A holiday in Bangkok with kids? Yes, you can!
Pretty temples, colourful markets and yummy food – here's why the Thai capital can be a great family destination too.
- April 2019
After having children, I emerged cautious and wary back into the world of travel. Exotic destinations like Myanmar, Vietnam and Morocco disappeared from my world, along with uninterrupted sleep and days spent travelling on crowded buses. In their place, a villa in Bali with a bedtime babysitter or a cruise with an all-day kids club – as adventurous as I’d go in the early years.
But the funny thing about kids is that they don’t stay the same for long. Babies and booster seats are gone, and now, two boys, aged eight and 11, read books on the plane and lug their own daypacks. Now, we’re qualified to venture further afield and Bangkok beckons.
The pulsating Thai capital, home to more than eight million people, was my staging point for several South-East Asian backpacking adventures – first, as a solo traveller and later, with my partner. I’d always wanted to bring my kids to Bangkok to experience the temples and museums, the markets and malls, the river trips and the delicious food at every turn.
Before we even catch a glimpse of the city’s streets, the clinging heat and pungent urban aroma hit us as soon as we leave the airport. The familiar green and yellow taxis whisk us to our hotel on Sukhumvit Road - a wide, busy street lined with hotels and shops in the commercial heart of the city.
One night, long ago, I wanted to skip the traffic on the back of a bike taxi. And we did, roaring all the way down the wrong side of the road. “Mum, what are you smiling at?” my older son asks. “Just remembering the last time I was here,” I reply. “Oh,” he says, none the wiser. Suddenly, he points. “Look at all that fruit!” A man with a little blue cart chops pineapple into a row of neat jigsaw pieces and slides them into a plastic bag, adding a sprinkle of chilli. “Let’s get some of that,” he says, ready to dive into trying new things.
With fresh fruit and excitement in our bellies, my partner, a veteran backpacker since ’88, says the place to start in Bangkok is the Chao Phraya River. Soon, we’re in a colourful long-tail boat with a noisy eggbeater engine, zooming past the temples, hotels and shopping malls along the riverbank. The boys laugh excitedly as the spray hits the plastic sides while the boat bounces over the choppy water.
Our first stop is the statuesque Wat Arun temple, towering over the muddy blanket of the Chao Phraya River. The large central stupa stands out from the smaller versions at each corner, all styled with lines of coloured, decorative tiles. “Is this a church?” asks my youngest. “It’s a temple for Buddhists,” I reply. They’re keen to hear a simple explanation as we wander through the temple maze. “And these are the temple guardians,” I explain, while they stop for a photo, posed like the giant warriors that stand by the temple gate. Loudspeakers play songs and prayers and the boys soak up the festival feel, surprised that worship here is so public and busy.
A quick ferry hop takes us to the Grand Palace, a former royal residence on the eastern bank of the river. We weave our way through throngs of people and wander past street stalls selling fresh coconuts. “Can we get one?” the boys ask, red faced and sweating. I nod and the seller expertly hacks the top off one and pops in a straw. The verdict? It beats a can of coke, so that’s saying something.
Living through many Sydney summers, the kids have been in training for humidity, so they’re handling it OK so far but the coconut water certainly helps. With fluids replenished, we file into the most holy and popular sites in the city. The Grand Palace is a complex of wing-tipped halls and residences with distinctive golden spires. Rows of saffron-clad seated Buddha statues line verandahs and Buddhist stories are painted on the walls.
In Wat Phra Kaew, the temple of the Emerald Buddha, the boys crane their necks to look at its petite 66-centimetre figure. “Is that it? It’s so small,” they say. “Yes,” my partner replies. “But it’s very sacred.”
Next door in Wat Pho, the 46-metre golden reclining Buddha is so large it fills the pavilion. “Is it real gold? Did you see its feet? Why is it asleep?” The questions come thick and fast. They have seen our Buddha statues souvenirs at home but the real thing is far more impressive.
It’s been a long day and we ferry the boys, drooping and tired, directly to the hotel pool for a reviving swim. Over our pad thai dinner, my youngest says he counted all the seated statues, while his brother says he wants to take another river trip. When they’re asleep, a whispered review of the day makes us realise we need more water-based activities, that we spend an inordinate amount of time looking for toilets and we get the best out of the kids with one sightseeing event in the morning followed by something fun like a ferry trip. We also quickly confirm we were right to wait until they were well into primary school for this trip and can handle the heat, transport changes and busy streets.
On the weekend, we take the Skytrain (like the old Sydney monorail) to Mo Chit Station, which gets a few giggles from the boys. From there, it’s an easy walk to Chatuchak Weekend Market, which covers 141,000 square-metres and has a staggering 15,000 booths, selling anything and everything – in multiples. Want a mango wood bowl? How about 10? Or half-a-dozen “designer” handbags? Inside, there are piles of T-shirts, sarongs and souvenirs as far as the eye can see.
It’s a riot of colours, sounds and smells, too, and a spicy, garlic aroma leads us to rows and rows of food stalls. Everyone gets to pick something for us to share. Fish balls, noodles, dumplings, chicken satay sticks followed by bags of fresh mango and watermelon. The kids spot an enormous twirled fried potato chip on a stick and instantly want to tackle that, too. We come across some toy tuk-tuks and I surprise the boys with my old bargaining skills. “100 Baht?” I ask the store holder. It’s roughly AUD $4.40 but I tell her it’s too much. Calculator in hand, she responds. “90. Good price for you.” It’s ping-pong bargaining. “No, too much,” I say. “60.” Now it’s her shot. “You pay more. 80.” We settle on the price and I thank her. “Khob khun ka.” By day’s end, the boys are wearing bandanas and carrying their toy tuk-tuks. The markets are the hit of the trip so far. Exotic food, souvenirs and even weird animals, just what two boys could hope for in a shopping expedition.
It hasn’t taken long to adapt to the tropics and now nothing happens in the morning until we’ve had banana pancakes, coffee and fresh juice by the pool. The boys, like most kids, have a fascination for extremes. Today, it’s heights, so we make our way to the 84th floor of Baiyoke Tower II, which reaches an impressive 300 metres skyward. Soon, we’re four faces peering through the cage of the revolving open-air viewing platform. We see an uneven cityscape of buildings and towers that mirror the city’s boom and bust economics. “Look at all the road loops,” my youngest says. “It looks like my Hot Wheels track.” He’s got a point.
Back on ground level, dinner awaits. The night is spent grazing on tasty morsels from vendors that fill the maze of streets in Chinatown. Rows of lucky golden cats wave from stalls stuffed with red and yellow Chinese lanterns. It’s hot and crowded, and we sit at outdoor tables and enjoy ordering small plates of barbecued prawns, rich, soft dumplings swimming in soy sauce and chicken skewers washed down with bottles of freshly squeezed juice. “Mango sticky rice” is the chorus reply when I ask about dessert. According to them, it beats chocolate and sour Warheads lollies – now that really is saying something.
“Tuk-tuk,” says the driver as he slows past us. It’s our last night and the boys want to take a ride in one of these three-wheeled boom boxes. Lack of safety provisions aside, it’s a convenient way to get around, and after some not-so-canny negotiating, we’re soon crouched in an open cage, motoring our way down the road to the sound of Thai pop music.
Bangkok seems busier this trip and it’s certainly more tiring with two junior travellers. But watching my children experience a different world, cultural and culinary, and giving them a few of their first real travel memories is the payoff. When I ask the boys for their verdict, it’s emphatic: “We’re coming back on our gap year.”
Need to know info
Plenty of hotels have family suites or connected rooms, plus pools for downtime. The Sukhumvit area is accessible from the Skytrain. Banglamphu will put you near the river. Silom is in the business district and in Siam you can shop till you drop near your hotel.