Thailand, quite literally, has something for everyone — metropolitan cities, wonderful food, jungle, sapphire blue seas and miles and miles of white sand beaches. One thing that can be elusive amidst all of the travellers and travelling, is peace and quiet. During Spring Festival we found ourselves on Koh Lanta, an island that possesses something most others don't — opportunities for solitude.
Orientation and background
Koh Lanta consists of three major islands — Koh Klang, Koh Lanta Noi and Koh Lanta Yai. For the purpose of this article, anytime we refer to Koh Lanta we mean Koh Lanta Yai, the southernmost of the three.
Located roughly 800 kilometers south of Bangkok in the Andaman Sea, Koh Lanta is the sleepy cousin of the more raucous destinations Koh Phi Phi and Phuket. The island is fairly big — 30 kilometers from north to south — and is ringed by more than 70 outlying islands. Although much of Thailand's Andaman coast was devastated by a 2004 tsunami, Koh Lanta emerged relatively unscathed.
The island's west coast is where most tourists congregate. It has five major beaches and a number of smaller, less popular stretches of sand. Development is clustered around the larger beaches, all of which are connected by a well-maintained paved road. Koh Lanta's eastern shore is dominated by mangrove forests in the north and rocky shores in the south. Inland, the island is mountainous jungle dotted with palm and rubber plantations.
People of many different backgrounds have come to Koh Lanta over the course of its history. Today it is home to native Thais, Thai-Chinese and sea gypsies who migrated to the island from Indonesia several hundred years ago. The majority of permanent residents are Muslim and the island is home to at least five mosques.
The predominance of the Muslim faith means late-night raves and all-night drinking binges are far less typical on Koh Lanta than on many of Thailand's other islands. This in turn has attracted an older tourist crowd and families are a far more common sight than twenty-something backpackers.
All of the cultural mixing has led to a delicious and diverse cuisine. Massaman curry is perhaps the most well-known dish, but plenty of other flavors abound, including those of India, Malaysia, Indonesia and of course, Thailand. Seafood is abundant and fresh fish, crab, oysters and lobster are available virtually everywhere.
Of course sitting on the beach and basking in the sun is the cheapest and most relaxing pursuit on any tropical island. Of Koh Lanta's beaches, Klong Khong is the largest, stretching for four kilometers. At low tide the beaches are wide and commodious. However, some swimming enthusiasts might be slightly put off by the rock outcroppings exposed during these times.
When we visited in February — considered high, but not peak, season — most resorts and guesthouses were booked near capacity. Even so, because the island offers so many other things to do the beaches were never crowded.
The list of activities available on Koh Lanta is seemingly endless and all ages and fitness levels can find something to do. The scuba diving options are considered some of the best in Thailand and Koh Haa and the Bidah islands are two of the top sites. Both have incredible coral formations, the attendant fish and the possibility of seeing whale sharks.
Snorkeling is another popular pursuit. All guesthouses and travel agencies can book snorkeling tours, which usually include trips to the islands of Koh Mook, Koh Chueak, Koh Waen and Koh Ngai.
On Koh Lanta itself there are elephants rides, caving trips, waterfalls, an old town, a sea gypsy village, tours of an orchid farm and a rubber plantation, a "monkey training school" among many other varied diversions. We did not have time to take in everything and tried to focus on the less gimmicky options.
Khao Mai Kaew cave
One of the first things we decided to do was go underground. Khao Mai Kaew cave lies in the middle of the island. There is one road that cuts across the middle of Koh Lanta and the cave is located about two kilometers down a well-marked side road.
The road ends at a farmhouse and its outbuildings. Among the cluster of buildings there is a small cafe and ticket office. Tours of the cave cost 300 Thai baht, and include headlamps and a guide. Leading our small group of spelunkers was Mr Sakdas.
The cave is a 20-minute hike through a rubber plantation and the surrounding jungle. Sakdas told us he and his brother discovered the cave in 1998. They had been tracking bees through the forest in search of a hive when they stumbled upon one of the cave's entrances. After spending several months exploring the underground complex, they began leading friends on tours and later started their guide company.
The entrance sits in a rock outcropping at the foot of a cliff and is almost completely obscured by trees and boulders. Down a bamboo ladder and through a small hallway the darkness became complete. Sakdas led us past stalactite and stalagmite formations and pointed out spiders and bugs skittering up the walls that we had failed to notice.
The further we went into the cave the larger the rooms became until we entered a huge vault with 20-meter ceilings. One of our headlamps began to fade and Sakdas assured us he could find the entrance in complete darkness. He told us to explore the room which we dutifully did. After examining the smooth rock walls and vainly trying to photograph the grooves left by millions of years of flowing water, we realized our guide had disappeared.
We found a him a few minutes later lounging atop a rock outcropping near the entrance to the room. "Do you think you could have found your way out?" he asked through a huge smile. We made our way to an exit, crawling through a passageway no wider than our shoulders. Just before emerging back into the sunlight we passed rows of sleeping bats. Khao Mai Kaew cave is not for claustrophobes and people planning to visit it should wear clothes they are not particularly attached to.
Our first snorkeling trip was to the previously mentioned four islands. The initial stop of the day was Koh Chueak, a small limestone island with steep cliffs topped by trees clinging to the exposed rock. The coral around the island was fairly healthy, and we saw multi-colored sponges, anemones, clown fish and dozens of other fish we could not identify.
We had chartered a longtail boat and after about 20 minutes of swimming, our captain motioned for us to get back on board. We asked him if we could stay longer and he pointed to a fast-approaching ship carrying what looked like 200 people. Ah yes, time to go.
The next — and by far the most rewarding — stop was Koh Muk, home to the Emerald Cave. Pulling up to the island it was difficult to spot the entrance to the cave. We hopped into the water and swam to a small but wide crack in the cliff face.
Our guide gestured us forward with his flashlight and we slipped under the wall. We swam for 80 meters through a cave that at times constricted uncomfortably before opening into huge echoing caverns.
The view as we came out of the cave was simply stunning. The impossibly secluded lagoon in front of us was like something out of a daydreaming child's pirate fantasy. Ringed entirely by 30-meter cliffs, the lagoon's crystal clear waters lapped lazily against the white sands of a deserted beach.
There were less than a dozen of us in the lagoon and everyone except for the guides sat gaping at the surroundings. When people spoke it was in hushed tones, as if loud noises might ruin the moment.
Behind the beach grew a thick cluster of trees and ferns. Butterflies glided on a light breeze and birds called out from perches hidden among the trees. It was truly a rare glimpse of paradise. We stayed for no more than 20 minutes until the next group came wide-eyed through the tunnel.
Back underway, we noticed a storm welling up on the eastern horizon. Our boat drivers raced the storm to another island. Once we arrived and lay anchor, we had a quick lunch of fried rice and fruit on the beach.
The rains hit almost immediately after we finished eating and we walked along the beach, lashed by a serious downpour. The storm passed quickly but it had churned up the sea and we had to call it a day. Our boat captain made his slow and cautious way back to Koh Lanta through swelling seas.
The next day we took a speedboat to Koh Rok for more snorkelling. Much of the coral there was destroyed by a tsunami nine years ago. Coral is resilient but takes decades to regrow. The sea floor is lettered with bleached and dead fragments of what used to be spectacular reefs. Schools of fish are still plentiful and we were fortunate enough to see eels, groupers the size of suitcases and even a giant rock lobster.
The ocean floor where we were swimming drops away quickly — one moment we were swimming in 10-meter depths and the next over a seemingly bottomless chasm receding into an impenetrable gloom.
After diving at two separate reefs, we were shuttled to a beach on Koh Rok for lunch. All of the snorkel companies stop on the island and we joined hundreds of other tourists at picnic tables for a prepared meal.
While we ate a murmur began to spread through the crowd and soon people were standing and pointing. A group of four Komodo dragons had emerged from the jungle and were making their lazy way toward some picnickers.
The general reaction was predictable: people quickly reached for their cameras and some started throwing food at the lumbering, and obviously well-fed, reptiles. Park rangers eventually cut through the crowd and shooed the animals away with long bamboo poles.
We wondered how the animals had gotten to the island and concluded they must have been brought in as a tourist attraction — although the island hardly needed another. Oddly enough, overnight camping is growing more popular on Koh Rok. After seeing the Komodo dragons we weren't so sure roughing it would be a good idea.
Everyone took an hour break after lunch and we used the time to explore the other side of Koh Rok. A path snakes through the underbrush and eventually leads to a lagoon surrounded by a small mangrove forest. To pass the time we listened to birds singing from the trees and stared out across the sapphire blue sea.
Our last stop of the day was another reef, this one much healthier than those we had seen earlier. Schools of fish enveloped us as we swam. Solitary barracuda darted effortlessly through the water, making us feel a bit slow and feeble. The seafloor here was teaming with life. Crabs crawled along coral dotted with a seemingly endless variety of clams, some of them a half-meter wide.
Grudgingly we climbed aboard the boat for the return trip to Koh Lanta. Our guide dared us not to fall asleep, and after a day of swimming, his dare went unchallenged.
Lanta Old Town
The island's old town is a single street lined with wooden buildings. Many of the local dive companies have their headquarters there and chartered boats often leave from the town's pier. Traffic is light and the atmosphere a bit more relaxed than that of the western shore.
The main activities in town appear to be shopping and eating. In addition to souvenir stores, there are several shops selling handmade items such as hammocks and coconut shell...well everything. The Chinese influence is more pronounced in the old town than elsewhere on Koh Lanta and many business signs are in Chinese. It felt, at least to us, as if Dali Old Town had been shrunk and sent to Thailand.
Lanta Old Town is also the gateway to the southeastern end of the island. This area is famed for the local sea gypsies. While we were intrigued by a culture we knew nothing about, it seemed most respectful to forgo this particular "attraction". As the incredibly comprehensive — and free — magazine Koh Lanta Pocket Guide states:
Many websites and guidebooks talk about Koh Lanta's sea gypsies as if they are a tourist attraction. They are not. They have faced many problems in the past — eviction from their traditional fishing grounds and resting places, forced settlement, and erosion of their culture — without the added impact of Western tourism.
Koh Lanta National Park
Renting a scooter is almost required on Koh Lanta and one can be rented for less than the price of a single tuk-tuk ride between beaches. Using a scooter is the cheapest means to getting around the island and offers the most freedom as well. We rode ours about 20 minutes to the southern tip of Koh Lanta and checked out the park and nature reserve.
The park is part of the Mu Ko Ang Thong National Park complex, which covers 42 islands spread over more than 100 square kilometers. A 400 baht entry fee is mandatory for all adults.
We entered the park and headed uphill to an old and now unused lighthouse. It sits atop a steep cliff overlooking the Andaman Sea. It is possible to climb to the top of the lighthouse but after taking a look inside and seeing the rickety ladder we decided the view outside was enough.
Across a large and broilingly hot expanse of grass sits the visitor's center. There is a small snack and gift shop and plenty of shaded seating but the primary visitors to this venue seemed to be monkeys. It was obvious after a few minutes that the monkeys, although completely accustomed to interacting with humans, where extremely territorial.
Back out in the sunshine we walked along a wide, crescent-shaped beach. Other than a long tail boat anchored at one end, we had it entirely to ourselves. The water off the beach is shallow far out into the ocean and the view looks over some of the islands we had visited while snorkeling a few days earlier.
However, we were visiting in the afternoon and the sun was simply too intense for an extended stay. We went for a quick swim in the shallow water to cool off and then set out for a hike.
The park has one trail which leads from just off the beach, through the jungle and ends at the top of a steep hill where earlier we had parked our scooter. Upon reflection it seems absurd that we thought a hike through the jungle would cool us off, but that is what we decided.
Hiking up and down the hillsides was not particularly taxing work, but it was sweaty. We first heard and eventually caught sight of monkeys swinging through the canopy above us. They, unlike the ones at the visitor's center, appeared content to watch us from a distance. The hike itself was not amazing but did offer views of many different kinds of plant life, including wild orchids and enormous crepe myrtle trees. It was also yet another chance to be alone in paradise.
There are several daily flights between Kunming and Thailand's capital, Bangkok. Round trip tickets between these two cities usually cost between 1,800 and 3,000 yuan depending on the time of year.
The easiest and most convenient way to get from Bangkok to Koh Lanta is by purchasing multi-transport tickets. These include a 60-minute flight from Bangkok to Krabi airport, bus transfer from the airport to the pier and finally a two-and-a-half hour boat from Krabi pier to Koh Lanta's Saladan pier. Tickets such as these can be purchased in advance online from Thai Airways, Nok Air and Air Asia.