Australians - we dream of holidays on long, clean, free beaches, do we not? Yet, having them in abundance, we consistently leave them to holiday elsewhere, often on grey shores of pebble, shale and flotsam, with the added chance of being monstered there by watch-floggers, user fees and lunatic jetskis.
Laid-back Khao Lak, in Phang Nga Province on Thailand's Andaman coast, actually comes good on that chimerical promise of unsullied, free beaches. And it does so without its southern neighbour, Phuket's blight of traffic jams and extortion scams.
Just 90 minutes' drive north of Phuket airport, Khao Lak's 25km string of beaches still looks much as it did a decade ago, or Phuket's did two decades ago - a slumbering coastline of palms, sea pines and low-rise resorts, with barely a speedboat in sight.
This languid shore, stretching north to Cape Pakarang, has always been a favourite with long-stay northern Europeans. Its discrete three, four and five-star resorts (none built higher than a coconut tree) cater for those who want to get away from all the others who are getting away from it all.
The tsunami of Boxing Day 2004 hammered the Khao Lak-Takua Pa shores mercilessly, with up to 4000 people perishing. As well as lives, Khao Lak's previous, semi-anarchic crop of budget cabanas was swept away. The subsequent redevelopment was far better planned and the result for the local tourist industry is business as unusual. That is, its representatives have kept their region free of motorised watercraft (with attendant fatalities and criminality) and of the grids of rental sun-loungers that so often alienate broad expanses of Thai resort beaches.
"We explain to new resort investors that our success here is based on peace and quiet, nature and relaxation," says Praprut Khorpetch, managing director of the beachfront Khao Lak Laguna Resort. Their approach has succeeded and along Khao Lak's shores I see no howling jetskis, screaming banana boats or towkites.
The settlement of Bang La On at the south end of the Khao Lak stretch is often known, incorrectly, as Khao Lak Town. Call the place what you will, it is an endlessly elastic ribbon development of mini-marts, tailors ("Johnny Armani" and the like), dive centres and restaurants, plus souvenir shops that sell "same-same-not-different" tat but at wildly varying prices. Be sure to enjoy the local massage shops - good treatments, great price ($10 an hour) and a friendly "Thaiglish" chat thrown in free.
Bang Niang, on the same highway, is where much of Khao Lak's nightlife happens, with popular bars, restaurants and a few clubs. My favourite eating place near here is the Blue Mist restaurant, a rambling wooden structure right on the sands of Khuk Khak Beach (not far from the JW Marriott resort), where some friends and I feast grandly on Thai seafood, pork, chicken and vegetable dishes, plus cocktails. Eight people stuffed. 3000 baht. One hundred dollars, all up.
It's a family-friendly, snoozy, honeymooning sort of coast, and not a target destination for the large Russian, Indian and Chinese tour groups that have discovered Thailand in recent years. The choice of resorts is broad, including major brands like the excellent Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach Resort, also on the beachfront.
Khao Lak is known as the Gateway to the Andaman, so be sure to step through that gate at least once. Shut your copy of Fifty Shades of Not-Getting-Enough and laptop re-runs of Game of Thrones, and book a daytrip (or longer) to either Koh Similan or Koh Surin mini-archipelago, both marine national parks that sit just 60km offshore. There is superb snorkelling and diving at each, featuring dramatic swim-through reefs, superb corals and fish, and stunning visibility. The islands are open from November to May, but closed during monsoon season. Dive shops in Khao Lak can arrange your excursion.
Meanwhile, inland, are five national parks, including the great rainforests of Khao Lak and Khao Sok parks. In the latter I find karst limestone peaks, with pale walls grained like petrified wood rearing hundreds of metres above our boat on Cheow Lan Lake. Even higher, three eagles on their morning snack patrol spin lazily in a thermal gyre.
Khao Sok park is like a freshwater version of famous Phang Nga Bay to the south near Phuket. This giant reservoir, created to power Ratchaprapha hydroelectric dam, is the liquid jewel of Khao Sok, one of Thailand's under-sung wonders.
Next day we're out on the park's Klong Sok River aboard lazy kayaks. The Thai boatmen paddling aren't lazy, just us, their laid-back cargo. The river is silent, the paddles too, and from time to time we round a bend to find an electric-blue kingfisher perched on a branch. Or, as my boatman points out, a coiled viper snoozing on an overhanging limb, which is exactly where we leave it and glide on.
We return towards the Khao Lak coast and find a curious sight. Beached high and dry 2km inland is a 30m-long metal patrol boat. Thai Police Boat 813 was guarding one of the king's grandsons who was jetskiing at the time of the 2004 tsunami. He drowned when hit by the massive surges that then swept this boat inland to where it remains today as a memorial.
"Think of the Sarojin as though you're in a friend's estate," says manager Dawid Koegelenberg as we look over the rolling lawns and pool of the 56-room Sarojin resort in northern Khao Lak. Indeed, I muse, it would be nice to have such friends - especially with a sylvan estate like this - so I indulge in the possibilities. Pretty soon I have to tear myself away from the all-day breakfast before I spend, in fact, all day at breakfast. A dip in the Andaman's lazy waves follows. A jog and an excellent massage session and finally, dinner - a too-good feast of marinated prawns, chilli beef and pomelo salad.
"It's a place with a soul," declares Dawid expansively. OK, it is his job to say so but I cannot disagree. And right out front there is 11km of fine, free, clean beach.
To reach Khao Lak by air, fly to either Phuket (closest) or Krabi. Arrange beforehand for a transfer to your accommodation. (Without a pick-up, especially from Phuket, you're at the merciless mercy of the transport cabal.)
Accommodation options include The Sarojin (sarojin.com), Le Meridien Khao Lak Beach & Spa Resort (lemeridienkhaolak. com), Khao Lak Laguna Resort (khaolaklaguna.com) and Khao Sok Nature Resort (khaosoknature resort.com).
For further information, visit khaolak.com.