Travel Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids
By: David Robert Hogg
I’ve traveled to Southeast Asia almost a dozen times and have had my kids with me on 3 of those trips (Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam) Even at its slowest and most predictable pace Southeast Asia is a fun, exciting and thrilling environment. Add some kids to the mix and it’s a mind-boggling maze of thrills and surprises.
It’s not all ease and wonder however. Some details do need to be addressed. Here are 17 tips for making a trip to Southeast Asia as fun and inspiring as it should be.
1. Take a travel crib.
If you’re bouncing around between different towns and resorts you can be in a different room almost every other night. I’m not a real worry wart that stresses over every uncertainty but even I appreciate having a safe and secure place to put the baby. Whether it’s nap time, bed time or you’re just hopping into the shower, hotel rooms offer a lot of untested scenarios so a bassinet makes good sense. The consistency is nice as well instead of sorting out a different sleeping arrangement with every new room and bed. The Graco is inexpensive and a good choice if you’re looking for something cheap. The Bjorn costs a bit more — Ok, a lot more — but is very light and folds up very compactly.
It’s hard to overstate just how great this can be for parents. Flights are long to SE Asia from pretty much every Western country and this is a fantastic way to make it seem a lot shorter. Most airplanes have bassinets that connect to the bulkhead — and it’s what I like to call “a free seat”.
It works for kids up to about 20-25lbs (9-11kgs). We’ve had 12 hours flights where our youngest slept nearly 8 of them. The trick — and challenge — is to get those bulkhead seats that are associated with the bassinet. Phone the airline directly after booking your tickets to find out which seats have the bassinets and how to reserve them.
3. Buy sunscreen before you leave home.
This can be hard to find in Southeast Asia — expensive when you do — and will usually be SPF 5 when you want a 15 or 30. Buy a couple big tubes of it before you go and you won’t have to waste an afternoon hunting around for it.
Health issues dominate concerns when traveling to developing countries. I’m often heard saying, “don’t worry about it, you’ll be fine”, but that said it’s good to be well informed. Visit the CDC and NHI websites and schedule a doctors appointment as soon as you know you’re going. Some immunizations require a series of shots that can take several weeks to administer. Start early so you’re not scrambling to fit in the last shots before you depart.
5. Pack light — you’ll buy lots.
SE Asia has so many great clothing shops and markets it’s easy to grab almost anything once there (with the exception of underwear which just tends to be different). So if shopping is at all on your itinerary rest assured you’ll buy lots of stuff that the kids (and you) can wear immediately. In other words — if you think your son will need 6 t-shirts for the trip then pack 3 and that way you’ll only have 2 dozen in your luggage on the trip home
6. Leave the sweater, pants and coat at home.
OK — you’ll need one long sleeve shirt or sweater for the plane — and perhaps one pair of pants — but that’s it. No more! You’ll get home and say to yourself “Why did I pack this stuff?” And please, don’t even think about taking long sleeved pajamas.
7. Take a good quality baby carrier.
This is as close to a must as there is on this list. Traveling around the rutted streets, uneven sidewalks and cobbled walkways of South East Asia a great carrier will be a lifesaver. It allows you to have 2 hands free to grab bags, buy a subway ticket or change money. Awesome! There are several different brands that come highly recommended.
If there ever is a fire — and that’s probably the biggest risk to your family outside of road accidents — exits might not be as clearly marked as in the West. Taking a half-minute to find the closest one to your room is time well spent.
9. Check windows in hotel rooms that are above the first floor.
Once again, hotels — even good hotels — don’t have the same safety standards as those you’re accustomed to in London, Vancouver, or San Francisco. I’ve been blown away more than once by opening an easily accessible window and finding a clear 5 story fall to the sidewalk below.
10. Use backpacks.
They’re great for stuffing lots of clothes into a small space. Suitcases are heavy and hard to carry any distance. It’s hard to push a stroller and carry suitcases — or even pull suitcases. Backpacks work well with just about any scenario. (Plus backpacks look cool. If you walk up to a travelers hangout with a couple of suitcases everyone will expect your first words to be, “Excuse me, but does anyone have any Grey Poupon?“)
11. Don’t run when crossing busy streets.
There aren’t lights and crosswalks at every other intersection, so unless you want to get a taxi to ferry you across a busy road you’re going to have to cross with traffic buzzing by. But the American and European method for crossing a busy street — wait for an opening and then run like heck — won’t work in South East Asia. For starters, there often won’t be any appreciable gap in the traffic. So, the way you do it — and it sounds crazy — is to slowly inch your way across the street lane by lane. If you’re moving at a slow predictable pace — or not moving at all as the case may be — drivers will see you and slip around either side of you. But if you’re moving rapidly across the path before them (as instinct says you should), they won’t know how to react and you’ll get in trouble, and maybe killed. So there you go: move slowly, patiently across the street.
12. Drink bottled water but … other than that forget about the water.
It’s generally not as bad as we’re led to believe and in any case there’s something a little absurd about not eating tomatoes because they were washed with local water when ALL YOUR DISHES — plates, bowls, cups, forks, spoons are washed with the same water.
13. Be prepared for your kids garnering an unusual level of attention
-especially away from the touristy towns and resorts. Cheek pinching, head rubbing, arm grabbing, pictures — and even grabbing your child and with barely even acknowledging the parent taking him or her back into the kitchen of the restaurant — are some of the things you and your child might be exposed to. Every child is different so it’s hard to know what to suggest (mine love the attention so that was never a problem for us). But be emotionally prepared for the adoration and interaction. Talk to your kids about it. And if necessary, be firm with overly aggressive locals. Yes, they’ll probably think you’re a grumpy rich Westerner but these are your kids and you have every right to dictate how people interact with them.
14. Take a car seat if you’re planning on traveling long distances in a car
as you probably won’t be able to find one there. At least not easily or predictably. Finding cars with working seat belts will be hard enough.
15. Childcare probably won’t be available with English speaking caretakers.
While babysitters can be found in all major cities and resort areas, unless you’re staying at the high end hotel or resort don’t expect the sitters to be able to speak English. If your child is shy and timid but you still need a break it might be best to time the babysitting with the child’s nap.
16. If you want your kids to sample, eat and get accustomed to local food then it’s all about choice: don’t give them any.
If you think you’re going to eat at the tourist shack on the beach and they’ll order some Pad Thai, they probably won’t. This might not be a big deal for you, but for me exposing my kids to new food is a big part of why we travel. So set aside one meal — probably lunch or dinner —when you go to a local restaurant, order local dishes and that’s it. Eat it if you’re hungry. Don’t force it on them, but let them know — through consistency more than words — that you won’t be walking out the door and then getting a snack back at the hotel.
And if you go hardcore and eat local for all 3 meals, everyday, it works even better. That said, kid friendly Western food is easily available in all the big cities and tourist areas. French fries, banana pancakes, hamburgers, pasta are very common. So don’t fret if finding food for your kids is causing you anxiety.
17. Pack your favorite brand of diapers — and pack a lot of them.
Diapers will be relatively easy to find in resort areas and bigger cities but even then the sizing will be different, the brands different, the quality generally inferior. Fill a light-weight bag with enough diapers for your trip. As you work through them you can use the extra space for the clothes and knick-knacks you’ll inevitably buy.