FYI, this post is from 2010, from another blog I used to keep. However, I think the information is still relevant and helpful for families traveling to Thailand.
I traveled to Thailand a couple of times pre-kids, so I knew it was a good choice for family travel. With activities such as elephant treks through jungles, shopping from a boat in Bangkok’s floating markets, river cruises on renovated rice barges, exploring golden Buddhist temples, crazy tuk-tuk rides through the cities, cuddling with baby tigers (I kid you not!), how can you go wrong?
Since we were traveling during the rainy season in August, we limited the itinerary to Chiang Mai and Bangkok where the chances of inclement weather were lower, and the activities were not necessarily dependent on sunshine. If you are seeking some beach time here in the summer months, definitely check out the islands on the east side of Thailand, such as Koh Samui or Ko Pha Ngan, Ko Tao, and Ko Nang Yuan… chances of rain lower on that side.
I leave all the flight research up to my husband because he is my points guy — he earns them and knows how to make the most of them. We used British Airways award miles to book flights on Cathay Pacific going to Asia, and American miles for Cathay flights on the return.
AIRLINE POINTS TIPS: We try to book at least nine months in advance in order to acquire business class tickets by using points. Often this takes several phone calls over several days to get the seats and flights we want. However on this flight, we wanted to experience the first class product. We spent several months trying to score 4 of the 6 most elusive first class tickets for the initial flight to Hong Kong/Bangkok/Chiang Mai, which cost 25,000 miles more on that leg than business class. Acquiring these seats took daily online checks for 6 months, followed by 1 ½ months of daily phone calls to see if the seats had opened up. Persistence paid off. Approximately two weeks prior, the seats were finally released for upgrade!!
Oh, and yes… the upgrade was well worth it, especially for a 16 hour flight. The service was spectacular; the hand-written welcome note was a nice touch; the seat could not have been more comfortable (everyone should fly on a flat bed with a down duvet surrounding you, cuddling in your provided pj’s, the subtle scent of an orchid drifting over you at some point in their life, right?;)) And the food? Not too shabby… Caviar and salmon for the first course, followed by grilled chili prawns with rice, with a finale of ice cream sundae along with teeny tiny cakes. Before landing, a full breakfast was served.
Our flight to Hong Kong was 16 hours. 16. At hour 14, I exclaimed my sadness that the flight would soon end. The rest of the family echoed my sentiments. Oh, Cathay Pacific… how I love thee.
The return flight home from Hong Kong was business class which was quite nice; the seats recline completely and there are still duvets and ice cream. Still, once you flown up front… It was agonizing knowing what glorious service was taking place on the other side of the curtain. As Ferris Bueller said, “It is so choice.”
Hong Kong (one night to break up the trip)
Accommodation: W Hotel Hong Kong – great hotel! It’s funky, has a cool elevator with views, and the staff is lovely. We have now stayed here several times and have yet to be disappointed. We used extra Starwood Hotels points to secure a suite, rather than booking 2 adjoining rooms.
The W is located in the Elements mall which is attached to the train from the airport, making transportation super fast and easy. If the layover is less than 24 hours, one doesn’t have to retrieve the checked luggage. We packed our carry-ons with a change of clothing PLUS a necessary bathing suit for a refreshing swim in the 76th floor swimming pool.
The lounge bar off of the lobby area gets packed between the hotel guests as well as a young local crowd in the evening – there is a dj, so dancing breaks out, too. Woohoo! Though, we refrained and played cards with the kids. For those of you traveling here with kids, make note: the attached mall stays open late, and offers plenty of restaurants, shops, a movie theater, and even an ice-skating rink.
Activities: Swimming, walking through the mall, and an early morning ferry ride over to Hong Kong from Kowloon and back again. You gotta do something when the entire family wakes up at 3 a.m. for the day.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
We stayed in 2 hotels in Chiang Mai. First at Le Meridien for 3 nights in order to be in the thick of things. Then 5 nights at the acclaimed Mandarin Oriental to get our luxury on. Both were exceptional, though we preferred the location of Le Meridien.
Great hotel. It’s located within the city, right next door to the Night Market. Lovely hotel and fun location. We used starwood points again, and reserved a junior suite and adjoining room, giving us ample space. Beautiful lobby, and subtle modern décor in neutral colors in the rooms. Beds were very comfy. Bathrooms beautiful, though the gorgeous above counter sinks made a less-than-gorgeous mess whenever we used them. Fantastic large shower with excellent water pressure.
Lovely pool with a waterfall and fountains on the 4th floor. We often were the only guests here, despite a full hotel.
Breakfast buffet was included and choices were plentiful: tropical fruit, pancakes, bacon, eggs, several spicy Thai and Chinese items, and a variety of fresh juices.
Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi: Believe all the hype. This place is absolutely stunning; the main lobby looks like a palace — actually it is modeled after a palace — and the rest of the resort is built to be like an old Thai village, complete with rice fields and a water buffalo.
There are 2 accomodation choices – either a room/suite in the colonial-style buildings, or one of the teak villas. We chose the villas and were quite ecstatic to receive a complimentary upgrade to a 1 bedroom villa with small plunge pool. We booked with a promotion, stay 4 get 5th night free – that brings down the cost a bit.
The resort is enormous, but one can call for a pick-up in a golf cart. We never waited more than 5 minutes before they showed up. There are also complimentary bicycles for use, including child-sized ones. My bike even had an extra seat behind me, so sometimes I gave the boys a ride for fun. Brakes weren’t great after a rain – a bit scary once or twice.
Another form of transportation which was great fun was the horse and buggy. On one of our rides, the driver invited my son to sit up front with him, which made him quite happy.
I found the food to just be ok at the hotel. The pool-side café food was not that flavorful, though their cocktails and smoothies were excellent. The staff, however, was wonderful – there were some sad good-byes at our final visit. The breakfast buffet had plenty of choices; it wasn’t bad, but really not all that amazing either. I did like the cappuccino served with a cinnamon stick stirrer. And of course the setting was gorgeous.
We had dinner one night at Le Grande Lanna; the food was better here. The setting is magical at night with twinkling lights throughout the gardens surrounding the restaurant. It is definitely worth a dinner here for the music and dance show.
The Horn Bar is beautiful, though eerily empty when we visited. Again, the service was outstanding, and the cocktails were excellent.
Overall, we enjoyed the hotel, but we doubt we will return, because we found it too isolated — we would prefer to be right in Chiang Mai.
Le Spice: located just down the street from Le Meridien, and also across from the Night Market. Yummy Thai and Indian food. We went here the first night, and really wanted beer with our food… no alcohol served here! However they allowed us to bring our own, which was scored at the bar across the street. The mango sticky rice was a big hit for dessert.
Riverside Restaurant: located on the Mae Ping river, though over a bridge. The food was great, and the staff were so kind to our boys: the boys both laid down on their bench after eating – still recovering from jet lag – and a couple of waitresses immediately brought over cushions for their heads. Of course this might have been due to my younger son – he was quite the hit with Thai ladies the entire trip. Must be the blonde hair, blue eyes, and big smile.
Deck One Restaurant: located next door to Riverside. Fantastic food and gorgeous setting once the sun sets – I didn’t find the river very pretty until dark; it’s just so muddy. Deck One has large lanterns hanging from all the trees, and it was a spectacular setting. We had fun watching the bartenders practice their “Cocktail” movie moves – juggling the liquor bottles around and around.
Ginger Kafe: located in the Old City. We sat outside, which was lovely but even lovelier once the rain started since we had a roof over us. The food was excellent, too. They have a
Tiger Kingdom Restaurant: Ok, did not expect to have good food here, but it was fabulous! Best Pad Thai of my life. And Jamie’s Green Papaya salad was fresh, super spicy and delicious. You can see many tigers when you dine outside. I should note that we ordered from the menu, NOT the buffet, so I can’t vouch for the buffet.
We had a great time – the boys really REALLY enjoyed the elephant show! The mahouts (elephant trainers) demonstrate the logging skills of the elephants, as well as the tourist-pleasing soccer game/dart throwing/painting skills.
Our mahout was extremely pleasant — he offered to take photos of us, as well as treating his elephant with great care. Riding through the jungle, I kept thinking, “Wow – I’m riding through the jungles of Thailand with my son on an elephant!” It seemed so surreal.
Karen Long-Neck Village near Mae Sa: Mr. Joy explained a bit about the villagers, but it was difficult to enjoy as it did seem so touristy, and the women really did not seem happy. I don’t blame them. I purchased several items as they do produce handicrafts here for a living – a beautiful table runner with elephant motif, and a colorful quilted change purse.
Tiger Kingdom: Fun, different, scary… though also quite crowded with tourists. You pay an entrance fee to see many tigers, and you can pay an additional fee to spend time with them in a cage. We chose to only spend time with the baby tigers. No way would we consider going into a cage with the bigger ones.
Our tiger cubs were incredibly sweet and cuddly. There is a trainer with you the entire time, who guides you how to handle the cubs. We visited in the mid afternoon on an incredibly hot day. The cubs mostly slept (I wanted to join them… in the nap, that is) so I would recommend visiting first thing in the morning when they are more active. But then again, you might not get to cuddle with them like we did.
Dui Suthep Temple: This is a beautiful temple on top of a mountain outside the city. So peaceful, beautiful and serene. I loved the sounds of the bells and gongs, the scent of the incense, the quiet respect of all the visitors. Jamie and I gave a small donation to “borrow” sarongs for the visit as you cannot have bare legs.
The boys had fun ringing the large bells surrounding the temple, and hitting the giant gong. We took the tram up the mountain, but we certainly didn’t need to – no view to speak of and the 300 steps really aren’t that difficult.
Craft Villages: Mr. Joy’s brother, Sunny took us out to the craft villages to visit a silk factory, jade factory and umbrella factory. We wanted to visit a silver factory, too, but we all got too hot, so passed on this for some pool time instead.
The least friendly place was the silk factory, though they had some beautiful items and the boys were fascinated by the silk worms and cocoons. I don’t think the staff was actually unfriendly – they just seemed rather bored and pushed us through quickly to the gift shop. Reed had many questions about the process, so it was unfortunate. Lovely items in the gift shop and I wished I had bought a few more small items to take home as gifts.
The jade factory staff, on the other hand, loved the boys, especially since they were very keen on buying a small item with their allowance. Miles picked out a small bear, and Reed picked a dragon which they put on a black necklace for him. We probably bought the cheapest items in the shop, but the staff was lovely and treated us like we had purchased much more.
The umbrella factory was fantastic fun! There is no guided tour, so we had to read about the process of making the paper for the umbrellas, plus the bamboo for the mechanism.
The cool thing here are the artists who will paint any object for you for a very small fee. I picked the only woman artist there, though it turned out that she wasn’t as good as the boy’s artists. Still, I have a sunglass case painted with elephants now!
Both boys had dragons painted on their game consoles as well as their shorts. I was worried about putting the shorts through the laundry, so had them drycleaned later which ruined the paintings. Luckily I found someone to sew beads over the dragons, and they look amazing. Come to think of it, she “bedazzled” them!
Night Market: We had fun shopping here. I bought some large knitted scarves with natural dyes – one which is beautiful muted browns, the other in a shade of blue-ish green.
Boys were obsessed with these things we called “spring warriors” – Predator-looking creatures made out of springs. They used their allowance to buy these, though I tried my best to bargain for them. They also bought some woven bendable creatures such as the scorpion below. Reed is holding a beautiful colorful dragon that we have displayed at home.
Another highlight for the boys was the Fish Spa. I thought for certain Miles wouldn’t be interested, we swung by for a look and a giggle. But to my surprise, he wanted to try it! My boy who didn’t like to swim in the ocean due to fear of fish nibbling on him was now extremely willing to put his feet into a tank of water for the sole purpose of them nibbling on his feet! I chickened out, but all 3 boys loved it. We came across another Fish Spa later, and I joined them this time after much, much, MUCH pleading. It was very ticklish and strange, but after awhile, I suppose it grew on me a bit.
Sunday Walking Market: Great fun! Lots of tourists and locals shopping and eating their way through the market. Many musicians along the way, too. We bought some dragons and animals made from ropes which can be twisted and bended into positions. It was fun to see and sample some of the street food. When the boys tired out, we jumped into a tuk tuk for the long drive back to the Mandarin.
A Lot of Thai cooking school: HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!! Yui, the owner and teacher was wonderful and completely understanding of the boys need for breaks now and then. She even brought out her son’s Lego when she sensed they needed a break. She is also quite funny, so managed to keep all of us in good spirits for the day. Much to my surprise, the boys enjoyed themselves, and hoped to host a spring-roll-making party for their friends after we got home.
I learned so much from Yui about Thai cooking and the spices and produce used to make it. In addition to cooking, the students take a trip to the local market to learn about the food, and everyone receives a lovely little cookbook with easy recipes to take home.
We had an early flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok on Thai Airways. There was a DoiTung shop in the airport where I bought several nice small cosmetic bags for friends back home for less than $3 each! I liked the products in this store, and it feels good buying handicrafts which help out a people in need – responsible consumerism, if you will.
A pleasant 1 hour flight. We had arranged with Sheraton Grande Sukumvit to send a driver for us, and the driver was waiting for us as we exited. Quick ride into the city. No traffic until we hit Sukhumvit.
Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit – We certainly did well with our hotel choices this vacation. This Sheraton was perfect for our time in Bangkok – connected to the Sky Train, beautiful rooms, gorgeous tropical pool area, the warm,wonderful service, AND the free cocktail period for all platinum starwood members or anyone booking a club level room.
The free cocktail benefit was good for 3 different bars at the hotel. We found the jazz bar to be fun and lively, though I did keep giggling during one of the band’s performance, as they reminded me of the band in Lost in Translation — “Thank you. We’re glad to be here. We’re Sausilito.”
Our first evening was spent in a deluxe twin room, but the following morning, we were told that a suite would become available later that morning if we would like to upgrade. Love that starwood program! The suite had a wonderful view of the city and the pool area. Beds were comfy. In the suite we had a large bathroom plus a powder room.
Pickled Liver – Located on Soi 11 near our hotel. I’m sure you are wondering why on earth we would be going to a place with this name, but we LOVED it!! I had read someone’s trip report which recommended this British Pub, and noted it very close to our hotel. And that name!!!
The boys wanted to go back on our last night; it was a combination of the food — Doritos chip nachos (not my choice!)– and the enthusiastic wait staff who loved helping Reed and Miles try to find “Waldo” in their Where’s Waldo? book.
Loy Nava Dinner Cruise – Touristy but fun; great way to see Bangkok at night.
Chatuchak Weekend Market — I’ve been to this market before and loved it. It is the largest market in Thailand and only open on the weekends. We took the sky train and it was an easy 15 minute ride for us. We tried to get there as early as possible, before it got too hot, but it was still incredibly hot. Still we had fun shopping, eating, and looking at some pretty bizarre animals for sale (squirrels & hedgehogs?!)
I saw a beautiful teak spirit house (a shrine to appease the spirits in your home; I hope it’s working) which I just loved, and of which I am now the proud owner. It was quite large, so I had it shipped back home via Fed Ex. If you want to do similar, there are plenty of shippers within the market… it was quite easy, and they did an excellent job packing it.
Maeklong Railway Market – We had a tour guide take us to this market since it is an hour outside of Bangkok. This market is located right on top of the railroad tracks.
A train comes through here 8 times a day, so the vendors have to pull back their produce or wares, plus pull back their awnings each time the train comes through. We timed our visit in order to see the train come through. Check it out here.
The boys didn’t like the smells of all the fish at the market so we didn’t linger long after the train departed. I still got some nice photos of the produce, fish and even frogs prepped for cooking. The woman selling frogs wanted to let Miles touch one – he wanted nothing to do with that, though.
Damnoen Saduak Floating Market – Photo-op galore! Never been to anything like this. However, be aware that it is packed with tourists and it’s super hot (seems to be a running theme here.) Luckily there is an ice cream vendor. Our tour guide, Pu, provided us with many fruits and other foods to try from the vendors. I’m so glad we experienced this, though I probably wouldn’t do it again due to the distance from Bangkok (1 ½ hours) and the heat which gets to you on the breezeless sunny canals.
TIP: try to get there super early if possible. When we got into our boat, someone was there to snap our photos. When our boat returned, they showed us small decorative plates they had produced with our photos on them. So incredibly cheesy, we had to buy them! Especially the one of Jamie who looks a bit hot and grumpy in his photo. They are still proudly displayed today.
The Grand Palace — Did I mention how hot it is in Bangkok? We went to the Grand Palace after returning from the railway and floating market. I had cropped pants so was fine to visit the Royal Temple there, but Jamie was in shorts so we had to borrow pants for him. He wasn’t thrilled as they weren’t exactly a fabric made to breathe, nor look flattering.
The buildings and gardens here are so spectacular. I wished I could have had more time to explore everything, but Jamie and the boys were melting fast, so it was a whirlwind trip through here with Pu.
Wat Pho — Since the boys couldn’t take the heat anymore, they stayed with Jamie and the driver in the air-conditioned van while Pu walked me through Wat Pho. She explained much about the temple and Buddhism to me. She also took some photos of me next to the giant reclining Buddha.
This Buddha is stunning and it’s the largest reclining Buddha in the world. The surrounding murals were also beautiful. Pu gave me coins to place in all the buckets behind the Buddha. You can purchase of bag of 50 coins and drop them into each bucket for good luck. I was sorry the boys missed this because I know it’s the kind of thing which they would find joy in.
Thai Tour Guide – We used Pu from Mr. Chob’s tour guide company (www.thaitourguide.com).
She is young, energetic, extremely knowledgeable and incredibly sweet. She gave me and the boys hugs at the end of the day. We would highly recommend her.
Jim Thompson House: This was my second visit to this beautiful teak house museum, but the kids first. I found a beautifully illustratated children’s book — Mystery of the Vanishing Vase at Jim Thompson House — and read it to the kids prior to the trip; I know it helped them enjoy the tour and understand the house much better had we not read it.
Jim Thompson was an American architect who ended up working as a military intelligence officer during WWII. After the war, he decided to live in Bangkok, eventually reviving the silk industry when he started the Thai Silk Factory, still in existence today. He built his house by moving several old one-room Thai houses to his property and connected them to created one giant teak home. He was an avid collector of Asian antiques and artifacts, and these add to the beauty of the home. Mr. Thompson disappeared while on vacation with a friend in Malaysia when he was 61. People speculate that he was either eaten by a tiger, or that he intentionally disappeared to begin a new life.
The gift shop has wonderful silk scarves, ties and other beautiful things for sale. We helped them shrink their inventory.