The Khao Lak area is a succession of small towns clustered around a main road, highway 4, which runs up the Andaman Coast to Ranong. The road is sandwiched between sea and rainforest, with the steep slopes of Khaolak-Lumru National Park behind the town, and the long sandy beach about a kilometre from the road. My guidebook and my small amount of internet research left me with the impression of a quiet town with not a huge amount going on, and while that may be true in comparison with Krabi or Phuket, it’s still a popular tourist area, particularly amongst older European couples, mostly Swiss and German. The main road is full of restaurants, shops and day trip operators, while the beach front has the hotels, resorts and beach bars. It’s squarely aimed at the young families and older couples who want their home comforts and beach-front massages, without the party scene of Phuket, and it manages it with charm and authenticity.
The majority of visitors to the area spend their days either on day trips to nearby attractions like the Similan Islands, Khao Sok National Park and local waterfalls, or relaxing in their resorts and on the beach. This makes the town itself oddly quiet and empty during the day, but by late afternoon people start crawling out of the woodwork and by dinner time the many restaurants are busy but not packed.
Due to a bit of Google Maps confusion, my hostel turned out to be a couple of kilometres north of Khao Lak proper, in Bang Niang, a smaller and quieter but built along the same lines; the perfect place to relax for a few days and have some time to myself. For my first few nights I stayed at the Riverside Guesthouse, a small hotel with private rooms and a dormitory on the main road. The proprietress and the rest of the staff were very friendly (including a Burmese girl who admired my longyi), and they had a sweet little cafe and seating area looking out onto the road, which was great for people watching. Later on I stayed at Walker’s Inn, a larger place with a similar set-up but much bigger restaurant recommended by the head of Volunteer Teach Thailand (more of which later). Run by an Anglo-Thai couple, the restaurant served a nice range of Thai and ‘international’ food and more importantly was showing the tennis, so I got to watch the Australian Open semi-finals.
The beaches are sandy, beautiful and quiet (particularly in Bang Niang), with plenty of rocky sections full of crabs and nice spots to watch the sunset. There’s also plenty to see in the area without going on day trips, like the Khaolak-Lumru National Park office, where I did a 2km ‘Nature Trail’ walk through the edge of the rainforest around the headland. It was very pleasant, especially as it ended in a gorgeous sandy cove, and the information boards displayed some of the finest examples of Google Translate English I’ve ever seen. My favourite was;
The Stone subside from the nature is creating on large -sized , give a human has admired the miracle .. there is character figure resembles with human footprint s is compared as remind to give person visit the national park realizes always that, ” we will abandon especial the footprints and pick the photograph get back only “.
It made me want to learn Thai, just so I could give them a proper translation that actually made a bit of sense.
In Bang Niang there was a night market held every other evening, with pop-up bars, clothes and gift stalls and excellent street food. Also in Bang Niang is the Tsunami Museum next to Boat 813, a police boat which was patrolling when the tsunami hit and ended up several kilometres inland on the other side of the highway, and was left there as a simple but effective memorial. Along with many places in this part of the world, the Khao Lak area was particularly badly hit by the tsunami on 26 December 2004 with at least 4,000 people killed. At it’s highest the wave in Khao Lak was approximately 14 metres high, around the height of a four storey building, of which there are approximately zero in Khao Lak. Even at the road a kilometre or more inland, the water level reached 3 metres, and the whole beach-front and a lot of the inland buildings were levelled. There was no warning system in place and many of the people who survived did so by sheer luck; luck that they weren’t knocked out by debris, that the sea spat them out above the surface before they drowned, that they found something to hang onto. It was very sobering and, me being me, I left the museum in floods of tears, looking like a crazy person.