One of the great frustrations about getting around the islands of the deep south of Thailand used to be the lack of island to island ferries, timetables were erratic and many times moving base entailed getting back to the mainland. These days it has all changed, destinations that were once really off the beaten track like Koh Lipe have become almost mainstream with many other islands sporting full service resorts and prices to match.
On my journey south I had decided to head off from Phuket and head to Ko Lanta, avoiding the much hyped Phi Phi Island in favour of more laid back surroundings. Boats head off from the main port close to Phuket Town but nearly all tickets include a pickup from your hotel. You should still haggle on the price and do buy tickets for each step individually as they will end up much cheaper than buying connecting tickets. On Phi Phi for example vendors will outbid each other!
Passing the ever beautiful Phi Phi Ley I wondered if I would be as entranced with the islands to come.
It was only a short hour long journey to Ko Lanta but boy what a difference in pace, even the hustler hassle at the port was subdued. An easy way to simplify your arrival is to accept one of the hotel touts on the boat or at the pier and go for a look at their resort. I managed to get an AC room at a bungalow operation with two swimming pools for 500 baht, a steal even at the end of the main season.
Ko Lanta is a fairly large island and with all the beaches on the western side so I chose to hire a motorbike to get around. Deals for 200 baht a day are normal and the roads are pretty quiet and well maintained, although care should be taken at all times but especially after a rainstorm as the oil builds up on the surface.
With the wind in my face I meandered up and down the west coast, stopping at the occasional beach bar for a coke and a chance to reflect on the beautiful beach scenes. The first beach on the island is mostly dedicated to Scandinavian families and not of much interest to backpackers. Long beach is next up and has a real variation of accommodations that everyone will be happy with even those on a miniscule budget. The scene though tends to be of a Koh Samui vibe and that may not be to everyone’s taste.
I moved on to the lower beach of Klong Nin and found a real gem. The beach itself is not too long, a kilometre or so, and easily walkable the whole length. The restaurants here all back on to the sea and the bars have a much more relaxed individual traveller vibe without trying to be pretentious. Sunsets are spectacular of course and the general feel is of island tranquillity without being removed from all the amenities.
Making full use of my motorbike I crossed over the hump of the island, with a terrific viewpoint, and headed to the small town of Old Lanta. This place was very different, with a Chinese/Malay feel to it, views to the mainland with limestone karst cliffs and a bucolic sense of timelessness. It is a real find and a great antidote to the resorts of the western beaches.
Digging myself out of a coma in Ko Lanta I jumped on a ferry doing the four island tour and booked passage to Ko Mook off the coast of Trang. These boats cater primarily to tourists on one day trips but also serve as a ferry to the local islands. One advantage is that although they take a while to get to each island you get to snorkel at some great places on route.
A highlight of the area, and usually a bonus on the ferry, is a stop at the Emerald Cave on Koh Mook. This entails a swim though a cave; pitch black for ten of its eighty metres until you emerge at an enlarged chimney of a spot with a white sand beach, tropical vegetation and sheer limestone cliffs. Once a possible pirate cave and revered for its spiritual location this place draws tourists by the boat load. I avoided the lifejacket snake team and swam through with my group emerging victorious and finding a bit of calm at Emerald Cave beach.
The Island of Ko Mook is known for its white beach and the dominance of Charlie’s Resort, literally sprawling almost the whole of the beach. That is not to say it’s not a good place to stay, it is as long as you can get a deal. Use of the swimming pool with a swim up bar are a plus as is the beach bar with a perfect spot to watch the sunset. The food was overpriced and awful however but luckily I found a small Thai family restaurant just outside the resort with the best food I have had in a long time along with huge portions and ice cold beer Chang….awesome.
After whiling away a few days on Ko Mook it was time to head back to Ko Lanta so bags packed in reception I strode off to the end of the beach to enjoy a leisurely breakfast at Hat Farang restaurant. I had just about finished my omelette when I could see a frantic looking Thai receptionist from Charlie’s Resort lugging my bag to the beach and waiving the longtail boat back to collect it. I broke the sand speed record to the bag and boat and realized that my ferry had come early, oh well.
We headed across the bay to the next island Ko Kradan, probably the quietest of all the four on the trip but with the most spectacular beach I had yet seen. Fresh fruit and a Thai lunch was served and even though I only had passage they crew let me dig in too. A bargain for 300 Baht back to Ko Lanta.
Alas after a few snorkelling stops we arrived back in Ko Lanta which now seemed so busy compared to my first impression, truly the islands to the south offer a measure of calmness that is only appreciated once you arrive back in civilisation.
Travellers in search of paradise will surely find it; they will not be alone however but can take comfort in a cold beer and a fan.