Make a splash in Thailand: Three different beach destinations on three very different budgets
Saturday 11 April 2009
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.
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.
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).
Tourism Authority of Thailand: 020-7925 2511; tourismthailand.co.uk
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