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Ko Lanta

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In a nutshell

Spectacular beaches, mountains and waterfalls; intriguing culture and history; plenty of room for exploring and various scenes to suit just about anyone -- Ko Lanta offers more than just about any other Thai island.

Lanta. The word alone conjures daydreams of lazing in a hammock, soothed by tepid waves and refreshed by the juice of coconuts that collect on the sand. The exact meaning is unknown, but the island's old Malay name of Pulao Satak translates as "Long Beach Island". Four splendid stretches of powder-white sand span several kilometres each on Ko Lanta, with many more secluded beaches just waiting to be lounged upon.

First "discovered" by Scandinavian backpackers in the 1980s, this long and slender Andaman Sea island stayed largely hidden in the shadows of Ko Phi Phi and Phuket for many years. As more travellers moaned about crowded beaches and overpriced bungalows on these, word about Lanta's near-empty beaches spread. By the early 2000s, it had become a choice destination for families, honeymooners, backpackers and anyone looking for a thriving yoga scene.

In addition to the vast beaches, Lanta boasts inland mountains shrouded in old-growth jungle, a protected mangrove forest and a pristine national park. If there's one activity that should get you out of that hammock, it's a walk to the park's antiquated lighthouse perched atop a dramatic white-rock cliff that affords some of the most dazzling views you'll find anywhere in Thailand.

Lanta's traditional Urak Lawoi (nomadic sea dweller) and Chinese-Malay Muslim communities add an intriguing splash of culture to that beach holiday. While the west coast has been taken over by tourism, the east is home to shrimp farms, fishing villages and a historic Old Town where Chinese lanterns and wooden bird cages hang from century-old teakwood houses.

Though Ko Lanta has retained much of its charm and even a few undeveloped patches of beachfront, it now shows up loud and clear on the mainstream travel radar. The northwest has become a bustling tourist centre, complete with neon signs, tattoo parlours and tailor shops. The main road here is something of a disaster, with litter-strewn ditches and countless ugly, ill-planned concrete developments that often stand abandoned.

You'll now find two muay Thai stadiums, three cooking schools, snake shows, elephant camps, an international language school and even a few seedy bars that would have been unthinkable to the conservative locals when 24-hour electricity arrived in the late '90s. One life-long islander complained that the tourism industry has brought an influx of greed while threatening the island's traditional ways of life. But the worst could be yet to come.

At time of writing, plans are being drawn up to erect an 800 megawatt coal-fueled power plant on the mainland near Ko Lanta, with a coal dock slated for the island itself. If this becomes a reality, coal barges will lurch straight through the national park, spewing harmful carcinogens into the air and water, killing marine life and ruining those breathtaking sea views. If a coal plant on the Krabi coast and coal dock on Lanta sounds as crazy to you as it does to us, please sign the AVAAZ petition and visit the "Say No to Krabi Coal Power Plant" web page.

For now, the sheer size of Lanta's "big four" beaches -- Khlong Dao, Phra Ae, Khlong Khong and Khlong Nin -- leave plenty of breathing room, even during peak season. Far southern beaches like Ao Kantiang retain a remote and romantic atmosphere. Though it's changing fast, Ko Lanta remains a fantastic choice for everyone from families to hippies to high-end luxury travellers.


Orientation
For travellers, the term "Ko Lanta" specifically refers to Ko Lanta Yai ("Big Ko Lanta"), as opposed to Ko Lanta Noi ("Little Ko Lanta"), with the latter being a quiet rural island that sits between Lanta Yai and the mainland. The Ko Lanta archipelago includes dozens of smaller islands that can be visited as day trips. All of them are part of Mu Ko Lanta National Park.

At 25 km long and five km wide, "Big Ko Lanta" lives up to its name. It stretches from northwest to southeast in a manner that will remind North Americans of a miniature Florida, minus the panhandle. Most of the west coast is lined with beaches that can feel more like one endless stretch of sand broken up by a few rock cliffs.

From a traveller's perspective, Ko Lanta Yai can be loosely divided into three sub sections:

The northwest is the most popular and busy part of the island, home to the mostly midrange accommodation on Haad Khlong Dao, the vast Haad Phra Ae (aka Long Beach) and its diverse mix of backpacker to luxury accommodation, and the hippie-party scene of Haad Khlong Khong, with a couple of smaller beaches peppered in between. Connected by a relatively wide paved road, the northwest is a good choice for those keen on meeting people and sticking close to nightlife and conveniences, but some might find it too touristy or lacking charm.

South of Khlong Khong, a narrower paved side road continues into the southwest. This section includes the beautiful and conveniently located Haad Khlong Nin, with the more remote Ao Kantiang, Haad Khlong Jak and Ao Mai Pai, along with a handful of smaller beaches and the national park, located further south. This general area is a fine fit for those seeking a secluded or romantic getaway. It reminds us of parts of Bali thanks to the many yoga-enthusiasts, Balinese-style villas and the narrow paved road that winds along the sea and up over dense green hills.

Three paved roads provide cross-island access to the third sub section, which covers everything on Lanta's picturesque but beach-less east coast. Here you'll find the "mangrove village" of Thung Yee Pheng to the north, the historic Lanta Old Town in the centre, and an Urak Lawoi village known as Sang Kha-U further south. While some excellent guesthouses and homestays are found in these areas, most choose to stay on the west coast and hit the east as a day trip.

No matter where you choose to stay, you will almost certainly arrive in Baan Saladan at Ko Lanta's northernmost point. This one-time fishing village has become a full-scale tourist town that brims with ATMs and bank branches, internet cafes, restaurants, bars, travel offices, convenience stores and shopping plazas. Along with a few dirt-cheap guesthouses, some of the island's best and cheapest food can be scored here.

Lanta's food scene is quite good on the whole, though it's worth travelling from beach to beach as each area has its highlights. The best Italian is in Khlong Nin; Haad Phra Ae is the place for Indian and Mexican; Saladan has the cheapest (and possibly best) seafood; Khlong Khong is the only option for Greek; and Khlong Dao boasts some of the finest bakeries. Though you'll find exceptions, the cheapest and most authentic Thai is usually found in roadside eateries rather than resorts.

Not usually thought of as a party destination, Lanta's nightlife scene has steadily grown over the years. You'll now find thumping live music venues, sports bars, gay nights and no shortage of fire-spinning shows at chilled-out reggae bars along the beaches. For details on the latest parties and events, check out facebook.com/groups/lanta.

A roving local market sets up on different parts of the island depending on the day and can be fun for a poke through the cheap clothes and food stalls. Apart from the Sunday morning market that takes place from 8:00 to 11:00 in the Old Town, the markets typically runs from around 16:00 to 21:00. The schedule is as follows:

Sunday: Morning market in the Old Town central square
Monday: Off the main road in southern Haad Khlong Dao
Tuesday: Off the southernmost cross-island road, just east of Khlong Nin
Wednesday: Near the car ferry in Baan Saladan
Thursday: Off the main road between Haad Phra Ae and Khlong Khong
Friday: Again off the southernmost cross-island road, just east of Khlong Nin
Saturday: Off the main road in northern Haad Khlong Dao

ATMs, convenience stores, internet cafes and petrol stands are found in all of the island's major beaches and towns, and any guesthouse or resort can help travellers arrange onward transport and tours.

For medical emergencies, your best bet is Siam International Clinic (T: (075) 684 747), which is located along the main drag in southern Haad Phra Ae and has a medical speedboat shuttle for emergency transfers to the mainland. Haad Phra Ae is also home to the smaller Dr Salarin Clinic, while Saladan has a local clinic. Both of these have English speaking staff and should be fine for minor scrapes. Just south of the Old Town, the main Ko Lanta Hospital offers a 24-hour emergency centre.

The main police station is located off the east-coast road in the Old Town, with tourist police boxes found in most of Lanta's major centres. The Post Office is located along the main road in northern Haad Phra Ae and is easy to spot. The closest immigration office is in Krabi town.

Ko Lanta is a seasonal destination. The best times to visit are November 1 to mid December and February to the end of March, when there's mostly sunshine to go with thinner crowds and slightly cheaper room rates than you'll find during peak season from mid December through January. Many resorts stay open year round, but the island is very quiet during the monsoon season from May to October, with July to September being especially wet.

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Our recommendations

Different parts of Ko Lanta can feel like entirely different islands, so we recommend researching the various areas before you book a place to stay. It's a great island for explorers; settling into Haad Khlong Dao and never seeing the south or east coasts would be a shame. While each area has something special to offer, we gravitate towards the far south thanks to its tranquil atmosphere that still lends a sense of what the island was like decades ago. Offering a varied mix of accommodation along with a central location, Khlong Nin beach is a great in-between choice if you shy from the remoteness of the far south and the more touristy atmosphere up north. Even if it's just for a day trip, don't miss the Old Town with its relaxing vibe, mixed cultural heritage and picturesque old buildings.



Text and/or map last updated on 25th August, 2014.

Last reviewed by:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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Ko Bu Bu
By tezza, 15 December 2014
4.0  stars

Ko lanta - great island, lots to do!
By aidoue, 04 March 2010
4.0  stars

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