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It’s impossible to ignore the hot trend in family travel. Adventure is the new black. Pushing boundaries, going further, uncovering even more authentic, immersive experiences than the next family – especially the ones with 500k Instagram followers! But the reality is that organising this kind of itinerary is a skill that few parents have the confidence – let alone time – to plan.

So who wouldn’t welcome zero stress in getting from A to B, when A is an ultra-remote, hectic capital and B a hill tribe 450 miles away? Step forward the experts at Audley, who do bespoke travel like no one else when it comes to visiting places that even the most intrepid family bloggers have failed to claim.

We took an Audley eight-day family itinerary through Thailand, staying clear of the beaches and tourist traps that are so often associated with visits to this vast country. Instead, our journey explored in deep the wildlife, people, history, culture and customs, while never forfeiting comfort or safety. Our tailor-made adventure focused on Thailand’s national animal, the elephant, and the Lahu hill tribe in the north, with a few temples, bicycles, boat trips and bright city lights along the way.

We took an Audley eight-day family itinerary through Thailand, staying clear of the beaches and tourist traps that are so often associated with visits to this vast country. Instead, our journey explored in deep the wildlife, people, history, culture and customs, while never forfeiting comfort or safety. Our tailor-made adventure focused on Thailand’s national animal, the elephant, and the Lahu hill tribe in the north, with a few temples, bicycles, boat trips and bright city lights along the way.

In the northern province of Chiang Rai, for example, Jack runs an elephant sanctuary that has ambitious plans to do something that has not been achieved before – taking elephants out of captivity and releasing them back into the wild. His sanctuary has nine elephants and – unlike in many tourist-centric businesses in Thailand – you cannot ride or bathe with them, nor do they perform. Instead, you observe them at a distance while Jack translates each twitch of the ear, each swish of the tail and inflection of their call. The elephants’ rehabilitation process requires that there is no human contact except for medical attention from the handlers, who tend to the wounds caused by the sticks and chains of the elephants’ previous lives. You leave the experience proud to be a responsible tourist, and with a deeper love and understanding of how extraordinary these gentle giants are, and where they truly belong.

The following morning we took a eight-mile bike ride through the surrounding countryside, surprisingly without a single incline. With a guide, we cycled down quiet rural lanes, along the river and through villages, rice fields and fruit plantations. We passed locals harvesting produce, making homemade charcoal and tending to livestock. We stopped for a snack in a tiny village community hut, where the locals gather to learn about recycling and sustainable ways of living to help them plan for a more ecologically sound future.

Next was the number-one crowd puller in Chiang Rai: the ‘White Temple’. From a distance it looks like a Disney version of a Christmas grotto, but close up it’s the opposite: a stark representation of society, designed and funded by the artist and architect Chalermchai Kositpipat, who draws on modern-day icons in an unconventional way. Inside the Buddhist temple, walls are painted with pictures of demons alongside images of Michael Jackson, Freddy Krueger and the Terminator. Images of nuclear war and terrorist attacks hammer home the impact our species has had on the planet. Bizarrely, Harry Potter, Superman and Hello Kitty also make an appearance, which will please the kids.

Next we travelled north to Chiang Mai Province via the Kok River. Children will love this peaceful journey in a traditional Thai long-tail boat, which sits so low in the water that they will want to run their little fingers on the glassy surface as you go. The river carves through the lushest of green landscapes, with an occasional miniature rapid.

To break up the journey, we stopped at an indigenous village on the riverbank. Few of the barefoot toddlers we encountered there will receive an education, and healthcare in their village still comes in the form of a witch doctor.

We disembarked from our river adventure in the provincial town of Fang, a perfect base for encountering
the Lahu hill tribes. It wasn’t so long ago that this mountainous area was notorious for opium trading. In the 1960s, the king of Thailand became actively involved in educating the hillside communities by visiting them personally, encouraging an exchange of opium production for tea. He promised an influx of tourism income and, with that, freedom from drug lords and addiction.

You can hike to the Lahu hill tribes via a waterfall or opt for an open-back 4×4. With the mountain ascent comes a feeling of abundance, in stark contrast to the Lahu River settlement. Here, the children appear healthier and better cared for. We stopped at a local school and were met enthusiastically by a horde of smiley five-year-olds. I noticed the film Avatar being projected on to their classroom whiteboard. A poignant choice of film I reflected, wondering what the influence of tourism will ultimately be on their own version of Pandora.

The rest of the afternoon was spent in the lofty village of Doi Pu Muen. Inside the ancient wooden houses on stilts, perched on top of the world, a typical Lahu lunch was prepared for us by a grandmother and her grandchildren. We were taught how to pick tea on the hills, and a young girl wearing national dress led us to a hut where the tea was dried. As she ran her hands through the fragrant leaves, bathed in ethereal light, I took a photograph that was impossible to time stamp.

Our final stop before returning to Bangkok was the little-known Kui Buri National Park on the border of Myanmar in the south, which we took an internal flight to. It’s home to more than 200 wild elephants and is one of the best places in Thailand to observe them in their natural habitat.

We stopped for lunch at the house of some villagers, who told us about the challenges of living in harmony with these creatures. Elephants can’t differentiate juicy pineapples in a plantation grown for income from wild ones, and so the locals have invented eco-friendly techniques to protect their crops. Shiny CDs tied on strings, hives full of buzzing bees, tin cans on a trip wire, flashlights and even radios work for a while, but elephants are super-smart and quickly work out that none of these things poses any real threat.

Boarding an open-backed truck, we entered the national park to do some elephant-spotting and were rewarded in no time. It was hard to take in what we were seeing: a huge herd of wild elephants meandering across the valley with five babies, a sight that is the stuff of BBC wildlife documentaries. We saw a jackal threaten a calf and the herd trumpet a warning: ‘Stay away or we’ll flatten you’ or something to that effect!

Our last evening was spent in Bangkok on a spectacular 100-year-old restored rice barge. We feasted on a banquet of fragrant Thai food, cruising the Chao Phraya River, enjoying glittering night views of the Grand Palace and other historical city landmarks, worlds away from the hill tribes and countryside we had visited earlier.

I know it is exhausting just reading about the 13,000 miles we covered in a little over a week, but the beauty of Audley is that you can set the pace. Every child is different and only you know how far you want to push them. But if expanding their young minds and opening their eyes to the wondrous world is your remit, this trip is a great place to start.

There is a conscious, collective movement towards families appreciating the value of creating memories.
I started early and have grasped every opportunity to pursue wild adventures with my own children. It hasn’t always been easy, but the payoff is a catalogue of indelible and magical moments.

The lowdown

Audley Travel offers tailor-made trips to Thailand. A nine-day itinerary visiting Chiang Rai, Fang, Chiang Mai, Cha Am, Kui Buri National Park and Bangkok costs from £2,195 per person (based on a family of four sharing) and includes international flights with EVA Air (www.evaair.com/0207 3808300) domestic flights, accommodation on a B&B basis, transfers and excursions. For more information please visit audleytravel.com/Thailand or call 01993 838115.

Family of four travelling (based on two children under 12 years old)