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Khao Lak Guide
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Khao Lak is confusingly both a town and an area. Many people when they say ‘Khao Lak’ refer to the town next to Nang Tong beach that has plenty of bars, restaurants, shops, internet cafes etc. This town is also called Bang La On. It is the central point for what many other people think of as the Khao Lak area. This area covers over 20km of the Andaman Sea coast line from Baan Nam Kem in the North down to Lamkaen Beach in the south. It is a beautiful stretch of coastline with many virtually deserted stretches of golden sand. It is a flat area and was devastated by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. Since this tragedy the area has recovered quickly, the only difference being that many small local business operators were bought up by outside interests.
Khao Lak is conveniently located just 70 km north of Phuket Airport. There are also plenty of buses going from Bangkok and other places in Thailand to Khao Lak. The train connection is not so good, as the nearest station is Suratthani. You can sometimes get cheaper Nok Air flights to Krabi airport which is not far away from the Khao Lak area.
The beaches starting in the north are Bang Muang, Bang Sak, Pakarang, Khuk Khak, Bang Niang, Nang Tong, Lamru, Khao Lak and Lamkaen. The most popular are Khao Lak and Bang Niang. This is primarily because they are near the urban center of the area and offer a wider selection of bars and restaurants.
In reviews of Khao Lak resorts people staying at some of the more distant beaches complain feeling ‘stranded’ and being forced to eat expensive hotel restaurant food or having to get a taxi to Khao Lak. As in Koh Samui, taxis in Khao Lak are expensive and the drivers are not open to negotiation.
Balanced against inconvenience is the beauty of remote beaches. For those who really want to get away from the crowds there are the beaches of Kho Khao Island to explore. There are 4 main beaches on the west side of the island: Pak Koh, Tung Tok, Bang Neang and Nok Nah. Of these only the southerly Pak Koh sees many visitors. For those who really want to get off the beaten track it is possible to catch a boat from the north pier of Muang Mai to Koh Phra Thong.
Other than its remote quality, Koh Kho Khao is famous for its bird watching, an ancient village (some of the earliest settlers in Thailand came via Koh Kho Khao) and rare flowers. It is also a convenient staging post for diving and snorkeling the Surin Islands.
In the south (not in Khao Lak) are the two gorgeous beaches of Natai and Pilai. They are just a few kilometers from Sarasin Bridge that leads onto Phuket Island. These beaches are comparatively undeveloped compared to Phuket and great for those wanting to escape the high prices and crowds of Phuket. Pilai is also a good spot to watch turtles lay their eggs in February and to watch the babies make a mad dash for the sea in March.
Accommodation in Khao Lak and Phang-Nga
The accommodation in Khao Lak and in the wider Phang-Nga area is mostly mid-range. Cheaper rooms cost between $30 and $45 a night. Most resorts have communal swimming pools, spas and wifi connections. You can also find several resorts with private pool villas. The most expensive places to stay are Beyond Resort on Bang Sak, JW Marriot Khaolak (Khuk Khak) and the Maikhao Dream Resort (Natai). At the other end of the accommodation spectrum is Khao Lak Youth Club in Nang Tong that has rooms starting from $20 a night.
One stand out place is Kuraburi Greenview Resort. Kuraburi is in the north of Phang-Nga Province near the border with Ranong. It is an eco-resort set in a rainforest near a large lake. Accommodation is comfortable but not luxurious. The bungalows have added insulation to reduce cooling costs. Moreover, the swimming pool uses water that is filtered from nearby mountain water. In the area you can go mountain biking, kayaking, fishing and rock climbing. It is also a good base from which to explore the little visited Klong Saeng Wildlife Sanctuary that has guar, tapir, serow, cobra, clouded leopard and sun bear to spot. Kuraburi is also a staging post for visiting Koh Phra Thong.
The Similan islands are 70 km off the coast of Khao Lak. They are rated in the top 10 dive sites in the world by National Geographic Magazine. The archipelago of islands covers 128 sq km and was given National Park status in 1982. Other than park rangers and a few sea gypsies no one lives in the area. A liveaboard trip of 2 or 3 nights diving or snorkeling in the Similan islands is the big draw card for the Khao Lak region. You can see a variety of underwater environments including mountain ranges, colorful corals and many spectacular swim-throughs. There are sharks, mantas, turtles and many, many fish to spot as well as moray eels and other coral creatures.
It is not only the Similan Islands that offer great diving: to the north are the Surin Islands that also offer amazing dive experiences.
There are lots of dive schools and shops in the Khao Lak area that offer trips to these islands. Since the islands are mostly uninhabited land breaks are only for a short time to take in a beach and grab a cold drink. You should hunt around for the best deal with liveaboards. As with many things in Thailand pricing is flexible. A typical price for a 3 day, 2 night trip all inclusive is 17,000 THB for diving.
Khao Lak Lamru National Park and Khao Sok National Park
Khao Lak National Park is close to Khao Lak town. It is an area that has rain forest and coast line. There are trekking, elephant rides and water falls to enjoy. There is a rich variety of flora in the rainforest and some great snorkeling off the coast. There are only a handful of government bungalows to stay in the park. Camping is allowed but no camping facilities are provided.
Koh Sok National Park is north of Khao Lak in Suratthani Province. There are more animals to see. There is also the world’s largest flower. You can stay on a lake bungalow. Koh Sok is one of Thailand’s best national parks and well worth a visit. If you are very lucky you might see a tiger.
Phang-Nga bay is to the south of Khao Lak and to the east of Phuket Island. It is often called the Ha Long Bay of Thailand because like its Vietnamese counterpart the area is scattered in limestone mountains. It is a very scenic area that is great for sea kayaking, caving and exploring grottos. The island of Koh Tapu and the mountain Khao Ping Kan are collectively called ‘James Bond Island’. This is where parts of the movie the Man with the Golden Gun were filmed. All tours of the bay take in this famous site.
Perhaps more interesting is Koh Panyi. It is a floating island built on stilts where Muslim sea gypsies live. It is attached to a small island. It makes a fascinating day trip. They also have a football pitch. A film was made about the Koh Panyi football team.
James Bond Island
Moken and Khao Lak
The Moken or sea gypsies as they are better known, moved into the Khao Lak area during the time of British colonial interests in the region prior to World War Two. The Thai authorities were keen to establish their territorial rights to the islands off the Andaman coast and invited to the Moken to settle in the area.
The Moken were used as political prawn. They are an ancient sea-faring people who spend much of their lives on boats pursuing fishing. They have shunned outside influence and have their own language, religion and culture. As such they are like indigenous people although they originally came from Indonesia.
The introduction of tourism to the Khao Lak region has had a regrettable impact on Moken communities. The Moken villages have become part of tourist day trips. The result is that the many of the Moken have abandoned their traditional ways of life and instead become waitresses and tour boat drivers.
Moreover, the Moken have been made officially outlaws as much of their traditional fishing areas have become protected marine parks where fishing is prohibited. This gives the Thai authorities the right to destroy Moken communities if they choose.
Be a responsible tourist. Don't be fooled by the shallow notion of 'eco-tourism'. Don't visit Moken villages. Leave these ancient people alone.
Anyone who likes long, sandy beaches in an idyllic setting they will love Khao Lak. Anyone who loves diving or visiting national parks will love Khao Lak. Anyone who wants to see something of the cultural diversity that Thailand has to offer will love Phang-Nga Province. Anyone who just wants to party might be better off going to either Phuket or Koh Samui.
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