Sailing down a river in Hoi An, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Marianne Rogerson.
It's a big world out there – and Southeast Asia is just the right place for your kids to discover the color and adventure available outside of their comfort zone.
Just ask Melissa Delaware of Thrifty Family Travels (Facebook|Instagram|Twitter): she and her partner Andy take great pride in raising a globetrotting kid, one who's resilient and adventurous beyond her years.
“I have heard some parents be concerned about how their kids will handle experiences that are completely different to what they may see at home,” Melissa tells us. “This is precisely why should you take your children to Southeast Asia: it broadens their mind, shows them that the world is a bigger place than just their home town, and teaches them to appreciate the differences among the world’s cultures.”
As Melissa's experience shows (along with many, many other families' own testimonies), Southeast Asia is a great, family-friendly place to visit overall… assuming you follow a few tips from expert travelers that minimize the pain and maximize the fun (and learning).
Melissa Delaware's daughter Myla posing with a new friend in Hanoi. Image courtesy of Melissa Delaware.
Help your child process the trip – before and throughout. Melissa advises parents to brief their kids about the experience in advance. “Talk to them about the people, things and places they will see,” she recommends. “Watch YouTube videos, look at Google images, read atlases, and answer any questions they may have.”
The process should be ongoing throughout the trip: “Continue to talk to the kids about what they are seeing, explain the wonderful unique cultures they are experiencing and encourage them to get involved,” Melissa advises.
This comes in handy when going through the local roster of cultural experiences, which Melissa prioritizes. “[We] visit busy and colourful local markets, getting to places on local transport, visiting local villages, watching cultural performances and eating different foods,” Melissa explains. “[My daughter] has surprised me on a few occasions, even eating snake in the Mekong Delta!”
Fishing off Hoi An, Vietnam. Image courtesy of Marianne Rogerson.
Engage in age-appropriate cultural experiences. Like Melissa, Mum on the Move's Marianne Rogerson (Facebook|Instagram|Twitter), puts a premium on cultural experiences – but pays attention to the appropriateness of each experience for her kids. “We do include many cultural experiences, but make sure they are still fun and engaging even for small children,” she explains. “Vietnam is one of my favourite countries for this.”
Marianne's kids have ridden a cyclo in Hanoi, kayaked amidst Ha Long Bay's limestone outcrops, and met the mountain villagers of Sapa.
“We head to Danang and Hoi An for the long white stretches of beach and the huge choice of family friendly hotels with kids' facilities,” Marianne says. “But equally, while here, we enjoy admiring the beautifully preserved traditional wooden architecture, taking a street food tour, and learning about the local farming and fishing communities.”
Kid on motorcycle in Vietnam. Image courtesy of Bronwyn Leeks.
Prepare an emergency kit. For all the fun kids can have in Southeast Asia, parents should prepare for that margin of error when an emergency crops up.
“We always travel with identification cards on a lanyard,” she explains. “They hold information about the child so that in case of being lost or an emergency all the information is right there. We have put this to the test on one occasion when our middle daughter was lost at a train station. She was able to show train staff my phone number and we were reunited the next station.”
“We also add a hotel card, or accommodation address and phone number in the local language. Just ask your friendly hosts or a local friend to help you write it.
“Our medical/toiletry kit always holds mosquito repellent, travel sickness bands, hand sanitiser and sunscreen. We love each having a sarong too as it covers us when exploring temples, covers us from the sun and even as a light cover for sleeping on the trains and buses.”
Family riding on Singapore MRT. Image courtesy of Mike Aquino.
“The trickiest part of Southeast Asia travel was the different traffic conditions, and the prospect of travelling in taxis or other vehicles without child restraints,” Karen tells us. “[In Thailand], I spent some time researching options for a private driver who was able to provide all of our ground transport arrangements in a comfortable and modern car fully equipped with child restraints.”
Karen notes a trend where more transport operators now offer child restraints – this “means that travelling families can now enjoy touring places like Bali, Vietnam and Malaysia without undue hassle,” she says.
Some places have excellent public transportation – which Karen advises using whenever possible. “Singapore is the perfect Asian city to explore using the modern and efficient MRT system,” Karen tells us. “Families will find it a breeze visiting Singapore without the need for taxis.”
Chinese New Year in Malaysia. Image courtesy of Dawn Nicholson.
Schedule for special holidays. 5 Lost Together's Dawn Nicholson (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram) arranges her family travels to coincide with the local festival calendar. “We always check to see if we will be there during any special events or holidays happening while we are there,” Dawn explains.
“We do this, first, for practical matters to make sure we can find accommodation – [and] because seeing different holidays and festivals celebrated around the world interests the whole family,” Dawn says. “Being able to experience these unique holidays in Asia made the trips extra special and culturally rich.”
To date, Dawn's kids have been in Malaysia for Chinese New Year (“The kids were fascinated by the abundance of oranges everywhere, firecrackers and of course the dragon dances,” she recalls), and Bali for Galungan (“My kids were fascinated by the roaming parades of children dressed up with drums in the streets,” she says).
(Just remember that not all Southeast Asia holidays follow the Western Gregorian calendar – Myanmar's many holidays, for example, follow the Pali Buddhist lunar calendar, and many of their most popular festivals, like Kachin Manaw, occur around the full moon.)
Beach bungalows near Tanjung Rhu beach, Langkawi, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Erica Walker.
Give everyone a part in the planning. Rolling Along With Kids' Kate Comer (Facebook|Youtube|Instagram) recognizes the challenge of bringing more than just the kids with you. “Taking extended family members on holiday is always daunting to organise,” she says. “Especially when you have a group of 13 people aged one to 56 years that include first timers that have never been to Bali or Asia, you need to plan.”
Keeping everyone happy on the trip is difficult, but doable – as long as everyone has a say in the outcome. “Before you book anything, including accommodation, ask each family member what they want from their holiday,” Kate says.
“Do they like the beach or mountains? Ask parents, what sleeping arrangements suits them best? What budget do they have to work with? By doing this you can for see any issues that may arise.”
“I consulted my kids, Ryan and Jessica, on every step of the planning, including whether or not they wanted to join us,” Wendy says. “Each had some different ideas about what to do. Some plans were scrapped and others received unanimous approval.”
This is a process where one wins some, and loses some: “My enthusiasm to visit as many temples as possible was not shared by my kids, so we kept those sites to a minimum,” Wendy tells us.
Little girl in Bali beach resort. Image courtesy of Erica Walker.
How to find the right accommodations for your family. Mum Travel Diaries' Erica Walker (Facebook | Instagram | Twitter) spent three months travelling with her family throughout Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam – and stressed out over finding the right accommodations for the whole brood.
Much to her surprise, every stop had plenty of family-friendly accommodation options. “From a quaint guesthouse in the depths of Vietnam’s Phong-Nha Ke-Bang National Park, to an apartment with all the mod-cons in downtown Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia – and everything in between – there was always a place where we were guaranteed a good night's sleep,” Erica tells us.
Follow Erica's rules of thumb to get the most out of your accommodations: “Stay in centrally located places to minimise on travel time and costs. Contact your accommodation to ask about cots; highchairs; or extra beds. Shop around for the best price; and remember it's sometimes cheaper to book two smaller rooms than a family room.”
Kate Comer offers an additional tip: “If you are the organiser, try to arrive at the accommodation first,” she says. “This helped on our Bali holiday as the WIFI was not working when I arrived and that was really important to one of our first timers. As he was flying in later that day, I had time to get it fixed.”
Family posing for portrait. Image courtesy of Kate Comer.
Factor in your family members' individual interests. Travel, Books and Food's Soumya Nambiar (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram) visited Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur and Kota Kinabalu for New Year with a whopping eight family members. “We are a travelling family – we all have different travelling styles,” she tells us.
Soumya plans her itinerary to account for her family's varying tastes. “Choose a destination where people with different styles have different activities to do,” she suggests. “In Kota Kinabalu, on one day, some of us went snorkelling and island hopping while few went to explore the city while others just lazed out at the beach with a drink.
“It definitely keeps your sanity intact if you are travelling with large families,” she concludes. “Also, keep some days in between your trip when you don't have to do everything together as a family.”
Kate Comer concurs: “Don't plan too many activities to do on your family holiday, especially if young kids are involved,” she says. “I found a day of activities followed by a day of rest suited our group and ensured we each had our own time and space.”
Kids considering the local food. Image courtesy of Kylie Gibbon.
Go all-in on the local food. Dish Our Town's Brenda and Andrew Tolentino (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram) decided to make their long family trip in Southeast Asia an education for their 11-year-old daughter Bailey: a curriculum that “would come in the way of food, and there are few places on earth in which the cuisine so diverse and directly tells the story of the people making it,” Brenda tells us.
Starting with Malaysia's roti and progressing to Singapore's Char Kuay Teow, Bailey's informal education culminated in the Philippines' “national dish Adobo, [where] she realized its unique colonial history that gives her an Asian face and a European surname.”
Our Overseas Adventures' Kylie Gibbon (Facebook|Instagram|Pinterest) found their three- and five-year-old kids' tastes expanding as the days flew by on their recent trip. “As we slowly integrated into everyday life, their food choices got more adventurous too,” Kylie recalls. “They ended up eating insects in Cambodia, spicy noodles in Malaysia and nasi goreng in Bali!”
Kylie, for her part, allowed the kids to try everything at their own pace. “We always offered them food from our plate and never forced them to try something if they didn’t want to – gradually curiosity got the better of them and they were keen to try,” Kylie says. “Every now and then we’d have a ‘night off’ and grab something more familiar like a plate of pasta or pizza so they didn’t get too overwhelmed.”
Finally, “we found attending a cooking school was a great way to get them interested in the food and trying new things,” Kylie explains. “If they made it, they were more inclined to eat it!”
Storm trooper in Thailand moviehouse. Image courtesy of Gary Low
When all else fails with your young kids, catch a movie. 2-Week Trip's Gary Low (Twitter|Instagram) has kids who get antsy after dark – a difficult situation in a place like Bangkok. “Finding activities to do with a pair of restless kids late at night is tricky, even (or especially) in a place like Bangkok,” Gary explains. “While bars, night markets and cabaret shows offer lively entertainment, it wasn’t particularly PG13.”
So it was pure luck that Gary and his brood found Paragon Cineplex at the top floor of the Siam Paragon mall. “It screens the latest Hollywood movies till the wee hours of the morning,” Gary recalls. “When I brought my nephews to catch the latest Star Wars in 4D, they could hardly contain their excitement. Thankfully the movie lived up to expectations and everyone enjoyed it thoroughly.
“We ended our Bangkok trip on a high note, thanks to some late night movie magic!”
In less urban places around Southeast Asia, look for other late night alternatives: for example, Brunei's Bandar Seri Begawan has a night market that can occupy kids' attentions (and stuff them full of good local food). Just use your imagination!