Handily located just an hour north of Phuket International Airport, and some 30km south of Takua Pa, KHAO LAK has established itself as a thriving, mid-market beach resort with plentiful opportunities for diving and snorkelling, easy access to the supreme national park reefs of Ko Similan, and a style that is determinedly unseedy. It lacks sophistication, and is mostly a bit pricey for backpackers, but is ideal for families and extremely popular with northern European tourists. High season here runs from November to April, when the weather and the swimming are at their best and the Similan Islands are open to the public; during the rest of the year, Khao Lak quietens down a lot – and becomes much cheaper too.
The area usually referred to as Khao Lak is in fact a string of beaches west off Highway 4. Khao Lak proper is the southernmost and least developed, 5km from the most commercial part of the resort, Nang Thong (aka Bang La On), which throngs with shops, restaurants, dive centres and countless places to stay, both on the beachfront and inland from Highway 4. North again about 3km (5min by taxi or a 45min walk up the beach) is lower-key, slightly more youthful Bang Niang, a lovely long stretch of golden sand that’s backed by a developing tourist village whose network of sois is away from the highway and feels more enticing than its neighbour. Removed from all this commerce, Laem Pakarang, 12km further up the coast, a headland and popular sunset-watching spot that gives onto 11km Hat Pakweeb (Hat Bang Sak), is where you find the area’s most exclusive accommodation.
There is, thankfully, little obvious evidence these days of the area’s devastating experience during the December 2004 tsunami, when the undersea earthquake off Sumatra sent a series of murderous waves on to Khao Lak’s shores (and the rest of the Andaman coast), vaporizing almost every shorefront home and hotel here and killing thousands. Nang Thong quickly became the centre of a huge reconstruction effort, with thousands of volunteers arriving to help, and rebuilding was mostly completed within a couple of years, though for many survivors recovery will probably take a lifetime.