Vast unbroken stretches of golden sand, a wide range of beach accommodation, family friendly atmosphere and many of Thailand’s true gems within exploring distance. Yes it’s a touristy town which doesn’t get the hype of the more infamous islands, but in a matter of minutes, you can be amongst soaring hardwood trees, trailing vines and giant palms listening to the rhythmic croak of the jungle cicadas.
In 1999 Khao Lak had just 3 hotels, now it has 10,000 beds. Completely destroyed by the 2005 Tsunami, 13 years on its unfettered access to some of Southern Thailand’s best rainforest, coastal scenery and dive spots have helped Khao Lak make its mark as an alternative to its popular island neighbours.
Hat Khao Lak (Khao Lak Beach) actually refers to some 8km of pristine beaches which include 3 smaller beaches: Sunset Beach (the southern part), Nang Thong Beach (the middle part) and Bang Niang Beach (the northern end).
If you want to really get away from it all, a short taxi ride north will take you to the sleepy white sands of Hat Pakarang, Pakweep and Hat Bang Sak which are around 3km off the main highway between the 64 and 74km markers. Backed by thick mangroves and rubber plantations these turquoise waters are worth lazing next to for a day at least and are home to several authentic seafood restaurants at the widest point.
Discover what lies beneath
The Similan Islands and Surin Marine Park are within day-tripping distance and offer world class diving and snorkelling spots. Take to the mineral-water clear seas amongst manta rays, reef sharks, dolphins, turtles, puffer fish, sea horses and frogfish to name but a few.
The Surin marine park protects 5 jungle-clad islands and is famous for its shallow water corals. With 200 coral species and 800 fish species this is a snorkellers paradise, and with the beautiful coves, bays and dense jungle and it’s hard to imagine a better day trip.
The Similan islands are made up of 9 tiny islands. Blindingly white beaches, lush jungle and giant granite boulders add up to a pretty stunning scene above the water and below the waves, it’s no less impressive. Coral islands, seamounts, rocky reefs, dive throughs and abundant marine life make up their 20 credited dive sites which boast visibility of up to 30 metres.
You can book diving and snorkelling trips from one of the many operators which line the main street of Khao Lak, but be aware that quality varies a lot. Having checked out many of them my recommendation is Wow Andaman who you will find just off the main street.
Hang out where Bond did
The Ao Phang-Nga marine park is another must-see on the day trippers list. The Classic Anadaman scenery here involves huge vertical limestone cliffs, rainforest, 42 islands and a plethora of caves to explore. The stunning natural skyline here led to the 1970s James Bond “Man with a Golden Gun” being filmed here.
Float around the crystal clear waters drinking in this scenery, snorkel and explore the caves.
Get up close and personal with the elephants
Elephants have been a feature of Thai life for centuries, however, they have often been cruelly exploited in both the tourism and logging industries. Fortunately, the world is a wiser place right now and many of the camps where elephants suffered have now been closed down. In their wake comes a new breed of ethical elephant attractions, but beware these are still few and far between. In general, any “sanctuary” where you are encouraged to ride an elephant in a chair (known as a Howdah) should be avoided in favour of those where elephants are respected and can be observed in their own environment. The reason for this is that for an elephant to be ridden, take part in circuses or painting tricks they would have to have undergone horrific abuse and what is known as “crush training” to get to that point.
Phang Nga Elephant Park is one of only 6 ethical sanctuaries in Thailand today, and takes in elephants who have been living in other far less safe and healthy environments. Phang Nga’s reason for being is to give the elephants the best quality of life possible, and small groups of tourists are hosted on a daily basis to help them full-fill that commitment. The reverse situation exists at most elephant camps which exist solely to make a profit from tourism. Phang Nha works closely with many international elephant welfare organisations and was the brainchild of Jake Thaotad and his cousin Lek, one of Southern Thailand’s most respected elephant mahouts . The welfare of Jake and Lek’s own family elephant “Choosri” was the reason the sanctuary was originally born. “Our mantra is to look to a world where the elephant can be used but never abused,” says Jake.
Phang Nga is heavily focused on education and your elephant experience involves spending a few hours with an elephant, her keeper (or Mahoot) and a guide. You will first learn about her history and how she came to be here. After a traditional Thai lunch in the jungle you will then have a chance to take part in a splash-tastic elephant bathing experience!
This is an incredibly intimate elephant experience which is fantastic for families, small groups and couples alike.
Turtles have long been protected in Thailand. Near to Khao Lak, the Naval base at Tab Lamu has a Turtle Sanctuary which focuses on conservation and education. Baby turtles from the Similan islands are hatched and reared before being re-released into the wild giving them an 80% better chance of survival. Whilst it’s not very developed, this sanctuary is great for seeing all the different breeds of turtle close up and learning about them. A guaranteed child-pleaser, the Navy base is only 15 minutes from Khao Lak by taxi (around 600 Baht) and only charges around 50 baht entry.
If you happen to be in Khao Lak during the first week of March then you should head to Thai Muang where the marine conversation unit re-releases 100s of young turtle hatchlings into the sea on the beach at night. Volunteers are encouraged to join in to help raise awareness of the cause.
Swing through the jungle
The immaculate coastline is not the only star here, just a few minutes from civilisation you can be whisked into a world of jungle calls, towering palms, giant bamboo, twisting vines and fluttering butterflies.
Three national parks border Khao Lak’s coastline. Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park, which spans 125 square kilometres is made up of mangroves, waterfalls, jungle and 1000 metre-high mountains.
Its larger and more impressive sister is Khao Sok National Park which boasts 645 sq kilometres of verdant jungle, punctuated by towering limestone cliffs or karsts, wild waterfalls and sparkling streams, an island-studded lake, several caves, and many hiking trails.
Lucky adventurers may encounter sun bears, macaques, gibbons, tapirs, wild pigs and possibly (but extremely rarely) a tiger as well as 180 species of birds, reptiles and butterflies.
Float down one of the meandering rivers on a hand-made bamboo raft taking in the life on the banks, hike one of the riverside trails and cool off in a waterfall.
Escape the heat and join the waterfall trail. The mountains of Khao Sok and the monsoon climate make this great waterfall territory. Lampi is a 3 tiered waterfall about 30 minutes south of Khao Lak and is only a short walk from the car park. Sai Rung waterfall is the most easily accessible from Khao Lak just 10km north of Bang Biang. For the more adventurous spirits Ton Chong Fa is a 5 tiered waterfall around 7km from the main road. It’s a steep and uneven track to reach the 5 tiers but a dip in the pool makes it all worthwhile.
Most of these waterfalls have a small entry fee as they are located within national parks.
Go shopping, the Thai way
Night markets are as much a part of Thai life as pad Thai and elephants. Existing both in tourist resorts and untouched Thai villages, they are much more than just a place to shop. They are an integral part of the culture, a place for families to unwind and socialise after a hard days work and for us tourists a fascinating combination of shopping and atmosphere.
At the larger night markets, you can find just about anything: street food, clothes, souvenirs, fruit & vegetables, fish, art, jewellery, sarongs, traditional handicrafts & bags. For those with adventurous tastes you can chew on a fresh scorpion or a cricket and for the rest of us, there is the delicious sugarcane juice, fresh coconut drinks and Thai desserts.
Bang Niang night market is located opposite the Tsunami museum on a Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, and a newer market known as “the Build” operates on the other days. For a more authentic “local” experience get a taxi to Khu Khak market which is a daytime food market next to the Khao Lak bus station.
Remember the Tsunami
When the 2004 Tsunami hit, the residents and visitors in Khao Lak had little chance of escaping since the land is so flat. The giant waves destroyed everything in their path and almost every Thai you chat to in Khao Lak still has a story to tell about that day. For this reason, it’s poignant to visit the little Tsunami museum located 2.5km north of Khao Lak town. Whilst it’s not a full-blown museum and is quite simple, it provides a reminder of the events of that fateful day and how far this little town has come to rebuild itself.
Outside the museum is a navy boat which was swept 2km inland from where it was anchored to where it stands now, as a macabre marker of the event.
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