Ko Lanta’s native communities ensure that intensely flavoured Southern Thai food is not hard to find, often featuring seafood caught nearby or farmed on the island. Deep-fried cicadas and miniscule dried fish may appear, as will croissants and cocktails. Some restaurants close for low season.
Dedicated mainly to local tastes, a nomadic roadside market pops up in a different part of Ko Lanta each day. Sniff locally pounded curry pastes. Hear the crack of butcher knives on fresh fish. Inspect produce such as sator, or stink bean, and pak lieang, a leafy green popular in the South. Several vendors dish out Southern Thai curries and salads, including shredded green mango tossed with fresh chilli, lime juice, nam budu (Southern Thai style fermented fish sauce) and sun-dried, anchovie-like ching chang fish—a Lanta specialty. You’ll also spot less daring eats like khao mok gai, turmeric rice with chicken.
The nomadic market sets up from morning into the evening, but noon or earlier is the best time for food (the vintage clothes can be fun to browse after dark). The Old Town is the most atmospheric place to hit the market, though most travellers simply have a look when bumping into it along the west coast.
Here’s the schedule: Monday in Khlong Dao; Tuesday in Khlong Nin; Wednesday in Saladan; Thursday in Haad Phra Ae; Friday in Khlong Nin; Saturday in Saladan; and Sunday in the Old Town.
We’ve never been disappointed by a dish at Laanta Seafood, an institution serving fresh Thai-style seafood in big portions priced to sell. Our gaeng som tai, a sour orange curry and Southern Thai classic, had three big chunks of pla kapong (Asian seabass) with tender bamboo shoot, all of it soaked in a tart, fiery and supremely flavourful broth. Other dishes worth trying include pad pak sator kung (stir-fried stink bean with prawn), pla tort kamin (cumin-encrusted deep-fried fish) and soft-shell crab with garlic and pepper. The service is fast and polite, and the open charcoal grill expertly handled. While this is a casual place, the roofed dining deck set out over the bay can be romantic at twilight.
Expat-run restaurants worth checking out in Saladan include The Frog for a large wine list to go with New Zealand steaks, and the Fat Pig for a burger or rack of ribs with a craft beer by the bay. Take the main drag south and you’ll come across some street food carts, a couple of Indian restaurants and Lanta Mart, the best-equipped grocery store on the island. There’s also The Table, a reservation-only restaurant in which all guests sit together at a single table and enjoy a multi-course Thai feast. We’ve heard the food is great.
As the main drag widens into Khlong Dao you’ll find Lap Roi Et, our go-to spot to cure an Isaan (Northeast Thai) food craving on Lanta. The family-run kitchen churns out tasty laab ped (an herbaceous minced duck salad), pla pao (grilled salt-encrusted fish stuffed with lemongrass), gaeng om (a stew of meat and veggies flavoured with dill), yum pla duek (grilled catfish salad), som tam Lao and even laab sien, raw beef salad. Don’t forget the sticky rice and cold beer. A good plan is to eat here then hop across the street for drinks at The Fat Monkey.
On the inland side of the main drag throughout Khlong Dao, look for silver trays in display cases—that would be authentic Southern Thai curries like gaeng som and gaeng neua (beef curry), and perhaps khao man gai (chicken rice), served for cheap, mainly to locals. We once had a good meal at the shop next to Nang Sabai, a popular German bakery and cafe that’s also worth a trip for the hearty breakfasts and pastries. The main drag also hosts kuay tiao (noodle soup) shops and stacks of cheap eateries serving Thai standards.
The southern end of Khlong Dao beach is where you’ll find Time For Lime, a stylish spot best known for its cooking school but also offering a Thai tasting menu and good cocktails. Nearby Krua Nidnoy is a reliable Thai choice, while The Indian and The Asylum are two of the bars that tend to vie for our attention, each hosting live music and fire spinning.
Krua Nidnoy Southern end of Haad Khlong Dao; T: (080) 127 0316; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Laanta Seafood 73 Moo 1, Baan Saladan (west of the pier); T: (075) 668 411, (081) 787 1549; Mo–Su: 14:00–23:00.
Lap Roi Et (087) 066 5981; Lunch and dinner.
Nang Sabai German Bakery Main drag, Khlong Dao; T: (083) 175 9670; Mo–Su: 08:00–17:00.
The Fat Monkey (Ling Uan) Main drag, Khlong Dao; T: (061) 528 2967; Mo–Su: 15:00–24:00.
The Fat Pig (Muu Uan) Baan Saladan west of the pier; T: (095) 075 8188; We–Su: 10:00–22:00.
The Frog Baan Saladan close to the pier; T: (084) 443 2138; Mo–Su: 17:00–22:00.
The Table Baan Saladan off east side of main drag en route to Khlong Dao; T: (082) 285 2352; Mo–Sa: 19:15–23:00.
Time For Lime Southern end of Haad Khlong Dao; T: (075) 684 590; Mo–Su: 17:30–22:00.
A good choice for cheap Thai is Mr Green, a concrete-floor and plastic-chair joint where granny keeps right on watching her soaps when the restaurant fills up. Served late into the night, the food is cheap with no frills but plenty of flavour in dishes like gai tom kamin (chicken soup with fresh cumin) and a salad of “century eggs” rendered black by months of pickling in salt, ash and lime. Not far from Mr Green is Country Lao, which is similar to Lap Roi Et up in Khlong Dao.
Our laab muu tort (deep-fried balls of pork laab) and pad kee mao both burst with flavour and earned their 150-baht price tags at Patty’s Secret Garden. This slightly upscale candlelit restaurant and bar also does hearty Western food (the burgers are huge) and provides a big playroom for the kids. Yes, Patty is a crowd pleaser.
Directly across the road from Patty’s sits Cozy Restaurant and Bar, an inconspicuous spot serving fabulous cocktails and a pricey European-inspired menu that we’ve heard is outstanding. In a similar vein, Red Snapper is a highly regarded tapas spot on the main drag, while the sprawling Lym’s Rice Bowl gets it done for sundowners and barbecue at the centre of the beach. For something different, try the commendable Mexican food and margaritas at Beachcomber Restaurant, overlooking the beach at Castaway Resort.
In the backpacker village cluttered around Soi Funky Fish (or Traveller Lane) near the northern end of Haad Phra Ae, Somewhere Else’s thatched pavilion restaurant is a popular spot to eat, mingle, shoot billiards or escape to a beachfront sala with floor cushions. We prefer Somewhere Else over the infamous Funky Fish next door, but both are long-running bungalow joints with large restaurants and bars pulling in backpackers. A lot of the people staying in this area seem to get their meals at Minimart, a stand with plentiful tables serving cheap traveller grub like pad Thai, sandwiches, brownies, coffee and burritos, with cold beer beckoning in a get-it-yourself fridge.
In this northern hippie village you’ll also find the likes of Happy Bar, Irie Bar, Gypsy Bar, Treehouse Bar and Cannabis Bar, all of which host live music. Nearby on the main drag, Where Else is worth a drink or three following its recent move from Khlong Khong, and Opium Bar is the place to boogie down until late. At the southern end of the beach, Korner Bar throws fun parties but is otherwise mellow, while Sanctuary is conducive to a slow Thai meal and drinks at one of Lanta’s truly classic beach bars.
Beachcomber Restaurant At Lanta Castaway Resort, Southern Haad Phra Ae; T: (075) 684 851; Mo–Su: 07:00–21:00.
Country Lao Main drag in southern Haad Phra Ae; Lunch and dinner.
Cozy Restaurant and Bar Main drag in southern Haad Phra Ae; T: (087) 268 0953; Lunch and dinner.
Lym’s Rice Bowl Centre of Haad Phra Ae; T: (098) 080 8356; Mo–Su: 11:00–22:00.
Minimart Food Stand Soi Funky Fish (Traveller Lane), Northern Haad Phra Ae; Mo–Su: 08:00–23:00.
Mr Green Main drag in Northern Haad Phra Ae; Mo–Su: 12:00–02:00.
Patty’s Secret Garden Main drag in Southern Haad Phra Ae; T: (095) 124 1075; Mo–Su: 09:00–23:00.
Red Snapper Main drag in Southern Haad Phra Ae; T: (087) 885 6965; Th–Tu: 17:00–23:00.
Clustered around the mosque in the village of Baan Khlong Tob you’ll find one of the island’s most reliable street food areas. Common nibbles like khao mok gai, roti and fried chicken with sticky rice go for cheap, best washed down with a milky chaa yen (Thai iced tea) or fresh mango shake.
At the khao gaeng (curry and rice) stall with red stools that sets up in front of 7-eleven in Baan Khlong Tob, the gaeng tai pla hit with a heavy dose of chillies and finger root mingling with the saltiness of pickled fish. Also served with head attached was a small deep-fried fish smothered in crushed tamarind and chilli. Throw in fresh greens with complimentary nam prik (chilli sauce), and this was quite a meal for 80 baht. Around the corner on the way to Khlong Nin you’ll find Ha Bee Bee, a good turmeric-marinated grilled chicken and som tam joint that’s been there for years.
For a more refined Thai meal on the beach with prices to match, head north of Baan Khlong Tob to the Salty Fish. The namesake dish is khao pad pla khem, fried rice cooked with tiny salty fish, a not-so-typical dish that a friend of ours hunts for every time he is in Thailand. We tried the yum mamuang pla khem, a green-mango salad topped with crispy little fishes that’s similar to the ching chang salads we tried at Laanta Seafood and the roadside market. It was good, though we kicked ourselves later for not making a return trip to test the kitchen’s Northern Thai roots in dishes like gaeng hang lay, a rich pork curry, herbaceous sai oua sausage and a Yunnanese barbecue.
On Khlong Nin beach you’ll find a bunch of bar/restaurants that often host live music in high season. Horizon is a favourite of ours, though Otto and Rasta Baby are worth a peek as well.
Up in Khlong Khong it can be a little more difficult to find Thai food that’s not watered down for Western tastes, but after a couple of misses we found a well-balanced plate of som tam at Malina’s Kitchen towards the southern end of the beach. Also on the main drag but on the far northern side of Khlong Khong, two vegetarian restaurants sit side by side. Italian-owned Kaya has a full coffee bar to go with house-made baked goods, sandwiches and salads, while neighbouring Happy Veggie does a vegan Thai menu.
Khlong Khong’s nightlife is probably the closest Lanta comes to a Ko Phi Phi Don sort of party atmosphere—and we’re thinking specifically about the weekly bashes at Mushroom Bar. An entrenched reggae scene also wafts from Freedom Bar, Cigare Bar and other spots on the beach, and in high season there is always a DJ and fire spinning happening somewhere.
Ha Be Bee Halal Restaurant Baan Khlong Tob west of the main intersection; T: (089) 191 4545; Mo–Su: 08:00–22:00.
Happy Veggie Main drag in Northern Khlong Khong; T: (096) 135 9717; Mo–Su: 20:00–22:00.
Kaya Coffee Shop Main drag next to Happy Veggie; We–Mo: 09:00–17:00.
Malina’s Kitchen Main drag in far Southern Khlong Khong; T: (082) 289 1941; Mo–Su: 09:00–22:00.
Salty Fish Beach Bistro Haad Khlong Tob; T: (087) 786 6929; Tu–Su: 11:00–23:00.
A key spot in Ao Ba Kantiang is Drunken Sailors, serving quality espresso, cocktails, burgers, Thai food and a lot in between. The octagonal open-air cafe has hammocks and beanbag chairs to go with free WiFi, making it a meet up venue for the village. The main road behind the beach’s northern end also hosts southern Lanta’s only real cluster of convenience stores and street kitchens—things you may take for granted until reaching remote Ao Maipai.
Another off-the-beach spot we dig is Chill Grill House, where the tender pork in muu manao packed a good burst of chilli and lime. The kitchen does grilled sets for two that top out with prawn, squid, mussels and a whole fish with sides of som tam, greens, rice and lime-chilli sauce for 790 baht. Set back amid rubber groves and reached by a bumpy dirt lane, the place has the feel of a reggae bar in a three-floor treehouse filled with hammocks, books and guitars.
South of five-star Pimalai Resort, which does open its fine-dining restaurants to non-guests if you’re interested in a splurge, a clutch of small and simple eateries stand on stilts with decks affording an outlook over Ao Ba Kantiang. These are worthy spots for a smoothie, if not a meal, in a setting that makes most people take out their camera. Down on the sand, Same Same But Different is a popular beach restaurant serving expensive but decent grilled sandwiches, Thai food and a kids’ menu along with fresh coffee and cocktails.
Further south, Ao Khlong Jak has a couple of modest beach restaurants—places to lay down your sack and relax with a spicy seafood salad and fresh coconut. When you make it to Ao Maipai, pay Baan Phu Lae a visit to try the panang curry and cocktails. South of Ao Maipai the only place to eat is a national park canteen, but a tad north, the beach shack restaurant on isolated Ao Nui was open at research time. Bring a beach towel.
Chill Grill House Inland side of Baan Ba Kantiang; T: (089) 649 5052; Mo–Su: 12:00–24:00.
Drunken Sailors Baan Ba Kantiang; T: (075) 665 076; Mo–Su: 09:00–16:00 & 18:00–22:00.
Same Same But Different South end of Ao Ba Kantiang; T: (081) 787 8670; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
The long-standing Krua Lanta Yai (aka Beautiful Restaurant), while more limited than Laanta Seafood up in Saladan, does solid Thai-style seafood on stilted roofed terraces surrounded by mangroves and boats. Our heaping plate of fried-garlic encrusted squid was addictive and left us full for hours, nearly one of which was spent chatting with the very friendly owner.
Another Thai place recommended to us is Apsara, which claims to have opened in 1888. The teak building looks that old and we like the sound of grilled fish with choice of eight different sauces for 280 baht, but it was temporarily closed when we stopped by. Also in the heart of the Old Town, Big Tree Beer Garden is legit for Thai craft beer (try the Chalawan Pale Ale) and Western stodge.
You might also have an immersive time trying fresh seafood at the floating restaurants attached to fish farms and homestays up in Thung Yee Pheng to the northeast, and at Sang Ga U Seafood down in the Urak Lawoi village to the southeast.
Apsara Restaurant Central Old Town; T: (093) 576 1259; We–Mo: 10:00–22:00.
Big Tree Beer Garden Central Old Town; T: (098) 071 9226; Mo–Su: 10:00–23:00.
Krua Lanta Yai (Beautiful Restaurant) North end of Old Town; T: (075) 697 062; Mo–Su: 10:00–22:00.
Sang Ga U Seafood Sang Kha U; T: (080) 526 9495; Mo–Su: 09:00–22:00.
David Luekens first came to Thailand in 2005 when Thai friends from his former home of Burlington, Vermont led him on a life-changing trip. Based in Thailand since 2011, he spends much of his time eating in Bangkok street markets and island hopping the Andaman Sea.