If you thought that all of Thailand’s finest islands had been ruined by mismanaged development, Ko Lao Liang will prove you wrong. A little-known remedy for travellers seeking breathtaking Andaman Sea scenery without the crowds, the isolated pair of islands don’t even register among Trang province’s more popular destinations. And we hope it stays that way.
Part of Mu Ko Phetra National Park, Ko Lao Liang’s two islands stand side-by-side some 40 kilometres west of the mainland. All facilities are set up on the southern island, Ko Lao Liang Nong, or “Little Brother Island.” Sporting sunrise views to Ko Sukorn, an almost-white-sand beach touches clear teal water that blends into deep emerald and azure blue as you reach the hard coral. Though worth an hour with a snorkel, we’ve seen better underwater scenery.
Vertical limestone cliffs tower over Lao Liang Nong’s beach on three sides, displaying colours ranging from brick red to bright white and ice blue. They closely resemble the cliffs found on the vastly more popular Ko Phi Phi and Railay peninsula, which is famous for its rock climbing. You won’t find nearly as many bolted routes here, but several of Lao Liang’s cliffs are set up for safe climbing and gear is available. Many visitors come specifically to climb.
A number of caves are pegged into the cliffs, often with massive finger-like stalactites reaching down to the sea. Though Lao Liang Nong’s beach is relatively small, its marvelous aesthetics rank it up there with the best in Thailand, at least in our book. Its bigger companion island’s beach is arguably even better.
North of a channel that takes around 20 minutes to cross by kayak, Ko Lao Liang Phi (“Big Brother Island”) has an even taller cliff rising dramatically over its own dazzling beach. The park doesn’t pay much attention to this slightly larger northern island, allowing a considerable buildup of tidal garbage in some spots. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking out.
Lao Liang Phi’s beach is around twice the length of its southern counterpart, with similarly fine sand stretching up to a cave in one corner. Here we encountered only one family, a couple of fishermen and all sorts of alien-looking crustaceans. The northern island retains its peace and quiet on weekends, when up to 50 Thai day trippers often spill onto Lao Liang Nong’s beach.
The national park encompasses several other islands, including two that can be reached in a day trip from Lao Liang. Not far to the south and easily identified by its knotty cliffs that look like people’s heads peaking over a wall from afar, Ko Phetra boasts a sweeping white-sand beach with no resorts, no park office, no roads and only a few residents. A bit further west, Ko Takieng has a rocky beach with some good snorkelling offshore, or so we’ve heard.
A few shacks on Ko Phetra and Lao Liang Phi house locals who harvest swiftlet nests from the cliffs, which fetch a hefty sum as the key ingredient for the Chinese delicacy, bird’s nest soup. Some see this as a cruel and environmentally damaging trade, but these folks have been at it for generations. Efforts by park authorities to ban the bird’s nest hunters have so far proved unsuccessful.
At time of writing, a far more menacing issue threatens the park — and all of Thailand’s Andaman Sea. If big-business gets its way, a major sea port will be constructed in Pakbara (where the park’s visitor centre is located), allowing massive tankers and freighters to cut through the area. Virtually all of the locals oppose it and experts have warned of dire consequences to the marine ecology. If the port is built, Mu Ko Phetra National Park may cease to exist.
Ko Lao Liang has a one-of-a-kind accommodation setup. The national park works in association with a private group of eco-friendly folks to run the only place to stay, Laoliang Island Resort, on the southern island. Renting out nylon tents pitched under umbrella trees within a stone’s toss of the surf, “Laoliang Campsite” would have been a more accurate name. Even so, it’s about as cushy a setup as you’ll find in a tent.
Relying on shared cold-water bathrooms in partially open-air bamboo structures, the two-room tents are outfitted with thin mattresses, floor cushions and lamps set over grass mats. Nightly rates include use of snorkels and kayaks, and three meals served buffet-style on a beachfront terrace. Pancakes and other Western standards for breakfast; barbecued fish and Thai curries for dinner. There’s also a beach shack where you can grab drinks on an honour system.
A generator provides power only in the evenings, shutting down around midnight. No WiFi is available, but both islands have cell towers and the 3G signal worked well on our smartphone. The staff and park rangers are very laid back (can you blame them?) and friendly as far as we could tell. One gracious ranger spoke good English and even asked us for help improving his vocab.
For most of high season, staying on Lao Liang costs a non-negotiable 1,500 baht per person, per night. This jumps to 1,900 baht from late December to mid January — still reasonable value considering all of the extras and the spectacular location. Most guests arrange their stay in advance, but it’s fine to show up as a walk-in outside of peak season. Ko Lao Liang closes completely from May 1 to November 1.
Isolated Lao Liang is not within easy longtail boat range of the more northerly Trang islands, like Ko Kradan and Ko Muk, or Ko Lipe, Ko Bulon Lae and the other Satun islands further south. Yes, it’s tricky to reach, but well worth the extra effort and expense.
Most overnight visitors arrange a direct transfer from Trang town for 800 baht per person by inquiring through the contact form on Laoliang Island Resort’s website (link below). Pick-up times are flexible but do contact a few days in advance, as it usually takes the staff some time to reply.
Expect to pay 2,000 baht per longtail boat (not per person) for a private transfer from Ko Sukorn or Ko Libong, which are the nearest inhabited islands. The ride takes around an hour from either. Transfers can also be arranged at the mainland piers in Tasae and Hat Yao, both reachable by minibus or songthaew from Trang. The Tigerline island-hopping ferry no longer services Ko Lao Liang.
Lao Liang, Phetra and Takiang can also be visited on a single day trip from either Ko Sukorn or Ko Libong in high season. Expect to pay from 2,500 to 3,500 baht per boat, which includes lunch and snorkels but not the 200 baht park entry fee. If you want to avoid the fee, steer clear of the beach on Lao Liang Nong.
Lao Liang Island Resort T: (084) 304 4077 ; (089) 815 4571 www.laoliangresort.com
Mu Ko Phetra National Park T: (074) 783 074;(074) 783 504 www.dnp.go.th/parkreserve/asp/style2/default.asp?npid=37&lg=2
By David Luekens. Last updated on 22nd June, 2016.