One of the larger Andaman islands but still largely unknown outside Thailand, Koh Lanta lies on the east of the Andaman sea, just south of Krabi. Krabi airport being the main access point for most people. From the airport there are a couple of options for reaching the island – the fastest way is a taxi transfer and then speedboat, connection time about 1 and a half hours.
Development wise Koh Lanta lies at that tricky point between charming and developed; it has developed pricing but the facilities don’t always match. For example some hotels are charging similar prices to those in Bangkok, but offer limited facilities and are sometimes not well maintained.
Food wise its a similar story; prices are top end and quality generally OK, but the range is narrow, menu choices and pricing are very similar everywhere – especially in Saladan. One almost might imagine collusion; perish the thought…
Europeans will not find the pricing here expensive, but my comments are made as someone who has spent time in this country and I know what other places cost. Most will think it good value – especially the Swedish who seem to have adopted Koh Lanta.
The level of pricing and range is driven by tourism and it’s not a full year season, so businesses have to get what they can whilst the tourists are here.
So what’s it like? Essentially there are 3 parts to Koh Lanta: the east the west and the Noi (Koh Lanta Noi is a separate island to the west).
The west coast has the beaches and is where most of the tourist action is. It all starts at Saladan on the northern tip; this is the ferry port and has the greatest concentration of shops restaurants massage places, travel agents, diving schools etc. The road south out of Saladan is lined with more shops and restaurants and most of the hotels are along here (or side Soi).
The road runs down to the southern tip of the island some 30 kilometres away and there is development along most of the length, becoming more spread out as you head south – most activity is currently in the top 10 kilometres or so.
Towards the southern end there are some upmarket hotels where the beaches are quieter and less developed, and at the very southern tip is access to the Mo Koh Lanta National Park; to get this far you are essentially in the park anyway, and access to the final part is 220 Bht – not really worth it to look at another beach, but falling on to the category of ‘you are here so you might as well’… They have rather aggressive monkeys too – beware.
Due to the spread out nature of the place a motorbike is very handy if you are not within walking distance of Saladan. Taxis (tuk tuk) are widely available and have fixed pricing (lol) if you can get it; but with a one way trip at 50 bht, 200 Bht per day for motorbike hire looks good value.
Massage: Wan and Nok on main road is a nicely decorated place and staff were good.
Most of the restaurants on the seafront have the same offer and there is little to pick between them. Pa Pa is one of the larger places and I found the food good here, although they still fell into the main course before starter trap. They also offer pizza.
Restaurants on the other side of the street are a little cheaper as they don’t have a view of the water. Gung was good and with friendly staff. The Frog has a slightly more extensive wine collection than other places and a nice garden at the back; food is western orientated: fish & chips, burgers, ribs… All good quality but at almost western prices. The next street back had food carts where you can get grilled chicken etc; street food at street food prices.
The east coast has little tourist development as there are no beaches. It’s a pleasant day trip, and the Old Lanta town is a nice place to visit. Like Saladan much of it is built over water, but the road side of the buildings retain more of their old features (and look better for it), not having been covered in advertising and other stuff. Some of these long houses offer accommodation as well as food. They have a cultural festival which would be interesting (7 – 9 March in 2015), check the date if you are there.
Heading south from Old Lanta you come to a sea gypsy village which is quite modern really, and whilst an interesting slice of life offers no other reason to visit. The road to the village climbs a little and there are two or three restaurants built on the cliff edge taking advantage of the view across the bay.
Lanta Noi (Little Lanta) is accessed via ferry: there is a long boat version from Saladan and the car ferry. Both of these will soon be redundant as a bridge is under construction.
Lanta Noi is mainly mangrove swamp and then some farming: rubber and rice. Its worth a trip over just to get the feel of the place. Apart from traffic using it as a stepping stone to the mainland (another bridge must surely follow) they don’t get much traffic and everyone is very friendly and happy to see you!
You won’t find many places to stop for coffee but there are a few roadside places to get lunch and a seafood restaurant by the southern pier.
Whilst here I noticed lots of bikes carrying bird cages; so I followed them. Every Friday morning at 10.30 there is a bird singing contest (location: about 1 km north of the southern pier). Several rounds, punctuated by whistles from the adjudicator, and 2 judges who watch birds in turn into they have all had 3 chances/ rounds.
Winner gets 200 Bht. The birds are highly prized and some are bought from visiting ships from Indonesia (a sailors side line I guess), prices start at 1000 Bht, but prized specimens go for up to 30,000 Bht, which could equate to 2/ 3 months salary.
Whilst I’m not sure of the merits of catching and containing wild birds, they were well looked after and treasured. The contest was conducted with good natured banter and shouting and I was welcomed to watch and join in… Along with a cup of coffee. They meet every week, go see if you are there.
There was some burning on Lanta Noi – accidental or intentional is hard to prove, but the damage is extensive – this is the scourge of northern Thailand at this time of year…
The big attraction of Koh Lanta is the diving, and if this is your thing then it’s one of the best places on earth; 2 of the top 10 places are within half an hour of Lanta. For the less intrepid some local island tours and snorkeling trips are available. I did a snorkeling trip to Koh Rok an island some 40 minutes away by speedboat.
There were some fish but the coral was not as I remembered it from Phuket some 30 years ago. Today it seemed quite dull and featureless compared to what I remember; I can’t tell if this is due to tourism or the tsunami, probably a bit of both.
There is a local guidebook published quarterly on the island – link here – you can pick up hard copy around the island.