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Old town

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Officially known as Amphur Goe, most refer to Lanta's historic east-coast centre simply as the Old Town. If you're seeking a taste of culture and photogenic architecture to go with the usual fresh seafood and sea views, a day trip or extended stay on the east coast is a must.

The Old Town served as Ko Lanta's municipal centre long before bungalows appeared on the western beaches, and local longtail ferries from here were the only way to reach the island before the speedboats took off in the ‘90s. As Saladan transformed into a tacky tourist hub, the Old Town remained a relaxing village that many Lanta beach goers never make the effort to see.

Those who do visit are treated to venerable wooden houses punctuated by bright red Chinese lanterns, low-key stilted restaurants with views of the local fishing boats and surrounding islands, and an overall enchanting atmosphere that feels something like a toned-down Phuket town. We highly recommend staying in one of the heritage guesthouses where the sea splashes directly beneath the original teakwood floors at night.

The Old Town was first settled by Urak Lawoi sea dwellers who were pushed south when Chinese and Malay merchants arrived in the 18th century. Thai and Western transplants have since added to the multi-cultural mix, though many ancestors of the original settlers still live here. Monks from the local Buddhist temple go on alms round at dawn, not long before the mosques begin morning prayers and incense starts wafting from the Chinese shrines.

A few kilometres south of the Old Town lies the Urak Lawoi community at Sang Kha-U. A charming museum on traditional sea dweller ways of life is worth a peek, but please respect the fact that the Chao Lae people themselves are not a tourist attraction. The 2004 tsunami devastated much of Lanta's far southeast, and many of the villagers now reside on high ground in concrete "tsunami houses" built by charities following the disaster.

The scenic coastal road also leads north to the village of Thung Yee Pheng, where you can enjoy fish-farm homestays and kayak or longtail excursions through the mangroves. Here you'll also find shrimp farms as well as butterfly and orchid gardens. Everywhere on the east coast is far less touristy than the west, but you'll have to head back across the island to hit the beach.


Orientation
The eastern road begins at the north in Baan Saladan and passes the car-ferry piers before winding onwards through Thung Yee Pheng, the Old Town and finally down to Sang Kha-U in the far south. Between the three villages, the road passes rubber groves and golden shower trees that occasionally open to reveal breathtaking views. The east coast can also be reached by two cross-island roads that begin in Haad Phra Ae and Khlong Nin, respectively.

The Old Town is where you'll find the main Ko Lanta hospital and police station. Two ATMs are centrally located near the pier and city pillar shrine that sits in the centre of a roundabout that's impossible to miss. Near the roundabout lies a small playground and a run-down lighthouse. A walk along the pier affords good views back towards the stilted wood houses that line the coast. WiFi is available at Mango House, The Old Times and several other Old Town establishments.

All of the Old Town guesthouses and most of the shops and eateries are located north of the roundabout, but it's also worth strolling down the narrow lane that shoots south for an even quieter setting and some notably good eateries and art galleries. The only other east-coast accommodations are a very quirky resort in the far southeast and the mangrove homestays in Thung Yee Pheng.

The market that springs to life in the Old Town centre on Sunday mornings is a good place to get a feel for "authentic" islander life as the Muslim-Thai and Chinese-Thai women gossip while selling fresh fish, veggies, fruit and chillies. Also worth a stop is Hammock House, a shop that specialises in high-quality hammocks made by a community of indigenous hill dwellers in northern Thailand, with most of the profits going back to the craftspeople.

If you're sticking around after sundown (but not overnight), remember that it's a dark 20-minute ride back across the island. The cross-island road from Haad Phra Ae is fairly flat, but the more popular southern route from Khlong Nin takes you high over an inland mountain with some tight switchback turns on the way down. If you don't bring your own wheels, a few local taxis can always be found lingering near the roundabout. The Old Town guesthouses can also help arrange onward transport, bicycle and motorbike rentals.

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Text and/or map last updated on 29th May, 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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