The Best Family-Friendly Places To Visit In Thailand

Planning A Family-Friendly Trip To Thailand

Planning A Family-Friendly Trip To Thailand
By David Luekens

Thai people adore kids, often doting over foreign children like celebrities. Visitors travelling with children usually encounter the best of Thai charm.

And the country also offers terrific value, quality accommodation for all budgets, a huge selection of destinations and activities, and the travel and tourism infrastructure is well established – all of which means the country is beautiful, welcoming and safe.

Ready to go? Here’s an essential guide to planning a family-friendly trip to Thailand.

How to plan a family-friendly trip to Thailand

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Getting around with kids in Thailand

You can hire a car but using public transport and hiring local drivers or tour companies for excursions works well in much of Thailand. Bus, train and ferry tickets can almost always be booked as you go, unless you plan to get really off the beaten track or you’re intending to use the sleeper trains from Bangkok to Chiang Mai, or Surat Thani. Don't expect sleeper berths if you don’t book ahead.

You can buy bus and train tickets online, but it's often easier to get tickets at transport stations or from small travel agencies at street level, many of which can be found online as well. Widely available at popular tourist destinations, these old-style travel outlets can arrange a transfer from your hotel to the bus or ferry to ease your journey. They can also help to arrange tours, private drivers, and more.

Most families book lodgings and internal flights in advance. Booking rooms weeks before you leave home could mean lower rates, availability of the best lodgings, and more time to enjoy your trip. Do compare room rates at a given property's official website (if available) with hotel-booking websites.

If your trip coincides with holiday periods - Christmas week, Lunar New Year and Songkran (Thai New Year), for example - be sure to book rooms well in advance or you might find slim pickings, especially on the islands.

One note of warning for families: Taxis often don’t have child-safety seats.

In the cities

Bangkok's metro can be confusing. It consists of three systems - BTS, MRT and SRT, and between them they reach most of the key areas and attractions, and both airports. If you’re switching from one system to another - and sometimes if you’re switching to a different line within the same system - you have to pay a separate fare. All three are safe, clean and reliable, but getting a pram or bulky luggage on board can be a challenge during rush hours. The staff do their best to help, but some stations are not wheelchair accessible.

Ferries cross Bangkok’s Chao Phraya River, and also cover longer distances. The cramped local ferries stop at dozens of piers marked by orange flags, while ferries geared towards tourists only stop near major attractions, and cost three times more. Another ferry runs on the San Saeb Canal, linking the historic district to the main shopping area, and beyond. All the ferries can be fun to use, but getting on and off the local ferries can be hectic at busy times.

Tuk tuks (three-wheeled motorised trikes with seating for three adults behind the driver) are common. The noisy machines are best avoided during rush hours in Bangkok, when you risk breathing in traffic fumes. And be warned, they do not have seatbelts.

Taxis are cheap and easy to catch anywhere in Bangkok. Grab is the most popular ride-hailing app.

Regular taxis have meters that drivers are required by law to use, but some will try to negotiate a fixed price at the start of the journey. Others may not turn the meter on and then surprise the unsuspecting passenger with an exorbitant bill. Before getting in, politely ask the driver to use the meter. If they refuse, simply flag down the next one.

Tuk tuks do not have meters so you need to negotiate the fare with the driver, which often means the ride will be pricier than the taxi equivalent.

The most common form of public transport in provincial Thailand is the songthaew, a small pick-up truck with a roof over two benches in the back of the truck. They usually have pre-determined routes but in some areas they can also be booked as taxis. They tend to be cheap, but drivers in touristy areas will charge a premium. Again, be warned, they don’t have seatbelts.

If you want to walk, Bangkok can be a challenge. Smaller cities are more pedestrian-friendly and some towns are conducive to bicycles, available from travel agents and, sometimes, from lodgings. Motorbike rental is more widely available, but do read the safety concerns below.

Between cities and islands

With an international driving licence you can hire a car at the airports as well as at local offices, either on the spot or by booking ahead. Many travel agencies offer cars and vans with drivers, be it for a single journey or an entire trip. You can also arrange a taxi or songthaew for private day trips but you’ll need to negotiate the price with the driver.

Not surprisingly, hiring a car will be more expensive than public transport, but it may make sense if you have a large family. It may also be the only way to get a child-safety seat.

For longer journeys, Thailand has well-developed networks of inter-provincial bus, train, sea and air services. Dabbling in each is a good way to go.

Most domestic flights are cheaper in Thailand than in the West, and Bangkok links with 34 commercial airports. Phuket and Ko Samui are the only islands with airports, but some airlines offer all-in tickets covering the flight, a van to the pier and a ferry to your island. Airlines providing domestic services in Thailand include THAI, Thai Smile, Bangkok Airways, Nok Air, Thai AirAsia, Thai Lion Air and Thai VietJet. You won’t find some of them on booking sites. Note that Bangkok has two major airports, Suvarnabhumi (BKK) and Don Mueang (DMK). If you have to change planes in Bangkok, be sure to book flights that use the same airport, or factor in an extra two hours to take a shuttle bus from one to the other.

The State Railway of Thailand (SRT) operates trains on four main lines: Northern, Western, Southern and North-eastern. Railways do not run to most of the eastern seaboard or the southwest coast. New trains are now in service on popular routes, but most are old and slow. They can be fun though, and private cabins are available along with sleeper bunks and three classes of seats. For short trips, second-class fares with cushioned seats, open windows and fans are usually suitable for families.

The sprawling public bus system - a mix of many private companies and the government’s reliable Transport Company (with a 999 logo) - reaches from Bangkok to every provincial capital. Passenger vans, or rot tuu, are increasingly replacing the full-size rot tour buses for regional routes. These vans are often cramped and dangerously driven, with no child safety seats, so do check if a regular bus is available instead. Many of the full-size buses have bathrooms.

Boats to the islands range from multi-deck vehicle ferries to large speedboats, and slow wooden vessels access small islands near the mainland. Island-hopping ferries connect islands within certain regions and archipelagos, but only during the dry season in the Ko Chang archipelago (eastern Gulf of Thailand), and the lower Andaman Sea south of Ko Lanta.

Longtail boats are great fun for private island-hopping over short distances, especially in the southwest where these banana-shaped vessels are most common. You'll also find sailboat, speedboat and yacht charters available online and through travel agencies at popular islands and beaches.

Keeping your family safe and healthy

Travel can be slow and tiring. Trains run late, taxis get stuck in traffic, language barriers, though usually surmountable with patience, can cause confusion and frustration. Some travel agents, taxi drivers and seemingly friendly strangers do try to overcharge or scam foreigners.

Be on your guard, but it's also important to maintain jai yen - a cool heart. Thai society values composure. Staying calm and patient in difficult situations nearly always helps to solve problems. Getting angry and confrontational invariably makes things worse.

Most of Thailand is suitable for families with children, but keep the following safety issues in mind.

On the road

Thailand has one of the world’s highest rates of road traffic deaths. Unlicensed driving, drink-driving, riding motorbikes on the wrong side of the road, and other reckless road uses, are all common.

Planes and trains are safer than full-size buses (especially at night), which in turn are safer than public vans. Motorbikes are the most dangerous. Every year tourists riding with little understanding of Thai traffic laws and unwritten road rules end up in hospital, or worse, with hefty medical bills not covered by travel insurance.

An international or Thai motorcycle licence is essential if you're going to ride even a low-powered scooter, and check that your insurance policy gives you the right cover. Motorbike rental outlets do not usually offer insurance. Typically, the renter is responsible for damage to the bike and for injuries they cause others. Helmets are essential, and beware that large islands like Phuket, Ko Samui, and Ko Chang are particularly dangerous.

Thailand is a left-driving country like the UK and Australia, but driving similarities end there. Aggressiveness is the norm. Courtesies common in the West, like stopping to let pedestrians cross the road, can be dangerous in Thailand because they're likely to cause confusion. Also, when a driver flashes their headlights in Thailand, it means “stay out of my way!”.

If you’re walking, assume that pedestrians never have the right of way over a vehicle, even at zebra crossings (crosswalks). Beware of crossing a road even if a walk signal is flashing, and use pedestrian bridges if possible. Keep small children close to you.

Crime and violence

Muggings are rare in Thailand, but watch out for bag snatchers and pickpockets. Sexual violence and harassment of women is a longstanding problem, but the threat is reduced significantly for women travelling with a family. Violent crime occurs mostly late at night, often at bars, and typically involving personal conflicts.

Thailand's political situation has long been plagued by instability and repeated military coups. Turbulent political demonstrations hit Bangkok periodically with some violence and public disorder, though foreigners have never been targeted. However, try to avoid any demonstrations you come across.

Violence related to a long-running insurgency in Thailand's deep southeast rarely spills out of the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat, Yala, and the southernmost districts of Songkhla. That apart, the south is no less safe than other regions.

Sea and animal threats

Look for red flags indicating unsafe swimming conditions on beaches throughout Thailand. Each rainy season, riptides and rough seas cause drownings. Don't hesitate to cancel or postpone a boat trip if the sea is rough or storms are forecast. Some boat captains will risk the safety of tourists (and themselves) rather than lose a day’s income due to bad weather. If possible, use large slow boats or longtail boats, rather than speedboats, for day tours or island-hopping. Also be careful about where you snorkel - boats are not always driven safely.

Most of the stray dogs, cats and monkeys you’ll see on beaches and in cities are harmless, but occasionally one may bite. You might want to carry a packet of dried chilli pepper to toss at an animal that gets too close for comfort. Consider a rabies vaccination before you go.

Shark attacks are almost non-existent. Bull sharks have inflicted injuries once every six years, on average, over the past two decades. However, box jellyfish can be fatal, mainly during the rainy season. Thailand's many poisonous snakes avoid humans, but beware of camouflaged tree vipers when exploring around waterfalls.

Mosquitoes can be vicious, particularly during the rainy season. Malaria is only a concern if travelling in remote jungle areas, but mosquitoes do transmit the potentially deadly dengue fever in more populated areas.

Hot and cold

The heat in Thailand can be dangerous and heat stroke is common among tourists. Keep hydrated and try to avoid being out and about during the midday peak heat. Sunscreen, light clothing and hats are essential, but take something warm as well. It can get surprisingly cool in mountainous areas especially in the dry season, and indoors, air-con is often kept very cool.

Food and water safety

Thai food can be extremely spicy, but cooks often tone down the heat for foreign tourists. Burgers and pasta are easy to find, and higher-end supermarkets like Tops or Villa Market have decent selections of imported foods.

Thailand is famous for street food, and enjoying a meal curb-side can be a thrill for both the flavours and atmosphere. Consider hiring an experienced street food guide in cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai if you're worried about food hygiene or intimidated by the lack of English-language menus. A food tour can also be a great way to interact with locals while learning about everyday culture.

Out-of-sight restaurant kitchens are not necessarily cleaner than street kitchens out in the open. Good indicators of hygiene are the containers set on tables for dried chillies and other spices. If they don't look clean or recently refilled, go elsewhere.

Check that meat is fully cooked. Food that sits out in hot weather - on trays at khao gaeng (rice and curry) shops for example - is more likely to cause food poisoning than made-to-order dishes.

Drinking only filtered water is sensible, and vending machines that pour filtered water into reusable containers are fairly common. Ice served at restaurants and street stalls is typically made with filtered water and although some travellers avoid fresh fruits and vegetables washed in tap water, this is usually unnecessary.

It’s a myth that Thailand's tap water comes straight from the canals. Most of it goes through extensive purification. A five-year study completed in 2018 found that 98.4 percent of Bangkok's tap water met safety criteria set by the World Health Organisation. However, water quality in rural areas is not always up to that standard.

Family essentials & supplies

Most of Thailand's best hospitals are privately run and Bangkok Hospital is one of the largest and most reliable.

If you’re travelling with very small children bring a baby sling and perhaps a light, foldable pram for tight urban areas. City footpaths can be narrow, and even non-existent in places, uneven, and with plenty of obstacles in the way.

Minimarts such as 7-Eleven stock nappies, wet wipes, baby formula, mosquito repellent and sunscreen. Larger stores like Big C and Lotus's (formerly Tesco Lotus) offer more choice. Boots and Watsons are two of the most popular chain drug stores. Locally-owned pharmacies are also common and the staff usually speak enough English to help you.

Baby foods and formulas sold in Thailand are safe, but the instructions on the packets may be in Thai only, so you may want to bring your own. Electric kettles are common in hotel rooms and hot water is free at most minimarts.

Public restrooms are easy to find but they may not always be clean. Soap is not always provided, so carry hand sanitiser. Some toilets are flushed by pouring water from provided buckets and although Western-style toilets are common, you may still be faced with a squat toilet.

ATMs, banks and foreign currency exchange booths are easy to find in all cities and most tourist centres, but some small islands lack ATMs. Credit cards are accepted at large stores and restaurants, and increasingly, for public transport. Cash is usually needed for street food, tuk tuk rides, and other small purchases.

The Best Time To Visit Thailand

Seasons, weather, festivals & events

Thailand is a good year-round destination – with a few important exceptions most places can be pleasant to visit at any time of year.

Climate change is making the Thai seasons and weather increasingly unpredictable. For example, the rainy seasons have been starting and ending later in recent years, and rain has become more frequent during the hot season.

When to visit Thailand

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Thailand_Loi-Krathong

Floating lanterns at Chiang Mai's Loi Krathong festival, usually every November

The best times to visit Thailand

Best months: November to December

Months to avoid: February to April in the north (burning season)

Peak tourism season: December to February

Best weather: November to April

Dry season

It’s dry and sunny in most of Thailand from November to April, and this is when most tourists visit the country – late December through to February is the busiest time.

Later in the season it gets brutally hot away from the sea and mountains. Lodgings fill up around Christmas and the three New Year festivals: The 31st December, the Lunar New Year a month or two later, depending on the moon cycle, and the Thai New Year, or Songkran, in mid April.

Avoid the north during the February to April burning season when field stubble smoulders away at countless farms in Thailand, Laos and Myanmar, blanketing the region in a thick haze. The air quality in Chiang Mai is among the worst anywhere in the world on some days in March and April. It improves when the rain arrives in May. Air quality has worsened in Bangkok in recent years, with unhealthy levels of dust reported on many days in the dry season.

Rainy season

All but one of the monsoons affecting Thailand arrive in May and usually last into early November. Resorts and restaurants close on many islands, some ferries stop running and several national parks close. The worst rains hit between August and October.

Note however, that rainy season travel can mean cheaper room rates, more impressive waterfalls, fewer crowds and lush jungles and rice fields.

The rainy season arrives later on the southern Gulf of Thailand coast, around August, and lasts well into December or January.

Nakhonsawan Thailand traditional rockets in Rocket festival Boon Bang Fai

Prepare for liftoff – the Boon Bang Fai rocket festival in Yasothon

Festival and events

The Songkran holiday is now a full-blown water war waged by hose, pistol, balloon and bucket, but it began centuries ago with more gentle water splashing which remains part of a cleansing ritual still seen at temples. The festival runs from 13th to 15th April nationwide, although Chiang Mai adds extra soakage days and the Mon enclave of Phra Phradaeng, near Bangkok, throws its own unique style of Songkran a week later.

Thailand's other big nationwide festival is Loi Krathong, when candlelit offerings fill rivers and float through the sky in a moving ritual to release past negativity and start anew. The date changes each year but it’s usually in November, always on a full moon.

Few places do regional festivals better than the Northeast region between late May and early July, when rice farmers sow their fields. In Loei province, the Phi Ta Khon festival celebrates the spirit world via elaborate painted masks worn by dancing and flailing “mediums”. It's thrilling for older kids, but possibly frightening for younger ones.

For something lighter, try Ubon Ratchathani's Hae Thian parade of detailed wax images carved for weeks at nearly every local temple. In the nearby province of Yasothon, the Bueng Fai festival features rockets (some very big) launched day and night as part of an annual rain-making ritual. Beware - those things fall hard.

Thailand also has a national public holiday dedicated to children: Children's Day or Wan Dek, on 11th January, when schools close as fairs and activities spring up.

Planning A Family-Friendly Trip To 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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