Almost a decade ago, on Boxing Day 2004, a mega tsunami devastated many parts of the Indian Ocean Coast. In Thailand, the sleepy beachfront resort of Khao Lak was the worst hit area, due in part to its coastal topography with deep beaches and extensive area of flatland only a few metres above sea level.
Unlike the higher rise hotels of Phuket, accommodation consisted mainly of single or low-rise buildings, including many traditional bamboo bungalows – no match for the 10-metre-plus waves that decimated the coast that fateful morning.
Today in Khao Lak there is little sign of the destruction caused except for the unbelievable sight of a police boat washed one kilometre inshore that now forms part of a memorial site. Around town, the tsunami evacuation route signs and siren towers – installed after the tsunami – are a subtle reminder of the tragedy.
Highly recommended is a visit to the tiny tsunami museum in the main village of Bang Niang, which tells a story of devastation and recovery.
While admission is free, donations are welcomed to support the ongoing regeneration efforts in the area.
The recent Hollywood movie The Impossible set in Khao Lak, provides some insight into the destruction caused and the scale of the rebuilding effort required.
I had first visited Khao Lak exactly a year prior to the tsunami and this then simple resort is now virtually unrecognisable.
Back then, there was little more than a cluster of accommodation with a handful of basic shops and local restaurants. Now, 50 or more shops and restaurants line the central thoroughfare, including several international brands such as McDonald’s – a telling sign of tourism popularity and development.
But Khao Lak still retains its charm and appeal to those seeking an authentic Thai resort experience. It is an hour away physically, andremains a world away from developed Phuket.
In fact, it is this distance from Phuket and its international airport that has no doubt protected Khao Lak from the crowds and overdevelopment seen in other Thai resorts.
Yet tourism continues to flourish here, with visitors attracted by the laid-back vibe, unspoilt beaches and areas of natural beauty. On its doorstep are five national parks, including the outstanding Khao Sok, as well as one of Thailand’s largest natural mangrove ecosystems.
Khao Lak is also the main departure point for the stunning Similan and Surin Islands, a marine park that, despite the increasing tourist numbers, offers world class snorkelling and diving, and the opportunity to meet the indigenous seafaring people – known as the Chao Ley, or sea gypsies.
While the tsunami destroyed or damaged much of the accommodation in the area, it was quickly rebuilt. While a handful of simple Thai bungalows remain in parts, there exists a more upmarket offering of three-to four-star resorts, with a handful of boutique luxury hotels.
While rebuilding has been done sensitively for the most part, despite the large amount of new construction very few hotels incorporate more than the most basic of sustainability design or construction, or community programs. A real opportunity lost.
However, a couple of hotels are bucking this trend. The leading hotel in the area is the über-luxe Sarojin, which not only offers one of the most luxurious resort experiences, but also currently leads the pack in terms of community engagement and sustainable practice.
Located 20 minutes up the coast from Khao Lak, on arguably the best beach in the area and the only white sand beach on this stretch of coast, is the five-star luxury boutique resort The Sarojin. Named after Lady Sarojin, the eldest daughter of a prominent local Thai nobleman renowned for her hospitality, The Sarojin specialises in personalised, authentic local experiences.
Designed in a contemporary Asian style by a Thai/Singaporean team project managed by Bovis Lend Lease Thailand, the 56 stylish guest residences sit harmoniously in the lush landscape and natural environment.
The concept architects and interior designers Eco.id designed the resort around a 200-year-old giant ficus tree, which architect Sim Boon Yang refused to cut down. “That to me is the spiritual heart of the resort, so all rooms offer views of it, rather than the sea which is nearby,” he says.
In the public area of the resort, the wood is left unvarnished. “Not only does it give the resort a more natural feel, but using unvarnished wood also means there is less chance of toxic varnish leeching into the ground.”
Where possible, prefabricated structures were used instead of building them on-site to minimise damage to the area.
The 56 rooms are named in honour of staff that worked at The Sarojin while it was being built and redeveloped after the tsunami, to recognise their dedication, commitment and spirit.
The resort was being developed when the tsunami hit, causing extensive damage. Just one week later the hotel set up a community fund to raise money and distributed donations to the local community.
Since then funds raised from guest donations have contributed to building fishing boats, housing, schools and roads, and have provided prosthetic limbs, local orphanage support and animal welfare. All proceeds of the fund are distributed directly to community projects.
Anthony Dupont, The Sarojin’s director of sales and marketing says The Sarojin is leading a push to ensure development is planned in a sustainable way.
“A number of exclusive tours are offered to hotel guests, proving that it is possible and worthwhile to mix a five-star level of comfort with an interest in local culture and the environment,” he says.
Since it opened, The Sarojin has worked closely with national park guides to offer responsible eco-tours. For example, in Bang Yai National Park, guests can participate in a “Walk on the Wild Side” extreme jungle trek where local guides share their knowledge of the national park ecosystem and survival tips.
“Catch, Cook & Dine” offers guests a unique cooking experience sourcing sustainable foods. A new twist was introduced late last year, which sees guests learning how to prepare Thai street food dishes and then cooking lunch for children and staff at the Camillian Social Centre – a day care centre for Down’s Syndrome children. It is the only centre of its kind in the entire province and receives no government support and very little private funding; The Sarojin has recently stepped in to cover a third of their operating costs in 2013.
These experiences offer guests – particularly those cautious of exploring on their own – an insight into Thai life and customs.
These programs have been recently recognised by the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s annual Green Excellence awards, which promote the conservation of Thailand’s natural and cultural resources, and the development of sustainable tourism, with The Sarojin winning the 2013 community tourism award.
In accepting the award, hotel co-owner Kate Kemp said, “It is a company priority to create opportunities and environments where guests can engage with the local community, really touch and feel Thailand, the people and their way of life, in a sensitive and cooperative way. Such a meeting of two worlds is one of the true wonders of travel and tourism.”
The hotel is also keen to point out that they don’t demand donations from guests, such as the $1 donation on guest bills in other hotels. Instead, Dupont argues a better strategy is to provide authentic opportunities and motivations for the guests to be involved with the community.
“We have had several instances of guest returning home and then contacting us to donate sometimes thousands of dollars after their stay. These funds are then paid into The Sarojin Khao Lak Community Fund (open for donations here) or directed to specific projects as the guest chooses,” he says.
The hotel believes a further point of difference in their community initiatives is that they drive local entrepreneurship in sustainable experiences, says Dupont, “by paying a fair commercial rate to local suppliers for assisting to create and provide unique experiences”.
“This helps the local community to drive forward with their own business ideas and builds the foundations for future sustainable revenue generating businesses, which are built on solid business generating principles rather than solely supported by donations.”
As well as its social leadership, the hotel has implemented a number of core sustainable initiatives including recently developing its first environmental policy. The hotel’s main focus is on monitoring and reducing both energy consumption and in particular water consumption, where they manage their own supply from a local bore hole, “so care, control, monitoring and conservation is paramount as there is no alternative supply”.
The resort undertakes daily monitoring of resource consumption and hourly reporting on incoming water supply levels. They also claim 100 per cent performance on waste disposal and recycling of plastics, paper, glass and organic waste.
In addition, to reduce and substitute harmful detergents, the hotel has partnered with Thailand’s leading ecologically based chemical supplier Ecolab to supply the resort. One simple initiative to be applauded, is that bathroom amenities are provided in ceramic bottles and refilled, thereby minimising waste and use. This is a pragmatic solution that reduces packaging, waste and costs.
They also use natural solutions to the ever-present mosquito, with citronella candles, oils and sprays available through the resort.
The Sarojin lives up to its mission to provide authentic and personalised local experiences in this lovely area of Southern Thailand. The hotel’s deluxe garden residences start from A$345 in high season, pool residences from A$450.
The unique and responsible tour experiences, the expansive and impeccably manicured grounds with stunning in-pool gazebo platforms and loungers.
Room for improvement
The hotel’s private beach is indeed beautiful, but not quite as secluded as you might expect for a resort of this calibre. Directly adjacent to another hotel’s beach, it was busy when we visited in the high season.
Alternative hotel options
- The Sands by Katathani: The owners of the acclaimed eco-friendly Katathani and The Shore resorts in Phuket have recently opened The Sands in Khao Lak. A large resort on a secluded stretch of beach, expect sustainable procurement and operations behind the scenes. Rooms start from A$250.
- Ramada Khao Lak Resort: The Ramada Resort is a good pick for the more budget conscious seeking an environmentally friendly resort getaway, with contemporary rooms and family friendly facilities. The resort has received several sustainable tourism awards and runs a variety of volunteering and environmental clean-up activities in the local area. Deluxe rooms from A$200.
Khao Lak is just over an hour away from Phuket’s International airport. Hotel transfers and taxis cost between $80-$100 (expect to pay Aussie prices for taxis in and around Phuket island). A new airport bus links to Phuket Town bus station, from where public buses are available to Khao Lak for a tenth of the price, but all in at least 4-5 hours.
Best time to visit
The official peak season is from 1 November to 30 April with late November to February tending to have the best weather. However, this is tropical Southern Thailand, so expect tropical showers at any time.