Just back from a lovely week spent at the Ramada in Bang Niang. We've posted a review of the hotel under its page (should be up soon) but thought it worth expanding on a couple of things on Khao Lak more generally.
Before we do that, though, we just want to say thanks to everyone on this forum for all their really helpful posts. We lurked on this site for several weeks before we left and the tips we picked up were invaluable. Hope we can do a little to return the favour, and apols if we go on too long.
It's really nice - about 2km long, and very quiet. Only a couple of long-tails and one or two forlorn hawkers. But don't expect absolutely crystal clear water (the rivers at either end deposit quite a bit of silt, esp after the rainy season), and the sand isn't absolutely Similan-white.
Mix of people:
Be under no illusions - fully 90% of the tourists are going to be Swedish and German. But they're the most laid-back Teutons you're going to meet, so don't worry about needing to reserve your place at the pool. As it happens about half of them are same-gender couples, which I suspect has something to do with it.
Even though it's not as big as La On, we were still spoilt for choice at Bang Niang, both on/near the beach and towards the main road - and we never felt need to explore more widely. They're almost all good (we have very little bad food on our whole trip, but we generally stuck to Thai), and if you follow the rule of thumb of going into any place that looks busy, you'll be fine.
We'd particularly recommend 'Coconut Grove', at the north end of the beach, and the 'Tsunami Restaurant' on the road to town (both great for fresh fish), but we ate well at several others, and almost always for less than 7-800 Baht for 2 including a couple of drinks (our fears about resort prices, definitely didn't materialise). Don't expect silver service, though - rough and ready can be part of the charm. We did have bad experiences at Chong-Fah (service) and Amanusa (food) - both on the beach - but we may just have been unlucky.
The abundance of cheap local eateries seems to hit the hotels, though. Certainly the restaurant at the Ramada, but also I think at other hotels on the beach (Mukdara, Flora, Ayara etc), was never full. This has an upside and a downside. The upside is that they slash their prices (I'd recommend the Ramada in particular if you want a fancier setting for, say, 12-1500B for two with a couple of drinks), but the downside is the slight air of desperation in thw way the maitre'd and the rest of the staff try to corral guests in at night. It did feel a little like the Great Escape when we ate somewhere else.
Loads and loads of places, for about 250-300B for an hour of Thai massage, with the choice being on the beach (but hot), or off the beach (but with a/c). All pretty good, but we didn't find any that were quite Chiang Mai standard.
We did day-trips to both Similan and Surin Islands, which were both spectacular, and if you're at all interested, we'd recommend doing both. Thanks to tips on this forum, we used Khao Lak Land Discovery for the Similans and were really impressed. They're a very professional outfit, had a snorkelling-only boat and were particularly good with kids. One thing though - they don't hire out wet-suits, something we'd reccommend if you're at all fair-skinned (not because the water's cold!), so we got some in advance from Michael at Private Holidays (opposite Tsunami restaurant) for 200B each for the day. The beaches on the islands themselves are absolutely spectacular, though they are getting a bit crowded at this stage.
If anything the snorkelling on the Surin islands is better (more life on the sea-bed, and more varied coral) and it's also much quiter. But it is a slightly longer journey, and the outfit we went with (Greenview Kuraburi, which I think has some sort of monopoly) isn't quite a slick. Still worth doing though - and we got to see some Macacque monkeys and a flying fox.
That's enough for an already overlong post. Hope it's of some use though.