Khao Lak is a large beach town on the mainland of Thailand, a couple hours north of Phuket. This was one of the areas hit hardest by the tsunami in 2004. We read that it could be compared to Patong Beach (the epicenter of Phuket) but for people who want something a little more low key but still want all of the amenities offered by the upscale resorts, Western restaurants, etc. We were on our way to Khao Sok National Park which is another hour or two further north, so this was a good/sensible stop over on our way there`
Khao Lak is a big town set up off a main highway, which is a few blocks from the beach. We booked a hotel in the city center (with a pool) and quickly realized that though we were in the “city center” there was actually a better/cuter area a few km north of us (called Hat Bang Niang) that had a much nicer area with more restaurants and a huge market several days per week. If you look up the Waters Hotel or La Piazza Khao Lak on a map, you should be able to get a good idea of where to stay. We also quickly realized that while everywhere in Thailand makes travel from one place to another extremely easy, Khao Lak is more set up for tours and day trips. We wanted to book a minivan to Khao Sok, about an hour away, and this proved to be impossible. Luckily, we were able to wait on the highway for a local bus that passed through that area.
The Khao Lak beach is very pretty, with dark brown/tan sand and turquoise water. All along the beach are big resorts but very few stand-alone restaurants or bars. As we saw more of this area, we decided that this is a nice place for people like us who have traveled to lots of the Thai islands and want a nice place to stop on the way from one place to another, but we have a hard time understanding why so many people choose to stay here, rather than heading to one of Thailand’s many nearby islands. There are some very nice resorts here, so I guess that may be the reason for some, but this isn’t really a place we’d recommend to anyone coming to Thailand for just a couple weeks. The lone exception is if you want to visit the Similan Islands, as Khao Lak is the main jumping off point for such trips. Many people do a day snorkeling trip there or a 3-4 night live aboard scuba diving trip. They’re very expensive however ($100 for a day trip and $500-700 for the live aboards).
Since we had just done a day snorkeling trip in the Trang Islands and we didn’t have time for a live aboard (though it’s on our bucket list of things to do in Thailand), for our full-day in Khao Lak, we rented a motorbike to check out some of the surrounding areas and beaches. In the morning, we headed north (to the cuter town) to see the Tsunami Memorial, a huge boat that washed ashore in the tsunami and was never moved. We saw a few of the nice resorts, some other beaches, and then headed south to Khao Lak-Lamru National Park. This park has a short nature trail that leads to a small beach at the end (Small Sandy Beach). The trail was nice, but probably not worth the 200 baht that they are charging foreigners. We weren’t able to get the “Thai price” (20 baht pp) but the woman working at the park gave us half off the “farang” price, which we thought was fair enough. Included with the ticket for the national park was also access to several other waterfalls, including Ton Chongfa Waterfall, just a few km north of where we were staying. So, we decided to take advantage of the free entry we had and go check it out. The waterfall has 7 levels and the whole hike is about 2km but because it’s April/the dry season, the waterfall was very dry, so we decided to only go up to level 2. We did, however, see lots of wildlife in the short time we were there. We saw lots of lizards, a snake, and a huge praying mantis. One of the lizards even ran over my foot! Definitely an action packed hour or so.
By the time we were finished with the waterfall it was about 4pm and we heard there was a big market going on (again in the cute part of town) so we went to check it out. It turns out this was a huge food/clothes/souvenir market that only happens on Saturdays, Mondays, and Wednesdays. They had an awesome selection of food (and lots of cute little bars), so after doing a lap through the market, we decided we’d come back later for dinner. After happy hour in our hotel pool, we made our way back and got a great BBQ dinner – ribs, chicken, corn, and a som tam.
As I mentioned earlier, Khao Lak was a good place for us to stop on our way north from Koh Lanta to Khao Sok (though we wish we’d stayed in the cuter part of town), but if you’re coming to Thailand just for a couple weeks and you’re coming this far South (unless you want to take a trip to the Similan Islands or do a scuba diving live aboard), we think you’re much better off heading to Phuket or one of the many other great islands around here (Kho Phi Phi, Ko Lanta or even Ao Nang in Krabi on the mainland).