The Best Family-Friendly Places To Visit In Thailand

Family-Friendly Cities To Visit In Thailand

Family-Friendly Cities To Visit In Thailand
By David Luekens

Bangkok, home to about 11 million people—up to 20 million if you include the entire metro area—is one of Asia’s grandest megacities.

The unofficial northern capital of Chiang Mai, and the smaller cities of Ubon Ratchathani, Chanthaburi and Nakhon Si Thammarat can’t compete with Bangkok in terms of size, but they have their own attractions and are well worth visiting.

Here's a rundown on Thailand's best family-friendly cities, and what to do there.

Family-friendly cities in Thailand

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Thailand Bangkok Aerial view of Bangkok Skyline along Chaophraya River

The bustling Thai capital can be surprisingly child-friendly

Bangkok

Thai people refer to their capital not as Bangkok, but as Krung Thep Mahanakhon - Sacred City of Angels. This gives you a sense of how important Bangkok is to Thailand in so many ways - commercially, historically, and even spiritually, because of the reverence in which the king is held. He is viewed as a future Buddha.

The city is a key transport hub and most foreign tourists pass through it at least once while in Thailand. You’ll see bustling street life alongside soaring high rises; stylish people alongside pockets of a more traditional Thailand. For many visitors, the most exciting part of a Bangkok visit is simply a walk through the streets.

Family-friendly things to do in Bangkok

A half day in the historic district is a must to take in key sites like Wat Pho's 46m-long gilded reclining Buddha, the lavish mix of 18th and 19th century architecture at the Grand Palace, and Phu Khao Thong, the Golden Mount affording views of the city set to chiming prayer bells. In between, thrill the kids with a ride in one of the city’s sputtering tuk tuks.

You haven't really seen a mall until you've seen one in Bangkok. At Terminal 21, teens lose hours browsing boutiques full of trendy Thai and other Asian designs. Many malls have children’s play centres and extras like Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum at Siam Discovery, even an ice-skating rink at Central World. Siam Paragon's VIP movie theatre with full-size sofa seating and gourmet hor d'oeuvres is another option.

There’s mask painting, puppetry and evocative canal-side life at the Artist House of Khlong Bang Luang, one of several stops on Thonburi's famous khlong (canal) tours. Visit the well-known Jim Thompson's House near Siam Square, and cross the canal to Baan Krua Nua to see some of the forgotten yet functioning studios - the kind of workshops that inspired Thompson to launch his world-famous silk brand in the 1950s.

For an all-out kids’ day in Bangkok, try the Dream World amusement park and make education fun at the Children’s Discovery Museum. Throw in a river ferry ride on the Chao Phraya followed by dinner, and finish with a spin on the ferris wheel at Asiatique.

Don't forget a day trip to the city’s colourful floating markets, including Amphawa and Tha Kha in nearby Samut Songkhram, and Khlong Lat Mayom. And several tour companies offer trips to two pockets of farmland - Bang Kachao and Ko Kret - that burst with greenery, despite the surrounding urban sprawl..

Another fun option is the 44-metre tall copper elephant statue depicting the vehicle of Hindu god Indra at Erawan Museum, southeast of Bangkok and accessible by sky train. Step inside this imposing elephant's belly to look for scenes from every world religion beneath a tremendous stained glass ceiling crafted by the late German artist, Jakob Schwarzkopf.

Need to know

Bangkok is cramped, choked with traffic and often extremely hot. Don’t squeeze in too many activities in a day, and look for air-conditioned spots to cool down. Try to avoid using the metro and the roads during rush hours.

Bangkok has three red-light districts but all are hidden away on side streets, making them easy to avoid. They are Patpong off the northeast end of Silom and Surawong roads, Nana Plaza at Sukhumvit Soi 4, and Soi Cowboy off the southeast end of Asok-Montri Rd near Sukhumvit Soi 23 (soi means side street and this is often how areas are found).

Thailand Chiang Rai market

Chiang Mai is famous for its night markets and street-side stalls

Chiang Mai

Home to at least one million people, the city straddles the Ping River valley in the scenic north of Thailand. Locals speak a particular dialect and retain a spirit of independence thanks partly to Chiang Mai's history as capital of the Lanna Kingdom, which became part of Siam in 1893.

The city is one of Thailand's most popular tourist destinations. There are hundreds of guesthouses, hotels, travel offices and eateries in a square-shaped historic district rimmed by some of the original city walls. Often referred to as the capital of the north, the city is in fact the capital of the same-named province which is the second largest in Thailand.

Family-friendly things to do in Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is probably best known for its glistening 14th to 17th century Lanna-style temples. With their gilded surfaces, multi-tiered sloped roofs and lacquer doors, they are among the most graceful examples of Thailand's historic architecture.

Two of the most captivating temples are Wat Chedi Luang in the town centre and Wat Doi Suthep perched on a mountain of the same name overlooking the city. Most temples are free to visit, but donations are welcome; some larger ones charge small admission fees. Temples in the central historical district can be reached on foot or by bicycle. To reach Wat Doi Suthep you'll need to arrange a songthaew or taxi.

The city is also famous for its night markets, including a nightly bazaar east of the old town and a Saturday and Sunday “walking street” that takes over an entire road west of Tha Pae Gate in the old town. The atmosphere is lively with street musicians, artists painting on-the-spot portraits, and a variety of street food.

Speaking of food, there are some 50 cookery schools in the city, teaching classics like tom yum, green curry and pad Thai, along with northern Thai specialities like gaeng hang lay, a rich and mild pork curry. Cookery courses cost from as little as 800 baht each, and child-focused classes are available.

Trekking is big business, and guided hikes, suitable for older children and teens, are typically combined with rafting, mountain biking, zip lining, elephant care and/or visiting hill tribes. There are countless tour companies in Chiang Mai, so do some research and possibly arrange a private tour.

Need to know

Observing hill tribes such as the Akha, Lisu, and Lahu can be educational, but some villages, such as those of the Karen “long neck” people, have been over-touristed to the point of exploitation and are best avoided.

Sang Chan Waterfall Moonlight Waterfall at Pha Taem National Park Ubon Ratchathani province Thailand

Sang Chan Waterfall at Pha Taem National Park, near Ubon Ratchathani

Ubon Ratchathani

Thailand's north-eastern region, also known as Isaan, draws only a fraction of the tourists that pour into other parts of the country, but it has some great attractions, a famously intense cuisine, and Lao-speaking people who haven't been hardened by mainstream tourism. One of the best places to get a taste of this compelling region is Ubon Ratchathani.

Family-friendly things to do in Ubon Ratchathani

This laid-back city along the Moon River has many attractive temples, including Wat Nong Bua with its sparkling white-and-gold replica of the pagoda that marks the site in India where the Buddha is believed to have been enlightened more than 2,500 years ago. A tuk tuk or samlor (three-wheeled bicycle with a seat in back) ride is a fun way to tour the temples.

At the heart of the city lies Thung Si Muang, a park with sports facilities and a small but informative museum with artefacts found in the area, which was first settled by Khmer people more than a millennium ago. The atmosphere gets lively around dusk, when the joggers come out and night markets take shape.

Consider heading east to relax by the Mekong River in Khong Chiam and explore the waterfalls and 3,000-year-old cliff art in Pha Taem National Park.

Folk dance at opening Nang Talung Museum House of The National Artist Suchart Subsin thailand

Folk dancing at Nang Talung Museum, in Nakhon Si Thammarat

Nakhon Si Thammarat

One of the largest cities in southern Thailand, Nakhon Si Thammarat is only 100km south of the ferry pier for Ko Samui. It has been inhabited continuously for close to a millennium, and was once an important Buddhist kingdom whose dominion reached as far as what is now northern Malaysia.

Family-friendly things to do in Nakhon Si Thammarat

The centrepiece of Nakhon is the 13th century, 78-metre tall, Sri Lankan style chedi at Wat Phra Mahathat. Many smaller chedis and Buddha images encircle the site, which signifies cooperation between rulers of Sri Lanka and Nakhon in ancient times. For more on this rich history, visit the Nakhon Si Thammarat National Museum.

Further south, and great for children, check out the art of shadow puppetry, or nang thalung, at Suchart Subsin's House. The house’s puppeteers carve their puppets out of cow hides and bring them to life by holding them over a bright light. The performances use only the puppets’ shadows thrown on to a screen.

East of the city is Laem Talumphuk, Thailand's longest cape lined by scenic beaches and seafood restaurants. Further north is Khanom, a sleepy seaside town good for families looking for a beach away from tourist crowds.

Chanthaboon with landmark with old building village and golden temple in during the night time beautiful and wonderful water reflection at Chanthaburi Province Thailand

Traditional waterfront houses at Chanthaboon old town, Chanthaburi

Chanthaburi

Most tourists catch a glimpse of Chanthaburi, the City of the Moon, from a bus while heading to Ko Chang or another island in the eastern Gulf. But leave the bus and you'll find a city with a diverse cultural heritage and late 19th century architecture along the Chanthaburi River.

Family-friendly things to do in Chanthaburi

In the Chanthaboon old town you’ll see the elaborate heritage houses still in use as residences, shops, hotels and eateries. Many of the houses show the delicate design influences of the Chinese settlers and French colonialists who ruled the province from 1893 to 1905.

The city has a large Vietnamese Catholic community and is home to the riverside Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Thailand's largest church. Try the Vietnamese food nearby and take a boat ride for a different view of the old town's historic buildings.

You could arrange a tour to the waterfalls at Khao Khitchakut and Nam Tok Phliao national parks, or head for one of the many attractive beaches and bays. The aquarium and mangrove walkway at Kung Krabaen Bay will entertain youngsters; Laem Son Beach has old prisons built by the French, preserved as historical sites.

The old town area has several good hotels, including some in heritage buildings with river views. A family in a private vehicle might consider staying at a resort on the coast to relax in a Thai-style beach town. The beaches of Chao Lao, Laem Son and Kung Wiman all offer solid selections of lodgings at a range of prices.

Thailand Chiang Rai Wat Rong Khun White Temple

Chiang Rai's famous Wat Rong Khun, 'White Temple'

Chiang Rai

Thailand's northernmost province is often overlooked by travellers assuming that Chiang Mai is the must-visit destination up north. Both are worth a visit, but Chiang Rai is hard to beat for vistas of layered mountains and one of Asia's grandest rivers, the Mekong. And there are several tour outfits offering jungle trekking to villages that are home to hill tribes, such as the Lahu.

Family-friendly things to do in Chiang Rai

Start with three of Thailand's most imaginative structures: Wat Rong Khun (White Temple), Wat Rang Suea Ten (Blue Temple) and Baan Dum (Black House). Designed by two Thai artists, they feature creative interpretations of the country’s spiritual themes in art and architecture.

Then there are great options in the countryside. Soak up Mekong River views in relaxing Chiang Khong; observe 700-year-old ruins in Chiang Saen, an early capital of the Lanna kingdom that predates Chiang Mai; gaze at the Golden Triangle, where Thailand meets Laos and Myanmar in an area that was once notorious for drug smuggling.

When you're ready to hit the mountains, enjoy the temperate flower gardens and tea farms perched 1,100 to 1,700 metres high at Phu Chee Fah, Doi Tung, and Mae Salong. It gets chilly up there so pack semi-warm clothes.

Destinations like the ones above can each be visited on an overnight basis or as day trips from the provincial capital. For an adventure, take a bus to Tha Ton in northern Chiang Mai province and then catch a longtail boat down the Kok River to Chiang Rai.

Family-Friendly Cities To Visit In Thailand

David Luekens

Based in Thailand since 2011, David first waded into Southeast Asia in the early 2000s via friendships forged in the Thai, Vietnamese and Karen communities of Vermont, almost Canada, USA. He is a bona fide nerd in maps, islands and travel planning with a research background in Buddhism and the environmental, political and human rights issues of Southeast Asia. Bylines include CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveller China and more than 100 Travelfish guides.

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