Thailand: Candid capers with the kids

By Peter Feeney

Cheap, cheerful and full of surprises, Thailand really is the land of smiles, most of the time, discovers Peter Feeney

Deep forest waterfall in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo / Getty Images
Deep forest waterfall in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Photo / Getty Images

When my wife's brother and his Thai fiancee announced a Bangkok wedding, we jumped at the chance to grab a proper break with our young family - Arlo, 6, Frankie, almost 4, and baby Tilly, 1. After much debate, Nic and I settled on two weeks in Kanchanaburi - close to the capital and with some historical interest, being the home of the famous bridge over the River Kwai - with Bangkok stays either side.

Bangkok, of course, is dirty, crowded and noisy. It is also cheap, vibrant and full of surprises, with very little crime. We loved it.

The people, especially a little off the beaten track, were the best advertisement for Buddhism going - friendly to a fault. And the local lager was cheap and highly palatable. We loved Thai cuisine but came back slimmer thanks to walking everywhere and the heat. Often we just didn't feel like eating.

Our initial crash pad, the three-star SC Park Hotel, was close to the airport, off the tourist circuit and an easy walk to great street food. It had a pool, a must for kids in the heat, along with a large restaurant where the shrieks of our brood were happily drowned out by the clatter of cutlery and buzz of conversation.

Strolling Bangkok's streets with our three fair-haired kids felt like being the manager of the Beatles. The Thais adore children, and lavished undeserved indulgences constantly on our kids: a gift of sweeties or an ice block, as well as endless smiles, caresses and pats on the head. On one occasion, Frankie went missing in the hotel. After half an hour, verging on hysterical, we found her in the linen room, surrounded by kidnappers - half a dozen doting maids. She was blubbing her eyes out but even then the women were reluctant to give her up. Arlo wasn't so sure about being treated like Justin Bieber, either.

Early on he confessed to me the five reasons he disliked Thailand: it was smelly, hot, no one spoke English and everyone was very brown and kept touching him.

This was alarming to hear on several PC parenting counts, but he turned out just to be overwhelmed. After a few good sleeps he came around to enjoying himself rather more, happily chatting in what he insisted was 'Thai language' to the bemused locals.

After four days we were off to Kanchanaburi, four hours by car north-west of Bangkok.

The Sabai @ Kan resort was billed as family friendly but turned out to be more a cross between a retirement home and a brothel, inhabited by overweight Australian and British retirees, most accompanied by Thai girls. Even our 4-year-old worked out eventually these young slim ladies couldn't be their daughters. Excited on arrival, our kids fanned out in different directions, shrieking with delight and several guests complained. The owners, while remarkably tolerant of loose morality (what happens in Thailand stays in Thailand, seems to be the adage), were firmly in the "children should be seen and never heard" camp. We felt our kids had a right to a holiday and, unwilling to keep them locked in our room for the duration, I set off in a tuk tuk to find more suitable accommodation. There was none - everything was either literally on the river or had no swimming pool. So we stayed put.

Kanchanaburi is a popular weekend spot for Thais but of course there was no escaping fellow tourists. The Bridge over the River Kwai was predictably a tourist trap but the town was bustling and unpretentious and we had several happy days wandering and shopping there. The night markets were fantastic. I soon became a familiar sight, jogging along the road to fetch takeaways or water, pushing our two eldest in a stroller, baby bouncing in a back pack while I dodged the traffic and mangy old dogs.

Speaking of which, safety isn't exactly a third-world strong suit. In Thailand, traffic fatalities run at three times the New Zealand average, with motorbike helmets and car seat belts considered optional extras. It's less safe and yet people are manifestly happy, far more comfortable with risks such as letting their toddlers potter down by a river on their own.

Our safety consciousness might save lives but it makes us more anxious, not less.

Inevitably we began to be seduced by local custom letting the two eldest, helmet-less, roar around on tuk tuks and motorbikes. No one died, but health-wise the family started to slowly fall apart. The heat was always tough on the kids and we alternated ambitious outings with days by the hotel pool.

We ate a fair amount of street food, reasoning that this way we could see it cooked and so check out its cleanliness. Either because of or despite this habit, the children caught some kind of virus and got in the regular habit of throwing up their cornies immediately after eating them. We tried different breakfast options but this strange morning sickness never went away. Startled guests would look up from their ham and egg to see our lot, with all the resignation of seasoned junkies, barfing up theirs. The kids developed a range of colourful symptoms including, for Arlo, strange spots on his legs and a wart on the sole of one foot which made walking painful.

We'd been advised in New Zealand that the area was malaria-free but, lounging by the pool, we were often lunged at and beaten with a branch by a zealous attendant who'd spotted a mozzie alighting on one of our arms, which was hardly reassuring.

Meanwhile, our resort was turning into the Fawlty Tours of Thai Tourism,. The day would begin with the manager lecturing our kids about noise levels, bribing them with local sweets and savoury food, which they gobbled up and duly threw up a minute later. Nic's jewellery was stolen from the room, never to be found, and she began to spend her down time sharpening her arguments to demolish the place in her Agoda review. On day 17 Frankie tripped and fell on an unforgiving stone staircase, splitting open her eyebrow. We hit the wall. It was time to return to Bangkok.

With our third and final hotel, the relaxed Fusion Suites, we got lucky. Our kids could occasionally raise their voices above a whisper without crotchety old timers shuffling to the front desk to threaten legal action. There were free lollies by the lift, which pleased our eldest two no end, but I took things a bit too far when I encouraged my wife to help herself to the selection of free snacks in the foyer. These turned out to be offerings to the sacred Buddha.

There was a sizeable mall (Terminal 21) within five minutes' walk and we were content to spend our days chasing bargains there or taking the metro to the lovely Lumpini park. It had a playground, by now such a novelty, that it kept our kids happy for hours, while we indulged in traditional Thai massage on nearby bench seats.

Finally it was the night of the big, fat, Thai wedding. Surrounded by elegantly attired Thais we felt like badly dressed extras in The King and I. With not a beer in sight the Kiwi guests took turns stealing down to the 7/11 to buy six-packs of Singha. The Thais talked all through the speeches in English, and we chattered through the Thai ones, so nobody heard much. Our wee Frankie was a flower girl but, by the time her big moment arrived, many hours of intricate ritual had passed and she was dirty and dishevelled. She misconstrued the instructions, imparted in Pidgin English by one of the wedding planners, to scatter petals delicately along the bridal path. Instead, she dumped her basket and sprinted for the toilet.

And then it was time to come home.

What did the kids make of it? Will they even remember it? I hope so. We rode and swam on elephants, squealing with pleasure as the beast submerged and I waited, nervously trying to remember if the elephant had a tusk and, if so, when he surfaced if it would be stuck in my bottom. We saw monkeys at the Erawan Falls, took an open train over the River Kwai, powered along the same river insanely fast in a speed boat (not a life jacket in sight) taking in views of water buffalo, temples and jungle; explored Buddhist caves, bats zinging by our ears, and visited a school where our kids traded Lego Ninjago cards in the playground.

More importantly, they discovered some perspective on their own world, seeing people with nothing working dawn till dusk - and still managing to be cheerful.

And somehow we survived as a family without the props of modern living - play dates, TV and computer games - knocking along, laughing, yelling, fighting, being a tight unit in a crazy foreign place.

And for Nic and me? It was bloody hard work. It was fun. Did I mention the hard work? All things considered, we might try for a simple Kiwi bach holiday next summer.

Tips for travelling with kids

• Get the appropriate vaccinations. And take a first-aid kit.

• Fly direct with Thai Airways if possible. We went via a Sydney stopover which made the trip more epic than it needed to be. Whichever airline you fly, check in early to get the much prized bulkhead seats.

• Don't stop breastfeeding if you have a baby. It's a life saver on a long haul.

• Accommodation seems geared toward singles and couples; most places don't have rooms geared up for a family of five. Paying in advance using the discount website Agoda has its problems (our tempting family offers turned out to be a single room with a double bed). It is also hard to get your money back if your plans change. I suggest search on Agoda but book through the hotel, then try your luck to negotiate the rate when you arrive. If your children are older there's nothing wrong with cheap backpacker accommodation - most that we saw in Kanchanaburi looked very liveable.

• Bring a fave cuddly toy to help with bedtime routines.

• Bring a phrase book or translator on your phone for those times when sign language fails you.

• Don't forget to keep your receipts and claim VAT refund at the airport.

- Herald on Sunday

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