Time to Thai pure shores

Once a haven for backpackers, Thailand is now popular with families seeking an exotic break. Lisa Haynes finds out why

Sunday, 17th February 2013, 7:50 am
Exotic: Left: long-tail boats at Maya Bay

It’s mid-afternoon and children and adults are scrambling from their loungers in search of a famous resident. Lucky the elephant mascot is plodding through the grounds for his daily visit, waving his trunk with fans in his wake.

Guests queue up to take pictures and stroke his fuzzy head – some even get a surprise sloppy kiss as he wraps his trunk around their neck, planting it onto cheeks like a plunger.

I’m enraptured at the first encounter – the sight of a three-year-old elephant tumbling around in the Andaman Sea waves, spraying water at hysterical adults, and carrying kids aboard his wrinkly back.

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This snapshot-worthy family scene is becoming more common in Thailand, as the south-east Asian country shakes off its backpacker-on-a-budget image. A tourism boom has led to a number of new child-friendly hotels and resorts opening, mainly in Phuket, the largest island of Thailand dubbed ‘The Pearl of the Andaman’.

It may not be the obvious choice for a family break, but adventurous parents can find plenty to entertain little ones. Besides the endless white sandy beaches, there are tree-top thrills at Xtrem Adventures, animal exploration at Phuket Zoo, mini eco safaris at Siam Safari, and a Las Vegas-style theme park at Phuket FantaSea.

Children squeal with delight at FantaSea feeding buckets of bamboo sticks to a parade of statuesque elephants decked out in rainbow-coloured finery.

As the rhythmic tinkling sound of traditional Thai music is piped through the night-time venue, there’s the opportunity for short rides and bottle-feeding the baby tigers before settling in the 3,000-seater theatre.

The ‘Fantasy of a Kingdom’ main attraction is an enchanting show featuring magic acts, aerial ballet, acrobatics and a wild animal extravaganza.

Asian elephants are an enduring symbol of Thailand as the official national animal.

While much publicity is given to the conservation plight of the African elephant, it’s the Asian elephant that is classed as officially endangered with a decreasing population, according to the ICUN Red List of Threatened Species.

It’s estimated that around 4,000 Asian elephants remain in Thailand, of which only a third live in the wild.

Having such close interaction with these gentle giants, therefore, is bittersweet. Whilst there is a pang of guilt that they should be roaming freely, it’s incredible to see them so close up that you can marvel at their tumbling eyelashes.

As mascot of Angsana Laguna Phuket, Lucky the elephant is certainly worth trumpeting on about.

His ‘mahout’ (handler), Sor, tells me with sadness that at the grand old age of three, Lucky is due for retirement from the hotel biz due to his size. As he embarks on a new trek adventure, two new ‘Luckys’, will join the fold and the baby successors have already perfected their mascot tricks in just one month, demonstrating why elephants are considered one of the world’s most intelligent species.

Besides petting elephants, Angsana’s recently-refurbished Tree House Kids Club, Mother & Kids Yoga and Tuesday’s Pirate of Andaman fancy dress has plenty to keep children occupied. Situated in scenic Bang Tao Bay, the hotel makes for a convenient spot for airport runs and the bustle of Phuket Town – both lie just 20-minutes away. Surrounded by the Andaman Sea, it’s the perfect pitch to explore neighbouring isolated islands, paradise-style beaches and snorkelling hotspots.

Laguna’s speedboat day tour is the most glamorous way to go island hopping, with a knowledgeable guide to steer you away from the tourist hubbub. Following the tourism boom created from the buzz of Leonardo DiCaprio’s The Beach in 2000, and then the devastation caused by the tsunami in 2004, Thailand is now in a much happier place.

It may have been released over 12 years ago but there’s no denying the impact the film has had on the landscape. We see for ourselves as we zoom past Maya Bay where much of the movie was shot, and discover the once untouched beach idyll is now swarming with tourists and the sea strewn with boats.