On ending up in Thailand: My family and I moved to Chiang Mai, Thailand 5 months ago and we plan to stay 2 years. My wife Kelley has a contract with a local university through a US State Department program. I am currently staying home with our 4 year old daughter and almost 2 year old son, because my visa status does not allow me to work. And because taking care of these two is a lot of work! Living in Thailand, we can afford this luxury. The lower cost of living here is one of the big motivations for us to come and want to stay. Our life with two children in coastal California was getting very expensive, and there was no foreseeable way that we were ever going to get ahead.
Traveling with kids before the big move: Both my wife and I had travelled extensively before we had children. Before we were married, my wife served in the US Peace Corps, and I was working for international humanitarian aid organizations overseas for 4 years. After we had our kids, we embarked on several long car trips (over 35 hours one way, spread out over days and days) and that was a learning experience. Our kids got used to checking in and out of hotels, being in the car, and living out of a suitcase. Hotel swimming pools were the highlight of our cross country adventures, as well as visiting the public libraries and community fitness centers in different towns along the way.
Packing up a family for a move across the world: People always comment on our decision to move across the globe with admiration and positive commentary, saying things like, “Oh, kids are so adaptable. They will do great.” Very few of these people have lived abroad with their kids, or ever will. My mother moved to France with my sister and me when we were kids, shortly after my parents divorced. So I knew it was possible, but I also knew it was challenging. Some kids are not very adaptable at all. This makes sense because I remember learning in my parenting classes that kids this age do really well with routine, structure, and familiarity. Having a life of travel has very little of that, outside the little cocoon of our family. So we have started to curate our family structure, traditions, and securities. Our kids really crave all of that.
Packing all of our stuff was a feat! We had to minimize quite a bit, and prioritize what we really needed. Having a good shipping company was important. There were certain books, toys, and other comforts for our kids that we couldn’t see leaving behind.
What it is like to travel with kids in Southeast Asia: Traveling with kids in SE Asia is great because in many cultures, children are more accepted in public settings than in the US (think restaurants, stores, airplanes!). When we flew on Korean Air we were treated like priority passengers because we had small children with us, and everyone was very gracious. People everywhere like to engage with the children, whereas it is less common in the US. On airlines and in taxis, we have been given toys and treats for the kids. It is still always a surprise to me that kids are treated as special rather than an annoyance.
Another big difference of traveling with children is safety precautions. We try to uphold our US standards of safety in all kinds of transportation, by taking our child safety seats with us everywhere. This can be challenging at times due to local safety standards. For example, the other day my wife took our daughter to her Thai preschool where she attends half days. When they arrived, the class was leaving for a field trip and all the kids (aged 3 and 4 years) were being put in the back of red mini-bus, which is basically a pickup truck with benches and topper. She politely declined to send our daughter on the field trip after seeing that.
Keeping things consistent with a waffle maker: Lack of routine and having a different environment or a different bed can really affect our kids. So we try to instill routine wherever we can. We have the exact same bedtime routine wherever we are (even if it means substituting a shower for regular night time baths), and we always eat waffles for breakfast. That means we travel with a waffle maker and a converter!
Homesickness is also a challenge. Our 4 year old remembers every detail of our life in California, and talks about it often. Our 2 year old sometimes mentions home as well, but is always finding new fascinations is his environment and moves on more quickly. Missing family is rough. And the kids feeling like they don’t have any friends, other than each other, sometimes gets me down. But we are still building our life here and since we are staying put for a while, I believe those relationships with friends will grow. Language barriers are inhibitors, but my kids are breaking past those every day with Thai kids in the parks or the massive indoor play areas in the malls.
Keeping a simple travel kit: My number one lifesaver is an Ergo-type carrier. There is nothing better for getting through the airport quickly, or through a busy marketplace. Even as my almost 2 year old son loves and prefers walking, he often gets “uppies” because it is easier for moms. Being hands free, having him nap on the go, and even breastfeed while in the Ergo is the best thing ever.
I am not a gadgety person, so my must have gear items are mostly simple and practical. A really good diaper backpack was more useful to me than a bulky over the shoulder bag. A small diaper “kit” within that diaper bag (changing pad, diaper, wipes) that I could quickly slip out and take to the nearest diaper changing location.
My Breast Friend was my favorite nursing pillow. I got an inflatable one for airplanes that I could deflate and shove in diaper bag. I loved that thing. I passed it on to a very deserving traveling mother, as it had been passed on to me.
We have also really liked the Ride Safer Travel Vest. It replaces a car seat and is approved in the United States for car seat safety for kids 3 years and up and over 30 lbs. We use it in taxis and ubers in our travels in the US and abroad.
Air travel advice: Just because you can bring ALL the gear as carryon on your flight with no extra charge (car seat, stroller, extra carryon as diaper bag) doesn’t mean you SHOULD. I made this mistake and seriously regretted it, while my wife and I tried to lug all the stuff and two sleeping toddlers through a security check on a layover. Big mistake. You can check the car seat and stroller at the ticket counter for free with the rest of your bags. I wised up and bought a car seat carrier backpack to check, which was huge. I used the excess space around the car seat to pack all of our super soft sheets and fluffy towels for our move, because I learned they were hard to find in Thailand. I otherwise would have had to pay a baggage fee for that stuff!
Something you should definitely have in your carryon is a change of clothing for everyone. Because poop. And other baby bodily substances.
Screen time is not the answer, at least in our family. Our kids get one hour of it and they get cranky, fussy, and even ragey. So we have a tablet as backup but try to pull it out only in the very last hour of our travel, timed appropriately with the length of a movie. More engaging activities are better at keeping toddlers occupied, and there are entire Pinterest sites dedicated to what you might try. I tried many. We opened a gift-wrapped dollar store toy every hour on our international flight, and that was a hit.
Advice for families wanting to travel to Thailand: Come to Chiang Mai! Perhaps one of the most family-friendly places I’ve lived, and truly a gorgeous place. My biggest help was joining an Expat Moms Facebook group (specific to Chiang Mai) that gave me all the resources I would need even before I got here. The fact that I knew I could find kids’ yoga, kids’ baking classes, story times, art classes, and amazing parks and museums made me look forward to our stay. I even found an excellent nanny through that group who has become a wonderful help to our family. I now enjoy answering questions of other moms in the group, and some are only traveling through for a week. Many locations have fantastic online communities that will help you find the family-friendly resources where you go.
Thailand and SE Asia have their challenges of course, but there is so much to experience and kids really love the nature and the animals here. Our recent visit to an elephant sanctuary has been one of the highlights for my kids. It is important to make sure a place for animals you visit is truly a sanctuary, not just a tourist attraction where elephants are forced to give rides or do other silly tricks. My kids just loved watching the elephants bathe in the river and be free. They were truly mesmerizing.
Thailand is beautiful and my kids love all the green and flowering plants. They love exploring the grounds of all the temples, which are too numerous in this city to even visit in a year. Mostly my kids love to run and be free, and here they find opportunities to do that.
Advantages on having two moms: I've learned I am super appreciative of being a same-sex parent traveling with little ones, for this reason: blowout diapers and single-sex bathrooms. There have been many times, on roadtrips and in airport transfers, but mostly in small gas stations in the middle of nowhere—that I have thought, “Thank goodness we can go into this bathroom, together!” Most often there is no family bathroom, and sometimes there is a women’s room with multiple stalls and no changing table, and one person has to dangle the baby while the other does the clean up job. During those times, I have thought to myself, “How does a single mom do it? How does a mom whose husband has to wait outside the bathroom do it?” I have actually turned to my wife in such moments (while dangling a naked baby and while she riffles through the diaper bag for the extra outfit) and told her that I love her because I don’t have to do that alone. For those moms (or dads) out there who do, I give you my deep respect.
Thank you so much Molly! Your post has me itching to get back to Thailand - one of my most favorite places in the world!