Family Travels: Thailand

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

The Travelers: Americans Terry and Amy Lee, and their girls Hannah (7) and Lydia (5).

Destination: Bangkok and Hua Hin, Thailand

The plan: Amy had to be in Bangkok for a conference, so the rest of the family took advantage of a week-long stay in Bangkok, with a two-night side trip to Hua Hin for some R&R at the beach.

The low-down: Terry booked tickets with Thai Airlines and the hotel was already organized through Amy’s work. The family received advice from an expatriate colleague living in Bangkok on where to go and what to see outside the city – either Changmai and the mountains in the north, or the beaches in the south. The beaches were a strong draw card for the girls, and so the family chose Hua Hin, a small resort town about two-and-half hours’ drive south of BK.

Fit for a king: On their first day, Terry organized a four hour tour to the magnificent gold-dipped Grand Palace through their concierge at the Hotel Natural Ville. The tour cost around THB1500, which included an English-speaking guide and private driver. Although this was both convenient and culturally informative, Terry wasn’t happy with a ‘surprise’ side trip to a jewelry factory. Be sure to ask about these touristy traps in advance. The Grand Palace is a main attraction in Bangkok – its fanciful buildings are covered in a mosaic mural of tiny jeweled stones and mirrors. The tall, gold, bell-shaped stupa, Phra Si Ratana Chedi, is said to contain a piece of Buddha’s breastbone. The Lee family sadly missed the famed Emerald Buddha (actually carved of green jasper and Thailand’s most significant religious icon), as the King was handing our diplomas that day and this section of the Palace was closed.

Snakes alive: The Snake Farm at the Queen Saovabha Memorial Institute (run by the Thai Red Cross Society) opened in 1923 as a facility for the manufacture of snake anti-venoms. During the farm’s snake show, the family sat in awe-struck silence as a 20-foot king cobra appeared. Although a deep pit separates these slithering creatures from their spectators, this deadly cobra can stand one third of its height and could easily have struck an audience member. Terry got the chills when the interpreter told everyone to remain completely still. So, thrill seekers – run! – don’t walk – to the snake farm. And be sure to have your photo taken with a scaly anaconda pashmina before you leave. (+66 2 252 0161-4, THB70/per person, open 8.30-4.30pm weekdays, 8.30am-12pm weekends and holidays, 1871 Rama IV Street, Lumpini sub-district, Bangkok)

Never smile at a crocodile: Samut Prakan Crocodile Farm and Zoo south of Bangkok is said to house the world’s largest crocodile (over 18 feet). In search of it, the Lees trekked over countless crocodile pits (via raised walkways), agog at the heavily-packed nests of crocodiles below, some as long as 15 feet and as fat as a bus. Incredibly, there are more than 60,000 fresh and salt water crocodiles at this farm, as well as shows of death-defying reptilian feats. The family watched feeding time – a tasty menu of fish heads served with a shovel – and you can go ‘croc fishing’ with chickens on a fishing line, dangling them in front of croc’s lumpy nose, waiting for a bite. The Centre also raises tigers, elephants, snakes and chimpanzees, and there is even a Dinosaur Museum with life-size models and skeletons. The girls loved their short elephant ride and the elephant show, demonstrating the awesome power and fine balance of these beautiful animals. (+66 2 703 4891-5, THB300, kids THB200, open 7am-6pm daily, and click on Crocodile Farm).

Thailand in an afternoon: Billed as the world’s largest outdoor museum, Ancient City (about 45 minutes from Bangkok) is a historical theme park featuring 109 to-scale replicas of the Kingdom’s most important sites and monuments. There is even a floating market, for real Thai authenticity. Take a bicycle around this 320 acre park or use the mini-rail service. Due to its more remote location, it’s best to organize a round-trip tour, and be sure to leave by 3pm to avoid peak hour (+66 2 224 1057, THB50 per person, including bicycles and rail rides, open 8-5pm, Ancient City).

River tour: Don’t miss an exciting long-tail boat tour on the Chao Phraya river. These fabulously skinny boats with a canopy and dinky (but noisy!) motor on the back, cut a fine parry through the busy river, but also navigate the waterways (klongs) behind the main drag, taking you into another world. Ramshackle houses squat on the river’s edge, right next to gilt-edged temples and the well-kept miniature wharfs of mansions from a lost era. The Lees spent around three hours in a long-tail boat and even went through a canal lock. The entire tour was organized through a small tour company right on the river, and cost around BHT800 for use of the boat, which is standard. Don’t pay more.

Noodle slurping: The family enjoyed Bangkok nightlife at the Suan Lum Night Bazaar. It’s clean, the food is very cheap and there are plenty of tables, encircled by a myriad of tempting stalls. The girls recommend the pad thai. The hawker stalls on Khao San Road – a vibrant street, bustling with restaurants, shops and guesthouses – are even better, according to the Lees.

Getting around: Avoid taking tuk-tuks, renowned to scam you for every baht. Take taxis, insist on using the meter, and sit back in air-conditioned comfort. The skytrain and river taxis are also great options to get around the city – check out Check out Bangkok Skytrain and Hotel Thailand for information on trips costing as little as THB2.

Fun in Hua Hin: The Lees organized a car to Hua Hin through their Bangkok concierge, who’s brother just happened to run a car service from BK for only THB2000 one-way. Most hotels can offer similar transfers, otherwise book online with a travel agent like Global Easy Tour or Mercury International Travel. Buses and trains also go to Hua Hin – so the choice depends on your comfort zone.

Sweet dreams: The family stayed at the Leng Hotel in Hua Hin, a three star hotel 100 meters from white sands and waves that were big enough to thrill, yet safe enough for wee ones. Terry recommends staying at the southern part of the beach where the stretch of sand is a little wider, and so provides more sandcastle material at high tide. In the evening, they went to a local night market, which had great food.

The most magical thing: Exposing the girls to a different culture, one that is so different to Beijing – and showing the girls a real life Kingdom with a real life King! King Bhumibol Adulyadej – the world’s longest reigning monarch – had recently celebrated his 80th birthday, so Bangkok was in a particularly festive mood. The Lees also loved the way the Thai people greeted them with hands to their chests. Yin dee. Welcome!

First published, in part, in beijingkids magazine and on the beijingkids website.

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