Sunday, 25 November 2012

Khao Lak Airport

Khao Lak is blessed in being a part of Thailand that is full of natural beauty and pristine tropical environments. There is not only some of the best National Parks in Thailand within a small radius of the main Khao Lak beach resort areas, but also some of the best diving in the world.

And yet Khao Lak is not a hard-to-get-to destination in Thailand. It doesn't have a railway link - you have to catch a train to Krabi or Suratthani  - but it does have an airport just 80 kms or 60 miles away. The proximity of Khao Lak to Phuket Airport allows tourists to transfer in Bangkok or even catch a direct flight to Phuket and then take a taxi straight to their resort. For high-end tourism this is ideal.

It is thus not surprising that a large percentage of mid-range and luxury rooms in Khao Lak are booked by travel agents organizing package holidays. Khao Lak is close enough to an airport to make it an attractive destination for a big tourist market. Moreover, places like Koh Kho Khao have developed an appeal for one particular type of tourist. In the case of Koh Kho Khao it is a favoured destination for Scandinavians.

This is in contrast to other travel hotspots in Thailand that are much more difficult to get to. In particular there is Koh Phangan that hosts the biggest outdoor Full Moon Party in Asia and yet is only reached via ferry from either Koh Samui (which does have an airport) or Suratthani. The neighboring island of Koh Tao is similar. It is an island that is the number one place to learn PADI Open Water scuba skills and yet the long boat journey puts off lots of people from trying the island.

The future is about to change for Koh Phangan. Koh Phangan Airport is being built. When it is complete the demographics of visitors will move more to the high-end. Koh Phangan, like Khao Lak is a place blessed with great beaches and pristine jungle. It is sure to be a rival for Khao Lak in a few years for package tourists.

For the consumer this is perhaps good news. Hotel rooms might go down in price to be more competitive. However, what is not needed is Khao Lak Airport. Khao Lak is defined as being developed like Phuket but not over-run with commercial activity. Not having an airport is all part of this characterization.

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Rafting in Khao Lak

Rafting in Khao Lak

There are two types of rafting experience available to people who visit the Khao Lak area: one is sitting on a simple raft made of bamboo and floating sedately down a river or across a lake; the other is white water rafting using inflatable dinghies going down a much faster flowing river.

Both these experiences are good fun and also provide an opportunity to see something of the Khao Lak countryside.

Bamboo Rafting

For those who don’t want a fast and adrenalin filled experience there is bamboo rafting. The raft is made from bamboo poles tied together. On the end a Thai guide will use a pole to push the raft through the river. On the other end, two adults can sit. One adult and two children is also possible. The raft tends to be half submerged so it is a good idea to wear swimming kit with a t-shirt to keep the sun off the body.

Some bamboo rafts are much longer and can hold up to 8 people. Some also have wooden planks across the raft to sit on and to stop your bum getting wet. These bigger rafts are often used on Cheow Lan Lake.

There are two popular spots for bamboo rafting: Tab Lamu mountain (about 20 minutes south of Bang La On), and Cheow Lan Lake. The latter is the lake created when the area was flooded in the making of the Rachaphrapha Dam. It is a big lake with limestone islands to explore. It is possible to spend the night on the lake in floating raft houses.

The Tab Lamu bamboo rafting experience takes people down a slow moving river. As the river meanders the guide points out birds and other wildlife. This rafting experience is usually offered as part of a package tour that will include elephant riding, transfer and lunch.

White Water Rafting

White water rafting is a fairly new activity for Thailand. The spot for this sport is Khlong Song Phraek River in the Ton Pariwat Wildlife Sanctuary, located 5km from Phang-Nga Town and about 90 minutes from Khao Lak center.

The rapids are rated class 2 and 3. It is good fun, but obviously a bit tame compared to other white water rafting trips in Africa and South America. You can get about 6 people in a boat. Everyone is given a helmet and lifejacket, and before starting a guide give a quick lecture in what to do and not to do.

Inflatable dinghies are used along with paddles.

It takes a couple of hours or so to do the entire course. Thus, white water rafting is normally combined with elephant trekking, lunch and a visit to the nearby Monkey Cave Temple.

You can find plenty of tour companies offering bamboo rafting and white water rafting. As you would imagine prices are all about the same. Many resorts will help you book rafting tours. Remember to bring sun block!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Art and the Tsunami

The picture above is done by Top Thumvanit. He is a young talented Thai artist that graduated from Silpakorn University with a degree in Fine Art. As with many artists, and especially in Thailand, he found it hard to make ends meet as an artist.

At first he worked as a street artist in Sukhumvit. Next he tried his luck in Krabi. He eventually found a stable income in Khao Lak. He managed to open his open his own small gallery called appropriately ‘Top Art’. One of his best works is a picture of the boat washed up in land after the terrible tsunami of 2004. He wasn’t in Khao Lak when the tidal wave hit land, but like nearly everyone living in Thailand, the event left a permanent impression.

After the clear up, the boat was left in the jungle as a poignant monument to the terrible power of nature and the tragedy that it caused along the western coastline of Thailand.

Top has since got married and moved yet again to Koh Phangan. He is working from Wang Thong Gallery. It is a small space in a forest near the famous beach of Thong Nai Pan Yai.

We wish him success with his new venture in Koh Phangan. And we thank him for leaving his own artistic interpretation of what must surely be the most famous boat in Khao Lak.

The boat is a police patrol boat. If you are interested, you can find it 1 km inland, east of route 4 in Bang Niang.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Natai Beach

As you can see from the video, Natai is a gorgeous beach that faces west and so gets an incredible sunset. I recommend turning the sound off and just enjoying the images, as the woman talking on the video detracts from the natural beauty of the area.

Natai beach is just 20 minutes drive from Phuket International Airport. It is one of the first beaches you encounter when you cross Sarasin Bridge onto the mainland. Natai Beach is officially part of Phang-Nga Province and separate to Khao Lak. However, since it is just a short journey down Highway 4 to get to Natai Beach it is worth mentioning in this blog.

Natai Beach is a rare thing in Thailand, namely a beautiful beach near a major urban center (in this case Phuket) that is relatively unvisited. Moreover, little information about  Natai Beach is available on the net.

Natai Beach has the slightly golden sand found on the beaches of Khao Lak. The beach is about 2 km long. The sea is calm and the sand is fine. It is great for swimming. Behind the beach it is mostly rainforest punctuated in places by a few 5 star hotels and expensive private residential developments.

As much of the land near a beach or with sea views has already been taken by hotels and land developers in Phuket, the market has naturally spread beyond the island. Phang-Nga land prices are considerably lower, and so it is no surprise that the Phuket villa market has come to Natai. Indeed, some would argue that Natai beach is more pristine and relaxing than Phuket beaches, and thus a better place for a second home.

Don’t be put off by this talk of luxury developments and 5 star hotels - there are still some cheap accommodation options available on Natai Beach. The best mid-range hotel in the area is the Hot Spring Beach Resort and Spa. It is located near the beach. You just have to cross a small footbridge to get to the sand. The resort has rooms and villas for rent. They have air-con, hot water, 29” satellite TV and bath tub. There are 2 communal hot springs as well as a swimming pool, fitness center, restaurant and bar. The cheapest rooms start at around 2,000 Thai Baht a night. That’s $60.

The special thing about Natai is that it is an area that has natural hot springs. This makes the spas at Natai  ‘real spas’ not just places to get a massage and a beauty treatment. There are a number of places in and around Natai where you can enjoy the spring waters.

Near the main road there is a small town. It is not a party town, or one that especially caters for tourists. However, you can find a range of shops as well as a few good local bars and restaurants to try out. You won’t find Phuket nightlife in Natai, but you will find enough amenities to have a comfortable holiday. Anything that you can’t find in Natai can soon be sourced by crossing over the bridge onto Phuket Island.

Between Natai town and beach you can also find cheap rooms to rent. If you are on a small budget then you will have to just turn up in Natai and look around for the cheap deals as the internet is little use in trying to secure cheap accommodation in Natai.

If you don’t find anything you like in Natai then just south is the equally as nice beach of Pilai. Again there are a few local places to stay if you look around. Another great thing about Pilai beach is that in February you can see turtles coming up to the beach to lay their eggs. In April the eggs hatch and the hatchlings make their mad dash for the ocean.

It is recommended that you get to Natai Beach soon before it becomes overrun with the Phuket spill over, Japanese tourists crazy for hot springs and package tourists. Perhaps it is a good thing that so little has been written about Natai on the net.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Bars in Khao Lak

Khao Lak is composed of a series of villages along a 25 km long stretch of golden sand beaches. What is commonly thought of as the center of the region is the town of Bang La On. Confusingly this is also often referred to as ‘Khao Lak’ or ‘Khao Lak town’. When catching a taxi it is important to be specific as to your destination as some of the beach resorts are far from Bang La On.

The most popular beach is called Nang Thong. It is close to Bang La On. Along this beach you will find plenty of resorts that have bars and restaurants along the beach. In Bang La On there is one road that is lined with bars. The streets behind this one also have bars and restaurants. This is considered the most lively nightspot area in the region.

Although Khao Lak is only an hour or so away from Phuket by taxi, it has a completely different feel to Thailand’s most developed beach destination. Whereas many of the nightspot areas in Phuket cater to single old men with cash to spend on female entertainment, Khao Lak is largely free of the sex industry. Nang Tong, La On nor any of the other beach areas of Khao Lak can be classified as ‘party spots’ or bar beer strips.

La On has the best nightlife. Here are some of the highlights:

The Happy Snapper

The Happy Snapper is at the northern end of the village. It is considered the most happening bar in La On. It is a bar with live music at night. There is the ‘Snapper Brothers Band’ as well as other bands that regularly play the bar. As you can see from the YouTube video it is mostly cover bands. This is pretty much par for the course for all of Thailand. The Happy Snapper has live music from Monday to Saturday during the season. Music starts at 10.30pm and the bar closes at 1am.

Monkey Bar

No beach location in Thailand would be complete without the obligatory reggae bar. Monkey Bar fills this gap. It plays reggae and ska and has bands later on in the evening. You will find Monkey Bar in the center of Bang La On. It is open from 5pm until late.

O'Connor's Irish Pub

O'Connor's Irish Pub is at the northern end of La On. Nowadays, Irish pubs rival reggae pubs as the standard template for a farang bar in Thailand. This one is owned by a German and serves Korean barbecue. More in keeping with its theme, it also has single malts and international draught beers. The bar is popular, looks like an Irish bar and has a friendly atmosphere.

Tarzan Bar

Tarzan Bar is one of the longest running bars in Khao Lak. It is in a 2 storey wooden building in the center of La On. They show live sporting events on TV.

Fisherman Bar

This bar is on the main Petchkasem Road. It is a small bar and restaurant with cheap Thai food and cold beers. This bar has more of a Thai vibe and is a good place to get away from the more obvious tourist spots. People have commented about how friendly the staff is as well.

Rose Bar

When I wrote earlier that Khao Lak was free of lady bars, I wasn’t telling the truth completely. Rose Bar is located in the lane behind Monkey Bar (on Soi Monkey Bar). It is not a full-on beer bar spot. However, there are ladies there who hang around waiting for single men to buy them drinks. It is not a hard sell place. Like a Japanese hostess place, the girl’s spend more of their time entertaining the patrons then setting up monetary liaisons.

There are a number of other bars in Bang La On. Most of them are small ‘hole in the wall’ places with seating on the street. They offer the usual shakes, snacks and cold beers.

The main advantages of Khao Lak nightlife are that it is not overrun with either libidinous old men (like Sukhumvit in Bangkok) or young and loud lager lads and ladettes (like Chaweng in Koh Samui). Rather it’s a place to unwind, have a few beers and maybe listen to some average music after a day on the beach.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Tsunami Warning

Just a few hours ago there was an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra in Indonesia that registered 8.9 magnitude on the Richter scale. Shortly, after the earthquake an alert was put out to the provinces along the Andaman Coast including Phang-Nga and Phuket to evacuate beach areas.

Shortly afterwards, the alert was called off as the expected tsunami of 1.6 to 2 meters didn't happen. The situation is still being monitored, but the evacuation order has been rescinded.

Reports are coming in from Khao Lak and Phuket that the tannoy PA systems did work, and that evacuations proceeded quickly. In a way it is terrible to have an earthquake, but it is good to see that the emergency systems set in place after the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2004 in the Indian ocean claimed 5,000 lives in Thailand worked effectively.

It is also good to see that the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center funded and run by America is now coordinating better with the Thai authorities.

For more information read Thai Visa forum

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Thung Tuk

Thung Tuk is the name of the ancient village discovered in the south of Kho Khao Island. It has proved an interesting archaeological site due to the eclectic nature of the items recovered from the area. More work needs to be done at Thung Tuk to try and accurately map the history of the area; until then we can only speculate about the region.

One theory is that Koh Kho Khao was an important staging post for very early waves of human immigration coming from mainland Asia south into southern Asia. Among these waves could be the present day Thais. The writer Krom Praya Damrong Racha Nuparb claims the Thais originated from "Untai" Mountain in China. The only evidence for this theory seems to be the word ‘Untai’ which contains the sound ‘Thai’.

No doubt China’s links to the region of Siam goes back a long way. Indeed Thailand has the largest population of ethnic Chinese outside of China. The site at Thung Tuk has uncovered a Tang Dynasty pottery. This does not prove the Thais came from China since human remains have been found in Thailand dating back to the Stone Age in Koh Samui.

Rather Thung Tuk became an important trading center. It was part of the Thai Silk Road that started on the Andaman coast and finished in modern day Suratthani. The overland route had the advantage of avoiding the dangerous Malacca Straits.

As sailing technology improved, Thung Tuk became more important as a port because it offered safe waters to moor a boat as it was sheltered. Thung Tuk (known to locals at the time as Muang Thong) flourished during the Ninth to Tenth centuries. It was a resting point for traders and a market for local products, such as spices, wild products and probably tin, and goods from China, India, the Middle East and the West. Artifacts discovered at Thung Tuk include domestic wares and beads, glass ware from the Middle East and areas by the Mediterranean, Chinese ceramics and porcelain of the Tang period of about 618-907AD, Basra turquoise wares from Persia and beads from the Middle East and India, including eye beads and gold beads. An impressive Ganesh statue has also been found at the site.

The excavation of Thung Tuk has also revealed that similar construction techniques as found in Bujang Valley in Malaysia were used. This could lead to speculation that the people of Malaysia came from the north via Koh Kho Khao.

Nearby at Khao Phra Neur in Takua Pa on the mainland a Vishnu statue has been unearthed, showing that people in the region worshipped Hindu gods. Close to the statue was found a stone with Tamil inscriptions.

After several centuries it seems that the Thai Silk Road and Thung Tuk declined. Archaeologists are unsure about the reason. Perhaps it was that people started using the Malacca Straits or that the Chinese closed door policy ended the route. Another theory is that Chola invaders sacked the ports.

The breaking off of the strong cultural ties with India may have been as a result of the spread of Buddhism in the area.

The fascinating story of the Thai Silk Road makes Thung Tuk and Koh Kho Khao important in the history of Thailand, and a campaign has been mounted to make areas along the route World Heritage sites.


Monday, 26 March 2012

Lam Kaen

Lam Kaen is a great beach. It combines all the peace and quiet that Khao Lak is famed for, and yet it is just a few kilometers south from the center of Khao Lak – Bang La On.

Lam Kaen is a great stretch of golden sand beach just south of Thap Lamu Pier. This is the place where all the boats come and go that do the tours of the Similan Islands. If you have a motorbike it takes just a few minutes to ride north up the Petkasem Road to the main shopping and bar area.

It is thus surprising that Lamkaen is not busier and more developed. Instead there are just a few places to stay. The most famous of which is the Khaolak Diamond Resort and Spa. It’s a big resort with air-con rooms, a spa and a communal pool. Room prices at the Khao Lak Diamond Resort and Spa start at 2,250 THB a night.

There’s little night life at Lam Kaen, but you can find a few cheap local restaurants and mum and pop shops selling basic necessities.

During the wet season or ‘green season’ there are waves that you can surf in Lam Kaen. The waves are at their biggest between March and May, when they sometimes reach 10 feet.

In the Lam Kaen you can visit temples or try the nearby ‘Navy Golf Course’. There is also the Baan Tha Din Daeng Tourism Community at Lam Kaen (Address: Moo 4, Tambon Lam Kaen, Thai Muang, Phang-nga 82120. Tel: 084-991-1529) They offer various eco-tourism activities that include swimming in the Nayak mountain area; visiting a hydroponic vegetable plantation; going to an old tin mine site; visiting a white snapper fish farm; longtail boat trips to see a mangrove forest; community forest planting; batik workshop; and rubber tapping. The villagers of Tha Din Daeng are trying to create an environmentally-friendly farming and agricultural community.

As you can see there is a diverse selection of things to do in and around Lam Kaen.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Koh Kho Khao

This is a mouthful to say. It’s pronounced ko koe cow, I think, the main thing is that if you are in the Khao Lak area and you have a bit of time it is well worth making the short trip out to the island of Kho Khao. To get there jump on a bus heading north up the Petkasem Road and head for Taku Pa. From there you can buy tickets for the car ferry over the island. Boats run from 7.30am to 5.30pm.

The island is separated from the mainland by an estuary. It is an area with several islands, but Koh Kho is the largest.

On arriving at the main port in the south you are not met by ‘beaters’ or ‘steerers’. Most people simple walk along the west facing beach until they come to a place they like. Much of the accommodation in Koh Kho Khao consists of mid-range and luxury resorts that offer air-con rooms around communal pools. There are, however, a few cheaper places to be found in between. Recommended among these are Pranee Restaurant and Bungalows, Ha Pha Beach Cottages, Sunset Restaurant and Wang Klong Kayaking Resort. Ha Pha Cottages allows tents for those on a tight budget. Sunset Restaurant has fan bungalows for 700 Thai Baht. Both of these places are found at the northern end of the beach.

The beach is golden sand and the water is suitable for swimming. Down in the south the sediment from the river means it is not clear enough for snorkeling. In the north the sea is clearer. Here you will find a ship wreck that is good fun to dive. The real highlight is the nearby Surin Islands. They have lots of coral reefs and offer excellent diving just like the Similan islands. There are a few dive shops on Koh Kho Khao that can organize scuba trips for you.

Another great thing about the island is the grass lands in the north. These attract a good variety of birds. There is a bird watching tower behind Bang Naeng beach. You can usually see hornbills if you are patient enough.

In the south-east of the Koh Kho Khao are the remains of a Thirteenth Century fishing settlement. It makes for an interesting few hours visiting the site. The island was host to very early waves of people moving from Asia into South East Asia.

The great thing about Koh Kho Khao is that it has a very relaxed feel. No one hassles you. It is truly a place to unwind, and a place to get a glimpse of traditional Thai island culture.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Nang Tong Beach

Nang Tong (also spelt Nang Thong) is the most popular stretch of beach in Khao Lak. This is because it is the most central beach in the area. It is easy to get to, has a wide range of accommodation to choose from, and is next to Bang La On. This is the village where the highest concentration of bars, restaurants and shops are located.

Nang Tong is a long stretch of fine sand beach that is lined with palm trees. In the dry season between November and May the seas are gentle and it is a great place to go swimming. In the wet season, also euphemistically called the ‘green season’ the waves can get rough. This is especially the case when there is the first high tide of the new moon. At this time you will see red flags warning you not to swim.

As you can see from the video above the top of Nang Tong beach is full of sun loungers. It's a popular beach with lots of bungalows, restaurants etc. For those looking for a quieter, more intimate beach than south or north along the coast their are kilometers of pristine empty beach to enjoy.

There is a good range of accommodation on Nang Tong both directly on the beach and also on the other side of the beach road. You can get a room at Khao Lak Youth Club for as little as 600 THB a night. Suwan Palm Resort on the beach is good value with rooms starting at 700 THB. There are many reasonably priced mid-range places to stay in Nang Tong that offer air-con rooms with hot water and TV as well as communal swimming pools.

At the luxury end of accommodation in Nang Tong is Khaolak Seaview Resort and Spa. This resort is on a hill overlooking the beach. It has private pool villas, tennis courts, a snooker room, 4 restaurants, a spa and a fitness center. Prices at the Khaolak Seaview Resort and Spa start at 2,800 THB.

For those staying on the beach there is a walk to the nearby Khao Lak view point with a great elevated view of the area.

Finally, Nang Tong is conveniently placed just a few minutes from Thap Lamu pier where the liveaboard trips to the Similan Islands depart from. It might not be the quietest beach in Khao Lak but it is the most convenient.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Surfing in Khao Lak

Best time to surf in Khao Lak

Khao Lak is one of the best places in Thailand to surf. In surf terms that is not saying a great deal. Bali and places in Australia are much better for swell. However, there are waves you can surf in Khao Lak. There is slightly more swell in the rainy season that runs from mid May to October. This might sound like a long rainy season, but most of the heavy storms come in September. The good thing about coming to Khao Lak during the rainy season is that prices for Khao Lak accommodation are greatly reduced.

Prices and places to surf

You can rent boards in Khao Lak town next to Nang Tong beach. Typically an hour rental on a surf board costs 300 THB - which is about $30. There are surf shops in Nang Tong that offer instruction. The video below is of Lee. He is an instructor. Even if you have your own board with you, it is a good idea to check out the surf shops as they will have the low-down on the best spots to surf. There are 3 breaks on Pakarang Beach and there are a few beach breaks on Nang Tong beach.

Alternatives to surfing

Of course if the waves are not right for you, then there is always bodyboarding. It is easy to buy a cheap bodyboard made of foam and plastic (they snap easily). Many places rent out better body boards by the hour.

Finally, another fun activity to enjoy in the waves is kayaking. You have to launch the boat over the waves to get out and then you can 'ride' the waves back into the coast.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Bang Niang Sunset

Khao Lak's second most popular beach

Bang Niang is commonly thought of as the second most popular beach in the Khao Lak area. The long beach is located just north of the number one beach in the area Nang Tong (also spelled 'Nang Thong'). The popularity of the beaches is no reflection of the fineness of the sand or the beauty of the place. Rather Nang Tong beach is next to the main urban center of the region where there are plenty of shops, banks, bars, restaurants, travel agents etc. Most people end up staying on Nang Tong beach for convenience.

However, it is interesting to note that the most expensive and luxury hotels are found not on Nang Tong beach but on more outlaying beaches such as Khuk Khak (JW Marriott Khaolak). This might be a policy to isolate guests in expensive resorts so the guests are more inclined to use the hotel's restaurant and other facilities rather than take an expensive taxi into Khao Lak town.

About Bang Niang

Anyway Bang Niang beach is flanked at both ends by rivers. This separates the beach from its neighbors. Also the sediment from the rivers makes the visibility in the sea less then ideal. The coral reef at Bang Niang is 1km offshore, so the river sediment does not effect the quality of the diving or snorkeling by the reef.

There is a big tidal difference in Bang Niang. At high tide the beach nearly disappears. The beach itself has very fine golden powdery sand.

Bang Niang accommodation

Bang Niang used to be a favorite backpacker hang out. It still receives its fair share of backpackers, but much of the accommodation is now in the mid-range. Furama Khao Lak resort has rooms starting at 990 THB, Sudala Beach Resort 1,600 THB and the boutique Ayaras Villas start at 4,500 THB.

Restaurants and sunset

It takes about 1 hour to walk to Nang Thong going south along the beach from Bang Niang. It is unnecessary to make the journey into Nang Tong if you are looking for something cheap to eat and drink as there are plenty of local restaurants, bars and shops on the main road behing Bang Niang beach.

As with all the Khao Lak beaches the highlight of the day is the end when the sun dips down beyond the horizon. This is the time to stop, watch and appreciate paradise.