Dive into Paradise on the Andaman Coast

Lovely, laid-back Khao Lak is one of Thailand’s most appealing beach destinations. And with close proximity to two of the best diving locations in Asia, Khao Lak is an ideal base for anybody wanting to enjoy snorkelling or dive trips in the Andaman Sea. Stunning above and below the waves, the warm tropical waters around the Similan Islands and Surin Islands teem with aquatic life and provide amazing memories as you swim with sea turtles for company. Base yourself in the quiet beach resort of Khao Lak on the mainland and you can explore all the delights this part of the Andaman Coast has to offer.

Khao Lak
Tourists arriving here in search of exciting nightlife are barking up the wrong palm tree. Khao Lak is the epitome of a family-friendly destination. The area hasn’t witnessed the same level of development seen in nearby Phuket or Krabi and the Khao Lak area enjoys a more genteel atmosphere. Khao Lak is an excellent choice for families or couples looking to book a relaxing beach break in Thailand.  

Where to stay in Khao Lak
The stretch of coastline that makes up Khao Lak extends for around 20 miles and it can be confusing when you begin to research where to stay. Although there is a small beach called ‘Khao Lak’, the area that is usually described as Khao Lak in guide books and by travel agents incorporates a number of different beaches and small towns. 

Nang Thong beach sits in the centre of the Khao Lak area and it is here where you’ll find Khao Lak’s most extensive range of accommodation and dining options and is a good option if you are traveling with children. Just to the north of Nang Thong brings you to attractive Bang Niang. Away from the beach there is a night market and a small bus station so it does have some local appeal whilst remaining tourist-friendly. Heading further north along the Khao Lak coastline the area becomes even quieter still as you reach the serene beaches of Khuk Khak. The Khuk Kak area may be too quiet if you are travelling with children, but it is a great choice for couples. Wherever you choose to base yourself in Khao Lak you can expect a wonderful beach holiday.

Suggested hotels:

Apsara Beachfront Resort and Vill
Casa de la Flora
JW Marriott Khao Lak Resort and Spa
Khao Lak Orchid
The Sarojin
X2 Khao Lak Anda Mani Resort

What to see and do in Khao Lak
If you can drag yourself away from the seductive sands of Khao Lak, the small town of Takua Pa makes for an interesting excursion. With some delightful old buildings, an enjoyable Sunday market and a picturesque riverfront, Takua Pa isn’t short on charms. Staying in Khao Lak also places you perfectly for a day trip to the outstandingly beautiful Cheow Larn Lake and Khao Sok National Park. Heading south, Phuket is an easy bus ride away and to the east, the magnificent Phang Nga Bay beckons with more sightseeing options.  

From November-February, something magical happens on quiet stretches of beach in the Khao Lak area as sea turtles come ashore under the moonlight to lay their eggs. To learn more about this and even have the chance to release a turtle to the sea, visit the Phang Nga Coastal Fisheries Research and Development Centre.  

Sadly, many people only know Khao Lak as a place of tragedy. Thousands lost their lives on this particular stretch of coast when the Boxing Day Tsunami struck in 2004. The area has rebounded since those dark days, but there are memorials in place in Ban Nam Khem Niang and the police patrol boat at Ban Niang.

Travel to Khao Lak
The nearest airports to Khao Lak are Phuket (1.5 hours away) and Krabi (2 hours away). Frequent flights operate from Bangkok to both airports. There are two airports in Bangkok with most low-cost carriers (Air Asia, Nok Air, Thai Lion Air) flying from Bangkok Don Mueang (DMK). Thai Airways and Bangkok Airways fly from Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK). There are also direct flights from Chiang Mai to Phuket and Krabi in addition to services from Pattaya U-Tapao to Phuket.

Diving and snorkelling
Khao Lak is a great base for anybody wishing to experience the outstanding dive sites in the vicinity including the Similan Islands and Surin Islands. All travel agents in Khao Lak and the majority of hotels can arrange trips for you. If you don’t want to dive or snorkel, you can opt instead to stay on the boat and relax whilst the others are donning their masks and flippers. However, there are not usually any discounts for non-swimmers and set rates apply for all passengers.

The Similan Islands and Surin Islands can both be visited as day trips from Khao Lak, but if you prefer more time diving choose a liveaboard option which typically involves at least three nights away. Marine life regularly spotted amongst the corals around the Similan Islands include moray eels, leopard sharks, sea turtles, snappers and barracudas. In the waters further north around the Surin Islands and Richelieu Rock, whale sharks are often seen amongst the angelfish and parrotfish.

There is a national park entry fee (500 Baht for adults), but this is usually included in most tour prices together with round-trip transfers from your hotel in Khao Lak. Sample prices at the time of writing for a day trip with snorkelling from Khao Lak are:

Similan Islands = 2,000 Baht
Surin Islands = 2,200 baht

Trips can be booked with any travel agent in Khao Lak and most hotels in the area. You can also check with the tour companies listed in the islands travel section further below.

Similan Islands
The Similan Islands are a group of islands which are part of the protected Mu Ko Surin National Park. The area originally included nine islands (Similan means nine in a Malay dialect), but the islands of Ko Bon and Ko Tachai are now also included within the boundaries of the National Park. The islands in the archipelago all have individual names, but are also identified by numbers. As part of a protected marine area, Island 1, 2 and 3 are off limits to the public to maintain the reefs and protect the endangered green turtles who hatch their eggs on the beaches there.

The biggest island of the group, Ko Similan (Island 8) is located approximately 40 miles away from Khao Lak. The distinctive shape of the rock formations here have led to one bay becoming known as ‘Donald Duck Bay’. All boats stop here and visitors have time to relax on the beach or climb up to the viewpoint next to the sail-shaped rock overlooking the bay.

There are no hotels or guest-houses on the Similan Islands, but it is possible to stay overnight in designated camping areas or National Park bungalows located on Ko Similan (Island 8) or Ko Miang (Island 4). Overnight stays should be booked in advance via the official National Park Thailand website or local travel agent in Thailand. Boat tours to the Similan Islands stop at both islands and you’ll find simple restaurant and toilet facilities here.  

Surin Islands
Five islands make up the gorgeous Surin Islands with Ko Surin Nuea (Nuea = north) and Ko Surin Tai (Tai = south) the two biggest. The north island is the location for the Mu Ko Surin National Park headquarters and visitor facilities.

Ko Surin Tai enjoys a sheltered location and for many years, long before it became part of a National Park, the island has been used by the Chao Leh (People of the Sea) also called ‘Sea Gypsies’. Locally, though, these nomadic people are known as the Moken. They possess remarkable swimming and fishing abilities, speak their own language and have their own unique culture. Visitors are asked to be respectful of the Moken way of life when visiting the island. If you’d like to find out more about the Moken you can book a trip with Andaman Discoveries.

For conservation reasons, much of the interior of Ko Surin Nuea is off limits to the public and park officials take it seriously if people wander off and ignore warning signs. It’s possible to stay overnight on Ko Surin in the National Park bungalows or camp site. This has the advantage that you can charter your own longtail to enjoy snorkelling in a more leisurely fashion compared to a day trip. Longtails can be hired via the National Park HQ or directly with the Moken.

Travel to the Similan Islands and Surin Islands
There are no public boat services to or from either group of islands. The only way to get there is by using one of the tour boats. This means that even if you want to stay overnight at the camp site or park bungalows you still have to pay the cost of the day tour. Trips can be booked at most hotels and travel agents in Khao Lak or Phuket and the price includes transfer to and from your accommodation. For the Similan Islands, most boats depart from the small fishing village of Tap Lamu Port close to the central area of Khao Lak. Speedboats make the trip out to the Similan Islands in just over an hour.

Different departure points are used for the Surin Islands depending on who you book with. You’ll normally head north from Khao Lak to Kuraburi from where speedboats take approximately 1.5 hours to reach the Surin Islands. More details on trips to the islands:

Andaman Discoveries
Check In Andaman
Like Andaman
Sea Star Andaman

If you are a keen diver, specialist dive companies such as Dive Worldwide can arrange trips for you, including liveaboards.

Best time to visit
The best weather in Khao Lak and the offshore islands is from November-April which also corresponds to the diving season for the Similan and Surin Islands. The best underwater conditions for divers and snorkelers can usually be found in February and March. The Similan and Surin Islands are open to visitors from October-May. Outside of these months, the marine parks are off-limits to tourists.

by Roy Cavanagh www.thaizer.com

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