Today it’s hard to tell that the Khao Lak area of Thailand was the hardest hit place in the country during the Boxing Day Tsunami in 2004. The lush area, which is surrounded by national parks, is the western elbow of Thailand’s serene deep south that juts out into the Andaman sea. Windy roads through a once unforgivingly rugged landscape of lush jungles and imposing tree covered mountains flatten out, leading you a few hours away from the bustle of beaches in Phuket (approx. 75km, 1 hour away) and Krabi (approx 135km, 2 hours away).
With a high percentage of tourists who’re return visitors to Thailand, the more secluded strip of resorts and small hotels in Khao Lak provide a quiet alternative to Southern Thailand’s more well known destination. This is especially true for winter refugees more interested in spending time with family, or tanning with a good book, than the local party scene. With tourism exploding past previous levels in the decade since the tsunami, there’s also been efforts to push for a local airport (Phang Nga-Andaman International Airport) to make the area easier to access and alleviate flight traffic to Phuket.
Khao Lak has a lot to offer. But whether you find yourself surrounded by tourists on the Similan Islands, or as one of the few visitors to the Tsunami memorials, don’t be last to realize that even we as tourists have a role to play in learning to respect and protect the natural ecosystems in costal areas such as Khao Lak. You’ll find most of the activities in Khao Lak are appropriate for the entire family, and please be sure to be on the lookout for ethical tours and chances to support conservation efforts.
If you find the mini-guide below helpful for enjoying your time in Khao Lak, consider making a small donation to Courageous Kitchen’s efforts to feed and train at risk youth.
Things to Eat in Khao Lak:
Use these tips on a few good restaurants and markets to enjoy eating in Khao Lak! You can find many of these eating destinations featured in my vlogs from Khao Lak. Outside of your hotel you’ll find a variety of well priced restaurants serving both Thai and Western food, but to really eat like a local be sure to consider traveling beyond the Khao Lak to the nearby towns and areas.
Krua Navy (ครัวนาวี): This is a small local restaurant located on the nearby Naval Base in Khao Lak. The odd location keeps it hidden from the average passerby. Instead, most people visiting are locals who’ve heard of the restaurant’s good reputation in the area. After you tell the guards at the base you’re headed to “crew-ah nay-wee” restaurant, you’ll find a charming Thai auntie oscillating between commanding her kitchen team, greeting dinner guests, and popping into the garden for fresh herbs. Her team is capable of producing both seafood filled renditions of Thai favorites and few more unique dishes like their Thai sea grape salad.
Sea grapes aren’t commonly eaten in Thailand, and hardly found in the rest of the country. This special seaweed is served with a spicy and sour sauce, which has all the heat and consistency of a papaya salad (minus the papaya and most of the rest of the salad). The final component of the dish, called “sa-rai pooang ong-oon” (สาหร่ายพวงองุ่น), is crispy and lightly battered seaweed of a more typical variety. Each ingredient is mixed together on each plate to form the tasty medley of flavors which make Thai food so popular.
The sea grapes were a new experience for this Thai food lover, but I also drooled over other dishes such as Krua Navy’s “pad ped gop” (ผัดเผ็ดกบ), or pepper smothered, chili fried frog! Most dishes at Krua Navy are in the 100 – 200 THB range.
The Sundowner (Khao Lak Laguna Resort) – Being a guest of this hotel, I had more than a few opportunities to try out the menu at their beachside restaurant. While you can grab fresh coconuts, soothing smoothies, and plenty of standalone dishes like mee sapam noodles (a heavily Chinese influenced, but Phuket born stir fry of egg noodle, seafood, and gravy), I most enjoyed their knack for stuffing and grilling whole tilapia. The meaty flesh of the tilapia is peeled away from the bone and wrapped in lettuce to be topped with stringy rice noodles and a spicy seafood sauce (this Thai dish is called miang pla pao เมี่ยงปลาเผา). For about 200-400 baht per dish you can also enjoy a selection of western dishes and catch the sunset right at their tables near the shore.
Yim Yim Restaurant (Takuapa): Get a taste of the Thai-Chinese heritage of Takuapa with this restaurant’s giant menu. Regulars enjoy covering their table with orders of both the restaurants seafood options (pictured above is lime drizzled and garlic covered grilled squid or ปลาหมึกนึ่งมะนาว) and their typical southern Thai dishes, like stir fried egg with popular leafy green melinjo leaves native to the area (ใบเหมียงผัดไข่). The restaurant is popular with families and crowds fast, especially on weekends. You’ll find it located in Takuapa, 20 minutes from Khao Lak (simply search Yim Yim for the google map location).
Bang Niang Market: This is one of the oldest markets in Khao Lak and easy to reach. There’s also large signage outside to help you identify the market, and a taxi stand out front to make getting back to your hotel easy. If you can get the timing right, the location makes a visit convenient as you’re on the way to do other activities, and the market also has more souvenir style shops than the other more local markets featured on this list. The Bang Niang Market is open Mondays, Wednesday, and Saturdays from about 3pm – 7pm (check with your hotel for latest hours).
The Build Market Khao Lak: This market gets it’s name from the Build Factory Bar located where the market starts. The market is quickly growing in popularity with locals, and although it’s not large it boasts a variety of vendors. Visit in the afternoon as the market gets going and check out the selection of street food. As you walk deeper into the market, it becomes more geared towards people hunting fresh ingredients like seafood and raw meat. This is the less touristy alternative to Bang Niang Market and is open Sundays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays starting the afternoon at about 3pm – 7pm.
Khuk Khak Market: If you end up here, let’s hope it’s because you’re taking a Thai cooking class and not because you’re lost. This is the typical morning market that locals visit to buy their fresh produce and meats. The market isn’t hard to find, and if you’re the type of long term Khao Lak-er that likes to cook for yourself, go here to find cheap seafood, veggies, and fruit (for alcohol and western ingredients go to Nang Thong Supermarket which has a good selection). Khuk Khak Market is open daily from early morning to mid afternoon.
Old Town Takuapa (also spelled Takua Pa): Go here for a glimpse into the past and to browse the old shops, temples, and architecture of this old Chinese community. The old part of the Takuapa township is especially popular with visitors to their Sunday market which is great for photographers and foodies alike. Pay special attention to the harder to find, homemade Thai desserts you’re sure to see on display. A few tour companies offer walking tours here during the week, to tell visitors the rich history of this one popular trading settlement.
Annual Phra Narai Fair Night Market: For most people the highlight of their trip to Khao Lak is probably snorkeling in the Similan Islands or chilling as much as possible on it’s quiet beaches. I, however, really enjoyed being in Khao Lak during the their giant Phra Narai night market in the new side of Takuapa. The market is geared towards locals with a giant collection of food stalls on the outside, and clothing, concerts, and carnival like activities on the inside. Despite a lot of searching in both Thai and English, I wasn’t able to find many details about the dates for the event. Be sure to consult your hotel on local friends in the area to see if there are more special night markets happening at the time of your visit.
Other Things to Do in Khao Lak:
Note: You can find nearly all of the locations listed here with an english search on google maps.
The Similan and Surin Islands: Day trips to the Similan Islands are incredibly popular. However, most people make the long early morning journey from Phuket where they’re staying. If you’re staying in Khao Lak, however, it’s not uncommon for your hotel or guesthouse to be connected with an agency or directly with a company providing tours to the Similans. The group tours usually include pickup, basic lunch, and return to your hotel starting at about 2000 THB ($60) and up per person. Please be advised that while these islands are beautiful for diving, the typical tourist visit can be overcrowded and is having a negative impact on the islands themselves. Consult a reputable tour company before you book and remember many of the islands close to visitors from May to November.
The Tsunami Memorials: For visitors to Thailand who may not know anyone personally affected by the the Boxing Day Tsunami it can be hard to grasp the full impact of the devastation, especially in light of how the town looks today. Unfortunately, not a lot of effort has been put into memorializing the event here, but there are a few spots where you can stop briefly and pay your respects.
- Police Boat 813 – This is police boat on patrol when the tsunami happened and it was washed inland a few kilometer when the tsunami hit. Instead of returning the boat to sea, local officials decided to leave the boat as a reminder of the impact of the event. Where it stand to this day is often referred to as the Tsunami Memorial Museum. However, you won’t find much of a museum there, mostly a chance to reflect a moment and take a photos of the boat.
- Tsunami Memorial Park – In the Khao Lak area over 3000 people are said to have lost their lives during the tsunami. This memorial offers a little bit more of an attempt at memorializing the event. You can find a concrete sea wall constructed the same height as the wave and an adjacent wall with the names of many of the dead. The park is located further outside the town than the police boat, near Ban Nam Kem.
I hope in the future these memorial will improve in earnest. They should serve to remind us of the importance or having precautions put in place to help people get to safety, and the need to actively combat environmental degradation in coastal areas in Thailand and elsewhere.
Thai Massage to Luxury Spa Packages: All of the nicer resorts will offer some sort of spa treatment packages starting around 1500 THB ($45). The options and prices really vary from place to place and can range from the fanciest of treatments to healing packages for folks who’ve been spent too much time baking in the Thai sun. Khao Lak Laguna Resort offered a casual massage class to guests that was able to join and learn a few moves with other guests from the hotel. If you’re on a budget, stick to short one or two hour massages that you can find in town for less than 1000 THB ($30).
Thai Sea Turtle Conservation: There are two main places in Khao Lak to learn about the conservation of sea turtles and inquire about participating in turtle release programs. Both attractions are especially great for children.
- Thai Navy Sea Turtle Nursery – At the same naval base that has the local dinner spot Krua Navy (mentioned above), is also home to an important turtle nursery. The most popular thing to do at the nursery is to buy food and feed the baby turtles. The entrance fee is only 30 THB ($1), there is a cafe, and a memorial honoring soldiers who perished in the tsunami. The base isn’t located far from town and although it is a common stop on tours to the Khao Lak area, don’t be afraid to venture here on your too.
- Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Center – Located about an hour from Khao Lak, this is one of the main centers where baby turtles and nursed. Visiting the center is cheap and you can learn a lot about the process of caring for the young turtles, the different breeds of turtles, and their importance to the coastal environment. Beyond the turtles there are fish breeding programs, and even crocodiles that you can observe. The center is also known as the Thai Muang Turtle Sanctuary and the cost to visit is 20 baht.
Khao Lak Waterfalls: In my short trip to Khao Lak I didn’t really have the opportunity to really explore the vast national parks in the area. However, even on limited time you may at least want to take your family to see the nearby waterfalls which can be as close as a 15-20 minute ride from the town center. Your hotel may recommend the best waterfalls to visit and the popular, nearby falls like Ton Chong Fa also pop up on google maps. There is usually a small $3-$5 entrance fee to get in and during the dry season some of the falls dwindle to nothing. Be sure to check each place’s hours and go early for the best photos of the waterfalls.
Ethical Elephant Experiences & Other Tours – Because there are lots of options out there for tours in Khao Lak, it can be hard for newcomers with little time to research which companies are reputable. I’d like to recommend one company with a strong reputation in Khao Lak called Eco Khao Lak. The company offers interesting small group tours such as rafting, cooking classes, and Cheow Lan Lake excursions. One of their most popular tours is a visit to an Elephant Sanctuary that guarantees the ethical treatment of the large mammals. More info available at http://ecokhaolak.com/
Live Music at The Happy Snapper – Foreigners and locals alike will tell you a visit to the Happy Snapper is a good choice for live music in the evenings at Khao Lak. The cocktails aren’t as tasty as the chill atmosphere and selection of recognizable classic rock and other international hits. So stick to beer and arrive early to grab a seat not too far away from the band, as it does quickly get crowded as the evening matures. If the popular bar does get too crowded, walk down the street to the nearby Monkey Bar for a more relaxed drink.
Drone Flying in Khao Lak – Be sure to check the most recent laws about drones if you’re traveling with them in Thailand. The best scenario for flying your drone is when you can get permission from your hotel to fly, or hitting the public beaches in the early hours when there are few people. Tempting as it might be, drone flying is not allowed in Thailand’s national parks, so don’t expect to fly on or near protected islands like the Similans.
My Khao Lak Trip Budget:
Use the notes from my trip budget to help plan your own trip to Khao Lak and estimate the cost of living.
- $30 per day per person for food and drink
- $100 for a guided excursion (cycling, island hoping, elephant sanctuary, etc…)
- $80 roundtrip flight to Krabi with Nok Air
- $30 per day – Rental Car (or $15 per outing with a taxi/songtaew in Khao Lak)
- $30 – $100 per day – Hotel/Resort Room
Nok Air Flight to Krabi – I booked the hour or so hop down to Southern Thailand from Bangkok with Nok Air. The service was professional and a snack box, including a small bottle of water was provided. Several airlines serve routes from Phuket and Krabi airports, so be sure to search around for the best rates. If spending time in the larger cities first, you can also taxi or take private minivans to Khao Lak (the cost starts about 400 THB and I recommend this over a taxi of public buses).
National Rental Car – I paid a little less than $30 per day during the low season for my rental car. When you’re arriving into Krabi or Phuket airport, there are 5 or more companies to choose from and I rented from National for the first time. However, I didn’t wait to negotiate when I got there, and instead found a deal online for a Toyota Corolla. The car wasn’t available when I arrived and they upgraded me to the sportier Toyota Altis.
Khao Lak Laguna Resort – A standard room at the Khao Lak Laguna Resort runs about $80 – $120 during the off season, and their beach front villas can get up 12,500 THB ($370) per night during busy times. Be sure to book ahead and search the web for deals on this hotels and others in the Khao Lak area. You may also consider staying in the increasing number of Airbnb rentals available in the Khao Lak area.
Note: Expect the hotel and car rental rates to be higher during peak season (for example, November – January is often the most expensive time to visit the South of Thailand). My stay was hosted courtesy of Khao Lak Laguna Resort.