Khao Lak

Khao Lak (เขาหลัก) is a 20 km long strip of coastal resorts in Phang Nga Province on the Andaman Sea beaches of Southern Thailand, about 100 km north of Phuket Town. When the disastrous tsunami of 2004 struck South Asia, the Khao Lak region was the hardest-hit area in Thailand with over 4,000 fatalities, more than 3,000 more who were never accounted for, and thousands who were injured. It has since made an impressive recovery and is once again a popular tourist destination. Unlike Phuket, the many resorts in the Khao Lak area cater mainly to families and those looking for peace, quiet, and nature.

Understand

Khao Lak is a ~20 km stretch of lovely beaches along the Andaman Sea coastline set against a backdrop of jungle-covered mountains. The region is dotted with numerous resorts and tourist facilities.

The name "Khao Lak" translates as "Lak Mountain". The mountain is the centerpiece of Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park.The headland formed as the mountain plunges into the sea near the southern end of the Khao Lak roughly marks the southern boundary of the Khao Lak region.

The attractions of Khao Lak are impressive and many, but they are not flashy. The expanses of lovely uncrowded parks, mountains, roads, and beaches, relatively unspoiled nature, easy access to great off-shore diving, accommodations ranging from luxury to basic, and an infrastructure that supports tourism, but not at the expense of local customs or the Thai way of life, appeal to an increasing number of visitors.

Compared with a place like Patong, Khao Lak can seem boring, especially during low season (Apr-Nov). If jet skis (forbidden in Khao Lak) or exotic nightlife and its associated attractions are the reason you've come to Thailand, Khao Lak is probably not the place for you. On the other hand, it’s an excellent vacation spot for people seeking to get off the treadmill, for family getaways, and for nature-lovers.

Pakarang cape early morning

Films

Released in early-2013, The Impossible, a Spanish production (Spanish title: Lo Imposible), recounts the events of the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. Filmed on location in Khao Lak at the Orchid Beach Resort, it is the story of a family caught up in the events of 26 Dec 2004 and its aftermath. Starring Naomi Watts and Ewan MacGregor, the film incorporates stunning special effects recreating the tragic events of that day and the weeks following. Many Khao Lak residents participated in the filming as consultants or as extras.

Orientation, addresses, and navigation

The entire Khao Lak region straddles Phetkasem Road (ถนนเพชรเกษม, also Petchkasem Rd or Thailand Route 4 (ทางหลวงแผ่นดินหมายเลข4), one of the four major highways in Thailand. At 1,274 km, it is the longest highway in Thailand, stretching from Bangkok to the Malaysian border.

The centre of the Khao Lak area is 37 km north of the Sarasin Bridge, gateway to Ko Phuket, 76 km north of Phuket International Airport, and 106 km north of Phuket City.

Navigation: By Kilometre Post

Kilometre posts punctuate Route 4 (a few are absent in built-up areas). They take the form of white metal signs on the inland side of the road that mark the distance from Bangkok. Going south the numbers get bigger; going north, smaller. The Khao Lak region is bounded in the south at roughly km802, the northern end at roughly km780. Where appropriate in the text of this article, kilometers are given in the form kmxxx

Driving north from Phuket, at km803 you will see a sign for Ban Khao Lak, a small village of little interest. Then, after climbing over Lak Mountain on a curvy road, you will descend into Bang La On, de facto heart of the Khao Lak region.

Khao Lak is laid out like a long strip mall. Early settlement patterns resulted in three population centres spaced out along the beaches. Since the 2004 tsunami, development in low-lying areas has tended to gravitate away from the beach, nearer to the highway.

The region hosts many resorts, scattered chiefly among three main urban areas, all containing businesses identifying themselves as "Khao Lak". This can be confusing to visitors and it is useful to distinguish between the settlements.

From south to north the population centres are:

Bang La On

Bang La On is the most tourist-oriented of the three main Khao Lak towns.

Stretching from km795 to km797, Bang La On is mistakenly called Khao Lak by most visitors. It has many shops, bars, restaurants and banks. Any given group of store fronts seems to consist of a souvenir shop, a tailor shop, a dive shop, a massage parlour, an eyewear shop, and a restaurant. Strolling along the short main town centre in the evening can be quite pleasant as there are pavements.

If you are travelling by bus and tell the conductor you are going to “Khao Lak”, Bang La On is where you will be let off the bus, near the Nang Thong Supermarket. This may be far from your intended destination, so try to be more specific if you are not staying near there.

Just south of the supermarket, Nang Thong Road leads to the town’s beach, Nang Thong.

Webcam: Just north of the Nang Thong Supermarket are the offices of Khao Lak Land Discovery, a local tour organiser. Their webcam is mounted on the roof of their building. It shows you a segment of Rte 4, roughly in the centre of Bang La On. Camera's angle of view is to the southeast.

Bang Niang

Monks at Bang Niang beach in Khao Lak

A couple of kilometres north of Bang La On is Bang Niang. Bang Niang is more “Thai” and less “tourist” than Bang La On. The 7-Eleven at km793.3 roughly marks the town centre.

Bang Niang is not much to look at, but is home to the intermittent outdoor market ("talat nat" ตลาดนัด) that takes place in the centre of the town just south of the 7-Eleven on M-W-Sa, from roughly 13:00 until dark. You will find the market area dusty on dry days and muddy on wet days, so dress down for a visit.

Bang Niang is, increasingly, a centre of Khao Lak's nightlife as it is home to a significant number of the area's most popular bars, discos, and cabarets.

Bang Niang Beach can be accessed by turning towards the sea at the 7-Eleven shop in town centre.

Khuk Khak

Heading north again from Bang Niang, a couple of kilometres will bring you to Khuk Khak. It is even more Thai and less farang than Bang Niang and is the regional centre for things like hardware, paint, kitchen equipment, etc., i.e., all the infrastructural ingredients that keep the resorts running.

It has the daily “fresh market” ("talat sot" ตลาดสด) and the area’s only real, albeit tiny, bus station.

Khuk Khak Beach can be reached by turning at the signpost just south of km790 or, better, turning at the JW Marriott Hotel sign (km789.1) and following the signs to the hotel, then proceeding past it to the beach.

North of Khuk Khak are Pakarang Beach and Pakarang Cape (km787), Pakweep Beach (km784), and Bang Sak Beach (km780). The latter beach is just ~18 km south of Takua Pa.

Pakarang Beach Shoreline
Huts line the Pakarang Beach shore.

Pakarang Beach is a beautiful and quiet beach overlooking Cape Pakarang and Andaman Sea beyond. During the high season (November to February), as well as parts of the low season, meals can be bought from nearby food outlets and consumed in the series of huts that have been constructed close to the shore. The setting provides a perfect meditative antidote all year round to the bustle of the Khao Lak area in general.

Navigating Khao Lak can be confusing to visitors because many businesses use their mailing addresses in ads and a mailing address can be very misleading. Almost the entire Khao Lak region (except Ban Khao Lak itself) is located in the Khuk Khak Sub-district of the Takua Pa District of Phang Nga Province. Mailing addresses in the area include both the district and sub-district. Thus a typical address will read: “Moo 3/15, Khuk Khak, Takua Pa, Phang Nga”. This would lead visitors to think that the business is in Khuk Khak. In reality, the business could be located in Bang La On or Bang Niang or Khuk Khak or anywhere else in the Khuk Khak Sub-district. The mailing address is of absolutely no help in finding the business. Be careful when reading tourist brochures as many businesses do not go to the trouble of telling you their physical location.

Climate

 Climate Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
 
Daily highs (°C) 33 34 35 34 33 32 32 31 31 32 32 32
Nightly lows (°C) 21 22 23 24 24 24 24 24 23 23 23 22
Precipitation (mm) 33 36 68 205 527 406 452 478 582 476 250 48

Check Takua Pa 7 day Forecast at

The climate of the Khao Lak region is under the influence of two monsoon winds of a seasonal nature: a southwest monsoon and a northeast monsoon. The southwest monsoon starts in April when a stream of warm moist air from the Indian Ocean moves inland resulting in significant rain. It peaks in October, Khao Lak’s wettest month. Subsequent months, under the influence of prevailing northeast winds, are much drier.

Khao Lak Days with Rain, per Month
JanFebMarAprMayJunJulAugSepOctNovDec
4 4 7 15 24 23 21 23 24 22 16 6

In simple terms, Khao Lak effectively has two seasons:

From a tourist’s perspective, the dry season is the ideal time to visit Khao Lak, although rainfall numbers can be misleading. Rainfall in Khao Lak tends to occur in late afternoon/early evening, and is often of short duration. Rainy day statistics count any rainfall during a 24-hour period as a rainy day. Further confusing the issue, rainfall in Khao Lak is often highly localized, i.e., brief showers occurring at one location in the area, while everywhere else remains dry.

Get in

By plane

The easiest way to get to Khao Lak is to fly into either Phuket (the closest alternative) or Krabi and go to Khao Lak from there. Both airports serve international as well as domestic destinations.

A taxi from Phuket airport to Khao Lak costs 1,100-1,600 baht. The later you arrive, the more expensive the ride. Woe betide you if you have a 03:00 arrival time. If you think this is too much and prefer to take a bus (only possible during daytime), you will have to get to the main road, Highway 4, about 5 km from the airport. (This may not be easy, as the airport taxi "mafia" discourages motorbike taxi trips to the main highway or short hops to cheaper means of travel). If you manage to get to the highway, take a bus headed towards Takua Pa, Ranong or Surat Thani; they all stop on request in Khao Lak or wherever along the road you indicate. It's about 80 km from Phuket airport to Khao Lak. Bus fares vary from 80-100 baht; some are air-conditioned, others not.

By train

The nearest train station is at Surat Thani on the east coast, making this a less convenient option than just hopping on bus. But the romance of trains is irresistible to many, so if you want to take the train leaving Khao Lak, jump on a bus to Surat Thani for the 4 hr ride. The bus's first stop in Surat will be at the train station, some 13 km before reaching town centre.

Getting to Khao Lak from Bangkok is the reverse. Take a train to Surat Thani, then a bus to Khao Lak. Incidentally, if you are on a very tight budget, the train is by far the cheapest way to get to Khao Lak. A 3rd-class ticket from Bangkok to Surat is ~483 baht, a bus from Surat to Khao Lak, ~150 baht. Keep in mind that 3rd-class train travel is not comfortable. You will have a straight-backed, lightly padded bench-type seat, facing your neighbour, both of you competing for available foot room, while adjacent to another neighbour, jostling for elbow room. No air-conditioning, fans and open windows only. Don't worry about food as you will be besieged by food and drink hawkers at every station stop. Be prepared for a ~12-hour journey!

For more info, you can try to tease it out of the sometimes infuriating state railway website.

By bus

No buses have Khao Lak as their starting or ending point, but the region is well-served by buses originating in Bangkok, Chumphon, Phuket, Ranong, Surat Thani, and Takua Pa. All travel through Khao Lak on Rt 4. Most will stop at your command; express buses will not. Do not be dismayed if you try to flag down a bus and it does not stop. It is an express bus. Just wait for a local. It will be smaller, not a double-decker, and less posh.

BKS buses stop at the BKS Bus Terminal in Khuk Khak only. BKS (บขส, say the Thai initials as Baw Kaw Saw) is the government bus company. Its small terminal is located near the fresh market in central Khuk Khak a couple of blocks behind the 7-Eleven shop there.

Buses depart Bangkok to Phuket via Khao Lak from the southern bus terminal Sai Tai Mai. The 10 hour trip runs overnight and costs less than 500 baht. Bus tickets provided by Bangkok travel agents may route your trip via Surat Thani where you have to change to a different bus.

Buses departing from Chumphon to Phuket take around 5 hours to arrive in Khao Lak and will stop opposite the Nang Thong Supermarket unless you tell the bus conductor otherwise. Cost from Chumphon is 270 baht.

"Local" buses, e.g., the ones travelling from Takua Pa to Phuket, pass through Khao Lak roughly every hour or so until about 18:00. You can flag them down anywhere along Rte 4 and they will stop for you. There is a small bus stop in central Bang La On, roughly opposite the Nang Thong Supermarket, in front of Kinnaree Bakery. This side of the road is for southbound (direction Phuket) buses. Across the street from this in front of Khao Lak Tourism and Tour is what passes for a bus stop for northbound (direction Takua Pa, Surat Thani, Bangkok) buses.

To travel to Khao Lak from the bus station in Phuket, take a bus towards Takua Pa, Ranong or Surat Thani. Tickets cost 90 baht and the journey takes around 2 hours. Departures at 06:30, 09:00, 11:40, 13:00, 15:40, 16:20, 17:00, 17:50. This service travels onward to Takua Pa with the full trip costing 90 baht.

From Takua Pa to Khao Lak, possibly departing on the hour, this service travels onward to Phuket with the trip from Takua Pa to Phuket costing 90 baht.

From Krabi Town there's a daily minibus to Khao Lak. All travel agents in Krabi sell tickets.

From Hua Hin: There is a VIP bus departing the Hua Hin bus station south of town centre at 22:30 arrives 07:30, 1,011 baht (Oct 2013).

Get around

Given that the Khao Lak region is about 20 km in length, knowing how to get around is important.

Local transport is not a strength of the Khao Lak region. For starters, it is a nightmare for pedestrians as it is sprawling, and the infrastructure for walkers is mostly non-existent. Second, Rte 4 is the area's major north-south highway. For the most part traffic roars through populated areas at excessive speed, making the roadway highly dangerous. Police make no attempt to control speed limits. Third, there is no clearly marked and regular shuttle bus that moves up and down the length of Khao Lak. This forces visitors to fend for themselves, hiring motorbikes (which many visitors have no experience driving), trekking between towns, or hiring taxis (which is probably why there is no regular shuttle bus service).

The main methods of travel within the Khao Lak region are:

Walking is practical and pleasant at the south end of Bang La On, but pretty unpleasant for any distance in Bang Niang and Khuk Khak, and downright dangerous between towns. Few sidewalks exist, and when they do they are broken and uneven. Where even crude sidewalks are absent, one is forced to walk at the side of the road, precisely where motorbikes prefer to drive. This can be hazardous, especially at night. If you do find yourself having to walk the highway at night, walk facing on-coming traffic and use a torch or your phone light to warn approaching motorbikes.

Most guesthouses and hotel rent bicycles, or can arrange for you to rent one or more. Bicycles are expensive compared with motorbikes. Daily short-term rentals run 100 baht per day. Bicycles are not a practical alternative at night as none are equipped with lights.

Motorbikes can be rented from almost any hotel, guest house or bar in the area, no qualifications required. Prices are dependent on the duration of the rental and the type of motorbike. You can expect to pay ~250 baht a day for a short term rental of a Honda Click (110-125cc, automatic scooter) and as little as 100 baht per day for a long-term rental of a month or more.

Chances are that the person renting you the bike will want to take possession of your passport for the duration of the rental. This may be non-negotiable, but try to forestall it by offering a photocopy of your passport in lieu of the actual document.

Motorbike rentals do not come with insurance of any kind. If the bike is damaged while in your custody, you will be on the hook for repairs. If you are in an accident that involves a Thai, it is almost certain that you will be named as the one at fault, regardless of the actual circumstances. In that case, you will be liable for damages and medical charges incurred by everyone involved.

When renting a bike it is sensible: a) take photos of the bike when taking possession. This can help in preventing later disputes over damage, and b) ensure that you get a good helmet (or two) when taking possession. Police in the area conduct frequent roadblocks. If you are not wearing a helmet, you will be fined 300-500 baht.

There is only one petrol station within the boundaries of Khao Lak proper. It is located just north of Khuk Khak centre at km790.5. Hours of operation are 07:00-20:00. Cost of fuel: ~35 baht per litre. If you find you are running short of fuel, or if it is after-hours, you can buy 1-litre bottles of fuel from roadside stands for 40 baht each. Just look for a collection of re-purposed whisky bottles containing yellowish fluid. It is advisable to purchase this fuel sparingly as it is impossible to gauge its purity or how long it has been sitting there turning to varnish.

Many locals use songthaews to get around. They are 4-wheeled pick-up trucks of varying colours featuring two rows of seats in the bed at the rear, covered by a sheet metal roof with plastic side curtains. Only rarely do they display the limits of their travels, e.g., Bang La On to Takua Pa and, if they do, it is in Thai only. During daylight hours, songthaews pass up and down Rt. 4 every fifteen minutes or so. Flag one down if it is going in same direction you are and state your destination. The driver will tell you if he does not go there. A short hop from, say, Bang La On to Bang Niang, will cost 20 baht per person. A trip from one end of Khao Lak to the other end will cost about 50 baht. When you want to get off, press the buzzer (if there is one), or bang on the roof. Pay on departing.

After dark, songthaews seem to disappear, although the occasional one is spotted.

One caution: the taxi industry, some would say “cartel”, in Khao Lak is quite organised and clever. They would prefer that you took taxis everywhere rather than use the more communal form of transport. In other words, they go to considerable lengths to force you to hire a vehicle outright rather than board a songthaew. Thus, you may find that songthaews are not inclined to stop to pick you up.

There are no Khao Lak-based metered taxis. If you do see one, it has most likely just come from the airport in Phuket. Instead, off-hours songthaews serve as taxis in Khao Lak. You will find collections of them near town centres waiting for fares. They are more expensive than songthaews: a 50 baht trip in a songthaew might cost you 300 baht in a taxi.

If you hire a songthaew taxi outright rather than waiting for one by the side of the road, agree on a price beforehand. Be sure you are quoted either the total price for all persons, or a price per person. To go to the market in Khuk Khak approximately 2 km from Bang Niang will cost 100-200 baht or more.

Many of the resort hotels will offer complimentary transportation at set times during the day. Check with the front desk. Also, some restaurants and other businesses will offer free pickup within a reasonable distance in exchange for your patronage.

See

To the south

Bang La On

Bang Niang

To the north

In the old quarter of Takua Pa you will find Sino-Portuguese architecture and have the chance to wander around the quaint shops (best in the early morning). About 30 minutes drive north of Khao Lak. Takua Pa market and River Plaza are in the new town, near the bus station. There is a typical local market. The plaza has some good shops and a few riverside restaurants.
On a macabre note, Takua Pa was the centre for relief efforts following the tsunami. The collection/identification point for recovered bodies was located here, and there is reputed to be a cemetery holding the remains of unidentified foreign victims of the disaster.
A great, alternative way to get to Takua Pa is to turn right at km784 following the signs to the Sai Rung waterfall. The next 17 km will take you on one of Thailand's most lovely roads--no traffic, perfect tarmac, and no hills to speak of (perfect for bicycling). You will come to a T-junction. Turn left to old town Takua Pa, 1 km.

Do

Diving

With the Similan Islands and Surin Islands, home to some of the best diving in Asia, just offshore, this is one of the main attractions in the area. There are also several local dive sites to choose from and many competent local companies to guide you. Map of Similan Islands dive sites

Divers at the Similan islands

Golf

Snorkelling

Khao Lak is the most convenient point from which to go snorkelling in the Surin and Similan Islands, which offer some of Thailand's best coral and fish diversity and numbers. It takes usually 1-2 hours by speedboat to get to the islands. Several companies offer 1/2/3 day tours.

Surfing

Stay fit

Volunteer

Buy

There are two 7-Elevens in Bang La On, one in Bang Niang (km793.3), two in Khuk Khak (km791.2), and one at the turn for Parkarang Cape (km787). Several things are worth noting: 1) 7-Elevens will sell alcohol only between the hours of 11:00 to 14:00 and from 17:00 to 24:00. This is irregularly enforced. On religious holidays there will be no alcohol sales at any time. Holidays can last for several days. Smaller corner shops will be happy to sell you alcohol anytime they are open. 2) The northern Khuk Khak 7-Eleven, located at the PTT gas station (km790.5), does not sell any alcohol. This is true for all convenience stores adjacent to gas stations in Thailand. 3) All 7-Elevens have ATMs adjacent to their entrance. Doubly convenient, as you will get 1,000 baht notes from the machine. Use them for purchases in the 7-Eleven, as smaller shops frequently have difficulty making change.

Eat

Bang La On

Bang Niang

Khuk Khak

Drink

Bang La On

Bang Niang

Sleep

A few generalisations

To the south

Bang La On

Bang Niang

Khuk Khak

To the north

Stay safe

The tsunami on 26 Dec 2004 devastated Khao Lak. It was the hardest hit area in Thailand, with nearly 10,000 recorded deaths--some 2,000 of them tourists. Since that time the government has installed sophisticated warning systems which were lacking in 2004. In Apr 2012 the system was tested by an Indonesian earthquake and performed flawlessly. Sirens alerted the populace, who were able to move to higher ground with more than 2 hours notice of the impending landfall. Should you hear sirens blaring during your stay, immediately move inland to higher ground. In low-lying areas such as Bang Niang and south Bang La On, the tsunami reached Rte 4 and beyond to a depth of at least 5 m. As an additional precaution, go to the U.N.-sponsored Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) and sign up for an alert which will be sent via SMS to your mobile phone (Thai or other SIM card) or via email to your computer . Register at http://register.gdacs.org/Detail.aspx

Stay healthy

Connect

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