Thailand take two: ditching backpacks to make different memories with your kids

Last updated 23rd June 2024

Almost 25 years after backpacking round South East Asia, Katie Bowman takes a holiday in Thailand with her daughter to make a very different set of memories.

The holiday in Thailand moment for me came as we approached Big Buddha – or, should I say, his cross-legged, marble statue on a hillside in Phuket, as tall as an air-traffic control tower, and made only the more awesome by sunset swallows flitting about his giant ear lobes and wild macaque monkeys scurrying through the palm trees beyond. For my daughter, it was the first time she hailed a tuktuk by herself, thrusting out her little hand into the chaos and cacophony of the road, trying to get us a ride so that we could reach the night market on time.


Kid-heaven souvenir stall, Phuket © Katie Bowman

You can’t predict your child’s most memorable holiday moment

You can never predict what will be your child’s most memorable moment on holiday, certainly not on a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, as we were on in Thailand. It might be that they remember visiting a temple for the rest of their lives, or it might simply be the time they ate a banana pancake.

As a parent on holiday, half of you wants your child to live in the moment, have fun, and let them play in the swimming pool all day if that’s what makes them happy. It is their holiday too, after all. But the other half is acutely aware that you’ve flown almost 10,000km to reach your destination, spent oodles of money and time coordinating the trip, and may never have a holiday in Thailand again. With these two parts wrestling within me, I decided to find a part of Thailand that would give my daughter a taste of everything in two weeks – temples, wildlife, curries, city buzz, beaches – while involving no domestic flights, no epic overland journeys and plenty of pool time. This would give her the best holiday in Thailand for her memory bank, while also ensuring it didn’t feel like school-in-the-sun.


Old Town Phuket, Thailand

Easy-peasy Phuket:  days 1 to 4 of our holiday in Thailand

There’s nothing that prepares you for that blast of heat as you stumble out of an airport, having flown overnight from the UK, suddenly faced with a riotous taxi rank and having to work out if 1000 baht is a scam or a steal. We made things easy on ourselves by choosing a hotel very close to the airport, while avoiding any over-developed beach hubs (dodge Patong with kids – too rowdy). The Marriott Nai Yang Beach was perfect: a four-star hotel with endless swimming pools and kids’ menus, but also a position on serene Nai Yang Bay that has a low-key backpacker scene with beach massage and sand-under-foot cafes when we wanted to branch out.


Marriott Resort & Spa, Nai Yang Beach

Phuket is as mainstream as it gets on holiday in Thailand

Phuket is the most mainstream of Thailand’s islands, so there are giant waterparks to fill your days (my daughter loved Andamanda) as well as boat trips out to James Bond Island (which starred in The Man with the Golden Gun), and endless freaky wildlife parks with dubious names such as Monkey Land, Snake World, and Land of Elephants. When we saw a brochure showing a monkey lifting barbells, we knew it wasn’t the place for us, but instead loved seeing wild macaques at the Big Buddha statue.

We also made time for crowd-free pursuits on Phuket such as SUP boarding on Nai Yang beach as well as exploring Phuket Old Town, where ancient wooden merchants’ homes now house design stores and juice bars. Even though your trip has barely begun, this is where to do your souvenir shopping.

Best for: Phuket has the biggest concentration of family-friendly hotels and the most activities, so it’s a good way to ease yourselves into a holiday in Thailand.


Koh Yao Yai Island, Thailand

Adventure on Koh Yao Yai: days 5 to 8 of island escapism

Even as a backpacker 25 years ago – seeking out the least-trodden corners of South East Asia – I’d never heard of Koh Yao Yai, yet it’s only a quick ferry crossing from Phuket. The reason we made it there on this trip, a quarter-century later, was because a family-focused Anantara hotel had just opened, giving us inside access to an unknown island, while offering an on-site aqua park, water slides, bikes and kids’ club.

You might worry that the hotel’s arrival means that Koh Yao Yai will no longer be such a well-kept secret. However, this land – a vast plot of jungle and palm farms with its own private coastline – has been owned for generations by a local Thai family, which is the only way such a project was allowed. And might I say: they’ve done it brilliantly. The Thai architect has designed green-roof villas to look like shells, while the restaurants have traditional thatch or shale tiles and trailing plants from every balcony hide buildings in a wave of foliage.


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A paradise island that barely anyone knows about, yet

The location couldn’t be better for exploring authentic Thailand. On one day we took a typical songthaew bus – grown-ups can self-drive a vintage motorbike and sidecar – for an island tour, stopping to paint batik scarves at a small studio and to buy coconut cakes at a roadside stand. We also went out on Anantara’s classic wooden longtail boat – its bow festooned with garlands of carnations –  and sailed with our guide, Khun, to protected Hong Island where we saw swimming monkeys. We couldn’t believe how few people were on this paradise island (a dead ringer for the one found in Alex Garland’s novel The Beach), which would never have been the case if we’d taken a day trip from Phuket. The Phuket cruises to James Bond Island are seething with visitors (just watch YouTube if you don’t believe me), whereas we had this place to ourselves.

Journey time: 40-minute boat transfer from Phuket to Koh Yao Yai

Best for: Koh Yao Yai is the quietest and most untouched destination on this trip, so now’s your chance to show your kids the castaway fantasy and see Thailand like a local.


Muay Thai Boxing, Koh Yai Yai

Krabi & Koh Lanta: days 9 to 14 bringing backpacker vibes to a family holiday in Thailand

Another quick ferry took us to Krabi on the mainland, and like our landing at Koh Yai Yai, the change in pace was astonishing. Tuktuks lined the port, ready to whisk travellers off to their beach bungalows, and the holiday atmosphere was palpable. We were here to give my daughter some Thai thrills before a final few days of downtime. For us that meant Ao Nang night market, with fire eaters and Muay Thai boxing. We also rented beach beds in the shade of Krabi’s famous limestone karsts and drank fresh coconut water.


Pimalai Resort, Krabi © Katie Bowman

A mix of tranquillity and fun makes Koh Lanta a perfect last stop

Then it was on to our final stop Koh Lanta. With the tranquillity of Koh Yao Yai but the facilities of Krabi, it promised to be the perfect recipe. Pimalai was our base, a collection of hillside villas around an idyllic bay, with access to five-star extras such as a spa, beach bar and infinity pool. We loved having the privacy of a villa – with its own pool – but also being able to buggy it to the hotel, where it might be lobster night (a Koh Lanta delicacy), or we could use the SUP boards and kayaks.

One evening we took a taxi to Lanta Old Town and ate lobster curry at Shine Talay, a spectacular fish restaurant on stilts over the sea. I started by saying that Big Buddha was my lasting memory of family Thailand, but – in fact – it was eating this cheap lobster curry on Koh Lanta, with my daughter for company almost 25 years after I first visited as a backpacker. It was a magical evening, and I took enough photos to fill an album; just in case she ever forgets.

Journey time: 40-minute ferry to Krabi, then a two-hour car journey (including short sea crossing) on to Koh Lanta

Best for: Krabi is great for international buzz and a beach scene, then Koh Lanta is where to get your R&R.

How to plan this holiday in Thailand

How to get there

Direct UK flights to Phuket, from 12 hours

Where to stay

Phuket Marriott Resort & Spa, Nai Yang Beach

Family rooms (2 adults, 2 children) from £217 per night

Find out more and book here

Anantara Koh Yao Yai Resort & Villas

Family Sea View Suites (2 adults, 2 children) from £303 per night

Find out more and book here

Pimalai Resort & Spa, Koh Lanta

Two Bedroom Suite (2 adults, 2 children) from £294 per night

Find out more and book here

Good to know

TUI is the only airline to fly direct from the UK to Phuket

TUI can also package your holiday: 7-nights B&B at Phuket Marriot Resort & Spa, Nai Yang Beach, including flights, luggage and transfers, from £1,412pp.

See TUI holidays to Phuket from £791pp including UK flights


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