Khao Lak 101: Here’s what you need to know
You could spend a lifetime exploring Thailand. The destination has reached near-mythic status as a haven for all sorts of travelers—backpackers, families, honeymooners, foodies, divers, beach bums and every type of curious globetrotter in between. But this is a country stretching around 1200 miles north to sound, leaving one big question: where to begin?
Khao Lak, in Thailand's south, makes a stellar starting point, whether it’s your first time to Thailand or your 15th. This serene mainland town is famous for its beaches, national parks, waterfalls, markets, and quiet vibe. And of course, you can tap into Thailand's famous culinary and massage scenes at just about any given moment.
When to go to Khao Lak
Deciding when to go to Khao Lak can be driven by what you're most interested in doing once there. It's safe to say that the vast majority of travelers go for the beaches: if you fall in this bucket, consider going between November and early April. This is the dry season, and your best bet for low humidity and comfortable weather. May through October see the highest rainfall, but that shouldn't necessarily be a deterrent—rain often comes in the form of downpours that are over as quickly as they begin, leaving you with plenty of sunshine and clear skies.
Khao Lak offers easy access to the extraordinary Surin and Similan islands, the holy grail for divers. If underwater exploration is a priority, definitely time your trip for November through April, when the seas are calm and visibility is at its best. Psst, if your trip falls on the first week of March, you’ll coincide with Turtle Festival, when turtle hatchlings are released into the sea at Thai Muang National Park Beach.
To reach Khao Lak, U.S. travelers will fly into Phuket International Airport (HKT); from there, it's about a one-hour drive to Khao Lak. Ground transportation can be arranged with your hotel. Download the Grab app—Thailand’s answer to Uber or Lyft—for on-demand car service. Alternatively, you could fly into Krabi International Airport (KBV), about two hours from your destination by car.
The official language is Thai, though English is widely spoken in Khao Lak and other tourist areas. The currency is the Thai baht (THB)—keep a healthy stack on your person at all times, as many street vendors, tuk-tuk drivers, longtail boat operators, etc. only accept cash.
Members of the LGBTQ+ community should feel safe traveling to Thailand; the country has a long history of tolerance and acceptance towards travelers of all backgrounds and orientations. According to Equaldex, an online resource for LGBTQ rights, Thailand's LGBTQ+ Equality Index ranks 52 out of 100.
Once in Khao Lak, taxis and tuk-tuks are widely available. Local taxis are generally cheaper than hotel taxis, though it is always best to agree on a price before traveling to your destination. Songthaews (pick-up trucks where passengers ride in raised canopy-covered beds) are also available and offer the experience of traveling like a local. Ferry rides to the Surin and Similan islands take about two hours and depart from Tablamu Pier daily from October to May.
Although there isn’t an official state religion, Buddhism is the predominant practice in Thailand. If you plan on visiting temples (cave temples Wat Suwan Khuha and Dragon Cave Temple are well worth the hour-or-so drive), be sure to wear conservative clothing that covers your shoulders and knees. You'll also need to remove your shoes before entering.
What to do, eat + drink
Beaches, island-hopping + underwater adventures: Secluded, palm-fringed strips of sand are the name of the game here: Nang Thong, Bangsak, White Sand and Coconut beaches all offer big "Castaway" vibes. But to really do it right, you need to get on the water. It won't take long to find outfitters to zip you over the water to the area's most spectacular islands, including James Bond Island in Ao Phang Nga National Park (film site for 1974's "The Man With The Golden Gun") or the famous Phi Phi archipelago.
And for you divers out there: Thailand is famous for its underwater scenery and marine national parks. Khao Lak is one of the best home bases in eastern Thailand for dive trips to the stunning Similan and Surin islands.
Jungles, waterfalls + wildlife-viewing: Venture south to explore unspoiled Khao Lak Lam Ru National Park, home to rare tapirs and bearcats. The Hat Lek nature trail (watch out: it's so steep in places, you'll need to use rope handrails) guides you through the tropical forest, eventually leading you to a deserted golden-sand beach that looks straight out of a screensaver.
Or go inland with a waterfall hike, like multitiered Ton Chong Fa tucked into the virgin rainforest. Heads up, more challenging terrain here (including natural staircases of gnarled tree roots). Or reach the waterfalls in style, via a traditional bamboo raft with an outfitter like Komol‘s Corner.
Up for an even bigger adventure by boat? Go off the grid at Khao Sok National Park, where you can board a longtail for a floating safari (hello, wild elephants!).
All this island-hopping and jungle exploring commands a big appetite. Spoiler alert: you're in the right place. Fresh seafood—tiger prawns, soft-shell crab and grilled red snapper and lobster—stars on nearly every menu. Dishes like beef massaman curry, chicken panang and—naturally!—pad Thai are at nearly every restaurant, too. For a between-meal treat, try fresh coconut or Thai iced coffee (look for street vendors with stacks of red-and-white Carnation canned evaporated milk).
Pro tip: spend an afternoon at Lanna Restaurant and Massage, where you can lounge on a sunbed, indulge in an open-air coconut-oil body massage by the sea, then enjoy tamarind prawns and cocktails as you watch the sunset over the Andaman Sea.
What to pack
Thailand is an unforgettable adventure and you’ll want to pack accordingly with a few essentials, starting with a lightweight day pack, fanny pack or money belt (remember, this is mostly a cash-based economy); sturdy water shoes (such as Tevas or Chacos) and hiking shoes and breathable clothing. Throw in several swimsuits and some form of rain gear (even in the dry season), plus a brimmed hat, mineral sunscreen and bug spray.
Pack as light as possible: you can always purchase clothing, beachwear and more at Khao Lak markets and shopping areas, such as Petchkasem Road (the main coastal road), the T.T. Plaza shopping mall, the Pakua Ta Old Town Walking Market, and the Bang Niang Market, where hundreds of stalls sell everything from headphones to cotton harem pants—exactly what you’ll want to live in Thailand.
Need more ideas for your Khao Lak trip? Village tours, Bang Niang market visits, massage breaks (this is the land of deeply powerful hour-long massages—for around $10 USD), cooking classes (Pam’s Restaurant and Pakinnaka Thai Cooking School Khao Lak are favorites), cabaret shows and more can all easily fill your days and nights.