Ko Lanta's Charms

by Helen Conway, Apr 8, 2003 | Destinations: Thailand / Krabi

The ferry docked at the rustic wharf in the small town of Ban Saladan. The lady next to me slung her pack onto her back. "I first visited Ko Lanta in 1986," she told me. "The only tourist accommodation available was three resorts at Klong Dao Beach."

It was hard to believe when I disembarked, with so many touts jostling for my custom. They pushed pamphlets into my hands, showing resorts with magical views of sun-kissed beaches, bearing idyllic names, such as "Last Horizon" and "Lanta Paradise." This was January, in the middle of the island's tourist season and there still seemed to be plenty of rooms available.

The touts tended to be from the resorts along the island's southern beaches, where accommodation is cheaper but the taxi rides to and from town prove more expensive. As I was hoping to occasionally visit the two-street town, I preferred to stay at one of the northern beaches. My friend and I were fortunate to find a woman offering bungalow accommodation at Klong Dao, the most northerly beach. She offered a room with two single beds for 600Baht. We climbed aboard her pick-up truck and waited until it was full with other potential guests.

The truck sped along the island's bumpy main road, sending red dust flying up. Fortunately, we soon arrived at our resort, only to discover that the room available for us had a double bed, rather than two singles. The staff offered to put a mattress on the floor, presumably believing that once they had us here with our bags, we wouldn't leave.

I left my friend watching our bags and set off along Klong Dao Beach, enquiring at the resorts along the way. All were either full or out of our budget price range. Eventually, I came to Lanta Island Resort. The flagstone path weaved from the beach through the bar area to a large, thatch-roofed reception area. The charming receptionist led me along a path with rows of identical-looking small, white bungalows on either side. Palm trees rustled in the breeze and fuchsia bougainvillea added a dazzling burst of colour to the surroundings. The room was clean, with a private bathroom and fan and was only 500Baht. It was an excellent deal and I quickly secured the room.

It didn't take long to settle into Ko Lanta's relaxed way of life. Klong Dao Beach is a wide, flat stretch of golden sand with sheltered waters. During my visit, a strong wind blew in the daytime, whipping up the fine sand into cyclonic swirls and stinging the skin. It was more pleasant to remain within the resort where the shelter of the buildings offered some protection.

Lanta Island Resort has a bar and restaurant that serve all day and Thai massages are available next to the beach. The resort's swimming pool has plenty of sunbeds although only two umbrellas offering shade from the 98°F heat. Ko Lanta is predominantly Muslim and the islanders request that women respect the local mores by covering themselves. Blatantly ignoring this plea, several tourists sported skimpy swimwear and exposed their pounds of pasty skin to redden under the searing sun. I had the umbrellas all to myself.

Ko Lanta is a narrow island lying off Thailand's western coast. It can be reached by car ferry from the mainland or by passenger ferry from other islands. Its green slopes rise gently from the Andaman Sea, fringed at their base by blinding yellow sand.

Most of the island falls under the territory of the Ko Lanta National Marine Park, which mercifully means that tree felling is restricted. The buildings are constructed using natural materials, helping them to blend into the landscape. Ko Lanta has not yet fallen prey to the mass tourism apparent on some of the other islands and big-name hotel chains have yet to secure their spot here.

The resorts line the beaches on the west coast of the island; many are still family-run. The main road begins at the town of Ban Saladan and the first beach it reaches is Klong Dao. It then continues past Long Beach and Klong Kong Beach, before encountering the smaller, quieter beaches further south.

One of the wonderful things about Ko Lanta is that you can choose to do as much or as little as you like. There is plenty on the island to explore at whatever pace you choose.

It is possible to hire a motorbike although the lowest capacity engine available was a 125cc. I was recommended not to hire one, having never ridden a motorbike before and I couldn't find a scooter anywhere. I spoke to one tourist who hired a 4WD for the day. He said it was the best fun he had had since being in Thailand, exploring the rough roads of the island's interior.

There is a small national park and waterfall at the southern end of Ko Lanta and a lighthouse at the most south-westerly point, although I was advised that the road to reach the lighthouse was steep and rough.

Around 20 000 people inhabit Ko Lanta, once surviving on the fishing industry, as well as coconut and other fruits, rubber and rice. Now, however, much of the population is involved with the expanding tourist industry. On the east coast are an historic village with old Chinese-style shophouses and a Sea Gypsy village in the south-east.

The town of Ban Saladan consists of the main road and a cross street which runs along the waterfront. Around this intersection are a number of low-rise buildings, seemingly roughly-constructed of timber and corrugated tin. It is clear that tourism is now the major money-spinner here as most of the buildings are internet cafes, tour agencies, restaurants and dive centres. There is only one bank in town and no ATM. When I needed to change money, the town's power was off so the bank had closed for the day. I ended up changing money at a tour office, where the staff were more than happy to work out a favourable exchange rate (to them, of course) on a calculator.

There are several dive operators situated in Ban Saladan and these run daily dive trips and courses from October to May, outside of which most close for the off-season. There are also several agencies offering snorkelling trips, visits to "James Bond island" (in Phang Nga Bay where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed), and short elephant treks. Most operators will collect you from your accommodation if you are staying near the town; you have to get into Ban Saladan by other means if you are staying at one of the southern beaches. It was never difficult to find a taxi once in town. As soon as you reach the last building on the only road heading south a number of young men and their motorbikes await to whisk you back to your resort.

In the evenings, the wind dropped and we walked along the beach to find a restaurant that caught our eye. One evening, we dined at a seafood restaurant where a Western wedding party was celebrating. A heavily tanned bride and groom smiled radiantly, surrounded by their friends and family. After their meal, the Thai waiters brought a box of fireworks onto the beach. How they managed to finish the display with their eyebrows still intact was a mystery, as they bent over the fireworks so closely when they failed to go off.

The nightlife on Ko Lanta is much more peaceful than on the party islands of Samui or Phi-Phi. We spent most evenings at the Picasso Bar, along Klong Dao Beach. It was a simple wall-less hut with a thatched roof, the kind of place you could imagine Tom Cruise finding his Cocktail bar. Instead of Tom, 20-year-old Red and his friend spent their nights dancing to loud salsa music. Red played an incredible game of Connect 4 and challenged everyone who came to the bar; I never saw anyone beat him.

Red was a local and he offered to show me the island on his motorbike. It was perhaps the way he raised one eyebrow and grinned at me that made me thank him politely but decline his offer.

On my last evening on Ko Lanta, I walked along the beach to the Picasso Bar at sunset. I sipped a cocktail in my deckchair, nibbling peanuts and watched as the flaming red sun sank beyond the horizon. It was a magical moment on one of Thailand's finest islands.

© Helen Conway 2003