Looking For the Perfect Beach Holiday? Skip Phuket & Go To Khao Lak Instead
Your friends at lostinbeautifulplaces.com continues our series, “Off the Beaten Path in Thailand” with a lesser known beach destination, Khao Lak. Over the years, we had heard from multiple travelers that Khao Lak was a hidden gem and should be part of our Thailand beach itinerary. We finally made it there on our three-month trip to Thailand this year, and we were very happy that we did. We spent a week relaxing and playing in the small, laid back beach town and wished that we had stayed even longer. After getting to Khao Lak, we realized that we had spent too much time in Phuket.
Phuket was a top beach destination in Thailand for budget-minded backpackers and travelers for many years, but has slowly (or rapidly, depending on who you ask) transformed into a crowded resort area. All-inclusive resorts, catering especially to Russians, have sprung up everywhere, causing the beaches to be absolutely packed with sun worshipers. Giant cruise ships are parked offshore, hoards of jet skiers zip around and vendors aggressively hawk their goods, making the beaches less than desirable for us.
Phuket’s reputation as a party spot still rings true, but this is changing. Travelers now make up a bizarre mix of middle class families, billionaires, backpackers, party animals, sex tourists and couples on their honeymoon. We noticed families walking down Bangla Road (the main party street in Patong) at night, strolling past the open air strip clubs and bars, as vendors aggressively push the ever-popular “ping pong shows” and other sex related services. Those parents must have had to do some serious explaining! If any of our readers don’t know what a “ping pong show” is, check it out here.
We wanted to see what Phuket was like with our own eyes before passing judgement, so we parked ourselves at a nice hotel on the quiet side of the island (on Chalong Bay) and made day trips from there. While it is much quieter on this side of the island, the beaches leave much to be desired. We did have a fun time visiting the party town of Patong and we really enjoyed the beaches on the southern end of the island (Nai Harn Beach, especially), but we hoped that our next stop, Khao Lak, would be more along the lines of what we were looking for. Turned out that Khao Lak was exactly what we were seeking. With its uncrowded swimming beaches that we could walk on for miles, laid back vibe, low prices, local culture, rain forests, waterfalls and amazing day trips to protected islands, Khao Lak met and surpassed our desire for a perfect beach destination.
Our next stop after Khao Lak was scheduled to be the much heralded island of Ko Samui. As soon as we arrived on the overcrowded, overdeveloped island of Ko Samui, we wished we were back in Khao Lak. The beaches on the island could not compete with the long stretches of white sand and warm, clear water that Khao Lak offers. We changed our plans and stayed only a couple days on Ko Samui before moving on in search of better beach locations. Stay tuned to our blog for future articles about some of our favorite “Off the Beaten Path” finds in the beautiful Thai islands….
Getting to Khao Lak from Phuket
For visitors arriving at the Phuket airport, there are a number of ways to travel the 80 km (around 60 miles) north to the town of Khao Lak. If money is no object or time is limited, jump in a taxi and you will arrive in an hour. Cost will be somewhere between $50-80 US. If traveling with a group of four or more, this option may be worth it. For more budget-minded travelers, the public bus may be a better option.
The public bus picks riders up at the Phuket airport outside of the arrival terminal, near the “Car Park”. Follow signs toward “Airport Bus” and look for the bright orange buses that are parked alongside the road. Buses leave every hour and cost around $3-4 US per person, one way. In order to get to Khao Lak, a transfer must be made. This can be done at the first bus stop outside of the airport or it can be done in Phuket town. Catching it at the first stop out of the airport could reduce travel time up to an hour, but can be confusing to find, especially if the bus driver doesn’t speak your language. Also, beware that it can be a long wait in the hot sun until the next bus arrives and some of the buses don’t go all the way to Khao Lak and require one more transfer.
Transferring buses in Phuket town from the Airport Bus could take an hour longer, but it is a more guaranteed route that will take you directly to Khao Lak without any additional stops. Jump on the bus labeled “Bangkok”. It leaves every hour and costs another $3-4 US. The buses are air conditioned and there are drinks and food available at the Phuket Town transfer station. After arriving in Khao Lak, the bus will stop and drop off riders on request or there are 3 designated stops on the main road through town.
Things to do in Khao Lak
Nature is the main attraction in Khao Lak, as the area is blessed with amazing beaches, tropical rain forests, mountains and waterfalls. Khao Lak is a quiet place that attracts families, divers and nature lovers of all types. Miles and miles of some of the nicest beaches on the Andaman Sea lie along the Khao Lak coastline. Three National Parks are located within the surrounding mountains. Khao Lak is also the access point for the Surin and Similan Islands, which offer the best diving and snorkeling in all of Thailand. Divers from far and wide come to this world class diving destination to catch the live-aboard dive boats that go out for two to seven days at a time. Agricultural land with beautiful farms are spread out throughout the region, producing rubber and food crops such as rice, vegetables and fruit.
Khao Lak was almost completely devastated by the massive tsunami of 2004. As many as 10,000 people died in Khao Lak that day. The town is now completely rebuilt, with the only visible remnants of the disaster being the tsunami warning towers that line the beaches and a Navy boat that was swept over 2 kilometers inland. The boat is still sitting in its resting place and is part of the Tsunami Museum and Memorial.
Khao Lak is a relatively small town, but stretches over 30 kilometers of coastline and consists of six separate beach areas. Since it is so spread out, the area is best explored on a motorbike. Motorbikes can be rented for around $6-9 a day. Traffic is very light throughout Khao Lak, making it ideal for taking motorbike trips to remote beaches, National Forests and getting to and from the six different areas of town. We recommend renting motorbikes through your place of lodging, if possible. That way you won’t have to hand over your passport and leave it as collateral. Guesthouses and hotels often can offer the lowest prices, too. This also applies to day trips. The owner of the hotel that we stayed at (To Zleep Hotel) was able to get us a HUGE discount on our snorkeling trip to the Surin Islands and give us a low price on a motorbike.
As far as shopping, eating and playing, Khao Lak offers so much for a small town. Day and night markets are located in the main sections of town and there are plenty of grocery stores, 7/11’s and a huge variety of delicious restaurants to chose from. Shops selling beach gear, ice cream, snorkeling or dive tours and Thai souvenirs line the main roads. Low priced massages are offered on the beaches, as is the case in most of the tourist locations in Thailand. As far as nightlife goes, there are a handful of nightclubs and a surprising amount of bars with live music, especially cover bands. We heard “Take me Home, Country Roads” by John Denver performed by 4 different musicians during our week stay.
As mentioned before, we stayed at a hotel named To Zleep Hotel, which is located in the center of Khao Lak, near the Nang Thong Supermarket. The public bus stop is steps away from the hotel and Nang Thong Beach is an easy 5 minute walk. The rooms are small, but very clean and modern and the free breakfast is decent. We paid less than $20 US per night for the room and thought that it was a fantastic value. The owner of the hotel is a wealth of information about Khao Lak and he could not have been more helpful or friendly. He can also get great deals on tours. We booked a snorkeling tour to the Surin Islands and also rented a motorbike from him for 3 days. His sister runs the little cafe in front of the hotel, which we thoroughly enjoyed.
We were able to get a great deal on the To Zleep Hotel by booking it though Agoda.com. While we are in Asia, we almost exclusively use Agoda. It consistently comes up with the lowest prices and has benefits such as offering “Cash Back” on most bookings and allowing easy cancellations up to 24 hours before check-in. Using a credit card with no International Fees saves us 3.5% every time we charge something. We use the Chase Sapphire Preferred card and it has saved us thousands of dollars over the years.
Khao Lak Beaches
Khao Lak and Sunset Beaches
Khao Lak beach and Sunset Beach are the two most southern areas and are located outside of the main town area. They are quiet beaches, with only a few resorts, stores, restaurants or services available. The mountains provide a beautiful backdrop, making these uncrowded beaches a peaceful place to spend the day swimming and sunbathing. The few hotels that exist here are very nice establishments and can be booked for surprisingly low prices. Lam Ru and Thai Muang National Parks, both located south of Khao Lak, can easily be accessed from here.
Nang Thong Beach
Nang Thong Beach is located in the busiest area in Khao Lak and is known for offering amazing sunsets, great swimming, and decent snorkeling. Its long, wide, white sand beach is lined with palm trees and has scattered boulders that are fun to climb on and watch crabs and other sea creatures darting about. A lighthouse that is no longer in service fronts the beach and is a great place to view tide pools or get a shot of the sunset behind it. There are markets, restaurants, bars, dive shops and bamboo huts offering massages, both near the beach and up to the main road. A few high-end hotels are placed along the back of the beach, but they do not encroach on the sand.
Bang Niang Beach
Bang Niang Beach is located north of Nang Thong Beach and is more secluded, but is not as wide as Nang Thong. Bang Niang Beach is connected to Nang Thong Beach and it is an easy walk between the two. The narrow beach is backed by thick forest, making it a great place to find some shade after basking in the hot sun. Although Bang Niang is less developed, there are plenty of stores, restaurants and services available.
Khuk Khak and Pak Wip Beaches
Khuk Khak and Pak Wip beaches are located north of the main area of Khao Lak. They are both quiet, secluded beaches with a sprinkling of high end and mid-range resorts, including some of the larger 5-star hotels in the area. Swimming is very good on these beaches, as the water tends to be calm in the shallow sections. Few services are available around these beaches, but there are some, including local fish markets and restaurants. Day trips to Surin and Similan Islands leave from this area.
Khao Lak Day Trips
Surin and Similan Islands
One of the best things about Khao Lak is the wide variety of day trips that can be taken from there. The most popular day trips from Khao Lak are speedboat tours out to the Surin and the Similan Islands. Both of these island chains are designated Marine National Parks and have little to no development on them. The Islands are located approximately 60 kilometers off of the mainland, far from any rivers, making the conditions perfect for snorkeling. Giant manta rays and whale sharks frequent these islands. A sea gypsy village is found on the Surin Islands. Tours often include a stop in the village to purchase handcrafts and witness the unique lifestyle of the natives.
After much research, we decided to book a snorkeling tour to the Surin Islands instead of the Similans. It was a tough decision, as both places offer so much amazing scenery. The Similans tend to draw more divers and larger crowds, so we opted for the Surins. We were very happy with our choice. The islands were beautiful, the water was clear and the snorkeling was like being in an aquarium full of brightly colored fish and many types of coral.
We have snorkeled in some amazing places around the world, and our time in the Surin Islands is one of our favorite so far. As mentioned earlier, we booked the tour through our hotel and received a huge discount. We had been keeping our eyes open for a good deal on a tour before we even arrived, so when we saw the price that the hotel offered, we booked it without hesitation. Be sure to shop around and don’t forget to ask your hotel operator what deals they can provide.
Khao Lampi- Hat Thai Muang National Park
The huge Khao Lampi- Hat Thai Muang National Park, located south of Khao Lak, consists of 72 sq km of protected rain forests, mangroves and sandy beaches. Its dense jungles are home to Lampi Falls, a beautiful, multi-tiered waterfall and Ton Prai Falls. ATVs can be rented at the park, as well as canoes to explore the mangroves. The National Park also has some challenging hiking trails which take visitors from the sea to the mountains. For those in the mood to relax, Thai Muang beach is one of the highest rated beaches in all of Thailand. In addition to being a beautiful stretch of white sand, Thai Mueang Beach is a protected nesting site for two species of sea turtles, the Leatherback and the Olive Ridley.
Lam Ru National Park
Lam Ru National Park, located near, Khao Lampi- Hat Thai Muang National Park, covers a total area of 125 sq km. The park offers spectacular sightseeing opportunities for nature lovers with a landscape that includes beaches, mountains, forested valleys and mangroves. The highest point in the park, Kao Lak Mountain, is situated near the sea and contains a Buddhist temple dedicated to the mountain. The park is home to various species of wildlife such as the Flying Lemur, Binturong, Malayan Weasel, Sumatran Serow, Crested Serpent Eagle and Wagler’s Pit Viper. Multiple hiking trails traverse the park.
Khao Sok National Park
The largest and most well known National Park in the Khao Lak region is Khao Sok. Located 50 km northeast of Khao Lak, the park consists of over 725 sq km of low elevation hills, valleys, rivers and lakes. The highest point in the park is only 900 meters high. The man-made Cheow Lan Lake makes an inland sea that covers over 165 sq km of the park. Limestone cliffs rise up from the lake, often making a perfect reflection over the still water.
Khao Sok is located in one of the wettest places in Thailand. Over 5% of the world’s animal species including Tigers, Tapirs, Elephants, wild boars and White-Handed Gibbons populate the park. The oldest evergreen forest in the entire world is also located in the park. If visitors only get to see one National Park around Khao Lak, this is the one to see. For more information on Khao Sok, our friends at Salt in our Hair wrote an in depth article about their time in the park.
When to Visit Khao Lak
Khao Lak is a seasonal destination, with the majority of tourists visiting between November and April each year. The monsoon season lasts from May to October and turns Khao Lak into a very quiet place. Visitors in the rainy season can expect even lower prices, but many restaurants and shops will be closed. Trips to the Similan and Surin Islands stop running between May and November, as Similan National Park is closed to visitors and the seas becomes rough this time of year.
We very much enjoyed our time in Khao Lak and will definitely be making this journey again in future trips to Thailand. Feel free to add any additional information that we left out in the comments below. Also, be sure to follow us on FACEBOOK to read about our travel adventures!