When to Go to Thailand
The most-recommended season to visit Thailand is between November and early April, during the “cool” (but still fairly hot) and dry season. This makes it tricky to visit with school-aged children, given the US school calendar constraints. We wanted to travel there for quite a while, but for instance, their summer break coincides with monsoon season there, which isn’t necessarily ideal.
Aside from the summer, most of the kid’s school holidays are only a week. Given that it can take 20+ hours to fly from California to Thailand with a 15 hour time change, it’s hard to justify the travel time, jet lag, and cost for just a week there.
Our solution was to travel during the two-week Christmas holiday. The kids were a little sad to miss Christmas at home, so we decided that we would shorten the Thailand trip to 10 days and let the kids be home on the bookend weekends, leaving California late on a Sunday night, and returning on a Friday afternoon. The main downside is that airfare is more expensive than normal during that holiday period.
Of course, our Christmas was not snowy white, but it was definitely memorable! This is a great time to visit Thailand if you have kids in school.
Where to Go in Thailand
The next challenge was deciding which cities we wanted to visit. Originally, we were thinking about going to both Thailand and Vietnam, but when we started looking at how long we needed in each city, there simply wasn’t enough time.
So, we restricted ourselves to Thailand. Jeremy had taken a solo trip the year before, and enjoyed it so much that he wanted to show it to the family. I was concerned that he would get bored going back to the same places he had seen before, but he really wanted to show us some of his favorite sights.
One thing that we have learned from traveling with kids is that it is always easier to take them somewhere that we are familiar with. If we have been there before, we have already had time to work out some kinks and learn what types of things work well and what to avoid.
Since Jeremy had already been to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, we decided that those cities would be our familiar cities. Jeremy could take us to his favorite sights, maybe add a few that he didn’t have time for before, and if the heat got to any of us, he wouldn’t feel sad to miss a particular sight.
Knowing that the boys don’t always enjoy spending tons of time in big cities, museums, and the like, we decided to add some beach time in Phuket as well. Jeremy isn’t usually a huge fan of the beach, but we knew it would be a good time for the boys to be boys and enjoy their Christmas vacation.
Getting to Thailand
We ended up spending 3 days in Bangkok, 4 days in Phuket, and 3 days in Chiang Mai. We used Google Flights to look at various open-jaw flight combinations, and had to eliminate a few of the cheaper options because they required overnight layovers in China (where a visa is necessary for us). The option we picked had us fly into Bangkok through Seoul, and out of Chiang Mai via Taipei.
We then arranged some fairly inexpensive one-way domestic flights between Bangkok and Phuket, and Phuket and Chiang Mai. One observation that we made for the Chiang Mai flight was that the airport shuts down a little before sunset when a lantern festival is going on. No one wants a flaming lantern to get caught in their airplane engine…
Finding Lodging in Bangkok
Some people skip Bangkok altogether (it is a big, busy city), but the Grand Palace and other traditional sites are definitely worth seeing. We had some great food there as well. When taking along children, consider that some tourist areas may be surrounded by more “exciting” nightlife than you may be looking for. Our main constraints for Bangkok were that we wanted to stay reasonably central while avoiding anything sketchy. After searching, we chose a family suite at the Center Point hotel in Silom, Bangkok’s business district.
We were quite pleased with our choice. The suite was quite large with several rooms. The lobby and pool were on the 7th floor. Between the pool and our room, it gave us an awesome place to escape the mid-afternoon heat. A surprise bonus was an in-unit washer/dryer combo machine.
The breakfast buffet was quite large and tasty, so we were pleased that we paid ahead of time for this. Note that if you reserve a room with breakfast included, the fee is quite nominal in comparison with the price you would pay if you later changed your mind and decided to get breakfast.
In addition, there was both a metro station and river ferry just a short walk away. For everything else, taxis were fairly inexpensive (though at night, roads by the hotel were quite congested). There was a mall next door, and a market with lots of tasty restaurants just a block away.
Three Days in Bangkok
With 3 days in Bangkok, we decided that the first day would be dedicated to getting a feel for the city and beating jet lag by staying busy enough that we wouldn’t have time to sleep.
Day 1 included an early afternoon arrival following 20 hours of transit from California, a local ferry to Chinatown, a wander through the market, an after sunset wander through Lumpini Park, and an evening wander through the Patapong Night Market.
Day 2 was Christmas day, so we decided to skip the temples and see our second slate of sights. This included a wonderful tour of the Jim Thompson House, a not-so-wonderful visit to the Siam museum, a walk to Saranrom Palace Park, a delicious lunch on Khao San Road, a walk to Phra Suman Fort, a visit to the super modern Mall complexes, an afternoon swim, and dinner near our hotel.
Day 3 included typical highlights that we would recommend doing on your first full day in Bangkok. Our morning began with a ferry ride to the Grand Palace (arrive by opening to avoid crowds!). Next was the nearby temple of Wat Pho, then lunch, and a ferry ride to the temple of Wat Arun. I was hot and exhausted, but Jeremy wanted to press on and show us the Golden Mountain, so we hopped on a taxi and climbed 343 steps to the top. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel to swim, rest, and pack. For dinner, we went to the market just behind the mall and found a delicious restaurant with grilled fish!
Finding Lodging in Phuket
The island of Phuket is a delightful place for a family vacation, provided you are careful about selecting a good location. The island is much larger than either of us were expecting, so make sure you are careful in figuring out where you want to base your activities.
Phuket has towns with different focuses, e.g. folks looking for wild nightlife flock to Patong. After some research, our first choice was family friendly, yet lively, Kata Beach. That said, we didn’t plan the trip super far in advance, and hotel availability was tight.
Our second choice was Karon Beach, which is next to Kata Beach – definitely family-friendly but with a quieter, less crowded vibe. We ended up picking the Karon Butterfly Residence, which was at the top of a steep hill and was on the border between Karon Beach and Kata Beach. The hotel was fairly new (and had some growing pains), but all-in-all was a decent choice for our particular family.
Four Days in Phuket
Beach time, massages, and markets is what we spent much of the time on. We also had some food-related illness, so our time here was probably a bit more low-key than it would have been if we were all in excellent health.
Day 1: Short flight from Bangkok, get settled, sunset on Karon Beach, walk to Kata Beach area and Night Market.
Day 2: I spent the day in bed, while Jeremy and the boys spent the morning on the beach. In the afternoon, Jeremy and John walked to Kata Beach to check out surf lessons, but realized too late that there were no waves. In the evening, we took a dinner walk.
Day 3: I got a morning beach massage while the boys played on the beach. After lunch, James got his feet nibbled on by fish while I got a massage. I then spent some time at the markets, while the boys enjoyed resting at the hotel. In the evening, we enjoyed another sunset on the beach, got an amazing fish dinner, then split up. I took one kids back to the other, while Jeremy took the other back to the night market.
Day 4: Another day on the beach, followed by a late afternoon/evening cooking class that included a market tour and a several course dinner.
Finding Lodging in Chiang Mai
When we were booking accommodations in Chiang Mai, we knew we were going to be arriving on New Year’s Eve, but we didn’t fully appreciate the level of festivities that would be going on. The lantern festival is a big tourist draw.
When looking for rooms near the Old City where we could fit our family, we found a good match Sugar Cane Chiang Mai that was about a 10 minute walk from the South city walls. During a non-holiday time, I suspect availability would have been better around the city, though it worked for us.
Three Days in Chiang Mai
Chaing Mai has some fairly interesting temples, so you should set aside at least one day to visit them. Otherwise, there are a lot of other options. We considered the zoo, elephant tours, mountain bike tours, cooking classes, and more. Do some research and see what appeals to you. Most excursions have a shuttle service that will pick you up at your hotel.
We could have easily spent more time in Chiang Mai, but mitigated this by doing a cooking class in Phuket, rather than Chiang Mai.
Day 1: Flight from Phuket and tour the Old City. We did a walk that started at the temple of Wat Phra Singh, continued to Wat Chedi Luang, and then cooled off in the air conditioned Lanna Folklife Museum, the Chiang Mai Arts and Cultural Center, and the Chiang Mai Historical Center. Our last stop was Wat Chiang Man, then we went back to the hotel to cool off and rest. Note: try to do the walk earlier in the day than we did, to avoid the heat.
In the evening, we went to the special New Year’s Eve night market and saw the lantern festival. What fun!
Day 2: Woke up a bit worn out by the previous night, we spent a delightful morning at the Chiang Mai Zoo, spent the afternoon resting, then went back out once the sun started to set and enjoyed an evening at the night markets.
Day 3: On our last day, we gave the boys a choice of visiting an elephant sanctuary or going mountain biking. As it turns out, we split up and everyone was happy. Jeremy and John went on a cycling tour while James and I had a delightful day interacting with elephants at an ethical sanctuary.
This was a pretty good itinerary. We probably could have taken at least a day off our time in Phuket, or visited a different island. We also could have added a bit of time to Chiang Mai, but otherwise we were very satisfied with everything we did.
One caveat is that Thailand is hot, even in the winter. Make plans to get a reasonably early start in the cooler morning, take an afternoon siesta, then head back out for a delightfully cool evening. When you look at restaurants, evaluate the AC/fan situation before you sit down too.
The food there is really great, but be careful about stomach illness (I was the only one to experience it though). Make to be flexible with your travel plans.
Thailand is an amazing country, with delicious food and beautiful sights. Consider it for your next vacation, whether you are traveling with kids or not!