Looking for a family vacation that’s off the beaten track? Travel writer and mother of twin boys Pamela Ho gives her pick of 10 Asian destinations that kids will love.
Families travel for many reasons. But if you have young children (under 12) in tow, chances are you’ll need to plan your vacation pretty much around them.
Even if you’re a gung-ho adventurer, you’ll need to ensure that the destination is at least fairly safe, and offer enough variety of options to keep the kids entertained.
But with an increasing number of low-cost carriers offering cheap airfares, you can easily do a quick weekend getaway for a fairly specific purpose. So hey, get off the beaten track!
MALAYSIA – Riders Lodge (Johor)
Located just an hour’s drive north, Riders Lodge offers horseback riding lessons, pony rides, and jungle trails. Kids learn everything from how to groom a horse to putting on its saddle and bridle, mounting and dismounting, and getting the horse to walk, trot, turn or halt. At this 27-room Manor house, all meals are home-cooked so you don’t even need to go out. Aside from riding, adults can enjoy in-house spa treatments, or hit the green on its 18-hole golf course. (Photo: Peggy Loh)
INDONESIA – KidZania (Jakarta)
KidZania is an indoor theme park where kids can take on a variety of adult jobs, from a newscaster to pilot to fireman. The city is built to scale for children, complete with buildings, paved streets, vehicles and even a functioning economy! In Southeast Asia, this global franchise can be found in Jakarta, Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok. What’s unique is that multinational companies and brands sponsor the city’s businesses and activities. For example, HSBC runs a bank and teaches kids about saving and investing; AirAsia trains aspiring pilots. As queues can be long, do buy tickets online beforehand. Best for kids aged four to 12. (Photo: AirAsia)
JAPAN – Club Med Sahoro (Hokkaido)
The snow in Hokkaido is known the world over for being one of the finest. If you’re planning a ski vacation, nothing is more fuss-free than a Club Med winter holiday. Skiing and snowboarding gear can be rented, and an international team of G.O.s (Gentle Organisers) means there are always English-speaking instructors at hand to assist – important if your kids are novice skiers! With Club Med’s all-inclusive concept, all meals are included and every single kid I know loves their buffets! Aside from skiing, there’s guided snow tracking, a heated indoor pool, outdoor Jacuzzi, and yoga and dance lessons. (Photo: Club Med)
THE PHILIPPINES – Cebu
Thailand and Malaysia are popular beach destinations, but I’d pick Cebu for its unique culture and cuisine. At Mactan Island or Bohol, the sea is so clear and blue that you’d want to go snorkelling everyday! The capital, Cebu City, is the oldest in the Philippines. Here you’ll see evidence of European influence in its architecture and cuisine as it was colonised by the Spaniards and Portuguese. We stayed at the Crimson Resort & Spa, visited Basilica del Santo Niño, and tried Cebu’s famous Lechon (BBQ pork) and Halo-Halo (dessert). Tiger Airways flies direct to Cebu.
INDONESIA – Umbul Sidomukti (Semarang)
Often overshadowed by sister city Yogyakarata, Semarang is the largest city in Central Java and its capital. Apart from its magnificent Dutch architecture – like the eerie Lawang Sewu – fresh seafood and unique cuisine, there’s an outdoor adventure park in the highlands that’s great for older kids and teens. Nestled amidst emerald terraces, the park boasts a 110-metre zip line spanning two mountains, 70m above ground! A rope net is suspended across the two mountains, which you can cross with a safety line. Bigger kids will also love the ATV rides! There’s a chalet-style hotel with family rooms, and a pool with a bird’s eye view of the city. AirAsia flies direct to Semarang.
THAILAND – Chiang Mai
Once the capital of the Lanna Kingdom, Chiang Mai remains Thailand’s most culturally significant city in the north. The old city walls and moat are still there! It’s easy to get around, and cheap. With older kids, simply hop on the “red truck”. For just 20 baht (80 cents), it gets you to your doorstep, albeit with no fixed route. You can climb up to Doi Suthep (a Buddhist temple at 1,600m) for a panoramic view of the city. My boys loved white-water rafting on Mae Taeng River’s rapids! (Note: January is the best month) Younger kids can explore the river on bamboo rafts or elephants.
INDIA – Kerala
India is not impossible with kids, and Kerala is a good place to start as it is clean and safe. With families, I’d avoid staying at bustling Ernakulum and opt for the quieter Fort Cochin. From there, you can walk to the historical Chinese fishing nets, St Francis Church, the Jewish Synagogue, and the spice market. Or explore the backwaters of Alleppey in a houseboat, which comes complete with a cook and boatman! If you have more time, drive up to the hill stations like Munnar and Thekkady to enjoy cooler weather and breathtaking scenery. SilkAir flies direct to Kochi. AirAsia is a cheaper option, with a stopover in Kuala Lumpur.
HONG KONG – Lamma Island / New Territories
Beyond Disneyland and Ocean Park, Hong Kong offers great back-to-nature adventures for the whole family. One of my favourites is Lamma Island, just a 30-minute ferry ride from Central Pier 4. It’s quiet and laidback – like Pulau Ubin – and you’ll still see evidence of its fishing village heritage at Sok Kwu Wan. The seafood here is must-try! Or head to New Territories, the venue for North Face 100, which draws adventure seekers from around the world. Explore by walking its breathtaking nature trails and waterfalls: Shing Mun Reservoir, Needle Hill, Grassy Hill, Tai Mo Shan and Ng Tung Chai Waterfalls. Better for older kids and teens.
CAMBODIA – Siem Reap
Siem Reap is renowned for its UNESCO world heritage sites. But with kids, I’d stick to three: Angkor Wat, Bayon and Ta Prohm. You can also visit the Silk Farm, ride an elephant up to Pre Rup to catch the sunset (warning: crowded!) or take a boat ride on the Tonle Sap to see the floating villages. Personally, I thought it was a rip-off, but kids will enjoy the novelty of it. It’s easy to get around Siem Reap in tuk tuks, and most guides speak decent English. For fussy eaters, there are clean Western-style restaurants like the Blue Pumpkin and FCC. Jetstar flies direct to Siem Reap.
JAPAN – Tohoku
Sendai City is easy to get to – just 90 minutes from Tokyo station by Shinkansen. It’s an experience that kids will love! The city was founded by a Samurai in 1600, and if you visit Masamune Date’s castle, you’ll encounter colourful Samurais there (in character, of course!). For toddlers, the interactive Anpanman Museum will be a hit – check out their bakery for the cutest Japanese buns! In winter, take the train up to Yamagata prefecture’s Zao Mountain to experience their unique “snow monsters” – frost-covered trees that resemble abominable snowmen! Tohoku is renowned for its old onsen towns, a beautiful destination in any season.
Pamela Ho is a travel writer who blogs at pamelaho.wordpress.com