Mainland Thai coastal beaches don't usually enjoy the hype of their offshore neighbours with names like Samet, Phi Phi and Samui. Yet for a comfortable and convenient, if touristy beach holiday, the Andaman coastal town of Khao Lak has a definite lure. It boasts vast stretches of golden sand, a wide range of accommodation, a family-friendly atmosphere and some fabulous day trips. Even if you only have five days, you can make the most of them here.
Day 1: Do nothing at all
So you've spent many hours on planes and finally you can feel that fine sand between your toes and Andaman Sea breeze through your hair. This is what you came for. Give yourself permission to do nothing more than sit on a beach chair while drinking coconuts (or coconut cocktails) between leisurely splashes in the surf. When the sun sinks low, settle into a beach restaurant for a decadent seafood barbecue. Splash out for that fresh jumbo shrimp -- you deserve it.
Day 2: Explore the surrounding beaches and sights
With well-maintained, not-so-busy beachfront roads to go with lanes that ramble through charming villages and countryside, the Khao Lak area is best explored by motorbike. Between extended lounges on the quiet beaches of Bang Niang, Khuk Khak, Pakarang and Bang Sak, make stops at low-key attractions like a small museum displaying local photos and stories from the 2004 tsunami, and a butterfly and orchid garden run by a convivial Norwegian chap. You might also hike to one of Lamru Khao Lak National Park's isolated beaches and jungle-clad waterfalls.
When you reach Khuk Khak, take a timeout for a drink at the friendly beach shack known as Lek Bar; just ring the bell and they'll send a rowboat to carry you across the saltwater stream that separates this beach bum paradise from the road. Head further north to Pakarang and Bang Sak to find out what it's like to share a full kilometre of wide beachfront with nothing but the sand crabs. Finish the day with a stop at the Bang Niang night market to enjoy a fried roti and shop for beach chairs, sarongs and Bob Marley t-shirts.
Day 3: Day trip to Ao Phang Nga
There's a reason why every travel office and resort in Khao Lak advertises day tours to nearby Phang Nga Bay: it really is that magnificent. Set out in the wee morning hours and embark on a longtail boat cruise as the sun's first rays peek over dramatic karst cliffs. Once you have the compulsory stop at James Bond's hideout under your belt, explore sea caves by kayak, kick the football around at Ko Panyi fishing village's floating pitch, or drift silently through the mangroves as kingfishers and blue-winged leafbirds snack on the abundant marine life.
Day 4: Explore further north
Hop back on the motorbikes and roll up the scenic coastal road until you reach Baan Nam Khem. One of the areas hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami, this enchanting little village is home to a moving tsunami memorial with a long wall of plaques dedicated to the individuals who were lost, a golden seated Buddha that gazes inland from the shore, and several large fishing vessels that were swept inland by the waves. While it's the right place to reflect on that tragic event, Baan Nam Khem is also an opportunity to experience the relaxed lifestyle of a southern Thai fishing community.
From Baan Nam Khem, a five-minute ferry can take you and your motorbike to a string of remote beaches on the oft-overlooked island of Ko Kho Khao. If you'd prefer a taste of culture, cruise south along the river to the one-time tin-mining centre and now sleepy hamlet of Sri Takua Pa. Friendly locals still produce traditional foods and tin crafts on narrow streets punctuated by Chinese lanterns, ancient temples and dilapidated but attractive Sino-Portuguese architecture.
Day 5: Day trip to the Similans
One reason why many travellers opt for islands over coastal beaches like Khao Lak is that the latter doesn't quite boast the picture-perfect aquamarine water and powdery white sand of, say, Ko Lipe. Best visited from Khao Lak, however, the luscious protected Similan islands allow you to have your flippers and use them too.
A speedboat tour will whiz you around these nine tiny islands with sublime snorkelling and beaches that can rival any on earth. After you soak up the tremendous views from Donald Duck rock, hop back in the crystal clear water and make friends with the resident sea turtles.
With all that Khao Lak has to offer, don't be surprised if this trip becomes the first of many. Our only advice for next time: Make it two weeks.
The Travelfish newsletter is sent out every Monday and is jammed full of free advice for travel in Southeast Asia. You can see past issues here.