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Ko Lanta

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For a long time something of a forgotten island in traveller terms, Ko Lanta is these days making a name for itself as one of southern Thailand's best getaway spots.

The long, slender island of Ko Lanta, or Ko Lanta Yai to be exact, used to be a backpacker destination playing second fiddle to the grand traveller magnets of Ko Phi Phi and Railay Beach on the west coast, and Ko Pha Ngan and Ko Tao on Thailand's east coast. Those looking for a little less action and little more relaxation and even culture, headed over to Ko Lanta instead.

As more travellers moaned about packed out beaches and overpriced bungalows on Ko Phi Phi and Railay, Ko Lanta remained awash with near-deserted beaches and surprisingly good value accommodation, with an ample supply of both budget bungalows, mid-range hotels and luxury resorts.

But word about just how great Ko Lanta was has slowly spread and the last few years have seen substantial development on the island. Still, there’s no need for panic: Just because a six-star boutique glistens over the headland doesn't mean all the bamboo shacks have gone the way of the dodo. The swish upmarket resorts have blended in well, with some so discreet that you wouldn't even know they were there unless you were looking for them. The budget accommodation on the beaches is also less obtrusive compared with other popular Thai islands.

Ko Lanta Yai (Big Lanta Island) is the largest island within the Ko Lanta archipelago, a grouping of some 50 mostly uninhabited islands. The southern reaches of this group, including the southern tip of Ko Lanta Yai itself, form the quite well regarded Mu Ko Lanta National Marine Park. The main island is home to some 10,000 indigenous residents, most of whom are Muslim and have busied themselves for generations in fishing and agriculture. Tourism is a relatively new scene.

While it is easy to see the hotels, resorts, bars and restaurants lining the northern beaches of Ko Lanta Yai and assume an anything-goes attitude prevails here, that would be a mistake. The locals, especially the older generation, are quite conservative, though many of the people you'll deal with day to day may hark from elsewhere in Thailand and be more cosmopolitan in their views. Many female visitors do go topless on the beaches and while it's unlikely anybody will complain out loud, it is disrespectful and may embarass the locals.

This conservative vibe has helped solidify the island's reputation as a safe, family-friendly destination. Indeed, this image is helped by the generally calm waters and broad open beaches along Ko Lanta's west coast. If you're travelling with small children in tow, you'll likely find Ko Lanta to be a winning choice.

The island's east coast is more given over to mangroves and small riverine inlets. You're unlikely to find yourself in this part of the island except as a part of one of the popular kayak excursions or perhaps if you're doing a bit of exploration by bicycle. The villages on the east coast, like pretty much anything off the main tourist strip, are old school and conservative. Expect lots of friendly reactions, but do dress and behave with consideration.

Today, Ko Lanta has accommodation for just about every budget, from luxurious hideaways to backpacker bungalows, and everything in between. In a nod to it remaining off the package tour radar, the island remains seasonal, with some guesthouses, resorts and restaurants shutting down in low season. There's an upside to low season of course: If you don't mind coming out of the ocean to the occasionally soggy beach towel, you'll get some astounding cheap deals from those places that do stay open, and more than likely have the beach all to yourself. The low season is slowly luring more tourists though, and most restaurants and accommodation in the larger areas are now open all year.

In season, Ko Lanta offers stacks of ways to keep busy, from sunbathing (yes, you can be busy sunbathing) through to snorkelling and diving trips, kayak trips, elephant rides, afternoon volleyball matches, back-country explorations by bicycle or just slowly but steadily wearing out your hammock.

The diving in particular is worth a mention. Many look no further than Ko Phi Phi and Ko Tao when it comes to selecting a diving destination in Thailand, but with the main season running from October through to April, there's ample time to fit some diving in around Lanta as well. Reefs lie directly off some of the beaches, but dive trips also go out to some of the many other islands in the archipelago, as well as to sites between Ko Lanta and Ko Phi Phi, meaning you'll often have a less crowded diving scene. It's also popular with dive liveaboard trips. Note that snorkellers can often join a dive trip at a reduced fee.

The long, thin island's main administrative hub is at Ban Saladan on its northern tip. From here a good road runs down the island's entire west coast, with a second, poorer quality road running down the east. The two roads are joined about halfway down the island via the village of Khlong Nin. Recent work has been started on the eastern road, but the work hadn't been completed at the time of writing. When finally completed, it should make journeys along the east coast much easier.

All ferry traffic, regardless of whether you're coming via Krabi, Ko Jum, Ko Phi Phi or the islands in Trang province, comes via Ban Saladan, though speedboats and smaller longtail hires may depart from elsewhere on the island. If you're arriving "by land" you'll have a couple of short car ferry connections between the mainland and Ko Lanta Noi and then again to reach Ko Lanta proper.

In Ban Saladan you'll find all the usual traveller services, such as banking and onwards travel information. A number of banks are in Saladan, all with ATMs. Krung Thai Bank, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam City Bank have offices with foreign exchange counters as well as ATMs and all will exchange travellers cheques and major currencies. Elsewhere on the island there are ATMs but no foreign exchange counters (although most large resorts will exchange main currencies at unfavourable rates). ATMs are usually attached to 7-eleven stores and you’ll find them on Khlong Dao (Saladan), Long Beach and Khlong Nin Beach. Cash advances on credit cards are available from most ATMs and banks on Lanta.

Emergency medical services are available on Lanta. The first port of call, if you are staying on Khlong Dao, Long Beach or Baan Phruklom Beach, is the Saladan Health Centre in Saladan (T: 075 668 170). The nurses speak English and can deal with most minor medical emergencies. Service is available round the clock, but if anything major should happen then the hospital in Lanta Old Town should be contacted. Koh Lanta Hospital (T: 075 697 100) is larger and better equipped. The hospital is also more accessible for those staying in beaches south of Baan Phruklom.

Most beaches have a police presence, and Saladan has a police station, but the main police station on the island is in Lanta Old Town. All initial police enquiries should be made through the tourist police (T: 075 637 308), who are available 24 hours and should be able to speak English.

The closest immigration office is in Krabi town proper.

Internet services are available just about everywhere on the island. Most resorts now offer their own free internet. Independent internet services are offered in shops on every beach, sometimes literally metres away from shore. Costs are reasonable, with most places charging 2 baht/minute.

AmazingLanta has an excellent map of Ko Lanta. When on the island, look for the Lanta Island Map, as it's by far the most detailed map available.

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Text and/or map last updated on 20th February, 2014.

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