Use these tips when your military family vacations in Thailand
(Photo: Unsplash, Hanny Naibaho)

Elephants, kings, and Buddhist temples are ready for military families to explore in Thailand! If you are stationed in Asia, this kingdom is within easy reach. Heading off to a new culture, especially when you don’t share a language, can be challenging. We did a little groundwork for you and are sharing our best tips and tricks. Prepare to get a lot of bang for your US buck!

Getting there

Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is between four to seven hours from points in Japan and just a little bit farther from Korea. Americans do not need a visa to enter, but should be prepared to present their accommodation reservations upon arrival.

There are dozens of options, including low cost carriers, traveling from Korea and Japan. We opted to fly Peach because it was several hundred US dollars cheaper than other larger airlines. Our flight to Bangkok left around 10 PM and arrived around 1 AM Bangkok time. Our return flight left at 2 AM and landed around 9 AM. It was a very late night and early morning for our family! However the price was right. The seating was tight, especially on the way there, but the flight was otherwise fine.

Before you make a decision about which airline to fly, consider all of your options and choose the one that works best for your family and budget.

Staying there

Oh, the options! It was hard to choose just one place to stay. There were so many great choices in our price range, especially in Bangkok. We selected a suite-style hotel near Lumpini Park in central Bangkok. Our hotel was in the $75-125 USD range and included breakfast. Our room was giant with a completely separate bedroom and en suite bathroom that was the size of most US hotel rooms, plus a living room/office area and a kitchenette with stove top, microwave, and mini fridge.

Many hotels that we looked at in Thailand included at least breakfast. Many also included airport transfers or shuttles to nearby sky train (mass transit) stations or landmarks.

When we ventured to Kanchanaburi, the options were fewer but also significantly cheaper. We spent around $50 USD per night for a family bungalow that included daily breakfast. It was definitely a little less glamorous that our Bangkok digs, but equally well maintained and with very accommodating staff.

There are no military hotels in this location, but there are Airbnbs, hostels, and guesthouses. We were advised that military families traveling to this area should stay at reputable hotels whenever possible as AirBnBs and guesthouses are not as well regulated. There are hotels in every price range from $50 USD per night to $300 USD or more.

Getting around

While in Bangkok, we took taxis everywhere. This is the generally accepted method for transit. Renting a car is possible with an international driver’s license, but due to the congestion and–let’s say–different traffic patterns, I would strongly advise against it.

When travelling with small children, you will need to make accommodations for them since car seats are not a thing here. Babywear infants and younger toddlers when driving. Strap older preschoolers and children into the car securely with a seatbelt, and then also pull them close to your body. Traffic is dense and looks unpredictable to visitors; however, the drivers we used were all very safe and made sure to help us secure our children.

To get to Kanchanaburi, we took the train there and back. From Thonburi Station, it is about a three hour trip in a third class train. These are no-frills train cars with windows down and generally uncomfortable seats. There are restroom facilities, but prepare yourself for in-floor toilets and no TP. The fare for our family was around $6 one way. That’s two adult tickets, plus two children who traveled for free. On the train, there are many vendors selling foods and drinks. We chose to get food at the nearby market before boarding but did get some drinks for the tracks.

Things to see and do: Bangkok

There is seriously so much to do! You can’t possibly do everything, so definitely pick just a few major experiences.

We went to the Grand Palace first. This is the historic home of the kings of Thailand and is a revered spot for the Thai people. The nation (as of press time) is still in mourning for their recently deceased king, Rama IX, and the Grand Palace was crowded with mourners paying their respects. One of the main draws here are the golden stupas and the emerald Buddha. Be ready to remove your shoes and hat to view the Buddha.

Our next major stops were Wat Pho and Wat Arun. Wat Pho is home to the largest reclining Buddha in the world. It is also a very sacred spot for Buddhists. We saw several groups participating in prayer, lecture, and meditation. The Buddha is every bit as beautiful and golden as you might expect.

What Arun is known as the Temple of the Dawn. It is one of the first spots to be lit up when the sun rises. To get there from Wat Pho, take a river taxi for approximately 4BHT or $0.12 USD. The stupas here are covered with intricate ceramic artwork.

It’s not a stop in Bangkok without visiting the night markets! Khao San Road is the most famous and the most busy. It is similar to Times Square in atmosphere: Very busy, bright, and loud. There are many restaurants to choose from and lots of stores to pick up souvenirs.

We also stopped into smaller markets throughout our stay to grab lunches or dinner and pick up gifts. A great spot to get everything you might want to bring home is MBK. This is a giant shopping mall with several floor dedicated to Thai souvenirs, like the baggy elephant pattern pants, carved statues, and artwork. You can also pick up a very cheap SIM card so that you have a phone that works. Everything is very low cost in Thailand, with souvenir items ranging from $1-10 USD. We were able to buy things we wanted plus holiday gifts for family for under $60 USD total.

After a busy few days, our littles needed a break. We went to Kidzania in the Siam Paragon Mall. This is essentially a town on a very small scale where the children are in charge. The kids walk around doing “jobs,” like firefighter, mail carrier, veterinarian, or fashion model. For each job they earn money, which they can spend in the gift shop or on experiences, like making your own McDonald’s hamburger. It was one of the more expensive things we did, but well worth every baht!

Thing to see and do: Kanchanaburi

Once you get off the train in Kanchanaburi, be prepared for a slower pace of life. There are still lots of little touristy shops and tons of places to grab a cold coconut, but it is much less crowded. It is also much less expensive.

A big attraction is just down from the River Kwai train station: The Bridge on the River Kwai. This was built by Allied POWs during World War II as part of the Thai-Burma Railway. It was nicknamed the Death Railway. The Bridge on the River Kwai was immortalized in a novel and film of the same name. It’s incredible to walk–literally–in the footsteps of so many brave troops.

Elephants are another huge draw in rural Thailand. We chose to visit Elephants World just outside of Kanchanaburi proper. (We wanted to avoid tourist traps where animals are drugged or mistreated, and carefully researched this sanctuary before making a reservation. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but we absolutely loved our time here!) They catered to my family, including my preschooler, in every activity safely and kindly. The baby was ushered carefully between rooms with A/C and shady spots outside. They even set up a ceramic elephant for my daughter to paint! The highlight of our trip was getting the carefully feed and bathe the elephants. This was an experience of a lifetime!

Food and drink in Thailand

Welcome to the land of take-away everything! The first thing to know is that at local spots or night markets, your to-go food and drink will probably be in plastic bags. This threw me at first, but was really cool.

There are a lot of international spots mixed in with local Thai eateries. While you are here, you must try as many noodles as possible, especially the famous pad thai. We also really like pad see eew, which is thicker noodles in a brown sauce with veggies, meat, and nuts.

There are many Thai soups, including Tom Kha Gai and Tom Yum, that are either chicken or seafood based. Tom Kha Gai has a lemongrass coconut milk broth.

Spring rolls are served either fresh or fried, and both are delicious. Depending on your location, your rolls can be filled with pork, chicken, seafood, or veggies.

Another favorite is Thai tea and coffee. These are brewed strong and served with condensed milk on top.

One important thing to remember when traveling in Thailand is that you should not drink the local tap water. Purchase bottled water at local convenience stores, like 7/11 or Lawsons, often. Another route is to use the electric kettle in your room to boil water, then refill your bottles and refrigerate until chilled. If you are super paranoid, you could use the boiled and cooled water to brush your teeth and wash dishes.

Safety concerns

When drinking out in town, look for ice that is cylindrical with a hole in the middle. This is generally made from filtered water and is safe. The crushed or square ice is just used for chilling foods and should not be consumed. If you feel confident, ordering smoothies or blended drinks should be ok. We mostly stuck with non-blended items.

Fruits and veggies should be thoroughly washed and peeled, if possible, before consumption. If you watch a vendor wash your fruit with bottled water or peel it at a generally clean looking station, you should be good to go!

Follow the same rule for eating from night markets and smaller food stands. Do a quick check for cleanliness and freshness of the food. If there is a lot of activity with high turnover of food, this is probably a good spot to eat. Avoid places where the food–especially meats–are sitting out for a long time.

Before you go

Head over to your local MTF and their Travel Medicine Clinic. The clinicians there can give you the professional run down about food and drink safety, as well as advise you about other possible health risks. They can check on your vaccine record, recommend preventative measures, and even prescribe some emergency meds to take on your trip.

NOTE: MilitaryOneClick and this author are not qualified medical personnel and are unable to answer medical questions or provide concrete medical advice. Any health related tips are based on advice from military medical professionals and readers should seek advice from their PCM.

By Meg Flanagan