KHAO LAK Barely 80 kilometres away from the famed Phuket islands, it is sheer magic by the sea, writes USHA S. MURALI
K hao Lak is an idyllic seaside town on the Andaman Sea Coast, located in the Phang-Nga province of Thailand. A very popular tourist destination 80 kms from Phuket but far from the madding crowds, can be aptly described as ‘Surf, Sand and Sheer magic by the Sea'. The beauty of the pristine white beaches, rich coral reefs with exotic marine life, picturesque bay with amazing limestone cliffs, the rolling mountains and green forest is just the place for a family holiday.
The most exciting part of our holiday was our snorkelling trip to the Similan Islands archipelago, rated to be one of the best diving and snorkelling destinations in the world. Donning life jackets and collecting our flippers and snorkelling gear, we were taken in speedboats. Riding the waves at high speeds was exhilarating and we enjoyed the blast of sea and spray against our faces. The first stopover was at Miang Island and will always cherish this, as it was here I made my snorkelling debut. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts, I got the hang of it and started observing the marine life in the water but stayed close to the beach.
The next snorkelling stops were at Payu, Ba-ngu, and Similan islands. At both Payu and Ba-ngu islands, we were not allowed to land on the beach, as they are protected for turtle nesting. Snorkelling here meant jumping mid sea into the deep blue waters, being part of the magical aquatic world. Confident and more adventurous by then, I enjoyed snorkelling surrounded by schools of fishes in myriad colours lazily swimming in and out of the coral reefs. The most graceful was the mauve coloured snake with black bands gliding through the reefs, moving about undisturbed in its water kingdom.
Another fascinating day was the trip to the caves. The Phung Chang cave or the Elephant belly cave is located outside Phang Nga town and is famous for its stalagmite and gold colour stalactites. It is a cave with a very narrow passage; just a couple of metres wide or even lesser in some places with a mountain stream running through it. To explore the cave, we were first taken by rubber inflatable boats, then transferred to bamboo rafts and then by foot through knee-deep waters to see the limestone formations. The only source of light was a miner's torch on our foreheads. No cameras are allowed inside the caves.
We came back after a good two hours, carrying rich memories of the fascinating lime stone formations, nature's sculptures, forming and growing undisturbed over millions of years. The same afternoon, we went for the sea caves exploration in Phang Nga Bay, an hour's ride by speedboat. On one side, we passed by thick mangroves and the other side limestone cliffs dotted the entire route. Islands of unconnected cliffs, of all odd shape and sizes, each given an interesting name, seemed as if they had just sprouted out of the sea, to tower over the bay. The most famous of course was the ‘James Bond Island' originally called Ping-Kan Island where ‘The Man with the Golden gun' was filmed.
We were transferred to bright yellow sea canoes from a mid sea pier. Enterprising sea vendors were selling tender coconuts. Sitting tightly in the narrow canoes, we enjoyed the refreshing tender coconuts. We canoed through the sea tunnels to see the caves, arches, and the honks (meaning room in Thai). The caves have been formed by the erosion of the limestone cliffs due to the repeated onslaught of seawater, relentless tides and the sea winds.
The Khao Sok National park provides many options. One can explore the forest hiking or take elephant safaris to go up to the waterfalls.
Khao Lak had suffered extensive damage to life and property by the killer tsunami of 2004. Memorial services were held all over Thailand as a tribute to those who lost to the tsunami on that fateful day. We visited the tsunami memorials. The coast guard ship, which was patrolling the sea near Khao Lak, was washed one km inland near Petchkasan road. The ship has been left to stand in the same place as a memorial, a grim reminder of the powerful tsunami.
Five years after the fateful day, other than the two-tsunami memorials, there is no trace of any destruction. Everything around was idyllic and beautiful, calm and serene and tourists throng the place. The people of Thailand have moved on, rebuilding their lives for the better. We returned refreshed and rejuvenated after a holiday in one of the most tranquil locales.
We went for the sea caveS' exploration in Phang Nga Bay, an hour's ride by speedboat