Sunsets, sea gypsies, and scenic viewpoints
While technically part of Krabi province, the unassuming island of Koh Lanta, which measures 6 km wide, and stretches over 30 km from north to south, is a world unto itself. It’s a perfect mix of gorgeous sandy beaches—the majority located on the western “sunset” coast—stunning scenery, hilltop viewpoints, and an endless array of restaurants, bars, and guesthouses. There’s even a wealth of offshore coral reefs for divers and snorkellers.
What it lacks, thankfully, is endless hordes of package tourists looking for a quick fix beachfront vacation, due in part to the fact that getting here requires a bit of extra effort. After touching down at the Krabi Airport, a combination of minivan and speedboat/ferry transport will get you to Koh Lanta Yai—yai means “big”, and most tourism favours the bigger of the two Koh Lantas—with the ferry service from Krabi making the 1-hour journey to Saladan Pier all day long. You can also get to the island from the mainland by car or motorcycle, connecting via Koh Lanta Noi car ferry.
The first thing most visitors see, when arriving here by ferry, is Ban Sala Dan, the bustling village market town that has sprung up around the pier. Directly to the south and west of the town is Klong Nin Beach, a wide strip of white sand stretching 2 km, and home to an attractive selection of high-end properties, including the Twin Lotus Resort & Spa. A little further south of that lies Hat Phra Ae (aka: Long Beach), which is a lively hub of activity.
Still travelling along the island’s west coast you’ll soon reach the oft overlooked Nui Bay, which offers a peaceful, empty, and quite idyllic little beach (accessible via a steep footpath). Continuing south leads to Klong Hin Beach, a small sandy strectch of sand with considerably less accommodation and entertainment than the northern beaches. Overall it’s safe to say that the further south one travels on Koh Lanta, the quieter and less touristy it gets, which for many vacationers is a definite perk. And if you’re feeling really adventurous, make the full journey down the island’s southernmost tip to visit the old lighthouse at Mu Ko Lanta National Park. Climbing up the rock cliff to reach the lighthouse is fairly easy, and the panoramic 360° vistas are glorious.
While the west side of the island gets the spectacular sunsets, the east side of the island has it’s charms too, the main one being Ban Lanta (aka: Lanta Old Town). Situated halfway down the eastern coast, the town was the island’s original port and commercial centre, providing harbour for trading vessels sailing between the ports of Phuket, Penang, and Singapore. Take a scenic stroll down the main street and check out the well-preserved wooden stilt houses and shopfronts—some dating back over 100 years—many of which have been converted into charming seaside restaurants. Meanwhile, for the historically curious the Koh Lanta Community Museum, officially opened in 2007 and set in the old, 2-storey wooden district hall, has a variety historic relics, photos and artifacts to peruse.
The original inhabitants of Koh Lanta made their living from the sea, and some of the small fishing villages that remain on the island give visitors an insight into the traditional ways of life of these island communities. Visitors can marvel at the skill of the artists who paint elaborate colourful designs on the varnished hulls of their long boats, or just observing village life and sharing a smile with the villagers as they go about their daily routine. The island’s local population is primarily Muslim, but it is in reality a melting pot of many faiths and background, including small communities of “sea gypsies”. The proper term for this ethnic group is Chao-Le, and they are a semi-nomadic sea-faring people who roamed the Andaman Sea, and became the island’s first settlers some 500 years ago. These seafarers are of Indo-Malay extraction, although some scholars suggest they are from Indian origin, and their lifestyle is simple. Their traditional language is spoken (not written), and their unique religious customs include animist beliefs. Not surprisingly they make excellent fishermen, and their close relationship with boats is well reflected in their Loy Rua (floating boat) festival, which takes place for three days and three nights during the full moon of the 6th and 11th months of the lunar calendar. The Sang Ga U sea gypsy village is the main one on the island—located a few kms south of Lanta Old Town—but visitors can also drop in on Ta Ba Liew village as well.
Interestingly, Koh Lanta also—for some unexplained reason—has become the island of choice for visiting tourists from Sweden. This, along with many other unique characteristics, makes this little jewel in the Andaman crown well worth a prolonged visit. Words and photos by Bruce Scott
Although the beaches of Koh Lanta are lovely, there’s an even more pristine enclave of white sand and blue ocean to be found on the islands of Koh Rok Nai and Koh Rok Nok. Day trips by speedboat are available to these islands—located about an hour’s boat ride south of Klong Dao—and the main draw here is swimming, sunbathing, and snorkelling, as the clear waters off the shores of both these islands have many coral outcroppings.