We flew from Koh Samui to Phuket and took a taxi north, to Khao Lak.
The drive along Thailand’s Andaman coast took only about an hour and a half, with a taxi driver who drove so fast that the two cameo Buddhas hanging from his rearview mirror kept on banging into each other, making a clanking sound as he sped and took sharp turns.
We did not know what to expect in Khao Lak…
It was our first time in the area, and if there is something I learnt about Thailand, it is that places that used to be remote and isolated soon get “discovered,” and in one year can become packed with tourists.
Khao Lak is part of the mainland, north of Phuket island.
It is better known as an embarkation point for those who wish to snorkel and dive in the Similan islands.
The Similan islands are a collection of nine rocky islands in the Andaman sea.
The Similan are not inhabited, and there is no development and no houses on those islands; they are designated as a marine park by the Thai government.
Only two of the Similan islands are open to those who wish to stay overnight.
There are basic bungalows, rented nightly by the government, or beachside tents to rent.
There are also a few restaurants and a rustic cafe, to service those who do camp overnight.
In Khao Lak, we stayed at Bang Niang beach.
It is a charming beachside neighborhood with a collection of places to eat either right on the beach, or on the small Main Street.
Of course there are tourists, as the whole economic structure of these towns is based on tourism, but the Andaman coast is so long that the tourists spread out across the many beaches.
The beach in Bang Niang is not overcrowded, since most tourists tend to stay on the stretch of beach in front of their hotels.
There are plenty of beachside relaxed restaurants and no bars with loud techno music.
If you do not stay in a hotel that has a beachfront, it is not a problem as all the beachside restaurants offer free beach loungers and umbrellas to their customers.
We simply had to walk along Bang Niang beach and choose the beach restaurant with the nicest loungers and a menu we liked, and then sit and order some fresh coconut juice or a bottle of water.
If you want to, you can eat there or get a beachside massage laying under their cool thatched huts, but you do not have to… Even in the high season, they were not full and all were more than happy to have customers, even for just a few dollars per day.
We did end up trying some curries which were excellent, and I got a Thai massage which was just OK, although my belief is that all massages are beneficial on some level.
There are some beautiful hotels on the water in Bang Niang beach, including La Flora and Casa La Flora, but there is also a range of very nice accommodations at much better prices.
Our hotel was a nice choice and it came with four hours of free massages at their nice Bliss spa.
While in Thailand, we usually did not opt for the pricey spas, knowing quite well that price is no indication of quality.
You can get an excellent massage in a shop on the main road or by the beach, and pay only $7-$10 an hour, or get a mediocre massage spending $30-$80 in an upscale hotel’s spa.
It is actually the same with food in Thailand.
Some of the upscale hotels offer Thai buffets at $80-$100 per person, while you can eat the exact same food (often better) in restaurants in the villages or by the beach, for a fraction of that price.
There are a lot of diving and snorkeling companies offering to take tourists to the Similan islands.
On Bang Niang beach, there is a Japanese diving shop that boasts having a four engine speedboat that gets to the Similan faster.
They were fully booked for the days we had available, but they helped us book a bigger, more massive outfit so we could snorkel in the Similan.
To be honest…
I wish we had not gone…
The Similan are located about an hour and a half of a bone jarring, bumpy speedboat ride from Khao Lak.
In one location, the sea was too rough for snorkeling and in the other location, there was almost nothing to see.
The Similan marine park suffered from the 2004 Tsunami and in 2010, from Coral Bleaching.
Researches say that only 25% of the reef has been destroyed, but they admit that the whole Andaman coast of Thailand is facing a complex set of problems, such as the impact of tourism, destructive fishing practices and coastal development.
I can attest that there is very little to see in the azure waters… Some tropical fish, a couple of turtles, a bit of coral, nothing like what you would see in better diving destinations around the world, like Bonaire, Tahiti, Vanuatu or in Fiji.
At first, I was a bit puzzled…. After all… the crescent bays of the Similan were full of live aboard diving boats, and dozens of speedboats unload snorkelers daily onto a pretty beach, but without many fish….
Why was it so popular?……
I wondered if many of those people have never seen much of the ocean life around the world….
Or maybe Thailand is full of young people, high on pot who smoked a joint, looked at a fish and said:
“Wow man… This is awesome… This fish is like…. Yellow and blue….. Thailand is the bomb…. Diving in Thailand is awesome….”
I have heard that diving and snorkeling in Thailand is very special, yet what I actually saw was a lot of hype and very little worth raving about.
One dive master told us when we inquired about diving, that she had spotted one manta ray and one shark the day before.
It brought me back to memories of Turks and Caicos, where we snorkeled in a bay full of Manta Rays, or to my night dive in Kona, Hawaii, where I swam with hundreds of Giant Manta rays, with wing spans of almost two meters.
And sharks…. Don’t get me started….
In Tahiti we were surrounded with dozens of huge sharks.
In Fiji, they organized a shark feeding dive where I saw fish the size of a small car and more sharks than you can believe.
In Hawaii, I dived among a school of hundreds of dolphins, more than I ever imagined existed in one area…
Many of the passengers on our big speedboat looked green and yellow upon our return journey.
A few threw up all over the boat, and in my opinion, the journey was not worth the price ($100 per snorkeler) and the day lost, a day we could have spent enjoying life on the beach.
The next day, after two hours of Thai massages, my muscles finally started to let go of the pain from the speedboat ride on the open water.
But the days we spent on Bang Niang beach were wonderful indeed.
It reminded us how important it is to spend the days wearing only bathing suits, and reconnecting with our bodies.
The food was also good, and we ate our dinners at Enzo, a small Japanese restaurant, where the owner made us a veg feast every night.
I liked Khao Lak, it offers a nice relaxing beach vacation…. Next, it is Christmas in Phuket