You don't have to go to Disney World to give the children a treat. You can do it in Thailand for a 10th of the price.
My impression of the country had always been of a haven for backpackers, cheap hotels, leisurely days on the beach and bar-hopping by night. Bangkok, the capital and largest city with a registered population of 8 million, conjured up visions of seedy streets, go-go bars, massage parlors and karaoke clubs. Not a destination for a family vacation.
Boy, was I wrong.
While the bars and clubs I had envisioned are indeed a part of Bangkok life, there is so much more to see and do.
The shopping malls are world class, and the recently-opened Siam Paragon on Sukhumvit Road in the city center is one of the largest and most luxurious in Asia.
The Paragon boasts a vast array of restaurants and shops where patrons can buy electronics, beauty products, local Thai merchandise, the latest fashions and more.
On the lower level is Siam Ocean World, an aquarium that includes 30,000 creatures from 400 species around the world. The main oceanarium has an acrylic ocean tunnel, touch pools for children, a panoramic fish bowl with 360-degree view, a 4-D theater, a rain forest area and a huge eight-meter-deep coral reef.
Children will also get a kick out of daily performances that include a live mermaid show and Aquatoon stage show, as well as fish and penguin feedings throughout the day.
Siam Ocean World is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. Entrance fees are minimal and include all the shows.
Another family-friendly spot is Safari World - The World of Happiness, which offers many attractions in addition to the hundreds of animals on display from all over the world. Enjoy a cruise ride through the jungles of Africa and Asia, featuring the most advanced animatronics and special effects.
There are seven daily shows, including a white tiger show, spy war action stunt show, sea lion show, orangutan boxing and more. You can drive your own car or ride in one of the park's luxury coaches. The park is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Dream World, a big American-style theme park, is another full day of fun for the young and young-at-heart, featuring bumper cars, a "Super-splash" ride (you will get wet, but waterproof covering is provided), Adventure Land, Fantasy Land and parades. In the park's Snow Town (not included in the main ticket price, but worth the extra fee), children can build a snowman, ride a sleigh, play in an enormous field of snow and learn how polar bears and other animals live in this freezing climate.
Whatever the ages of your children, they're sure to have fun, and you won't be able to leave until they are exhausted. The park is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Again, entrance fees are minimal, and all the above parks feature restaurants and kiosks where you can have lunch and buy snacks and ice cream for next to nothing.
A very different family recreation is a four- to five-hour biking tour of Bangkok, open to anyone who can ride a bike. The tour uses Switchback ATB comfort bikes because of their high quality and versatility.
The tour is 95 percent traffic-free, as cars rarely take that route. After visiting a local temple, tourists are given the authentic Thai experience of walking through one of the poorest neighborhoods of the city, where the residents greet them with huge smiles. Tourists also visit a kindergarten and bike through the narrow alleyways.
While the bikers sit with a cool drink by the river, the bikes are ferried by long-tail boat across the Chao Phraya River to a jungle of banana, mango, papaya and coconut trees. The long-tail then returns to ferry the bikers across, and the ride resumes through the jungle.
A little further on, a beautiful, nearly-deserted park full of butterflies, birds and squirrels awaits. Participants can rest for a while and feed the hundreds of fish swimming in the lake before lunch and the return journey.
Apart from this tour, bikes are available for private rental on a daily or weekly basis. Andre Breuer, the owner and founder of Recreational Bangkok Biking, can be reached at tel 66-(0)2-285-3867 or mobile 66-(0)2-285-3955.
Family evening recreation includes a buffet-dinner cruise along the Chao Phraya. Along the route are the beautifully lit Royal Grand Palace and the Temple of Dawn, as well as many modern hotels and high-rise buildings. On-board entertainment includes Thai dancers and singers. The cruise lasts several hours.
KEEP ONE evening free to visit "Siam Niramit - Journey to the Enchanted Kingdom." One of the largest stage productions in the world at an investment of $40 million, this show is spectacular in size, special effects, costumes, pyrotechnics and state-of-the art technology. There are more than 150 well-trained actors and actresses, and over 500 elaborately-produced costumes with designs derived from paintings of each era of Thai history.
The show presents the history of Siam, from the ancient Kingdom of Lanna through the heritage of the Khmer civilization, and culminates in a portrayal of the joyous festivals for which Thailand is famous. Children and adults alike will love this extravaganza, where elephants perform on stage and walk through the theater.
The show is held daily at 8 p.m., but get there early to see an authentic Thai village that has been recreated on the grounds. The village represents the four regions of Thailand and portrays a traditional Thai lifestyle, complete with arts and crafts demonstrations that include cloth-weaving, pottery, cooking, Thai massage and much more. There is an outdoor entertainment area featuring traditional Thai music and dance to get you in the mood for the main show.
There are three restaurants serving Thai-Western buffet or a-la-carte service, and a gift shop selling selected handicrafts from all regions of the country. The entrance fee for the village and show is $40 per person - steep by Thai standards - but Israeli travel agents can book tickets for the show at a more reasonable price than on-site.
Thailand also boasts a wide selection of fine hotels. The Sheraton Grande Sukhumvit, a five-star hotel on Sukhumvit Road, is conveniently near the Skytrain, which is the best way to get around Bangkok's heavy traffic. The hotel has a beautiful pool surrounded by a tropical garden in which you can have breakfast and a swim before setting out on your busy schedule. Upon your return in the evening, you can relax and have a massage in the elegant and luxurious spa.
The Siam@Siam design five-star hotel is also strategically placed near the Skytrain and is opposite the central business district and major shopping centers. Forget your preconceptions of a city hotel; the architect has created a harmonious, warm atmosphere where you can relax after a hectic day, with silk paneling and soothing colors.
The Marriott Resort and Spa is built in Thai style on the river, and its majestic surroundings make you forget you are in Bangkok. The hotel has Thai cooking classes and offers three- to five-day cruises for groups. You can also charter your own boat and plan your own route. The hotel is a little out of town, but it has a river shuttle service to the Skytrain with a swift connection to downtown. Even if you don't stay at the Marriott, try to make its Sunday brunch, served at the world-famous Trader Vic's restaurant on the premises.
Of course, a visit to Bangkok wouldn't be complete without visits to the many temples, the Emerald Buddha, the reclining Buddha (the largest in the world) and the ancient city at Ayutthaya, as well as the flower market, night market and elephant riding. And before leaving Bangkok, it's worth traveling the 61 floors up to the aptly-named Vertigo bar and restaurant at the Banyan Tree hotel for a panoramic view of the city. Have a drink or a meal at this elegant skytop eatery and soak in the view.
THEN IT'S time to head for the islands, of which there are many. We first traveled to Krabi, part of the Lanta Island group which comprises 53 islands in the Andaman Sea. It is an untamed paradise with white sand beaches, crystal-clear water, caves and cliffs. The flight from Bangkok takes about an hour.
We stayed at the Sheraton Krabi Beach Resort, which is a newly-built, sprawling beachfront property among natural mangrove swamps. The 500-meter secluded, pristine beach is a perfect place to relax and swim.
The highlight of the stay was Rara, the four-year-old elephant who was raised near the resort and appears daily at 3 p.m with her minder. The lazy beach suddenly comes alive as guests watch Rara's antics and feed her bananas and watermelon (which she much prefers). After about 15 minutes, she heads for the water, followed by the more adventurous in the crowd. You may go swimming with dolphins in Eilat, but swimming with an elephant is a different experience altogether. She dives, you can climb on her back, and Rara seems to have as much fun as the children and adults sharing her bath.
The hotel also has a children's club, where there are daily excursions into nature that teach the children ecology. The hotel features a spa, diving club, kayaking, windsurfing, sailing, birdwatching and jungle walks, among other things. The five restaurants are all good, but the dinner at Gecko's was probably the best meal we had in Thailand. The setting was romantic and the exquisitely-served innovative cuisine a gastronomic delight.
From Krabi, ferry boats and charters are available to take you to visit the surrounding islands and go swimming and snorkeling. Ko Phi Phi - one of the more famous islands, which still bears signs of the 2005 tsunami - is worth a visit. It is crowded with backpackers, bustling hotels, bungalow accommodations, souvenir shops and restaurants. The movie The Beach made the twin Phi Phi islands famous, and the beach is still pristine and beautiful. Travel by boat and discover picturesque coves, hidden bays, and beautiful expanses of shallow turquoise water surrounded by high cliffs while stopping along the way for a swim, dive or snorkel. Accessible only by boat or via a short walkway through the mountains from Ao Nang beach, the Central hotel in its own private bay of Pai Plong is idyllic. The views are magnificent, and it is a wonderful place to stay or have dinner. Ferries run at regular intervals from Krabi.
Saving the best for last, our final two days were spent on Koh Lanta, Krabi. This largely unspoiled island is quiet with superb views and is a short distance from some of the highly-rated diving spots in Thailand. The Pimalai Resort and Spa, accessible by an hour's scenic boat ride from Krabi, is nestled in the lush Ba Kan Tiang bay, set in 100 acres of natural tropical surroundings. Our rooms were palatial - in fact, they were villas with private swimming pools overlooking the breathtaking view of the bay and mountains. The hotel offers a wide range of activities, including canoeing, sailing, scuba diving, bicycling, hiking, tennis courts and Thai cooking classes.
The spa is the most beautiful I have seen in Thailand, secluded in the open air with pools, waterfalls and flora - an oasis of serenity and pampering. The place is paradise; in fact, Pimalei means close to heaven. Believe me, you won't want to leave your room - and in a 280-square-meter villa with two bedrooms, three bathrooms, a lounge, a kitchen, outdoor balconies and a swimming pool, you don't need to except to eat at one of the five quality restaurants in the complex. Prices at the resort are high - around $600 per night, depending on the season - but well worth it for the luxury and total relaxation it offers.
Rawi Warin is Koh Lanta's latest luxury resort and spa. Tucked into the foothills of the Koh Lanta Yai and overlooking Klong Tob bay, this idyllic resort has 17 swimming pools. The main pool is right on the beachfront, and an infinity design blends the edge of the pool with the ocean. The resort also has 10,000 trees and waterways crisscrossing the grounds. There are six restaurants, a spa, a cinema, Playstations for children and all the water sports. Prices range from $300 for regular rooms to $1,500 for the deluxe suites.
The beauty of Thailand is that you can spend two weeks there for the same price as one week in America. Israir resumes its weekly flights to Bangkok in July. Any Israeli travel agent can put together a package suited to your needs and book hotels, internal flights, entertainment and sightseeing at reasonable prices.
The writer was a guest of Israir and Thailand's Ministry of Tourism.