Khao Lak – Lamru National Park

Phuket

Khao Lak is a quiet beach town which caters to tourists who want the sunny skies and beautiful beaches of the west coast without the riotous party lifestyle which envelops Phuket. The area gained notoriety in 2004 during the Asian Tsunami. On the morning of December 26, massive waves pummelled the western shores of  Phang Nga province laying waste to hundreds of hotels, resorts and communities. Thousands of locals and tourists perished in what would become the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history.

Few people realize that the name actually refers to the mountainous area south of the low-lying resorts and beaches which were devastated by the disaster; the places which were hit the hardest are actually a part of Keuk Kak and Baan Nam Kem subdistricts.

The national park is located on a rugged and hilly area and is divided into two sections: the western side (Khao Lak mountain and beach) and the eastern side (Khao Lamru and Lamru Waterfall). The head office is located at Khao Lak mountain on Highway 4 heading north from Phuket towards Ranong and Takuapa.  The park acts as a vital watershed station for the region and the waterfalls which stream out of the national park flow all year round.


Birding

Main Attractions: -none-
Other Attractions: Red breasted Parakeet, Orange breasted Green Pigeon, Pied Imperial Pigeon, Green Imperial Pigeon
Extirpated: Great Hornbill, Wreathed Hornbill, Bushy Crested Hornbill

The park can be divided into three sectors: the national park office, Chong Fah waterfall and Lamru waterfall.

– Khao Lak Park Headquarters, located on the west side of Highway 4, is popular among tourists and frequented by visitors every day, especially in the high season. The majority of tourist visit the cove at the bottom of the cliff. The high influx of tourists walking along the trails, coupled with the fact that the main highway cuts straight through the heart of the park, make it a very disturbed location.

No hornbills have been observed here; the few remaining birds reside deep in the eastern sector of the park.

Bulbuls make up the main family of birds seen and barbets, leafbirds and ioras can also be found. Some of the more commonly encountered birds include Streak eared, Stripe throated, Yellow Vented, Olive winged, Buff vented, Red Eyed, Spectacled and Cream vented Bulbul, Common and Green Iora, Black naped Oriole, Asian Fairy Bluebird, Orange bellied and Scarlet backed Flowerpecker, Olive backed, Brown throated and Ruby cheeked Sunbird, Vernal Hanging Parrot, Chestnut bellied Malkoha and Coppersmith Barbet.

The best chance for finding birds is by looking for a fruiting tree. There are a number of fig trees in the vicinity of the administration offices and parking areas. Its worth to take a look around or ask a local ranger if any trees are in season.

Resident raptors mostly consist of Brahminy Kite and White bellied Sea Eagle and in the migration period one may encounter flocks of Black Baza, Japanese Sparrowhawk and Grey faced Buzzard passing through the area.

In the areas where there is an abundance of casuarina (usually along the beachfront) there is a possibility of finding a number of quality species in the late afternoons and evenings. These trees attract pigeons such as Orange breasted, Thick billed and Pink necked Pigeons, along with groups of Green Imperial Pigeons and on occasion Pied Imperial Pigeon. Starlings are also attracted to the casuarina; while most birders will usually encounter Purple backed or White shouldered Starlings, there is a chance that an odd Rosy Starling or Chestnut cheeked Starling will also be spotted in the mix.

Another gem which shows up from time to time is the Red breasted Parakeet, a species which is presumed to have been introduced into the region through the cagebird trade and has thrived ever since.

In the wet season, Hooded and Blue Winged Pitta can be heard calling from the forests near the trails and administrative offices from around March – June , but that’s about as good as it gets for pitta lovers. With such a high level of disturbance there is absolutely no chance of finding Banded Pitta in this park.

Surprisingly, the lowlands north of the national park (which are occupied by hotels) are fairly rich in birdlife. A variety of bulbuls, starlings and other open country birds are often found among the trees in hotel gardens. In the evenings one can sometimes encounter Large tailed Nightjar on the lawns or Barn Owl or Collared Scops Owl hawking for insects and small lizards near the street lamps.

– Chong Fah Waterfall is located about 10 kilometers north of Khao Lak park headquarters and seven kilometers east from the main road (Highway 4) . Since the Tsunami of 2004 the area has undergone massive development. The dirt track has now been replaced with a concrete road and small resorts and even a mini golf course has sprung up along the roadside. (The last section of the road is still unpaved and can be rather treacherous in the rainy season) Since it is the only waterfall in the area it is frequented by tourists on a regular basis. The park requires foreigners to pay an entrance fee (reputed to be 200 baht) at the gate during the high season.

Birding at Chong Fah waterfall should be productive given that the surrounding areas are thickly forested and uninhabited. However, most birders find it to be rather quiet on most days. Since the waterfall is very busy most of the year, bird activity in the area can be muted unless one can connect with a fruiting tree, in which case birding can get interesting very quickly.

Both Southern White Crowned Forktail and Chestnut naped Forktail have been recorded from deep within the waterfall. Both are very shy and require much patience and perseverance to find.

My past experiences here have rewarded me with species such as Lineated, Gold Whiskered and Red throated Barbet, Red eyed, Olive winged, Buff-vented, Ochraceous, Spectacled, Streak eared, Yellow vented and Stripe throated Bulbul, Chestnut bellied and Raffles Malkoha, Black and Yellow Broadbill and Blue winged Pitta during the wet season. Recent sightings from visiting birders include Green Broadbill, Grey bellied Bulbul and nesting Javan Frogmouth.

Lamru Waterfall is tucked away among the backroads of central Phang Nga province. It is a scenic place and offers visitors a lovely place to swim, relax and even enjoy a picnic on days when the local somtam vendor decides to show up! There should be opportunities for birdwatching here as well but I have yet to experience a “good” day at this site. Like most other southern birding sites, you tend to hear a lot more than you see; judging by that the area is packed with common forest species such as Red throated Barbet, Abbott’s Babbler, Black naped Oriole, Ochraceous Bulbul, Black naped Monarch, Blyth’s Paradise Flycatcher and Blue eared Kingfisher.

Because of its rather remote location, few tourists will venture out here on their own. Instead, most of the visitors are trucked in by tour agencies selling “eco tours” and offering visitors a chance to experience “a unique tropical rainforest adventure”. However, if one could see the acres of rubber plantation which line the edges of waterfall it would be apparent that “paradise” was actually lost decades ago.

 Trails

It may be wise to remember that Khao Lak being granted National Park status for the sole purpose of preserving the forest as a watershed to insure that Keuk Khak and the nearby subdistricts will never face water shortages. That helps to answer the question as to why the park has no “official” trail network. The only trails which are maintained by the park administration are the ones which start from the main office and head to the small sandy cove and viewpoint overlooking Keuk Khak beach. These trails become literal highways in the high season and are very poor for birdwatching.

There are a few trails which fork out from the main road into the interior but these are trails used by locals for transporting farm produce or to facilitate hunting or the collection of rattans and bamboo. Most of the trails are narrow and poorly marked and some even cross through private land so I would not recommend attempting any of them.


Accommodations and Fees

The national park has four bungalows for rent but most people don’t care; after all, the park is located smack in the middle of a prime tourist destination packed with hotels ranging from 5-star luxury resorts to backpackers lodges. The bungalows are located on a hill near the sea and come with fans, hot water and other basic amenities. The DNP charges 800 baht a night and each bungalow can house two persons.

With no trails or areas to explore at night, there is really no incentive to stay at any of the park accommodations.

[To reserve a DNP bungalow at Khao Lak – Lamru National Park, click here]

Khao Lak and Chong Fah Waterfall both have checkpoints which require visitors to pay a fee somewhere between 100 – 400 baht per person, depending on the season and time of year.


Directions to Khao Lak National Park

To get a better idea of the surrounding area, please zoom out by pressing Ctrl on your keyboard and scrolling with your mouse.

Driving from Phuket, take Highway 4 bound northwards to Ranong. After passing Thap Lamu the road will take a steep climb into the hills. Look for the signs pointing to the National Park office located to your left (after the Elephant Fly Zipline). There will be a police checkpoint in front of the office.

Chong Fah Waterfall  is located near Keuk Kak municipality on the right hand side of the road. Drive north past the Tsunami Museum and look for signs posted along the roadside.

Lamru Waterfall is far off the beaten track. From Khao Lak, head south on Highway 4 towards Phuket. After passing Thap Lamru Municipality, take a left at the next intersection towards Thung Maphrao (there will be a sign pointing to the Beluga School posted on the right hand side). From here follow Highway 4240 until you reach a T-junction. Here take a left towards Takuapa on Highway 4090. Follow the road until you reach a steep incline passing over a hill. On the way down look for a road which forks right (there will be cement crash barriers on right side of the road and its the only right turn on the downgrade). From here drive on past Lamru School and look for signs on your right pointing to the waterfall.


Personal Opinion

Pros: A good option for first time visiting birders based in the area who lack private transportation; forest habitat supports a number of common species; birding can be interesting if there are fruiting trees in season.

Cons: Poaching and encroachment are still problematic; larger species of birds extirpated from park; poor diversity of bird species in generalspecies present in the park are also present in other, more accessible sites; lack of proper trail network.

Khao Lak is not going to excite any serious birder but it be adequate for first-time visitors who have a few hours to burn while their families are enjoying the comfort of the hotel beds and the complimentary breakfast buffet. It may also be the only option for birders who are staying in the area and do not have access to private transportation.

If you plan to do a full day birding trip I’d recommend you head an hour or so north and visit Sri Phang Nga National Park instead. – The birding there is much better.

This site was last updated in January, 2018.

Useful Links

Department of National Parks: Khao Lak – Lamru Waterfall information and datasheet