Southeast Asia has plenty of kid-friendly destinations, with loads of pretty and safe beaches, fun activities and lovely natural attractions.
We’ve selected a few of our favourites below, but plenty more are around. Almost anywhere you head in the region will be adaptable for kids, particularly if they’re slightly older, and you’ll find people, from your guesthouse or hotel staff to locals on the street, highly obliging when it comes to helping out with children.
A crowd pleaser on so many levels, Bagan also delivers the goods for kids. In some cases the monument interiors seem almost designed for kids as they’re so pokey and confined. Pick one of the sites with still decent murals within and kids will have plenty of enjoyment with a torch hunting out the details. Combine this with a pony cart for transport and perhaps a hot air balloon ride (in season, not cheap!) and you’ve got a full spread of activities.
Teenagers will get a lot out of the Kalaw to Inle trek. Aside from it being good exercise, the village homestays can be a good experience—just remember to accidentally leave the tablet in your luggage being shifted to Inle—no Minecraft on the trek! There’s also the boat ride across Inle Lake at the end, which is enjoyable for all ages.
Rudyard Kipling's Mawlamyine may have changed somewhat since he penned his famous lines (then it was Moulmein, for starters), but it's a good family spot today. Take advantage of the unusually decent accommodation and eating scene while filling your day with market and temple visits, boat trips, an excursion to Bilu Island or perhaps an overnight to Hpa-an or Setse beach.
Come for the dolphins, stay for the beauty. Cambodia’s Kratie is where to base your family for a visit to see the critically endangered Mekong Irrawaddy dolphins. Only a few score are left in the world, and one of their remaining habitats is at Kampi, about 20 kilometres north of Kratie town. Dolphins aside, head to Koh Trong across the river from Kratie and hire some bicycles for a lovely unspoilt Cambodian rural experience. Your kids may be amazed to see how entire villages live without the internet.
Older kids, especially the more outdoors orientated, might find a stay at a homestay in Chi Phat a very enjoyable experience in southern Cambodia. Staying in a largely traditional village house, the homestay aspect delivers a sometimes humbling look into how your average Cambodian village lives, while the activities—from boat trips to jungle treks—make for a memorable trip. A community-based scheme, you’re also supporting a good cause here.
Koh Tonsay (Rabbit Island), just off Kep in Cambodia’s south, is great for an absolutely low-key couple of days for your family to reconnect. Brand this to your kids as an old-style adventure: The accommodation is very rustic, the beach empty and safe, the seafood perfect (your kids will be able to wade out to choose their crabs). You’ll be completely offline as power only comes on at night. Take plenty of sunscreen and games.
Sleepy Sanur (“Snore” to its detractors) in south Bali delivers on water sports from all sorts of surfing (normal, wind and kite) through to sailing and jetskiing. A reef protects the bay and delivers a good wave, too. Bali’s other surf beaches are legendary and kids who can surf will be in their element; those who can't can learn at famed Kuta. In the hills, head out on a nature walk or even climb one of the island’s volcanoes. The island also boasts an excellent waterpark, snorkelling opportunities and family-friendly cooking classes.
Java’s Yogyakarta has a vibrant arts culture, some excellent shopping and is a convenient leaping off point for the impressive Borobudur and Prambanan—two sets of historic ruins that help trace Indonesia’s ancient foundations. Back in town explore the Kraton and underground mosque—fascinating stuff.
In the east, Labuan Bajo, capital of the stunning island of Flores, is the launching point for world-class Komodo National Park. The memory of squatting within metres of a Komodo dragon is one that stays with you forever—regardless of age. On the way there, go snorkelling with dozens of manta rays at Makassar Reef.
The fabled town of Luang Prabang in Laos will appeal to the whole family. Mum and Dad can relax in one of the many gorgeous cafes sipping Lao lattes while the kids take a cooking class, and everyone can pile into a boat to chug up the Mekong to the Pak Ou caves, home to a gazillion little Buddha images. Hire bicycles for a family trip out to the pretty Kwang Si falls.
Vang Vieng might have a reputation as a backpacker haven, but it’s also not a bad little spot for a family to spend a very active few days. Go tubing down the river flanked by fabulous limestone karsts, go caving or do a well-paced trek to a viewpoint.
In the far south, the 4,000 Islands has a rep for lazy days (or weeks ... ) swinging in a hammock as the muddy Mekong waters slide by. For families looking for something more active, the islands of Don Khong, Don Dhet and Don Khon are still a great option, with plentiful options for bicycle and boat trips, lazing by waterfalls and hoping to see one of the very few remaining dolphins in the area. Another option is a little further north: somnolent Champasak, where you can also visit Wat Phu, one of the most impressive (and far flung) of the Khmer monuments.
Malaysia’s Perhentian Islands, off the northeastern mainland coast, are a great location for kids to learn how to snorkel or dive, and an excellent destination for going swimming with sea turtles. The nightlife is mostly restricted to the smaller of the two islands, making larger Perhentian Besar (besar means big) the better option for a family destination. Aside from swimming and eating, there’s little to do, so take along some board games and take it easy.
While there is a definite Disneyland-esque aspect to it, Melaka, just a couple of hours from Singapore on Peninsular Malaysia’s west coast, offers some excellent eating, more museums than you can shake a shadow puppet at, bicycle hire, samlor rides, and a viewing tower. Excellent family-friendly accommodation swing an already tempting deal. You’re also just a couple of hours from Legoland.
Sandakan in Sabah (East Malaysia) is the jumping off point for some of the true highlights of Malaysia’s wildlife offerings. Be it a visit to the Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre or/and the Labuk Bay Proboscis Monkey Sanctuary, or a multi-day trip on the Kinabatangan River, this is a fantastic region for kids to see some of the earth’s most endangered species in a largely natural setting. Those with grander budgets could also consider a visit to Turtle Islands Marine Park.
What doesn’t Singapore have for families? It’s not cheap, but the city state has an amazing array of activities. If you’ve been hanging out in Southeast Asia for a while, just pushing a pram along a footpath—that’s right, they’ve got them—will be a novelty. More seriously, museums abound for some educational adventures, animal lovers can head to the zoo, Night Safari or Jurong Bird Park, and plenty of parks and gardens will beckon for kids to have a good old-fashioned run around. Sentosa Islandalone offers loads to do, while a spin on the Singapore Flyer is something a bit different.
Located off Thailand’s west coast in the gorgeous Andaman sea, Ko Lanta’s chief attraction for kids is its safe swimming. The beaches are postcard-perfect so Mum and Dad will be happy sipping their cocktails on their deckchairs, keeping an eye on the kids splashing in the shallow waters. The island has become quite upmarket, so you’ll find very comfortable resorts, and a Muslim-majority population lives here so you won’t find so much of the raucous and sometimes seedy nightlife that blights some of Thailand’s other beach resort islands. Go on a diving or snorkelling trip, take a kayak excursion to the lesser explored west coast, or hire a bicycle and have a wander through the traditional villages on the east coast.
Just a few hours from Bangkok, Kanchanaburi is a great side trip. Stay at a raft house for the novelty factor and enjoy a boat ride along the pretty River Kwai, and a trip to the Erawan waterfall, one of Thailand’s most popular local tourist spots. Older kids will appreciate the sombre but very well done Hell Fire Pass Museum, and a cooking class at Apple’s might also go down well for the whole family.
The northern Thai capital of Chiang Mai offers cooler temperatures and a vast array of attractions. Doi Suthep is a standard stop, with the Huay Kaew stream heading down from it not a bad place for kids to have a splash. Chiang Mai Night Safari is well done and the night bazaar is great for some bargaining. For something different, head to the Flight of the Gibbon, an adventure through the treetops on skybridges and zip lines. Something more sedate? Try Queen Sirikit Botanic Gardens in the Mae Sa valley. Lastly, don’t forget the Sunday Walking Market.
Vietnam’s World Heritage-listed Hoi An is a stunning historical port town with plenty to do. Take an eco-tour to visit Cham Island, check out Tra Que veggie farm to prove to your kids that veggies don’t come wrapped in plastic and hire some bikes and head out to the nearby beaches. Budding chefs can take a cooking class—there are no shortage of options in this regard. Kids growing out of their clothes too quickly? This is the spot to get tailor-made clothes for a song, as well as shoes. Fashion-conscious teenagers will go wild.
While Vietnam’s beaches and islands are not a scratch on what you'll find in Indonesia and Thailand, they’re not a complete loss. Quickly developing Phu Quoc Island off the far south coast delivers the goods for a family vacation. Spend days lazing by the beach, do a snorkelling trip to a small archipelago off the south coast or just swing in a hammock. For the more active family, Con Dao, a short flight from Saigon (or bouncy boat trip from Vung Tau) is an excellent option, with excellent nature trails and beaches and a fascinating wartime history.
Nestled in the mountains of north Vietnam, the former French retreat of boomtown Sapa (do stay outside the city centre) is a colourful hideaway to take your kids. Enjoy the cooler temperatures (take winter clothes during, well, winter), browse the markets and observe the different ethnic minorities at work and go walking through amazing rice terraces. If you’re in the region over the weekend, the Bac Ha Sunday Market should also be on your list.
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.