On the map, Thailand is shaped like the head of an elephant with it’s eyes on the water, turned toward India and the Andaman Sea.

The elephant’s trunk is the south of Thailand but, here on the ground, it’s a long line of beaches and islands facing the Andaman to the west or the Gulf of Thailand to the east. The most famous of these islands is Phuket, followed by Koh Samui. The towns at those two locations are filled with partying tourists, and the commercial industry that supports them.

Beaches of Khao Lak

So we chose a quieter place, Khao Lak, about an hour north of Phuket, on the west coast. The area is actually three massive coves of beach that sprawl for miles. It’s a great place to unwind at the end of a trip.

This is a prime location for whatever one wants to do. The fine sandy beaches invite you to the shore, though so many of the resort tourists stick by the pool instead. Either way, you can laze the day away in whatever fashion suits you.

Limestone landscape from the canoe, Khao Sok National Park

Or seek out a bit more activity. Just a one hour drive north brings you to Khao Sok National Park. At the park, we were once again on water. We enjoyed one of the finest canoing landscapes we’ve ever seen, with magnificent limestone mountains jutting out of the rainforest, sheared off to a white color in one place or draped in greenery in another.

White cliffs and green draperies on the river, Khao Sok National Park

Narrow passages through the reedy marshes brought us face to face with beautiful white-throated kingfishers or drowsy snakes, and broader points offered newly eroded sandstone cliffs to peer into. Even the access to the river went through a limestone cavern.

Flatiron cliff viewed from the canoe, Khao Sok

On land, we hiked to one modest waterfall, reviewing with our jocular guide many of the trees and plants we had seen on previous rain forest walks during our 10 weeks in SE Asia. You could continue to several other waterfalls and hike for days in this place, if you decide to stay in or near the park, as our fellow canoers did.

Rain forest hike, Khao Sok National Park

And then there is the sea. A one and a half hour boat ride west across the Andaman Sea brings you to the numerous Similan Islands, which together constitute one of National Geographic’s top 10 dive spots in the world. One of us dives, the other snorkels.

Clear waters at Similan Islands, with thousands of colorful fish below

But the water is so clear – maybe 100 feet of visibility – that even from the surface you can see dozens of different fish of all sizes and painted in rainbow hues. We missed out on sea turtles, but we did see moray eel and a seafood platter’s worth of shrimp, crab, lobster and squid.

All who dive here know how special this place is. We, and they, also know all the dangers faced by the brilliant coral and the living creatures that depend on it, from recent bleaching due to global warming of the seas to other man-made pollution, to natural threats like the horrific tsunami of 2004. But it is comforting to find, here in the glassy waters, that there is still abundant life to amaze you.

(For more pictures from Thailand, CLICK HERE to view the slideshow at the end of the Thailand itinerary page.)

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