As nice as Thai
The charms of a southern island oasis
If getting there is half the fun, getting to Koh Lanta in Thailand’s south is only half the fun it used to be. Until recently, most travellers accessed the island via two clanking car ferries that chugged valiantly across the narrow strait linking the Krabi mainland to Koh Lanta Noi (Little Koh Lanta) and that island to its big sister, Koh Lanta Yai.
If heading south from Krabi airport you still have to queue for the ferry at Hua Hin pier for the 10-minute trip to Koh Lanta Noi. But the final part of the journey is now on a fancy bridge that straddles the short span between the two islands. That ferry ride is still important, because it makes accessing Koh Lanta just that little harder and helps keep it among the most authentic of Thailand’s islands. It is by no means remote nor forgotten by tourism, but compared to its neighbours Phuket and the Phi Phi islands, it is an oasis. First encounter will be with Koh Lanta’s main town, Saladan, a sleepy spot comprising a few streets, a couple of markets and the usual collection of bars, eating houses, dive shops, travel agents and massage places. The seafood restaurants loading their catches on to piles of ice might have touts out the front, but they offer anything but a hard sell. The fishing fleet ties up right beneath the restaurants and delivers the freshest seafood straight to the kitchens.
Koh Lanta Yai’s west coast is a string of lovely beaches. Those to the north close to Saladan tend to be long and wide, lined with small-scale infrastructure; to the south, they are smaller and crescent-shaped, with fewer facilities. Klong Dao is closest to Saladan, and typical of the northern beaches. It stretches as far as the eye can see, and like all beaches here is extremely tidal, with longtail boats marooned on the sand at low tide and bobbing happily in the waves a few hours later.
The next beach along is Phra Ae, better known as Long Beach, which is the liveliest and attracts a generally young crowd; Kantiang Bay is the pick to the south, a kilometre of white sand fringed by dense rainforest and a handful of bars and restaurants vying for attention with the spectacular sunsets. Halfway down the east coast is Old Lanta Town, which serves as the staging post for the best day excursion to the Four Islands through the limestone karst outcrops typical of southern Thailand. Operators offer day tours by speedboat but it costs about $150 to hire a private longtail boat and driver and that gives the flexibility to stay longer at spots you like. There’s something quintessentially Thai about sitting in a throbbing longtail ploughing the Andaman Sea swells. Our driver is a cheerful chap with a young assistant who causes his boss much hilarity when he accidentally swallows a mouthful of petrol while learning how to refuel from a plastic container.
The first anchorage is at Koh Cheuak, where we roll off the side of the boat to view the coral reef and technicolour fish, but the highlight is Koh Mook and its mys- terious Emerald Cave. Here our boatman’s assistant really earns his keep. We put on life jackets and drop into the sea led by our young guide, who has slipped on a head lamp. He directs, and at times almost drags, us towards a dark cleft in the limestone. We breaststroke into a pitchblack tunnel, accompanied by the shouts and screams of tour groups ahead, occasionally grabbing hold of a thick rope that poor swimmers use to drag themselves through. Eventually there is, literally, light at the end of the tunnel, and we emerge into a dazzling natural amphitheatre of rock, complete with beach and palm trees. You can have lunch at small resorts on Koh Kradan, or picnic on the sand, as we do, before heading back to Koh Lanta by way of Koh Ma for more snorkelling.
And so go the days at Koh Lanta, a place of gentle swimming, beachcombing and siestas, of watching monkeys watching you having breakfast, of sunset cocktails and dreamy seascapes.
Gary Walsh was a guest of the Tourism Authority of Thailand and Crown Lanta Resort & Spa.
Longtail boats, above; driver at the wheel on the Four Islands tour, above right