Chris Blattman

East/Southeast Asia travel bleg

We are ignorant of options and looking for suggestions, especially from those who have traveled with young kids.

Jeannie and I will take the kids (they will be not quite 1 and 3) to east or southeast Asia for about 2 weeks over Christmas and New Year’s. We’ll be meeting her parents somewhere in the region for at least one of those weeks (they live in Hanoi). We’re thinking of visiting a couple of different countries.

Our style (with kids):

  • Quiet and beautiful (No cities more hectic than Manhattan)
  • Ridiculously good food (sorry, Philippines!)
  • Touristy enough to have basic infrastructure, but not heavily touristed
  • Stay in the same place for several days or a week, and use it as a base for nearby trips
  • Open to a secluded beach option if there are things to do other than braise to a crisp
  • High chance the back seat turns into a vomitorium if we have to drive far

Previous winners, by these criteria: a small village south of Toulouse, lakeside cabin in the North Carolina mountains, an isolated beach near Elmira in Ghana, walks in Yunnan in Western China, and one of the more off-the-beaten path junk boat cruises in Ha Long Bay.

We’d be open to more South China Sea cruises so long as it was a small ship (<10 berths). I’m guessing that chartering private vessels is prohibitively expensive, but would be happy to be proven wrong.


26 Responses

  1. Just back from a fortnight in Thailand with an almost-4-year-old; incredibly child friendly. Gorgeous food, and options for kids with less adventurous palates. Take your picks of islands. We cautiously took a quieter part of Koh Samui (Bang Po), and had beaches, days out in long-tail boats and exploring waterfalls inland.

  2. Indonesia is a definite favorite of mine and its a such a massive country – variety is just endless.
    Sulawesi is particularly beautiful island though it might be a little difficult to travel around the island with two kids. Would suggest looking at options around tana toraja

  3. I have to support the Luang Prabang too. I spent a week there in 2012 and it was marvellous. A small town nestled in the mountains with delicious food (French-Lao fusion) and breathtaking sights. There are also many day trip options in the area. Another place that I loved in Southeast Asia was Hoi An. It’s a small Vietnamese beach town, also with delicious food and many nearby areas to visit. It boasts a rich history, with some Japanese influence in its architecture.

  4. Don’t rule out the Philippines! Try Palawan. Anthony Bourdain also said that the Philippines’ Lechon is the “best pig ever”. Visiting the Philippines is a bit of an adventure but Palawan (El Nido or Coron) is really worth the visit.

  5. Malaysia wins hands down for ridiculously good food. Use Penang as a base and drive up to Langkawi for the beach!

  6. Also the food at the resorts were wonderful – super fresh fruits/veggies/salads and a variety of different types of cuisine in a buffet style every meal. We stayed at Miniloc resort and after visiting the others found it to be the best. :)

  7. Sorry to hear your assessment of food in the Philippines! I grew up there and find there to be quite a selection of cheap good food. Not the biggest fan of local cuisine, but the Spanish-style stuff and other asian fusion foods are great!

    My suggestion: El Nido, Palawan. It’s the long island to the south west of the northern Luzon island – an hour away from Manila and the most beautiful place i’ve ever visited. There are over a hundred limestone islands, fun activities for the whole family (excellent snorkeling with the resorts in sight, island hopping, scuba diving, sunset watching). The resorts are very clean, wonderfully staffed emphasize eco-tourism and right along the water. Also very private, and again, lots to do other than braise to a crisp. :)

    Take a look and let me know if you’d like me to send some photos or something. We took the ITTI planes there – they are german-made very safe and a beautiful scenic flight from Manila.

  8. I would recommend using Singapore as the base. It is centralised, and close to the other countres in SE Asia. Almost anywhere in the region is a 1 to 3 hours flight away. It would also probably be more “kids friendly”.

    That said, Singapore probably won’t fit into the “quiet” criteria unless you choose accommodation in the neighbourhoods.

  9. You should have a look at Laos. Most of the cities are easily reachable from Luang Prabang or Vientiane, which are the two city hubs in the countries. Luang Prabang is amazing and has loads of small temples, the whole city is UNESCO world heritage and there is an amazing variety of delicious food (including on the night market). From there you can go to other small villages or cities like Vang Vieng quite easily. Vientiane is a bit bigger, but easily connected to other southern parts of the country which are nice, and maybe more tourist friendly.

  10. base – singapore
    beach – sentosa island
    indonesia (bintan) 40 min ferry
    malaysia (johor bahru ) 40 min bus
    go to melaka on way to kl
    can then go to thailand or further north

  11. Penang/Georgetown in Malaysia. It’s very close to several other countries and has a great mix of Indian, Malay, and Chinese food.

  12. It has been 15 years since I visited, but I also agree that Luang Prabang in Laos was well worth a visit and quite chill. I never got to Chiang Mai in Thailand, but heard from fellow backpackers that it was a good base from which to explore northern Thailand. Angkor Wat in Cambodia is amazing, and while it certainly receives a fair number of tourists, it only has a small village next to it, so the whole thing does not feel hectic or even all that overrun. While I agree that restaurants in the Philippines often fail to impress, home-cooked food there is delicious. So if you can find an out-of-the-way little beach-side bungalow operation that is family run and offers you a no-menu-the-only-choice-is-what-is-fresh-and-available dinner option, it could be really enjoyable.

  13. Hi Prof. Blattman, I agree with Luang Prabang in Laos. Options for activities include kayaking, trekking (low key, can bring kids), swimming in waterfalls. Quiet, beautiful scenery, good food. Getting a bit touristy but not inundated by tourists yet.

    As alternatives, I’m of course seconding Amanda on Bali and Lombok. The nicest, most hidden beach in Indonesia today is Sekotong – 3 hours drive from the Lombok airport, stay in Cocotinos. Great hotel but no tourist (to my surprise), beautiful scenery, good food, amazing diving and snorkeling – unfortunately not sure how these activities will work with kids. You can also explore the nearby village. If Bali, I’d suggest avoiding Kuta and renting a villa with pool in Ubud or Jimbaran. The beach and food can be fantastic if you gather recommendations (I can email some if you’re interested!).

    Last suggestion would be Inle Lake in Myanmar. Frequent flights from Yangon. I haven’t been but not one person I’ve talked to that has been there was disappointed.

  14. I am not sure it really warrants a full week, but I enjoyed the town of Hoi An. Definitely fulfills the requirements of delicious food and quaint charm. Potential activities: visiting Cham ruins at My Son, touring the family merchant houses, market visits and cooking classes. Overnight trip to the citadel at Hue? There are also pleasant beaches just a few km outside town. On the other hand, I’ve never been to Luang Prabang but have friends who’ve loved it. And the central Vietnamese cuisine may be similar enough to what you will experience in Hanoi. We took the overnight train from Hue to Hanoi, but with small kids I’d probably recommend flying out of Danang.

  15. Bali and Lombok have OK food. Very easy with kids, easy to get around, dont have to go on long car rides, nice beaches, interesting culture. Very touristy, but you can avoid crowds. Recommend renting a house w a pool. Watch out for the dogs on the beach. I love Luang Prabang and Philippines too. An ID (my year) is a LP expert so you should contact her if you go there.

  16. Try these somewhat lesser-known locations:
    Hoi An, Vietnam – Coastal UNESCO World Heritage town in Central Vietnam. Beautiful buildings dating back to the 15th Century, wonderful place for gift shopping, picturesque cycle rides to the beach via paddy fields, superb local delicacies (cau lao soup) and lanterns line its river-side facade come dusk.
    (Picture evidence from my flickr: )
    Mai Chau, Vietnam – A rural treat in North-West Vietnam, perfect for experiencing a home stay in a quiet village. Hiring a 4×4 car from Hanoi may be the best option to get to Mai Chau, as bus services in Vietnam are notoriously unpredictable in terms of quality. Also, cycling beyond Mai Chau may become tiresome, as due to steep hills – you’ll need to be mobile! Dramatic sights to be seen, and I’m sure the kids will love & learn much from the experience of staying in a bamboo stilt house! (Photo evidence: and and ).

    Beyond Vietnam, and already mentioned by previous commenters, I would indeed recommend Luang Prabang in Laos, Chiang Mai in Thailand and also the Angkor temples.

    I hope my suggestions are useful, good luck and enjoy

  17. Luang Prabang would be perfect for those criteria! Also northern Thailand–Chiang Mai is a great base, and you could visit Pai, Mae Hong Son, Chiang Rai, Nan, Mae Sariang etc for short trips very easily.

    Both Chiang Mai and Luang Prabang have wonderful small hotels, fantastic food, and beautiful scenery and culture.

  18. I like Luang Prabang as well, though the main street was getting to be a bit too touristy for my tastes, e.g. signs for elephant rides at every corner. As others have said, they are plenty of nice temples and paths to wander around in the immediate area. The Pak Ou caves and Kuang Si waterfalls are both super day trips. It’s definitely quiet and manageable for a family, and I saw many families there, though maybe not with kids so young. And yes, you can fly there. Luang Prabang is probably the right bundle of well-developed tourist infrastructure and tranquility. I thought it was also worth flying to the capital Vientiane, which has a few simple tourist sights and is still very laid back.

  19. Second Luang Prabang. Fantastic cafes, temples everywhere, quiet lanes for strolling. The surrounding countryside is pretty, though not such a showstopper that it provides a self-evident answer to “what are these foreigners doing in my village.” Sometimes felt a bit random. If I went again I’d make a bigger push to get further out to national parks or maybe northern Thailand.

  20. Cambodia for sure. insanely good food, secluded and untouched beaches and lots of stuff to do and see.

  21. I’m in Cambodia right now and absolutely love it. Great food for sure, both local khmer dishes and French restaurants. I think it’s high season that time of year at Angkor Wat, but seems like there’s lot of other things to do, including mountains and beach. I’m here for work so mostly hanging out with Stata, and therefore can’t vouch for the other touristy things, but Phnom Penh is fantastic (friendly, small enough to be manageable, and, I repeat, killer cuisine.)

  22. I have one that I wanted to throw out there: Yangon, Burma. Easy to get there from Bangkok. Definitely not too touristy, with the ability to travel to a few other locations in Burma (Bagan is incredible, though you’ll have to take a plane to avoid a long drive; Inle Lake is also quite beautiful, though the same travel issue applies), including secluded beaches to the south. I thought the food was quite good (particularly Shan fare and the tea shop culture) and it’s absolutely not a hectic place. The temples can occupy you for a few days in Yangon alone too.

    Obviously you have to be sensitive to supporting current and former military leaders (e.g., but I didn’t find that to be a major issue beyond paying for the visa, deciding which of the airlines was least problematic, and paying exit fees.

  23. Don’t rule out the Philippines, go to Palawan but not where everyone else is try out Coron or one of the less popular areas in Palawan- you won’t regret it! Best beaches hands down and since it is a little bit out of the way, the places are simple but the hospitality is amazing (stayed at Daluyong resort). You’ll see mangroves, one of the worlds longest underground caves, at night visit a firefly farm on a river (amazingly cool), and great snorkelling. Go island tripping, and if you’re not into the traditional filipino food, you must try the super simple but oh so yummy grilled seafood they do, seriously can’t go wrong with that!

  24. Luang Prabang? Direct flights from Hanoi, nice French-SE Asian fusion food and good hotels within the town, pretty location, and if you hike through villages on the outskirts you surely won’t see a single tourist.

  25. I’d still recommend the Philippines, though I mostly agree on the food. Still, you can make it happen. We where there 3 weeks in Feb/Mar and all in all the food was pretty decent if you know what to look for and where. And beyond the food, it’s hard to beat in terms beauty, remoteness combined with easy access to things (sounds like an oxymoron but I think you know what I mean), friendly people, price, and of course, beaches…

Comments are closed.

Why We Fight - Book Cover
Subscribe to Blog