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Thailand's trumpeting success
7:00am Saturday 16th February 2013 in Travel
Once a haven for backpackers on a budget, Thailand is becoming increasingly popular with families seeking an exotic break. Given the beautiful beaches and wildlife attractions its hardly surprising, says Lisa Haynes It's mid-afternoon and children and adults alike are scrambling from their sun loungers in search of a famous hotel resident.
Lucky the elephant mascot is plodding through the grounds for his daily visit, emphatically waving his trunk with a line of fans in his wake.
His star status is affirmed as 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.
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 their 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 throughout the night-time venue, there's the opportunity for short rides and bottle-feeding the baby tigers before settling down 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, including those bamboo-chomping elephants performing a cumbersome can-can style dance that's met with a chorus of 'ahhhs' from the audience.
Asian elephants are an enduring symbol of Thailand as the official national animal. Whether it's elephant rides, scenic treks or stage shows, these incredible trunk-swinging beasts always feature top of activity lists.
Even their poop can be precious, used to produce one of the world's most expensive Black Ivory coffee at £300 a pound, by extracting 100% Thai Arabica coffee beans from the dung after it has been digested.
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. The trip sets adults back 3,500 THB (approx £75), while children over three are welcome at 2,100 THB (approx £45), which includes snorkelling equipment and a packed lunch and picnic mat to pitch up on the white sands of picturesque Bamboo Island.
It's a whistlestop trip, but roaring at breakneck speed between the Phi Phi islands, holding tightly onto our sunglasses, feels likes a scene from James Bond.
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.
Monkey Beach is also tourist-heavy but it's worth making a quick stop to see these cheeky residents. Despite the 'Do Not Feed' signs, the animated long-tailed macaques have no qualms about slurping on stolen bottles of Diet Coke and rustling through bags of peanuts.
The view at Pileh Cove is picture-postcard breathtaking. The calm sea separates into a clear turquoise and crystal cobalt divide that is disturbed only by brave tourists jumping from the dramatic limestone cliffs - their squeals echoing around the sheltered cove. We plunge overboard for a relaxing sea dip that's so warm it feels like a freshly run bath.
Untouched areas prove elusive and a desert island-style experience is less likely around the popular Phi Phi archipelago. You can find unspoilt, remote stretches if you veer off the beaten track, far away from the row of colourful long-tail boats that cast their anchors to drop off groups of red-shouldered tourists.
High season for tourism is December to March when the north-east monsoon draws cool, dry air from the Asian continent, resulting in a slight drop in temperature and gentle breezes, calm seas and clear blue skies.
Rain storms aren't uncommon but it's the perfect opportunity to sup on fresh coconut water and read a book under a giant umbrella. We also over-used the local beach hut where hour-long traditional Thai massages set you back just 350 BHT (approx £7.50). Ensure you're sand-free first or it's more like an exfoliation.
It's our last day, the rain is beating down once again and we're all massaged out. There's only one thing for it, one final visit to see Lucky for a fond farewell and he's saved the best for last...
A few crusts of bread from the local restaurateur sees him dancing while playing the harmonica with his trunk, performing a handstand and taking a well-earned finale bow. I'm positive nobody would believe me if I hadn't caught the spectacle on film. Bravo Lucky.
Travel facts :: Lisa Haynes stayed at Angsana Laguna Phuket. Visit www.angsana.com/en/phuket/ :: Travelbag offers seven nights B&B at Angsana Laguna Phuket from £859 pp, including return flights with Etihad Airways. Kids under 12 stay free, return flights from £666. Visit www.travelbag.co.uk or call 0871 703 4240