Heading to Asia with the family? From ancient temples, jungle rafts and tropical beaches to ethical elephant sanctuaries, here's Jim’s first-hand guide to planning a holiday to Thailand with kids. If you're after a varied, fun and relaxed family trip to Thailand, this will point you in the right direction.
In my late teens and twenties, I spent a big chunk of time travelling in Asia, and I’ve always been itching to go back. As soon as the kids were old enough, my wife and I started hatching plans to return to Asia, but the ideal opportunity never seemed to arrive. Until now…
Some very good friends of ours recently moved back to Australia and we instantly found the perfect excuse to meet halfway, somewhere in South East Asia. Thailand was everyone’s first choice and the deal was soon sealed. We were going back!
As the nominated travel agent, I was assigned the tricky task of putting together an itinerary that ticked everyone’s boxes – kids included. We wanted to cover some ground before hitting the beach, giving the children a glimpse of the real Thailand. We explored ancient temples, took local trains, set out on jungle rafts and fed rescued elephants, all before heading to the Thai islands.
Here’s a breakdown of our itinerary and if you're looking for some help to plan your own trip to Thailand with kids - I can put a similar trip together for your family too.
Bangkok has been the starting point of many of my Asian adventures over the years, but it’s a little bit different travelling with kids in tow! Luckily, it’s a great destination for children and the locals couldn’t be more welcoming. We treated ourselves to a comfortable hotel with a pool (which makes a huge difference with children) that was just a few minutes’ walk from the bustle and street markets of Khao San Road. This worked out brilliantly, giving us the best of both worlds.
We spent our first few days in Thailand zipping around Bangkok in tuk-tuks, which the kids loved. On one day, we took the river ferry down to Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, where the children were bowled over by the larger-than-life Buddha. It was a great experience.
We also introduced the kids to haggling on the market stalls (which the stall owners thought was hilarious) and to Thailand’s famous street food. Their run-away favourite (of course) was the banana and chocolate pancakes. Thailand has changed a lot since my first visit in 1995, but it was great to see that a plate of tasty noodles and banana pancakes for pudding will still only set you back around £1.
Once our friends from Australia arrived, we set off on the road, with our own private driver. It took us just a few hours to reach our first stop – Kanchanaburi and the famous River Kwai. We spent some time exploring the centre of town and walked across the still-functioning train bridge that spans the River Kwai. We also visited some of the immaculate Commonwealth war cemeteries and museums – a must for any history buff.
Next, we took a long tail boat upstream for about 45 minutes to our remote riverside resort. The resort itself was located directly on the riverbank, set in amongst the tropical jungle. At night, a beautiful chorus of birds, insects and frogs echoed around us, making it very atmospheric.
During our stay, we did some river rafting which was great fun as a family. The kids loved jumping in, climbing back out and jumping in again, while our raft drifted effortlessly downstream.
We also took a day trip to an ethical elephant sanctuary where the kids were a mix of excited, bewildered and nervous around the huge but elegant animals. The sanctuary cares for old, abused and sick elephants, so it’s far from a tourist trap. The trip was very moving and rewarding – and my kids still talk about it today.
On the way back to Bangkok, we stopped at some great waterfalls where the kids could paddle and cool off. We then had one night back in Bangkok before continuing our adventure to Sukhothai.
Sukhothai is a 5-hour train journey from central Bangkok’s Lamphong train station, and taking the train made us all feel like intrepid travellers again. It was a lovely way to spend half a day, watching the world go by, playing games with the kids and laughing about our experiences so far.
We got off at Phitsanulok train station and haggled with some Songthaew drivers (small pick-up trucks converted into open-air mini-buses) to take us to Sukhothai, which was around an hour away. Sukhothai is the former capital of Thailand, famous for its fantastic ancient ruins. Even the kids loved roaming around temples – which took us all by surprise! Maybe it was the promise of an ice-cream at the end that did it…
We all stayed in a peaceful hotel on the edge of town that even had its own ancient temple in the well-kept gardens. It was the perfect place for some family time out. Here, we spent a few days playing in the pool and exploring the ruins before heading back to the station to catch the train up to Chiang Mai.
Chiang Mai is Thailand’s second great city, set in the ‘cultural north’. Yes, it’s a big city, but the trademark craziness is balanced by the hospitable locals and surrounding beauty.
Tuk-tuk and songthaew rides around the city proved a big hit for our thrill-seeking children, while the night markets were packed with trinkets that caught their eye. Both intense and amazing, the Sunday Night Market is a real must-see.
There are all kinds of family activities on offer in Chiang Mai, many of them in the beautiful countryside surrounding the city. We spent a magical day at The Nature Elephant Park (www.elephantnaturepark.org), about an hour’s journey from our hotel in Chiang Mai. It’s a very ethical project so no elephant riding is allowed, and it provides a real (and important!) insight into the plight of Asian Elephants. We fed, touched, bathed and walked with rescued elephants. It was a truly inspiring day that the kids (and adults too!) will never forget.
Temples are ten-a-penny around Chiang Mai, so there’s no chance of visiting them all. Several of the most stunning temples are located within the Old City walls, making them easy to reach. However, as a break from the hectic city, we decided to take a trip to the top of Doi Suthep Mountain and visit the Wat Phra That Doi Suthep Temple. Here, Buddhist monks mix with the tourists and the golden architecture takes your breath away. It was 100% worth the bumpy, exhilarating songthaew trip to get there.
After so much exploring, both the kids and the adults were ready to hit the beach for some proper relaxation. We flew directly from Chiang Mai to Koh Samui, which made the journey swift and easy with children.
On Koh Samui, we stayed in a large beachside villa for 5 (glorious!) nights to round off the holiday. The villa was part of a complex, so while the villa itself felt very private, there was a communal restaurant for breakfast and good sports facilities on site, including a kids’ area and several good-sized pools. For us, it was the perfect set up and a great base for exploring the nearby beaches and islands.
As an added bonus, our stay on Koh Samui in mid April happened to coincide with the brilliantly fun Thai New Year – locally known as Songkran. This is Thailand’s most important public holiday and it’s celebrated by getting wet! Everyone, everywhere expects to get wet on Songkran at any time, either with a cheeky water-pistol squirt or a full super-soaker drenching.
During our stay, we took a few days trips out to explore Samui’s different beaches and spent one evening in the busy commercial centre of Chaweng Beach - which turned into a giant street party/water fight! This was really wonderful and the kids could barely believe it was happening! It has created some great lasting memories for us as a family.
As our time in Thailand drew to a close, we flew back to Bangkok. Our flight home was scheduled to leave at the crack of dawn the following day, so we decided to stay at the airport to make life easier. The huge Novotel at Bangkok’s new airport is really convenient and comfortable – I would recommend it to anyone leaving on an early flight. As a family, it made the end of our trip hassle- free and allowed us to feel rested on the journey home.