Thailand: Land of smiles and feasts

A long flight, searing heat and no wi-fi didn’t daunt our writer and her teenage sons from a thrilling Asian adventure


It was a tough brief: 11 days, two teenage boys and one middle-aged mum. Last year, we hit the beaches of Tenerife, the year before we swam in the crystal-clear waters of Croatia but now my boys were older, a basic sun-and-sea holiday just wasn’t going to cut it.

At 15 and 16, they were ready for some proper adventure, and I could think of nowhere better than Thailand, Asia’s “Land of Smiles”, a country filled with tuk-tuks, temples and jungle. And 25 years after visiting on my own travels, I was curious to see how much, if anything, had changed.

Bangkok was the perfect place to kick off; even the drive from the airport in bumper-to-bumper traffic was a glorious assault to the eyes and senses, hearing the enormous Skytrain rumble above our heads while watching locals tuck into bowls of noodles at street stalls.

Our first stop? A trip down memory lane to the Khao San Road, the famous backpacker hub where I once slept with cockroaches and a broken fan for 50p a night.

It was just as grimy as I’d remembered, still playing host to many of the same insalubrious hostels — only now, the area is bursting with bars, cannabis shops and market stalls selling, in the words of my boys, “the best fakes ever!”

After browsing the imitation football shirts, Nike Airs and Louis Vuitton trainers, we stopped for our very first — but by no means last — pad thai and vegetarian spring rolls, only a few pounds each. I could see we were going to have no issues with the food on this holiday at least.

Our own rather nicer hotel overlooked Bangkok’s magnificent Chao Phraya river, the city’s main waterway, and the next day, our guide, Mr Pongtep Artkaeo — “you can call me Mr Ake”, took us round the city’s best-known sites, kicking off with a longtail boat trip on Bangkok’s canals, or khlongs, where we floated past the barely upright stilt houses of the city’s poorest before reaching Wat Paknam Phasi Charoen, Bangkok’s 70-metre gold Buddha statue, which humbled my usually verbose teens into an awestruck silence.

Next stop were Wat Arun — known as the “Dawn Temple” — then the Grand Palace, the seat of Thailand’s royal family for more than two centuries.

But teens only have so much tolerance for temples in steaming 38C heat and we were relieved when Mr Ake suggested lunch at a local restaurant, where we devoured bowls of stir-fried morning glory, a Thai vegetable dish also known as water spinach, and fell in love with the classic Thai dessert of mango sticky rice.

The next morning, it was time to leave the capital with a 75-minute flight taking us north to Chiang Mai. After settling into our rustic vegan hotel, we were whisked on a 45 minute-drive to Grandma’s Home Cooking School for the ultimate foodie experience — cooking our very own Thai feast.

As keen gourmets, my boys couldn’t wait to get stuck in. Like an open-air version of MasterChef, we had individual cooking stations, pans and utensils and — the most fun part for my boys — an oversized mortar and pestle for bashing fresh ginger, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, chillies and peppercorns into a spicy curry paste.

Over the next three hours, our lovely Thai chef showed us how to prepare a delicious coconut soup, red thai curry, vegetable pad thai and mango sticky rice, before we demolished it all.

Back in Chiang Mai, it was time to experience another Thai tradition, with tickets to a Muay Thai boxing match featuring eight separate fights. This had everything teens (well, mine certainly) love: grit, blood, knock-outs, a smoke machine and rousing Rocky-style music.

I, meanwhile, watched cowering behind my fingers, hoping these poor fighters — not much older than my boys — would get home to their own mums unscathed.

There were more chances to get our hearts racing the following day, when we set off on a full-day guided hilltribe trek into the mountains, which kicked off with a thrilling open-top ride on the back of a 4x4. “Better than any rollercoaster,” according to my oldest.

The two-and-half hour trek into the jungle that followed was more arduous, with much of it uphill, but thankfully ended with a delicious wok-fried veggie lunch at the hill tribe village of Baang Phong Ngan, where we chatted to locals among their pigs and chickens.

An equally thrilling bamboo-raft trip down the river took us back to the jeep, my boys shrieking with laughter every time the water levels rose and our guide had to battle the river’s twists and turns without smashing us into rocks.

After all this adrenaline, we were ready for the slower pace of Koh Samui, perhaps Thailand’s most famous island for beaches. We stayed in Bophut, in the north, with golden sands, turquoise waters and plenty of water sports to keep the boys busy.

A day trip by speedboat to Ang Thong National Marine Park, where we snorkelled and kayaked among the colourful fish on the coral, topped it all off.

But the best part of our trip was still to come. A ferry from Koh Samui to the mainland plus a three-hour drive took us to the final leg of the trip: Elephant Hills camp in Khao Sok National Park. Here, efficient guides dressed in khaki safari gear set out our itinerary for the next three days and introduced us to the canteen, where we’d eat our meals, and the two-storey tents, where we’d be bunking on our first night.

First on the list was a jungle canoe trip down the Sok River; far more genteel than the bamboo rafting (much to the boys’ disappointment) but the serene beauty of the rainforest made up for it, as did the sight of snakes curled up in the overhanging trees, basking in the sun.

Then on to the elephant conservation project to see these majestic creatures up close, preparing their snack — an array of fruit, dates and sugar cane — before the unforgettable experience of hand-feeding them one by one and watching them take a bath.

Slack-jawed in wonder watching them submerge their enormous bodies into the water, my boys were soon sniggering when the elephants dropped cannon-sized dumps and swam nonchalantly in their own mess.

With fewer mod cons in the camp, we sorely missed the air-conditioning of the hotels. But a bigger challenge lay ahead the following day. Driven to Cheow Lan Lake, a 185sq km reservoir surrounded by limestone mountains, a long-tail boat took us onwards to a secluded rainforest camp, which comprised little more than a row of floating tents.

With no wi-fi nor screens for 36 hours, we had only nature to keep us entertained. But boy, did it deliver.

Here, in the most majestic of surroundings, we swam and kayaked in the beautiful lake, its water as clear as glass, listening to the calls of just-out-of-sight gibbons swinging from tree to tree.

A hot, guided jungle trek took us deeper into the rainforest to spot bats in caves and search for wild elephants, diving straight back into the lake to cool off as soon as we got back.

The seclusion and digital detox worked a rare wonder on my boys; a chance to connect with nature without distraction and we all loved it so much that saying goodbye to this magical oasis — and to our Thailand adventure — was not easy.

A quarter of a century on, this fascinating country has proved it’s still the “Land of Smiles” for all of us, teens included.

Getting There

InsideAsia has a 13-night Wild Thailand Family Adventure costing from £2,237 per person, including all accommodation, transport across Thailand, some private guiding, transfers and cultural experiences. All family cultural adventures can be tailored to suit your interests and budgets. Excludes international flights.

Flights to Bangkok cost from around £750 from Heathrow with companies including Eva Air and Thai Airways

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