Thailand. Its name alone has an exotic zing. Although the Southern Thailand islands have long been a hot spot for honeymooners and backpackers, traveling families are realizing that this southeastern Asian gem has much to offer with kids in tow as well.
The bustling metropolis of Bangkok — the point of entry for most families — is loaded with temples, food and shopping malls, and with so much to see and do, it’s hard not to make a case for sticking around to explore. It would be an adventure for sure. But if your family prefers an adventure that actually feels like a vacation, Bangkok can wait until the next trip. Head for the beautiful southern Thailand islands instead.
Thailand knows how to do tropical islands. While the isle of Phuket is arguably one of Thailand’s best-known tourist attractions, there are hundreds of others to choose from. Hoping for easy access to a number of islands, both popular and, if possible, obscure, I picked the Krabi Province as my family’s home base. Flights from Bangkok to Krabi International Airport are inexpensive and frequent, and you can pick up a rental car without leaving the terminal.
Tip: Be sure to get an International Driving Permit before your trip. We’ve got more Thailand travel tips for families here.
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Driving here is straightforward. There’s little traffic, roads are in good condition and signs are plentiful. If you come from a country where driving is on the right-hand side of the road, the hardest part is making the adjustment to driving on the left. It’s not as tough as you think, so don’t let that stop you, especially if you’ll have a teenager in the backseat to remind you again and again.
You won’t see any actual tigers at Wat Tham Sua, or Tiger Cave Temple — one of the most sacred Buddhist temples in the area — but there will be plenty of monkeys and a view that even on a stormy day does not disappoint. Depending on their ages, tackling the temple with kids can be tough. Seeing it requires climbing 1,237 uneven steps to the top of what’s essentially a limestone mountain. This could take half a day or closer to a full day; it depends on how fast your family moves.
For good or for bad, numbers on the staircase keep you up to date on how many steps you have already climbed. Plan on taking breaks every 50 to 100 steps, and expect to break a sweat. Even if you are in good shape, the heat and humidity make this a difficult hike. School-age kids will move slowly, teenagers possibly even more slowly.
When you arrive, you’ll be glad you made the trip. Along with unobstructed 360-degree views, there is a huge gold Buddha and numerous small ones. It’s important to note that, even though you are at the top of a mountain, visitors (especially women) must cover their shoulders and legs. Most women and girls we saw were in shorts with a sarong wrapped around the waist; if you don’t have one, you can borrow one for a small donation before starting the climb. Be sure to pack drinks and snacks.
The list of islands we wanted to see was long, but only our first day was set in stone: By majority vote, we’d booked a Phi Phi Islands snorkeling cruise, which offered something for everyone in the family. Our first stop was Phi Phi Don, the largest of this island group and the only one with permanent residents. On a large dive and snorkel boat, it took a little under two hours to make the trip, but the fabulous views of popular spots like Chicken and Poda Islands made the time go fast.
Phi Phi Don is bustling by island standards. Narrow walkways are lined with shops, restaurants and tour operators mostly providing dive and snorkeling tours. Boats dock right in the thick of the commercial area of the island, but walk for five minutes or so to the other side and a beautiful white sand beach awaits. With warm water in every shade of blue, even if you’re not the swimming type, you’ll find it hard not to make a splash.
After about an hour, we were back on the boat and headed to our first snorkeling stop, Viking Cave off Phi Phi Leh. Thailand is a divers’ paradise, but the snorkeling does not disappoint. Amid the colorful fish and sea urchins, I caught a glimpse of a seahorse, a first in all my years of diving and snorkeling. If your family can handle more extensive diving, you may even catch a glimpse of elusive whale sharks while in Thailand.
Add in lunch and more snorkeling, and the excursion made for a busy first day. Our intention was to spend day two doing a multi-island tour as a day trip, but a conversation during dinner led to a change of plans that, among other things, included a little sleeping in.
I found Hong Island, not as well-known as many of Southern Thailand’s other popular isles, thanks to numerous recommendations from the staff at Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve. The property offers complimentary daily shuttles for guests, using traditional Thai long-tail boats. The boat ride takes 15 to 20 minutes and passes too many islands to count.
As part of the Than Bok Khorani National Marine Park, one of Thailand’s best national parks, Hong Island has white sandy beaches as well as a protected spot to swim and do some basic snorkeling in the clear water. For families with younger children and kids who have never snorkeled before, Hong Island is a great spot to learn. Phulay Bay provides everything you’ll need — snorkeling gear (no fins), beach towels and plenty of water. Another bonus parents will appreciate: There’s a lifeguard on duty.
A short nature walk through what feels like a jungle offers a nice break from the sand. Going early is the key. We were settled into our spot on the beach by 10a, but when we were packing up to leave after lunch, the crowds were coming in fast.
Back at our villa by 2p, we spent the rest of the day relaxing and enjoying the Phulay Bay grounds. We hopped from one activity to the next, from swaying in beach swings and hammocks to swimming the infinity-edge pool with spectacular Andaman Sea views, and hunting for treasure along the beach. Along with being exactly the vacation day we needed, it was an excellent reminder that staying flexible, especially when traveling as a family, has big benefits — and that even the most energetic families can’t and shouldn’t try to do it all.
Thai for “where the mountains meet the sea,” Phulay Bay is the first property in the Ritz-Carlton Reserve collection of private luxury destinations. All of the 54 villas and pavilions have a dedicated butler who instinctively seems to know when he or she is needed and, equally important, when to be invisible.
As the name implies, Reserve Pool Villas have a private plunge pool, but it’s just one perk on a long lists of things to love. Spacious bathrooms make it easy for a family to share without grumbling. Along with a large walk-in shower, the villas feature enormous indoor and outdoor bathtubs. With three walls comprised mostly of windows, natural light floods in. Breathtaking grounds with island views make it difficult to stay in the villa and relax, but it will be time well spent. Comfy oversized beds make naps especially hard to resist.
Besides the trips to Hong Island, the Reserve offers a number of family-friendly activities to choose from on a daily basis. Along with painting classes and banana leaf crafts, weekly beachside movie nights are worth dedicated space even in the busiest travel itinerary.
You can read about more of our favorite Thailand beach resorts and the best beaches in Thailand if you’re comparing options. If you’re struggling to determine which Thai island is right for you and your family, or how to find quality tour guides and activity suppliers in this exotic paradise, or the best way get around the Gulf of Thailand, we can help. Our travel advisors know all the top vendors on every popular island in Thailand, and we’ve been crafting customized itineraries to this location for years.
Editor’s Note: Dana’s hotel stay was sponsored by Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve. As always, our opinions are our own on Ciao Bambino. Photos by Dana Rebmann.
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