Southeast Asia with Kids – Travel Tips

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.

Boy and girl at beach in Southeast Asia

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.

2. Try to reserve the bassinet on the airplane. 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.

4. Prepare for your vaccinations early. 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.

8. Check the fire exits in your hotel. 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.

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13 Comments

  1. Hi David,
    Going to phuket and not sure where to stay. We are a family of two adults and a 6 & 8 year old. We need a two bedroom,beachfront,the best kids club – with long opening hours. But not to close to Patong as I was told that is to busy. Looking at 4 or 5 star place. The best place for the kids. Thinking about going in Nov 12.

  2. Thanks for the tips- we are thinking of taking our two (5 and 9) somewhere in SE Asia this summer. These are great tips!

  3. hey was just woundering how widely usable is the credit card!?will be in indo,malaysia, thailand cambodia and vietnam got and 8month old so wont be going to far away from the tourist ‘trail’!
    also is it easy to find real budget accomodation with the baby or are a lot of places not child friendly?
    cheers for any help!

    • Credit card use is very wide spread at mid-class hotels and up. At budget hotels, local (non-touristy) restaurants, and small shops it’s usually cash only.

  4. Hi there, love your blog, we are about to move to indonesia with 13 month old and 5 year old… about the baby carriers… what brand would you recommend for a hefty 12-13 Kg toddler?

    • The Maclaren Techno XT Stroller is awesome. It’s both lightweight and durable, and folds up easily. I’ve used a lot of strollers and think it’s far and away the best.

      I hope that helps. Good luck.

  5. Hey – great tips. We’re heading to Vietnam with our little girl, who’ll be 10 months, travelling for a month. Wondering about taking a capsule (carseat) or not – I think most travel will be by train, and if cars with belts aren’t the norm, is there any point? By your description of crossing the road, I think we’ll avoid car travel – and crossing roads – as much as possible!

    • Hi Kirsten. Yes, it’s very hard finding car belts that work. Just try to limit how much you travel by car – although difficult to avoid entirely. As crazy as it sounds, you do get used to crossing the road with traffic whizzing by. Be quick, but don’t hurry. Good luck.

  6. Am I crazy to think about 5 weeks in Bali/Indonesia with a 4 month old and a 2.5 year old (took the 2.5 year old to Malaysia and Singapore at 10 months and she was great!) but two kids….will my husband be able to say “told you so?!”
    Also thinking of a liveaboard scuba boat for 9 days (we would alternate dives). The dive boat is ok with it….will the kids survive?

    • It’s totally doable – though the 9 days on a small boat with 2 kids does sound a little crazy :)

  7. Wicked article!

    My wife and I will be taking our 1-month old to SE Asia for 6 months, so I have a few questions regarding longer-term travel (because obviously, I can;t pack 6 months of Canadian diapers.)

    Our doctors here say we can continue immunizations while abroad, but we are wondering if it is at all possible to make the whole trip with two 35L backpacks + a bassinet. Essentially being able to carry all of our stuff at once, comfortably.

    I’ve traveled Peru for 3 weeks with a half-full 35L pack, and I know my wife is also capable of traveling light, but I’m concerned with having a safe place for baby to sleep. Which bassinet is the most portable? We can afford a Bjorn, but we just want the least bulky to carry. We’re considering using a baby wrap, but are open to shoulder-strapped baby carriers.

    Is this unrealistic?

    • Yes, I think it’s realistic. We did southeast asia with 2 kids and probably one more small bag than you’ll have. We also had a bassinet. I think the Graco, but the Bjorn is smaller and lighter. Finding diapers is easy in most places. The swim diapers are very hard to find so pack more of them. Good luck.

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