For the past two and a half months, I’ve been with the kids 24/7. Their teacher left to visit her family in Canada for low season, which many expats here do, so we’ve been filling our days with lots of beach time, pool time and travel. I never thought I could be a full-time mom, but of course it is much easier now that my kids are almost 6 and 8! We’ve been having a blast, and I’m really thankful for this time we have together because they are both growing up so quickly!
I love traveling, but always travel with kids so our trips involve kid-friendly activities. But when a friend told me she bought a roundtrip ticket from the Philippines to Thailand for $100 and invited me to join her, I couldn’t pass the chance up! Our itinerary included touring temples, visiting an elephant sanctuary, taking a Thai cooking class, and going to night markets every night. Having never traveled through Southeast Asia before, I was amazed at how affordable everything was in Chiang Mai! I had $350 USD for my entire 5 day trip and was able to do everything I wanted, and do a ton of shopping. Chiang Mai was voted favorite Asian city two years in a row by Travel & Leisure Magazine and with their incredible culture, food, night markets, and nature, it’s easy to see why. It was an amazing place for a momcation, but it’s also incredibly family friendly as well. I’ll definitely be back with my kids!
We did a lot of research on elephant sanctuaries before we left for Thailand because we wanted to find a place that was ethical and did not ride or hit the elephants. We decided on Elephants at Home and it was the perfect choice. There were three elephants, including a mom and her 6-year-old son, that have been living with the same family since they were born. They live 2 1/2 hours away from Chiang Mai in the mountains, and the drive up there was pretty crazy, especially because it rained half the day! Luckily I’m used to crazy roads (or rather no roads) living in the Philippines!
The elephants are free to roam the jungle, and sometimes they even run away while foraging for food and have to be found by their tracks. It was wonderful to see the elephants living in their natural environment and not a pen where they could forage, eat mud, and engage in their natural behaviors. There was even a photographer that followed us the whole day and gave us all the pictures at the end of the day! It was truly a once in a lifetime experience with these intelligent and majestic animals. My friend just took her two kids the same age as Charlie and Olive to another elephant sanctuary in Chiang Mai and they loved it. The cost is 2400 baht ($72) for the whole day and 1800 baht ($54) for a half day and includes lunch and hotel pickup/dropoff.
Our tour group only consisted of four people as they keep their tours very small. After feeding the elephants buckets of bananas, we walked down to the river and scrubbed and bathed them. Then we hiked to a waterfall where we ate lunch and played some more with the elephants in the water.
T H E T E M P L E S
Chiang Mai has over 300 Buddhist temples and we didn’t have the time to make a half day trip to the most popular one, Doi Suthep, located an hour away. I think it would be great to do with kids because there is a cable car to the top with sweeping views of the city below. We decided to visit the 3 most popular temples within Old City, Wat Chedi Luang Varavihara, Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chiang Man. Every temple was so different and beautiful! We walked, but it was so hot I’d definitely hire a tuktuk (prenegotiate the price) if I were doing it with kids or sign up for a tour that included Doi Suthep.
T H E F O O D
We signed up for a 6-hour Thai cooking class with Thai Akha Cooking School. After buying some ingredients from the wet market, we proceeded to their kitchen where we cooked 11 dishes! Our cook/teacher was so funny and we learned so much about Thai culture as well. The class was 1000 baht, which is about $30. I would definitely do this with my kids since they love to cook, but would probably choose one of the farm cooking schools which might be a little more fun for them.
In order to stick to a budget, we ate at local joints where meals typically cost 40 baht ($1.20), but were still delicious. And of course lots of street food!
larb served with lots of fresh greens – one of my favorite Thai dishes
khao soi – a noodle dish in a curry broth
T H E N I G H T M A R K E T S
Thailand is known for their night markets and they did not disappoint! Because it was low season, the weeknight bazaars were empty, but the Saturday and Sunday night markets were bustling (all three are in different locations). The Sunday Night Market is definitely the best one of the week (it’s huge!) and there are so many bargains to be had! From clothes to jewelry to personalized passport covers…. I bought lots of clothes for myself and gifts for friends and family. What I read online said to bargain down to 50%, but we could never get anywhere near that — I think Chiang Mai is becoming too popular! Head to Warorot Market, which is more geared towards locals, if you’re looking for spices.
W H E R E T O S T A Y
We stayed at The Velvet Orchid inside Old City where you’ll find lots of smaller boutique hotels. Anywhere inside the Old City walls is convenient with lots of restaurants, shops, and 7-11’s everywhere. Our hotel was brand new and only $30/night, although prices will be higher in high season.
T I P S
– Americans do not need a visa to travel to Thailand.
– A taxi from the airport will run you 150 baht, and is only 10 minutes to Old City.
– There are shared red truck taxis called songthaews that were always empty and took us anywhere we wanted to go for 20 baht per person, which was much cheaper than the tuktuks (who can try to price gouge you). In high season the trucks have more people so they may not take the most direct route to your destination, but it is the cheapest way to get around Chiang Mai and you’re usually not going too far anyway.
– Chiang Mai is not a big city and you can easily get everywhere you want to go by walking and taking songthaews.
– Many locals, including our hotel staff, spoke virtually no English so it can help to know a couple of basic words in Thai.
– Buy a Nancy Chandler map before you leave for Chiang Mai.
– Super Rich is supposed to have the best exchange rates.
– This was a budget trip so we saved money by eating cheap, not drinking, and buying refreshments at 7-11. We also didn’t buy anything at the Friday and Saturday night markets so we had a good idea of what kinds of things were being sold and price points. Then we shopped til we dropped at the Sunday night market, and since it was my last night there, I could spend all of my cash.
– Elephant Nature Park is the most popular sanctuary, but it can book up months in advance.
– October-February is the peak season where you have the best weather. February and March are rice field burning months so it’s best to avoid traveling then. March-May is the hot summer, and June-September is the rainy season. Living in the Philippines with similar weather, I don’t mind the rainy season. It keeps the city cooler, and it usually rains for a short time before clearing up. I also love that the city has way less people!
– You must cover your shoulders and knees when entering temples. It was hot so I brought a sarong to cover my shorts.
– You can buy a local sim card for 250 baht at the airport that will last one week. Not a necessity as there is great wifi everywhere, but I like to have internet access so I can always be reached (since I have kids!).
– Bring mosquito repellent with DEET. I got a lot of bites and dengue fever is a concern.
– I had 3 full days to sightsee with 2 travel days. 3 full days is the minimum time you need, and I’d go for at least 5 days if I go back with my kids.
– Most Thai dishes are spicy (my favorite type of food), but more child-friendly dishes include fried rice, pad thai, mango sticky rice, chicken satay, spring rolls, rice soup (khao tom), khao man gai (Hainanese chicken rice popular in Singapore) and fried/grilled chicken with sticky rice.
. . . . .
There are tons of kid-friendly activities like:
- Stay in a treehouse!
- Art in Paradise 3D Museum
- Overnight camping at Elephant Sanctuaries
- Elephant Poopoo Paper Park (make paper from elephant poop)
- Museum of World Insects and Natural Wonders
- Siam Insect Zoo
- Night Safari
- Bua Thong Waterfalls
- Big Game Fishing Adventure Tour
- Royal Park Rajapruek
- Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden
- Hilltribe Tour
- Fruit Carving Class
- Lantern Festival (November full moon)
I’d love to take the kids to the Lantern Festival! Maybe next year?