As nice as Thai

The charms of a south­ern is­land oa­sis

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - DESTINATION ASIA - GARY WALSH

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

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