There are cities well-known for their giant dinosaur museums, and Venetian alleys where the gelato and pizza just keep flowing. These places are called “kid-friendly.” But there are entire kid-friendly cultures too. Some places truly value kids, and even if you’re not spending your afternoon plowing between kiddie attractions, it remains a pleasure traveling with children in these regions.
Southeast Asia is notoriously child-friendly. Babies are pinched, and preschoolers allowed moving through places like restaurants with the same furtive, action-packed zigzagging that characterizes street crossing in places like Thailand, Indonesia, and Vietnam. Waitresses will watch them, show them how their food is cooked, and rub their heads like little Buddhas. Your kid may vanish from sight, but that’s just because she’s out front with the seating hostess, greeting new arrivals.
I can’t stress this enough: these folks love to touch babies. You’d think the birth rate would be high enough that an infant isn’t treated like the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Nevertheless, this fascination with chubby baby thighs and fuzzy baby heads has some pluses for moms and dads.
First, uninterrupted mealtimes. Going to a restaurant with the baby may not involve touching the baby at all. Many hands make light work. Second, baby-watching committees of strangers abound. This is the opposite of (also)child-friendly Nordic countries where babes are left in their freezing prams to snooze while its parents eat inside a restaurant. No, in Southeast Asia, little Aiden/Caden/Jaden lunges for the koi pond, and an outpouring of 117,000 nearby diners pluck him out. Actually, they don’t let him tumble in the first place. For a region where crossing the street is an act of faith, it’s amazing how many people are looking out for the safety of tots at restaurants.
Lesson 1: Sure, kid, that’s your auntie. The more the merrier.
Lesson #2: Go with the flow. You’re getting extra help from a culture that is offering it because they value you and your hard work. Try that on your next Disney vacation when you’re trying to navigate main street with a stroller the size of a tour bus and a screaming kid.
Lesson #3: Didn’t you want that conversation starter? This is like the dating equivalent of having a brand new puppy. Shopkeepers, taxis, and strangers in the airport fall over themselves to express their happiness that you have bred and brought this fabulous little human being right to them.
Or would you have preferred the stern-faced tuk tuk driver to the one who beams like a giddy grandpa, lifts the baby from your arms, and proceeds to ask 101 questions about teething in broken English? I prefer door number two.
Lesson #4: I should be this happy my kids, as well as everyone else’s, exist.
Lesson#5: “Let them do whatever they like” in hotels, restaurants, and public parks is seldom dangerous. It also builds community, lends itself to meeting new people, and helps the kids learn more about their surroundings. In countries where this doesn’t seem to bother anyone else, why should it still bother me?
There are plenty of countries known for fawning on kids and creating less stressful vacation experiences for parents, usually off the beaten path in smaller towns, where locals are truly pleased you’ve ventured. If I’m going to expect my toddler to reach out of his comfort zone and try local foods, I’m going to have to do the same and let go of the stress I carry around that my children behave like tiny diplomats wherever they may be. It’s not possible, and in locales like these, it’s not even preferable.