it for you until you leave. Bring an appropriately sized mosquito net if necessary or buy one locally in any department store; a mini sun tent for the beach is also useful. Taxis and car-rental companies almost never provide baby car seats, and even if you bring your own you’ll often find there are no seatbelts to strap them in with. Most department stores have dedicated kids’ sections selling everything from bottles to dummies. There are even several Mothercare outlets in Bangkok.
Even more than their parents, children need protecting from the sun, unsafe drinking water, heat and unfamiliar food. Consider packing a jar of a favourite spread so that you can always rely on toast if all else fails to please. As with adults, you should be careful about unwashed fruit and salads and about dishes that have been left uncovered for a long time. As diarrhoea could be dangerous for a child, rehydration solutions (see Worms and flukes) are vital if your child goes down with it. Other significant hazards include thundering traffic; huge waves, strong currents and jellyfish; and the sun – not least because many beaches offer only limited shade, if at all. Sunhats, sunblock and waterproof suntan lotions are essential, and can be bought in the major resorts. You should also make sure, if possible, that your child is aware of the dangers of rabies; keep children away from animals, especially dogs and monkeys, and ask your medical advisor about rabies jabs.
Information and advice
Nancy Chandler’s Family Travel wnancychandler.net/travelwkids.asp. Plenty of unusual ideas on Thai-style entertainment for kids, plus tips, links and Thailand-themed kids’ books.
Thailand 4 Kids wthailand4kids.com. Lots of advice on the practicalities of family holidays in Thailand.