Our son Leon was born on an ‘indian summer’ night in October 2015. As we were not able to find him a day care until February, we were obliged to take up holidays to close the gap (maternity leave is 3 months in Belgium). So we decided to do what we like best: travel! So at just three months we took the little fella on his first trips abroad. Starting with a road trip to the snowy Alps to enjoy the best of winter and continuing on to Thailand to escape the worst of that same winter. We spent quite some time searching the internet for tips and tricks but didn’t come across a lot of useful info. So without wanting to turn our website into a “baby blog”, here’s some of our ‘lessons learned’ for people out there who might be contemplating the same thing.
Picking a destination: Health care!
The lack of info of other travelers with the same story/plans made us worry a bit. Were our plans too ambitious? A trip to Antwerp and its great travel clinic made us a lot wiser. From a health perspective, travelling to Thailand with a baby should not be an issue. The health care infrastructure is at par with what is available at home and even better than some of the other “winter sun” destinations much closer to home. So as long as we stayed close to the most popular spots we would be fine. As any baby younger than 1-2 years, hasn’t had the time to build up an immune system and hasn’t yet had all the ‘shots’ that we adults get, the availability of good health care infrastructure really is the number one thing to keep in mind when choosing a destination. By the way this also meant that we had to cancel our wild plans to take Leon to Iran a couple months later…
The other reasons why we chose Thailand? Well because it’s still one of our favorite places in the world. On why that is, you can read all about in this post. The fact that I know the place pretty well gives some comfort in this new situation. Moreover it’s a great place to escape the dark, wet and cold Belgian winter.
But it sure is a long way from home…and a long time on an airplane.
Flying with baby’s, now here is something on which you find loads of information (and controversy!) on the internet and in literature. Trouble is…all the info is very contradictive and it basically comes down to this: “it all depends on the child”. Great! Good to know! But how do you know how the kid will react if he has never flown before?
Our flights passed like a breeze. Leon slept nearly all the way. For what it’s worth here are some things that we think helped.
We did not get a direct (13 hr.) flight, but had a stop almost in the middle. Indirect flights, of course mean you have to go through the hassle of security and boarding several times. And when travelling without kids it also means you don’t get a long stretch to have a nice sleep. However now, the two flights of about 6-7 hours were timed perfect with the sleeps and ‘meals’ of our 3 month old son: take off- eat – sleep 3 hours- repeat eat & sleep- landing and repeat on flight nr 2. In between the flights we had the chance to walk around for a while, which is of course perfect to get him to sleep again. Now that he’s a bit older and has become mobile, these stops will be even more crucial to give him some space to get rid of the built up energy.
Once we booked our flights we called the airline to see if they could arrange for seats with the “baby basket”. Small babies (generally up to 6 months old but rules vary for each airline) can sleep in small baskets that are attached to the panels that separate the cabin compartments of the plane. When booking a child on a plane, you automatically get allocated to a specific area of the plane but not automatically those seats that have the possibility to attach the ‘baskets’. So giving the airline a call is a great idea. We had the chance to eat, read and watch the entertainment in peace while Leon was sleeping. As a bonus, these are also the seats with the most leg room! You understand that they are in high demand…
Baby’s up to 2 years old have the opportunity to fly nearly for free (10% of an adult ticket price in our case) when they don’t occupy a seat. If the baby can sleep in the basket, it’s a no brainer to take advantage of this opportunity we believe. Although there’s quite some controversy about that also. You hear the craziest stuff such as the story (I read in a major publication on travel with kids) that there are no oxygen masks available for the little one because they are allocated one per seat. Most of these stories are just scare mongering. Airlines would never allow these kinds of security risks. For your info the seats for parents with kids on their lap are equipped with additional oxygen masks. And they get their own life vest, and they get a seat belt…
We have learned that there can be a big difference in how airlines treat people traveling with young kids. We were very happy with our choice for Emirates for our long haul flight: very welcoming and helpful crew and ground staff. We received a very practical baby care package and Leon even got a nice present. When on the way back the crew found out that he had been a bit ill, they even brought him a bag full of all the toys they could find on board. Nice!!!
Another piece of advice would be to take advantage as much as possible from the privileges that most airports and airlines offer when travelling with young kids. Priority during check in, (relaxed) security checks and boarding. Especially the last one is worth its weight in gold. You get to install yourself and the baby in all comfort and avoid having to deal with the struggle for luggage compartment space and the inevitable ‘salmons going against the stream’. It’s all about avoiding stress because baby’s have an extreme good radar for that. Also try to avoid getting stressed by the ugly looks (and comments) you get from people who notice the baby and fear for their flight comfort. It’s amazing how the perception of a baby changes from “cute little things” to “small troublemaking monsters” when they board an airplane. We sure did get some nasty looks. And if the baby does turn into a little monster, don’t hesitate to ask for support from the crew. Even in case they are not parents themselves, they have received training to deal with this. In any case they most probably have more experience in dealing with a baby in this very particular situation than you have.
Arriving in Thailand
Upon an arrival in Thailand (and many other destinations) you are often greeted by a massive queue at immigration. Not the greatest thing to experience with a small child. Moreover as at that point, you have not collected your luggage, you often don’t have the stroller that you checked in just before boarding. So that means carrying your child and the entire carry-on luggage for sometimes up to an hour. A nightmare scenario! Luckily there is often some kind of VIP, diplomat, etc. line that is much shorter. A young baby on your arm might just be your ‘ticket’ to that ‘special line’ and a smooth immigration crossing. It won’t always work but it does not hurt to try. There is a ‘special VIP line’ in Bangkok international airport hidden just 20m beyond the main line. We just walked in and nobody asked any questions. We were through in 5 minutes.
Next up: getting to the hotel. Before we would almost always opt for the public transport option but with our little sidekick and the extra luggage we opted for a taxi. However you’ll be very lucky to find a taxi with a child seat in Bangkok. And so with all the ‘maximum car security’ rules from at home in mind, you will probably feel pretty uncomfortable with the baby on your lap cruising through town.
The hours after arriving you may find out that your baby has a lot less trouble with jetlag than you do. Leon who was already sleeping 7-8 hours straight at night at the time, and he immediately made the switch to local time and nicely slept through the night..
Where to stay & eat?
For me personally it was a surprise that some hotels explicitly don’t allow babies. Others allow them but don’t really cater for them while still others market themselves as explicitly baby/child friendly.
In Bangkok we stayed at the Riverview guesthouse, where in I always stayed when in town. It belongs to the second category. They have no beds for babies or they didn’t have any available when we were there. Not an issue for us as we had our own baby bed/tent (see infra) with us.
In Chiang Mai, thanks to a tip from mrs ‘Nimzu‘, we stayed at the wonderful Awana house which definitely belongs in the last category of ‘baby friendly hotels’: very nice baby beds and helpful staff that was more than happy to entertain or rock Leon to sleep while we were having breakfast.
In Phuket we booked a room in one of the many resorts near the coast where we just wanted to have a swimming pool . This turned out to be a bad choice. Even when it seems a ‘small scale place’ online, these things always turn out to be big anonymous and very impersonal affairs.
Eating in Thailand is always a pleasure but for our three month old son, the curries, stir fries, etc. came just a bit too early. As Caro was no longer breastfeeding at the time and Leon had been quite picky about what milk powder he liked/supported, we brought a huge supply of it from home. Of course we divided the supply over both our check-in and carry-on luggage (as a contingency plan for ‘missing luggage’ after the flight).
Apart from the powder, there is the water. As you may know babies are not supposed to drink all types of bottled water. I remembered from previous visits that the Thai 7 eleven stores were filled with all types of water so I didn’t bother too much with this. Turned out that almost all of the available water was very mineral rich water (no good!) and only a couple of brands were suited for babies. As the local bottled water only has labels in Thai, you will need one of the shop assistants to translate the labels for you. Once you find the brand you will be able to find water all over Thailand, as all of the 7 eleven stores have exactly the same product offer.
By the way while we were eating ourselves, it happened a couple of times that the owners of the place offered to entertain and hold Leon. Showing the little blond baby to all their friends and relatives. One particular place we hugely recommend is ‘Cooking love’ in Chiang Mai across the street/soi from Awana house.
Itinerary & moving around
Even before the visit to the travel clinic we had decided that for this first trip with our baby, we would not be going off the beaten track too much. In the end we based ourselves in the main cities and did day trips from there. Staying in/on a remote village or island, a 6 hour drive or boat ride away from a major hospital was not an option this time.
There is plenty of cool things to do in both Bangkok & Chiang Mai and several nice day trips are also possible from these cities. If we could do it again, we would however not choose to stay in Phuket again. Even if you are only looking for sun and a swimming pool, as we were, there are much better options that are not too isolated from civilization.
For moving around we flew between the three places. With cheap local ‘Thai Air’ flights largely available it was just the most convenient option. The night train to Chiang Mai is a wonderful experience but I would not advise to do it with a 3 month old baby. 12-20 hr bus rides were definitely not an option.
To finish here’s a couple of random other things that might be useful:
- The baby bed/ tent: As mentioned earlier, we were travelling with our own very compact ‘baby bed pop up tent’. This allowed us to stay in places where they did not have baby beds. It can be sealed off completely to keep mosquitos out (always a winner in tropical countries). We also took it to the swimming pool and beach with us, providing shade and protection from all kind of creepy crawlers. The latter being a potential source of problems for which we were warned at the travel clinic. As the baby at this age is completely immobile, he is a sitting duck for all kind of bugs, worms and parasites that are on the beach, in the grass, etc.
We also noticed that the familiar cocoon of the pop up tent combined with his little blanket created a ‘home away from home’ for Leon where he could instantly relax after a day full of impressions.
- For moving around on foot we used our basic and compact stroller which we were able to take with us in all the Thai airports and that also fitted nicely in taxis or on the roof of the other local transport options. It has the option to put the seat pretty far down and combined with a special cushion it is possible to transport a three month old that can not sit up straight yet.
We combined this with a Baby Björn baby carrier which was very handy to carry Leon in the more crowded areas. Only problem was that outside in the sun, I was not able to carry our little one as our combined body heat would completely overheat the poor bugger. Luckily his mom has a better ‘body heat regulator’.
- Luggage: For years we both had been travelling with a big backpack and small daypack. But this time we chose another set up. I still kept my big pack but Caroline used a big trolley suitcase combined with a day pack and one dedicated small baby daypack. This allowed us to have one person (myself) taking care of all the big luggage: backpack on my back, daypack in the front and stroller suitcase in one hand (and still one free hand!). Caro could concentrate on the baby and his gear. I must say it felt strange to walk around with the big suitcase but it was pretty practical.
- To sterilize the milk bottles we used small pills that need to be dissolved in a couple of liters of (tap)water in a container of your choice. You then have to let the bottles sit in there for a couple of hours. We would not recommend to use this method. We had strong doubts about the effectiveness of the sterilization process. Moreover it’s really hard to keep the bottles etc. constantly under water during the sterilization process. Lastly, we often noticed that if mosquito’s got into the room, the container with the bottles was their favorite hang-out. Which can’t be a good thing. We would recommend to use an electrical ‘travel sterilizer’ to get the job done. This device also doubles as a heating device to warm up baby milk in case that is needed. Our boy drinks his milk cold.
- Travel pharmacy: After our visit to the travel clinic we had a small list of ‘baby medicine’ including some ‘emergency antibiotics’. However to be honest this is just for our own peace of mind. Because there is no way that you will be doing ‘self-treatment’ on a baby like you would maybe do for yourself when travelling. If something’s wrong, you go see a doctor, period! The one thing that could be used and of which you should have a good supply are the ORS (oral rehydration sachets) which can be used after some mild diarrhea.
How did things work out for us?
We had a good time visiting (re-visiting) some of the main attractions in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. Did some nice day trips and ended up spending some time at the pool. I experienced Thailand and the Thai in a complete different way. Walking around with a baby really is a ‘door opener’ to the ‘land of the smile’. Even in the most touristy places, where a lot of Thai have become (in the best case) indifferent to foreign visitors, we got plenty of attention, help and compliments. They really were crazy about the little blond boy and thanked us several times for taking him to ‘see’ or ‘experience’ their country. We really experienced the much talked about genuine Thai hospitality and friendliness that you hear so often about, but that as a tourist has become pretty hard to experience in most places. Hustlers and sellers of ‘tourist trap’ trips and goods immediately stopped their typical pitches and started conversations. We got tips on how to protect the little one from the heat, mosquitos, etc. Really a great experience!
And Leon he loved the Thai too, especially when they were talking to him in Thai. There is something about the ‘singsong’ Thai language that made him ‘all smiles’ all the time. Even on not so pleasant moments.
Because yes, honesty obliges us to tell that our little boy did get quite ill. A very common local virus got hold of him and gave him some digestive troubles and diarrhea. He didn’t really suffer from it. He was still very happy but the risk of dehydration was too high and so he spent a couple of days in the hospitals of Phuket. If you ever need it; the ‘Bangkok international hospital’ near Phuket town is a great option. Leon enjoyed all the attention he got from the Thai nurses that were almost fighting to take care of him. And as long as they kept smiling and talking Thai, they could do whatever they wanted without much protest. Even putting the big needle in his little hands to put in the IV line for rehydration.
In the end Leon and Caro got to stay an extra day in Thailand and were repatriated from the Phuket hospital all the way to our front door. Thank you insurance! Let that be our final advice (whether or not you are travelling with babies or kids): Make sure you have your travel insurance in order. It can save you a lot of money and stress!!!