Family Time in Khao Lak
If holiday destinations had suburbs, then Khao Lak (เขาหลัก) is Phuket’s overflow. Don’t get us wrong, this coastal resort town has a lot going for it and if you’re considering Phuket for a family getaway, then you should definitely look into Khao Lak. Phuket is bursting with tourists while Khao Lak is somewhere just below brimming. It’s all of the convenience of a tourist town, without some of the crowds you’ll find (and loathe) in Phuket.
Literally translating to “Lak Mountain”, this town offers countless accommodation options at every price point, great beach access, mountain views, and all of the tourist kitsch you can handle (and then some).
What once was a sleepy village, Baan Khao Lak, has turned into a series of small towns along one main road (route 4) that traces the coast. Somehow foreigners refer to it all as Khao Lak while Thais know the proper town names. To get a better idea of where you are or want to be in the Khao Lak sprawl, use the beach name (Khao Lak Beach, Nang Thong Beach, Bang Niang Beach, Khuk Khak Beach, Cape Pakarang Beach, and Bang Sak Beach).
WHERE TO STAY
Nang Thong Beach is an area we like as it puts us on a beach our kids enjoy while keeping us close to restaurants and 7-elevens. Plus, there is the Khao Lak Lighthouse (think beacon tower). Checking out tidal pools at the base of a lighthouse is a classic childhood memory just waiting to be lived.
Read about our experience at the Suwan Palm Khao Lak Beach Resort
The Life Aquatic
Beaches and pool time fill most family vacations in Khao Lak. The sand here isn’t white, unless you go to White Sand Beach, but the water is clean, the palms sway, and the sand is mostly soft. Along the shoreline there are a few places to scramble over rocks, but there’s no major snorkelling or diving. Sand castles, wave riding, and pool splashing will make for great family memories.
Day Trips for Days
Both Phuket and Khao Lak offer near endless options for day trip packages. In Khao Lak, there are tour operators everywhere. Don’t be afraid to shop around and ask details about what’s included in a package. Excursions to the islands of Phang Nga Bay (such as James Bond Island and Koh Phi Phi of Leo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” fame) will involve land transportation from Khao Lak. Anything into the open Andaman Sea can leave directly from Khao Lak and is often a shorter boat ride than if you were leaving from Phuket.
Both the Similan (from the Malay word for “nine”, and yes there are 9 Similan Islands) and Surin Islands are popular day trips for diving, snorkelling, and truly stunning beaches. As these are both in national parks, there is a park fee. Most of these islands do not allow overnight guests though there are limited, and rustic, options on one of the Similan Islands. Tour packages will involve an early morning pick-up and an evening drop-off.
Khao Sok National Park is another stunning day trip. Again there are a number of options, but the dense jungle, soaring limestone cliffs, and untouched beauty will remind you that humans and nature really are meant to have a special connection. And to round it out, there is still Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park with more of the same vistas.
Tsunami Awareness – the tragedy and the dark side of tourism
The Boxing Day Tsunami (December 26, 2004) decimated the southern Thai cost. Khao Lak was arguably the hardest hit. The official death toll was around 4,000 though unofficial estimates (factoring in undocumented workers) reach as high as 11,000. There’s no need to worry as early detection and warning systems have since been installed along the coast. The tsunami didn’t just change the physical landscape of Khao Lak, but the demographic one as well. Many working aged Thais were killed in the wave as hotels, restaurants, and tourists attractions all lined the beaches. This left grandparents and children alive and well at home inland. Though the town and economy have rebounded, the ripples of 2004 are still felt today.
We wanted our children not just to appreciate the beauty of beaches and palm trees, but also to understand what happened here. As travelers, we support the tourist industry which often reshapes local economies. Tourist demand for sandy vacations meant that many Thais and migrants were working on the coast when the tsunami struck. It’s not about blame, but rather exposing our children to the perks and implications of our travels.
TSUNAMI MEMORIAL MUSEUM and BOAT 813
Located on the main road in Khao Lak is the Tsunami Memorial Museum. You’ll see the sign for Police Boat 813 from the road. There are two museums here, but only one is official and it’s proceeds support families impacted by the tsunami. You can skip the first museum closest to the main road and proceed to the museum closer to the boat (you’ll see the boat – it’s hard to miss). It’s a simple museum with mixed reviews. The images and videos shown are graphic so make a choice that is suitable for your kids.
If you feel it would be too much, head straight to the boat. There is no fee to enter the area around the boat. There is a simple sign with poor English giving you some details. The simple version is that the boat was stationed off the Khao Lak coast to protect H.M. King Rama IX’s daughter and children as they vacationed in the area. When the tsunami made landfall, the King’s grandson was on a jetski. Despite efforts to save him, he died in the wave. Boat 813 was then carried 2 kilometers inland to where it sits now as a powerful visual to the force of the wave.
Adjacent to the boat is a memorial statue to help you understand the scope of the wave. It’s maintenance is lacking, but it delivers a strong message. To walk from the boat to the memorial statue, you will pass a bamboo building with some very graphic pictures from the aftermath. In the middle of the open air building there is a table laden with souvenirs. Each time we’ve visited there is a small crew working here nagging you to come and see with their line, “to look is free”. They claim the profits from their sales support local families, but when you press for more information (in English or in Thai), the answers don’t seem to line up. Much like the faux museum, we think this bamboo building is on the adjoining property and someone is trying to make a buck from visitors to the tsunami memorial.
Three years ago when we first visited Khao Lak, there were fishing boats nearby, but those were arsoned. Thankfully, the military boat is metal.
TSUNAMI MEMORIAL (BAAN NAM KHEM)
About a 30 minute drive north towards the town of Takua Pa is Baan Nam Khem. Though signed, the tsunami memorial here is a little hard to find. Hiring a taxi or driver to take you is not a bad idea. If you have your own wheels, then Google Maps can guide you.
Here you can walk through the memorial reading the names of some of the victims. The height of the curved wall os the same as the wave that swept onto land. Towards the shoreline there is a small building with pictures of the aftermath. The images here are not as graphic as in the museum or the bamboo building. Looking out to the water, you can also see the detection system we mentioned. As you drive in or out, you’ll also see a tsunami safety shelter. These have been build in bigger towns along the coast and are raised buildings to use as safe spaces should another tsunami strike.
WHERE TO EAT
Pizzeria Ristorante Bella Italia is a great Italian joint run by an actual Italian. It was family friendly and the owner made sure to chat with us. We especially loved their handmade pasta dishes. We loved it so much, we took a Thai friend there we went back a second time!
CHAW Mart and Meal, located in front of the Suwan Palm Khao Lak Beach Resort, is a simple place with a simple menu, but there is enough variety there to keep your family happy.
Cafe O’ Bar offers up a good mix of Western and Thai dishes. The prices are reflective of local prices, and it was usually full (always a good sign).
U-Taro Japanese Kitchen was another food highlight. Sushi in Thailand seems to be high-end expensive or affordably unappetizing. U-Taro is neither of those. They have a great selection of familiar favourites and special offerings.
Your splurge meal should be Sundowners, which is part of the Khao Lak Laguna Resort. You don’t need to be a guest to eat there. Go just before dusk and be sure to get a table overlooking the beach and see what gives Sundwoners it’s name. The prices are high for good, not excellent, food. The menu is a mix of Thai and Western.
Khao Lak is a straight shot 80km (50 miles) north of Phuket. There are a number of bus and shuttle companies which will take you on the 1 hour drive from Phuket International Airport. Be sure to ask your hotel if they have a shuttle.
If you are traveling domestically within Thailand, Surat Thani airport is another option and the drive to Khao Lak will take you through the twisty roads of Khao Sok. It’s like a sampler platter of the national park without the entrance fee!