Koh Lanta, Southern Thailand’s Secret Gem

map koh lantaMy boyfriend Peter and I had no idea what to expect. We felt beaten down by the previous major cities like Tokyo and Bangkok, and were relieved to find some rest for the weary upon making it to the Phi Phi Islands by route of chaotic Phuket.  Koh Lanta is 27 km long and 12 km wide making it the largest of 15 islands in the Andaman Sea archipelago in southern Thailand (in what is known as the Krabi area) – and this is why we came. This is is why I travel.

Koh Lanta is one of those places that makes you feel alive…connected to the land and its mysteries. To feel the magic of the universe, to feel connected to nature, and oh so free! This is not your typical tourist destination, but a third world island celebrating for itself its own Thai, Chinese, and Muslim culture.  There are few places left in the world where you can travel free of tourists and have a “real” adventure. Koh Lanta is one of these few remaining lands. We chose it on a whim, and it was the most memorable part of our journey.

Koh Lanta is about 31 kilometers southeast of the Phi Phi Islands in the Andaman Sea.  We took a makeshift boat with about 20 other people from Phi Phi Don for a couple of hours. I laid on Peter’s lap as the boat bobbed back and forth across the sea. We had no plan after experiencing the laid back Phi Phi Islands. We contemplated the Khao Sok National Park (for night safari?) or heading to Koh Sumui (Full Moon party?) or even back up north to Chiang Mai (shopping and elephant trekking), all places we want to return someday. The guide books shared little information about Koh Lanta, except that  it was relatively flat.

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Layana Resort and Spa, Koh Lanta, Thailand

Koh Lanta was not at all a flat island, but, rather to our delight, filled with jungles and untouched land, if you dare to venture out of your hotel. Upon our arrival at an incredible resort that Peter discovered on www.agoda.com called Layana Resort and Spa, like some Ritz Carlton Hawaiian type paradise, but better and 1/5 of the price, this safety harbor resort lasted a night for us, as we were ready to reveal why we had come – to learn, to grow, to discover, to put our fears to the test.

Layana Resort & Spa is located on the west coast of Koh Lanta at Phra-Ae Beach (Long Beach), a 3km stretch of white sand and when you turn to the face the opposite direction, you are greeted by a backdrop of forested hills.  However, I was disappointed by all of the garbage all over the beach. Definitely not a place to hang out and the water was too rough to swim. However, this resort offers breathtaking views from the pool and dining area, but I would never recommend it if you are looking to not leave the resort and spend time at the beach. Go elsewhere on the island for delectable beaches like no other in the world. However, the resort does feature 50 luxurious rooms. Our room felt like a Ralph Lauren designed oasis with the natural and luxurious furnishings and balcony with breathtaking views. What definitely won me over about this resort was the peace and calm of the entire place. I often felt like it was just ours. The dinner and breakfast choices were incredible too. Each morning felt like a morning at our beach house in Malibu with the crashing waves, fresh squeezed juice shots, and wide variety of food choices. If this is not enough, the resort boasts a beautiful spa and library. We didn’t have any problems extending our stay either. There was probably one other resort as grand as this one that we chose to spend some time at as well – Pimalai. 

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Layana Resort and Spa, Koh Lanta, Thailand

The first couple we met in the hotel reminded me of a Ben Stiller movie. The woman had her whole arm scabbed over and her entire leg was in a cast.  They warned us – “Don’t rent the motorbikes.” Even the hotel advised us not to due to the potholed dirt roads, wild animals, carefree Thai people who sped along at frightening speeds, and of course, since we were not familiar with riding these machines in this new land.  The next day, my boyfriend who has the same appetite for seeing and experiencing everything while traveling, goes down to the lobby to sure enough – rents the motorbikes! Only about $10 a day. Within 5 minutes, my boyfriend had tested the new slick motorbike by zooming from zero to 60 miles per hour in a minute and heading dead on into a wall and bush, crashing the bike and sending himself flying over the hedge. To my astonishment and breath holding, Peter popped up from the other side of the bush to declare “I’m OK! I’m OK!” All I could think of was an episode of Jackass. I didn’t know if I should laugh or cry.

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Getting gas at the local gas station in Koh Lanta is a new concept for us. Peter Gibson and I hop on our motorbike for an adventure of a lifetime. (Photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

After attempting to maneuver my own motorbike, I thought it was best that we stick together on one. So I rode around with Peter a few times on our NEW motorbike (ha!) and off we went on a full day excursion whipping around the entire island on a wild road excursion – about 40 km. of dirt roads and some pavement. We stopped and filled our tank at a makeshift petrol station for about $1.00 or less a liter. A Muslim woman came out and pumped our petrol into a Coke bottle from a pump that looked like it had been around since 1890. As I held on tight we bumped along on the pot holed dirt road whipping past many other motorbikes and cars. I propped myself up straight and yelled into Peter’s ears every time I saw danger near, hoping that my desperate pleas would cease our possible run-in with the grave.

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American Idol for birds in Koh Lanta, Thailand (Photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

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At “Butterfly” we learn about the animal and plant life on Koh Lanta from a child. (Photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

Our first roadside stop included a bunch of Thai-Chinese looking men surrounding these gorgeous wooden bird cages hanging in rows. We learned that we had stumbled upon a competition, like American Idol for birds. The men were betting and whomever had the best bird song won.  As we ventured on, I saw a sign that read “Butterfly”, so I shouted for Peter to stop, thinking it might be a butterfly aviary. Outside we met a boy and his mother who we paid a about a buck each. A couple was leaving with their child and they told us the experience was worth it. A monkey attached to a tree was in a cage outside with a kitty and another creature I am still not certain of… The boy, who was about 8 years old, took us on an hour long guided tour of their property and showed us, shockingly, animals that were kept in cages and unique Koh Lanta plant life. He pointed to them and showed us the English word translated in his big dictionary with pictures.  We were shocked to see bald eagles in cages, a giant shed with rotten pineapple cores where white fluffy mushrooms grew off each one in the dark place, various birds, and creatures we were not familiar with.  We were so curious, but also in shock knowing all too well that this could never happen in America. All I could think of was a make-shift zoo I once saw in Vietnam in 1994 where actual tigers, monkeys, and other creatures were tied to trees for visitors to pet. We did see one butterfly in the netted area, and we were left with so much wonder and astonishment of all the creatures we did see at “Butterfly.”

As we hopped back on our motorbike we went off the major road on a thick deep brown muddy path surrounded by jungle leaves wondering if we may get macheted in the process of looking for the elephants, or if Tarzan might swing from a vine in front of us. This thrill of the unknown had my heart racing and my eyes alert as I held tight so I was not catapulted off the back of the motorbike. After a mile or so we saw a ramshackle place or elephant camp with a few elephants. This spot is somewhere in the northern middle part of the island. We paid to trek through the jungle on one and discover the forest first hand with its various insects, birds, and plant life. As we held on and tried to enjoy the ride atop the world, I realized our elephant was very old and blind, which made me want to pet him. The guide was staking him with a poker to alter our course through the whipping leaves. At the end of our hour trek, we paid money to feed the poor elephant bananas. Here is a video of our elephant as Peter, the speed racer, picks me up for what is next.

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Peter Gibson and writer Melissa Curtin trek through the Koh Lanta jungle.

For a great part of the journey the ocean was to the right of me, and then the road started to careen as well as climb to harrowing heights. It would then descend in the perfect death defying skateboarding curls that I only hoped didn’t catapult me over Peter. We would casually stop as these breathtaking sights, monkeys jumping out in front of us on the road, as we made it to the southern tip of the island to Koh Lanta National Marine Park. As you spiral down a scary almost 90 degree hill, with the ocean to the right and the rugged cliffs as a verdant green backdrop, you gaze at the ruins of an old lighthouse and natural beaches. Established in 1990 the National Park is reached by a steep and corrugated 7 km dirt track from Hat Nui. As you can imagine, riding there is not for the faint of heart. Parking our motorbike, we had left food in our basket and the monkeys slowly came, all around us, some hissing, some fighting other monkeys, some with babies on them… One quickly found his way to our bike and took our sunscreen, squirted it in his mouth, and ran off into the forest with it. I ran from the scene with curiosity and fear, while Peter knew he could not do the same because he had left his iPhone in the motorbike. He began to whip his bag to make them back off, as he retrieved his cell phone, he ran. We darted towards the lighthouse hill and hiked up the land laughing and scared. The land juts over the water near the lighthouse, and when you turn around, you feel as if the wild endless mountainous forest land is hugging you with its grace and beauty as the wind whips your hair and you realize once again, this moment in time is why you are here.

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Koh Lanta National Marine Park, the southern tip (Photo credit: Melissa Curtin)

I wonder about all the jungle creatures that live and run free there and wonder how safe it would be for us to explore as the sun is beginning to set and we are far from our hotel home.  The lighthouse hill parts two untouched beaches – a beautiful stone beach to our right and a palm beach to our left. This area of protected land offers unbelievable opportunities for bird and wildlife watching.  We decide the next day to risk the drive again and come back. I thought our luck had run out, but Peter did not.

Other highlights of our motorbike adventure included zooming past shady rubber tree forests, stopping by an old store with unique jewelry pieces, and spending an afternoon at the breathtaking luxurious resort property Pimalai that offers stunning beach views with an infinity pool that hangs you off a cliff with ocean views for miles.  We made sure to stop in the small historical and picturesque Old Town Koh Lanta which shares the old Chinese community with you with its historical wooden stilt houses and long pier.  Once a port and merchandise center where sampan (flat-bottomed Chinese wooden boats) stopped on their travels, now Old Town is a quaint little fishing village whose shops sell goods, jewelry, handbags, souvenirs, and food. You can also see Muslims and sea gypsies. All three traditions share the area in peaceful co-existence.  The Hammock House  store, a wooden stilt house right on the sea in the middle of Old Town, boasts a large selection of colorful hammocks. You can buy colorful string cloth and parachute hammocks, hanging chairs, and unique V-weaves created to provide a sustainable income for the Mlabri tribe.

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Stunning views from Pimalai Resort, Koh Lanta (Photo credit: Peter Gibson)

If you dare, venture to San Ga U, a sea gypsy village. We did! Monkeys came down from trees as we headed toward the village hoping to see the gypsies that live off the land and travel by boat. What we did see was a lot of squalor and many giant fishing traps made by hand.  I don’t think they wanted people on motorbikes driving through their area of open air shanty homes, so we made our way back up the 90 degree hill and stopped by this magnificent treehouse restaurant overlooking the sea like a bird with two nearby islands that looked like they could easily be walked to in low tide.

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Time for Lime cooking class on Koh Lanta right on the beach.

If you have time, you must try the four hour cooking class on the beach called Time for Lime. Here you learn how to prepare and cook numerous dishes that always include sweet, sour, spicy, and salty. You then dine with about ten new friends ocean side. Part of the profits go to help animals in need at the nearby Animal Centre.

Our last day we motored up north from our hotel to Saladan (considered a tourist town) where one can find cozy waterfront restaurants, diveshops, bakeries, banks, groceries, a health center, passenger ferries and more.  Many Swedes vacation here and we stumbled upon a makeshift bar/hotel/restaurant that hung over the aquamarine water with its Swedish flag outside. I went inside looking for a bathroom and discovered ocean views that an American would pay $10 million or more to own. There were records all over the walls and I found it amusing to see the Asian man living there was on his iPad looking at VW cars. Jazz music floated around this unusual, rickety, and simple paradise that was obviously his home, but was used as a hotel and a lively bar and restaurant when the tourists came. It made me wonder if he knew how lucky he was to be in this paradise, and was he, perhaps, wishing he was in a more modern land. Amazing how the iPad and the internet can transport us to another place.

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sea gypsy village

Before leaving the island to head to Krabi, then Bangkok, China, Japan, and then the USA, we discovered an entire fishing village up north that even had a ceremonial house (perhaps for weddings). It was fascinating to see how this community co-existed with their reliance on the sea. As we walked down the long bridge above the water, we got a glimpse into each open air home with its rituals, beliefs, and cooking methods.

We could have easily stayed another week due to the excellent dive sites near the uninhabited islands of Koh Rok Noi and Koh Rok Yai and the undersea pinnacles of Hin Muang and Hin Daeng which attract large pelagic fish.  Besides the nature hikes, elephant treks, sea kayaking and snorkeling, Koh Lanta has endless possibilities.

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The motorbike adventure to the southern tip of Koh Lanta, The Koh Lanta National Marine Park. (Peter Gibson with writer Melissa Curtin)

From the northern tip, we took a ferry with the locals over two islands before hitting the mainland of Krabi to go back to our pretty LA life.  Often feeling like I was Angelina Jolie snug on the back of our motorbike with not a care in the world, we careened down the bumpy dirt roads with no destination in mind.  Discovery of unknown delights made this a trip of a lifetime, memory making in a way that no typical tourist destination can ever give you.

About Melissa Curtin

Melissa Curtin's globetrotting and love of learning was fueled after traveling around the world on Semester at Sea in college. She has been a passionate elementary educator for over fifteen years. Melissa taught in England in 2004 thanks to a Fulbright scholarship. After teaching in the Maryland public school system for almost a decade, she left the conservative East Coast environment in Washington, DC for West Coast living. Melissa is the Co-Founder and writer of LaLaScoop (Never Leave LA), an online hub for discovering the beauty and vibrancy of life in Los Angeles through a plethora of reviews on LA's hottest trends, places, products, people and happenings from the coastline to the Hollywood Hills. After living in LA for seven years, she is officially a proud, happy, warm Angeleno. Some of her favorite destinations include Formentera Island off of Ibiza, Costa Rica, Thailand, Fiji, Morocco, Vietnam, Belgium, Italy, Sicily, Prague, Egypt, Australia, Greece, and Paris.

Comments

  1. Alas, cannot access the video at the beginning but will read the entire article. Looks wonderful and not a place I have been~~~!

  2. Oh my goodness this is fantastic. Must visit!! Thanks for sharing and wonderful photos!

  3. Loved the recap darling… Made my heart smile. We must return soon.

  4. Anonymous says:

    You should be ashamed of riding on the elephant as it must have been beaten into submission for you to enjoy the ride.

    • We learned it was a 40 year old blind elephant at the end of our trek. I felt so bad for him, and realized I would never pay $ to do that again.

      • “With logging now illegal in Thailand, tourism is the only way for these elephants – who have grown up in captivity – to survive. There is simply not enough jungle left in Thailand to release them back into the wild. The trekking is not hard on them and they are generally well taken care of – if you do see any abuse, please report it to your tour agent or resort.”

  5. Melissa, great blog piece. Very helpful. Right now I have a reservation at Layana for the last 6 days on my honeymoon next December. I really wanted a more remote place (but with access to other things on the beach – markets, restaurants, etc) – but a strong criteria for us is to have a beautiful beach to lay on, and an ocean we can swim in. Is Layana not the place? Should we be looking at Pimalai instead? Or Khao Lak instead of Koh Lanta? Appreciate any advice here! Thx.

    • Thanks Greg! Layana is amazing, the entire resort and pool and beach views, but the beach was so dirty (covered in garbage), even walking both ways on the beach for awhile. Pimalai has a gorgeous clean beach and incredible resort too, but high up on a cliff, so the reflecting pool hangs off with spectacular views, more picturesque than Layana (due to careening coastline views) since Layana is just straight out ocean views. If you can, spend half your time at each resort, but I think I would choose Pimalai due to cleaner beaches. Both beaches were rough, so you may not be able to swim in them, but I def wouldn’t swim in one in front of Layana due to undertow and garbage. There are so many private beaches nearby that you can go to though to swim or walk to small islands, or take a longboat to some of the small islands. I loved Koh Lanta – best adventure of all our trip. I’d def go to the Phi Phi Islands since they are not far. We didn’t make it to Khao Lak or do you mean Khao Sak? We heard that we should go stay on this lake with wild night safari more inland from Phuket I think, and I would do it in a heartbeat, if we go back.

  6. Matthais Schroeder says:

    Dear Melissa. Thank you for sharing this – very interesting well written report and some gorgeous pictures!
    My wife and myself have been to Koh Lanta in 2012 for some days at the Pimalai and want to return in 2014 for the Layana. What time you have been there? In January? Wondering why the sea was rough and full of garbage…
    As we love to swin (doesn’t matter if it’s cold, rough or whatever) the only think we cannot stand would be garbage. We are looking forward that this will not happen ;-)
    Sorry for bad English, we are from Germany.

    • Thanks for your response. The ocean is much nicer at Pimalai, but the resort is still super nice at Layana, just not for swimming or lounging on the beach. The pool and resort is magical at Layana. I think that side of the island picks up all the garbage from the sea (boats, cruises, and rough waves bringing it in). I would rent a motorbike and head to another beach nearby, but def not the one in front of Layana.

    • I was there in the summer – August :)

  7. Has anyone managed to track down the irridecent plankton ? i must find out where in thailand…. thank you in advance

  8. i have been ko lanta and i must say what a lovely island.. wish i was back there ahhhhhhhh

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