First of all, don’t panic. You can do this thing, we did. In fact, it’s pretty easy. I normally tell people how to backpack around or through South East Asia with kids, in that I help them with planning, itineraries and travel arrangements. Today I’m going to tell you what it’s actually been like. We’ve been backpacking with our kids for over 5 years now and the bulk of that time has been spent in South Asia and Southeast Asia because those are our favourite parts of the world.
It’s been fun, but there have been a few challenges. When we first touched down in Kuala Lumpur they were 6 and 8 years old, but they’d already been to Thailand and Bali as 3 and 5 year olds. Today they are 14 and 11 and I love them to bits. I’m a very proud mum to two fantastic boys and I think growing up on the road and experiencing so much, with us and the motley bunch of travellers they’ve met along the way, has gone a long way towards shaping their outlooks at such an early age.
What it Was Like, Backpacking Southeast Asia With Kids
It was amazing and it was undoubtedly cheaper than staying at home. In the early days we’d travel budget and ultra budget but lately ( since our travel blog took off) there have been plenty of luxury stays too. Mostly self funded but a few promotional stays. But still, even when the luxury hotels started to invite us, we’d turn up by tuk tuk in our scruffy clothes and years old backpacks. Backpacking is what we do. We see no point in spending on things we don’t really need or want.
Packing, Underpacking and Overpacking, Stuff We Needed and Didn’t
We packed clothes, toiletries, a few toys, electronics and school books. Sometimes we also packed a triathlon bike.
We dealt with luggage needs constantly changing by stashing surplus stuff when we could and by ditching gear we no longer needed, buying new when we did need it.
When Chef wasn’t in training for an Ironman event his triathlon bike spent time at airport left luggare areas, friends houses, the attic of our rental in Romania or at great grand nanna’s house. We’ve had to work around Chef’s training needs a lot and it’s been annoying, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
If you stay in hostels you’ll often find luggage rooms where you can leave a big backpack for a few days while you head off with just a daypack on short side trips. We’ve utilised those a few times.
We’ve generally carried 2 big backpacks, 2 adult carry-on backpacks and the two boys had their own carry on each. This meant that on budget airlines we only had to pay for 2 items of checked luggage. When the boys were small they very rarely carried their own bag, I’d hook them to the front of my harness instead as it was too much for them. Now they always ask to carry my big bag as teenage muscles kick in. It’s really nice of them, so cute.
If you want to know what we pack, see our travel essentials here.
Favourite Experiences in South East Asia, by The Kids
It’s hard to get a good quote out of these two, but I tried.
I really enjoyed riding around town on bikes in Vietnam and Vietnamese cuisine is amazing. but all in all I love SEA to bits its always full of adventure and you never know whats going to be next. A bit like Bertie Bots Every Flavour Beans really. I grew up travelling around SEA around adult travellers so it’s natural to me, I liked it and never wanted to stop and stay in one place. We’re about to stop now and I don’t really know how I feel about that because it would be an alien experience but I mostly feel curious
Boo (11) says
I hate being in cars and buses because I get car sick. Even though I get car sick the destination is normally amazing. My favourite place in SEA was Universal Studios in Singapore but I really liked the King’s palace in Thailand and Vietnam is my favorite country. My favourite food in SEA is ban xeo, crispy Vietnamese pancakes. I really enjoyed making ban xeo and fresh spring rolls in Hoi An.
I think they both mention Vietnam because their memories of our 6 months there are the strongest and freshest. It was our most recent South East Asian destination. Remember they are kids, and you can’t expect them to analyse thoughts , feelings and memories as an adult would. Both the above quotes are completely genuine, I didn’t write them. The car sickness problem means we always avoid mini buses and if possible take a tuk tuk over a taxi. I also have anti motion sickness tablets for kids. He’s only actually vomited twice, ever, in Guatemala and in Laos, both times on a mini bus on long winding mountain roads.
Favourite Experiences of South East Asia by Chef, Dad
You all know what I think, but what does he think?
I really enjoyed being able to experience the many diverse cultures across South East Asia. Sharing this with my children and seeing them take their education to a new hands-on level made it all the more special. Favourite for me was generally the food and cooking classes, obviously, but I also particularly loved the various festivals we were able to experience and share with the kids. Like the boys, my favourite country is Vietnam. Having this freedom for the last 5 years also allowed me to train optimally and compete across the globe in Ironman triathlon events and take my family with me. Not many triathletes get to do that.
Being Rich and Being Poor, From Budget to Luxury
We left a 4 bedroom house with pool for 1 room in a hostel at under $50 a night. Some nights we got as low as $12 a night. Was there any hardship in that? Not really.
The only time we had issues with cheap accommodation was when we ended up somewhere dirty or in some other way grossly inadequate. Maybe unsafe, smokey, noisy or too hot. It happened very, very rarely.
I don’t think the boys make much distinction between cheap and expensive hotels. So long as the wi-fi is good they’re pretty happy. If there is any sort of buffet breakfast, they are extatic.
The worst one was a well known place in Kanchanaburi. It was late, we were tired, so we stayed just for 1 night. It was the grubbiest place I’ve ever been. Bamboo matting walls, a rag of a curtain, oily sheets that slipped off the ancient mattress during the night, but it was OK, we survived. The one the boys always talk about was on Penang. That was our worst hostel or guest house experience ever and I posted about it here.
But that was only 2 nights, the rest of the trip has been good to superb, even the night we spent in the cleaner’s room at Back Home ( see post above). Back Home Kuala Lumpur is one of our favourite hostels of the whole trip, by the way. Our other favourite places to stay in South East Asia are in this post.
We’ve never not done something or not bought something because we couldn’t afford it. I naturally gravitate towards the cheapest in restaurants ( being vegetarian helps) whereas the boys don’t so much and that’s OK. They get what they want within reason and we encourage them to try new things. If they want to do something we do it. We never had a budget that was set in stone, it was always fluid, so if they wanted a particular theme park we’d go and just try to make more money later. I’ve always said that we don’t set budgets for travel. Our goal in year 1 was $50 per day, it was achievable. But since year 1 there have been no ideal or set budgets.
In the last few years we’ve stayed at some superb hotels, some for work, some for pleasure. The kids love this perk of mum’s job but it spoils the experience of travelling with my family for me. I’m on duty, I’m working, so I do it rarely and only if I think the kids will love it.
Toys and Games For Family Sanity
I have two boys are they are great friends but also very different personalities. One has no interest in posessions at all, the other likes his stuff. So one son’s backpack has always been almost empty, the other’s packed with toys. We have, seriously, transported up to 16 cuddly toys at any one time, a giant Nerf gun, various Lego sets, 3 Harry Potter Wands, 5 sonic screwdrivers and about 1 Kg of Pokemon cards. But what sees the most use?
Well their computers obviously, they use them at every opportunity for all kinds of gaming, but the toys we’ve used most are the family card games. Uno and Monopoly Deal have kept us busy at airports, restaurants, bars and train stations. They are our go-to family entertainment and the best way of keeping kids busy if mum and dad want a beer or two after dinner or if we have any sort of wait.
The Kindles are important too. They read for hours and hours, huge amounts. But generally, at tables, we break out the card games. Uno for younger kids, Monopoky Deal past about 8 years old.
If you have any more, add them in the comments, they can go in the post.
Did we socialise more with other travellers and expats or with locals?
About 90% other travellers. A few expats. It’s rare to infiltrate the expat community unless you stay in one place a long time, but towards the end of our time in Vietnam and of course in Romania, we very much had our feet under the table. I was involved with other travel professionals in Vietnam and that was a very interesting group of people to get to know. Along with their kids.
When you meet locals it’s normally in a business arrangement. They run your guest house, cut your hair, take you on a tour, teach you to cook and so on. It’s rarely a social arrangement and they’re well used to a constant stream of tourists passing through. There are a few exceptions, like our lovely landlady and her family in Vietnam, but most of our socialising is chats over dinner or drinks and chance meetings on trains. When the kids were younger maybe playground parent chats.
We love talking to fellow travellers because they’re usually on the same wavelength and have alternate lifestyles. To be honest we keep ourselves to ourselves and don’t actively try to meet people but we do like to chat.
I think being a family actually stops people talking to you. Solo travelers may do better here, a lot of people don’t want to get involved with a family with kids. For the record, if you see us, talk to us! Some of our best friendships came about when people came over and said hi. ( Yes, I’m talking about you Sue!)
I should also say that not everyone we met was nice. We met a few a holes too. These people were a great lesson to the kids in how not to adult. None of these were local.
How did they cope with food and water etc. Were they more susceptible to getting upset tummies? How do you teach them to be careful about what to eat and not using tap water to drink / brush teeth etc?
I was worried about this, I thought they may be more susceptible to water and food born contaminants but they weren’t. They got sick with similar frequency to mum and dad. This probably reflects the infrequency with which we encountered these things. The sickest they’ve been in the last 5 years was with norovirus in London.
They DID get a lot more viruses than us, respiratory or otherwise, usually picked up on planes or in places where there were lots of kids. That’s just normal childhood development, all kids do and they have to or they will never develop immunity to these bugs and just get them later.
We had a few instances of tummy upsets, I suspect mostly viral. Once in Laos, ( Chef and D), in Thailand ( Me and Boo) also Boo was quite sick with something we thought could have been Dengue, but wasn’t, in Laos. We flew him by the hospital for blood work but all was well. My ability to read fluent blood test came in handy there as the doctor didn’t speak much English. Otherwise nothing that I can remember in South East Asia. The only sickness that I’m 100% convinced was caused by food was Chef’s illness in Laos. He ate from those terrible buffets in Laung Prabang. Cold food, hanging about in tropical heat and covered in flies. Totally his own fault and he should know better being a chef. He was very sick. The boys and I haven’t been that sick.
I forgot to mention Bali! Bali was before our full time travel started, it was just a 2 week holiday. Boo ( then 3 or 4) and I had mild to middling diarrhoea for the last few days. We got it checked when we got home and it turned out to be a strain of salmonella. We were fine, it passed, nobody was what I’d call “sick”.
We didn’t really teach them anything as you suggest. You just tell them tap water isn’t OK to drink and keep your mouth shut in the shower. That’s it, done. I did have a bit of a battle with them over foot hygiene and keeping shoes and feet off everything, including each other. That’s still ongoing, they’re far grubbier in their habits than I’d like them to be, but so is their father 😉
From the start we’d help them clean their teeth by pouring clean water for them and often still do. I’d always thoroughly clean the tops of cans for them and sometimes give glasses a good wipe. But I would in Australia too with all the flies and cans are never safe to drink from. There are rats everywhere in the world. I tend to steer them away from choosing unsafe foods ( like pizza) and towards local dishes cooked well, it’s no problem. But we did regularly have ice and salad if the place passed the Mummy risk assessment. South East Asia isn’t the place it was 20 years ago. Back then you had to be more careful.
The kids are always with us, it’s not like they’re packed off solo somewhere to fend for themselves so…it’s OK. But they did learn a lot about viruses, bacteria, immunisation, the immune response, hygiene and so on from the constant chatter about this stuff. Me having a medical / science background helps.
As I said above, I wouldn’t do this with kids or toddlers still at the age of putting things in their mouths or crawling on the floor because you can’t protect them as much as you can in a home environment. People do travel South East Asia with babies and toddlers and survive fine, just I wouldn’t, so we waited a bit. Having been through the toddler / preschooler stage I also wouldn’t want to handle some of the sicknesses that they all inevitably get at that age while travelling. It was hard enough at home to have very sick kids.
Also, obviously, I wanted them to remember it, this is part of their education so it made sense to do it once they’d reached an age of reason. My younger one was 6 when we started and actually doesn’t remember that much from the first few years. This surprised me as the elder one has strong memories from the age of 2.
Were they freaked out by the insects / other animals eg snakes, rats etc?
Not even remotely. I hate spiders, they don’t hate them as much as me. They both love snakes, D wants a pet one, and rats are just furry friends. I remember in one train station in Thailand we had to wait hours. The boys headed off to a market opposite and happily spent some time spotting rats. They came back to mum with a grand rat count and a description of one dead one lying on it’s back. Super exciting to small boys!
Another time we were sitting in our favourite restaurant in Vietnam when I rat came in, ran around a bit, took a shortcut through the family shrine and headed out the back. We all laughed and enjoyed the show as did our lovely restaurant owners. Not a big deal to any of us.
I did have a rat run over my foot once in the flooding in Vietnam, that freaked me out a bit.
I think, in all our time in South East Asia, we saw just 3 huntsmen spiders and all were in Hoi An. Coming from Australia ( Port Douglas, Queensland) we were well used to seeing golden orbs but had never had a huntsman in the house there.
How do they cope with the constant change in environment ? Do you have a general routine that you loosely stick to regardless of what country you are in ? Did they ever become tired of the constant changes or miss a “regular routine life”
Nope, not even remotely. Our routine consists of get up, get dressed, go for breakfast, enjoy the day in whatever way you want to (appropriate to the location), go to sleep when you’re tired. We’ve always followed our bodies and never been a routine family. I don’t understand why anyone would ask this, it’s alien to me and I don’t really know what you mean. I guess you mean things like bath time, pyjamas, story, bed time routines. We never did any of that. They take a shower when they need one, be it 4 times a day or once a week.That started very young because growing up in Australia they were always in and out of the pool and I’d have to shower them off afterwards. I would read to them whenever we had time and place, which was often, and they don’t wear pyjamas. Nobody needs to pack pyjamas. We all go to bed at the same time, no bed time. I think all that stuff is made up to sell parenting books. We’ve never wanted to send them off to bed early or anything like that and for many years the whole family was in bed around 7.30pm. This means I’m up early ( around 4am) to get some work done while they sleep on. Chef will be out running at dawn. It works for us.
We tried the routine thing when they were small ( before we left to travel) because that’s what we’d read we had to do, but quickly figured out that it wasn’t the best way for us or for our kids. They’ve thrived on it and everyone has been happy. Nobody depressed, rarely tired, no stress or troublesome bed times. If we have an early morning flight we’re a well oiled machine. Clothes laid out the night before, out of bed, into clothes, head to the airport.
What kid of opportunities for volunteering, working, etc for the parents in South East Asia?
No idea sorry, it’s not what we do. Travelling full time, home educating and running this website are 3 full time jobs and there’s only 1 of me. I don’t need another job!
Also we’re not slow travellers, we’re backpacker- speed travellers, it wouldn’t work. I’m also highly suspicious of voluntourism.
What about the animal side of things… cruelty, eating random animals etc?
I’m the only vegetarian / vegan in the family, the other 3 like meat and will happily eat just about anything. I fully agree with that, if you’re going to eat a cow or a chicken why not any other animal? I see no difference. I do invest substantial time into trying to change their minds about that and at home they mostly get vegan food. I win the kids around from time to time but they always gravitate back to chicken snitzel. Chef is a chef, so of course he can never fully join me in being vegan if he is working ( he stopped working at all 12 months ago but is about to do a few weeks to give us a nice lump sum). He has been doing very well in his training on a mostly vegan diet and hasn’t complained at all.
I have one son who is highly sensitive. Beggars, poverty, disfigurements, lepers ( we’re talking more the Indian Sub Continent here, not SEA other than one time in Cambodia, maybe the bombing victims in Laos) and so on upset him tremendously and he also empathises, but not as intensely, with animals.
Luckily the only time I can remember him being very upset about how animals were treated was in relation to the poor donkeys and horses in Egypt. We saw some terrible things there. I don’t remember seeing anything too upsetting in SEA. I saw a rabbit skinned alive once in China and I still haven’t really got over it. I tend to steer him away from meat markets or anything that might upset him. In Romania he’ll happily watch the pigs being butchered though, once they are dead. The killing isn’t good to be around but it’s over quickly. It’s important to me that they know that what they choose to eat was once a friend. But none of this is South East Asia.
What is upsetting for him ( but not acutely) is scrawny, mangy stray dogs and cats. But this isn’t specific to South East Asia, you can see that in Europe or pretty much anywhere really.
He doesn’t pick up on everything, like the dogs near us in Vietnam that were pets, but puppy machines. It’s best not to go into too many details. He was aware of the dog restaurants but I saw no need to tell him how they prepare the animals for consumption it would be overwhelming for him. He can become an activist when he’s an adult if he chooses too, he doesn’t need to think about it just yet. I also steered him away from the more graphic parts of the various war museums in Vietnam and Cambodia, it would be too much for him. His elder brother was OK with it, he was ready.
They have both eaten bugs, frog and tarantula in South East Asia. They were both eating shellfish, squid and so on by the age of 6, so that’s nothing new. They’re Chef’s kids, they’ve always eaten out a lot. I can’t think of any strange meats they’ve eaten in SEA. The weirdest things are stuff like crocodile, emu, camel, and that was in Australia. In the last 5 years we’ve not seen balat even once ( duck embryo) but on our first RTW 20 years ago we saw it often. Likewise dog in the markets, you don’t see it so often now but I did see it once in Hoi An.
How is it Different, With Kids and Without?
I honestly don’t think that our travel pre kids and with kids was really much different. It was a lot more expensive and we upgraded standards on buses and trains, but pretty much we did everything we did without kids, with kids.
If you didn’t know Chef and I took a 12 month RTW 20 years ago. We visited all of our favourite places again with the children.
Maybe we didn’t stay out quite as late, maybe we went back to the hotel to let them rest when we as a couple would have powered on through the day, I don’t know. It doesn’t feel as if we did it much differently. We certainly had to make allowances for them in terms of feeding them more often. Chef and I would happily skip meals if taking a break wasn’t convenient but we figured we might be arrested if we didn’t feed the kids pretty often. We spent a lot more on cakes and ice cream too. A little sugar goes a long way in keeping kids on side. Chef and I would never have had an ice cream or cake back in the day.
As an intrepid young couple we’d take third class on trains and be perfectly happy with open windows and no air con, but once you start worrying about Dengue getting to your babies, you go for the glassed-in option. I still prefer open train windows. It makes you feel more connected to the country you’re travelling through.
We obviously had the extra responsibility of keeping an eye on them, making sure they were safe and happy, but it was no big deal really. Once you’re a parent that’s just life.
I have suffered with anxiety on and off since peri menopause got it’s claws into me. Having kids in tow certainly doesn’t help anxiety. That’s possibly the only negative.
Living in Hotels, Hostels and Guest Houses With Your Family
I LOVE staying in hotels! I’ve done enough cooking, cleaning and laundry in my life to never want to do it again so somebody else making my bed, giving me clean towels and scrubbing the bathroom is my idea of a good time.
The 4 of us have shared 1 room almost every night for the last 5 years and I have no problem with that at all. It’s been great to keep us all connected. I think now, the boys would like their own space, although they’ve never asked for it. I’ve had a lot of cuddles and I love that at night I can hear them and see them, I know they’re safe.
I don’t really have any strong feelings on this. I like staying in hotels.
I didn’t like the really hot hotels.
It’s me that now needs my own space. I need to get to sleep much earlier than the boys these days so I’m actually looking forward to having my own room and some peace and quiet. But I’ll miss them.
Food, Nutrition, Cooking, Dining and Picky Eaters
We don’t have picky eaters.
Except mushrooms. Boo hates mushrooms. Aubergine too.
But that’s not so bad.
Food really hasn’t been a problem.
The kids’ preference would be to live off cereal, pizza and cake and sometime, in hotels with buffets or cruise ships, they’ve been able to knock themselves out with junk. But mostly they’ve eaten really well.
In South East Asia we pretty much always eat in restaurants, I don’t remember ever self catering other than very rarely while we lived in Hoi An, so noodles, rice, plenty of veg, it’s all been good food and they’ve experienced so many cuisines. Both are slim and healthy and always have been.
They’ve cooked too, around 8 years old we started taking them to cooking classes and they’ve tried their hands at Cambodian, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Thai Cuisine. They love cooking classes! It’s a great thing to do as a family and so good for their culinary know-how and confidence.
D says the food tour ( by bike) which we took in Vietnam is one of his favourite things. Generally, if eating is involved, they’re game.
If you’re worrying about chilies and hot food, don’t. It’s very easy to avoid hot curries in South East Asia, that only gets tricky in India, maybe Sri Lanka. We did have a few food issues in India but that ain’t South East Asia.
Which Countries are Cheap, Which Expensive
Generally, Malaysia and Singapore are expensive, with Singapore being far more expensive.
Everywhere else in South East Asia is pretty cheap. But it varies, a big city like Bangkok will cost you a lot more that country areas of Thailand.
Costs and budgets, of course, depend on you. No two people, certainly not families, spend in the same way.
We found that out of every country we visited in South East Asia, our dollar went furthest in Vietnam, Thailand came second.
I should say here that we haven’t been to every country in S E Asia. We’ve only been to Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and Cambodia. We WILL be back in SEA soon, we have more to see and do!
Best Countries for “Worldschooling”
Where did they learn the most? Where did that “worldschooling” thing happen?
I actually don’t refer to us as worldschoolers very often, I’m not a huge fan of the term. Some of our learning comes through the real world and our travels, sure, but one heck of a lot of serious learning comes from interest, YouTube, questions that arise outside of travel, books, courses and so on. I actually wrote a whole paragraph on this and somehow I’ve deleted it. I usually say we are homeschoolers, but the travel is a very necessary part of the kids’ education and the boys’ learning is a big driving force in our plans.
Of course there is much to learn everywhere in South East Asia. Climate, history, peoples, human geography, physical geography, there is so much to learn. I think the biggest pieces of “hard” learning must be the Vietnam war history ( and it’s affects on other countries in the region) and what happened in Cambodia with Pol Pot. My favourite topics usually revolve around ancient history, religions and movements of peoples, so I find Khmer heritage fascinating and we also did a lot of work on Thai history.
There weren’t many museums that we visited, there was one in Malacca that related to the spice trade, and of course the Vietnam War Museums, but we visited every historic site we could. Including Angkor Wat, Thailand’s ancient cities and Mi Son. Then you have to start looking at the more modern stuff, Hoi An for instance, it’s origins as a trading port and the cultural influences there, similarly Malaysia and it’s blending of religions and cultures, then there is Singapore, a modern triumph over absent resources. It’s all fascinating and it’s all learning.
The “soft” learning, the development of self belief and confidence, understanding of people, that can happen anywhere, along with the basic maths, english and science. We never set out to study languages on this trip, but we all know a few words in most of these languages, just to be polite. We took a Vietnamese class but just learned a few key phrases and got our heads around pronounciation. Our guide at Cu Chi Tunnels was very good at explaining Vietnamese culture and society too.
All of the above is personal opinion of course ( which is why I prefer fact based guides, nobody will pick a fight with me over those), but our opinions and experiences are formed over many years with kids between 6 and 14. Would I do it with younger kids? No, absolutely not. My choice based on being a parent and knowing what to expect. Would I do it again? Hell yeah! Loved it, every sticky, sweaty minute of it. OK so that’s a lie, there were bad times, but in my memories it will always be a big, fat, amazing and brilliant family adventure.