Thailand is one of the best places to go in Southeast Asia for a seaside holiday. The beaches are often spectacular and prettier than those in Malaysia, the flights are easier to access than those in the Philippines and their tourism services and warm culture beat anything in Indonesia (with the exception of Bali). But how do you know which beach is best for you to plan a family holiday? Here is the lowdown of the best and worst of the beaches in Thailand when you're travelling with kids.
Phuket With Kids
The king of Thai beach resorts may be the one that attracts the most tourists, but there is good reason. There are some stunning beaches if you opt for the right one. And it is the island with the most facilities – if the idea of only sunbathing on the sand bores you, at Phuket you can also explore the old Portuguese town around Thalang, Dibuk and Krabi roads or play golf at one of the multiple courses. Plus Phuket International Hospital offers first world, English-speaking medical facilities in the case of an emergency.
Patong Beach caters to backpackers and is full of young travellers whose main cultural experience will be drinking cheap beer. It is renown for lots of very obvious prostitution and drugs, so parents may not find it is a suitable place for families.
On the flip side, it is home to a few cool restaurant options such as Jo’s Downstairs (it’s well worth booking a babysitter for a night out here).
A more tasteful option that will allow you to easily access the entertainment of Patong without having to be immersed 24/7 is to choose Surin Beach instead. There are several luxury resorts between Surin and Layan Beaches (think The Surin Phuket, Amanpuri and Banyan Tree Phuket) which allow you the flexibility of cleaner, quieter beaches only 20 minutes drive from Patong.
If you don’t care so much about being close to Patong, north of the airport are a number of family-friendly, international resort chains such as JW Marriott Phuket Resort & Spa and Le Meridian Khao Lak Beach & Spa Resort, Phuket (off Phuket island via the bridge) which both have large grounds, multiple pools and kids clubs.
Also very peaceful and with a calm ocean is Phang Nga beach, only about 20 minutes from the airport. This area tends to favour private villas (the sort the comes with full staff) and boutique five star hotels such as Aleenta Phuket villas As such there isn’t really anything to do around here except relax and visit the marine turtle sanctuary at Khao Lumpee- Haad Thaymuang National Park – there are no amenities, outside restaurants or shops. But if you are looking for a quick fly-in, fly-out beach retreat, that may not be a hindrance.
All the beaches in Phuket have a bit of a reputation for being potentially dangerous to poor swimmers during low tide so be sensible about how you use them. At high tide they can be like a swimming pool, but when the water is out and the currents are moving it’s best to stay out of the water.
Koh Phi Phi With Kids
A short boat ride away from Phuket is Koh Phi Phi, a smaller island sometimes pitched as being more exclusive than Phuket because of its size. In fact, the opposite is true. So many day-trippers from Phuket take tours to snorkel, sunbathe and have lunch on Phi Phi’s beaches that they can potentially get quite crowded. It does have stunning scenery (which is why it is such an attraction even for those not staying there), but if you are expecting a quiet and peaceful retreat, this may not be your best bet.
Koh Samui With Kids
Koh Samui is a good mix of mum and pop homestays and six star brands such as the W Retreat Koh Samui, Anantara Bophut Koh Samui Resort & Spa and Sixth Senses Samui. The initial outlay tends to be a more expensive and complicated as there are very few direct international flights and hardly any really low budget accommodations. Things can be more expensive there in general because there aren’t so many options. But this also means that the beaches are cleaner than in Phuket, the backpacker scene is less prominent and there are a few up-and-coming restaurants.
This is one of Thailand’s most visited tourist destinations so if you are expecting exclusive, empty beaches you will not get them unless you are prepared to pay exclusive high prices. But there is generally a more family-friendly vibe to Koh Samui and it is a good middle ground between the lesser known beaches without any facilities at all and the super popular ones in Phuket.
On the western side of Koh Samui the ocean is quite flat and you can easily snorkel, kayak or take a SCUBA tour to view the marine animals. Another popular activity is to do a day tour out to a neighbouring island for a picnic lunch and to experience a different beach.
Krabi With Kids (& Railay Beach)
Krabi’s Ao Nang and surrounding beaches are famed for their spectacular vistas over the sheer rocks jutting out of the water. This makes it a popular destination for rock climbers and 20 to 30-something travellers looking for a more boutique and less mass market experience.
While Ao Nang can be accessed by car directly from the airport, Railay (also know as Rai Lay, Railey and Railley) beach is generally considered to be the better option. This self-contained island is only a 10 minute long tail boat ride away from the mainland and because it has limited accommodation, has a quieter, more peaceful feel about it. It is extremely picturesque because it is so small (sunsets are stunning) – but this also means there are limited dining options (the food will be more Western rather than authentic Thai) and no shopping. If you get bored and need to be close to the action of civilisation, this may not be right for you.
Railei Beach Club has several different options for clean, traditional-style villas with full kitchen facilities. This does mean there are no safety barriers for small children nor is there any television and it is a (very short) walk to the beach. At the other end of the spectrum is the spectacular Rayavadee Krabi with it's very cool The Grotto restaurant where you can dine under the limestone cliffs.
Transport to Railay is not particularly family-friendly, especially if you are travelling with small kids. Long tail boats are not known for their safety standards and if tides are low and the boats cannot reach the jettys you will have to get into the water and wade you, your luggage and your children out to the vessel. As such, Railay generally attracts families with older children not toddlers and babies. But if you enjoy an adventure and the wind blowing through your hair, long boats are certainly fun.
The other major downside to Krabi and its surrounds are that you are far removed from Western-style medical facilities. The hospital, for instance, is not air-conditioned and you can expect to share your room with the geckos.
Koh Phangan With Kids
Koh Phangnan can be found on the east side of Thailand’s peninsular. The most common way to get to Koh Phangan is via the 30-minute boat from Koh Samui or, for the slightly intrepid traveller, you can catch the overnight train from Bangkok to Surat Thani and then catch the coach/boat to Koh Phangnan. Koh Phangan is really most famous for the backpacker drawcard the Full Moon Parties. Plan to avoid these hardcore party fests as during this time the island books out (which is probably just as well for any unsuspecting parents who haven’t done their research).
Outside of the full moon, there are a surprisingly large number of families who holiday at Koh Phangan, likely because prices are so much lower than many of the other Thai beach resorts. The northern part of the island caters to families and older backpackers who want a more chilled, less party atmosphere. This is not an international resort experience – you will need cash to pay for everything as you go, even within your hotel – but at US$150 per night during peak season (halve this for the off-season), who’s complaining?Some accommodations right on the beach include (the basic) Cookies Salad Resort and (the more upmarket) Green Papaya.
Salad Beach is pretty and the sea is very clam with a basic reef that even very amateur swimmers and small kids can snorkel. It also stays shallow for quite a distance which makes supervision a little easier for parents. Just off Salad Beach there is a natural sand island that’s fun for kids to play Robinson Crusoe. Best of all, there are very few touts.
If you have older children the snorkeling tends to be better at Maehaad Beach, but the waves are stronger. (The best snorkeling and diving in the area is reputed to be in Koh Tao, commonly the next stop in the boat ride from Koh Samui.) There are also day trips on offer to other neighbouring islands.
There are some basic amenities such as mum and pop shops, beachside restaurants and elephant rides around the area, but really the purpose of holidaying in Koh Phangan is to escape the tourism of Koh Samui or Phuket. This also means you will be further away from Bangkok Hospital in an emergency.
Pattaya With Kids
Just over an hour’s drive from Bangkok drive, Pattaya might seem like an enticing option as it’s just so easy to get to and doesn’t require a flight out of the capital. The major reason to visit Pattaya if you are a family is to stay at Horseshoe Point, a popular destination for residents of Bangkok. This is a great option for a stay outside of the city where the kids can ride bikes, play tennis, ride horses and generally indulge in all forms of outdoor activity including the super cool water balloons (think Zorb balls on the water). There are good golf facilities in Pattaya as well.
But outside of Horseshoe Point, sadly, if you are travelling with children, you might be in for a rude shock. Pattaya is famed for its high prostitution trade – particularly if you are staying in the centre of town you can expect to see it openly for sale. As far as violent crime goes it is relatively safe, but extremely seedy.
Similarly, while the waves on the beaches are fairly minimal, the Gulf of Thailand is full of container ships so you will not have the pristine, crystal blue waters you can expect in Koh Samui or Krabi, for instance. In general, if you are after a stress-free family holiday, it’s best to bypass Pattaya and head to Hua Hin/Pranburi instead.
Koh Chang With Kids
Keep driving past Pattaya from Bangkok and you will hit Koh Chang. As a district it is less seedy than Pattaya which does make it a better option. You will also get good local food here.
But while the waters are quite flat, for all the same reasons as Pattaya, the beaches of Koh Chang are not stand out. In addition, you will have to take a boat ride to reach the island which, on top of the 3-hour car trip, seems an unnecessary hassle when there are so many other options.
Hua Hin With Kids
On the other side of Bangkok is the far better option to Pattaya, Hua Hin. This has historically been the favoured resort of the Thai royal family and continues to be visited by them in the summer. As such, all the large international hotel chains are here: Hilton Hua Hin Resort & Spa, Hyatt Regency Hua Hin and the InterContinental Hua Hin Resort. There are very few of the smaller, boutique accommodations.
The beach is pretty with charming squid boats that blink at night as you eat your Chinese seafood in the evenings. Water sports such as banana boats and skidoos are very popular and the water is clear although not crystal. But despite it’s attractiveness beware that there are jellyfish and you may want to consider keeping smaller kids on the sand or in the hotel pool.
Like most parts of Thailand, there is a certain kitschiness to Hua Hin that will amuse everyone in the family. Fun (if slightly odd) activities include the Swiss Sheep Farm where you can experience a European country-style farm, the shopping centre and amusement park Santorini Park where everything is Greek themed and The Venezia where you can take an Italian gondola while browsing the retail stores. You can also visit the unlikely Hua Hin Hills Vineyard which may not be Burgundy but where the whites are drinkable and the children can take an elephant ride around the grapes.
Pranburi With Kids
Further past Hua Hin is where you’ll find the quiet, quaint, small hotels of Pranburi. If you’re a fan of the Colin Cotterill Jimm Juree book series, you will love Pranburi as this is where the novels are based. Pranburi doesn’t have it’s own amenities, but is so close to Hua Hin that you will have plenty of access to the medical and lifestyle facilities if you need them. This is really the ideal location if you want to be close to all the conveniences of Hua Hin but to actually live somewhere that’s less busy.
Like Hua Hin, the beaches are nice for walking but jellyfish are an issue.
The Practicalities: Beaches in Thailand With Kids
While Thailand is a land of smiling, friendly faces and the beaches seem like and idyllic place to sample the many watersports, beware that this is still a developing country – with developing safety standards. Always check your equipment before putting your kids in and taking them out on open water. Similarly, insist that proper life vests are provided before you get into any type of boat.
In fact, when first planning your trip, it’s a good idea to keep in mind your back-up plan in case of an emergency. Unlike its neighbours, Thailand has the benefit of some first world hospital facilities so it’s worthwhile selecting a beach area that’s within easy distance of good doctors, medicines and equipment.
If you want to move around outside your beach resort, it’s cheap and easy to rent a car and a driver to be at your disposal for day trips to other tourist attractions or just to do supermarket runs. Just be aware that most cars are unlikely to come with seatbelts. [For tips on how to travel safely with kids in the car, read the suitcases&strollers tips here.]
There are generally plenty of touts on the beaches and in the towns selling everything from trinkets to massages. Unless you want to be hassled for the entire time you are out, it is best to decline all offers of interaction. The best response is to memorise the Thai phrase “mai aw car” or “mai aw kop” and the likelihood is you will be left alone.
It is not safe to drink the water from the tap in Thailand. Only use bottled water for drinking and brushing teeth and be wary of children drinking water in the shower or the bath.
For family beach safety tips, see the suitcases&strollers interview with the team from Bondi Rescue here.