Leisa Tyler swaps Phuket's crowds for a laid-back beachside retreat rich in culinary delights.
'People who used to go to Phuket 20 years ago now come to Khao Lak," says the general manager of Casa de la Flora, Michael Gaehler, speaking about the small beach resort flanking the Andaman coastline in southern Thailand. Two scruffy strips of requisite cowboy bars with mock-log benches and live music, trinket stalls and 300-baht massage shops nestled under the feet of thickly forested outcrops, at a glance Khao Lak doesn't amount to much. That is until you see the beaches: long, white swaths of powdery white sand fringed by elongated palms and crystal-clear, azure-coloured sea.
An hour and a half north of Phuket Airport, Khao Lak feels like a world away from the heaving hedonism of Thailand's most popular resort island. Quiet, soft and sleepy, with untrimmed grass and unpolished service, Khao Lak's un-Phuket feel is precisely its appeal. Here, locals stop to chat with you on the beach - "Where you go? You like Khao Lak?" - and appear less concerned about making a quick buck than they do enjoying endless picnics of spicy salad with Chang beer under the shade of palms and catching fish with nets thrown into the breakwaters.
Khao Lak wasn't always so charmed. It was hit hard by the 2004 Boxing Day Asian tsunami, which pounded the coastline and claimed more than 4000 lives.
The jumping-off point for the stunning Similan Islands, famed for its vibrant underwater world and strict environmental protection policies, and gorgeous Khao Sok, an inland national park of karst mountains and mirrored lakes, Khao Lak was just emerging as a new hot spot for tourists. A clutch of big hotel groups had recently opened: Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach and Spa Resort, a sprawling resort flanking an endless stretch of beach north of Khao Lak town, three weeks before the tsunami hit; the 138-room La Flora Resort and Spa had opened three days earlier. Both properties had their bottom floors destroyed.
They have since been rebuilt and joined by a string of others, including the modernist Casa de la Flora, the sister resort of La Flora. Opening in 2011, Casa de la Flora has 36 glass-fronted stone cubes, each with plunge pools and sea views, butting up to the main stretch of sand a few minutes by bicycle from Khao Lak town. Inside, villas are comfortable and stylish with an enormous concrete tub, dual showers, free minibars of Phuket beer and juice, and wooden furniture. Boxy and futuristic, with lawn-covered rooftops sliding down to a beachside cafe, the property does appear a little before its time in Khao Lak, where most resorts follow a cookie-cutter blueprint of enormous open-air lobbies, classical Asian furniture and local silk coverings.
Flanking a 13-kilometre beach peppered with tiny shells and transparent crabs, shared only by a handful of low-rise hotels, the 258-room Le Meridien outstrips all competition for stunning locations. It has all the trappings big resorts offer - spa, tennis courts, swimming pools, a muay thai boxing ring, and several drinking and dining options, including a beachside bar and grill and Korean barbecue.
It's Favola, the Italian restaurant, that takes the pie. The alfresco diner, snuggled around the side of a free-form pool, serves dishes such as baked seafood soup with pizza dough crust, chicken cacciatore and some of the best pizzas in southern Thailand.
Finding great Thai food in Khao Lak is a little trickier. All the resorts and tourist-styled restaurants offer standard noodle and rice fare, but toned down for sensitive Western palates. None lures me back for seconds, which is what makes Jai Restaurant such a prize.
In Thailand, it's often the dinkiest and kitschiest restaurants that offer the best food. Jai (phone +66 7648 5390), a monstrous tin-roofed diner with orange benches overlooking the highway in Khao Lak town, ticks all these boxes, with punchy Isan dishes hailing from Thailand's north-east reigning supreme. The moo kua gling - minced pork mixed with spicy yellow curry paste and strips of fragrant galangal - is simply gorgeous; the nam tok moo - spicy salad with barbecue pork - has nutty overtones from ground rice and a lingering palate of kaffir lime. But it's the gaeng som cha om kai, hot and sour soup with acacia leaf omelet and prawn, that makes me weep, possibly because of its complex, perfectly atoned palate, or from the lip-numbing bird's-eye chillies inside.
Khao Lak's virtues stretch well beyond beaches and food. One morning I join a complimentary bicycle trip with Le Meridien staff and guests to see rubber trees being tapped and processed into a gel before being trucked to the tyre-manufacturing plants on the east coast. We glide past pineapples growing plump and sweet in the morning sun and see a farmer washing his water buffalo in a small lake. We take the road less travelled up disused mountain tracks and then stop to cool off at a watering hole fed by the gorgeous Sairung Waterfall.
It's soft, quiet and sleepy. Best of all, there are no other tourists for miles.
Singapore Airlines has a fare to Phuket for about $1069 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Fly non-stop to Singapore (about 8hr) and then non-stop to Phuket (1hr 45min on SilkAir). See singaporeair.com.
- Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach Resort and Spa has double rooms from 4843 baht ($320), including breakfast. See starwoodhotels.com.
- Casa de la Flora has double rooms from 10,260 baht, including breakfast. See casadelaflora.com.