Make a splash in Thailand: Three different beach destinations on three very different budgets

To eight-year-old Lucy, Thailand's Songkran festival came as something of a dream. In the middle of the country's hottest season, her travelling world exploded into a waterfight.

The idea of Songkran, the Thai New Year festival, which is celebrated from 13-15 April, is that flowing water will wash away your sins: in practice, it means a smiling, good-humoured war, with flat-bed trucks patrolling the streets laden with huge drums of water to be lavishly sprayed at anyone in range. Lucy busily engaged in water-pistol gunfights and was quick to take advantage of the water drum outside our hotel restaurant, chucking pint-sized bowlfuls of water over passing scooters, pedestrians and vehicles and squealing delightedly as they returned fire.

To Wilf, aged three, it was all faintly bewildering. He stumped along the street as strangers claimed luck by dabbing wet patches of coloured paste on his small furrowed blonde forehead. Though he carried a water pistol, he was more soaked than soaking. So, after three hours of mayhem, I sardined the family on to our rental scooter and drove a mile or so to the beach.

I had first visited Thailand as a backpacker, and although I wasn't sure how to introduce a young family to this vibrant Far Eastern nation, I knew I had to try. Instead of facing up to the capital city, Bangkok, I decided to try three beach destinations – on three very different budgets.

Money tends to insulate the traveller from local life, so it was appropriate that we experienced the Songkran festival on our cheapest budget, at Khao Lak. This is one of the calmest of all Thailand's mainland resort districts, a quiet little place mid-way between the frenetic industrial-level tourist development of Phuket to the south and the simple fishing villages that dot the coast towards Burma to the north.

Not so long ago this stretch of shore was virgin mangrove swamp. A frantic real-estate boom through the 1980s developed the region, but it was pretty much returned to nature by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which reduced it to a wasteland of broken concrete and fragments of wood.

There are no hostess bars in Khao Lak, no massage girls trawling the beach. A police launch, casually tossed a kilometre inshore by the Tsunami, is now marooned in the middle of a field and protected by a heritage stall selling commemorative magazines illustrating the scale of the devastation. Though a string of small businesses line the main inland road, tropical undergrowth and fast-growing trees are recolonising the beachfront area faster than the scatter of small-scale developments.

There were beachfront chalets on offer, but not with family rooms and not at my self-imposed budget of £20 per night, so our room was in a newly built concrete complex set back from the area's busiest (and therefore probably best) restaurant. Lucy's bed was a mattress on the floor, Wilf's the sofa.

The beach was either a long hot walk away or an entertaining ride on an overloaded rental scooter. Meals were a delight as the owners had children ours could play with. Wilf shared toys with their youngest on the floor under the TV while Lucy dressed up and did hair-plaity things with their elder daughter, leaving us free to lay into exquisite selections of spicy Thai seafood.

Our next destination was Phuket, the most developed of all Thailand's beach-oriented islands. Two hours by coach got us to Phuket Town, and a 20-minute taxi drove us across the island to the most developed beach, Patong, to check into the Holiday Inn.

In the UK, Holiday Inn is a pretty modest brand: not so in Thailand. Its Patong property has an excellent reputation for families, packing in Brits and Australians who return every year. At the front desk, the busboys showed Wilf magic tricks while I was looked after graciously by the check-in staff and then shown to a family suite. This boasted blackout curtains and a separate twin-bunked children's room, with its own games console and DVD player. When we hit the pools, the children found new English-speaking friends in the kids' club, with its range of treasure hunts and games. Meanwhile, the restaurants served fine Thai cuisine alongside a children's menu that I'd have been perfectly happy to tuck into myself.

In a way, it was almost too comfortable. The resort itself was hemmed in by busy roads lined with stalls selling T-shirts, handicrafts and bootleg CDs; the beach was narrow, the water infested with jet-skis and banana boats.

Phuket's taxi drivers operate a bracingly expensive cartel so it took real commitment to clear Patong's city limits and see what else the island had to offer: spectacular waterfalls in its forested heartland, and the quieter, less developed beaches to the south.

It was easier to sign up to group activities arranged by countless tourist agency stalls. The children raved about Phuket Phantasea, the nightly theatrical extravaganza, with stylised dancers acting out a sanitised history of Thailand and massed herds of choreographed elephants, though I watched bad-tempered, brooding about how much it had cost.

A knockout highlight, however, was our day among the islands of Phang Nga Bay: sheer limestone outcrops that we could explore by inflatable canoe, paddling in through hidden caves to enter sheltered, secret inner lagoons.

This was April, though, and the rains were on our tail. They slammed into Phuket in a warm, drenching wall of water that forced us under the battered umbrellas of a beachfront restaurant. My wife Nicky and I planned an escape east, across Thailand's southern mainland to the Gulf of Thailand, where a different monsoon system holds sway. Koh Samui, we thought, should still be dry and sunny.

Combined coach-and-boat tickets made the journey easy: it was four hours overland to Surat Thani, where we were colour-coded with lapel stickers so we could be efficiently herded on to the correct ferry. As soon as the boat docked, however, the sea breeze dropped away and we were instantly dishevelled in the tropical heat. We were very pleased to see a resort 4x4, air-conditioned and immaculate, waiting for our arrival.

Our base on Koh Samui was the most opulent yet, and here the insulating bubble of luxury was even harder to escape. The Karma Samui is a lavish development of pool villas tiered out over a strip of undeveloped coast, available for holidays but also, should you have the budget, for sale. Beautiful, cool and icily neat, the Thai receptionist at the Karma Samui packed us smoothly into a golf buggy and drove us the hundred yards to our four-bedroom pool villa.

The main room was vast, with huge picture windows on every side and elegant furnishings. The bedrooms were on either side of the main courtyard: at its heart was a pool. This was what Wilf focused on. No matter that a glorious sunset was painting the sky, no matter that he was still fully dressed; he wasn't even bothered that he couldn't swim. He walked straight out of the living room and down the pool steps. There he wallowed, luxuriating in the cool still waters of our own private pool.

As the days went on, the Karma Samui strengthened its hold on my family. The restaurant was superb, and Nicky was also seduced by the tiny but perfectly equipped kitchen. Lucy – who hates children's clubs – loved the one-on-one attention she got from Amy at the kids' club here. The beach was poor but the family didn't care. Why did they need a beach when they had their own pool?

I persuaded them to stroll among the timber-clad shopfronts of the fishing village of Bophut, but to get anywhere we needed to call a taxi and this, in the tropical heat, was sometimes just too much effort. A plan to zipwire through the island's inland jungle canopy stayed as just a plan; shamefully we didn't manage to make the boat-trip out to snorkel in the Ang Thong National Park. Instead, the children borrowed Kangaroo Jack from the hotel's DVD library to play on our monstrous flat-screen TV and roared with laughter in air-conditioned luxury.

I don't know if this mattered. After all, we were on holiday, and there's no law that says you have to explore. But it seemed to me the more luxurious our accommodation the fewer people we'd met and the less we had seen our surroundings. In a country as beautiful and exotic as Thailand, there's no excuse for that.

Getting there

The writer flew with Thai Airways (0870 606 0911; thai airways.co.uk), which flies from Heathrow to Bangkok. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Eva Air (020-7380 8300; evaair. com) also fly from Heathrow.

Staying there

Khao Lak Seafood Restaurant, 19/1 Moo 7 Petkasem Rd, Kuk Kak, Khao Lak (00 66 76 485 318; khaolakseafood.com). Family rooms in a new-built complex start at £12.

Holiday Inn Phuket, 52 Thaweewong Road, Patong Beach, Phuket (0870 400 9670; holiday.phuket.com). Doubles start at £68 per night; family suite starts at £136.

Seven nights' B&B at the Karma Samui, Koh Samui cost from £1,457 per person (inc flights) through Abercrombie & Kent (0845 618 2200; abercrombiekent.co.uk).

More information

Tourism Authority of Thailand: 020-7925 2511; tourismthailand.co.uk

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Life and Style
tech
News
The 67P/CG comet as seen from the Philae lander
scienceThe most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Ian McKellen as Gandalf in The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies
film
Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Koenig, creator of popular podcast Serial, which is to be broadcast by the BBC
tvReview: The secret to the programme's success is that it allows its audience to play detective
News
Ruby Wax has previously written about her mental health problems in her book Sane New World
people
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Recruitment Genius: Class 1 HGV Driver

    £23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This successful group of compan...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas