If you don't think the Orient has much to offer families, think again, says Joanna Booth
They want a family holiday. Your mind is probably already touching down in Spain, halfway to Dubai or boarding for Orlando – all family-friendly destinations, without a doubt.
But prepare to widen your horizons. Couples who enjoyed travelling far afield before junior came along don’t want to stop now, and Asia has plenty to offer families seeking adventure.
Learning kung fu and kite-flying in China, coming face to face with elephants in Thailand or orangutan in Borneo, or sampling samurai and bullet trains in Japan – there are millions of memories to be made the minute they step off the, admittedly longer, flight.
Whether you’re after a beach break with bells on, or a fully-fledged adventure tour, there are plenty of ideas below. All the trips are designed with kids in mind, so group tours are dedicated family departures, and hotels have family rooms and excellent facilities for children.
With plenty of airlift and a reputation for service with a smile, it’s little wonder that Thailand is one of the more obvious spots to take kids in Asia.
Phuket is a popular choice. It’s got an incredibly wide choice of accommodation, much of it family-friendly. Premier Holidays recommends the Centara Grand for its sea-facing rooms that sleep up to two adults and two children, and its four pools, lazy river and kids’ club, and offers an eight-night B&B package for a family of four with Thai Airways flights from £3,999. Kuoni champions the new Holiday Inn Phuket Mai Khao for its good-value family suites, kids’ and teens’ clubs, and stunning, unspoilt beach, all a 20-minute transfer from the airport.
Many operators suggest combining Phuket with the popular Elephant Hills camp, a tented property in the rainforest of the Khao Sok National Park, just to the north of Phuket on the Thai mainland.
Alongside jungle treks and kayaking on the river, the main attractions are the Asian elephants, and kids will love the chance to help feed and bathe these friendly giants. Parents will be pleased to know that roughing it isn’t required. Tents are safari style and luxurious – even those that float on the lake.
Turquoise Holidays’ new family brochure, launching this month, includes a two-week break combining Phuket’s beaches with Elephant Hills. Guests spend a week in a family suite at the five star Indigo Pearl Resort – where the rooms are stocked with bathrobes in sizes to fit the whole family – before heading off for two nights at Elephant Hills before spending the final four nights back in Phuket in a two bedroom pool villa at Coconut Island, which has a kids’ club and watersports facilities. The holiday, including flights and transfers, costs from £5,700 for a family of two adults and two children between seven and 12.
Borneo also offers a beach and jungle combination, but instead of elephants, kids here can interact with orangutans. Gold Medal recommends Shangri-La’s Rasa Ria Resort, which has its own 64 acre nature reserve with an orangutan rehabilitation centre.
Children between five and 12 can take part in a Ranger for the Day programme, where they help with daily tasks including feeding the animals. Rooms sleep up to two adults and two children, and the complimentary kids’ club (for ages four to 12) offers activities from sandcastle-making to face-painting and pony rides to kite-flying. There’s a spa and golf course for mum and dad. The operator offers five nights’ room only from £1,239 per adult and £799 per child.
For beaches with a side-serving of culture, Funway suggests Penang. Here, colonial heritage blends with Taoist and Buddhist temples, and families can ride the cable car to the top of Penang Hill and visit a butterfly farm.
Shangri-La gets the nod again here from a brace of operators, with its Golden Sands Resort winning points for its Adventure Zone, offering watersports, a jungle gym, an arcade-style games room and traditional Malaysian arts, crafts and games. Funway offers eight nights’ B&B for two adults and one child under 12 from £3,289, flying with Malaysia Airlines in September. Those with cash to splash can stay at sister property Rasa Sayang, which also has access to the Adventure Zone.
Vietnam has beaches to rival neighbouring Thailand, but family trips there tend to be activity-focused tours rather than beach breaks.
Travel Indochina’s 12-day Vietnamese Hot Pot packages up the highlights of the country in a way that suits the younger generation, with water puppet shows in Hanoi, an overnight cruise in Halong Bay, and a farming and fishing tour in Hoi An, where kids can have a go at riding a buffalo, steering a basket boat and fishing the traditional way with nets. After staying with a local family in the Mekong Delta, kids will love crawling through the Vietcong tunnels at Cu Chi and spending an afternoon at the Dam Sen Water Park in Ho Chi Minh City.
Prices start from £1,260 per adult and £1,210 per child aged five to 11 (trips are unsuitable for under-fives and kids between 12 and 18 pay adult prices), and include accommodation, domestic flights, transport, sightseeing and entrance fees, guides, airport transfers, daily breakfast and some other meals.
Families who want to experience more of Indochina can extend the trip in Laos, Cambodia or both, taking up to an 18-day trip, with experiences including training as an elephant mahout near Luang Prabang and taking a balloon ride over Angkor Wat.
For a family holiday that’ll make kids the toast of term-time, the excitement of China is hard to beat. Wendy Wu Tours welcomes over-12s on its classic departures, but in recognition of parents who want to take younger kids on adventurous trips, it has launched two new child-friendly tours.
With departure dates designed to fit in with the school holidays calendar, eight-day Discover China’s child-friendly activities including building and flying traditional kites in Beijing, sculpting mini terracotta warriors after visiting the real thing in Xi’an, meeting giant pandas and learning calligraphy. The trip isn’t recommended for kids under two. Prices start from £1,490 for those under 12, with those aged 12 plus paying the adult price, which is from £1,990.
Many elements of Japan are new and exciting for parents, as well as kids, says Inside Japan’s James Mundy. “It isn’t just about quirky theme parks but about the whole new exciting and cultural experience: dressing in yukata robes, sleeping on futons, travelling on the bullet train, and new fashions, buildings and tastes,” he says. And with the yen having fallen about 15% against the pound in the past 12 months, Japan isn’t only for families with unlimited spending power.
Inside Japan’s tours are tailor made to suit each family. Mundy recommends staying in traditional machiya townhouses in Kyoto, taking a pirate ship across the Ashiko crater lake in the Hakone National Park near Mount Fuji, kayaking in Tokyo, taking taiko drumming classes and trying tate-do samurai training in Osaka.
An eight-night Family Express trip, staying in Toyko and Kyoto (in a machiya), starts from £4,070 for two adults, one teenager and one child under 12, excluding international flights. Included is accommodation, rail passes for the bullet train, guided tours, a taiko drumming class and a cookery class.
This year’s hottest destination isn’t merely the preserve of grown-ups. The Adventure Company has 24 trips in Asia specially designed for families, and its newest one is in Burma.
With a minimum age of 12, the trip is ideal for adventurous families who want to discover this untouched area of Asia before tourism develops too far. It takes in many of the same highlights as tours for adults – the temple complex at Bagan, floating villages at Inle Lake and the hill-station of Kalaw – but will get the kids involved with their Burmese equivalents with a visit to an orphanage, where they’ll take a language lesson and learn games and songs from local children.
The 13-day trip starts from £2,389 and includes return flights, meals and accommodation, transport, activities, entry fees and the services of a tour leader.
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