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Adventure in the East

ISSUE 7
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From kickboxing like Jackie Chan to caring for your own elephant, Thailand has endless attractions for families. By Kate Wickers

The sun is ablaze when we arrive at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai nestled in the Mae Rim Valley just 40 minutes from the city, but we are told it has rained solidly for three days. The landscape is radiant – a fresh, luminous green on a canvas of rice paddies and jungle. It's the start of our family holiday and I have my jet-lagged husband, Neil, and sons Josh (13), Ben (12) and Freddie (8) in tow, who perk up when they see our beautiful, traditional northern Thai-style teak house set in gardens filled with rattan palms and mango trees.

 

We're up early for a sunrise breakfast amid the rice terraces. We sip our coconut smoothies and listen to the jungle wake up around us. "It's noisy here," remarks Josh, listening to round-tongued floating frogs croak and the click-click of nearby cicadas. Iridescent, emerald dragonflies skim the surface of the pools and huge, blue butterflies with black furry undersides flit by, making my sons yelp in surprise.

 

We come across Mr. Tong, a resident albino water buffalo. I give him a pat; his skin feels wet, on which I remark. My sons raise their eyes in unison. "Duh, Mum," says Ben. "He's a water buffalo." I blame the jet lag.

 

We get on the hotel's bikes and pedal over rickety bridges that span rice fields, through aromatic local markets to the temple at Wat Buppharam, with its gleaming golden stupa. We're excited to catch glimpses of hill tribes, including the long-necked women of the Karen tribe, famous for the thick, silver coils they wear around their elongated necks.

 

E.L.E (Elephant Life Experience) is an eco-tourism elephant camp in the Maetaman Valley on the banks of the Mae Tang River. They only admit one family at a time and it feels like a lovely secret, tucked away in a forest of yellow bamboo and lychee trees. We get kitted out in blue mahout outfits and learn that the elephants here have been rescued from a life of hard labour, either in the logging camps or working in the tourist industry. "They've all had tough lives," Intira, our guide, tells us. "When they come to us, they are so tired. We build their strength and give them love. They really like a good scrub behind the ears." So we get to work on the leathery skin of teenage elephants Natalie and Pan Poo, shrieking with delight as they shake their trunks and spray us with water. By the end of the morning, we've got to know them well enough to ride bareback around the camp and let Natalie lift us one by one with her trunk.

 

Back at the resort, my sons have a Thai kickboxing lesson from Pan, who has trained many of Thailand's boxing elite. They are shy at first kicking the pad that Pan gently holds against his chest. But he soon has them high-kicking with gusto, Jackie Chan-style. "Don't practise what you've learned on each other," he tells them naively at the end of the lesson.

 

Suitably relaxed, we fly to Bangkok for 48 hours of city life. From the banks of the congested Chao Phraya River, we flag down a long-tail boat to explore the reedy Thonburi canal with its stilt houses and floating markets and moor at the Royal Barges National Museum, home to the world's largest dugout boat, the Supphannahong (Golden Swan), which needs a crew of 50 oarsmen to propel it through the water.

 

hard bargaining

 

The cool SkyTrain monorail has revolutionised travel in Bangkok, speeding along high above the city's gridlocked streets. We travel to Chatuchak Weekend Market, a manic sprawl of around 7,000 stalls that sell everything from antiques to animals. My sons are soon in pursuit of fake Superdry T-shirts and Ray Bans, practising the art of barter with impressive skill. "My Mum says that's all I can spend," says Ben firmly, sealing the deal every time. "Businessman," comments one stallholder, high-fiving Ben as he hands over a Chelsea football kit for the equivalent of £3.

 

After two days in the city, we fly south to the island of Koh Samui and the tranquil Four Seasons, located on a private beach and a model of how a resort should be built in keeping with its environment, with not one coconut palm disturbed. This island is a fabulous introduction to Thailand for first-time visitors as it has a little bit of everything that makes the country so unique, from Buddhist temples to ladyboy shows, from elephants to whale sharks, from long-tail boats to noisy tuk-tuks.

 

Ang Thong National Marine Park was the inspiration for Alex Garland's book, The Beach. You need a motorboat to get there but at the island of Koh Wua Ta Lap, we abandon ship in favour of kayaks to paddle around the limestone pinnacles emerging from sea, carved and sculpted by millennia of crashing waves. Some have hidden lagoons and shallow coral gardens to explore, while others are barely bigger than a boulder. Sap, our guide, takes us snorkelling off the island of Wao. "You say it like 'Wow'," he tells us. "Want to see why?" We snorkel down to see giant clams that clamp their neon blue shells tight as Sap teases them with seaweed. Schools of butterfly and zebra fish jostle for space, yellow tang swim in unison and parrot fish noisily rasp algae from the coral with their beaks.

 

stairway to heaven

 

We nervously climb the near-vertical steps to the viewpoint for the Emerald Sea on Kho Mae, pointing out the many flip-flops that have been lost on the rocks below. They are, however, like steps to heaven when you gaze down on this ethereal lake fed by underwater channels from the sea, with sheer cliffs on all sides. It's even worse going down to the water's edge where Ben spies blue swimming crabs in the minty green waters. We visit the island of Koh Wua Ta Lap, where my castaway family beachcombs, collecting bamboo poles, fisherman's rope and driftwood that we cobble together as a raft.

 

We steer clear of Chaweng, the island's tourist hub, but explore some of island's more unusual tourist attractions on the east coast such as Hin Ta and Hin Yai Rocks (Grandpa and Grandma Rocks), alarmingly similar to male and female genitalia and perfect fuel for schoolboy humour. But actually, the country's notorious sleazier side is easy to bypass. Grandpa and Grandma Rock is as risqué as it gets.

 

By night, Neil and I watch the luminescent glow from the squid fishing boats while my sons play football barefoot on the sand. Not an iPhone or Xbox in sight. It's bliss.

WAY TO GO

Cox and Kings offers family holidays to Thailand to include Chiang Mai and Khao Yai National Park with elephant riding and bamboo rafting. Adults from £2,345, children £2,095 (Tel: 020 7873 5000 / coxandkings.co.uk).

 

Kuoni features holidays with a classic combination of Bangkok and beach (Tel: 0844 488 0230 / kuoni.co.uk).

 

Carrier offers a wide range of luxury accommodation in Thailand to include Koh Samui, Phuket, Krabi, Koh Yao Noi and more (Tel: 0161 826 2463 / carrier.co.uk).

 

At the time of going to press, the curfew in Thailand has been lifted and there are no Foreign and Commonwealth Office advisories against travel to the tourist resorts, islands, northern provinces or Bangkok.

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