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A bold family trip to Thailand: Culture shock, death rafts, plague… is this really good for kids?


My mother was sneaky. It was 1994, and for a whole year she had been saving money, squirrelling it away, in order to pay for flights to Thailand. It was a surprise for me (aged eight), my brother Lyall (10), and my dad (unobservant, apparently).

Not that it was all my mum Lynda's idea: my folks had long plotted to take their children travelling. They had spent a year in India before getting married – backpacking, hanging out at Buddhist monasteries, learning to play the sitar, and other 1970s hippie standards. The plan was to go travelling for a year with us too… but that required cash which required jobs which are then difficult to leave.

My dad, Martin, managed to get six weeks off work, and we went to Thailand for five, plus a week in India. His employers were not happy; and neither was our primary school. My parents – both former teachers – promised to make us study.

They kept their word: my seven-times table is still one of my stronger mathematical suits. But, of course, it was a much wider education. In 1994, Thailand was not the 'gap yah' playground it is today; we met one other Western family the entire time. It's an old cliché to say travelling expands your horizons, but it's true – especially when you're eight, and live in mid-Wales, and holidays were camping in north Wales, west Wales or south Wales. My horizons weren't so much expanded as exploded.

I learnt how to snorkel, eat street food of blistering chilli heat, do traditional hill tribe dances, and haggle at night markets. How to make friends with other little girls who don't speak the same language. I learnt how silk is made by worms, what shark tastes like, and the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism. I also witnessed shocking poverty – beggars with no feet, beggars my own age. On arriving in Bangkok, when I was jetlagged and bewildered, my parents were afraid they had made a mistake. But I came to realise how lucky I was to live in a rich country, and the unfairness of inequality – lessons which, frankly, should be hard, and should be taught to children.

After the initial culture shock, Bangkok was great, especially the little tuk-tuk cabs and the reclining gold Buddha. We went on to the island of Koh Samui; I was convinced this was paradise. The sea was warm, the sand was soft, there were palm trees – a far cry from Pembrokeshire. We stayed in what seemed like an impossibly luxurious hotel, then a beach hut; I got my hair braided.

Next, we went north to Chang Mai, arriving in time for the festival of Loi Krathong; hundreds of origami lotus-shaped structures, made of banana leaves, flowers, and candles, were floated down the river. It was a magical sight.

We joined a trekking group, going further north into the hills, enjoying astonishing views and a swim underneath the huge Mok Fa waterfall. Our tour guide was – aptly, it turned out – called Dare. The route we were taking, everyone went on, he said, how about we take the road less travelled? The group was up for it.

During one section, we travelled by… elephant. I loved the picture-book idea of an elephant; when actually perched on top of one, it was fun, but awfully high. Everyone else got an elephant driver; but dad was ours, and had to sit astride the beast's neck (the next day, he walked like John Wayne…)

Then the journey became genuinely terrifying. We got to an Akha tribe village, and the only way on was down the river – through white-water rapids. We had no boats. No helmets. No life-jackets. The adults were to stand on bamboo rafts – which the locals were binding together on the beach in front of us – and steer through boulders using bamboo rods. Rucksacks would be tied to a bamboo tripod; Lyall and I could hold on too.

My folks freaked. They had not signed up for this. But we couldn't walk back by ourselves, and we couldn't walk along the banks (poisonous snakes!), so down the river we went. It was alarmingly fast, and I remember seeing water coming right up to Lyall's chin… but we made it.

Everyone we met in Thailand was impeccably polite, and friendly. They were often keen to pet me and Lyall (his bright red hair a particular attraction), but always gentle and curious. Doing India's 'golden triangle' was, by contrast, a massive tourist trap and we got much more hassle. But that's India – and it's worth it when you get to see the Taj Mahal. We also got fantastically sick there. After eating mint ice-cream, both Lyall and I spewed luminous-green vomit all over our hotel, and the airport. The doctors thought it might be the plague. (No, really: it made a comeback in India in 1994.)

Culture shock, death rafts, plague… is this really good for kids? It was. It was wonderful. Character-changing stuff, and terrific fun: it gave me an appetite for travel, and many happy memories. My parents were bold, and brilliant, to dare to do it.

Adventures for children

* Tanzania is host to the ultimate African adventure: the great migration. Explore the Serengeti planes and Ngorongoro crater on the eight-day Treasures of Tanzania Family Safari where you'll encounter tree-climbing lions, pink flamingos, zebra and wildebeest. Bed down in safari lodges set under a canopy of stars. andbeyond.com

* Take a husky sled into the frozen Finnish north, encountering Sami villages, reindeer herds and the silence of the Arctic Circle. Add to this tobogganing, kick-sledding, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing and you have a multi-activity adventure to please all ages. familiesworldwide.co.uk

* Voluntourism has become a buzzword – but is anyone really doing this with kids in tow? Yes, and with satisfying results. Banish all thoughts of hair-shirt holidays with a trip to a rural family retreat in Turkey where kids can help out with the olive harvest. exclusiveescapes.co.uk