Explore Southeast Asia with Kids — Our Family Travel Tips

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We have some of our strongest family travel memories while in Southeast Asia with kids. It’s a great place to explore with children, and so I’ve put together some of the most important lessons I’ve learned into a few tips for you.

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids Hue perfume river boat cruise family portrait

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids

In 1997, I left Atlanta (my hometown) for a year abroad. I lived and worked in Taiwan, and explored Southeast Asia during my vacation time. I loved it so much that I never went home.

Fast forward to 2013. I’m now part of a family of four, and we left our home in Japan to explore Southeast Asia with kids in tow.

In addition living in Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan (again), we also traveled extensively in Indonesia and Vietnam. We love exploring Southeast Asia with children, and you will too. Below I’ve put together a list of tips, tricks, and advice that will (hopefully) make you trip even more meaningful.

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Planning Your Southeast Asian Trip

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids cameron highlands Malaysia

Every country in Southeast Asia has something to offer adventurous families. For first-timers wondering where to start, I often recommend Malaysia. The infrastructure is better than many neighboring areas, and it’s not hard to find English speakers if you need to. In fact, most Malaysians speak English — not so elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Before you book a ticket, however, here are a few things to consider.

Check your country’s visa status…and remember it

The length of your stay in each Southeast Asian country varies depending on your nationality and where you’re visiting. You won’t need a visa to visit some countries. Others have strict rules. For some countries, you can handle your visa upon arrival (for a fee). Others may require a few steps before you arrive.

Some countries offer a tourist visa upon arrival. However, every country has a specific set of time that you’re allowed to stay in the country. These times vary. Don’t get them mixed up like we did.

Don’t get them mixed up like we did.

Back in 2013, Malaysia’s tourist visa was 90 days for US & Japanese citizens. Thailand’s was 30 days. We got them mixed up — big mistake. We realized our mix-up at the airport in Bangkok and had to fork out hundreds of dollars to fly out (we overstayed by a month). Don’t be dumb like us.

Be aware of the rainy seasons

You can visit almost anywhere in Southeast Asia with kids and expect warm weather. However, you can’t always expect dry weather. Instead of four seasons, most Southeast Asian countries have two: wet and dry.

In places like Krabi (Thailand), Penang (Malaysia) and Sumatra (Indonesia), the wet season is September and October. In most of Vietnam, it’s the summer months of July and August.

Prices are often lower in the wet season, and for obvious reasons. However, it should be noted that when we explore Southeast Asia with kids, we don’t mind traveling in the wettest months. Sure, you can’t go out and see and do as many things. But if you’re going at a slower pace, you don’t mind so much. The temperature remains much lower than the steamy levels it can reach the rest of the year.

There are different kinds of rainy season, too, so read up before you book a flight or write a place off. For example, so places have predictable rain: it usually rains hard for two to three hours in the afternoon and stops. You can work around this easily. On the other hand, some places have unpredictable rainy seasons, or it may rain off and on all day, every day. If you’re traveling in Southeast Asia with kids, I suggest avoiding this kind of weather.

Jet lag

Chances are that you’ll be crossing a lot of time zones to reach Southeast Asia with kids. In general, flying eastward creates worse jetlag. Why? Because flying east cuts your circadian rhythms more harshly. That’s what some scientists think, anyway.

Either way, you’ll be dealing with sleepy kids and sleepy adults, so be prepared. As I mentioned in my tips for flying with kids, we place more importance on the time of arrival than the time of departure. We’d rather the kids start adjusting to our new time zone as quickly as possible.

Vaccinations

Start planning your vaccinations long before you fly to Southeast Asia with kids. Some travel vaccinations require multiple visits.

Vaccinations can be quite expensive in most countries. One way to save money on these is to have them done once you arrive. I know several families who got their shots (or some of them) at health clinics in Bangkok once they had arrived in Southeast Asia with kids. This saved them hundreds of dollars.

  • Adult polio booster
  • Tetanus / diphtheria
  • Hepatitis A
  • Typhoid
  • Yellow Fever
  • Rabies
  • Japanese Encephalitis

Malaria Meds for Southeast Asia with Kids?

When some people travel in Southeast Asia with kids, they want to carry malaria medicine with them, We’ve never done this because the medicine has its own problems and side effects. That said, I’m not going to tell you what to do here. Study for yourself and make your own decisions.

Getting Around Southeast Asia with Kids

What I've Learned from Family Travel: 15 Insights - First Year Review

 

Seat belts are not the norm

When you venture into Southeast Asia with kids, don’t expect the same safety standards. Lots of taxis won’t have seat belts. If you insist on seat belts for your child everywhere you go, you won’t go very far in Southeast Asia. Unless you walk, that is. Or hire a driver everywhere.

Car seats

See above. Car seats usually need a seatbelt to attach to. You’re not going to find those seatbelts in a lot of Southeast Asian vehicles.

Take public transportation

I know what I just said above, but I really encourage you to try taking public transportation when you can. The bus system in places like Penang and Ho Chi Minh City are quite comprehensive. The trains in Taiwan are clean and punctual and take you almost the entire length of the island.

Public transportation is also much cheaper than taxis and tuk-tuks. On top of that, you often get a better experience with the local people that way.

Know your fare and agree on it before getting in

Traveling in Southeast Asia with kids often means taking a taxi or a tuk-tuk. But before you head out, ask a local or someone at your accommodation about it. See how much your trip should actually cost. Then when you approach a driver, agree on the price before you get into their vehicle.

If you’re in a place where taxis use their meters, make sure they turn it on. If you’re in a place that uses apps like Uber or Grab, use them. They take the hassle out of haggling the price.

Have exact change ready

Whether it’s on a bus, taxi, tuk-tuk, or train, try to have the exact or amount of your fares ready when possible. Why? Well, some drivers won’t have exact change. And then there are some other drivers who will just say they don’t.

Giving them the exact amount ensures you aren’t overcharged.

Don’t run across the street

One of the biggest concerns about traveling in Southeast Asia with kids is the crazy traffic. It’s not as dangerous as it looks, but if you’re not careful, it can be.

Believe it or not, most Southeast Asian traffic has a rhythm and flow to it. The thousands of motorcycles and scooters may not seem to be following any rules. However, there is a relationship between them and pedestrians.

In most of Southeast Asia, this relationship is based on the expectation of movement. If a scooter knows how you’ll move — if the driver can predict the direction you’re going to move — then they ride in a way to avoid hitting you.

Running or moving erratically is a mistake. It makes your direction hard to predict, and that’s when you get hit. Ask my son. He knows.

In places like Vietnam, you’ll see people crossing the street while hundreds of scooters maneuver around them. Notice the pedestrian’s slow, intentional movement. The bikes weave around them like fish in a stream. Cross the street like the locals cross.

Rent a Scooter/Be prepared

One of our favorite things to do in Southeast Asia with kids is just to putter around on some small, 100-150cc scooters. If you want to try this too, we recommend it, but of course, be safe.

When renting a scooter in Southeast Asia, check the helmets to make sure they fit properly. We also like getting scooters and motorcycles that have a lockable storage space — usually under the seat or in a box attached to the passenger backrest.

Also, always inspect the scooter before paying the rental shop. Look for any dents or scrapes, and take pictures of them with a phone or camera. It doesn’t hurt for the rental shop staff to see you doing this, as well. Most rental shops are honest, but a handful of them try to scam tourists by making them pay for damages they aren’t responsible for.

Baby carriers or strollers?

In general, the roads and sidewalks of Southeast Asia are not designed for strollers or wheelchairs. There are curbs, steps, and potholes. Walkways suddenly end. For example, Georgetown, Malaysia may be a UNESCO Heritage site, but gaps in the road lead to open sewers, and steep steps lead to many store fronts.

Carry a stroller if you want, but I’d recommend a baby carrier in most situations.

People and Socializing in Southeast Asia with Kids

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids Vietnam Ho Chi Minh City HCMC cooking class

We’ve met some amazing people while living in Southeast Asia with kids. You can too, but it may require certain combinations or trust and caution. Don’t believe anyone who says that everyone is out to scam you. However, take care to make sure that you aren’t tricked, either.

The “smile / eye contact / no” technique

This can be used throughout Southeast Asia and many other parts of the world. During your travels, someone is bound to try to sell you something or take you somewhere, and you don’t want it.

Don’t be gruff. Don’t be rude. Simply smile, make eye contact, and firmly say “No.” Show respect, but make sure it’s clear that your decision is made. I talk more about this technique here.

Expect Attention

People in Southeast Asia adore children, and you should expect them to pay attention to yours. This goes double if your kids are blonde, fair-skinned, or fair-haired. In more remote areas, a crowd may form around your brood to get a look or even take a picture. Some kids don’t care for this kind of attention. Some revel in it.

Hand over your baby?

With the above in mind, visit some places in Southeast Asia with kids and you should expect people to ask to hold your baby. Sometimes this is a respectful request. At other times, old ladies may just stick out their hands and grab.

If you eat at a family-run restaurant in Vietnam or Thailand, it’s very common for babies and toddlers to be whisked away by staff. They may be entertained and shown off to neighbors during the entire meal.

Smoking is still everywhere

If you’re coming from many places in the West, then you’re now used to seeing smoking cordoned off to specific areas. Not no in most of Southeast Asia. In fact, in some places in Indonesia, for example, people still smoke on public buses…with the windows closed!

Fighting it won’t help much. If it really bothers you, just try to avoid it. It gets better day by day, month by month.

Respect temple etiquette

Just like in cathedrals in Europe, many temples, shrines, and mosques in Southeast Asia have dress codes and other codes of conduct. Do your best to follow these when you can.

The solution is usually simple: cover your legs and shoulders. A sarong does the trick. If you don’t have one, get one. They’re for sale all over Southeast Asia in night markets and elsewhere.

Food in Southeast Asia with Kids

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids chiang mai street food

Taiwanese food. Thai food. Vietnamese food. Indonesian Food. Malaysian food. Drool…Food in Southeast Asia is some of our favorite in the world. Here are a few tips when traveling with kids.

Eat street food, but be prepared

Southeast Asia has one of the most vibrant and delicious street food scenes in the world. However, if you’re not used to it, your stomach might rebel after your first meals.

Make sure to bring meds for diarrhea and digestive problems. Also, yogurt or yogurt drinks can help with an upset belly. You can find yogurt drinks in most convenience stores in Southeast Asia.

If you’re at a market or street stall and in doubt of the food’s freshness there, always go for fried food or nothing at all. Fried food tends to kill off any of the stomach-bothering baddies.

Prepare for spices

Most Southeast Asian cuisine is heavy on the spices. Expect the chile pepper family to play a prominent role on the menu. If you or your kids can’t handle the heat, make sure you learn a few key phrases:

  • “I don’t want spicy” in Mandarin: 不要辣 (“Bùyào là”)
  • “No spicy” in Bahasa (Indonesian): tidak pedas
  • “Not spicy” in Thai: ไม่เผ็ด (“mai ped”)
  • “No chili please” in Vietnamese: không có ớt vui lòng

Food in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia often has chiles cooked in. Vietnamese food often has the hottest condiments on the side.

Follow the crowds

The longest lines usually mean the most delicious food. In addition, it also usually means that the food hasn’t been laying around for a while.

Try to eat at the same times as the locals do, or soon before/after them. If you eat at times when the locals aren’t, you increase your chances of eating food that’s past its prime.

Points of contact

Some stalls have two people working: one is cooking, while the other handles orders and money. These tend to be safer.

Furthermore, it’s not always the food that makes you sick. It could be from the plates, the cutlery or from dirty hands. You can bring your own chopsticks with you.

Water & ice

It’s best to drink bottled water in Southeast Asia. Ice is generally safe, as it’s made with filtered water. Fruit that you peel is less prone to water-borne bacteria.

Money, Shopping & Accommodation in Southeast Asia with Kids

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids Penang airport currency exchange changing money

No refunds

This isn’t Walmart. There are few receipts given at night markets and almost all sales are final.

Exact change

Just like with taxis and tuk-tuks mentioned above, it’s best to keep small bills when shopping. Lots of shopkeepers can’t break large bills, and a few of them might not want to.

Book first nights

Travel is tiring. Whether it’s jet lag or a long bus trip, kids are usually tired when you arrive in a new town. That’s why we prefer to have the first few nights of accommodation sorted before we arrive. However, after a day or two, we often look for our next place as a walk in. See below.

Accommodation can be better/cheaper to find once you arrive

In Southeast Asia, you can often get a room cheaper by walking in than you can by booking ahead online. Book your first few nights in a city. Then check other spots over the next few days. Spend a few hours checking places out in person, and you may be able to save a considerable chunk of change. You may even be able to strike a better deal where you are.

A few safety precautions

If you’re staying in less-than-resort-status accommodation, it’s worth spending a few minutes to checking the windows and fire exits.

Also, some people bring extra locks or doorstops for added safety. I know a number of Epic Education Radio guests have brought Pacsafe gear. This allows them to chain a bag onto something stationary in the room when they go out.

Keep in mind that a lot of theft in Southeast Asia is simple opportunism. Therefore, if you make that opportunity a little more difficult or time-consuming, it doesn’t happen. If it takes an additional 30 seconds to pull off, you usually stop theft from happening altogether.

Use Airbnb, but ask a lot of questions

We have had great experiences with AirBnB all over the place. We used it all across Northern Spain, as well as in Malaysia and elsewhere. However, it’s worth noting that AirBnB is not a hotel. You need to form a relationship with the homeowner and confirm exactly what you’re renting.

I wrote about one of our AirBnB experiences in Penang before. The place looked exactly like the images provided. Then we arrived and opened the cabinets to find no plates. We opened the closets and there were no clothes hangers. That wasn’t in the picture…

It turned out that they had never had guests like us. All of their previous clientele were foodie tourists. They stayed over the weekend, never unpacked and ate out every meal.

Confirm everything beforehand. This goes double if you require reliable internet. Ask about it. Confirm everything.

Packing for Southeast Asia with Kids

Why You Should Buy Travel Insurance: Family Travel Essentials luggage-taiwan-2013

When we started traveling, we carried this much. Now we carry 1/3rd of this amount. Maybe less.

One of the great things about traveling in Southeast Asia with kids is that you rarely have to worry about being cold. Packing for warm weather is infinitely easier for us than packing for winter, but we have a few tips we’d like to share.

Pack light & plan to wash (socks & underwear most important)

You really don’t need many clothes if you plan on doing laundry often. Lots of AirBnB places have a washing machine but consider laundry services as well. If you travel in places like Thailand, Taiwan, or the island of Bali, family-run laundry services are cheap and common.

When it comes to how much of each clothing item to bring, we tend to bring three of the main things like shirts and shorts, but more socks and underwear.

Why? You can wear shorts for a week, and you can wear a shirt two days in a row if you need to. maybe more. But underwear and socks? You really don’t want to wear them two days in a row, do you?

Leave room for new clothes/souvenirs

Packing less clothing means you’ll have room to buy a few new items along the way. Southeast Asian night markets are full of T-shirts, beachwear, and other warm weather clothing and accessories. If you don’t already have one, buy a sarong. They have multiple uses.

Think matching, think layers

If all your clothes match and can be layered on top of each other, then it’s easier to pack less.

Also, a lot of people will tell you not to bring a jacket of any kind, or just a rain poncho. We think this is a mistake. Why? The weather outside is very hot. Nevertheless, in places like Thailand and Malaysia, the air conditioning inside is cranked to meat locker levels.

When we lived in Penang, the kids and I brought socks and fleece jackets every time we went to the movies.

What to bring to Southeast Asia

You can buy a lot of what you want for Southeast Asian family travel once you arrive. That said, there are a few things that you might want to pack before you head to the airport.

Sunscreen & mosquito repellant

Sunburn and mosquito bites can put a serious drag on family fun in Southeast Asia with kids. However, your favorite brands of both are probably not for sale in this part of the world. If they are, they’re sold at a huge markup. Instead, you’ll find sunscreen at low SPF levels, and mosquito repellant that may work very poorly.

Pocket tissue

Yes, you can find this in Southeast Asian shops, but you’ll want to keep some with you from day one. Why? Because some toilets don’t have toilet paper.

An insulated bag

This may sound odd, but it’s been a lifesaver for us. I usually don’t drink cold water unless I’m in insanely hot weather. In Southeast Asia, cold water can be incredibly refreshing, and you really need to stay hydrated in weather like that.

Each night, we put one bottle of water in the freezer. Before we go out for the next morning, we put that frozen bottle in the insulated bag. Then we put several more bottles of water on top of it. The frozen bottle keeps the other bottles chilled all day. In the process, it slowly melts so that we have ice-cold water to drink until bedtime.

Do this. Thank me later.

Your favorite brand of cosmetics, diapers, and deodorant

There are babies in Southeast Asia, too, of course. But if you have a particular brand of diaper you like, you might consider bringing some with you. Or not.

I throw deodorant in here as well. Like diapers, it’s available in some places, but both diapers and deodorant are often very personal comfort items. This could apply to feminine hygine products as well. Some carry their own, some just buy what’s available.

As for cosmetics, you may find your favorites, but chances are you won’t. Moreover, a lot of Southeast Asian cosmetics have skin-whitening agents in them. Lighter skin is considered more beautiful here, so beware.

What NOT to bring: Jeans and a heavy jacket

The weather in Southeast Asia is so hot and humid. There’s a good chance that your jeans and jacket will just weigh your bag down.

Southeast Asian Family Travel Tips by Country

Looking for specific information on specific Southeast Asian locations? We have plenty of tips and advice to share. Here are a few pages dedicated to some of our favorite Southeast Asian destinations.

  • Malaysia: Friendly people, amazing museums, and parks, lovely islands, and more
    • Penang: After over 14+ months in and out of this amazing city, we want to share it with you
  • Thailand: Culture, classes, and adventure in the north, rock climbing and amazing beaches in the south
    • Chiang Mai: Great for a visit, but many never leave
  • Indonesia: With so many islands to explore, we’ve only begun our adventures here
    • Northern Sumatra: Rafting, jungle treks and orangutans
    • Ubud, Bali: An island like no other. Amazing cultural and social opportunities
  • Taiwan: Underrated and underreported, Taiwan has so much in store.
  • Vietnam: The Mekong, the dizzying Ho Chi Minh City, and the magical central towns

Southeast Asian Food for Kids and Picky Eaters

We LOVE Southeast Asian food, but we know that it can be a bit much for first-time visitors and those averse to spices. That’s why I’ve started a post series describing some of Southeast Asia’s most accessible foods. If you’re visiting Southeast Asia with kids or picky eaters, dig in! And let me know what you think!

Have You Been to Southeast Asia with Kids?

Tips for Southeast Asia with Kids bukit lawang jungle trekking orangutans

Where did you go? Where did your family love most? What were the biggest challenges? What were the best memories? Tell us in the comments, or contact me directly.

Have questions about Southeast Asia with Kids?

How can I help? Send me your questions, or ask me in the comments below. I don’t have al the answers, but I’m happy to help whenever I can!

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