Khao Lak itself is a petite coastal village on Thailand’s east coast, but the name tends to encircle the surrounding jungle and a long stretch of blond sand that runs alongside the Andaman Sea. An hour and a half by car from Phuket International Airport, Khao Lak gives you a more tranquil alternative to Phuketor Krabi, with a small string of coastal hotels dotted between river estuaries and rocky outcrops.
There’s almost 30 km (18 miles) of secluded coves and long, sweeping beaches to explore. Some, including the jungle-fringed Pak Weep Beach, are relatively undeveloped. Others are busier with amenities such as beachside restaurants, shops and weekly markets.
Stay in Khao Lak and you’re within close proximity to a range of national parks. The Similan Islands lie about an hour and a half’s speedboat ride from the coast, an archipelago of 11 small islands that, at first glance, look like huge piles of jungle-topped boulders. These boulder formations continue deep into the surrounding ocean, creating arguably some of the best dive sites in Thailand.
To the west side of the islands, experienced divers can swim through the maze of granite boulders, where you might see zebra sharks, moray eels and turtles. To the east, newer divers can explore the coral reef that lines the gently sloping seafloor.
If you’re more interested in snorkeling, the islands of nearby Mu Ko Surin National Park have a shallower coastal shelf that’s decorated with a flourishing coral reef and supports a healthy population of leatherback turtles.
Inland, you have Khao Lak/Lam Ru National Park, tropical evergreen forest that’s punctuated by twin mountainous peaks and the Phang Nga River. You can take a guided trek through the jungle, where you might happen upon one of the many waterfalls, rare orchids or the Malayan tapir. With patience, you might spot some of the park’s birdlife, including the oriental pied hornbill and petite scarlet minivet.
About an hour’s drive away is the larger Khao Sok National Park, which boasts the oldest evergreen rainforest in the world. You can journey along its network of lakes, which link together between deep valley walls, by kayak or on a guided boat tour, looking for water monitors basking on the waterside or a crested serpent eagle hunting above.