Thursday, May 6, 2010


Wounds take a long time to heal, but Phang-Nga is finally on the mend. It’s been five years since the tsunami and, although the tales are still being told here, there’s a palpable sense of progress as hot spots like Khao Lak return to the well-trodden backpacker route. From November to April the water is very clear, the sun shines and soda-white beaches beckon. In the rainy season, however, many places shut down and the area can feel a bit haunted. Offshore, the Surin and Similan island marine national parks harbour some of the world’s top diving destinations.


Welcome to Jurassic Park – you can almost hear the theme song playing in surround sound while you pass between the soaring karst formations. Add a prancing T Rex and Thailand’s first protected preserve would

be a dead ringer for Crichton’s prehistoric Disneyland. This dripping juicy jungle is part of the oldest rainforest in the world, where snakes, monkeys and tigers mingle within the tangle of lazy vines.

Although technically part of Surat Thani Province, Khao Sok National Park (0 7739 5025;; admission 400B) is much closer to the Andaman Sea, and possesses the classic Andaman topography: signature ferny cliffs that shoot straight up into the air like crocodile teeth.

Sights & Activities

Khao Sok’s vast terrain makes it one of the last viable habitats for
large mammals requiring large areas in order to subsist. During the wetter months you may happen upon bears, boars, gaurs, tapirs, gibbons, deer, wild elephants and perhaps even a tiger. There are also over 180 species of bird, as well as the world’s largest flower, the rare Rafflesia kerrii. Found only in Khao Sok, these giant flowers can reach 80cm in diameter. It has no roots or leaves of its own; instead it lives parasitically inside the roots of the liana, a jungle vine.

The stunning
Chiaw Lan Lake sits about an hour’s drive east of the visitor centre. The lake was created in 1982 by an enormous shale-clay dam called Ratchaprapha (Kheuan Ratchaprapha or Kheuan Chiaw Lan). The limestone outcrops protruding from the lake reach a height of 960m, over three times higher than the formations in the Phang-Nga area.

A cave known as Tham Nam Thalu contains striking limestone formations and subterranean streams, while Tham Si Ru features four converging passageways used as a hideout by communist insurgents between 1975 and 1982. The caves can be reached on foot from the southwestern shore of the lake. You can rent boats from local fishermen to explore the coves, canals, caves and cul-de-sacs along the lakeshore. Elephant trekking, kayaking and rafting are popular park activities. The hiking is also excellent, and you can arrange park tours from any guesthouse – just be sure you get a certified guide (they wear an official badge). Various hiking trails from the visitors centre lead to the waterfalls of
Sip-Et Chan (4km), Than Sawan (9km) and Than Kloy (9km), among other destinations.

Getting There & Around

Khao Sok is about 100km from Surat Thani. Transport to the park by minivan from Surat Thani (80B, one hour, at least twice daily) can be arranged through most travel agents in Surat, but be aware that some minivan companies work with specific bungalow outfitters and will try to convince you to stay at that place. Otherwise, from the Surat Thani area you can catch a bus going towards Takua Pa –you’ll be getting off well before hitting this destination (tell the bus driver ‘Khao Sok’). You can also come from the west coast by bus, but you’ll have to go to Takua Pa first. Buses from Takua Pa to the park (25B, one hour, nine daily) drop you off on the highway,1.8km from the visitor centre. If guesthouse touts don’t meet you, you’ll have to walk to
your chosen guesthouse (from 50m to 2km). The roads within the main parts of the park are well paved, so personal vehicles will have no problems getting around.

To arrive at Chiaw Lan Lake, go east on Rte 401 from the visitor centre and take the turnoff between the Km52 and Km53 markers, at Ban Takum. It’s another 14km to the lake. If you don’t have your own wheels, you’ll have to bus it to Ban Takum, then hope to hitch a ride to the lake. The best option without private transport would be to join a tour, which any guesthouse can arrange for 1,000B (2,000B to 2,500B with an overnight stay).

เขาหลัก /บางเนียง / นางทอง

Khao Lak is a one-horse town. And that lone horse is a one-trick pony. Diving drives the
economy here, and beyond that, there isn’t a whole lot to do – sure, the beach is nice, but the reefs are nicer. These days, the big draw is live-aboard diving trips, which explore the stunning Similan and Surin Archipelagos. The air in Khao Lak is thick with anticipation as visitors gear up to swim with the fishes.

เมืองพังงา /อ่าวพังงา

In Phang-Nga, it’s extremely easy to tell the difference between a tourist and a local – tourists are looking up. Jaw-dropping limestone rock towers stretch towards the afternoon clouds, leaving visitors almost as awestruck as when they see a local going about their business completely unfazed by the region’s ethereal gifts. It’s hard not to stop dead in one’s tracks and gaze at these crags for hours – the blend of soda-white sand and jagged stone is intoxicating.

A cameo in The Man with the Golden Gun has lured loads of James Bond fanatics and spy wannabes out to this serene realm, which has prompted the government to step
in and protect the land under a national park mandate. The area is lacking in quality
accommodation, so it may be best to visit on a day trip – there are heaps of tours out of Phuket and Khao Lak; ask at any of the local travel agencies. Most trips are advertised
on chalkboards and posters as ‘trips to James Bond Island’. Tours start at around 550B depending on season and demand.

Sa Nang Manora Forest Park วนอุธยาน สระนางมโนราห์

The fairyland setting at this beautiful and little-visited park (admission free) is nothing short
of fantastic. Moss-encrusted roots and rocks,dense rainforest and rattan vines provide a
delicious backdrop for swimming in pools beneath multilevel waterfalls. The park’s name comes from a local folk belief that the mythical Princess Manora bathes in the pools when no one else is around.

Primitive trails meander along (and at times through) the falls, climbing level after level, and seem to go on forever – you could easily get a full day’s hiking in without walking along the same path twice. Bring plenty of drinking water – although the
shade and the falls moderate the temperature, the humidity in the park is quite high. Facilities include some picnic tables, plus a small restaurant.

To get here, catch a motorcycle taxi from Phang-Nga (50B). If you have your own wheels, head north out of town on Hwy 4, go 3.2km past the Shell petrol station, then turn left and go down a curvy road another 4km.