Thailand as a destination for kids

Thais adore kids, often doting over foreign children like they were celebrities. While travelling, foreign families usually encounter helpful and patient graciousness, catching the best of Thai charm.

Reliable roads, railways and airports join some of the region's best medical care and thousands of hotels, resorts and tour agencies built with families in mind. Internet is fast and cell signal less patchy than in many Western countries.

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Staying safe as a family

Safety is often not taken seriously in Thailand. The prime example is a rate of road accident deaths that ranks among the five highest on earth every year. Plane and train travel is safer than a large tour bus, which in turn is safer than a minivan or motorbike.

Check with your travel insurance underwriter before renting a car or riding even a minimally powered scooter. Travel agencies in all major tourist areas provide cars and vans with drivers. Families with toddlers should consider bringing their own car seats, not often provided in Thai vehicles.

Though pickpockets and bag snatchers are a concern, face-to-face muggings are extremely rare. Turbulent political demonstrations hit Bangkok in 2006-07, 2010 and 2013-14, with some violence, but foreigners have never been targeted. The effects of an ongoing insurgency in Thailand's deep south-east have rarely spilled out of the provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala.

Shark attacks are nonexistent, though box jellyfish have killed off Ko Samui, Ko Phangan and Hua Hin, mainly during the wet season. Thailand's myriad poisonous snakes avoid humans; however, do beware of camouflaged tree vipers when poking around waterfalls. Use pedestrian bridges where possible in the cities, and watch for motorbikes darting in the wrong direction.

Practical tips

Thailand is not the most punctual country and the heat takes its toll on children and adults alike. When in crowded cities, give the family plenty of breaks, stay hydrated and try to avoid the worst of the midday heat. Keep jetlag in mind if flying into Bangkok on a long-haul flight — all it takes is one tired little one to put a dampener on that first-day tour. Patience is a supremely valued virtue among Thais; lose it and things only get worse.

Those carting over the littlest ones should bring baby slings and light, foldable prams for managing compact urban quarters. 7-Eleven and other ubiquitous minimarts carry nappies and wet wipes, with larger stores like Big C and Tesco Lotus, found in most provincial capitals and large tourist centres. They may not always be clean, but public restrooms are easy to find in Thailand.

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Family kayaking on Chiew Lan lake

The best national parks in Thailand for families

Khao Sok: Out on the water

The only Thai lake that ranks among Asia's most dazzling is truthfully a reservoir. Ratchaprapha or Chiew Lan, formed in the 1980s by one dam and countless vertical limestone castles sculpted by nature's hand, lies in the Khao Sok national park.

Also meeting the clear emerald water is virgin jungle containing many orchids and a type of rafflesia that ranks among the largest known flowers on earth.

As the South's most popular national park, Khao Sok is also a top kayaking, rafting, trekking and caving venue, with rooms built among treetops and floating on the lake.

Khao Yai: Going up "Big Mountain"

A three-hour drive from Bangkok introduces travellers to Thailand's oldest national park, Khao Yai, founded in 1962. Its grandest waterfall is Haew Narok, often overshadowed by the 20-metre high Haew Suwat ever since Leo Dicaprio leapt off its ledge during the 1999 filming of The Beach.

After hiking, wildlife spotting and resting in a tent or cabin within park boundaries, visit surrounding vineyards and sunflower farms. Some resorts offer waterslides and go-kart tracks to entertain children.

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Haew Narok waterfall, Khao Yai National Park

Erawan and Huai Mae Khamin: Therapeutic waters

Erawan National Park's namesake waterfall was named after the same three-headed elephant of Hindu lore depicted at Erawan Museum near Bangkok. Here, the sacred pachyderm's image is naturally formed in calcite stone that paints milky shades of ice blue and deep emerald in its pools.

Park-run lodgings have more scenic outlooks further north near Huai Mae Khamin, another breathtaking multi-tier waterfall with thinner crowds. Every tour company in Kanchanaburi town offers day tours to Erawan. Huai Mae Khamin is best reached by private vehicle on the country roads enwrapping Srinagarindra Lake.

Doi Inthanon: Thailand's tallest peak

A viewpoint set amid cloud forest at the 2,565m summit of Doi Inthanon attracts quite a few domestic tourists keen to cross this Chiang Mai province landmark off their bucket lists. On the road down, don't forget waterfalls like Siriphum, which thunders over a steep 40m cliff visible from various vantages. Most hit the park on a day trip and facilities are not the greatest; look into other national parks like Khun Tan, Ob Luang and Salawin for better lodgings and similarly beautiful mountain vistas.

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Before visiting an "elephant camp" in Thailand, do your research

Thailand's wildlife for kids

Before visiting any animal care centre or "elephant camp" in Thailand, do your research to find out whether the animals are treated in a humane way and not abused, which includes prolonged elephant riding and performing. Avoid "tiger attractions" where the animals are drugged to docility. if possible, always aim to see Thailand’s animals in the wild.

Watching a wild elephant saunter through its natural habitat is something children never forget and a pair of national parks west of Hua Hin towards the Myanmar border gives you the best odds of spotting one. At Kui Buri, a pick-up truck will rumble through grassland and forest where more than 200 wild elephants join hundreds of enormous horned gaur (Indian bison), making this fairly obscure park a fun family safari venue.

Covering nearly 3,000km of an immense forest that continues far north and west into Myanmar, Kaeng Krachan supports its own large herd of wild elephants to go with clouded leopards, dusky langurs and 400 species of birds. Watch wreathed hornbills or an elusive scops owl on a hike at Khao Phanoen Thung, where you can unzip the tent at dawn to see a vista of fog folded like sheets between layered mountain peaks. Bring binoculars.

Seeing elephants as a family

On a day programme at a reputable care centre or sanctuary, families will likely feed, bathe and prepare food for elephants, leaving plenty of time to engage with these deeply sensitive animals.

Set amid bushy mountains up north, Mahouts Elephant Foundation near Chiang Mai and Burm and Emily's Elephant Sanctuary in far-flung Chiang Rai are two of Thailand's most reputable elephant care venues for tourists. Also in the North and with 600 square acres of forest, Boon Lott's Elephant Sanctuary in Sukhothai is another terrific choice.

Further south, Wildlife Friends Foundation cares for elephants as well as gibbons and other rescued animals northwest of Hua Hin. For more of a luxury elephant care experience with jungle tours and plush tents in the style of African safari camps, check out Elephant Hills in the Khao Sok region.

Seeing snakes safely

Kids with a fascination for snakes will love the demonstrations held at Queen Saovabha Institute in Bangkok, one of the world's leading venom antiserum institutes. King cobras are the stars but you'll also watch vipers, kraits and pythons that daring spectators are allowed to hold for photos afterwards. The adept snake handlers demonstrate daily at 14:30.

Where monkeys rule

Some places in Thailand are positively overrun by monkeys. Keep a grip on valuables — they will steal anything. Prachuap Khiri Khan town's Khao Chong Prachok is one of several hilltop temples overrun by simian hordes that delight kids without fail, even when parents find them pesky. Nearby Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park is home to Ko Kho Ram, an island where the macaques rule undeterred by us humans.

Thailand's best cities for families

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Wat Benchamabophit Dusitvanaram Rajawarawiharn,
the 'Marble Temple', Bangkok

Bangkok

A half-day in the capital's historic district is a must for 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 Kaho Thong (the Golden Mount) affording a city vista set to chiming prayer bells. In between, thrill the kids with a ride in one of the Big Mango's (Bangkok’s nickname) endearingly sputtering tuk-tuks.

You haven't really been to a mall until you've done the malls of Bangkok. At Terminal 21, teens lose hours browsing boutiques full of cool Thai and other Asian designs. Great for rainy days, many malls also have children play centres plus extras like Madame Tussaud's Wax Museum at Siam Discovery, Siam Ocean World at Siam Paragon, an ice-skating rink at Central World and all the games you can handle at MBK's huge seventh-floor arcades.

Engage imaginations with mask painting, puppetry and picturesque canal-side life at the Artist House of Khlong Bang Luang, one of several stops offered on Thonburi's famous khlong tours. Before or after you visit the well-known Jim Thompson's House near Siam Square, cross the canal to Baan Krua Nua and observe some of the forgotten yet functioning studios that first inspired the world-famous Jim Thompson silk brand in the mid 20th century.

For an all-out kids day in Bangkok, find out how the Thais do an amusement park at Dream World, head to the open zoo at Safari World and education made fun at the Children’s Discovery Museum. Throw in a river ferry ride on the Chao Phraya followed by dinner and a spin on the ferris wheel at Asiatique, and you can bet your cubs will sleep soundly.

Don't forget a day trip to the colourful floating markets that dot Bangkok's fringe, including Amphawa and Tha Kha in nearby Samut Songkram province, and Khlong Lat Mayom within city limits. Cycling is another option, with several tour companies leading trips to two unlikely pockets of farmland — Bang Kachao and Ko Kret — that burst with green despite the urban sprawl that surrounds.

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Pagoda at Doi Suthep, Chiang Mai Province

Chiang Mai

Northern Thailand's metropolis is best known for its 14th to 17th-century Lanna-style temples, including the former royal temple Wat Chedi Luang and Wat Doi Suthep with its golden mountaintop chedis (pagodas) twinkling amid the city view. Also check out Thailand's most elaborate zoo, aquarium and aviary along with various night bazaars, which are perfect for picking out toys and souvenirs by local artists. Consider treating older kids to a spa before bed, but bear in mind that Thai massage can be painful as well as rejuvenating.

Chiang Mai is also the place to get the kids cooking. Some 50 cookery schools teach favourites like tom yum, green curry and pad Thai, often for less than 1,000 baht per person and with discounts for children. Thai Farm Cooking School uses ingredients grown organically on site, while Thai Akha Kitchen brings a Northern slant incorporating recipes of the Akha people.

Trekking is big business in Chiang Mai province and guided hikes, suitable for older children and teens, are combined with rafting, mountain biking, ziplining, elephant care and/or visiting hill tribes. Observing Akha, Lisu, Lahu and other tribes can be educational, but some villages, such as those of the Karen "long neck" people, have been over-touristed to the point of disrupting ways of life. Hold off if you'll be hitting less-travelled parts of northern Thailand.

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Monks meditating at a temple, Chiang Mai

Buddhist temples and historical ruins

Sukhothai and Kamphaeng Phet

The "Dawning Lotus" kingdom of Sukhothai unified various Thai chiefdoms from the 12th to 14th centuries, erecting Buddhist monuments with an elegance that captivates art historians — and a scale to impress kids who find history a tad dry. A fun family day out is to rent bicycles and explore the monuments in the neatly arranged historical park. Imagine King Ramkamhaeng on his white elephant as you settle into a family-run guesthouse and dine on the area's signature style of noodle soup.

The UNESCO-listed Sukhothai and Associated Historical Parks also covers quieter ruins at underrated Kamphaeng Phet, set 60km southwest of Sukhothai itself. Spend half a day peddling through the historical park before soaking up the vibrant riverfront night market in this non-touristy town. With an extra day, try a trip to waterfalls and a Pakakayor hill-tribe village that finishes with a campfire in the countryside.

Ayutthaya and Lopburi

Founded in 1350 and destroyed by invading Burmese in 1767, the once-glorious city of Ayutthaya preceded Bangkok as capital of Siam. Though lacking the detail of Sukhothai, the ruins are sizeable and more abundant. You can explore them by boat, bicycle or frog-shaped tuk-tuk, perhaps with a surprise stop at the Million Toy Museum. Ayutthaya is often visited on a day trip from Bangkok, but a host of family-run guesthouses make it worth an overnight.

A mere 60km train ride north from Ayutthaya takes you to Lopburi, seat of the Siamese kingdom during King Narai's 17th-century reign. The city's national museum is super kid-friendly thanks to open-air palace ruins and green spaces broadening between exhibits on Siam's early interactions with the French and British. Monkeys run amok all over the city — at intersections, historical sites, you name it. Again, don't leave that camera lying around. From here, an overnight train up to Chiang Mai is a fun way to keep the adventure rolling.

Phimai and Phanom Rung

Traces of 10th to 14th-century Khmer rule dots Thailand, especially on the Isaan Plateau made accessible from the capital city of Angkor via an ancient road. Pilgrims once flocked to Prasat Phimai, an elaborate sandstone sanctuary whose finely carved details depict scenes from Buddhist and Hindu epics. See if you can spot the monkey warriors that look like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles before cycling off to a striking web of arm-like roots at a spooky banyan tree cluster, known as Sai Ngam, on the edge of Phimai town.

Also in the lower north east, the hilltop Khmer ruins at Prasat Phanom Rung arguably stand as the most impressive single historical site in Thailand. Details are exquisite and kids can play Indiana Jones while climbing ancient laterite stairs to reach the top. Both Phanom Rung and the related ruins at Muang Tam are not as easy to access as Prasat Phimai, but doable with the help of tour companies based in Nang Rong, Buriram or Nakhon Ratchasima.

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Ancient Buddha Statue, Sukhothai historical park

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How to travel in Thailand with kids

By 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.

Twitter: @DavidLuekens / Instagram: dluek

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