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From the mountains to the sea – the best of Thailand

Whether you prefer the hustle and bustle of the towns or the peaceful serenity of nature, Thailand has something for everyone. These are the best places in Thailand for families, writes John Borthwick

Thailand off the beaten track

Get off the beaten track in Thailand. Picture: John Borthwick

“Sydney or the bush,” goes the old Australian adage that defines two vastly different places. In Thailand, the equivalent is “Mountains or the sea”.

The northern Thailand province of Chiang Rai and its south-eastern, Gulf-side cousin, Trat, perfectly illustrate this contrast.

Which one is best for a family holiday? The too-easy answer is – see both.

Trat, Thailand

The main attraction in Trat, Thailand’s most eastern province, is Koh Chang Archipelago – a wreath of around 50 islands.

Ko Yak Thailand

Ko Yak Thailand. Picture: Thailand Tourism

But don’t overlook mainland Trat. Coastal villages such as Ban Nam Chiao, not far from Trat town, have good homestay facilities and a fascinating Thai-Chinese-Muslim cultural mix.

The coastal strip between the Gulf and the Cambodian border is so narrow — around 500 metres — that your kids can proudly declare, “We walked across Thailand in 15 minutes.”

Koh Chang (Elephant Island) is Thailand’s second largest island and the superstar of the archipelago. Here you’ll find jungle hills and unspoiled beaches, although the resort-heavy west coast has been badly developed in places. The aptly named White Sand Beach is the main mecca here for a seafood-eating, hair-braiding, massage-loving holiday. The southwest shores such as Lonely Beach and Bailan offer a quieter, family alternative. Bang Bao pier to the south is your jumping-off point for island hopping to Koh Laoya and other islets.

Ao Salak Trat Thailand for families

Ao Salak Trat Thailand. Picture: Thailand Tourism

Koh Chang was once the place where you got away from all the others who were also getting away from it all. These days go straight to neighbouring Koh Kood, aka Ko Kut. As a ‘last frontier’ and the country’s easternmost island, it still doesn’t have ATMs.

Koh Kood promises good snorkelling in its bays and diving on offshore islands such as Koh Mak and Koh Rang. Families will love gentle river kayaking and jungle walks to the hidden Nam Tok Khlong Chao waterfall.

This stunning island of fireflies and mangroves has numerous guesthouses, small hotels and several luxury resorts. Most are scattered along the west coast’s calm, sandy beaches. The ferry from Trat mainland docks at Ao Salad (Pirate Bay). This fishing village, overlooked by a giant golden Buddha,  has rustic restaurants where you should try the fresh crab and grilled squid. 

Chiang Rai, Thailand

The only ‘beaches’ in hilly, jungle-clad Chiang Rai Province are beside rivers, not the sea. Kick back here in Thailand’s far north and relish a tranquillity too often drowned in the south’s hectic towns.

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Thailand for families

Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Chaing Mai. Picture: Thailand Tourism

The capital, Chiang Rai City, founded in 1262, is rich in both Lanna and Thai history and culture. Which might give rise to anticipatory sighs of “NABT — Not Another Buddhist Temple” from your youthful entourage. If so, the extraordinary White Temple, Wat Rong Khun should muffle them. This elaborate, all-white, crystalline, Disney-like structure, seemingly spun from ceramic and mirrors, has become the town’s main attraction since opening in 1998.

Families will love Chiang Rai’s Thai cooking classes, hot springs, golf and cycling. Check-out the mid-town Hilltribe Museum that celebrates the north’s hill tribes. From here you can book an informed, authentic hill-tribe tour.

The Mae Kok River flows through town, offering cruises to rural areas and villages. It’s a taste of what the province offers further afield. Consider a self-drive exploration – the roads are good and Thailand drives on the same side as Australia.

Head to Sop Ruak and the once infamous Golden Triangle, where the mighty Mekong borders three countries: Myanmar, Thailand and Laos.

Phu Chi Fah Chiang Rai Thailand. Picture: Thailand tourism

Myanmar is unmistakable: amid a riddle of river flats and channels, it is marked by a large casino. Directly opposite you is Laos. On the Thai side, a huge golden Buddha, of course, oversees affairs. Nearby, the impressive Hall of Opium museum recalls the area’s history of warlords and smugglers and a cycling around Chiang Saen Ancient Town (the old Lanna Thai capital) can also be a good fun.

Many families will want to meet some elephants while here or elsewhere in Thailand. Please choose wisely and support the operators that treat them well.

Chiang Rai’s Mekong River ‘coast’, from the Golden Triangle down through Chiang Saen, Chiang Khong and further, is one of the most rewarding regions of this country.

Here, Thailand is at home to itself and to family travellers seeking authenticity.

Thailand food

Spicy Thai Prawns – one of the best dishes you will eat in Thailand. Picture: John Borthwick

Best time to visit

Visit Thailand in the dry season from November to April. If you’re planning to go south, the climate changes from east to west. Check your destination’s weather before you go.

Best for

All ages! Young children will love the resorts and beaches and older kids will enjoy exploring nature on a hike or tuk-tuk. Make sure to try a cooking class.

Getting there

Thai Airways has flights from Sydney to Chiang Rai or Trat, each with a stopover at Bangkok Airport. 

The writer travelled courtesy of the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

Read more: 

Top tips for Thailand with kids

Top family-friendly resorts in Thailand

What to do in Phuket, Thailand: Kids View

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