I wasn’t far out from the beach — just beyond the lightly rolling breakers. My feet had left the sandy bottom, and amniotic water burbled around my shoulders. A sea eagle sailed between me and the hot afternoon sun. The starburst tops of a coconut grove delineated the beach. An arc of sugar, it stretched away to a cluster of rounded rocks and, beyond, a rise of greenery leading into the tufted mountains of a national park.
I was floating in the Andaman Sea at Khao Lak, in Thailand’s southwest. A paradise of mangroves, tropical islands and emerald coves set in electric-blue waters, the Andaman Coast is one of the world’s best-known beach destinations. It includes the island province of Phuket, the spectacular small island Ko Phi Phi, hopping Rai Le Beach and more sedate Khao Lak. Its vacation options range from some of the most luxe accommodations on the planet, through unassuming hotels priced for the modest budgets of middle-class European and Asian families, to pristine natural areas accessible only to those willing to rough it. The area is legendary for its lush coral reefs and caves and the green-shrouded sugar-loaf rocks rising from the sea in Phang Nga Bay.
But the softly humid breezes of the Andaman Coast also carry an echo of menace. At the end of 2004, this beach at Khao Lak was littered with bodies and debris. Horrific, indelible scenes that spread around the world almost as fast as what had caused them, the great tsunami. All told, the disaster killed a quarter-million people worldwide and more than 8,000 in Thailand — fishermen, villagers and more than 2,000 foreigners from 16 countries. The United Nations estimated that around 150,000 people in Thailand lost their livelihoods in fishing and tourism that December morning.
I visited this part of Thailand in October, just before the start of the tourist season, with an eye toward assessing the coast’s recovery. What I found was a placid seaside with few signs of the disaster. Instead, it had the expectant atmosphere that any popular tourist area has just before the high season. The beach at Khao Lak was empty, and few tourists were around, but the palm-shaded resorts were spotless and occupied with preseason preparations. Everywhere I went on the Andaman Coast I heard the rhythm of industrious hammers and smelled fresh paint.
Statistics from the Tourism Authority of Thailand support the impression of a full physical recovery for the tourist business — and until political uncertainty and the current global economic crisis sent visitor numbers plunging, an economic recovery as well. Other than Khao Lak and Ko Phi Phi, which, respectively, lost 75 and 60 percent of their hotels, most of the Andaman Coast was spared complete devastation. Hotels were refurbished and repaired, and after visitors returned in large numbers in 2006, a vigorous building boom began. In 2007 alone, Phuket’s stock of hotel rooms climbed a tenth, contributing to an 11 percent increase in visitors to the island, to more than five million — more than in any year before the tsunami. In 2008, more new hotels went up. For travelers willing and able to spend the money to get there, this coast is once again an inviting place to stay.
The Khao Lak area, which suffered much of the Andaman Coast’s worst devastation, now features a low-key set of immaculate resorts attracting families from around the world, especially Northern Europe. Instead of boisterous night life like that in Patong, on Phuket to the south, or stunning cliff faces like Rai Le’s, to the east, Khao Lak’s charm is in its long serene beach at the foot of a range of thickly forested mountains.
Though it retains its mellow vibe, the new hotels are changing things: Khao Lak now features more upscale luxury than it had before, with newer resorts joining rebuilt ones like Le Méridien Khao Lak, which seems to have overcome rumors that it was haunted after the disaster. I found few signs of the tsunami — a vacant lot here and there and a few trees’ exposed roots and stumps of twisted branches alarmingly high up their trunks. The town, a strip of shops, restaurants and tour operators’ offices in utilitarian concrete boxes, was bustling if uninspiring.
As the sun dipped magnificently into the fiery Andaman Sea, I took a place at a split bamboo table by the surf. I dug my toes into the warm sand like a ghost crab and washed down an assertively seasoned green curry with a big bottle of hoppy Chang Beer. Just as the sky turned inky, someone nearby launched a candle-powered paper hot-air balloon. It rose steadily, eventually taking its place as an orange star among the constellations.
THE next day, behind the town, I found unmistakable evidence of the tsunami. A small grassy park surrounds an incongruous police boat that was washed there, a mile from the sea, by the wave. The boat had been guarding a Thai prince who was killed in the disaster, and it became a place of mourning and remembrance.
Certainly, everyone who survived has vivid memories. My driver in Phuket, Marn, told me that 10 members of his family had died in the tsunami. But the forlorn boat, and an abstract memorial sculpture nearby, seemed forgotten. A few foreigners walked around the gray hulk in a warm drizzle, shaking their heads.
If there is any grand physical monument to the disaster, it is the rebuilt coast itself.
“It’s back, stronger than it ever was pre-tsunami,” said Bill Heineke, an owner of the Anantara hotel group, which got its start in northern Thailand and now has nine resorts around Asia. Anantara’s hotel in Khao Lak was destroyed by the tsunami, but in October the group opened a new one on Phuket.
But the area’s economy is at the mercy of more than the awesome forces of nature. Even as I strolled the beach, fresh troubles were brewing. The global economic collapse has been a blow to every region that depends on the disposable incomes of rich countries. Meanwhile, domestic tensions have flared as Thailand’s complex politics works through a particularly intransigent period. Political demonstrations in November closed both of Bangkok’s airports for days, stranding more than a third of a million travelers.
In an indication of how important tourism is to the region, the government of Phuket provided generous aid to stranded visitors (just as many visitors had heroically helped out in the aftermath of the tsunami). Even after the Bangkok airports had reopened, Nick Davies, managing editor at The Phuket Gazette, said, arrivals at Phuket were down by half. By December, in an echo of worldwide troubles, a group of tour operators appealed to the governor of Phuket for debt relief.
Yet the sea remains lambent and calm, and the air touches one’s cheek like a kiss. From the porch of my little bungalow at the Baan Krating hotel in Khao Lak, where leafy palms and umbrella trees clung to the cliff beneath me, towering above the egg-like rocks bathed in clear water below, there was no sign of trouble whatsoever.
With business on the Andaman Coast suffering because of the worldwide slump, taking a beach vacation is actually the best way for foreigners to help. And they should find little reason for fear: political crisis in Thailand almost never has an impact on visitors, and tensions have lessened, making repeat airport closures unlikely.
In fact, now is a great time to go to the Andaman Coast. In normal years, the beaches can be overrun, crowded with as many snorkelers as fish, or by sunburned, jabbering tourists jockeying for position to shoot a scene as it appeared in “The Man With the Golden Gun” or “The Beach,” which were both partly filmed there. But with visitation way off (skittish Asian package tourists are staying away in droves, although Northern Europeans seem unfazed), normally crowded beaches will have noticeable elbow room — even sometimes the solitude that is the often imagined, little realized ideal of a tropical beach vacation.
And bargains are easy to find. Luxury beachside villas at top resorts can be had at the last minute online for hundreds of dollars off their usual published rates. While I was there, I found an oceanfront villa at the two-year-old Ramada Resort in Khao Lak for under $150 a night — nearly three-quarters off the standard rate.
At the high end, the new hotels are competing to push luxury to new levels, — combining global style with Thai hospitality and tropical luxury — with private villas overlooking pristine beaches, pampering by attentive staff, deeply relaxing Thai massage, top quality international food and a sense of splendid respite from the woes of the world. The Yamu, a new high-end hotel scheduled to open late this year in Phang Nga Bay, promises luxuries including a chocolate room; interiors by Philippe Starck and the luxury hotel designer Jean-Michel Gathy; and, for traveling musicians who like to mix work with pleasure, a recording studio.
One of the most prominent new resorts, the Anantara Phuket, opened in October on Mai Khao Beach at the north end of Phuket, a world away from the Jet Skis and beach umbrellas of Kata Beach to the south. (Jet Skis are banned on Mai Khao to protect nesting turtles.)
The resort is laid out along an artificial lake, mimicking a traditional southern Thai water village. Soaring wooden roofs peak above the enclosed compounds of the villas, each of which includes its own small swimming pool and outdoor and indoor sitting areas complete with big daybeds for savoring Thai massages. A dark teak roof and staircase arcing around a banyan tree set off the smoothly polished Treetop bar, with swooping terrazzo, fiber-optic chandelier curtains that sway in the benevolent sea breeze and soft settees for contemplating the setting sun with a ginger margarita in hand.
The rooms themselves are exquisitely well-considered, with big sliding glass doors opening the bedrooms directly onto the shimmering pools, and with big bathtubs sunk directly into the water, separated by a glass partition.
In this cocooned paradise, the misfortunes of the world did intrude slightly: the day after riot police confronted demonstrators in Bangkok, the Bangkok Post’s headline screamed “Brink of Anarchy!”
Perhaps. But that was the only sign of it.
BACK TO LIFE ON THE ANDAMAN COAST
WHERE TO GO
The Andaman coast of Thailand is home to hundreds of beachfront resorts, at every price range. Since the tsunami of 2004, older resorts that were damaged have been repaired and reconstructed, and new resorts have opened up in all of the major tourist areas. Many of the hotels may offer special prices this season (prices given are standard rates).
In Khao Lak, on the mainland, Le Méridien Khao Lak (www.starwoodhotels.com/lemeridien) was reconstructed after the disaster and exudes a regal charm and grace that suggests carefree imperial fantasy. Villas with butlers start at $520. (Dollars are accepted; the local currency, the baht, is about 35 to the dollar.)
These new hotels have all opened in the last two years:
The Ramada Resort Khao Lak (59 Moo 5, Tumbon Kukkak, Takuapa District, Phang Nga; 66-76-42-7777; www.ramadakhaolak.com) has 84 deluxe rooms, including eight beachside villas, which start at $700. Regular rooms start at $300 in high season.
Anantara Phuket (888 Moo 3, Mai Khao Subdistrict, Thalang District, Phuket; 66-76-33-6100; www.anantara.com). Pool villas start at $1,088.
The Village Coconut Island (Coconut Island, 66-76-239-724; www.thevillage-coconutisland.com.), a luxury collection of villas on a small island just off Phuket’s east coast in Phang Nga Bay. It has the requisite infinity pool (its edge disappearing, it must be said, into blues of sea and sky blue more wondrous than the color of any pool), and activities like scuba diving, sailing and fishing. Big villas — the largest have five bedrooms — sit in their own gardens before their own tiled infinity pools and are $2,896 a night in high season, half that in low season.
Also in Phuket, the Indigo Pearl (www.indigo-pearl.com), designed by Bill Bensley, the Bangkok-based architect largely responsible for defining contemporary Southeast Asian luxury style, is sleek yet comfortable, with nods to Phuket’s colorful past: dark teak and peaked roofs are offset by clean swaths of blocky white walls. Rooms start at $287.
The Sri Panwa (www.sripanwa.com) is set in lush forest on the southern tip of Phuket, adjacent to a clutch of small islands. Big villas nestled in greenery look out from slopes above the sea. In-season, villas start at $1,610.
The SALA Phuket (www.salaphuket.com), which opened in 2008, deftly fuses local Sino-Portuguese 19th-century flourishes with clean lines and big open spaces. Casuarinas whisper in the breeze coming off the ever-present Andaman Sea. Rooms start at $490 in season.
The Aleenta (www.aleenta.com), between Khao Lak and Phuket, exudes the cool but comfortable international boutique hotel style with its sharp lines, spacious rooms, and well-considered layout. Beachfront villas run $1,645 in season.
WHAT TO DO
Loafing on the beach may be enough, but the area also caters to every sort of outdoor activity, from scuba diving and jungle trekking to rock climbing and elephant rides.
The far more contemplative tsunami memorial in Khao Lak is at Soi Rua Tor 813, where the police boat came to rest. A small museum is next door (200 baht, about $5.70, is the suggested donation).
Dozens of airlines, including the major American carriers, fly between New York and Bangkok. From New York, round-trip flights run start at about $1,200. Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways make the hour-long flight between Bangkok and Phuket for around $150.
“Exploring Phuket & Phi Phi” by Oliver Hargreave (Odyssey, 2008), is a comprehensive and fascinating handbook for the area that breezes through the sort of logistical details so readily available online in favor of in-depth examinations of the history, culture, politics and ecology of the region.GREGORY DICUM, a San Francisco freelance writer, is the author of “Window Seat: Reading the Landscape From the Air” (Chronicle Books, 2004) and “Window Seat Europe” (2006).