How to choose a family beach holiday in Thailand

Thailand's best beaches for kids

How to choose a family beach holiday in Thailand
By David Luekens

A family beach holiday in Thailand is ideal for decompressing at the end of your trip. Some families return to the same beach often, having fallen for a particular slice of paradise among Thailand's hundreds of islands and beaches.

Don't overcomplicate things when choosing one or two of them. Some are heavily developed while others have only a handful of resorts. Many marine park islands only allow camping or day visits. Differences from island to island are subtle within each of these categories — and it's hard to go wrong once you decide on the type of island that suits your family beach holiday in Thailand. If you prefer a mix, island-hopping ferries connect most of the dots during the dry months.

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Kids kayaking next to the beach, Koh Kood

The best big Thai islands for kids

Thailand's largest island is tourism juggernaut Phuket in the south. With an airport, multiple hospitals, malls and plentiful beaches, the island is packed with resorts and activities. Quieter beaches like Bang Tao, Kamala and Nai Harn are best for families, with water slides, sailboats and easy viewpoint hikes all keeping kids entertained.

Also in the south, the only other Thai island with an airport is Ko Samui. Like Phuket, it has big-box stores and traffic jams, although less-developed Thai beaches like Mae Nam and Lipa Noi are winners for families. Here, you also get varied thrills from watersports, waterfalls, boat tours, parasailing and even circus performances. After dark, check out the street market at Bophut Beach's Fisherman's Village.

If you’re planning on island hopping, head to Ko Phangan, a tad north of Samui, where savvy parents have realised that the infamous full-moon parties are confined to Haad Rin. Families can score deals on resorts beside shallow, family-friendly beaches like Chaoloklam and Thong Nai Pan. On the Andaman side, Ko Lanta fills a similar role near Phuket. While both of these lack malls and waterparks, many older kids and teens enjoy focusing on hiking, kayaking, boat trips and beach sports.

Similar in many ways to Lanta and Phangan but set way over in the eastern Gulf of Thailand near Cambodia is Ko Chang, boasting the best collection of waterfalls of any island in the kingdom. Two of the more angelic sets of falls are Khlong Phlu and Than Mayom, where island-lover King Chulalongkorn laid his mark in the late 19th century.

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View of Angthong national marine park, Koh Samui

Smaller Thai beaches for kids

The diving hubs of Ko Tao in the Gulf and Ko Phi Phi in the Andaman are both known for young party scenes, but they do possess quieter areas suited to family beach holidays. Another stunner is Ko Lipe in the distant south-west near Malaysia, although sheltered beaches like Ao Wong Duean and Ao Tubtim make Ko Samet in the eastern Gulf a bigger family draw. Its convenient location within a four-hour ride of Bangkok makes it very popular.

While it's easy to go with the big names, lesser-known Thai islands often prove most rewarding for families. These are places where the local attractions might include sitting around a beach campfire, trying to beat parents at cards or kicking a football around with local kids. Bring a book, art supplies and plenty of mosquito spray — they’re at their worst after the rainy season (June-October) but can be a nuisance year-round.

South of Ko Chang in the eastern Gulf, Ko Mak and Ko Kut both satisfy with exceptional beaches, mangrove-draped canals for kayaking and resorts that are notably well-suited to families. Ko Mak even has a frisbee golf course and Ko Kut boasts astonishing old-growth trees, easy to spot on the way to the Klong Chao waterfalls which make for a refreshing dip, complete with small fish swimming by your feet.

Many families looking for beach holidays in Thailand prefer the Andaman coast, where Ko Phayam near Myanmar has a slightly hippie-ish personality and good family resorts. Ko Jum in Krabi province and Ko Muk down in Trang both deliver long beaches, resorts in all budgets and hiking trails, plus the Emerald Cave on Muk. Nearby Ko Kradan and Ko Ngai both draw families as well, and Ko Libong is the only place to spot an endangered dugong, a gentle cousin of the manatee, in Thailand.

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Scuba Diver at South West Pinnacle, Koh Tao

Marine park islands

The old "Thai beaches are overdeveloped" argument tends to ignore hundreds of undeveloped islands protected by more than 15 national marine parks. Many are suitable for family day trips or beach camping with a few offering spartan cabins. Bring a torch for every family member for watching hermit crabs in the moonlight — and seeing where you're going when the electricity is switched off.

If visiting Ko Samui or Ko Phangan, make the Ang Thong Islands a priority for dramatic karst cliffs topped by viewpoints set over inlets and emerald lagoons for kayaking. Near Ko Chang, a day trip for snorkelling, diving and beach lounging around Ko Rang is well worth the ticket price as well.

On the Andaman side, Ko Surin presents some of Thailand's most impressive snorkelling and dive sites — you will meet sea turtles before snoozing in tents pitched upon powdery sand coves. Further south, Ko Rok boasts a vast reef between twin isles, and little-known Ko Lao Liang brings staggering beauty complete with kayaks, snorkels, climbing gear and tents.

In the same archipelago as busy Ko Lipe, minimally inhabited Ko Adang and Ko Rawi join Ko Hin Ngam, an island of polished stones said to curse those who take one. All three are part of Tarutao Marine National Park, named after another mountainous island that ranks as Thailand's fourth-largest and yet remains blanketed in virgin forest. Book a pick-up truck to Ao Talo Wao Historical Trail to learn about the abandoned prisoners of Tarutao, who turned to piracy for survival during World War II.

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Tourist boats dock at an uninhabited island,
Tarutao National Marine Park

Mainland Thailand family beach holidays

One extremely well-equipped mainland beach is Hua Hin, also a busy resort city with ties to Thai royalty set 180km south-west of Bangkok. Hundreds of family resorts join water parks, golf courses, waterfalls, night markets and monkey-filled temples.

Khao Lak on the Andaman coast, not far from Khao Sok National Pak, has long been a family favourite thanks to vast beaches and strong tourism services with zero seediness. Much was rebuilt after the tsunami devastated the coast on Boxing Day 2004 — young children may need some reassurance if visiting the tsunami museums and memorials that dot the area.

Facing off against Phuket from the mainland side of sublime Phang Nga Bay, Krabi province touts the kingdom's most impressive mainland beaches at Railay, a boat-only accessible peninsula whose vertical limestone cliffs are rigged with hundreds of climbing routes. Accessible by road, nearby beaches like Khlong Muang and Noppharat Thara are also terrific for families — and Krabi has a list of activities to compete with Phuket.

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View of Railey beach, Krabi Province

How to choose a family beach holiday in Thailand

By David Luekens

Based in Thailand since 2011, David first waded into Southeast Asia in the early 2000s via friendships forged in the Thai, Vietnamese and Karen communities of Vermont, almost Canada, USA. He is a bona fide nerd in maps, islands and travel planning with a research background in Buddhism and the environmental, political and human rights issues of Southeast Asia. Bylines include CNN Travel, Conde Nast Traveller China and more than 100 Travelfish guides.

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