The name "Khao Lak" literally means "Lak mountain". Lak mountain is one of the main peaks in the hilly small mountainous region (maximum height 1,050 meters) within Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park. The tiny village of Ban Khao Lak, the original beach, Hat Khao Lak, and the bay of Khao Lak (Ao Khao Lak) actually all lie in the Lam Kaen sub-district of Thai Mueang district. But in recent years, presumably for reasons of convenience, commerce and marketing, the generalisation of the name Khao Lak has propagated itself northwards almost as far as the town of Takua Pa.
It is popular for its serene ambiance and as a departure point for liveaboard scuba diving trips to the Similan Islands. Khao Lak is approximately 60 kilometers north of the island of Phuket along Phetkasem Road (Thai Route 4), one of four major highways in Thailand. Khao Lak is serviced regularly by buses. Phuket International Airport (HKT) is 74 kilometres south on the island of Phuket. Though Thailand's economy is mostly export-dependent, Khao Lak remains mostly tourist-dependent, with surrounding agriculture and commercial fishing making up a small contribution to Thailand's overall economy. Differentiating Khao Lak from neighboring tourist destinations like Phuket are its quiet, up-scale, secluded coastal resorts; uncrowded beaches; family-friendly nighttime environment and provincial ordinances that prohibit structures taller than the height of a coconut palm tree, keeping Khao Lak down to earth (but subject to sprawl).
Beach boundaries are fluid, and vary with local prejudices, official government pronouncements, and the marketing efforts of local resorts. It is generally accepted that Khao Lak beaches include (from south to north):
- Khao Lak Beach, south of the headland marking the southern boundary of the region
- Nang Thong Beach, in the village of Bang La On (frequently called—mistakenly—Khao Lak)
- Bang Niang, in the village of the same name some 2–3 km north of Bang La On
- Khuk Khak, in the village of the same name some 2–3 km north of Bang Niang
- Cape Pakarang, north of Khuk Khak
- Bang Sak, north of Cape Pakarang
Taken together, these beaches stretch for some 25 km along the Andaman Sea. All beaches are public, as are all beaches in Thailand.
The local economy in the town is based on the tourist hotels, local shops and restaurants, and the diving trade. Most of the foreign tourists are European, many from Scandinavia, Germany and the United Kingdom. The wider area produces significant quantities of natural rubber and palm oil; there is also a small amount of subsistence agriculture.
Following the tsunami of December 2004 (see below) the local economy was devastated as it was in nearly all coastal towns hit by the waves. It is estimated that 60 percent of the resorts were mid-construction, with nearly 4,000 rooms already available. Most coastal resorts were either heavily damaged or completely demolished, resulting in a great loss of life and a major setback to the local tourist economy. At the time of the tsunami, Khao Lak was Thailand's fastest growing tourist destination.
Since the tsunami, Khao Lak's infrastructure and economy have bounced back. Coastal resorts have been reconstructed or repaired, and new ones have been built or are in the process of being built. In 2016, there are reportedly 7,822 hotel rooms at 104 registered accommodations. By 2018 another 1,213 rooms will be added. Occupancy rates range from 70-90 percent during the high season period (November-March).
Khao Lak was the coastal area of Thailand hardest hit by the tsunami resulting from the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. Many people died including many foreign tourists. The final death toll was over 4,000, with local unofficial estimates topping 10,000 due to the lack of accurate government censuses and the mere fact that much of the migrant Burmese population was not documented nor recognized as legal residents.
Most of the coastal landscape, i.e., beaches, resorts and vegetation, was destroyed by the tsunami. Some replanting programmes have been initiated and a great deal has been accomplished in the rejuvenation of surrounding foliage. Studies suggesting that coastal vegetation may have helped buffer the effects of the waves have ensured that replanting and maintenance of the coastal vegetation have become a priority in the reconstruction of the landscape.
As a stark reminder of the force a tsunami can exert, Thai navy boat 813 (Tor 813) lies beached almost 2 kilometers inland from Bang Niang Beach. It was on patrol, serving as a guard to a grandson of the king, Bhumi Jensen, as he was jet skiing in front of La Flora Resort. Despite rescue efforts, he could not be saved from the power of the waves. His mother (Princess Ubolratana) and sister survived by fleeing to an upper storey of La Flora. Boat 813 was carried inland and came to rest opposite Bang Niang's marketplace. The area in which it sits has now been renovated and includes a museum dedicated to the events of Boxing Day 2004.
Others among the casualties were well-known Finnish musician and TV host Aki Sirkesalo and his family, and Imre von Polgar, guitarist for the Swedish rock band, The Watermelon Men. Almost four years old at the time, a young girl was swept away at Khao Lak and remained the subject of a media-covered intensive search despite being formally identified in August 2005 as a victim. Since the 2004 tsunami, an early-warning system has been installed along the affected coastline. In April 2012, it received its most recent test following an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra. Audible warning sirens alerted the local population to the possibility of a tsunami roughly 2 hours before estimated landfall, allowing the populace to move to higher ground inland.
The Khao Lak region falls almost entirely within the Khuk Khak Sub-district (tambon) of the Takua Pa District (amphoe) of Phang Nga Province. The Takua Pa District is divided into 8 sub-districts. Interestingly, the village of Ban Khao Lak itself does not fall within the Khuk Khak Sub-district, the area commonly thought of as "Khao Lak".
- "Khao Lak Hotel Market Update" (PDF). C9 Hotelworks Co, Ltd. May 2016. Retrieved 1 June 2016.
- "Tsunami survivors remember 'selfless help' of Thais". The Nation. 28 December 2014. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
- Charlie Campbell / Khao Lak and Hong Kong. "The Tsunami's Wake". TIME.com. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
- "Model Petra Nemcova returns to Thailand to commemorate tsunami that claimed life of fiance Simon Atlee". NewsComAu. Retrieved 29 December 2014.
- Khao Lak travel guide from Wikivoyage
- Media related to Khao Lak at Wikimedia Commons
- A detailed map of the Khao Lak area
- A detailed map showing Khao Lak at the time of the 2004 tsunami
- Photos of the rescue work after the tsunami
- National Geographic Society: The Deadliest Tsunami in History