In our humble judgment, Khao Lak is what a beach town should be. It's not an "off the beaten track" destination to be sure, but it has a quietly pleasant and wholesome atmosphere, a wide range of places to stay across all budgets, and is easily accessible for those who are simply looking to get away for a beach holiday.
The devastating December 2004 tsunami hit the Khao Lak area harder than anywhere else in Thailand, with the coast of Phang Nga province enduring 80% of all lives lost in the whole country. Though the events of that day are still etched into the memories of locals and foreigners who frequent the area, it's now safe to say that Khao Lak has fully recovered. Resorts have been rebuilt, tourists have returned in consistent droves, and Khao Lak is effectively looking towards a bright future, which in itself may be seen as a tribute to those lost in 2004.
A tsunami memorial and museum have now taken their places along the other numerous sights and activities in the area, which include some spectacular waterfalls, a pristine and centrally located national park, world class snorkelling and diving at nearby Ko Similan, day trips to Phuket, Old Takua Pa, Phang Nga bay and beyond, seemingly endless stretches of wide, golden coastal beaches, and a lively but not sleazy atmosphere.
Khao Lak has long been a favourite for families. If you are looking for a Thailand beach vacation without the seediness of places like Patong and Pattaya — but with the comfortable resorts and foreigner friendly scene — Khao Lak is a great choice.
The actual Khao Lak beach is a small one, located just south of Khaolak Lamru National Park, but the name "Khao Lak" is generally used to refer to a 30 km long coastal area from Bang Sak to the north and the Thap Lamu pier area to the south. Beaches continue all the way north up to Ban Nam Khem and Ko Kho Khao and south down to Thai Muang and Phuket, so if you like long walks on the beach, the general Phang Nga coastal area — with Khao Lak at its centre — is a good choice.
While the "official" Khao Lak beach has a handful of upscale resorts and a decent beach, the larger and more popular beach area is Nang Thong, which stretches along an area of of coast just north of the national park. The main road — Phet Kasem (aka Rte. 4) — runs just to the east of Nang Thong beach. The largest number of resorts, restaurants, convenience stores and travel companies are found both on Phet Kasem at the centre of town and along Nang Thong beach itself. Nang Thong is the true centre of the Khao Lak area.
Bang Niang beach lies to the north of Nang Thong, and while it's also popular and full of resorts and restaurants, it retains a quieter, lower key feel. A night market and bus station are located along Phet Kasem Rd in Bang Niang.
Head further north and tourist infrastructure thins out significantly, but this isn't necessarily a reason to avoid the Khuk Khak, Pakarang, and Bang Sak areas. All of these feature outstanding beaches that are not surprisingly less crowded than those further south, and there are some excellent resorts found in these areas as well. The charming and picturesque village of Khuk Khak, in particular, is worth riding through on a motorbike, especially if you need a break from all the tourists at Nang Thong and Bang Niang.
In short, if you want a more lively atmosphere with plenty of restaurants and bars at your fingertips, Nang Thong is where it's at. For a slightly more chilled out atmosphere but still with plenty of nightlife and dining options, Bang Niang is for you. And, if seeking a more isolated vibe, for a romantic getaway perhaps, we'd suggest checking out Khuk Khak and the areas further north. See the "Transport" section for info on getting from beach to beach.
Khao Lak is a seasonal destination, with most visitors coming between November and April. During the rainy months from May to October expect reduced room rates, but also for a lot of restaurants and shops to be closed.
Trips to Ko Similan also stop running between May 1 and November 1 as Similan National Park closes during that time, and the Andaman Sea gets rather choppy. Khao Lak loses its lively atmosphere and can feel somewhat deserted in low season.
The economy of Khao Lak is based almost entirely on tourism. It's a small beach resort area, and when driving through Nang Thong it's easy to imagine how it would have looked like any other small Thai town clustered around a main road before the tourists started arriving in the 1980s. Because it's quite a distance from any local centres, the typical ways of Thailand don't necessarily apply here. For one thing, Khao Lak is one of the more expensive places in Thailand — expect to pay double for most things than you would pay 30 km away in Phang Nga town or Takua Pa.
There's no major hospital in Khao Lak, so anything serious would require a trip to Phang Nga town or Takua Pa. There are, however, several good medical clinics in the area. Khao Lak Inter Clinic has two branches — one along Phet Kasem road on the way out of Nang Thong just passed Pizzeria on the right if heading north, and another along the road that connects Bang Niang beach to Phet Kasem Rd. There are also a couple of cheaper local clinics — Dr. Sumet and Dr. Chusak — located across the street from one another just north of Tiffy's Café on the main road in Nang Thong.
There is a tourist police booth directly across the street from Nang Thong supermarket in the centre of Nang Thong along Phet Kasem Rd.
Although we surprisingly didn't see any proper Internet cafes, internet is available at many guesthouses and tour companies. It's on offer at Seaweed Hostel in Nang Thong and Sandy House in Bang Niang for 20B per hour, but chances are you won't need to go looking if not near those places because plenty of places advertise it.
A couple of medium sized supermarkets are located in Nang Thong, a night and day market in Bang Niang, and convenience stores are everywhere until you get north of Khuk Khak, where you'll either rely on your resort and/or small local restaurants for most meals if you don't feel like venturing out by motorbike or taxi.
There's no shortage of ATMs and banks in the area, especially in Nang Thong. A few currency exchange booths are found in the centre of Nang Thong near the McDonald's on Phet Kasem Rd.