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For families like mine that travel the globe, Thailand is at the top of our go-to list. During my traveling maternity leave, my husband and I visited with our then 8-month-old and 2 1/2-year-old sons. With many points hotels and flight options, Thailand is a great choice for families seeking a vibrant experience along with an exotic beach vacation. It’s also the kind of destination where you get a lot of bang for your buck.
In particular, Chiang Mai — once an off-the-beaten-path location for adventure tourism — is now a common destination for family travel and a draw both for digital nomads and world-schooling families. Although it is the largest city in Northern Thailand, we still had trouble finding details about activities for small children before our stay. Instead, we modified the most common activities in order to make them family-friendly.
Here are five popular activities in Chiang Mai and how to adapt them to be appropriate for children.
The best thing we did as a family in Chiang Mai was ride bikes through rice paddies and across the city’s colorful bridges. We did a private tour with Bangkok Biking that meant we had our own instructor who was kind enough to ride with the baby after I expressed concern about riding with him myself on the bumpy paths.
You can join group tours if you have older children, but those with little ones have to stick to the private tour, which turned out to be ideal for us. We paid 5200 Thai baht (about $165) for our private tour, but a half-day group tour costs about $40 per person and includes a bike and helmet, an English-speaking guide, and food and drinks.
Our guide stopped at a bakery in a garage in the middle of the rice fields where locals wrapped doughnuts and other baked goods. The boys each had a doughnut before we got back on the bikes, stopping to meet a cauliflower farmer at the end of her three-month season. We also saw temples we would not have made it to otherwise. We loved the relaxed pace and quiet surroundings, which put the baby right to sleep.
You book this tour ahead of time, and we paid via PayPal. The cost was expensive for Northern Thailand, but the four-hour tour ended up being worth it.
Bike Tour Modifications: Book a private tour, explore at a slower pace, ask ahead about bathroom breaks and bring sun hats that fit under helmets.
While initially hesitant, we soon found ourselves whizzing through the streets of Chiang Mai on the back of tuk-tuks. We hired a driver with car seats for our longer trips, but for getting around within the city walls of Chiang Mai, we piled in the back and held on tight. Our then 2.5 year old couldn’t get enough of it. Keep the kids in the middle, as it is could be easy for them to fall out when going around corners. Also, make sure you check the tuk-tuk before your children get in; I found pamphlets on the seat once advertising clubs that I would not want to have had to explain to a child.
If you ask nicely (and pay a little extra), the tuk-tuk drivers even might let your child play on the motorcycle, which was a highlight.
Short trips within Chiang Mai’s city walls will run about 150 to 300 Thai baht ($5 to $10). Always agree on a price before getting in the tuk-tuk.
Tuk-Tuk Modification: Keep kids in the middle, check the seats before entering (possibly wipe them down) and only travel short distances.
Visit an Elephant Sanctuary
Elephant sanctuaries in the hills above Chiang Mai are a draw for tourists who come to wash, feed and swim with the rescued animals twice a day. You need to do your research on these tours to ensure the one you join is socially responsible. My top tip is to join a half-day or shorter tour, as there is a lot of sitting around in the hot sun between activities. Our tour included transportation in the back of a pickup truck with 10 backpackers, so we opted to arrange for our own transportation with a car seat. (The smaller your tour, the better when kids are involved.)
Our 2-year-old was incredibly excited for this experience and then balked when the end of an elephant trunk sniffed wildly in his little face. The baby was happy looking around, and we all enjoyed feeding the elephants.
Tip: Remember that while the photos and videos of this experience are stunning, the water the elephants go in contains elephant dung and flailing elephant feet. We held both the kids and stayed back, then left the water first so we could take thorough showers right away. I recommend bringing your own antibacterial soap in case the sanctuary has run out. Older children love this experience, and it is a highlight of a Thailand trip for many families. Elephant Nature Park is $78 for a single-day visit; children 50% off.
Elephant Sanctuary Modifications: Bring soap; book a half-day tour or less; double-check transportation options (consider taking your own, if easier); take a tour with fewer people, if possible; and bring lots of water.
Visit the Temples
Going to temples with small children requires being selective, as there are many to see (over 300 in Chiang Mai!), and it can get very hot by the middle of the day. Our favorite was the famous Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, sitting on the hills above Chiang Mai. The 309 steps were not an issue with our then 2-year-old who loved the serpents lining each side of the staircase. We hired a driver to wait for us (about $20) so that we could be spared waiting for an Uber or Grab when exiting. We walked around the gorgeous temple, but a cloudy day meant we didn’t see the usual views. Instead, we found an area where our son could run around without disturbing others. Luckily, there was also an ice cream stand where we could refuel before our descent.
To see the ascent of the monks, arrive between 6 and 8am. They love children and will do a blessing for them. We did not manage to arrive that early, but have friends who have done it and found the experience spiritual and special. We arrived around 10am and weren’t put off by the crowds.
We booked the car through our Airbnb host.
Temple Modifications: Go early (although you don’t have to arrive at dawn), find outdoor spaces away from the prayer areas where children can roam around and book a car ahead of time to avoid long waits or transportation scams after exiting.
Shop the Night Market
The night markets in Chiang Mai are world renowned but get very busy. The Chiang Mai Night Bazaar is a nearly 1-mile stretch. Kids love the handicrafts and food, but it’s best to arrive in the afternoon before the sun goes down (several stalls are open from 3pm) and then leave as crowds flock there after dark. If you’re the first patron of a booth, it’s also an added bonus to see the owner doing a quick ceremony with your money to bring prosperity to his or her stall for the evening by touching your cash in various corners of the booth.
If you want to play it safe with food, consider ordering crepes with mango and Nutella, corn on the cob and gyoza dumplings for your children. We bought the kids T-shirts which have held up very well.
Night Market Modification: Arrive really early and leave early, remember to bring cash, and babywear, if possible, with young ones.
Visiting Thailand is completely doable with children, and it’s easy to avoid some pitfalls with simple modifications. In Chiang Mai, make sure to have Thai baht on hand, as many local attractions, restaurants and markets only accept cash. However, larger hotels and restaurants may accept credit cards, so be sure to carry ones that don’t charge foreign transaction fees, such as the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Premier Card.
Have you and your kids been to Chiang Mai? What did they enjoy the most?
Images by author.
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