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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.

About our coverage of Ko Lanta
Ko Lanta is a fairly large island with over a dozen different beaches and other points of interest, so we’ve split our coverage into a series of smaller sections to make it easier to navigate.

You'll almost certainly arrive in Baan Saladan at 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 seafood can be scored here. Due west of Saladan, the Koh Kwang peninsula hosts one massive luxury resort along with a couple of lacklustre midrange options.

A short ride south of Saladan takes you to Haad Khlong Dao, a vast beach where the seeds of tourism were first planted on Lanta. It includes mostly midrange, family-oriented accommodation and is a comfortable choice for those wanting easy access to Western food and other conveniences along the main drag.

A rocky outcrop in the south separates Haad Khlong Dao from Haad Phra Ae, also known as Long Beach -- and for good reason. Lanta’s longest stretch of sand includes a cluster of budget accommodation to the north, then luxury and midrange resorts in the less-developed centre, and a mix of budget to midrange choices in the south. The main drag boasts a good mix of eateries along with a muay Thai school, a huge gym, a Thai language school and some fairly large live music clubs and sports bars. Just south of Haad Phra Ae (and included in the coverage) is Haad Baan Phruklom and it’s few bungalow joints with more of a hippie air.

South of Haad Phra Ae stretches Haad Khlong Khong, a favourite of backpackers looking to let loose at one of the fairly lively beach parties put on by Where Else and other artsy bungalow joints. Families might want to avoid Khlong Khong, as it can get noisy late at night and things like “happy shakes” and spliffs are openly offered at some of the bars.

Get back on the main drag and continue south for a couple of kilometres to reach Haad Khlong Nin, one of our favourite beaches on Lanta. Located roughly at the centre of the west coast, it has a more mature atmosphere than Khlong Khong, but without the package-holiday feel of Khlong Dao. The accommodation ranges from 500-baht huts up to 6,000-baht villas. Our Khlong Nin coverage also includes two small neighbouring beaches: Khlong Tob and Khlong Hin.

South of Khong Nin, the road narrows as you reach into Far Southern Ko Lanta. This coverage includes the mostly upscale accommodation at Ao Kantiang, which is often mentioned as one of the best beaches in Thailand. We prefer the aesthetically similar Haad Khlong Jak, a bit further south, for its old-style bungalows and beach-shack bars. Continue south and you’ll hit the remote Ao Mai Pai (Coconut Bay), beyond which stretches Lanta’s southernmost beach at the national park.

Three paved roads cut across the island to the less-travelled east coast, anchored by the atmospheric Old Town and its homestay accommodation set in venerable stilted houses. The east side also includes a scenic mangrove village to the north and the Urak Lawoi village of Sang Kha-U in the south. If considering staying on the east coast, keep in mind that the nearest beach will be a solid 20-minute motorbike ride away.

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 rocky cliffs.

Lanta's food scene is quite good; 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 the the Ko Lanta Facebook group.

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 run 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 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.

Our recommendations

More information

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.

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Text and/or map last updated on 27th November, 2015.

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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Koh Lanta, Ban Sala Dan - Koh Phi Phi, Ton Sai Pier (Koh Phi Phi) ฿600 1h
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Koh Lanta, Koh Lanta Ban Sala Dan Pier - Koh Phi Phi, Ton Sai Pier (Koh Phi Phi) ฿450 1h
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