Our Thailand family backpacking trip
Thanks for stopping by my blog. My name is Nina and I am a photographer and Mum to Luke (10) and Sophie (8). I am married to Paul and around a year ago we decided that we wanted to go on our first family backpacking trip.
Paul and I never backpacked after university (as we went straight to work), so we made a family decision that 2017 was the year we were to start our travelling adventures. I have tried to be as informative with this blog post as possible so you get a real feel of the trip and I hope the story of our journey inspires you to consider family backpacking too
Based on recommendations from friends we decided to travel to Thailand as we felt it would be easy to navigate and that it would be great to experience a different culture. We flew with Thai Airways on the A380 Airbus. We could not fault the airline and I would absolutely recommend them. We had a lot of legroom and the in-flight entertainment and the food were very good.
Not to spoil the blog, but let’s just say we are totally converted now and have fallen in love with that side of the world – we are already planning our next adventure!
P.S the images in the blog are a mixture of photos taken on my Canon G1X Mark 2 and photos taken by my husband and kids on my iPhone.
Our route around Thailand
Our plan was to spend a month in Thailand and cover as much of the country as possible. Being school holidays (we left on July 20th) we had been told not to spend too much time on the west side of the country as that was the area where we were most likely to find rain.
The rough plan was to fly to Bangkok then divide our time as 2 weeks in the North followed by 2 weeks in the South. I had pre-booked the first 6 days accommodation and travel and then we were to make the rest up once we arrived. I have to be honest (despite lots and lots of people telling me that it would be fine) as Mum I was nervous to not have accommodation and travel booked for the entire stay! Everyone kept saying that it was really easy to book late rooms and transport and I am pleased to report they were 100% correct! I had lots of apps on my phone and would book the night before for the next location. You can see the apps and some tips on using your phone in the Booking accommodation section at the end of the post.
This was our final route:
- 2 nights in Bangkok
- Overnight train to Chiang Mai ( 1night)
- 6 nights in Chiang Mai
- 3 nights in Mueang Khong (around 2 hours North of Chiang Mai)
- 1 night in Chiang Dao
- Flight from Chiang Mai to Phuket
- 2 nights in Phuket
- Bus & Ferry to Koh Samui
- 3 nights in Koh Samui
- High-speed Catamaran to Koh Phangan
- 3 nights in Koh Phangan
- High-speed Catamaran & coach to Hua Hin
- 4 nights in Hua Hin
- Flight back from Bangkok
How rainy was the rainy season?
From what I had read online we honestly expected it to rain every day and the reality was nowhere near as bad! We were caught in a couple of big rain storms but then we would go for days with none at all. On average it was around 35 degrees and it was very humid. That said we adjusted quite quickly and by the end of the first week were used to the humidity. What we did notice is the very high UV index and even on a very cloudy day, you could easily get burnt with a low factor sun cream on.
What we packed
A couple of months before we left I started reading other peoples blogs on what to pack. We wanted to be able to move easily so it was important that we kept our bags as light as possible. At check in my husbands and mine bags weighed in at 7 & 8 kg and the kids had 4kg each. Below is a list of everything we took and all of the items we found invaluable!
My husband and I carried 45 + 5 litre backpacks from Mountain top. They were very good and we would happily recommend them. They were comfortable to wear and shower proof and cost around £35.
The children carried Skysper 30 Litre water resistant packs which cost £20. Again these were very good and we will use all of these packs again next time.
The kids carried their bags the entire trip which we were really pleased with (although I suspect the kid’s Uncle had a hand in this promising them each £10 if they carried their bags the whole time!)
We planned to pack as light as possible so we took the following clothes for each person. We either washed our clothes in the washing machines along the streets (50p) or paid to have our laundry done for us for £1
- 1 pair of zip off trousers from Mountain Warehouse
- 1 long sleeved lightweight jumper . I wore a yoga breathable top which was great.
- 1 good quality Berghaus waterproof jacket
- 5 sets of underwear
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 3 tops – 2 sleeveless, one with short sleeves
- 1 cotton day dress, 1 cotton evening dress for the girls
- Swimming costume
- 1 pair of trainers, 1 pair of walking sandals & 1 pair of flip flops
Our medical kit included
- A St Johns Ambulance first aid kit – we actually only used the plasters out of the kit for cuts but I felt this was important to take. I bought this from Amazon.
- A pack of Sterile needles
- Sun cream – I was surprised how expensive the sun cream was so was pleased that we packed enough to get us through the first 2 weeks.
- Mosquito spray. I took an Avon so soft and jungle formula with deet and both of these were useless! In the end, I purchased a local product (around £1 and could be found in any 7 eleven) and it was excellent. See image for the actual cream.
We took some other items which we found invaluable whilst away
- Camping towels. Super lightweight microfibre camping towels from Amazon which we got a lot of use out of.
- Torches. A couple of nights in the North we had no electricity so our torches were well used.
- Portable washing line. We used this so many times I am really glad we packed this! We took a heavy duty one and it worked really well.
- Kindle & Ipad mini – when traveling we often read our kindles and we did take the iPad mini with us. We downloaded a couple of movies but the kids used it most to play solitaire
- A pack of cards
- Compact Camera – I took my trusty Canon GX1 mark 2 for photos and video.
First stop Bangkok
We arrived in Bangkok very early in the morning and checked straight into our accommodation which I had booked via booking.com. We paid £28 per night for a room with 2 double bed at Resort M. The rooms were much cheaper than most in Bangkok because we stayed on the outskirts of the city and went in and out on the sky train.
Our first tip is that Thai taxi drivers often have NO IDEA where your accommodation is despite having a full address. We picked up a metered taxi from the airport but he had no sat nav so he had to stop twice to ask for directions. Having unrestricted data on my phone would have been a big help (see phone and app tips below!)
Bangkok’s River tour
We decided to stay up when we arrived and took a tuk tuk down to the river to explore. We got chatting to a couple of the Sky train who suggested we get on the Chao Phraya River Express Hop on Hop off boat. Tickets are £3 each for the day and you can cover all the major sites including the Grand Palace. On the day we were exploring the Grand Palace closed at 3 pm so check ahead what time it closes!
We visited a couple of stunning temples and the markets. It was also my kid’s first experience of being asked for photos by Thai locals – their blonde hair attracted a lot of attention and we were stopped by families, guards, and monks for pictures!
Lumpini ParkA beautiful park with lots of wildlife
After our day of exploring the sites along the river, we decided to head for Lumpini park to see the famous water monitor lizards. We ended up spending hours here as you can feed the fish and turtles too. We also found a great playground and had a really relaxing afternoon. The kids also found their first coconut which fell from a tree right in front of us.
The Unicorn CafeHeaven for a 7 year old girl!
High on my daughters to do list was the Unicorn Cafe so we jumped in a tuk-tuk and headed off to Sugar Heaven! The menu basically consists of waffles, chocolate, pancakes, ice cream etc and the portions were huge! In Sophie’s words “the best bit was I could dress up as a unicorn to eat my chocolate ice cream”. It was a bit of fun as a family and the food wasn’t actually priced that badly. I think it’s best as somewhere to go for a dessert. Note my son is not in any of the photos 😉
Eating & getting around
Getting around Bangkok is really easy and the Skytrain was cheap (around £1.20) very clean and runs really frequently. The staff are really helpful and will supply change to buy your tickets from the machines. Tuk Tuks are also a fun way to get around but please be aware all of the prices were negotiable. The drivers always started off quoting really high so make sure you shop around.
We tried to avoid eating in commercial restaurants and ate in markets, small local restaurants or on the street. We would spend on average £2/3 a meal per person and £1 for street snacks. Bangkok is a major city and has Tesco and Starbucks but if you just walk around the corner you can often find a more authentic place to eat.
NOTE: We ate as much where the locals ate a possible, ate the street food and used the water for cleaning our teeth etc and none of us were sick over the month we were away. All we did was make sure the food was cooked in front of us.
The street food stalls by our accommodation
Heading to the North - Chiang MaiJungle, heat and authentic Thailand
Before we left the UK I booked the overnight sleeper train from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. I found everything I need to know on this brilliant website Seat 61.
Bangkok to Chiang Map is Thailand most popular train route and its only 881 baht (£18 ) one-way by an overnight sleeper. The children’s tickets had half of their ticket refunded once the staff at the station has seen they are under 16. The new Chinese-built high-quality sleepers on trains 9 & 10 are excellent, and of course, the sleeper train itself is really fun, a real Thai train with a chance to meet Thai people. We went 2nd class and were really impressed with the good sized bed, pillows, sheets etc.
TIP: When we tried to book the return train to Bangkok it was completely full for the whole Summer so we had to fly instead. If you do want to book the train do so as much in advance as you can to guarantee your place.
Chaing Mai City
The minute you arrive in Chiang Mai you feel like you have stepped into another world. As the train pulls in you pass rice fields, temples and people working on their farms. We loved Bangkok but after a noisy city, we were excited to land somewhere more rural. We took a taxi (along with some other families) to our accommodation which was to be our base for the next 6 days. We chose to stay outside of the walled city in an apartment block which traditionally has fewer tourists. We stayed at in Chang Klan in this apartment which cost £23 a night. We had a kitchen, 2 bedrooms, and a pool and it was a brilliant base for the week.
We got around the city using Tuk Tuks, Red cars (trucks with seating in the back, the cheapest way to travel) or on bikes which came included in the apartments. We visited the local markets, temples and lots of lots of real juice bars. From here we headed out on day trips to the Grand Canyon, Elephant Sanctuary, and Flight of the Gibbon.
The Elephant Jungle SanctuaryLearning about elephants and how to protect them for future generations
One of the first day trips we booked in the UK was a day at the Elephant Sanctuary in Chiang Mai. Before leaving I did as much research as I could into the elephant experiences and this particular company came up over and over again. This camp rehabilitates elephants which have been ridden and focuses on teaching visitors about how they live. This was probably one of the highlights of the entire trip and the kids were blown away by being able to get so close to these amazing animals.
The site is a free-roaming environment which is both safe and sustainable. Located beside a Karen village in a densely forested mountainous region, the Sanctuary is surrounded by spectacular jungle scenery. The day cost around £290 for the 4 of us but it was WORTH EVERY PENNY I could not recommend it more.
See the video below to see just how close you get to these amazing animals!!
Flight of the Gibbon Zip wiringSailing above the jungle canopy with monkeys!
Rated as one of Thailand’s best activities we had pre-booked flight of the Gibbon from the UK. This company is known now for its safety and is also based in a jungle region where you might see Gibbons in the canopy. After zipping we had a lovely lunch in the village (which was included) and a stop off at a waterfall on the way home. Again this is one experience I would not miss if you are in the Chiang Mai region. See 2 minutes of highlights in the video below
Grand Canyon WaterparkA great day out for the kids (exhausting for us!)
We decided to head to the Grand Canyon water park after the kids saw a sign for it in Chaing Mai city. The park is around 30 minutes from Chiang Mai Centre and we just found a red car to take us there. The entrance was 300 baht (under £10) and it’s basically I man-made quarry filled with inflatables and slides. I had read online before about some people having safety concerns but we wore life jackets and we stayed with the kids all day. As with any waterpark, there are risks (the same as any in the UK) and I felt the safety standards were no different than at home. It was a really cloudy day and this is where you have to be careful as we all got sunburnt! I would really recommend this for a day and with younger kids, mum & dad would just need to go into too.
Staying with a family near Chiang DaoOne of the favourite stays in our trip
As part of our family backpacking trip, we were really keen to spend time with a Thai family. I was hoping that our children could experience how they really lived and worked every day. We were incredibly lucky to find Pikun who was hosting families via Air b’n’b who lived in the Muang Khong area of Chiang Dao National Park. We got a local bus from the Chiang Mai gate (North side) to Chiang Dao and she came to collect us from the bus station.
Before we arrived she messaged us asking if we would like to do some activities and what food we would like. She kindly arranged to take us to her families rice farm for the morning, organised bikes for us so we could explore the local area and cooked us the most amazing local food. We also went with Pikun’s sister and Aunt to fish in the local river and then they taught us to build a BBQ from bamboo in the jungle (see photos below). She could not have made us feel more welcome and we felt like a part of the family by the time we left. This was probably the highlight of our entire trip for me. Pikun was a local primary school teacher and she invited us to the school one day so our children could meet theirs. My daughter showed the girls how to do gymnastics and my son played football.
The area itself is beautiful and the house (which Pikun built herself) was right on the river, next to a herd of buffalo that her Mum looked after. Her dad ran the local shop so it was a real family business. You can get an idea of the home and local area in the 2-minute video below.
The link to her listing on Air b’n’b is here
The South - Phuket, Koh Samui & Koh Phangan
PhuketA bustling area on the West coast
As we were unable to book onto the overnight sleeper train we ended up paying £59 per person to fly from Chiang Mai to Phuket. We opted for the cheapest flight so flew at 1 am in the morning 🙂 We booked online using the Air Asia app as we found it cheaper to book directly than using any of the travel agents.
I have to be honest, Phuket was a culture shock after the authenticity of the North and our immediate impression wasn’t great! We stayed in a family hostel (which was superb) on Karan beach called the Karan Living room. We had a huge room with 2 double beds, fridge, and even a sunken bath. Tea /coffee and toast were always free downstairs and they did a mean banana pancake for breakfast for a couple of pounds.
Karan beach itself was very warm but also cloudy and windy making the waves very high. There were a couple of areas marked for swimming but to be honest the waves were so strong you couldn’t go very far. The kids enjoyed a couple of days on the beach but we decided to move on quickly as we did feel it was a little too commercial for us. If I were to do our trip again I would probably not go to Phuket and instead fly straight to Krabi or Koh Samui.
Koh SamuiThailand's largest island but quiet spots can still be found
After a couple of days in Phuket we decided to head to Koh Samui and look for a less developed beach area. Our hotel organised a shared mini bus and ferry for £17 each and we left around 7:30 am and got to Samui mid afternoon. The night before we left I googled quietest beaches in Samui and Bang Po was one of the suggestions. I looked on booking.com and decided that location was going to be the priority so we booked a beach hut at Bango Village. We wanted to be right on the beach and if you look at the video on the right you can see we were really close!
The house itself was great with 2 bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and a balcony and the price (£40) included a fantastic breakfast on the beach each day. The beach itself was a little like paradise and was always really quiet with no more than 10 people on it at a time. The kids spent all day and night in the water as it was so warm and hubby and I enjoyed a couple of days of rest.
This beach was probably where I took some of my favourite photos (on my Canon GX1 Mark 2) and these will be the ones that will be put up on our wall. We really loved Koh Samui and after 3 nights (once the full moon party was over) we decided to head to Koh Phangan.
For more great ideas of things to do on Koh Samui visit the Everasia blog post here
Our house on Bang Po beach, Koh Samui
Koh PhanganA small and beautiful Island
After Samui, we decided to head to the smaller Koh Phangan which we could actually see across the water from our beach. Again we travelled on the high-speed Catermeran with Lomprayah. The ferry stop in Samui is probably one of the prettiest ferry ports I have ever seen (see video below) with flowers growing on the sand on the beach.
Again I used booking.com to book our accommodation the night before and we stayed at Da Kanda Villa Resort on Ban Tai Beach. As we booked so late we got 2 rooms for £12 a night and it was a great base to explore the rest of the Island.
The island itself is pretty small and very easy to get around by taxi or moped. We really couldn’t decide whether or not to hire mopeds and put the kids on the back but in the end, we decided not to. As my friends know I am pretty accident prone and we had managed nearly 3 weeks without major injury so we thought best not to push our luck.
One of our favourite days out was to Sadet beach and stopping at the waterfalls along the way. We hiked to the top and the kids swam in the pools of the waterfall. Sadet beach itself was STUNNING and had a lovely restaurant and bar with amazing views. There were gorgeous lodges built into the sides of the hill and if I had known I would have looked to book these. Overall we loved Koh Phangan even more than Samui as it had that real small island feel still. I would 100% recommend you stop here if you can.
Hua Hin on the way back to BangkokA city stop over on our way back hom
With a few days remaining, we decided to break up the return journey from Koh Phangan to Bangkok by stopping at Hua Hin. The city is known as area where Thai professionals from Bangkok go for a break from the city. I had also seen a photo of an amazing temple in a cave in khao sam roi yot national park close to the city that I was really keen to visit.
We rented an apartment via Air b’n’b with a swimming pool. Our plan was to acclimatise back to real life, do a bit of gift shopping and then we would only have a 2-hour drive back to the airport for our overnight flight home. We met a couple of other families at this stop, including an English family who have lived in Bangkok for 15 years as school teachers. We had a really great few days and the kids enjoyed making friends and getting to hang out with them for a few days before we went home.
Phraya Nakhon Cave
We booked a local taxi to take us to Khao Sam Roi Yot National Park which is around 45 minutes from Hua Hin (we paid around £30 for the taxi to take us both ways and wait while we visited the park)
We then had to take a long boat around into the park itself (around £10) and hike up A LOT of steps to the top of the mountain. We then walked down into the mountain itself, passing through amazing caves, to get to the temple. It took us around an hour to get to the cave (and it was incredibly hot!) but it was 100% worth the walk. The park itself is beautiful and I would actually visit for a whole day. There is a restaurant once you get off the boat and the beach is very pretty.
Booking accommodation, travel and mobile data
I was surprised at just how much accommodation was available when we arrived. In general, the country didn’t feel too busy (likely because of the rainy season) and the type of apartments/ home stays or family hostels we wanted to stay in had good availability. I kept a number of apps on my phone but booked the majority of our bookings were made via Airbnb and booking.com
Booking planes, trains, and automobiles
To find travel options we often used the website 12go. We booked our train tickets from the UK via this website and they were excellent. When we collected our train tickets they did look at flights for us but they could not beat booking direct with Air Asia. In the end, I booked directly via their app on my phone.
For our bus and boat travel, we used Lomrayah. We found there was less waiting around than booking with other travel companies, and the high-speed catamaran was much quicker than the standard ferry. You can also book tickets online a couple of days before (which I would advise). Please be aware you have to PRINT your tickets so book them where you are staying somewhere that has a reception that can do this for you.
Staying Connected – Wifi
It turns out that Thai wifi is even better than the UK!. Every restaurant, bar, and hotel have free wifi and we even had wifi in our homestay right up in the North. I bought an EE package before I left which included only included calls and texts and to be honest it was a total waste of money! Anytime we wanted to message people we did it on the wifi and the cost of data was far too high to warrant buying any.
TIP: Most of the people we met travelling just bought a Thai Sim Card straight off the plane (you can buy them in any garage, 711 and at the airport). You can buy a sim for £15 which has unlimited data for 1 month. We often needed data whilst we were away from our wifi for directions.
Eating in Thailand with children
A number of families have been in touch and asked how we found the food with a 7 & 10 year old. I will start by saying our kids are pretty good at trying new things and their only real concern was that the food wasn’t too spicy. Where we travelled, the locals tended not to have a similar breakfast to us and will, for example, eat rice with pork early in the morning. We found it best to bring in our own breakfast which we often bought from the 7-11. We made pancakes, toast, cereal or eggs. For lunch and dinner, we mostly ate rice with either pork or chicken and fruit. Chicken fried rice with an egg on top and fried chicken became a staple for the kids. My son would eat the red and green curry but it was a little too hot for my daughter. I photographed the menu from our favourite market stall so you can get an idea of the most common dishes. 40 baht is £1 and nothing was over this price.
For lunch and dinner, we mostly ate rice with either pork or chicken and fruit. Chicken fried rice with an egg on top and fried chicken became a staple for the kids. My son would eat the red and green curry but it was a little too hot for my daughter. I photographed the menu from our favourite market stall (see below) so you can get an idea of the most common dishes. 40 baht is £1 and nothing was over this price.
Up in the North, the food was very simple and mostly included noodles, chicken or pork and vegetables. One of our favourite meals was deep fried whole fish which the kids loved so much they ordered a second.
Finally, we learnt that if the sign says Spicy then it means really really spicy. My husband and I braved a couple of dishes and, despite liking our food hot, we couldn’t finish the entire dish 🙂
Budget & Future trips!
A number of people have asked how much we budgeted and our plan was to ideally spent around £2500 including all trips, accommodation, food, and travel for 28 days (this EXCLUDED flights). We were actually very close to spending that outside of the suits and shirts my husband bought in Chiang Mai.
On average our accommodation was around £25 a night with breakfast and lunch in our apartment it was around £10 a day. Dinner was around £10 a night including drinks. We did everything we wanted to and honestly never felt that we were restricted by our budget. Probably the biggest proportion of our spend was on trips to the elephant sanctuary, zip wiring, and our internal flight but it was worth the money.