Thailand - Khaolak
My Friend, 'Chang Noi' (Little Elephant)
He was a big man in stature with a big heart; a quiet Thai man who was always willing to help. Public transport is almost non-existent in the area but if I wanted to go anywhere Chang Noi would always be willing to take me in his pickup truck. And when I wanted to come back I just had to call him. He never asked for or expected anything in return.
He was one of the unfortunate people who was in the wrong place at the wrong time on that fateful day, 26th December 2004. He and Deng planned to marry but she is now alone. In Buddhist tradition she shaved her head after his death.
When I met Deng and her father again in May 2005 they were OK but finding life tough. Their livelihood was the Lotus restaurant and bungalow operation that they had been patiently building up over a number of years. Nothing remains any longer. What was once their business is now just a piece of barren land.
During the winter of 2001/2002 I was in Chiang Mai. I already had a flight booked down to Phuket but was not looking forward to the high prices, beaches full of fat Westerners and greedy locals. My first visit to Phuket in 1992 had been very enjoyable but every time I returned it had become more tacky and was moving further away from the version of Thailand I enjoy.
I met a German couple while out elephant trekking. I spoke to them about my dilemma and they told me about a place I had never heard of before called Khaolak. It was on the mainland north of Phuket and they happened to be going there in a few days time. It was great advice. Alex and Claudia went on to become great friends and I later attended their wedding in the pretty Bavarian town of Passau.
I went ahead with my flight to Phuket airport on the north of the island but, instead of heading south towards the beaches with a million other farangs, I went north (over the bridge to the mainland) and within two hours I had arrived in Khaolak for the first time.
I immediately felt at home. The whole area had a nice feel about it with none of the annoying aspects of Phuket (apart from a few Indian tailors). There were a few fairly upmarket, established resorts where the guests kept themselves to themselves. A handful of bungalow operations existed with a small infrastructure of shops and restaurants.
Khaolak is perfectly situated for dive trips to the fabulous Similan Islands but even so, only a few dive operators had set up in the area. One of the first things I did was to get myself booked on a liveaboard dive trip to the Similans.
I'm not a 'beach' person but I liked Khaolak. It's a beach resort but I hardly ever visited the beach. Beaches bore me after about 10 minutes. I much prefer meeting and talking to the locals. As a result of doing this I made several Thai friends in the area.
I spent a couple more months in Thailand during the winter of 2002/2003 and spent a fair amount of that time in Khaolak. I came to Thailand to live in November 2003 and made more trips back to Khaolak during 2003 and 2004. Probably my best ever visit was in September 2004 when I travelled with my Thai girlfriend.
It was low season but the weather was perfect. We checked into one of my favourite hotels at Bang Niang beach - The Beach Resort - and had a fantastic few days. The hotel was perfect. The rooms were very comfortable and the landscaped grounds beautiful. In the mornings I would get up early and just sit on the balcony listening to the sea and to the birds singing while watching the sun come up.
We were the only people in the hotel, we had the pool to ourselves and a full complement of staff to look after us. What's more, because it was low season all this came at a bargain price.
It couldn't have been any more ideal. I vowed then to return the following low season once all the tourists had gone home. Sadly, this was not to be. In about three months time an unprecedented event was to take place that would change everything.
The Asian Tsunami
While enjoying a family reunion at Christmas in Singapore with a group of people that included a couple of Thais and lots of expat Brits, news starting breaking about a tsunami in the Indian Ocean. The first reports were confused and unclear as to how serious the problems were.
BBC reports coming in about Phuket actually showed TV footage of Hat Yai, my home town in Thailand. Hat Yai is too far inland to be affected by tsunamis but the earthquake that triggered the tsunami shook some tall buildings causing masonry to come crashing to the ground.
The Thais in the group made some phone calls home and heard about friends who had been caught up in the disaster. The TV reports started to mention death counts. First it was tens, then hundreds. After a while I realised that it would be hundreds of thousands. The Boxing Day excitement had changed to an air of sadness and disbelief.
One member of our group had friends out on dive boats in the Indian Ocean and he was also planning to visit Aceh to go diving. Aceh of course was at the epicentre of the earthquake.
Khaolak After The Tsunami
Foreigners are more aware of places like Phuket and Phi Phi islands and it was these places that grabbed most of the headlines about the disaster as far as Thailand was concerned. However, it soon became apparent that the Khaolak area had been very badly affected.
The worst affected area was one I had spent a lot of time at - Bang Niang beach. I wanted to go back to check up on the friends I hadn't been able to contact by phone. Sadly, this didn't happen until May 2005. The following account and photos describe what I found.
The Beach Resort
The Beach Resort was where I stayed on my first visit to Khaolak. It had the exact balance of comfort and value that I wanted and I was very happy there. The staff were always friendly and even on subsequent visits when I stayed elsewhere I always called in for a chat. They always remembered me and always greeted me with big smiles.
When I visited the area in May 2005 I was told the manager at the hotel had been killed. When I saw what the huge wave had done to buildings I was amazed that anyone survived such a powerful force of nature.
The hotel has now been divided into two. The half that contained the two-storey accommodation and reception has been sold to the very upmarket La Flora hotel next door. The buildings are still standing but they are probably beyond repair.
The half of the hotel that contained the swimming pool and bungalow accommodation is now just waste ground and I don't know what will happen to it. It is prime real estate, being so near to the sea in a popular resort area, but many Thais are now afraid of another tsunami occurring.
I have to admit that when development started going crazy in the area I wasn't that happy. Simple buildings were torn down (including a lovely little cocktail bar right on the beach), to make way for luxury hotels and resorts.
However, when work had finished on La Flora I was most impressed. No expense had been spared and it was a fabulous looking place to stay. I took a look at the rooms in September 2004 and even though the low season rates were half the normal price it was still beyond my budget.
The rooms were beautifully decorated, each had a bathtub and every bathtub was filled with water with jasmine petals floating on the surface.
This is where HM the King of Thailand's grandson was staying when he was killed by the tsunami.
Selling Up And Leaving
As to what will happen about the other businesses that were destroyed, who knows? After surviving such a traumatic experience many of the locals are now afraid to return. There were lots of 'For Sale' signs around and it appears that a lot of people just want to sell up and leave the area.
Much of this has to do with emotion, rather than logic. I read somewhere that this kind of thing maybe happens once every 400 years. It could happen again soon, but it is more likely that the people who suffered will never experience another such event in their lifetimes.
Many Thais have an irrational fear of ghosts and this was something I heard from many people. Ghosts of people killed in a violent manner are particularly feared as Thais believe they will want to seek revenge.
A woman selling food and drink to the construction workers told me that beach front land is being sold for Bt10 million per Rai.
More confessions. When I first found Lotus restaurant it was just a rustic bamboo and thatch construction in the traditional Thai style as shown by the picture here. At the back was a pond with a good number of fish, and wading birds would swoop down to snack on them. It was totally idyllic.
The owners were nice people and employed a couple of sisters from Myanmar to wait tables. They were really sweet girls, poor as church mice but as happy as anyone I've ever met. They were 18 and 23 but looked several years younger. The girls are on the left in the photo and I am behind them.
I went back to the restaurant every time I visited Khaolak and became friendly with the people there who always greeted me like a long lost son. It was nice. I was disappointed when the original restaurant was demolished to make way for a modern one and I was doubly disappointed when the pond was filled in so that bungalows could be built on the land.
However, I realise that people need to make a living. Life is tough in Thailand for the majority of the population.
The task of rebuilding the area is huge. Fortunately for Thailand there is an abundance of cheap labour from nearby Myanmar and poor areas of Thailand, such as Isaan. As I was walking around in the morning dozens of trucks full of construction workers were turning up.
More Images From May 2005
October 2006 Update
It's been about 17 months since I last visited Khaolak. I should have gone back sooner but I don't particularly like beach resorts, especially ones with lots of farang tourists. I need a reason to go and that reason came in the form of friends from England arriving in Thailand for a holiday.
Whenever I arrive in Khaolak on the bus from Khok Kloi I look out for a few familiar sights. First is the small 'Sunshine' minimart run by my friend, Mook, and then a bit further on is the Seadragon dive shop. Opposite Seadragon, a little Thai guy by the name of Mr Aoo sits outside at a desk helping people to find accommodation.
Well, on this trip, I saw none of these. I found out later that the small business Mook had been trying to build up finally failed. When the fairly large 'Nang Thong Supermarket' opened it hit her business and then when the tsunami came, that was about the end of the road.
On my last visit the minimart was closed but I thought it might reopen. On this trip though I saw that a number of 7-Elevens have opened in the area and that must have been the final straw. She has closed the shop and gone back to live in Trang.
Seadragon is still there but the owners have moved to new premises 400m further along the road going towards Bang Niang. Mr Aoo is still around but now has a small shop and no longer sits outside.
The section of road that runs through central Nang Thong has been widened considerably to three lanes and pedestrian sidewalks are being built. There are lots of signs on the road telling drivers to slow down but huge trucks still thunder through at crazy speeds.
The tsunami water didn't come as far inland at Nang Thong as it did further up the coast and the area around the road remained fairly unscathed. It's a bit of a different story though closer to the beach.
I had a long chat with one of the girls at Happy Lagoon II which is now completely unrecognisable to how it looked when it first opened. The Indian tailor shop next door has now gone so it wasn't all bad news.
Tick was working on the day of the tsunami and told me how people started talking about the 'dry sea' where the sea receded prior to the tidal wave coming in. She just ran. If a few more farang tourists had done the same instead of standing on the beach taking photos, then maybe the death count wouldn't have been quite so high.
I stayed at Bang Niang in order to be near to my friends who were staying at the 'La Flora' hotel. I am familiar with Bang Niang from previous visits but it has changed tremendously. The guest house I stayed at was new, as is almost everything there, because the tsunami destroyed everything.
Emerald Guest House is located at Emerald Plaza. The manager told me that the owners have lots of business interests and they sound extremely wealthy, owning lots of other properties as well as shrimp farms.
Just a few years ago, much of this area was owned by locals who had set up small businesses. As Bang Niang started to transform itself into an exclusive, upmarket resort, big business started to step in and when the tsunami occurred it seemed to work in their favour.
The Beach Resort, which was a wonderful place to stay and not expensive, never reopened and was bought by the group that owns La Flora. If I want to stay there now I will have to pay about 10 times as much.
My friend, Deng, and her parents never reopened their restaurant but they didn't sell the land. This was probably a good move. The little parcel of land is now surrounded by construction work that will eventually become expensive hotels and the value of the land will continue to increase in value.
The original La Flora is just about back to how it was before the tsunami apart from the outdoor section of the restaurant. The extension to the hotel which is being built where the Beach Resort used to be is still underway.
I was told it would be finished by the end of 2006 but that seems optimistic. Obviously, the owners would like to get it opened as soon as possible so it is operational for the 2006/2007 high season.
Prior to the tsunami, some shops had started to be built on the beach road. These were never completed and have become temporary workshops and accommodation for the construction workers who, from what I could work out, are mostly Burmese.
I walked around the Mukdara Beach Villa and Spa Resort. Initially, I entered through the main entrance but thought the security guard was going to shoot me. He was dressed in full army uniform and the reaction was as if he had just seen an assassin. He was so upset by my presence that I just apologised and left.
If you walk into the hotel from the beach though there is no security so I don't know what all the fuss was about. These upmarket places are very 'nice' but, at the same time, there is something I find quite depressing about them.
The staff are all hi-so and very elegant and polite. Farangs lounge around eating, sleeping and reading but there is no life in these places. Thailand - with all its street life - is a wonderfully exciting country to be in but nothing like that exists in five-star resorts. I found the whole experience bland, clinical and boring.
The Thais I met while walking around Khaolak were different to the Thais I am used to meeting. For starters, they spoke a lot of English. Many gave the impression of being just a little too smart around farangs and the wonderful Thai innocence was lost. The best way to spoil Thais is give them lots of exposure to farangs.
Farangs as a race are an arrogant bunch with very little humility. The ones in the big hotels looked at me as if I was nothing because I wasn't staying at the hotel. Farangs working in Thailand - business owners and dive masters, etc - seem to have an arrogant air about them to do with the fact they live in Thailand and look down on people who they assume are just tourists.
When you factor in high prices which are aimed at tourists who don't have a clue about what things should cost in Thailand, this is the reason I dislike going to tourist areas now. There is absolutely nothing I like about these places. Give me a filthy, downmarket but honest and genuine provincial town with genuine Thais any day.
My friend, Deng, has opened a small car wash business which is staffed by three young Burmese. Burmese workers were a common theme in the area because they are cheap to employ. I've met plenty of Thais in the past who only earn Bt150 a day so I dread to think how little the Burmese are being paid.
It seems that every country now is having big debates about immigration but no one objects to getting an abundant supply of cheap labour.
For a number of years I felt very comfortable in Khaolak. The move upmarket had already started before the tsunami but the tsunami accelerated the process. Small, independent business owners had managed to eke out a living but when the tsunami destroyed everything, many just didn't have the capital to rebuild.
This allowed the big boys to come in and there has been a lot of land grabbing. In two to three years time everything will be just about complete. The final result will look very nice but vacations in Khaolak will be expensive. Even if I wanted to spend my money there I wouldn't choose to because it is such a soulless experience.
While he was in office, Thaksin had a vision for tourism in Thailand. Thaksin's preferred tourists would buy Bt1 million 'Thailand Elite' membership cards. They would shop in places like Central Festival and Siam Paragon, spending huge amounts of cash in Thailand.
They needed suitable places to stay, obviously, and now that the idea to develop Ko Chang into Thailand's premier upmarket resort seems to have been dropped, Khaolak (Bang Niang especially) is filling that role.
It will suit a lot of people but it doesn't suit me. If there is no street food available and no requirement to speak Thai, then it's not a part of Thailand that I want to be in.
A lot of money was raised in the relief effort after the tsunami but I don't know where it all went. Deng is in the process of having a guest house built and when I met her she was seriously worried about where she was going to find the Bt300,000 that was needed the following month. I think she was hoping that I might cough up but unfortunately I am not looking to invest in any such venture.
The first thing Mr Aoo said to me - after not seeing him for 17 months - was did I want to buy a guest house for Bt12 million Baht? Obviously, being a farang, I have Bt12 million spare to invest in a Thai guest house as do all farangs.
It is a well known fact in Thailand that every single white Caucasian person on the planet is obscenely rich. It turned out that if he found a buyer he was in for a big commission so trying to buyer was dominating his thoughts.
I have been living permanently in Thailand since 2003 and for a long time I have had absolutely no interest in Thai tourist resorts, such as Khaolak. As far as I am concerned, they are just expensive, artificial places for naive tourists. I haven't been to Khaolak since 2006 and I have no plans to return. I can't, therefore, give a current update.
As Thai tourist resorts grow they have a tendency to become increasingly tacky, and the locals in those places become increasingly greedy. I have no reason to believe that Khaolak is any different.
The tsunami had a big effect on the nature of Khaolak. At first there were lots of small, independent accommodation operations, but many of these folded after the tsunami. Many large operators moved in and started to build large, luxury resorts.
Different types of tourist visit Thailand and they all have their favoured destinations and agendas. Backpackers head to Bangkok's Khaosan Road and follow the well-established banana pancake trail through Thailand. Sex tourists head straight to one of the well-known sex tourist resorts beginning with a P.
So-called 'Digital Nomads' and many of those who regard themselves as being intellectually superior than other foreigners in Thailand go north to Chiang Mai.
Khaolak these days seems to cater to tourists who have money, but no real interest in Thailand, and who are happy to remain inside an expensive five star resort for the duration of their vacation being pampered by the polite staff. That's fine, but not of interest to me personally.
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Thailand is an incredibly photogenic country, both for its landscapes and its people. Regardless of whether you enjoy large Asian cities, beaches and islands, or rice fields and mountains, Thailand has something for you and it is a dream destination for photographers.
One of the great things about visiting Thailand is that hotels are plentiful and a lot cheaper than in most other countries. Each link on the right will take you to the relevant page on the Agoda website where you can see photos, read reviews, and book on-line. I use Agoda to book all of my own hotels in Thailand and the Southeast Asia region. Agoda hotel rates are usually always the lowest and I have received good customer service, therefore I am happy to recommend the company to other people. Here is some analysis I did regarding booking hotels in Southeast Asia.
Booking.com used to be more expensive than Agoda, but when I have checked hotel prices recently I have found their rates to be quite competitive. Unlike Agoda, you don't need to pay at the time of booking with Booking.com - you can simply pay at the hotel when you check in. Also, Booking.com show you total prices whereas Agoda show you a price and then add on 17% for tax and service charge.
If you want to compare prices between different on-line travel agents (OTAs) for a specific hotel, you can use a company such as HotelsCombined.
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