I’ve holidayed in Thailand often and have usually do the following – shop in Bangkok; party in Phuket then kick things down a gear in Koh Samui. I find Koh Samui similar to Phuket in that you can get whatever you could want from Thailand’s largest island, but it’s a bit more relaxed and less crowded.
This time round, however, I’m staying longer – for three weeks – and don’t have a ‘new fish’ with me for the last two so I can explore more of the country. After talking to other travellers and reading up on the different islands online I decided to venture to Koh Lanta as it’s considered to be chilled out snorkellers/divers paradise with beautiful beaches and much fewer tourists.
So, after finishing up in Phuket, I caught a ferry via Phuketferry.com to head to Koh Lanta. It was super easy to book online, cost just R366 and included a collection from my hotel in a minivan that took me directly to the port. I liked that I could hop on my boat without any queues or confusion. When you arrive they simply ask where you’re going, slap a sticker on you and point you in the direction of your ferry while someone helps you with your bags.
I was pretty impressed with the ferry. The seats were comfy and you could get up and walk around if you wanted to. They even served up free coffee, tea, water and cooldrink and were selling snacks.
When it stopped in Phi Phi (where the majority of it’s riders got off) I made a seamless transition to ferry number two which took me to Koh Lanta. While on this second ferry one of the operators (who doubles as a minivan driver) offered passengers a lift to their hotel for 100 Baht (R40) which sounded reasonable so I took him up on it. If you don’t have a taxi dude on your particular boat, don’t stress about it. The moment you set foot at the port there are zillions of them clamouring for your business.
The hotel I stayed at for the last few days is called Tamarind Twin and the experience was a good one. Being an idiot, I managed to delete all my piccies of the hotel but the rooms are new and huge, it’s got great Wi-Fi, a big pool with lots of loungers and it’s a three-minute walk to Long beach.
The one downer, however, is that the shower head’s power is utter rubbish. It’s also on a particular strip that feels a bit remote. There are a few nice restaurants within walking distance of it, but the best ones are a little further away. This isn’t a problem, however. You can rent a motorbike for 200 Baht a day (R80) or hop into one of the many tuktuks that ride up and down the strip. My best advice would be to get on a tuk tuk the moment you’ve settled into your room and ride around to get your bearings so you know exactly where is what. If not, you might waste your time walking around a boring area (which is what I did on day one) without realising that there’s a much more built up section including a 7-Eleven just a five-minute whizz up the road.
But ja. What’s really blown my mind about Koh Lanta is just how quiet it is. Sure, people told me it wasn’t as busy as the other islands but I had no idea that in the low season (I’m writing this in September) it would be a veritable ghost town. Phuket, for example, has a ‘low season’ but I’d just been there and it was pulsating with people. I walked around thinking, God, if this is low season I never want to see the high season. But Koh Lanta’s low season is something else. Like it’s BEYOND!
Examples? I’ll go to the beach near my hotel (which currently has two guests staying at it) and it will be me, a clutch of local kids playing soccer and three other tourists.
I’ll swim in the hotel pool and it will be me and nobody else. I’ll take a tuktuk down the main strip and I’ll see all the restaurants are on, their fairy lights all a twinkle, and the ‘busy’ ones will be entertaining one, maybe two tables max. At first, I was kind of freaked out. Where is everyone, I thought? I mean, at least twenty people had gotten off at the ferry. Where did they go? Had I somehow picked a dead zone? What is happening here? My hotel is like The Shining but with palm trees! What had I done? Was it perhaps some kind of weird national holiday I didn’t know about?
My first evening I walked the strip past a string of dead restaurants and picked the first one I found that had more than two tables sitting at it. I ordered a beer and two dishes, marvelled at how much cheaper it all was than in Phuket and then jumped onto tinder, setting my search radius real low. Chris popped up straight away, a Canadian dude I’d chatted to in the minivan. I immediately gave him a ‘super like’, sending it up like flare. An island-style SOS. Then, weirdly, within minutes, his head bobbed into view, having stuck it into the restaurant. Thank you, God!
Chris was also confused by the state of the island. We compared it to a zombie apocalypse and I told him how it reminded me of a movie I once watched where this couple wakes up in a small town after a weird solar flare and discover the entire population had just disappeared. He told me he’d rented a bike and had cruised the whole strip looking for other tourists but the whole of Koh Lanta was a ghost town albeit a functional one. It’s restaurants, bars and resorts were open, but nobody was in them. WTF!
Anyway, we did what most people would do in our circumstances – drink. We then headed further up the road to another spot (a tiki bar with a live bland playing to an empty dance floor and two staff members) and drank some more, marvelling at the strange situation which was slowly starting to grow on us. Maybe this wasn’t The Shining after all. Maybe it was more like that Jennifer Lawrence movie, Passengers. We were two people living it up in a paradise all of our own. Free to sing-scream bad karaoke with the band and dance like nobody was watching. Literally.
It’s now been a few days since that somewhat Twilight Zone of a night (which also involved crashing our scooter) I’ve become completely enamoured with Koh Lanta. Yep, it’s empty. But I like it. Chris has since moved on to a wedding he has to attend in Bali so I’m now the queen of my very own island paradise and this is why it is awesome:
Despite being less populated than Phuket it’s ten thousand times easier to make friends because, when you do spot other tourists you immediately have something to talk about. You’re not the weird, creepy solo person singling them out in a jam-packed Patong beach throng in Phuket. You’re their ghost town island neighbour coming to say ‘Hey’, chat about how crazy quiet it is and swap tips on where to find the best food. You literally make Insta-friends with whoever you meet!
When I go to a restaurant (the food here is delicious and unbelievably cheap) I have everyone’s full attention and I like it. Sometimes I eat where Tripadvisor’s given a spot a high-ranking and I’ll share the place with two other tables. Sometimes I sit all on my ace in a rustic looking spot with a Thai name where kids chase roosters under the tables, the staff plait each other’s hair and nobody speaks any English. This is when I just point at the pictures in the menu then merrily read my book while they cook. (When they do speak English we have conversations like this: ‘How do you guys make money in low season?’ We don’t. ‘So how do you survive?’ We save from the high season. ‘So why do you still operate? Why don’t you just close?’ Nah.
When I walk in the streets I’ll pass workmen, local vendor women cooking soup and satay and gangly teens smoking next to their bikes while playing on their cell phone. (Everyone has a cell phone and everywhere is serving up free Wi-Fi. Even the rustic rooster shack!) You often see the same faces every day and I like to wave and smile. They like to wave and smile too and I feel very safe here. The extreme chill and genuine kindness of Koh Lanta’s locals, as wanky as it sounds, is pretty humbling. I could give you so many examples but here’s just one of them: The caretaker of my first hotel had popped round to drop off a bunch of grapes from his garden. I was due to check out at 11 and move to another resort (more on that further down) at 1 but had booked a snorkelling tour that involved an 8am pick up. I asked him if I could pay him to store my bags in his reception area and he refused. ‘Don’t worry. Just keep the key, take it with you and leave everything in your room. You can go whenever it suits you’. I get that it’s easy to offer considering there’s nobody else here, but the ‘cool, cool, whatevs’ nature of everyone around me is utterly charming. As it is, when I checked in, he opened up my room put my bag into it, said have a nice stay and wandered off. ‘Don’t I have to, like “check-in” or sign something?’, I asked. ‘Do you want to see my credit card?’ Nah. It’s cool. A small shrug. A big smile.
Anyway, while Tamarind Twin was lovely, I’ve since moved on to a resort called Phutara Lanta and this place is THE BOMB.
Again, it’s just me and a few other guests and we’ve all gotten to know each other. (Tonight we’re all hitting up Monkey Bar where there’s karaoke.) I’m paying more than I did for Tamarind Twin (which was nice but very basic) but, being low season, Phutara is still only R400 a night! If I was sharing with someone it would R200 a night!
The only downer is that it’s not as close to the beach (it’s a very sweaty ten minute walk) and it’s not as beautiful as Long Beach, the one near my first hotel. Some beaches are gorgeous, some are covered in trash that’s washed up from the beach and hasn’t been cleared (something that gets done every day in high season). Still, this isn’t an ish. Phutara’s pool is great and, if I want to get back to pristine-looking Long Beach, I can just hop into a tuk tuk for 50 Baht (R19).
Another low season negative is that some activities/services are cancelled due to a particular tide. For example, I can’t get to Krabi (a bigger island that has an airport) via speed boat but I can take a minivan that uses a car ferry. Also, emerald cave, one of the bigger attractions here is closed. Not all tours are closed, however. I got to do a 4 island snorkel tour the other day (1000 Baht/R396) and it was incredible.
When we drove past these islands myself and the mates I’d made on the boat (two of which are now staying with me at Phutara) all sang the Jurassic Park song and the guides all rolled their eyes, having heard it ten million times before.
The tour also involved visiting an emerald-coloured cave – just not the ‘main’ one.
In all, if you’re looking for a ‘scene’, Koh Lanta in the low season* is not where it’s at. But, if like me, you get your fill of all that in crazy, crowded Phuket and want your very own private paradise then this is where it’s at.
*For the record, Thailand’s low season is their ‘winter’ but that’s not the right way to look at it as it’s BOILING hot. If anything, it’s more the ‘rainy’ season as you get these bursts of tropical showers that sometimes drizzle then clear up as though they never happened and sometimes last half a day. (Despite the rain you’re still dying of heat and humidity!) If you look at the weather predicted for the duration of my stay you’ll see a rain cloud every day. Don’t let that put you off. It just means there’ll be rain at some point during that day, not necessarily the whole day. I’ve been here two weeks and all only two days were rainy and blah (but, again, still hot as hell.) July to October are the wet, rainy months and thus they’re referred to as the ‘low season’. Visiting slap bang in the middle of these months will mean more blah days than sunny ones. September, however, is like a little secret. September is the very last bit of the low season, just before summer/high season starts in October. This means you can beat the crowds, the heat and score fab hotels on the cheap. Just ensure you visit for longer than a week so you won’t leave bitter if three of those days where blah ones. Anyway, I hope all of this has been useful to you. If you’re planning a trip and this guide has helped in any way I’d love to hear it.