This long Island, nestled between Southern Thailand and Northern Malaysia, is a little out of the way from the established Krabi – Ko phi phi – Phuket route that most people follow when they decide on the Andaman coast of Thailand. It’s relatively uncrowded, the east side having no tourist accommodation to speak of, and it has more local population than tourists – a good thing once you’ve been to Phuket or Phi Phi. It’s my favourite piece of land in South East Asia. Here is why.
There’s a beach for everyone on this island. For the bar hoppers and foodies there’s the Saladan area. For those who want a good stretch of beach with restaurants and bars there’s Klong Nin. For those who want a relatively quiet atmosphere, a gorgeous beach and a little seclusion there’s Kantiang Bay. And for those who want the whole sand for themselves there’s Bamboo bay.
For all this but with an upmarket resort there’s Relax Bay Resort occupying the prime area on Relax Bay. All these beaches are 5-10 kms apart and all lying near the main road that spans the length of the island. If you find all this a little complicated just remember this – the further south you go, the more peaceful and better the beaches become.
The accommodation in Ko Lanta is much cheaper than the neighbouring islands, as the package tours have not reached this little gem as yet. Basic bamboo shacks are available between 500b to 1200b depending on the season. These are private rooms with ensuite bathrooms, usually right next to the beach, and rented by locals. Think Airbnb rather than Agoda. Northern beaches have the lion’s share of the accommodation but Kantiang bay and Klong nin still have good places to stay. Hostels are a little rare here, mostly because the rooms are all private and cheap as it is.
The food on Lanta is a little different from the rest of the country, being spicier due to the Muslim influence. Most of the villages on the island, and almost all towards the south are Muslims and their particular taste with curries and cooked meat carries on here too. When I asked for phet phet (spicy) in a restaurant in Kantiang bay, I got a raised eyebrow and a “you want Lanta phet phet or Thai pet pet?” That kind of removed all doubts. The pad thai you get everywhere else will transform itself to kebabs and massaman here, with rice of course. For good eats – in Kantiang try Drunken Sailor, in Klong nin try Yang (make sure you get a reservation first), The Hut or Niks Garden. In Klong Khong try Greek Taverna.
The drinking and nightlife scene in Ko Lanta is more sedate than the other islands like Samui or Phi Phi. The length of the beaches makes you feel that the number of bars is less, which is not the case in some of the northern beaches, but it does give a relaxed atmosphere to sunset-drinks. Again, the northern beaches like klong khong, klong nin, klong dao and Saladan have more action (relatively speaking) than kantiang and bamboo bay. But please remember that this is definitely not Patong, or even Lamai for that matter. No drunken college gap-years here, that’s for sure. My favourite bar is definitely the Why Not bar, part of the Kantiang Bay Resort. The live music, the beach setting and the fact that everything is half the price of the bigger islands makes it great place to unwind after a day spent riding a scooter or diving. But the best part would be the funky bar tenders and waiters with their Jamaican style and outgoing attitude.
The island also has one of the best diving and snorkeling spots in Thailand. For snorkeling, the four island tour which includes the Emerald cave is a must. Fantastic visibility, with warm waters and abundant marine life makes them a favourite with swimmers. The half day tour is easy on the wallet as the sites are all close to Lanta, as compared to coming from phi phi. The operators on the island are mostly dive shops which makes them more professional, rather than the hit and miss ones you’ll encounter in Phuket.
For diving, of course, Lanta has some world famous sites like Ko Bida, Ko Haa and Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. The distances are about 1.5 to 2 hours by boat and dive operators will come and pick you up from your hotel anywhere on the island. Between these you’ll get to see underwater caves (The Cathedral), vertical tunnels (The Chimney) as well protected areas between the Islands perfect for shallow dives for beginners as well as snorkelers, important if you’re taking the family around while diving. Watch the Hawkbill turtle here
One of the greatest experiences of this island is to hire scooters and bikes and discover it for yourself. It’s not a daredevil act as in Phuket. A single road leads from the jetty area at Saladan in the north to the National park in the south, a distance of about 32 kms, with some of it a little hilly towards the south.
It’s relatively safe driving here – no crazy tuk-tuks or groups of teenagers making a mockery of traffic sense. The fact that the road pretty much follows the different beaches for almost their entire length makes stopping off the road and taking a dip a simple matter. The road ends at the national park where you pay 200 baht as fees and enter. The island itself is beautiful even without the beaches.
The Old Town towards the east is a quiet settlement with houses built on piers over the ocean and lots of bars and restaurants jutting from them. A little further is the Sea Gypsy village. The southern end of the island, being a little hilly is the only part you have to be careful about while driving, otherwise the highlight of your stay would definitely be the fact that the entire island is accessible within an hour if you have a ride. We used to take our dive boats from kantiang beach, have lunch at bamboo bay, and then drinks and dinner at klong dao. All without noticing the travel time.
To reach Ko Lanta most people come through Krabi town and take a bus. The car ferries will take you across. Otherwise daily boat services are available from Railay, Ao nang, Phi Phi and Phuket. Nearest international airport is Krabi.
The beauty of this island is that it is the quintessential Thai experience. No gap-year party goers, or “bucket” enthusiasts (reach phi phi or ko phangan and you’ll understand what I mean), no hangover-laden people just back from full moon parties. Just people who prefer a more laid back experience or those who are here to dive (like me).
No crazy fire shows, just empty beaches, powdery sand, reggae-influenced bars, a great diving community, and the sort of lifestyle that Ko phi phi must have had before The Beach was made. There is a big sign on the side of the road between Klong nin and Kantiang Bay that kind of sums up the Ko Lanta experience.
Thank god and Amen.