By Thailand specialist Rebecca
For an easy segue into exploring the East for the first time, Thailand certainly ticks many of the boxes for families. Travelling here always feels adventurous – everyday events, like riding a tuk-tuk, can present instant entertainment – but in reality it’s a straightforward country to travel around.
You can explore the length and breadth of Thailand easily, whether hopping on an internal flight or, more intrepidly, aboard a train. And, it’s easy to tailor activities to fit with the ages of your children.
Thailand also represents particularly good value for money for families. Places to stay are comfortable and high quality, with humble three-star hotels in Thailand often of a better standard than four-star accommodation back home.
The Thai people love children and hold them in high regard. Don’t be surprised if you and the children are beckoned to the front of queues by eager locals wanting to show their affection.
Most families who travel with us choose to spend three or four days in each place so they can explore each area without too much travelling around. For that reason, in this guide I start by focussing on the hub of Chiang Mai in the north.
One of the elephants at Elephant Hills Tented Camp
Elephant experiences for families in Thailand
Elephants are one of the biggest draws for families on holiday in Thailand. There are a number of initiatives – for whom conservation is the byword - that offer a very close-up experience with these majestic, docile creatures.
Two such organisations – the Elephant Nature Foundation and Patara Elephant Farm – are an easy journey out from Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
They place the upmost importance on the welfare of their animals and instilling its importance in their visitors.
This is a hands-on education. You’ll learn how to care for the elephants, preparing their food and feeding them, and washing and bathing with them in the river (which with the right elephant can get very playful - the calf I was partnered with cannoned me with water from her trunk after I’d splashed her).
Thai seafood dishes
Cooking lessons in Thailand
Spend half a day with local, English-speaking Mr Prapat and his family, shopping for fresh produce at the market before joining them in their home to learn their traditional cooking techniques as you prepare a delicious home-cooked lunch together (which will vary depending on the time of year and the availability of ingredients in the market).
It’s a crash induction to the spices and herbs that are ground into the pastes that flavour northern Thai dishes, and moreover a first-hand perspective into the daily life of a Thai family.
Akha women of northern Thailand
Staying with a local hill tribe
Living among a traditional tribe and discovering what rural life in Thailand really entails is enriching and totally out of the norm. Two of my preferred options for families are Lanjia Lodge, overlooking the Mekong River on the Laos/Thailand border near Chiang Rai (an hour and 45-minute flight from Bangkok), and Lisu Lodge, an hour and a half’s drive outside Chiang Mai.
The ethos of both lodges is to preserve the ancient cultures of the local communities of tribes, while allowing visitors in participate in their lifestyle in a positive way.
You’re hosted by the local hill tribe and sleep in a traditional stilted house. Meals are cooked by your hosts – there’s no menu, you’re simply invited to sit cross-legged on the floor and served what seems like a banquet of food.
There are children of all ages in the community, with whom visiting children can interact.
I’d recommend a one-night stay at Lisu Lodge, where outdoor activities such as mountain biking and rafting (along a gentle river) abound. In the evening, you spend time with the tribe’s shaman, who’ll teach you and your family about the tribe’s culture and traditions.
While this is a somewhat rustic experience, it’s not without a few home comforts, such as a Western-style toilet.
Elephant Hills Rainforest Camp
Camping at Elephant Hills in the rainforest
Encased in rainforest with coconut mangroves and jutting limestone karsts, the first thing that hits you is the call of the wildlife – gibbons howling in the day, cicadas calling at night, the ribbit of frogs.
The main camp – consisting of safari-style tents - is suitable for children aged four and above.
Families with children aged seven and over can also spend the second or third night of the stay in the floating tents of the Rainforest Camp. Head deep into your lush green surroundings on a traditional longtail boat, exploring the tributaries of Cheow Larn Lake until it opens up to reveal a row of 20 floating tents.
The lake is 30m deep and perfectly still, and you can swim in it straight from your tent’s own private deck. The wildlife is more prevalent here, too, though seeing wild elephants is a rarity.
Railay Beach in Krabi
Thailand’s best beaches for families
Thailand’s beaches are accessible year round and accommodation options are endless. While the Khao Lak on the Andaman Coast (Thailand's west coast) is better during November to March, families travelling during July and August should visit the Gulf of Thailand to the east.
On Thailand’s west coast, Khao Lak is a personal favourite. A one and a half hour’s drive north of Phuket, this is a quiet and unspoilt area with fewer visitors.
Expect a relaxed pace of life and calm seas, with a selection of fantastic hotels, including the Ramada. Although this is a chain hotel it’s small with everything a family needs for a few days at the beach, including a beachfront location, kids’ club, babysitting service and inviting pool.
The property is only a short walk from Khao Lak town, which has many local restaurants serving delicious and authentic Thai food.
On the east coast of Thailand, Koh Samui is an inspired choice for families. While the main resorts can be quite commercialised and busy, you escape this by heading to the north of the island.
Just a 40-minute car journey from Koh Samui airport lies a stretch of golden sand known as Bo Phut Beach. All of the resorts here are beachfront and the shallow waters tempt children of all ages to paddle around or swim in safety.
Anantara Bo Phut on the bay is my recommended option for families. Designed in true Thai style, suites are large and the interconnecting rooms ensure everyone has their own space. The hotel also offers a kids’ club, cookery classes and great service.
The Napasai on Koh Samui
A little luxury
If you’re seeking a little family luxury in Thailand, my choice would be Maenam Beach on the north of Koh Samui. Of particular note is the five-star Belmond Napasai. Individual stilted villas dot the hillside with uninterrupted views over the ocean.
Room options include garden villas, ocean pool residences that feature their own pool and kitchenette area, and four-bedroom villas, all of which are great options depending on your budget.
Feeding the family
Most hotels provide Western options alongside their classic Thai dishes. Restaurant staff will always ask how spicy you’d like your food. You can request no spice at all, if you wish.
Best time to visit Thailand with your family
Although the busiest season runs from November to March as this has the driest weather across the country, Thailand is suitable most of the year thanks to its micro-climates.
The east coast is drier over the summer months of July and August, and even though there may be rain in other areas at this time of year it tends to be heavy downpours that are easily avoided and so should not preclude travel.
The beaches in the south of the country, which offer a little respite from the fast-paced cities, can be visited at any time.
Read our full guide about the best time to visit Thailand.
Best ways to travel to Thailand for families
Both direct and indirect flights are available to Thailand from the UK. Direct flights take around 12 hours and usually depart from London.
If the 12-hour-solid flight time is too much, you also have the option of breaking up your journey when flying with one of the Middle Eastern airlines, such as Emirates. Spend a few hours in Dubai to recharge before embarking on the second leg of your journey. Indirect flights are available from a number of the UK’s regional airports.
Most flights to Thailand are overnight, which helps to avoid jetlag. Your flight will land in the afternoon, allowing you time to check into your hotel before dinner.