Five go touring in Thailand

By Andrew Laxon

Growing up and having kids needn't stop you backpacking round the world. But as Andrew Laxon found, it changes the way you do it.

Cheerful and ubiquitous, tuk tuk taxis can carry a family of five - at a squeeze. Best of all, they're cheap. Photo / Getty Images
Cheerful and ubiquitous, tuk tuk taxis can carry a family of five - at a squeeze. Best of all, they're cheap. Photo / Getty Images

It was a tough decision. We could walk for about six hours, our guide Noi explained, across two valleys to the next hill tribe village and for an authentic experience, stay a night with the local people and their chickens.

Or we could settle for a four- to five-hour round trip in the surrounding hills, returning to our purpose-built hut at the top of the valley, which had stunning views across rice fields with water buffalo working in them and mountains in the distance.

We held a brief family conference. David, our 7-year-old, was determined to go on, even though he had only just made it through the first day, which involved a vigorous two-hour trek with plenty of hill climbing and off-track bashing through the bush.

The female members of the family - Megan, 12, Joanna, 9 and my wife, Heather - were not so sure.

We had signed up to this three-day trek in northern Thailand to experience life with the hill tribe peoples but how would we all cope with a much longer day, followed by another long walk out? And would we be in the right frame of mind to experience village life - complete with dust, dogs, pigs and long drops - at the end of it?

In the end we settled a little sheepishly for the round trip and enjoyed one of the most memorable experiences of our holiday.

Noi took us over the hill, through a picturesque Akha village, to a waterfall, where we enjoyed a cold swim, and then down towards the tea plantations of the next village, where he announced he was going to cook lunch.

He prepared a fire by the side of the track, skewered some chicken legs to barbecue on the embers and cut some large pieces of bamboo. When he had them cut to length, he filled each piece with rice and water and put them on the embers - the traditional way to cook Thai-style sticky rice.

We helped barbecue the chicken, which occasionally fell in the ashes as we turned the sticks. When the bamboo rice was done Noi showed us how to strip away the hard outer layers and eat the whole thing as a package, including the bamboo's soft inner layer.

From that day onwards, David was a sticky rice fan and ordered it with almost every meal.
The next day, Noi led us out down a steep hill covered in bamboo forest. As he and the local guide cleared a path with their machetes, we swung from one handhold to the next, wondering if this was really the best short cut.

Noi piggy-backed David through the hardest bits, much to his sisters' disgust, and we thanked our lucky stars we hadn't chosen the hard option.

David with trekking guide Noi, a master at teaching tourists how to cook sticky rice on a campfire . Photo / Andrew Laxon
David with trekking guide Noi, a master at teaching tourists how to cook sticky rice on a campfire . Photo / Andrew Laxon

The trek turned into one of the highlights of our six-week family backpacking holiday through Thailand and Laos.

Although the whole exercise involved a fair amount of advance planning, some of the best moments came when we put aside our adult preconceptions about travelling and went with the flow of our children.

Here are some of the other things we discovered the hard way.

Culture is overrated

Most guidebooks to Thailand will give you a long list of wat (temples) for each major centre. Even for adults this is hard work in 35C heat and for children a serious rethink is required.

In Bangkok we decided to concentrate on the Grand Palace and Wat Po, home of the massive reclining Buddha, and did them on separate days.

After that, we rationed our temple intake, as the children complained that one Buddha looked much like another. But we kept looking and were often rewarded with the unexpected.

In Chiang Mai, we saw an elderly monk sit completely motionless at the front of a temple, presumably seeking nirvana. He was as still as the statues of other monks which surrounded him. David wondered how he went to the toilet if he sat there all day.

On the outskirts of Chiang Rai, we visited a new temple designed by avant garde local artist Chalermchai Kositpipat, which reminded us of the White Witch's castle in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A sea of upturned hands reached out from a hellish underworld as we crossed the bridge into the main temple, which was decorated with traditional Buddhist icons plus images of Spiderman, Neo from The Matrix and scenes from 9/11. We weren't sure about the deeper spiritual meaning (apparently most Buddhists aren't either) but the whole place looked amazing.

Getting there is half the fun

Once you put aside sightseeing as the main attraction, modes of transport can be endlessly fascinating - especially to a 7-year-old boy.

In Bangkok we learned that tuk tuks, the three-wheeled motorised taxis synonymous with the city, were a great deal when you crammed five people into one and especially exciting when the driver hit a sharp corner. River taxis beat the infamous traffic and offered a good view of the old city and the skytrain was a handy link from the river to the shopping malls.

We took four overnight trains, mainly to save time and money but also for the experience. Thai trains are old, slow and usually late, but they offer a good sleeping-class service at reasonable prices (only $184 for our family of five in second class from Bangkok to Chiang Mai).

On the first trip the children were so excited they could hardly sleep. By the last leg they were claiming their seats and shoving their packs into the luggage racks like veterans.

Another popular choice was the two-day slow boat from Huay Xai on the Thai-Laos border to the beautiful northern Laos city of Luang Prabang. There was a good deal of moaning in advance about sitting on a river boat for two days but with the help of books, computer games and some stunning scenery, we all enjoyed the experience. Two days was enough though.

Sometimes getting to our destinations was a nightmare. Our most memorable experience was hurtling up the 762 bends on the road from Chiang Mai to the mountain village of Pai in the back of a packed minivan with two seriously carsick children and a driver who was half an hour late and trying to make up the time.

Heather sat in the middle with a bowl, trying to catch both sides. By popular vote, David and Joanna were promoted to the front seat for the second half of the journey.

Play to your strengths

We wanted our children to have strong memories of the trip, so we tried diaries and cameras to encourage them to think about what they were seeing. The diaries were only partly successful. Megan, our eldest, enjoyed it but it was hard to persuade the younger two.

The cameras worked much better, once we agreed it wasn't necessary to photograph every family member outside every tourist attraction.

The children were fascinated with the small details of everyday life, which they often captured on video. One of their favourites was an escaping catfish hotly pursued by a stall owner at a food market.

Early on we adoped MBK, Bangkok's huge, bargain basement shopping mall, as our second home. This served several purposes. The girls could go clothes shopping for hours while David and I searched for the perfect radio-controlled helicopter (we found it).

Although the food was expensive by Thai standards, it was clean and safe and the air conditioning on a hot, sticky day was reason enough to be there.

There are bargains galore in this seven-storey building but it's worth crossing the road and checking out the enormous and much posher Siam Paragon. Both malls have English-language movies, which makes for a nice break if everyone has local culture overload.

Food was easier than expected because most places in tourist areas do a passable line in Western meals. We found the easiest way was to let everyone order what they wanted and share the Thai dishes around, so the kids could try out the tastes. After a few weeks of average-to-bad cheeseburgers, even the younger ones were sold on the delights of sweet and sour pork, chicken and cashew nuts and the ubiquitous Pad Thai. We knew we were on to something when I made Pad Thai at home a few weeks after our return. The kids weren't impressed - but only because it wasn't spicy enough.

At the end of the trip everybody picked their best and worst moments. Nearly all the lows involved throwing up (or being thrown up on) in some form of public transport.

For the highlights, David and I picked the Chiang Rai hill trek. Heather chose sitting in the Chiang Mai night market watching orange flying lanterns float across the sky. Joanna chose spending her 10th birthday in Luang Prabang, famous for its French-influenced history, architecture and birthday cakes. And Megan said she liked seeing how people live so differently - which probably summed it up for everyone.

The Laxon family's luxury hut during a three-day trek in northern Thailand. Photo / Andrew Laxon
The Laxon family's luxury hut during a three-day trek in northern Thailand. Photo / Andrew Laxon

CHECKLIST

Where and when to go

We picked Thailand because we wanted somewhere exotic but still child-friendly. Laos was a late addition to keep the adults happy. After a week in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi, we spent over two weeks in northern Thailand, followed by 10 days in Laos and a final week at the beach in Ko Lanta on the south coast. December/January is the best time of the year to visit Thailand and it also allowed us to spend six weeks away without taking the children out of school.

Where to stay

We booked nearly everything online before we left. Even the smallest guest houses are on the web these days and will respond quickly to your emails. We found tripadvisor.com had the best recommendations and offered a broader, more up-to-date range than Lonely Planet. Take printouts of your bookings with you in a clear file folder - it can come in handy if there's any confusion about your booking or the price you agreed to back in NZ.

What to eat

Food in Thailand is still amazingly cheap at $2 or $3 for a tasty rice or noodle dish. You can use the guidebook but often it's easier just to find something for yourself. Most guest houses do a reasonable imitation of a Western breakfast and in Laos, a former French colony, there are croissants and baguettes. Street food is great fun if you stick to hot dishes - we loved the chargrilled chicken and pork skewers, followed by banana waffles.

What to take

We all took size-appropriate backpacks, plus three daypacks for the adults and our eldest, Megan. For the long journeys, everyone had cameras and music players, which we kept in special pouches when they weren't in use (miraculously we didn't lose one). We took extra children's books as most book exchanges cater only for adults and we loaded free audio books on to the kids' iPods. The computer games on Mum's iPhone were an essential boredom killer.

Money

In Thailand, we used the handy Loaded for Travel moneycard. You buy it from a NZ Post shop, load it with NZ dollars and take out Thai baht from ATMs when you arrive. Don't bother with travellers' cheques in Thailand - the banks charge a ridiculously high commission. US dollars are essential in Laos, which now has some ATMs but you can take out only just over $100 in local currency at a time, so you lose a lot in withdrawal fees.

Getting there: Thai Airways fly direct from Auckland to Bangkok four days a week.

Further information: See bangkoktourist.com.

- NZ Herald

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