Pulsating with energy
Thinking ahead to your next family holiday? Planning an escape from the bleak European winter? Wondering if it is really possible to travel long haul with small kids? Thailand can tick all these boxes, says Alannah Eames
Thailand is always great for a family holiday. It’s got an unbeatable combination of sun, beaches, good food and massages. It is also relatively easy to get to and won’t break your bank account.
The European winter is the perfect time to go to southeast Asia as you miss the brunt of its rainy and scorching hot seasons. If you have young kids, Thailand is an especially good choice as it is safe, family-friendly and affordable.
Bang in the heart of Bangkok
Most travellers start their visit to Thailand in Bangkok. With its towering skyscrapers and royal history, Bangkok is a melting pot of old and new.
Once a sleepy 15th-century village on the banks of the Chao Phraya river, the city has been an important trading post and the centre of many royal dynasties for centuries. Today, it pulsates with energy – a heady mix of nightlife, shopping and fast-paced city life.
Love it or loathe it, Bangkok is definitely worth experiencing. Even if you don’t like the ‘shady’ aspects of its nightlife, you will love the balmy evenings, great restaurants, edgy bars and ‘shop till you drop’ stores.
It’s a good idea to start your trip with a few days in Bangkok to acclimatise and recover from the long-haul flight. Then, you will be fully recharged and ready to start your holiday in a positive frame of mind.
It’s a good idea to start your trip with a few days in Bangkok to acclimatise and recover from the long-haul flight
A needle in a haystack
There are thousands of hotels in Bangkok ranging from backpacker hostels to five-star luxury properties, so choose wisely.
If you want to treat yourself, the Anantara Siam hotel is a great choice, as it is in the heart of the city overlooking the green lung of the Royal Bangkok Sports Club and next to the BTS Sky Train, so you can avoid two of Bangkok’s biggest headaches – air pollution and traffic congestion. The hotel is also close to famous shopping and tourist attractions like the Siam Paragon Shopping Centre, Sea Life Bangkok and the Grand Palace.
Time to move on
So, now you’ve recovered from the trip, got used to the warmer temperatures and are getting itchy feet, it’s time to see the other side of Thailand – its world-famous beaches and castaway islands.
But, it can be a tough choice whether to head north to the jungles of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, the rugged west-coast islands surrounding Krabi, or the popular islands off the east coast. It all depends on how much time you have and who you are travelling with.
If you are travelling with kids and want to see something of the country without wandering around like a nomad, Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are a good choice. It is just a short 60-minute hop from Bangkok to Koh Samui with Bangkok Airways and from there you can easily take a boat across to Koh Phangan.
Hippie paradise turns upmarket
Let’s start with the larger of the two islands – Koh Samui. This is Thailand’s second biggest island and famous for its sandy beaches, coral reefs and coconut plantations.
Koh Samui was originally inhabited by fishermen from the Malay Peninsula and Southern China. Until it was ‘discovered’ in the late 20th century and the first roads were built, the island was a relatively isolated wilderness, home to king cobras and treacherous mountain terrains. Since the 1970s, the island has become a magnet for tourists.
Yet, despite the tourism boom, it is still a beautiful island with plenty of things to do and great resorts. From the moment you land at the airport and walk through the open-air terminal – watching the palm trees swaying in the sea breeze and inhaling the scent of tropical flowers, Koh Samui gives you that special Thai welcome. (And an equally cute farewell – all passengers can enjoy complimentary drinks and snacks in the courtesy area in the departures hall.)
Beaches. Well, there are plenty in Koh Samui to choose from according to your taste. The ‘traditional’ hippie hangouts of Chaweng and Lamai have been transformed into lively party spots so if you crave something quieter, try Big Buddha Beach or Choengmon Beach. Much of the island’s once indigenous wildlife – elephants, monkeys etc. – are now confined to tourist attractions which are nicely organised but are often questioned for their ethical values.
If you like coconuts, you’re in the right place. And, the same goes for seafood. Don’t miss the Fisherman’s Village Walking Street market in Bophut every Friday evening where you can sample the fishermen’s fresh catch and Thai street food.
There are so many hotels now on Koh Samui that it’s hard to differentiate one five-star from the next.
For couples and families – or those who want luxury without five-star stiffness – the newly opened Ritz Carlton is a good choice.
Located on a former coconut plantation, the Ritz Carlton is also home to some of the best restaurants on the island – their Tides poolside bar has an amazing cevicheria (citrus-cured fish specialities); while Pak Tai serves fantastic Thai dishes in private cabins next to the fish reef for a romantic evening and their Sea Salt restaurant on the beach is perfect for making memories. If you stay here, they offer a great – and very reasonable – babysitting service so you can enjoy their fine dining venues knowing that your kids are in safe hands.
Head for the jungle
Once, you’ve seen Koh Samui, head across the water by boat to neighbouring Koh Phangan, a wilder, more ‘jungley’ version of Koh Samui.
The fourth largest island in Thailand, Koh Phangan is still one of the most undeveloped and uninhabited. Unlike Koh Samui, Koh Phangan still has some wildlife roaming around – besides the common geckos, you’ll probably see the larger Tokay gecko, the chubby Banded Bullfrog and harmless green skinny Coconut Snakes. More ‘exotic’ species like cobras, monkeys, monitor lizards and whale sharks are here, but usually stay well away from humans.
Koh Phangan has a colourful history. Many believe it was first inhabited by Muslim sea gypsies who travelled by boat from the Malay Peninsula. The name ‘Koh Phangan’ itself comes from the word ngan which means ‘sand bar’, in reference to the many sand bars offshore around the island.
Thailand really has something for everyone
These days the island is most famous for its Full Moon and Half Moon parties but, the northeast corner remains pretty secluded. It’s here that you find the beautiful Thong Nai Pan beach and eco-friendly resorts like the Santhiya, which are a good choice for families and those looking for peace and tranquillity.
Chill out time
The Santhiya is set on 18 acres of tropical forest, with its ornate traditional Thai teak wood buildings fitting in effortlessly into the surrounding nature.
For families or small groups, their Royal Grand Pool villa is the perfect retreat – it’s spacious (two floors with two large bedrooms and two bathrooms; one of which is open air) with its own private pool overlooking the coastline backed by palm trees and mountainous terrain. Nobody will go hungry either – housekeeping brings delicious homemade snacks like mini-quiches and fresh coconut slices every afternoon.
If you get bored hanging out at the pool, you can take a boat trip to the picturesque island of Koh Tao or the Ang Thong National Park.
Koh Tao is a mecca for scuba divers, famous for its green turtles and bull sharks, while the Ang Thong National Park is an archipelago of 42 islands spread over 100 square kilometres, 50 per cent of which is water.
For those who prefer to stay on dry land, there is elephant riding at the Baan Tai Elephant Camp. Or for a more local experience, check out the Chinese Temple or Fisherman Village at Chaloklum.
It may be a cliché but Thailand really has something for everyone. Whether you’re there with young kids, a couple looking to recharge, the more adventurous backpacker type or a keen island-hopper, it has it all. Add in the beautiful beaches, its famous cuisine, affordable spas and massages and pretty good infrastructure and you have all the ingredients for a successful recipe. Just do your homework before you go (because there is so much choice out there) to make sure you’re not disappointed.
When to go: Best time would be the cool and dry season (November-April) but it’s an all-year-round destination.
Where to stay:
Bangkok: Anantara Siam Bangkok
Koh Samui: Ritz Carlton Koh Samui
How to get there: All the major airlines fly to Bangkok or Phuket. For families, the Middle Eastern airlines such as Qatar Airways or Emirates are a good choice as you can stop over in the Middle East to break the journey. Check out for business-class specials as this makes travelling with kids much more comfortable. Other options are direct flights with the main European carriers and Thai Airways.