Q:

Which is better for a family outing: South Africa or Thailand?

I'm planning a trip with my family (two daughters, ages five and one). When our oldest daughter had turned one we spent a month in South Africa (Cape Town & the Garden Route). It was great! I would like to see more of that country, but my wife is lobbying hard for Asia (Thailand). What should we expect from Asia that will differ from South Africa, concerning weather, safety, and general standard of living? We plan to stay away for six to eight weeks. Jan Stockholm, Sweden

Jan 31, 2006
Outside
Outside Magazine
Cape Point, South Africa

Cape Point: South Africa Makes a Point in its Favor

A:

As I'm sure you already know, comparing Africa and Asia as opposing travel destinations can be a bit tough. Both are so wholly different, with various rewards and cautions, that pitting them against each other to come up with one solid recommendation for you and your family is a bit like weighing the pros and cons of buying a minivan versus a station wagon. It simply depends on what you really want at the end of the day. Comfort and ease of travel come with both—with the right price, of course—but ask yourself whether you want something that offers more cushiness or more rugged adventure? More importantly, how rugged are your kids' attitudes?

In general, South Africa is Africa made easy, while Thailand is Asia made easy. For example, bouncing around Cape Town and the Garden Route is really not so different than bouncing around San Francisco and the Monterey coast, except for the exotic wildlife and people. Head up to Egypt, however, and the rules suddenly change. Same with Thailand. The decades-old Thai tourism infrastructure makes it easy to get from place to place, and once you're there, to find a comfortable bed and a good, clean meal.

So let's start with South Africa. As you know from your previous trip, the weather at the tip of the Dark Continent can vary wildly, from the cool, icy fog of Cape Town to the sun-baked veldt of interior. While the mercury can certainly crest 100 degrees in places, if you go in April you'll find temperate weather in the

More Grist for the Mill
Check out the resources below to help hone in on your choice of African and Asian experiences:
An Active Guide to South Africa
Interactive Thailand
south and hot, dry skies up by Kruger National Park. In general you could bring a suitcase with a couple of pairs of shorts, long pants, and a sweater. As for food and water, you need to exercise caution with any meal. But in South Africa you can generally drink the water right out of the tap (at least I did, and even my finicky belly held up just fine). As for safety, this is largely up to you. Crime in South Africa can be appallingly violent—hence its reputation. But I've never heard of a tourist with a sound head getting caught up in the car-jackings or highway shoot-outs you sometimes hear about. There's certainly an edgy feeling in some of the alleyways of Cape Town, and the Central Business District of Johannesburg is a strict no-go zone, but if you stick to the tourist areas and don't go schlepping your family through the shantytowns with diamonds hanging off your fingers you should be just fine.

If you're adventurous, renting a car here is certainly an option as the roads are largely well kept and traffic isn't terribly chaotic. In return for your efforts, you and your kids will have the chance to see strange, fun creatures, like giraffes and impalas; visit both the Garden Route as well as the Cape of Good Hope; and become acquainted at least with parts of the continent's struggles since most people in South Africa speak English.

Thailand on the other hand is a stunningly gorgeous country with tropical beaches, cool highlands, and the best food on the planet—at least for those who don't mind spicy. As the only country in Southeast Asia never to be colonized, Thailand is rife with spectacular Buddhist temples that will help introduce your kids to world religions. The weather here can be tough, though. I've never sweated as hard in my life as I did just walking down Khao San Road to get breakfast. We're talking 90-degree heat with humidity so high it makes Florida feel like Finland. Keep in mind that Thailand has three seasons: hot and dry from February to May, with temperatures in the 90s; rainy from June to October, when temps drop to the mid-80s but the humidity is higher; and November to January, when temperatures can drop to the high 60s.

Beaches here are a must. Not only do you escape the heat, but the green waters, limestone beaches, and cool breezes live up to nearly anyone's definition of a vacation. The tsunami ravaged portions of the coast, but areas like Phuket are bouncing back, and scores of places weren't touched.

As for Thai logistics, I personally wouldn't rent a car since there are so many buses and boats going where you need to go. Why bother with trying to navigate through thick, no-rules traffic using road signs that don't always have English translations? The busses can be absolutely freezing with the A/C cranked up: about the only time you'll wish you'd packed a sweater. As for eats, a lot of Thai food gets cooked with boiling water that will kill most bugs. In Bangkok you can eat from street stalls—at least I did—and not get an upset stomach. But kids might not like some of the strange, spicy meals. That said, people often speak enough English here that ordering just noodles shouldn't be a problem—especially in tourist-heavy places like the coast and Bangkok.

Crime in Thailand tends to be more petty theft—pickpockets and Baht-hungry tuk-tuk drivers who take you to a jewelry shop instead of a temple—so just be careful and use common sense. Don't drink the water here, and be sure bottle water comes with a seal that you crack. Thai people are extremely hospitable and friendly, but the multitude of tourists hasn't inspired much in the way of a need to earn repeat business. I was never afraid for my safety in Thailand, but I did get ripped off, buying flip-flops for $5 instead of $2, and a few friends nearly purchased water from a vendor who'd simply poured tap water into commercial bottles. As with anywhere, be careful with your valuables and be very suspicious of deals too good to be true. Spend some time in this corner of the world and you'll come back with a great tan, sand in your toes, and a yearning to come back when the kids can scuba dive.

For more information on South Africa, visit the South African tourism Web site at www.southafrica.net or call 800.593.1318. To learn more about Thailand, visit www.tourismthailand.org or call the Los Angeles offices at 323.461.9814 or the New York offices at 212.432.0433.

Filed To: South Africa, Thailand

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