There is a good reason why Thailand’s capital city of Bangkok has reportedly been one of the most visited places in the world for several consecutive years. This metropolis of an estimated 10 to 12 million people is full of contrasts, an exhilarating, exciting, fascinating and intriguing mixture of old and new, of serene Buddhist temples standing right next door to futuristic skyscrapers, and sprawling traditional wet markets bordering on six-lane thoroughfares brimming with expensive luxury cars.
Add to that Bangkok’s fantastic shopping opportunities (including for international high-end brands at a fraction of the cost you’d pay back home), extraordinarily varied restaurant scene, world-famous nightlife and the almost proverbial hospitality of the locals, and it shouldn’t be all too surprising why this tropical mega city is attracting visitors in droves. Yet Bangkok for most travelers is only a convenient transit point on their way to other parts of the country, where gleaming beaches and lush national parks beckon. But even the shortest stopover provides an unforgettable experience and statistics tell us that indeed a large proportion of those who’ve indulged in Bangkok’s sights and sounds are bound to return rather sooner than later. By the way, “Bangkok” is only a name bestowed by Westerners. The locals themselves call their capital “Great City of Angels” (Krungthep Mahanakorn).
While single travelers surely will never run out of options to sightsee, shop, wine, dine or dance the night away, Bangkok also provides more than enough exciting leisure opportunities for families with kids. But where and what? The former Royal Palace with its gilded spires may be mind-blowingly beautiful, the Buddhist temples may be oozing with spiritualism and Oriental mystique, and the National Museum without doubt is one of the best of its kind in the entire region, but let’s face it: Children generally tend to be not overly enthralled by too many culture and history lessons and soon lose their interest (or even throw a tantrum or two). It’s therefore helpful to know which family- and kid-friendly possibilities there exist and what they offer. That way it’s easy to plan ahead and ensure that your vacation will turn out a smashing success – for you, your kids, and perhaps Toto, too. Here is our hand-picked selection of Bangkok’s top 10 attractions for families with children:
River Taxi Excursion & Canal Tour
Bangkok was formerly also known as the “Venice of the East” thanks to a vast network of man-dug canals that crisscrossed the city. Many of those have been filled in since, but the few that are still remaining award visitors with a nostalgic glimpse of yesteryear. Board a privately-hired longtail boat with your family and explore this maze of canals for a couple of hours, passing traditional neighborhoods stilted houses built above the water, where time seems to have come to a standstill (see sidebox). Alternatively, hop on one of the many “river taxis” that ply up and down the Chao Phraya river. While you’re mingling with commuters who are taking this mode of transport every day, the boat will take you past some of Bangkok’s most famous attractions, such as the Temple of Dawn (Wat Arun) and of course the Grand Palace. Oh, and you may disembark at any pier to visit a nearby historical landmark.
The kid factor: Children just love boat tours, especially in such an exotic place as Bangkok, where there are new things to discover around every corner.
The Mandarin Oriental and Peninsula feature the ultimate midday oases for kids to escape the typically high heat and cacophony of the streets. The Oriental ice cream cart which cruises the pool area, features fresh hand made cream.
Siam Water Park
What goes best with tropical heat? That’s right, a cool dip! The closest beach to Bangkok is a good two hours’ drive away, though, thus Siam Water Park is your next best option for a fun-filled family outing enjoying various pools, as well as waterslides, tube rides, wave boarding and many other activities revolving around water - and all of them sprawled out across a marvelous park. But this is not Bangkok’s only water park, because some of the city’s bigger shopping malls also have set up somewhat scaled-down versions on their ample rooftops, for example Leoland Water Park, as well as the two Fantasia Lagoon theme parks.
The kid factor: Splashing about in crystal-clear water and enjoying an ice cream cone in-between is the quintessential definition of kid’s heaven!
Asiatique – The Riverfront
One of Bangkok’s newest family-friendly attractions, Asiatique is a huge entertainment complex on the banks of the Chao Phraya comprising numerous shops, art galleries, pubs, cafés, beer gardens and restaurants (Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Italian, etc.) tugged away in a labyrinth of alleyways and small plazas in what can be best described as an “Oriental bazaar” setting featuring Thai architecture enveloped in tropical greenery. Various fun rides like a huge Ferris wheel are also available, as well as nightly cultural shows on five different stages distributed throughout the area. The evening view of Bangkok’s brightly illuminated skyline is simply breathtaking. Oh, and look, there even is a three-masted schooner moored there!
The kid factor: As an “all-in-one” venue, Asiatique provides children with countless ways to enjoy themselves while their parents can have peace of mind that they will never stray off too far and get lost.
Siam Ocean World
Tugged away two storeys beneath Bangkok’s glitzy Siam Paragon shopping mall, Siam Ocean World is one of Asia’s largest aquariums, housing more than 30.000 sea creatures of a myriad of species and from various aquatic regions around the globe. This includes different species of fierce-looking sharks, as well as stingrays, coral reef fish, crustaceans and even that most notorious water creature of them all, the Amazon-dwelling piranha (sensibly kept in a separate tank for obvious reasons!). The star attraction is an underwater Plexiglas tunnel that traverses the bottom of the largest tank, affording a 270-degree view and adrenalin-pumping eye-to-eye encounters with some of the most curious ocean dwellers while staying completely safe – and dry. For brave souls, there even is the possibility to hop into one of the tanks and literally swim with the sharks!
The kid factor: The sheer variety of sea life in its various shapes and colors not only makes for an exciting experience, but also will foster in kids an appreciation for the biodiversity in our world’s oceans.
Tuk Tuk Touring
What could be more exciting than whizzing through Bangkok's roads in a giant colorful go-cart? Though slowly disappearing from Bangkok's throughways, the sputtering, three-wheeled motorcycle taxis are still seen jockeying for position in the clogged streets of city and having at least one ride is mandatory for the quintessential Bangkok experience.
We can arrange for at least part of your Bangkok touring to include a fun tuk-tuk ride through Chinatown to the Grand Palace and Wat Po.
The kid factor: Wow!
Bangkok certainly is not suffering from a lack of huge, cavernous, luxurious shopping malls. While these may warrant a visit in their own right, they can be a little overwhelming, and at times may seem even sterile and boring (“It’s not like we’ve never seen a shopping mall before; why travel to Bangkok for that?”). A much more interesting alternative are community malls, a concept that has only recently been introduced to Thailand’s capital. Usually hidden away in quiet residential alleys, they generally emphasize individuality, uniqueness and relaxation. Many follow a theme, like the Mansion 7 Mall, whose façade resembles a haunted house. Shoppers are “greeted” by a gigantic, creepy claw next to the main entrance. The theme carries on inside with a spooky moon looking down on a trendy collection of boutiques, restaurants and pubs. There exist various other community malls across downtown Bangkok, all of them providing a much more easy-going shopping experience than the city’s mainstream malls, which can get uncomfortably crowded especially during weekends. Ask your guide to explore some of them with you.
The kid factor: Community malls are smaller, more family-oriented versions of their bigger counterparts, and due to their quirky theme decorations are more interesting for children. As focal points of residential neighborhoods they often also stage kid-related activities like puppet theater shows or fairs with plenty of candy, ice cream and toy stalls.
Dream World Bangkok
Thailand may so far lack an official “Disneyworld” park, but at least Bangkok boasts her very own, home-grown version of it, long-established and immensely popular Dream World, choke-full with more than enough attractions to spend two days and still not having seen everything. The vast, lushly green park is divided into three sections: Adventure Land, Fantasy Land and Dream Garden. Explore all of them and stumble upon Sleeping Beauty’s castle, a Viking dragon ship, a haunted mansion, a rugged canyon with white water rapids, a go-kart racing track, and much, much more. The absolute highlight for local children is of course Snow Land, a roofed and carefully insulated hall where huge machines produce artificial snow for sleigh riding, snowman-building or just frolicking in the “white stuff” so unfamiliar to kids growing up in the tropics.
The kid factor: Bangkok's Siamese Disneyland delivers.
Thai Red Cross Snake Farm
Thailand boasts dozens of venomous snake species, including the banded krait and the king cobra. This snake farm in downtown Bangkok was established decades ago by the Thai Red Cross Society and harbors hundreds of snakes that are regularly “milked” for their venom in order to produce anti serums that are distributed to hospitals around the country to treat patients who were bitten by one or another species. While this is an important healthcare service, the snake farm is also open to the public to observe the “milking” process, learn about the different species on display and follow frequent shows by professional handlers whose risky antics elicit more than a few “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience.
The kid factor: Snakes of any kind are irresistible to kids, even more so when they can encounter them up-close. Besides being thrilled, they’ll also learn about the importance of keeping a safe distance to any snake that crosses their path.
Samutprakarn Crocodile Farm & Zoo
Wild crocodiles have become extinct in Thailand many years ago, but they are still commercially bred to provide the leather industry with valuable hides for the manufacture of luxurious hand bags, shoes, belts, and so on. This huge crocodile farm in Samutprakarn province just a couple of dozen miles south of downtown Bangkok currently hold more than 15.000 crocodiles in several enclosed pool areas that can be safely explored by negotiating a network of elevated walkways. Feeding times are several times a day, and if watching makes you hungry, there even is a restaurant whose house specialty is crocodile steak. The vast farm also contains a zoo, which alongside local animal species displays non-native ones, such as camels, zebras, giraffes, chimpanzees and orangutans.
The kid factor: Apart from coming face-to-face with huge numbers of fierce reptiles, children also have the opportunity to take chimpanzee and even tiger babies into their laps, which makes for fantastic souvenir photos.
Samphran Elephant Grounds & Zoo
The majestic elephant is a national symbol of Thailand (see side box). It’s been not too long ago that these pachyderms could frequently be seen wandering the traffic-choked streets of the capital with their mahouts (elephant handlers), but they have since been banned from the inner city area. The nearest opportunity to meet those gentle giants up-close is therefore Samphran Elephant Grounds & Zoo in Nakhon Pathom province, a mere 40-minute drive from downtown Bangkok. Various daily shows give visitors the opportunity to observe those beasts in action, seemingly effortlessly hauling large tree trunks or carefully stepping over several humans lying on the ground. Naturally there also are elephant rides available that take you on a leisurely (if somewhat shaky) tour of the vast, meticulously planted and maintained gardens.
The kid factor: What better memory of Thailand than stepping up to a baby elephant and feeding it bananas and sugar cane while being caressed by its trunk and gazing into its soft, brown eyes.
Occupying more than 200 acres of lush tropical forest and grassland, Safari World is Thailand’s largest open zoo and leisure park, and the closest you will ever come to participating in an adventurous safari short of traveling to Africa. Zebras, giraffes, monkeys, lions, tigers and numerous other species all roam freely (thus it’s called an “open” zoo, get it?) in this picturesque, natural habitat while being observed by visitors driving around in 4WD jeeps or vans. The park also is home to a large ocean habitat featuring exotic marine creatures including dolphins and seals, which deliver an amazing, fast-paced show several times daily.
The kid factor: The aspect that the land animals are not confined to cages and – on occasion – even approach the tour vehicle very closely (safety is ensured at all times, of course!) makes a day trip to Safari World an unforgettable experience.
Muay Thai (Thai Kickboxing)
In Thailand, Muay Thai is called "The Sport of Kings," is a beloved and colorful sport in Thailand. Muay Thai dates back several hundred years, and was developed as a form of close-combat that uses the entire body as a weapon. Indeed, it is considered by many as the most exciting and dynamic ring sport around, incorporating the use of all eight“weapons” of the human body: the fists, knees, elbows and feet. Some fighters, and regular Thai people, will often go the temple or a [Maa Doo], a witchdoctor/medicine man, or high-ranking priest to have tattoo inscriptions in Thai language etched into their skin. Colorful shorts are worn and the evening matches are full of pageantry with live music.
The kid factor: Bangkok's most thrilling activity when the kids have had enough of temples and malls.
The Planetarium and Science Museum
The oldest planetarium in Thailand is located in Sukhumvit Road and is part of the Science Center for Education. The Planetarium show traces the history of space travel from Sputnik to the much more recent Mars Pathfinder and aspects of the universe in crystal clear imagery on a domed ceiling. Shows are held four times daily, except on Mondays. The Planetarium also offers a computer world and a first-class aquarium. The Science Museum has various hand-on and interactive exhibits for kids on galaxies, astrology and nature.
The kid factor: An easy place to include educational activities into your trip and great place to beat the heat. Also near the Emporium Mall.
Spread out over a vast 10.000 square meters of floor space (almost 108,000 square feet), KidZania is all about role-playing, but with an completely novel and exciting twist to it. Here it's not just a simple matter of your kids slipping into semi-authentic costumes and acting out their dream professions. Instead, KidZania has recreated an entire city with streets and numerous buildings, all scaled down to accommodate the smaller physique of children.
By Thomas Schmid – dukas
Thomas Schmid is based in Bangkok, which he's called home for 20 years.