Khao Lak is a world away from Phuket

 A WORLD AWAY: Tourists play volleyball on Khao Lak beach in Thailand's Phang Nga province.
A WORLD AWAY: Tourists play volleyball on Khao Lak beach in Thailand's Phang Nga province.

Along the quiet expanse of beach at Khao Lak, tiny crabs are busily excavating their hidey-holes, throwing out precise constellations of sand.

Fishermen slowly wade into the shallows hauling long nets, bringing in glittering white fish, garfish, and a small stingray.

The sky turns pink and then purple as the sun begins to set, and lights twinkle along the beach as a couple of small family restaurants, not much more than wooden shacks, open for the night's business.

IN MEMORY: People launch floating paper lanterns into the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami victims, in Khao Lak.
IN MEMORY: People launch floating paper lanterns into the sky over the Andaman Sea in remembrance of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami victims, in Khao Lak.

The pace at Khao Lak is so mesmerisingly steady that it's easy to forget frenetic Phuket is only 90 minutes to the south.

Even easier to forget is that this series of six beaches, covering a 25km coastal stretch along the Andaman Sea, was one of the areas hit hardest by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

At least 4000 people were killed in the area, and its burgeoning tourism industry stalled.

QUIET EXPANSE: An aerial view of Khao Lak.
QUIET EXPANSE: An aerial view of Khao Lak.

A vivid reminder of the tragedy is police boat 813, which remains perched almost two kilometres inland where the wave dragged it, and is now a memorial site.

But over the past 10 years, Khao Lak has bounced back. There's a regular flow of visitors looking for something beyond the tacky dazzle associated with Phuket, Thailand's largest and most touristed island.

The town of Khao Lak is nothing special: a series of slapdash dive shops, bars, cheap hotels and trip operators lean together along either side of the main street.

But it's not the kind of town where you'd linger anyway, not once you spot the coastline.

The Marriott is one of a handful of high-end resorts to take advantage of its guests' desire for some seaside tranquillity. It sits on the beach at Khuk Kak, where these days waves barely make a ripple.

There's a small cluster of deck chairs nestled under a string of palms, but the hotel's winning feature is the 3.2km pool that wraps itself around and through the property in a series of canals that guests can drop into straight off their back decks.

You don't have to leave the beach to find everything you might need, from a luxury spa to kayaks and paddleboards, tennis courts, a gourmet deli filled with delicious cakes and tarts, and even a local craft market in the courtyard.

For those who want to venture further afield, Khao Lak is the closest mainland point to the Similan  Islands, a 70km boat ride away, famous for world-class diving and snorkelling.

Multi-day live-aboard trips are the best way to see the most of this exquisite national park, although day trips to the white sand at Tachai beach are popular.

If you'd prefer to stick to dry land, the 125km-square Khao Lak/Lam Ru National Park spans leafy forests, hills, mangrove swamps and sea cliffs, and this is where we head to get up close and personal with some Asian elephants.

Bui is only 10 years old and very playful, which becomes apparent when she sucks up a trunkful of dung-filled river water and sprays it all over us.

I sit tentatively on her back as she bends her knees and immerses herself in the water to cool off, and have to leap off awkwardly as she begins to roll onto her side and snorkels with her trunk, before giving us another liberal spray.

Up-close encounters with elephants are popular across Thailand, and for good reason - these immense creatures are endlessly fascinating, and being able to watch them at play is a privilege.

Once Bui has cooled off, we feed her bananas. She snatches them with an inquisitive trunk and tosses them into her mouth, then gives a honking grunt that our guide assures us is elephantese for "thank you".

But really, we should be thanking her.

And we do, as we head off for a dip in the chilly waters of a local waterfall, watching local kids skim down the water-smoothed rocks as though they're on a waterslide.

After that, it's back to that twinkling beach for cocktails at sunset, where Khao Lak still feels like a quiet little universe all of its own.          


GETTING THERE: Khao Lak is a 90-minute drive north of Phuket in southern Thailand. Taxis can be arranged at the airport for about 1800 baht (about NZ$65).

STAYING THERE: The JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort & Spa offers numerous holiday packages. Go to

PLAYING THERE: Locally-owned Green Andaman Travel runs numerous trips and tours around the Khao Lak region, from half-day elephant washing trips to rafting, camping and snorkelling adventures and city tours. Visit        

The writer stayed at Khao Lak as a guest of JW Marriott.