When I touch down in Phuket, there’s still a 65-kilometre trip from the airport to Khao Lak, where I’m treated to a good taste of real Thailand (that’s the Thailand outside of the groomed resort landscapes). Phuket city bustles with activity, and as we reach more rural settings I catch glimpses of locals standing beside the road, flashing wide friendly grins while bowing slightly and clasping their palms together prayer-like in a wai. There’s fresh fruit everywhere – hanging off trees, piled into locally woven baskets or displayed colourfully under the shade of market stalls – and the backdrop all the way along Route 4 is verdant indigenous vegetation. In the village areas, mopeds and tuk-tuks speed expertly through the narrow roads lined with cars. But the road is mostly quiet – it’s midday, which means the locals are at work.
Khao Lak was hardest hit by the 2004 tsunami that ripped through beaches, properties and shops, and took with it the tourism that the area so relied on. But the ‘Land of Smiles’ is populated by hardworking communities who banded together to restore the area; now Khao Lak, with its pristine coastline, is fast becoming the destination of choice for likeminded winter-fleeing travellers.
the stay: the sarojin
The Sarojin reminds me that true luxury exists in even the smallest details. From the refreshing lemon-grass-scented towel guests are handed upon arrival to the massive spa-like bathrooms in each of the 56 suites, this is boutique hotel bliss at its most relaxing. The property is modern and unconventional – it doesn’t feel like a hotel so much as a wellness retreat. That’s until one of the servers at breakfast hands me a glass of bubbly. ‘It will wake you up!’ Noo-Dang insists.
After a good, filling meal served up next to a tranquil lotus pond, it’s unlikely any visitor will be able to resist the water for long, alternating visits to the private beach and the glistening aquamarine swimming pool. I get there early enough to snatch one of the ‘floating’ pavilions, grab a cocktail and languidly let the day slip by.
khao sok national park
Your mouth will be agape for most of the 70-minute drive from Khao Lak to Khao Sok. The vegetation is thick and dense. You turn a corner into a treeless part of the road and you’re treated to endless views of hundreds of kilometres of misty, damp, breathtaking, mysterious jungle. Craggy limestone formations soar upwards, hugged by the hot, heavy fog and blanketed with moss-like undergrowth. ‘This must be where they keep the dinosaurs,’ I (wittily) caption an Instagram.
Khao Sok’s reputation has come a long way since 1944, when it was affectionately known as ‘Ban Sop’ (Village of the Dead) courtesy of an epidemic that swept through the area. Today it’s a far less dreary place, where elephants, monkeys, tigers, snakes and spiders roam among tropical palm trees, and where you can zone out and tune into the sounds of your surrounds: the ubiquitous whine of circling insects, whooping of playful gibbons and shrill calls of nearby swifts, all punctuated by the great hornbill’s gruff barks.
the stay: elephant hills
Roughing it isn’t so bad when you’re staying in one of the lavish suites at luxury tented camp Elephant Hills. The 34 tented rooms are spacious and cool – welcome after a day exploring the rainforests – and each has an en-suite bathroom (where you may even meet a frog in the shower). But the best thing about Elephant Hills isn’t just the serene setting. Try one of the canoe safaris, during which you can chill out and watch the gibbon monkeys swinging overhead – keeping a watchful eye out for snakes curled up in the branches above, of course – all the way down the Sok River.
ko phi phi
You’ll need to catch a ferry to get to this island, the most touristy of the three southern Thai destinations. Depending on the weather it can be a bumpy ride, but when the sight of the archipelago looms closer any seasickness is soon forgotten and the only thing you can think of is jumping into the azure waters. The distant coastline is dotted with boats – the kind you’d expect to see in a castaway movie. They’re called long-tails and they’re the mode of transportation between each of the islands.
We disembark on Ko Phi Phi Don, the largest of the islands. This is the place to swim, snorkel and sail – anything you can do on water is encouraged here. Nights can be spent bouncing between the beach-shack tiki bars, watching fire dancers on the white sands or catching some Zs after a day in the sun. To avoid the crowds, charter your own boat and engage in some island-hopping. When it comes to legendary Maya Bay, however, there’s no way to sidestep the masses – you’re just another gawker there thanks to The Beach. And yes, it’s that beautiful in real life too.
the stay: zeavola
There are few places I’ve stayed that are as luxurious as Zeavola. A very tanned, very polite Spaniard shows me to my room, which might be the home of my dreams – it’s all rich turmeric, fuchsia and turquoise, complemented by teak furnishings and thoughtful, minimalistic details throughout. The bed is big and comfortable, but after dinner I recline on the patio mattress, which is where I fall asleep. It’s so private and quiet, you feel as if you’re the only person on the whole of Phi Phi – and that’s how it ought to be. If, by the last day, you haven’t been pampered into coma-like bliss, make sure you visit the skilled masseuses at the Zeavola spa, who stand ready to work every little bit of stress out of your body.
Originally published in HL April 2016