When we decided to spend part of our first year of retirement away from the winter in the UK and warm our arthritic bones in wonderful and sunny Khao Lak, it was not without some reservations and, as the time approached, some worries.
Specifically, we had spent our previous visits to KL in a 5* resort, the excellent Le Meridien, on a fabulous beach, Pak Weeb. Although we had done some research and viewing of potential accommodation and locations last year, how would we find 8 weeks in a small bungalow in a 2/3* resort just back from Bang Niang Beach? The most time we had previously spent in one spot was 3 weeks and we had, we thought, visited most of the surrounding area and "done the tours". So would we become bored and find enough to do?
The answer to those concerns is an emphatic thumbs up for Khao Lak in general and the Cousin Resort and Bang Niang in particular!
We hadn't wanted this to be a long holiday. We wanted it to be living away from home – Alternative Living as an American friend calls it - so as soon as we checked into our delightful, not so small and very adequately furnished and equipped for an 8 week stay, bungalow at the Cousin (see www.cousinresort.com/html/property.html ), we felt at home. The fact that our house number in the UK is 11A and the bungalow allocated was A11 seemed a good omen too. It's only a small resort with a mix of 20 detached, semi-detached bungalows and 7 rooms. We had chosen a garden view bungalow which was an excellent choice as these were quieter (not that anywhere was really noisy until a boisterous Swedish party with several kids arrived - but, hey, kids have a right to enjoy themselves too not just us wrinklies!) and the gardens and landscaping were beautiful. We had jasmine bushes right in front of our well-sized patio, the delightful aroma of the flowers greeting us each time we ventured out of the air-conditioned interior. The bungalows were serviced daily, towels (including beach ones) and linen changed daily and kept immaculately clean by the wonderfully friendly and efficient staff. There was a good-sized, always clean pool and jacuzzi and plenty of loungers. Great place to be for the last hour or so before sunset. The Cousin also had its own restaurant and bar, serving breakfasts (not included but cheap), snacks and good Thai meals. There was 1 PC near Reception (you used honesty 1 baht per minute system to pay in the pot provided) but next High Season along with other improvements there will be free wireless connection in every room. My suggestion of a 50" plasma TV wasn't as enthusiastically embraced!!! LOL.
The resort was on the second road back from the beach, just over a 5 minute stroll away. The beach at Bang Niang is better than I recalled and is different in character depending on the tide along its length, being wide with restaurants, bars and massage tables along the way. It is wide and flat at the south end near the Ramada and La Flora where it is divided by a fairly wide, fairly deep and sometimes fast flowing creek from Nang Thong Beach. You get across when the ocean and river are full, standing on a wooden raft pulled by a rope operated by a couple of enterprising youngsters at 10 baht per passenger each way. It then narrows from the Mukdara and becomes more inclined up past the other resorts, restaurants, bars and massage places to the northern end where we frequented the simple but great "Alex's Place" (that wasn't its name but owned and operated by Alex, a very energetic Thai lady who made great Papaya Pok Pok (spicy Papaya Salad), fresh fruit and fresh fruit shakes and latterly cocktails). At this end it is divided from the beautiful, quiet and secluded Khuk Khak Beach by another creek which was very narrow and wadable when we arrived but most times when the sea was in fast flowing and deep and sometimes uncrossable when we left. One of our more memorable episodes was me giving my non-swimmer wife a piggy back across - and not sinking!!!
We had hired a car for the full 8 weeks, an extravagance we thought initially but overall we wouldn't have done without it. Whilst previously we had driven from Le Meridien to Bang La On for dinner in the evening, this time we intended to get out and about more to different places and not just for dinner - albeit finding different eateries was one of our principal driving (sorry!) forces. So we combined our favourite activities, beach walking/combing and eating into one. Eating at our favourite beaches! So a summary of both. See http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7597026 for general beach scenes.
The main beach coastline known as Khao Lak, stretches about 18km from South Beach, which has the established Merlin and Baan Sunetra resorts, together with the new Emerald, Briza and Luckana Wadee resorts together with a growing number of restaurants near the lovely beach (a crescent bay) and on the highway; then over the mountain (some dangerous spots on the bends especially when buses or lorries attempt passing maneuvres on them!) to Khao Lak Sunset Beach - a great beach with, at times beautiful clear water around the rocks and sensational views at sunset from the highway above as far as the eye can see North up the coast. The Wanaburee and Paradise Resorts in particular caught our eye and the hilltop restaurant on the highway at the Baan Krating is an excellent location for some spicy Esan (Northern Thailand) food and a wonderful selection of 14 different Papaya Pok Pok salads. For first-timers I would recommend Medium before progressing on to Pet (Spicy) or Pet Pet (What happened to my lips?!?) and watch out for the spiky legs of the field crabs! From The Khao Lak Sunset Resort it's a 1.5km drive or walk into Bang La On. There are taxis usually waiting on the highway outside each resort. (see http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7624246 for beach photos).
The road here is generally where you get your first sight of and feeling for Khao Lak, as you drop down into Bang La On, past several good restaurants on your right, especially the Sawadee, past the huge new Laguna Beach Resort and the excellent Baan Khao Lak, with Nang Thong Beach on your right, the highway with restaurants, bars and shops both sides stretching in front of you, and the great Phu Khao Lak restaurant and renovated bungalow resort on your right. The resorts which struck me on Nang Thong Beach were the aforementioned Laguna (big with lots of facilities), the Baan Khao Lak (great accommodation and restaurant), the Nang Thong Bay Resorts (there are now two of these bungalow resorts), Green Beach (traditional bungalows of bamboo construction) and the new Khao Lak Andaman Beach Resort. Restaurants here are in the resorts but are generally beach front and open to all. There is limited snorkeling near the rocks at the Nang Thong Beach Resort but, of course, nothing compares to the world class sites at the Similan and Surin Islands. As for restaurants in town, well where do I start? There are so many of them and quite a few more (and a few less) than previous years. The Jai, Somsri, Khao Lak Seafood, W's Kitchen next door (Excellent, small, cheap and most authentic Thai Restaurant - very spicy! Try the spicy Pork Salad eaten with your fingers with sticky rice!!) the Discovery Cafe (not just or even a cafe really), the Sempfer Cafe (for great cakes, pastry, sandwiches, baguettes and coffee + free wireless internet if you want to use your laptop inside in Air Conditioned comfort or outside with the smokers), Jui's Bistro (also great cakes and coffee, particularly the iced coffee with ice cream and also for booking Tours. We booked our Surins trip here), the Phu Khao Lak, to name just a few. Mr.Indian is a very good authentic Indian Restaurant and the Viking remains the choice for steaks, pizzas and pasta as well as Thai, albeit more expensive than most. La Dolce Vita in Khao Lak Grand City is a good choice for steaks Italian style as well as more authentic pizzas and pasta. (see http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7624258 for beach photos)
However, a very special recommendation for our favourite restaurant in all Khao Lak, the Everyday (or Everyday House) Restaurant, the last restaurant on the right past the Book Tree leaving Bang La On for Bang Niang. The food here provided by the delightful Goy and her great staff was consistently excellent - and different. The fish patties with spicy chili dip, the Massaman and Penang Gai or Moo (chicken or pork), the "inside out" fish (deep fried or steamed with various sauces, lemon being our favourite, with the flesh turned and displayed outwards so minimising the bones) and the special - fresh fish steak, barracuda or Jack Fish depending on whether Full Moon or not, with baked sweet potato as a change from rice and salad with delicious tamarind sauce finished with crispy red onions on top, were outstanding. There is also a great bar there operated by the irrepressible Lin. Goy's husband is an excellent singer/guitarist at the Lazy House Bar in La On, one of the several bars providing live music. The best I think is still the Happy Snapper with the great Happy Snapper Brothers performing most nights and Tarzan's.
Just a general word here about the cooking in Khao Lak. Now that KL is becoming, thankfully, more popular, it is now having a wider appeal to visitors, some being first time visitors not only to Khao Lak but also to Thailand. It may be their first experience of one of the best (some would say THE best) cuisines in the world. Not surprisingly therefore the norm for a Thai meal is mostly now Medium and you ask or are asked if you want spicy, whereas on previous occasions it was Spicy and you asked for Medium or not spicy. Thai didn't apply in the very local restaurants which we favoured. They are invariably cooked the Thai way, the way Momma (who is usually the cook anyway) cooks at home.
You then leave Bang La On for Bang Niang passing many local bars and restaurants as you pass. The Smaw Ruhr on your left about half way is a good example of a typical non-tourist restaurant with very good, but spicy food. Popular with local restaurant owners when they "dine out" - and the local police. On reaching Bang Niang, on your right you have the Police Boat, which thankfully now appears to be have been protected from threats of relocation and being obscured from the road and is established as the very visible Tsunami Memorial that it is. Next door is the consistently very good Takieng Restaurant, which is now even more atmospheric after a refurbishment, and its Northern Thai cuisine neighbour, the Dao Thong. Just further on, on the left is the 711 supermarket and entrance to the excellent, open 4 times a week, local market (fresh food and souvenirs) with an immediate left turn down the main road to Bang Niang Beach. Be careful here. This is the worst accident blackspot in Khao Lak, especially on market days with vehicles and the ubiquitous scooter/motor bikes, entering and emerging from all directions. You need several pairs of eyes in the back of your head!
This road down to the beach is lined both sides with restaurants, bars and shops, new ones appearing all the time. It would not surprise me if this time next year what open space remains will have "something" on it. The area of Bang Niang was the one most severely affected by the Tsunami and off the main roads and streets ruins remain as visible and poignant reminders. However, confidence is returning rapidly and with it investment in new properties. Whether that is in excellent international beach front or just off beach front resorts like the Ramada, big local ones like the La Flora, the Mukdara or medium to small ones like the Chong Fah Bungalows, the Bang Biang Beach Resort, the very nice Sudala Beach Resort, the Amanusa (with its great sea front location and excellent menu ranging from breakfasts to snacks to Thai to European to Indian selections) and one that particularly impressed us, the Ayara Villas. There are others just behind including, of course, our very excellent home from home Cousin Bungalow Resort. Restaurants that impressed were the Hmuw Hmukatha (easy for me to say!) with its French/Thai cuisine and excellent steamboat BBQ at 199 baht per person, the Candle for Thai fusion cooking, Pinocchio’s for pizza and pasta and Joe's Steakhouse for great local steaks (No it isn't buffalo!). On the beach front there is also the Chong Fah and the Coconut Grove which were very good. As for bars, Smile opposite the entrance to the Mukdara did great cocktails and played cool reggae with the P&Y and open air bar opposite providing TV for watching live football from the UK. Even popular with Mrs. Arandora as we are both Man Utd fans and all their matches are screened. I even arranged for one of the staff at the Cousin to sleep at the bar so I could watch a Champions league match kicking off at 2.45 am. Put the alarm on, crept out at the bungalow, and arrived at the bar to be greeted by a blue screen. No reception because of storm a few hours before! Still, we won!
Next up from Bang Niang is Khuk Khak. You can cut through on a road at the side of Pinocchio’s which brings you out on the Highway next to the new Boat Restaurant. Very local, very cheap and hilarious when we had a meal there. They spoke hardly any English so it was guess, point and hope! Especially as the lighting was dim red bulbs (appropriate and suggestive of a very different kind of establishment to a restaurant in view of the very attractive ladies in there!!) When they finally we got through that the wives wanted Sprite (Sperlite!) we got "Just moment" then sound of motor bike starting and roaring off, then returning with bag from the 711 and "yes we have Sperlite!" Opposite there is a road to Khao Lak Mini-Golf and Orchid Centre (see separate report at http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7782897 ) and go left and half a mile set back on the left is the great Uncle Po's Restaurant (well, I think that's what the translation means). Traditional Thai eating cabanas outside, seating and GREAT, CHEAP food inside. For example four of us had 2 papaya salads, 4 main meals with rice each, 2 large beers, a small beer, two Sprites - total less than 300 baht!!!
In Khuk Khak village there is a local market hall open every day except Sunday with a separate food hall serving even cheaper but delicious very local fare. While we were there one of the travelling fun fairs/markets set up with bingo and other games for prizes. Great fun. Also on offer were various cooked insects and other "delicacies" - said to be delicious but I declined to prove it!!!
Khuk Khak Beach is long and narrow except and deserted except for the Orchid Beach Resort and the new Andamania and the walkers who walk down from neighbouring Pakarang to the North or, like us, from Bang Niang to the South. When the ocean is rough the waves break ferociously and suddenly very near to shore often taking the unsuspecting bather cooling off by surprise. Good fun but take care!
Next up to the south of Pakarang Cape are the new Asparus and Toklaburi and established Best Western Palm Galleria Resort across an access road from a wide sandy beach that now has a few beach restaurants on it. When the tide is out many not so attractive rocks and dead coral is revealed making the area particularly up by the Cape look almost like a lunar landscape.
Then around the Cape you come to the jewel in Khao Lak's crown of beaches, Pakweeb and Bang Sak bays with in the middle Oeaw Thong, the renowned White Sand Beach. This is the area destined to become the exclusive part of Khao Lak with several other top end resorts already in progress or planned to join the Sarojin, the revamped or rebuilt Similana and the Le Meridien on Pakweeb Beach and the sole (but not for too long) Royal Bangsak Beach Resort on Bangsak and finally the excellent Haadson Resort across the beautiful Bangsak Promenade. As well as these fine resorts, the beach is blessed with fine beach restaurants, the best in our view in Khao Lak. First down from the Cape is our favourite, the Boatyard. This was formerly the Boatyard Tsunami project where fishing boats were built to replace those lost in the Tsunami and the main building there is now a superb restaurant open from 10.30am to 9pm, serving delicious Thai food, our favourites being crispy chicken toasts, chicken or pork in chili paste, fried chicken in half a pineapple and last but not least tiger prawns in garlic and black pepper sauce. We took our own bottle of Aussie white from the Nang Thong Supermarket (480 baht) which was served for us in an ice bucket but in beer glasses - another quirk of dining Thai style! (see photos at http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7903766 ). Just past the Similana are three very good beach restaurants with plenty of deck chairs and umbrellas for the day if you get there early enough or shade under the casuarinas if you don't or want to lie on the sand in the shade. Towards the end of our stay we noticed a fair number of jelly fish on the beach, particularly in front of the Sarojin near its jetty. Probably these were as a result of the rough seas and thunderstorms at the beginning of March. Prior to the Tsunami the Cape side of the beach was notorious for jelly fish and sting rays but not so now.
Around the rocks past the Similana, or over and through the Similana if the tide is in, you'll come to our and other Le Meridien fans’ favourite, the Rim Lay. The restaurant itself has improved over the past couple of years from the very simple shack with a few tables it was to a more posh shack with a good few tables and massage places but the food is still as excellent as ever, particularly the prawns deep fried in coconut batter served with sweet chili dip and the white snapper steamed in spicy lemon sauce. The previous "front of house" very affable Kai previously at the Rim Lay has now moved on to his own restaurant on the beach north of the Royal Bangsak with several family members called Kai's Seafood. Humble beginnings like the Rim Lay, just a shack, but the food is just as excellent with a similar menu. Why change a winning formula?! A note of caution! If you visit here the entrance road from the highway is about half a mile past the Royal Bank Sak Beach and is one of the worst, particularly near the top, I have driven on. Wasn't I glad I had taken out extra insurance in the UK which included tyre and underbody cover on our hire car!
Finally on this gourmand's tour of Khao Lak's beaches try not to miss spending time on Bang Sak beach near the Haadson resort (it's only a 20 minute drive north from central Bang La On) and the wonderful Promenades there. There are two promenades where a restaurant is on one side of the not busy road and you dine either al fresco or in a small cabana on the other overlooking the beach and sea. Take the first turn right off the highway signposted the Haadson and you will reach the first and our favourite restaurant there, the Kontongscu. Further along near the Haadson there are two or three more. A very local meeting and dining point but farangs are made most welcome. A great place for lunch or a sunset dinner.
If you really fancy very local dining, on the right hand side of the highway across from the Gas Station/711 which you pass leaving Khuk Khak on the way to Pakarang or Bang Sak or further north to Takua Pa (worth a visit to the very "atmospheric" market or trips to the Surins or Khao Sok) you fill wind two roadside very cheap and cheerful eating places. One is just by the road, the other set back a bit and serving an all you can eat Korean style BBQ and buffet (meat and fish) for an incredible 99 baht per person.
Now although we loved our dining experiences and walking for miles on the beaches, we did do other things too! An elephant trek at Sairung (see http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7782881 ); 3 days at the Surins (see http://photos.orange.co.uk/album/7691392 ); driving over the mountain (far more scenic than around it on Highway 4) to Phang Nga Bay and a longtail boat around the Bay; a visit to the annual Turtle festival at Thai Muang (a big market and fun fair); Khao Sok for the day; trips to Koh Kho Khao, about half an hour north of Khao Lak and a 10 minute ferry (only 5 resorts and 2 restaurants at this moment but watch this space especially as plans for a new airport and bridge to the mainland have now been passed and beautiful deserted beaches); visits to the nearby Tsunami Memorial at Baan Nan Khem and a short distance away the beached fishing boats, Krisana Sakorn - The Blue Angel and Sri samut, The Demon; acting as guinea pigs for our new friend, writer, hotelier, agent and Bang Niang resident, Richard Doring, by driving a route and using a GPS logger at key points where we took photos to and from our destination (which happened to be the Boatyard) then on our return downloading the satellite data into his laptop software and uploading the results into Google Earth which then before our eyes drew a map of our route (the first ever recorded!) with the key points for our photo images to be added later; being invited to the Beluga School for Life up in the mountains about 25km from Khao Lak where socially disadvantaged children and Tsunami orphans learn skills, as well as the basics, to better equip them for life. For instance teenagers of employment age attend courses on Hospitality, Catering and Hotel work to give them a head start in the burgeoning tourism trade and help fill this important skills gap in Khao Lak (see beluga-group.com/Corporate-Social-Responsibi… for further information).
We spent many a happy hour with my "brother" Monty the Tailor, his real brother Tony, Tony’s delightful wife and excellent cook Jodi (I'm really missing her cold rice pudding Indian style!) and the lovely Jasmeet to whom I am Uncle Papa Alan and my wife Aunty Mama Barbara. As well as working long hours on his very popular and successful tailoring business, Monty and Tony are currently spending many more preparing their new bigger "dream premises." Thank you Monty for your friendship and hospitality.
Over a few short years we have witnessed a transformation in Khao Lak from an area so cruelly devastated in the tragic events of December 26th 2004. We have met and talked to survivors, like Monty and Tony, and been awestruck, as will have been others who have done the same, by their reliving and retelling of their incredible ordeals. However, what is truly awe inspiring is how the area and community have recovered from the devastation to become now a thriving, international resort. It is still mainly German, Austrian, Swiss and increasingly Scandinavians who visit Khao Lak but English is the commonest means of communication. As Richard Doring says "Name me one place anywhere, anytime, as badly affected as Khao Lak was which has come back so strongly and more than rebuilt itself like Khao Lak has." I think he is right! This despite the millions of £s, $s, baht and other aid and donations intended for Khao Lak that shamefully ended up elsewhere (but that's another story!)
My thanks also to my friend and Destination Expert mentor, Tedkarma, a real Khao Lak Lover if ever there was one, and his chum Jimmy, for the lunches and banter we shared on several occasions both in Khao Lak and Phuket - and the not half bad Thai red wine he provided.
Except for the greater quantity of beer I consumed, we enjoyed a healthier lifestyle and far more agreeable weather (that and the beach massages worked wonders on our bones) than we would at home.
So will we be returning next year? There is only one question to be resolved - for how long? At least 8 weeks, more probably 12 is the answer. Without wishing the rest of the year away, roll on January 2009!!!