From Tuk-Tuks to Trekking: Thailand North to South With Kids

A tuk-tuk in Bangkok.  Chiang Rai Times photo.
A tuk-tuk in Bangkok. Chiang Rai Times photo.

By Lauryn Axelrod
GoNOMAD Founder

Kids in Thailand. photo: Lauryn Axelrod
Kids in Thailand. photo: Lauryn Axelrod

Thailand can be everything you want when you want it. Full of culture, nature, food, festivals, and shopping, Thailand has it all. As my son Joshua and I discovered, Thailand is also a perfect exotic kid’s destination.

From the white sand beaches and clear warm waters of the south to the jungles, mountains, and exotic tribes of the north, there’s always something for a kid to do.

Bangkok Bustle Some people love it, others loathe it, but all agree that there is no place on earth quite like Bangkok. Bustling, electric, chaotic, and colorful, the capital of Thailand can overwhelm and excite.

For kids, it can be an exhausting playground of sights and smells and tastes. The key to overindulgence, however, is moderation. My 12-year old son, Joshua, my husband, Chris, and I spent three very full days in Bangkok. We rode tuk-tuks through the crowded streets, visited temples, wats, and palaces, boated along the canals and the wide Chao Praya River, indulged in foot massages and Thai banquets, and of course, shopped. Josh loved every minute.

Because of traffic, it’s impossible to pack too much into a day in Bangkok. If you see two or three sights, you’ve done well. On our first day, we chose to visit the main sights – Wat Po and the Royal Palace. We got up early in the morning to beat the sweltering heat and stifling pollution, hired a tuk tuk for the day, and headed out into the morning bustle. Josh loved the tuk tuk ride, waving at all passersby, enjoying the noise and street level life. Chris and I crouched in the small seats, hands over mouths, trying to breathe.

Off to Wat Po

It took over an hour to wrangle our way through the traffic to Wat Po, but when we arrived, the serenity of the temple grounds was a welcome oasis from the noise and haste of the city. Here, saffron robed monks mingled with tourists gawking at the colorful mosaics, the reclining Buddha, the birthday cake-like statues, and buildings.

Josh was like Alice in a Thai Wonderland, and he marveled at the intricacy of the art work, the light-footed monks, the way the sun glittered off the thousand Buddhas lining the courtyards.

We inquired about getting Thai massages at the famous massage school on the grounds, but the waiting list was already hours long. Besides, it seemed too early yet for a massage. So, we wandered down the road to the Palace.

At most Thai temples and other holy sites, visitors must dress modestly. But at the Palace, it isn’t enough just to cover arms and legs. The dress code is strict, and along with many other tourists, we queued up to borrow proper clothing before entering the grounds.

The Palace

If Wat Po is a wonderland, the Palace is Disneyland on steroids. Wandering through the acres and acres of gilded, mosaic-filled buildings was like being lost in a fantasyland of opulence; a far cry from the crowded, smog-filled streets of the nearby city. The main highlight of the Palace, however, is the tiny Emerald Buddha, which considering its minuscule size, seemed anticlimactic compared to the palace in which it rests.

By the time we had finished, it was late afternoon, and the famously torrential Bangkok rain had begun. We waded our way through the knee-deep water to the Chao Praya water taxis, and as the river began to rise and spill over the banks, we rode in covered comfort back toward our hotel, still gawking at the life swarming around us on all sides.

The next day, we set out for another Bangkok adventure: this time we made our way to the National Museum where we spent the bulk of the day learning about Thai architecture and history and admiring ancient Thai relics, including huge gilded funeral barges and rooms and rooms of gamelans and puppets.

Even here, Josh was fascinated by the color and vibrancy of the Thai culture. It was a good introduction to Thai history and art that even a kid could enjoy. But life on the streets of Bangkok can be just as inspiring, so we spent the afternoon wandering open air markets, buying Buddha amulets and silks, haggling with shopkeepers, and walking home with local schoolchildren laden with gifts.

Cabbages and Condoms

Dinner that night was at the famous Cabbages and Condoms, a Bangkok institution, the profits from which go to support family planning and AIDS awareness in Thailand. Seated outdoors on a quiet soi off busy Th. Sukhumvit, among twinkling lights and tropical plants, we dined on exceptional Thai food and felt even better knowing our money was going for a good cause.

On our last day in Bangkok, we visited a few other sights, including the Jim Thompson House, the beautiful former home of the American man who was almost single-handedly responsible for the revival of the Thai textile industry. The home, constructed from various buildings moved from the Thai countryside, was another quiet oasis among the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, and Thompson’s extensive collection of silks, paintings and sculptures were impressive.

From there, we wandered down Th. Sukhumvit, one of the main thoroughfares of the city, stopping in shops and cafes, watching the world of Bangkok whiz by. We hopped the Skytrain, the only fast way of getting around Bangkok, and went all the way back to the river, where we sat at a cafe along the shore, watching the longboats and water taxis float past ancient wats: in many ways, in spite of the bustle of the modern city around it, it is a scene that hasn’t changed in hundreds of years.

Dinner was at another small restaurant, where again, the food was fantastic, the atmosphere magical and the bill, well, Thai cheap. On our way home, we decided it was time for the first of what would become many Thai foot massages. Sitting in the chairs facing the street, we closed our eyes and relished the quiet and rest. Three days in Bangkok had been exhilarating, but exhausting. Our feet and our bodies needed the break.


The next morning, we boarded our Thai Airways flight to Krabi and then grabbed a water taxi out to Ko Phi Phi Island, our tropical refuge for the next week. Once a little known tropical gem in the Andaman Sea, Ko Phi Phi has recently become a haven for backpackers and more upscale tourists who crowd the small island and its beaches for most of the season. Though a far cry from Phuket, it is still more developed than most of us would like.

Part of a National Marine Park, there has been a massive outcry against the environmental degradation tourist development has wreaked on the island, but in recent years, there has been more of an effort to curb development and encourage more responsible environmental practices.

But we weren’t there for the famous nightlife or the cheap banana pancakes: we were there for the underwater life. I had promised Joshua that he could learn to SCUBA dive when we got to Thailand, and Ko Phi Phi’s exceptional dive sites would turn out to be a perfect place for him to learn to love the marine world. And while he was checking out the depths, I could enjoy some R&R on the beach in a hammock beneath a palm tree gazing out over the clear blue waters.

After checking out the numerous dive shops on the island, all of which offer similar PADI learn to dive and open water courses, Josh and Chris chose Paradive and enrolled in a Five-Day Open Water Certification course. They began at 8 am the next morning, and for the next five days, lived and breathed SCUBA. After spending all day learning and practicing the various techniques and skills, they would come back to our beach bungalow and pour over their books in anticipation of the next day’s test or, ultimately, open water dives at nearby sites.

Paradive was nice enough to let me come along on their second day’s dive out to Bida Nok and Ko Phi Phi Leh’s Maya Bay, where Leonardo Di Caprio strutted his tanned self in “The Beach.” While the boys dove, returning excited about seeing sharks, rays, towers and walls of bright corals, and huge numbers of tropical fish, I snorkeled on the surface, equally as impressed.

However, Maya Bay was one of the great disappointments. Yes, it is an absolutely stunning limestone island, covered with lush jungle and surrounded by the brightest, bluest water you could ever imagine. But, you can hardly see it with all the tourists that crowd the beach and the bay, coming from as far away as Phuket to walk on the same sand as Leonardo. What’s worse is that the marine life in the once fertile water has all but disappeared from the trash and traffic. Now I knew why the environmentalists were so upset. I was, too.

Fortunately, Maya Bay isn’t the only stunning spot on or around Ko Phi Phi. When I wasn’t sunning on the sands of Long Beach, I would hire a long tail boat for a few hours snorkeling at more remote coves and bays around the island, many of which I had to myself. At one, I spent 15 minutes silently following a huge sea turtle gliding effortlessly through the coral; at another, I swam through a small cave to an interior lagoon, where the only sound was the breeze through the palms. And on the journeys there and back, I would chat with the longtail boatman about the changes on Ko Phi Phi and nearby islands.

On another afternoon, I took a Thai cooking class in the village. “Cooking With Pum” is the name of the course, and for a few dollars, students get one-on-one instruction in fresh, simple Thai cooking with one of the most innovative young chefs in Thailand. Unlike many other Thai cooking courses, Pum’s focuses on “lazy”cooking.

No complicated curry pastes or outrageous decorations: just simple, fresh, easy food that makes other Thai cooking seem overdone. Pum offers courses at her stylish little restaurant on Ko Phi Phi and also is opening a branch in Phuket. She also has a cookbook that will teach you everything you need to know about cooking Thai the lazy way.

A New PADI Diver

On our last day, we went out to celebrate the completion of the course and Josh’s certification as a Junior PADI diver. At one of the many small outdoor restaurants on the island, we feasted on fresh seafood and Thai curries. Then, we finished off the night sitting on the beach at a nearby bear bar, watching fire jugglers light up the sky. It seemed like the perfect Thai beach holiday. Josh was happy, I was happy, Chris was happy, but we all ready to move on.

This time, heading north to the mountains and jungles. Krathongs in Chiang Mai From Krabi, we took a grueling overnight bus back to Bangkok (NOT recommended for families unless you or your children like staying up all night watching loud, gory slasher films as you barrel along the highway), and then boarded a train to Chiang Mai, the heart of northern Thailand.

The purpose of going to Chiang Mai was twofold: one was to experience a true Thai festival, Loy Krathong. Loy Krathong is one of the most beautiful and colorful of all festivals in Thailand, and in Chiang Mai it takes on a very special character. In addition to parades and floating krathongs — or candlelit flower boats — down the rivers, glowing paper balloons and fireworks are released into the sky filling the three nights of the festival with light, color, and noise.

We arrived a few days before the festivities began, which gave us an opportunity to check out some of the other sights in town before the party started. We checked into one of the myriad guesthouses that line the narrow streets of Chiang Mai’s old city and began our wandering.

In the old city, there are numerous wats, monasteries and temples to visit. At one, a resident monk was holding a “Monk Chat,” an opportunity to have an informal discussion with Buddhist monk on matters related to Buddhism, monk life, or anything else. It turned out to be a fantastic hour, in which Josh had the chance to learn first hand about Thai Buddhism and what daily life as monk entailed.

We spent one afternoon at the Hilltribes Museum on the outskirts of town, learning about the local tribes we would visit later on a trek. The museum is well maintained and easy to follow, describing the different hill tribes in the area, their histories, ways of life, textiles and traditions.

By the time we left, we considered ourselves well prepared for our visits to hill tribe people. The next day, all three of us took another Thai cooking class at Eagle House’s Chilli Club. This one focused on more classical Thai recipes, including soups, curries, spring rolls and elaborate garnishes.

As a group, you chose five dishes and then go to the local market to purchase fresh ingredients for the meals. At individual workstations, you are coached as you prepare your own portions of the dish. By the end of the day,.we were stuffed silly, but all of us enjoyed learning how to make and eat authentic Thai food.

In the evenings, we wandered through the famous Chiang Mai Night Market, soaking up the atmosphere and bargains. We ate in the food courts near the market, dining on cheap, fresh Thai and Muslim foods. Josh and Chris spent one night conquering the outdoor climbing wall in the market’s center.

We shopped until we dropped, buying presents for everyone we knew. But more than anything else, we all loved people watching on the crowded streets. Then the festival began, and for three nights we joined the throngs of locals and tourists gawking at the massive Krathong floats that paraded down the main streets.

We bought our own krathongs from school girls who made them, and joined the locals along the banks of the river, to send our colorful krathongs off to the sea. Josh and Chris also joined the local boys buying and setting off fireworks, something Josh especially loved.

For three nights the festival continued. The crowds grew thicker, street vendors lined the streets, the river was littered with krathongs, and the sky was alight with fireworks and balloons. By the last night, though, we were tired. Fortunately the next day, we were leaving for the jungle and three days of trekking, elephant riding, rafting and visiting hill tribes.

Elephants and Hilltown Kids

Our other main reason for visiting the north of Thailand was to go trekking in the jungles to the villages of local tribes whose way of life had scarcely changed in hundreds of years. Though there are loads of trekking companies in Chiang Mai, we chose to go with Eagle House, an environmentally aware company whose low impact treks take travelers to remote sections of the jungle away from the tourist buses.

We began our three-day trek early the morning after the festival, driving out of town as the last party-goers were straggling home. Within a few hours, we reached the starting point for our walk into Doi Inthanon National Park, where many tribes make their homes. For the next three days, we would trek several hours each day, passing rice paddies and animals, stopping for lunch in one village, and ending the day in another, where we would eat dinner and sleep in local homes.

On one afternoon, we rode elephants through the jungle, and on another, we rode bamboo rafts down the river to get to our next destination. Josh loved the jungle trekking and took to it easily. But the real highlights were the evenings spent in the villages. We often arrived exhausted, just as night was falling, but were warmly welcomed by our local hosts and shown to our sleeping hut. Then we would be given tea and would chat and play until dinner was served.

The villages were always filled with children and Josh was a celebrity. It wasn’t often that they encountered Western children, and every night Josh was busy playing and learning. The kids shared songs and games with him, and he shared cards and magic tricks with them. Every morning when we left for our next day’s trek, the village children would come back to hug Josh and say goodbye, often bringing a small gift for him. He quickly ran out of balloons and postcards for them.

Some of the kids would even follow us part way out of the village, waving goodbye over and over! After the end of three days, we were tired and ready to get back to town to shower and sleep in a bed. But the trek was a memorable one, not just for the beautiful jungle scenery of the mountains of northern Thailand, but for the warmth and friendliness of the villagers, whose generosity and laughter made each day worth the grueling walk!

On to the North From Chaing Mai, we traveled north still further, and spent two days relaxing along the sleepy Mae Kok River at the MaeKok River Village Resort, which is part family resort, part outdoor adventure and community building school. It was nice to be out of the city and to walk along the banks of the quiet river near the Burmese border.

But most of all, it was inspiring to see what the owners of the Mae Kok River Village Resort were doing. In addition to hosting children from international schools around Asia for adventure activities, they were working closely with the children of the area whose parents had died from AIDS or other consequences of the region’s opium industry. On the grounds of the resort, the children learned organic gardening skills as well as other work and vocational skills that would enable them to survive on their own. I admired the work and felt good about being able to support it in any way.

From there, we took a slow, scenic barge down the river to Chiang Rai, where we spent the evening indulging in a fantastic Thanksgiving meal at a local Western restaurant, and wandering the smaller night market. The next day, we took a bus back to Chiang Mai and boarded the train back to Bangkok. It had been a fabulous month of diverse activities, from the bustle of Bangkok, to the beaches of Ko Phi Phi, to the jungles and hill tribe markets of the north.

From here, we would fly to Cambodia to visit the magnificent ruins at Angkor. But Thailand would remain one of Josh’s favorite places. He is already planning his return for more diving and trekking and foot massages!

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