The island of Koh Lanta is kind of a strange place. It’s the sort of place where Swedish families build sandcastles next to beach bars that serve up psychedelic milkshakes for customers who party all night and won’t fall asleep until after the neighborhood mosque has announced the dawn call to prayer.
Coming from the north of Thailand, it really is quite a change up to see the majority of the local women wearing Islamic headscarves. A few older women would even wear long, black drooping robes and a veil that covered up their whole face below their eyes. Buddhism is such an integral part of the Thai identity in my mind, that it almost felt as if you were in a different country.
It’s a little surreal to be woken up at five in the morning by the village mosque’s loudspeakers when you’re on a beach holiday. But other than that minor inconvenience, the local Thai Muslims, who make up the majority of the island’s population, don’t make much of an outward show of their religion. And they’re certainly not opposed to selling the tourists alcohol or any other mind-altering substances.
I was a little surprised at how blatantly open some of the bars on Khlong Khong beach were about selling marijuana and magic mushrooms. They even print these items right on their menus, and I think one place was even called the Mushroom Bar. The local police are obviously taking a cut to allow these bars to operate like this, but keep in mind that the Thai penalties for drug possession are ridiculously harsh and will be strictly enforced almost everywhere else in the country. So, for the record, I don’t encourage anyone to break any local laws while traveling. And yet spliffs are plainly printed on the menu for 200 baht, so go figure.
Koh Lanta is a long island, with several beaches lining the west coast. At the expense of sounding cheesy, it’s a great island for anyone who enjoys sunsets and taking long walks on the beach, as quite a few of the beaches stretch for several kilometers. Each beach also has its own character and suits a different type of visitor. Koh Lanta is a little bit similar to Koh Chang in that the most developed beaches are on the north end of the island, while the beaches further south tend to have a bit more nature left.
Khlong Dao Beach
Khlong Dao is the first beach on the northwest coast of Koh Lanta. It’s a long, crescent moon shaped stretch of white sand. The beach at Khlong Dao is very flat, with a gentle incline that allows you to wade out very far into the water. For this reason, it’s the perfect beach to visit for those with children in tow. You’ll see lots of northern European families vacationing here. In particular, Koh Lanta seems to be very popular with Swedes—so much so that you’re more likely to overhear Swedish being spoken at the next table than English.
One potential danger at Khlong Dao is jellyfish. In 2008, a 10-year-old girl from Sweden died as the result of anaphylactic shock induced by a box jellyfish sting at Khlong Dao Beach. The lethal variety of box jellyfish is rare, but other non-lethal types are more common. During our visit to Khlong Dao, we decided to get out of the water after spotting a couple purple jellyfish bobbing around in the waist-deep water next to us. I’m not sure how dangerous the sting of a purple jellyfish is, but I had no desire to find out either. We were also just a little creeped out in general from existence of jellyfish larvae in the water (more on that later), and lost the mood for swimming after nearly running into these strange purple blobs. (Click here to read reviews on accommodation in Khlong Dao)
As you might guess from the name, Long Beach is the longest beach on Koh Lanta. It’s a fairly nice beach to hang out and relax at due to the many shady trees that line the coast. It has a much steeper incline than Khlong Dao and can be a little more difficult to play around in the water because the sand is mixed with many tiny shells and pieces of broken coral, so that your feet tend to sink in a good six inches.
The other thing that made Long Beach not so good for swimming in during our visit was the thousands and thousands of larval stage jellyfish in the water. I found out later that the technical term for jellyfish larva is planula. It turns out to be a very short phase of the animal’s life cycle, so I’d think your chances of encountering a massive swarm of jellyfish planulae is quite low. But if you happen to have bad timing, as we did, these little guys will be sure to creep you out enough that you’ll not want to venture into the sea.
I first noticed that something was amok when I felt several small dings against my fingers as I waved my hand through the water. I couldn’t see anything to account for the sensation, so I kept waving my hands through the water to see if I wasn’t imagining it. With each wave, I’d feel four or five tiny objects hitting me. I finally managed to grab on to one, and looking at my hand to see what I was holding, all I could make out was what looked like a tiny ice cube about the size of a grain of rice. It was almost completely clear, and thus these little buggers were nearly invisible in the water. But as you’d wade through, you’d constantly feel them bumping against your skin. Considering the frequency of contact and the length of this particular beach, there must have been millions of them in the water off Long Beach on this particular day.
I don’t think it’s likely that your beach holiday will be ruined by jellyfish or their larvae, but you may want to educate yourself about jellyfish and the danger they pose before heading to the beach on Koh Lanta or other Thai islands. (Click here to read reviews on accommodation on Long Beach)
Khlong Khong Beach
Khlong Khong is the beach to head to if you’re looking for backpacker, bohemian, hippy, and Rasta-friendly accommodation. The beach has a very laid-back vibe to it, and the beachfront restaurants and bungalow operations have mostly been able to preserve a natural feel to the area by incorporating a lot of bamboo and driftwood into their chill-out areas. The main knock on Khlong Khong is that the beach is not so great for swimming, especially at low tide, due to lots of small rocks. But you can always visit one of the other beaches along the shore during the daytime if you feel the urge to get some serious swimming in.
In the evening, the beach bars turn the coast aglow with multi-colored lamps and fairy lights. This beach is somewhat of a stoner’s paradise with more than a few bars serving up spiffs and bhang lassi. “Happy Shakes” containing psychedelic mushrooms are also available at some of the bars. If you chose to indulge, remember that you’re leaving the potency of your “happy shake” in the hands of someone else. In my case, I must be starting to get old since I found the existence of these items on the bar menus merely amusing. (Click here to read reviews on accommodation on Khlong Khong Beach)
Another side note about beach bars and restaurants, or hanging out on the beach in general, is that being a non-smoker can kind of suck. I didn’t realize that cigarette smoking was still so popular among the 20s-30s year-old traveler crowd. Most smokers seem to be totally oblivious to how their habit affects anyone downwind from them. It doesn’t just smell bad, but the chemicals in cigarette smoke are physically irritating to the respiratory system. I suppose it’s natural to expect people to smoke in a bar, but when you’re trying to enjoy sitting on a wide open sandy beach and somebody chooses to plop down almost right next to you and start puffing away it’s really annoying. But I guess that’s my karma for all the folks I must have annoyed in the seven years that I smoked.
OK, rant over. Back to the beaches!
Khlong Nin Beach
Khlong Nin is another long, sandy beach that is pretty good for swimming. The road runs almost right along the shore here, with a line of restaurants and bars sandwiched between the sand and the road. This makes it a nice beach to come and visit for lunch or dinnertime, but I personally wouldn’t choose to stay at Khlong Nin. It lacks the large shady trees along the shoreline that make a beach feel like part of the natural environment. So to me, this area had kind of an artificial feel to it. (Click here to read reviews on accommodation on Khlong Nin Beach)
Ba Kantiang Bay
Kantiang Beach feels much different from the beaches further north. It has a lot more trees and nature around, with a few luxury resorts instead of a line of bars or restaurants along the beach. You’ll probably see a few luxury yachts out in the middle of the bay. The luxury resorts here look like really nice and relaxing places to stay, although they also look a bit boring for some reason. There is also some more budget-minded accommodation found down at the south end of the beach at the Same Same But Different resort. There’s an excellent swimming beach located in front of their restaurant. The sand is really nice and smooth, and particularly during high tide, the few large rocks are easy to avoid. There’s also a convenient parking area for motorbikes right off the road at the south end of the beach, making Kantiang the perfect swimming beach to visit if you’re staying on a more rocky beach such as Khlong Khong.
The last beach as you head south along the west coast of Koh Lanta is found at Bamboo Bay. If you come to Koh Lanta, don’t miss a trip down to Bamboo Bay. It’s a beautiful arc of sand that appears half-deserted. There are just a handful of resorts on the north end of the bay, while the south end has a mostly undisturbed backdrop of trees. There are two ways to get to access Bamboo Bay. The first one is via a kind of steep dirt road that turns off from the main paved road. If you go a little further, however, you’ll find a spot along the main road where you can park a motorbike and follow a short trail right to the beach. If you go at the right time, you may find that you have the entire beach all to yourself. The funny thing about Bamboo Bay, however, is that there’s hardly any bamboo found growing there!
Practical Tips for Visiting Koh Lanta
The easiest way to get to Koh Lanta from other parts of Thailand is probably to fly into Krabi Airport. From there, you can ride to the island by minivan transport which goes across the water by car ferry. There are actually two ferry points as you cross to Koh Lanta Noi and then on to Koh Lanta Yai, which is the island where all the beaches are located. You may have to take a 90 baht bus ride from the airport to Krabi town, where the boarding point for most of the minivans is. From there, the minivan ride may cost 400 baht. Another option is to arrange minivan pickup through your hotel if they offer it. We did this, and it ended up being much cheaper, however the van driver decided to charge more than the initially quoted price of 200 baht after finding out that I was a foreigner.
Charging different prices for Thais and foreigners for the exact same product or service is one of the main complaints I have with the businesses on Koh Lanta. This is something that you see in other places of Thailand, but it seemed to be a little more blatant here. One glaring example I found was at a noodle shop. The English portion of the sign advertises noodle soup for 60 baht, while the Thai portion of the sign reads “Thai people fifty baht”. The funny thing about this particular shop is that he’s not even giving the Thai customers that good of a deal.
Overall, the food on Koh Lanta was probably the biggest disappointment about our trip. Finding a good deal on meals is nearly impossible. I had heard that you can find bargains by avoiding the beach restaurants and instead eating at restaurants along the road more geared for locals. In practice, we failed miserably in our attempt to do this. No matter how grubby or local looking of a restaurant we found, they still wanted to charge three times what the same meal would cost in a place like Chiang Mai—and this was for simple dishes like fried rice. If you have the time to scout out truly local restaurants that will give you a good deal, and you’re able to find some—congratulations. If you don’t feel like wasting your time, however, my advice is just to eat where the food is good, where the staff is friendly, or where you have a nice environment.
One roadside restaurant that we really liked in Khlong Khong was called Angels. The owner was very cheerful and cooked up some really yummy food. She said that they’d be moving a few doors down from their current location soon, but I don’t imagine that the appearance of the shop will change much. An interesting sight was the big black (but harmless) carpenter bees that had made a home in the restaurant’s bamboo canopy.
The best way to get around Koh Lanta by far is by rented motorbike. For a multiple-day rental, it should cost about 200 baht per day. Make sure to wear your helmet and drive carefully as there are quite a few potholes in the roads.
There are only a couple proper gas stations on the island, but running out of gas will never be a problem because you’ll see many roadside stalls selling gas out of glass bottles by the liter. All of these makeshift gas stations were charging the same 40 baht per bottle, which is of course a markup from what you’d pay at the pump, but it’s a fair price for the convenience.
All in all, Koh Lanta wasn’t my favorite island in Thailand, but it’s definitely possible to have an enjoyable beach holiday there. Just make sure to watch out for jellyfish and don’t overdo the happy shakes!