Koh Lanta (Lanta Island), Krabi — Island Paradise
Southern Thailand is replete with beautiful islands where tourists, water, and fun can be found. One of the best of these is Lanta Island (“koh” is Thai for island). It is not as well known as the more famous islands of the region—and this is a grievous oversight. Ko Lanta is an outstanding destination, as it is one of the few that live up to its reputation.
You might wonder what makes it special? The answer is straight forward. Lanta is a truly beautiful island. It has hills and valleys covered with lush, green tropical forest, it is surrounded by a gentle, deep blue oceans, and it is filled with friendly people (essentially, crime free). The social atmosphere of the Island is calm and peaceful, in contrast to the frantic noisiness of other southern Thai islands. Let’s be clear, it is not a party island, nor are there Starbucks, Pizza Huts, or high-rise apartments to be found.
Because of this, while Lanta certainly attracts younger visitors, most of those who spend a few days or a few weeks on the Island are older folk. Those who appreciate the opportunity to relax and watch a quiet world go by in one of its truly beautiful locales, however, be assured, there is lots to do on the Island.
The first is to simply rent a motorbike and drive over the panoramic roads and byways. The air is fresh and clean, the roads smooth and in good condition, and there is the natural scenery to stop and admire. Along the way, you will pass through many villages of a few hundred people. Stop, buy a snack and say hello. Fifteen years ago there were few foreigners on the Island—your presence is still a treat, especially for the young (who will giggle and smile, and then run away).
After your bike ride take a look at the Koh Lanta National Park on the southern tip of the island, perfect for a half day visit. The Park can only be entered via the coastal road from the west. Entry fee is 200 baht for foreigners. Inside the Park are monkeys (don’t feed them, and watch out for your camera), beautiful views, turquoise ocean beaches and swimming, and two (sometimes slippery) walking trails. There will be few other visitors. Bring along a hat, sunglasses, water, and good shoes.
Beaches, one of the attractions of the Island are its beaches. The western coast of the island faces out into the Andaman Sea, to the Bay of Bengal and India far beyond. One option is to live on the western coast, stay in a small bungalow (500b/$15 a night), go out for breakfast at a local restaurant on the beach, lay on a mattress on a covered bamboo platform, order a drink, sat back, relax, and watch.
As you gaze out at the water, which flows back and forth, as waves crash over the shore, clouds will slowly move across the sky, sea birds will fly past, and you will quickly find yourself totally relaxed. People will walk through and back across your field of vision. The sounds of the wind, of the water, and of the sea birds will gently intrude. You will look around and discover that hours had gone by. Your busy plans will have vanished into the quiet comfort of a beautiful and peaceful day.
At this point, relax again, sit back, and order another coconut.
Where is Koh Lanta?
Geographically, the island is located ~700kms south of Bangkok, on the western side of the long, sinuous Malay Peninsula, and is part of the Krabi province of the Kingdom of Thailand. Getting this is easy enough, though a bit of a chore, as there is no single, uninterrupted route (this can be considered a good thing).
From Bangkok, you can fly or take a bus to Krabi City, 12 hours by land, 2 hours by air. The City is pleasant in its own right and well worth a meander through, even an overnight if you have the time—check out the giant crab and eagle statues on the river front. From here take a mini-van (300 baht) or a ferry (varies, but around 300 baht) to the actual island.
Koh Lanta Ferry
The ferry is best, a pleasant ocean jaunt. It will safely transport you to Lanta, with a stop or two at the smaller islands along the way. The only disadvantage of the ferry is motion sickness. During the monsoon season, the ocean can be rough. If a heaving ship causes you discomfort, opt for the bus. Keep in mind though, that the bus trip will require two small ferry rides. It is also possible to reach the island from Phuket.
To explain the necessity of the ferry, there are in fact two Lanta islands, not one. These islands are imaginatively named Big and Small: Lanta Yai, and Lanta Noi. Lanta Yai, the Big island, is the island that foreigners think of as Lanta, it is where the tourists and resident foreigners live, work, and enjoy life. So, the first ferry crossing from the mainland is to the small island, and the second ferry—you guessed it—is from the small island to the big. Easy.
After you have settled in take the time to meet the people—the people are another great part of the island experience. First, the expats. There are a goodly number of expats on Lanta, many of whom run small, usually tourist businesses, always in conjunction with their Thai wife.
These people come from all over the western world and are usually, though not always, in the second half of their life. They have travelled, experienced and learnt a few things, and are now content to settle down and enjoy their existence by the sea. Lanta attracts the better sort of expat, people who you can meet, sit down with, share time with, food and a drink, and chat to on a first meeting. It is that sort of place.
The locals. A generation ago Lanta was a quiet, largely overlooked island of fisher folk, who are known as “sea gipsies”. Many locals still make a living from the sea, however—tourism has arrived. There are new job and educational opportunities for these people. Lanta is also a second home to Thais from other parts of the Kingdom, those who come here in search of work, or a new start in life. You will meet many of these Thai folk during your stay, and you will find that 99% of these people are friendly and happy to see tourists on their island.
One drawback is that there is little English (or any other foreign language) spoken. So, while a simple chat, the buying and selling of goods and services, and most basic communication are easy enough, not much more is possible, sadly.
The third group of people you will bump into are the tourists. Tourists arrive every day, stay for a few days, or a little longer, do a few of the expected things, and then move on. Lanta generates a friendly social environment. You will find yourself sitting next to tourists, at bars, boats, and restaurants, and a conversation will quickly ensue. You will exchange names, origins, destinations, travel stories and advice, comparisons of hotels, jobs, achievements, the usual mix of travel and human related stories. All great fun.
For those who have lead a sedentary life, at home, where years slide by, with little change, it might seem strange that you can meet complete strangers and so quickly achieve such rapport, but it happens all the time on the road. Even new friends—or romance—can rapidly come about!
Ko Lanta Tourism
One side of Ko Lanta life is the seasonal flow of tourism. There is a distinct “high season” and “low season”. The high season is the three months centred on the new year. At that time the transient population triples and quadruples, hotels will double or triple in price, tourism businesses will boom, bars and restaurants full to overflowing, with scuba and island hopping boats putting to sea at all hours, adventure excursions marching off into the jungle, and with the island resounding to the busy pitter patter of cheap flip flop sandals. This is a fun time to visit, where every business hopes to make the bulk of their profit for the year, in twelve short weeks.
The other side of this coin is low season. This varies, but by mid year, many shops, hotels, tourist businesses, and others will have closed or have reduced hours. Some expats go home, or elsewhere (sometimes Phuket), or simply sit behind closed business doors, and enjoy a quiet life of friends and family, while pursuing their hobbies and interests. Though it is a quiet time, it is the best time to visit, if you want to get a taste of the local lifestyle and have the opportunity to meet locals. During the high season, most people are too busy do to more than pass you a menu.
There are two disadvantages to low season. The first is the diving, it is not as good in high season, and diving is a major motivation for many visitors. The second, and related to the first, is the weather. You are now in the monsoon season: rain, high winds, and cloudy skies, however, while there are some who hate the monsoons, there are others who enjoy the occasional thunder, lightening, and the crimson sunsets.
In reality, the monsoon is not a big deal, rather it can be part of the enjoyment of the Island. You can sit out at night, watch lightning flash across the sky, see colourful, ocean sunsets across the water, and enjoy wild gusts of wind. The monsoonal rain is warm (not the cold rain of more temperate climes), and it is predictable. Rains falls in the late afternoon, most of the time, with a bout of heavier rain once or twice a week. Not a problem. Rather refreshing.
One of the attractions of the Islands are the caves. There are several interlinked cave complexes to explore. The Tiger Cave and the Mai Kaeo Cave are the two largest. Don’t descend alone, best to hire a local guide (who can also take those selfies). Expect to pay a 100 baht per person.
Physically, Ko Lanta is rectangular in shape, 25kms north-south, and 5 kilometres east-west, with most of the population along the coast. The majority of tourists base themselves on the western coast. This entire stretch of coast is lined with non-stop hotels, restaurants, bars, and shops.
The water—the best part of Lanta is the ocean. There is yachting, snorkelling, scuba diving, a little surfing, and swimming. There are local companies that can take you to the nearby tiny islands for a picnic or overnight. If you enjoy the water you will love Lanta. The ocean is fresh, clean, and deep blue.
Waterfalls, there are several small, but spectacular waterfalls on the Island. All are easily accessible. Enjoy a hike followed by a swim in the cool water.
Elephants riding, if your passion is to ride an elephant you can indulge. On the southern half of the Island, there are several small elephant expedition, family-run businesses. These can take you through the jungle to waterfalls, villages, and rivers.
These tours or activities can be organised by yourself, or with a booking at any of the many tourist agencies on the Island. Usually, your hotel can book for you. The advantage of a booking is that the tour company will pick you up from your hotel, and then return you later.
Ko Lanta Accomodation
Accommodation ranges from low to mid-range. Bungalows on the beach are around 1,000b ($35) a day during high season, half that if back from the beach, and half again during low season. There is also a smattering of three and four-star hotels on the northern end of the Island at 2,000-3,000 baht. Prices vary greatly dependent on the season, location, and your bargaining skills! In the low season, substantial discounts can be found for long term visitors.
There are two villages on Lanta. The newer and larger is Saladan. This is the main town and ferry landing located on the north east tip of the island. Lots of small hotels and guesthouses. It has a busy market place (even in low season), where you can buy all the tourist items you can desire (clothes, souvenirs, sports gear, electronic gear, and so forth), and many service shops (711, spectacles, printing, bike repairs—the more mundane side of life).
The second village is the Old Town on the south-east corner of the Island. This stretches a kilometre along a single road, parallel to the coast. This is the original Thai town, a fishing village, where many locals still make a living from the sea. Thais wisely built and lived on the east coast, protected against tsunamis by the bulk of the Island.
Most expats prefer Old Town. It is picturesque, has small, friendly restaurants, even smaller cafes, and possesses pleasant accommodation. It is also a quiet place. Here you can rent a room above a restaurant for 3,000-5,000 baht ($100-$150) a month in low season, twice that in high. Then sit back and watch the tide come in, and the world leisurely pass by.
On the island you will need a motorbike, it is the best way to get around. Distances between most destinations is a few kilometres, and public transport (motorbikes and tuk tuks) is just not that convenient, and somewhat expensive.
For example, to travel between the Old Town and Saladan (20 kilometres and 30 minutes) you will be charged 350 baht per person, and the driver will insist that his car is filled with paying customers before departure. There is also the problem of finding a driver in the low season. If you want to visit the scattered tourist destinations on the island, expect to pay a 1,500 baht for a day’s taxi service. More in the high season.
Renting a bike
Renting a bike is easy, there are many rental companies where you can do this. The price starts at 250 baht a day, and 5,000 baht for a month. You are responsible for any damage. The renter will ask to see your ID, usually a passport, and then sign a contract. Inspect the bike before you drive off, and mention any existing damage or concerns. Take a few photos. Keep the contract in your wallet, and put the renter’s number on your phone. Be smart, learn to drive the bike safely (if not for yourself then others on the road), and wear a helmet.
There are people who visit Lanta once and enjoy what it has to offer but never come back. Others return every year. Take a look yourself and see which suits you!