The challenge for Sir Steve Redgrave, five times winner of Olympic gold, was to find a holiday to suit his whole family. Could Thailand provide the answer?

Life, and specifically holidays, used to be so easy. When my children were much younger, no real planning was needed before we set off each summer. All that was required was sun, sea and sand. Holidays were beautifully simple: a chance, albeit a brief one, to abandon the hectic schedule of daily life at home. Well, the decision is getting tougher. The children Natalie, 16, Sophie, 13, and Zak, nine, now all have different – and often conflicting – views on what makes a good family holiday.

Unsurprisingly for someone whose professional life revolves around moving quickly across water, those holidays often include a substantial element afloat. Last year, we spent two argumentative weeks trying to control a 36ft yacht in a flotilla sailing along the Peloponnese coast – so much tougher than keeping an Olympic vessel pointing in the right direction. But this year? Well, we all agreed that we would like to visit a part of the world that we had never seen before, somewhere we could combine poolside relaxation with a skill or activity we had never tried. We also wanted a chance to experience a very different culture to our own. Eventually, we settled on a tour of Thailand, from the capital to the north: a taste of the city of Bangkok the crafts of Chiang Mai and the natural wonders of Chiang Rai.

An essential element of any family holiday is to relax – yet that always seems to mean plenty of barely controlled chaos. After a final day of total mayhem – shopping, packing, making sure instructions were left for the house-sitters, sorting the pets, clearing paperwork – the relative calm of an 11-hour overnight flight from London to Bangkok was, frankly, welcome.

We arrived at the Thai capital's shiny new airport in mid-afternoon relatively refreshed, although our body-clocks were a little scrambled by the six-hour time difference. As summer in Britain never really happened this year, the balmy heat of Bangkok was more than welcome – although at an average temperature of 31C, the humidity can become draining. We'd arrived at the beginning of the rainy season, and short, sharp, downpours occurred on most days. Humidity hovers around 70 per cent, and there's little relief at night, either.

The shape of Thailand is often likened to the head of an elephant; if so, Bangkok, split by the Chao Phraya River, lies at the elephant's mouth. We were staying at The Oriental, on the eastern shore of the river, close to Chinatown. From the hotel terrace it was obvious how important this river is to the city's 10 million inhabitants: the traffic continued from the early hours of the morning until late into the night. Water taxis ferried people up and down; hotel shuttles crossed to the other side; long-tail boats provided tours. Perhaps most significantly, large barges carried rice and crops to export to the rest of the world from the Gulf of Thailand, some 70km upriver from the city, and brought vital commodities such as coal back into the country from the port at the Gulf. The barges chugged slowly back and forth; two or three boats linked together. A family worked and lived on each one: it was their home, their job, one of their few possessions.

Bangkok initially struck me like any other big city in Asia: a sprawling mass of grubby concrete and Tarmac moulded into main roads and skyscrapers, and suffering from pollution and traffic jams. But this view changed thanks to Dennis Tan, a guide from Abercrombie & Kent's Bangkok office, who took us on an extraordinary trip around the city. Buddhism has played a large part in the way Bangkok has evolved: nine out of 10 Thais practise the religion, and the capital glitters with dozens of wats (shrines). Every Thai male is expected to spend a minimum of three months as a Buddhist monk.

Leading off from the river is a collection of canals, "the Klongs" , which turn the suburbs of the city into a little Venice. Our tour through the Klongs painted a very different picture of daily life to that in the city centre. The houses back directly onto the water; beyond them families grow crops that are then sold at the floating fruit and vegetable market further upriver. It's a simple, self-sufficient lifestyle: no grandeur, no luxury – and evidence of significant poverty. Children wave from the water's edge, the elderly snooze in hammocks. Everyone else generally busies themselves cooking, washing and getting on with daily life. It's a huge contrast to the buzz of the modern city centre.

The assiduous ticker-off of sights has his or her work cut out in the Thai capital. The dutiful visitor will see the three most important temples – in terms of history and culture – plus the Royal Palace and the National Museum. Wat Traimit is the temple of the Golden Buddha. Despite the unfortunate location, enveloped in howlingly loud traffic noise, this 10ft figure is well worth battling with three lanes of murderous motorists to visit, not least because it is one of the most valuable objects you are ever likely to witness, made from five tons of solid gold and worth around £60m.

Even more impressive is Wat Pho, the oldest and biggest in the city. The temple is a labyrinth of 35 structures – one of which is the 150ft-long reclining Buddha that signifies his passing into nirvana. Wat Pho also offers traditional Thai massage, with a centre of excellence where the stresses and strains of travel can be soothed away.

Every now and then we'd see a Thai woman paddling in a shallow-bottomed boat, selling sugared nuts or fried bananas. The boats moved slowly but elegantly, skimming the surface of the water in the same way that a rowing boat does. I was dared by my family to negotiate a paddle in one, which proved particularly difficult to organise. First, there was the language barrier; second, the lady whose boat I was trying to hijack didn't seem to be too impressed by my boating credentials. Rowing is not a big sport in Thailand. She stayed firmly seated behind me to make sure I didn't get into any trouble, while I demonstrated my rusty skills to passers-by.

From Bangkok, we travelled on to Chiang Mai in northern Thailand (in the middle of one of the elephant ears), This northern capital is a stark contrast the hubbub of Bangkok. Paddy fields are everywhere, with rice in abundance. There was field after field of the stuff, and even one in the middle of our hotel, the Four Seasons: here a working paddy field is laid out as a garden.

A huge range of traditional items are made in Chiang Mai and the surrounding area, among them silverware, woodcarvings, silk and paper umbrellas. At an umbrella factory, we saw paper being made from bark, and wooden frames constructed from bamboo. The umbrellas are then waterproofed and, finally, painted to order. Umbrella-making seems to have survived as a craft despite the influx of people from the West; the same cannot be said of u o woodcarving. Although we saw some beautiful carvings being made of elephants in jungle scenes, Western demands are changing the products being made, and hand-made furniture is giving way to mass-produced versions of the same thing.

Our visit to an elephant sanctuary only reinforced my impression that a simple way of life is yielding to something more complicated. Don't get me wrong: an elephant sanctuary is a wonderful place to visit, and the animals themselves seemed very well cared for. Thankfully, elephants are no longer used for logging, but at the sanctuary a show is put on for the benefit of tourists to demonstrate how, with training, the power and strength of the elephant can be put to good use. Later, though, sitting on a cushioned wooden frame on an elephant's back, rocking from side to side with each stride, we headed into the hills to visit the Lisu tribe. This once-nomadic tribe is being persuaded to take up permanent residence in the hills beside Chiang Mai. They still live in very primitive huts, with mud floors, open fires for warmth and cooking, and little sanitation. Visiting tourists are essential to their survival, buying handicrafts from their stalls.

Our final destination was in the most northern tip of the country on the border of Thailand, Burma and Laos: the "Golden Triangle". Our itinerary included three very different Thai experiences: mahout training, appointments at the spa, and a trip into the Golden Triangle for an insight into the drug trafficking that once was the most important trade in the area.

The hub of the area is the small Thai town of Sop Ruak, on the Mekong – the river that acts as a maritime superhighway in South-east Asia. Here, you can stand on a promontory overlooking both the river and Burma – with the Laos border just a short way downriver. And you can also visit the Opium Halls, built into a hillside, funded by the Royal Family, and telling a compelling, tragic story about the drug.

First, the museum gets your attention by demonstrating how opium is made from poppies. It then explains the effects of opium as a drug, and its many uses – both positive and negative. Then pictures and short videos show the personal horrors that are caused by drug addiction. The Opium Halls carry a very powerful message, which every adolescent should be exposed to. I'm glad mine have been.

In sharp contrast, the mahout training was perhaps the most enjoyable part of our trip. (A mahout is assigned to an elephant at its birth and is responsible for looking after and training the elephant for the rest of its life.) On arrival in our tents, we found a card on which were written a number of commands in Thai, and a mahout outfit. This consisted of a blue cotton short-sleeved shirt, and a one-size-fits-all pair of baggy trousers. Just trying to dress in the outfits had us doubling up in laughter before we'd been anywhere near an elephant. In addition, we had to wear a belt that our trainers called the seatbelt – something they could grab if we looked as though we were about to fall off the elephant. We were then introduced to the elephants and assigned an appropriately sized one.

Mine, a 50-year-old male, was nicknamed Lucky Boy (he was the only male in the pack). It's only when standing next to an elephant that you begin to appreciate its enormous size – and you begin to wonder how on earth you are supposed to climb up to their heads. We were shown a variety of ways for mounting and dismounting, ranging from asking the elephant to sit down, lift its front leg and effectively lift or lower you as required, to leapfrogging up onto the head from in front of the animal and then sliding down the trunk to dismount. Once we were deemed competent to drive our elephants, we set off on a trek. Elephants eat for 21 hours a day; this means that whenever possible they stop for a snack of the odd bush or two. Keeping them moving and not allowing them to stop was probably the hardest test we had to pass. At the end of the trek the elephants, needing to cool off, were taken to a pool of water where they filled their trunks and sprayed not only themselves but us with water.

We were led to believe that we were controlling the elephants, but in reality, I suspect that the routine was one the animals had repeated every day for years and knew without needing to hear your commands. Nevertheless, it was fun and we were persuaded to get up early the next day to bathe the elephants as they came off the hills prior to the next group's mahout training.

Following our bareback elephant experience a "mahout recovery" massage in the spa was just what was needed. In the surreal surroundings of the open-air spa, I lay listening to the sounds of nature and my children chatting vociferously about their holiday. It seemed that Thailand was the sort of place we could all agree on.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The Redgrave family's holiday itinerary was tailor-made by Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2214; www.abercrombiekent.co.uk/thailand).

Similar two-week itineraries cost from £4,179 per person. The price includes three nights' bed and breakfast accommodation at the Oriental Bangkok, three nights' at Four Seasons Chiang Mai (with breakfast), three nights' full board at Four Seasons Tented Camp Chiang Rai and three nights' at the Four Seasons Koh Samui (with breakfast). Also included in the package are transfers; sightseeing; local assistance from the Bangkok A&K office; and return British Airways flights between Heathrow and Bangkok. Business class supplements start from £939 per person each way.

Bangkok is served by British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com), Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; www.thai airways.co.uk), Eva Air (020-7380 8300; www.evaair.com) and Qantas (08457 747767; www.qantas.co.uk) non-stop from Heathrow.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

The Oriental, Bangkok (00 66 2 659 9000; www.mandarinoriental.com/Bangkok).

Four Seasons Resort, Chiang Mai (00 66 5 329 8181; www.fourseasons.com/chiangmai).

Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle, Chiang Rai (00 66 5 391 0200; www.fourseasons.com/goldentriangle).

Four Seasons Resort, Koh Samui (00 66 7 724 3000; www.fourseasons.com/kohsamui).

MORE INFORMATION

Tourism Authority of Thailand: 0870 900 2007; www.tourismthailand.co.uk.

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