Some of Thailand’s southern islands have been premiere destinations for world travelers for decades now. And there are plenty of good reasons for that: beautiful, white sand beaches, friendly and hospitable locals, great diving and snorkeling, tasty cuisine, warm, clear waters, relative easy access from Bangkok, and a laid back atmosphere, all at reasonable prices compared to so many of the other beautiful islands around the globe.
But since Thailand’s islands are far from a secret anymore, at least a few of the best ones have lost their luster in my opinion. A perfect example is Koh Tao which is a on the eastern side of the country in the Gulf of Thailand. When I first went there in 1998 tourism was already growing fast, mostly as a destination for people to take inexpensive PADI dive classes. But the diving was still good with plenty of fish to see, and the island itself wasn’t too overrun for my tastes. When I went back six years later though, I was thoroughly disappointed. The density of travelers had grown tremendously, there was a lot more trash strewn about and many more feral dogs, and the quality of the reefs and the numbers of fish had deteriorated substantially. I remember writing an email to a brother of mine saying that Koh Tao is now Paradise Lost for me.
Well, despite that disappointment, the last time I went to Thailand I still held out hope that I could experience an island that would live up to my nostalgic notions of what a Thai island vacation should be. For years I had heard good things about Koh Lanta, which is on the west side of the country that is surrounded by the Andaman Sea, and my girlfriend had heard the same. And even though my expectations were high, which as we know can oftentimes lead to disappointment, my ten days in Koh Lanta ended up being one of the best times I have ever had out of all my visits to various islands in Thailand over the years.
First of all, one thing that I think really helps Koh Lanta is that it is a comparatively big island with several nice beaches, large and small, that dot its 20 miles of western-facing, sunset observing, coast. So even though there might be more total visitors to the island than say, Koh Tao, it doesn’t feel like it because things are so much more spread out. In fact on a few occasions I enjoyed a couple of beaches with no manmade structures on them all by myself. I didn’t even know such a thing was still possible on any of the best beaches of Thailand. I felt like I was in heaven.
Likewise, the island truly does have a complete range of accommodations that can satisfy the basic backpacker as well as the most discerning luxury traveler. If you want a simple, old school, Thai-style beach bungalow with a thatched roof, no problem. If you want a high-end resort, you can easily have it. If you want anything in between, it’s there. The same can be said for restaurants and bars as well. And a few of the meals I had at some of the roadside, make-shift restaurants were as good as any Thai meal I had had at any other time in my life.
And when it came to diving, which was certainly high on my agenda, I was extremely delighted to discover that Koh Lanta still has world-class diving like Thailand is famous for. As you would expect there are several dive shops on the island, but after a fair amount of online research I ended going with Flip Flop Divers. And I am glad that I did so. The owner, Ady, and his staff were friendly and professional, and all the equipment was top-notch. Flip Flop’s main dive boat was getting a new paint job when I was there, so unfortunately I didn’t get to experience it personally. But their boat is perhaps the fastest on the island, which is very helpful since the dive sites are a bit far away from the island. This means you have a better chance of getting in a third dive in for the day, unlike what you get with the vast majority of other dive operators on the island. And even if you don’t get that third dive in, you get to spend more time enjoying the island rather than sitting on a boat while in transit.
Oh, and the quality of the diving itself was SUPERB! Up to that point, in my 200+ dives all over the world I had only seen like two manta rays, and those were pretty far away from me. I had likewise snorkeled with quite a few mantas in Indonesia once, which was great too, but getting to dive with them is a much more intense and surreal feeling. And on two of my dives with Flip Flop I was literally surrounded by mantas at times. One swam directly towards me, slightly changed course at the last second, and glided right over my head, almost touching me with its tail! It was practically a religious experience for me, and I will never forget it.
So if you want to have a great vacation on a beautiful island in Southern Thailand that hasn’t been too developed yet, then I highly recommend Koh Lanta. But you ought to do so fairly soon. When I was there I heard that they are busy making plans to build an airport on an adjoining island. Assuming that airport does get built, and I imagine it is just a matter of time, then there is no doubt that the island will change substantially with even faster development and more visitors. And even if they develop things tastefully and appropriately, which of course I hope they will, the place just won’t be the same in my opinion. So go enjoy Paradise Not Yet Lost while you still can!
When to go: Generally speaking, high season is from early November to late April, with December and January being the busiest months. This is typically the driest part of the year. May through October is considered the green season with more rains. However, weather patterns seem to vary quite a bit from year to year. You can easily get rains in the dry season, which happened to me, and very little rain during the supposedly wet season. And even when it does rain it typically only lasts an hour or two, leaving you plenty of time to enjoy the island the rest of the day.
How to get there: Most people get to Koh Lanta via Bangkok, the primary travel hub for all of Southeast Asia. Since there is not an airport in Koh Lanta (yet!), most people fly to Krabi or Trang. From those airports it is like a 2 to 2 ½ hour cab or minivan ride to Koh Lanta. From Bangkok you could likewise take a tourist bus to Krabi or an overnight train to Trang, both requiring a cab or minivan ride to complete the journey.
Money: As is true with much of Thailand, ATM’s are fairly ubiquitous on the island. Credit cards are often accepted at the dive shops and larger hotels and restaurants, but there is typically a 3-5% surcharge. And there are also banks on the island if you want to exchange traveler’s checks.
And if you would like for me to organize a private, small group tour to Koh Lanta or anywhere else in Thailand or the rest of Southeast Asia, then drop me a line!