Looking for an exotic family-friendly destination that’s close to Hong Kong, yet a little off the beaten path? A super option is Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai in Northern Thailand. I promise you a week here makes you feel like you’ve been a world away. And to help you plan the perfect family getaway, here’s a look at where to go, what to do, and where to stay.
How to Get There:
You can fly directly from Hong Kong to Chiang Mai in a civilized 3 hours (tops) with Dragonair. If you’re brave and want a bit of an adventure, AirAsia has been offering direct flights from Macau for a very affordable price. (Less than $2000).
What to Expect:
Chiang Mai is 700 kilometers north of Bangkok, set amongst the highest mountains in Thailand. In fact, it’s the only tourist destination in Thailand to make it on Trip Advisor’s list of 25 Best Destinations in the World. Not a bad effort for the nation’s 5th largest city. I was expecting a smaller version of Bangkok, but all the buildings in Chiang Mai are low rise and the area is whole lot less developed.
What to Do:
A somewhat scruffy, patchwork quilt of shops and stalls line Chiang Mai’s streets but don’t be fooled, this is a city where shopping is a must for the agenda! Famous for its night bazaar markets that sell local arts and crafts, they spread far and wide, across several city blocks, twisting along footpaths inside buildings and outside temples.
In excess of 300 Buddhist temples are to be admired, but for the kids you can’t go past Thailand’s furry and mostly friendly creatures, great and small. Jump in a taxi for a cheap and cheerful 30-minute drive and within a five kilometre radius you’ve got the works! Don’t miss the Tiger Kingdom, Monkey Centre, Snake Farm, Crocodile Farm, and Insect zoo.
And last but by no means least, kids, you’ve got elephants! You can visit an elephant camp in the hills where these campers play football and yes – paint. These majestic creatures will also let you take a ride on their backs.
And if you have time, head to Long Neck Village where the beauty of a woman is in the length of her neck.
The best part is that all this is just a stone’s throw from each other and at a minimal cost. You could easily spend two days at a relaxed pace soaking up the magic of this culture. And mamas, if you need to shake off the day’s trek, there are thai massages available on almost every corner.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at Le Meridien, it’s one of the city’s more modern buildings and is very child-friendly. The rooms were spacious, modern and very comfortable and the buffet breakfast gets points from the kids. And of course this being Thailand, there plenty of places to stay depending on your budget.
How to Get There:
Once you’ve ticked all the boxes in Chiang Mai, you can hire a car and drive north to Chiang Rai, a scenic, easy 3-hour drive away that winds through the lush green hills (on surprisingly good roads). You can hire a car for around $400 per day – just watch the wayward drivers – there are no rules!
What to Expect:
Chiang Rai has a distinctly northern feel, quite different to that of Chiang Mai. It boasts small town charm where you can step back in time and soak up this quiet and humble culture.
Where to Stay:
This is official resort territory. Again we stayed at Le Meridien hotel, a gorgeous hotel set amongst lush green gardens on the banks of the Mae Kok River, a tributary of the mighty Mekong. If you just want to lie by the pool with the kids, enjoy a cocktail or two with good food, you’re in the right place.
The children’s pool was perfect for my toddler Ava to jump in with her floaties and have the time of her life, and there’s a kids club next door where the friendly and competent hotel staff are on hand to babysit if you fancy a child-free evening… and ladies, there’s a Parvati spa to die for.
There are a few other resorts to choose from including the very luxurious Anantara Golden Triangle Resort and Spa.
What to Do:
If you want to sightsee, Chiang Rai is the gateway to the famous Golden Triangle which is just an hour’s drive north and where you can stand in the spot where the three countries of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand meet.
One of the most extensive opium-producing areas of Asia and the world since the 1920’s, the Hall of Opium makes for a captivating and informative exhibition.
I’m told on good authority that if you didn’t get your temple fix down south in Chiang Mai, stop by the spectacular Wat Rong Khun or ‘White temple.’
If you missed the night markets in Chiang Mai, never fear, there are plenty here, and if the poolside cocktails all get a bit too hard to take, why not trek into the hill tribe villages?
And a final tip: If you just want to sit down with a coffee and a good book, do me a favour and please check out my favorite place – The Coffee House or in Thai, Chivit Thamma Da. Nestled in lush greenery on the banks of the Mae Kok river, this quaint, colonial style country house is a surprise find amongst the banana plantations and busy roads buzzing with scooters.
An ‘oh so cosy’ atmosphere, this home away from home is dotted with exquisite Chintz covered furniture, memorabilia and interesting books and boasts a huge wooden porch overlooking the enchanting riverside garden. A piano sits idle on the balcony while an old fashioned swing sits amongst trees. Get a cappuccino in your china tea cup and say hi to Cappuccino the puppy (who my 19 month old daughter is still raving about).
Nicole was a newsreader and journalist with Sky News Australia for a decade, and has now swapped the news desk and microphone for a change table and nappy bag! Mum to baby Ava, Nicole is now enjoying casual work as a journalist, presenter, master of ceremonies and media trainer. Check out her blog http://mintmochamusings.com/. She can be reached at [email protected].