Koh Lanta is a large and pretty island on the western (Andaman) coast of Thailand. Although it is quite a popular destination, some of the beaches in the south of the island still have a laid-back, backpackers’ vibe while the beach-less east coast is pretty much untouched with mass tourism. Koh Lanta beaches are beautiful but often unsuitable for swimming as there are lots of rocks in the sea. The island, with its beaches, mangroves, a waterfall and a few caves is diverse enough to keep you entertained for a while. There are plenty of smaller, pristine islands off its coast which can be visited on a day trip or overnight.
The green season on Koh Lanta
We were thinking for a long time whether we should come to Koh Lanta in the first place, being slightly worried about the descriptions we found in the guide books and online. The Andaman coast has different climate than the Gulf of Siam coast. The Andaman coast, just like most of the South East Asia, gets hit by the wet monsoon (May-Sept), while the other side of the peninsula due to its geography manages to escape it.
From what we read, we could draw a picture of incessant rain, gale-strong winds, rough, dangerous sea and debris on the beaches of Koh Lanta. Nothing could be further from the truth. Apart from short storms passing by every evening or night, the weather was really good, mostly hot and sunny. The sea had some tiny waves but couldn’t by all means be called ‘rough’ and the debris on the beaches wasn’t the heaps of plastic I was expecting but mostly dead coral, twigs, etc.
Perhaps we were just lucky. The owner of our bungalow told us that the previous year she had to shut down the business in May due to strong winds and poor weather. It must be said that the water wasn’t as transparent as we expected and that was probably due to the wet season.
The greatest advantage of coming to Koh Lanta in the so called ‘green season’ (May-Sept) is that the island becomes really empty and the prices go down, down, down. There is no point to make any bookings in advance: since there are no customers, the most reasonable thing to do is just grabbing the best deal on the day, or, booking the accommodation just a day or two in advance.
The downside of the green season is that many restaurants shut down and some of the trips to the offshore islands become unavailable. We arrived just in time to take the Four Islands trip (unavailable since June) but it was already too late for camping on paradise beaches of tiny Koh Rok or taking a passenger ferry to Krabi.
Koh Lanta’s people
Koh Lanta and the Andaman coast in general surprised us in terms of ethnic make-up. 95% of Koh Lanta inhabitants are Muslims of Malay origin, the remaining 5% are ethnic Chinese (living mostly in Old Lanta) and ‘sea gypsies’ community, originating from Indonesia. The Malaysian influences are very strong on the island. In fact, the wife of the owner of our bungalow was a Malaysian citizen.
Despite the dominance of Islam on the island, you don’t need to worry about your beach outfit. The only guidelines are: no nude or topless bathing and no swimwear outside the beach.
Stranded on the east coast
Arriving on Koh Lanta at 8 pm and totally knackered after a 14-hour journey from Koh Samui, we were hoping to have a meal at our remote resort. However, it turned out that due to low season the place was half-closed. We and a Thai couple were the only guests as the owner went for a 40-day (presumably religious) study to Malaysia, leaving his wife to take care of the business and their small children.
The restaurant was closed and so we had to walk 1 km in complete darkness to get to Old Lanta Town, our nearest bit of civilisation. We found one ramshackle eatery which became our main dining place for the days to come and did some shopping in 7/11. On the way back from the town, we saw a dead, bright green snake on the road.
I loved our bungalow on the east coast of Koh Lanta: it was very simple but practical, spotlessly clean and comfortable. It had a veranda with a hammock and a chair, a large mattress and enormous mosquito net spread over it. A basic, es-suite bathroom was lit by candlelight at night.
All huts were lined along a shallow fishing pond in the heart of a working rubber plantation. Every morning a plantation worker was passing by our hut, making incisions on the bark of the trees, causing them to secrete a white, sticky sap. A few hours later he would collect a small bowl of the coagulated, jelly-like rubber.
Living far away from everything had its downsides: as we hired a scooter just for one day out of total six spent there, we had to walk to the Old Lanta every time we needed to buy or eat something. To limit those trips to minimum, we were feeding for a couple of days on bread with peanut butter and jam, both for breakfast and supper.
Keeping food in a hut exposed us to frequent visits from mice, not to mention ants. We came up with quite innovative ways of hanging the food from the ceiling to make it inaccessible to various creatures.
Our main ‘attraction’ while staying on the east coast was visiting Old Lanta. Old Lanta is actually a really tiny town with a couple of old, wooden houses built on stilts, plenty of sea-view restaurants and a long pier offering great views at the neighbouring islands. Historically, it was a major harbour and a centre of trade ran by ethnic Chinese. Even now, most of the inhabitants of the town are of Chinese origin. There is even a tiny Taoist shrine right in the centre of the town. Old Lanta makes for a pleasant, half an hour stroll but not much beyond it.
Staying on Khlong Kong
After spending a few days on the east coast living like Robinson, far away from everything, (including the sea), I craved to move to the beaches of the west coast, with all the convenience of tourist infrastructure.
We checked the Booking.com and immediately found a bungalow with an access to crystal clear, large and deep swimming pool for just 200 baht per night. We understood we made a big mistake by keeping our original booking from April. If we had booked the accommodation just a day or two in advance, it would have been much cheaper.
The only problem was getting across the island to the other side of the coast. There is no organised transport on Koh Lanta and the owner of our bungalow quoted an unacceptably high price for a taxi. We asked about a tuk-tuk at a simple eatery where we had all our meals since arriving. A tuk-tuk for much lower price was swiftly arranged. On the day of moving, some female relative of the restaurant owner picked us up. It was actually their private tuk-tuk, hence the low price.
We stayed on Khlong Kong beach – a typical backpackers destination- for another week. Many resorts and restaurants nearby were closed but we had no problem with finding an affordable (as for an island) place to eat. Shopping was more of a trouble- local shops didn’t give a fair price and I couldn’t find in 7/11 much more than snacks and ‘plastic’ food.
The Klong Kong beach with rocks emerging and re-emerging from the sea according to the tides was quite a picturesque sight. However, the same rocks made swimming and even dipping in the water simply impossible.
Most of the beach bars were either closed or empty which made it quite a pleasant, tranquil place to hang around in the late afternoon and evening. Every day I’d spend hours watching the spectacular sunsets and observing hermit crabs carrying ‘borrowed’ shells on their backs. I imagine it would be much more of a party beach in the high season.
Other beaches nearby
Getting from beach to beach by a songthaew was – as usual- quite expensive so we didn’t even consider it a viable option for beach-hopping. Luckily, Klong Khong is quite close to a few other beaches.
Klong Khong is within an easy walking distance to the Secret Beach: a small but beautiful stretch of sand where taking a dip is possible despite some rocks scattered around. To get to this lovely spot from our beach, we walked northward until a large rocky outcrop marking the end of Klong Khong. From there, we took a path to the main road and after just a few minutes on the tarmac turned left into an unmissable, broad, red-soil dirt road. It lead us straight to the Secret Beach. Following along the beach even further in the same direction (north) would eventually lead you to Phra Ae, the largest and most touristy of Koh Lanta’s beaches.
Getting to Klong Nin takes good half and hour by tarmac road in the opposite direction (south) and isn’t worth the effort. There are rocks in the water therefore swimming is difficult (though possible).
How to get there?
The only way to get to the island in the green season is by taking a car ferry from the mainland, whether independently or on board of a minivan from Krabi or elsewhere.
In the high season, there is a multitude of passenger ferry connections to the main tourist spots nearby: Krabi, Ao Nang/Railey, Koh Phi-Phi and Phuket. There is also an expensive speedboat connection to Trang in the far south.
Prices on Koh Lanta [in Thai baht as of May 2018]:
750 THB Four Islands boat tour (includes lunch)
300 THB night at an en-suite, basic hut on the east coast (booked a month in advance)
300 THB door-to-door minivan from Koh Lanta to Krabi Town
250 THB scooter rental for one day
200 THB night at an en-suite, basic hut on Klong Kong beach (booked the day before)
200 THB 3 hour, self-guided kayak tour of the mangroves (bargained)
200 THB unofficial, bargained tuk-tuk from Old Lanta to Khlong Kong
60-80 THB meal in a cheap restaurant
60 THB pack of local cigarettes
50 THB petrol for one day of driving
20/40 THB entrance to the mangrove park (with/without a boat or kayak hire)
35 THB pancake from the street stall
7 THB cup of ice from 7/11
5 THB sticky rice with banana (street snack)