Thailand: Koh Lanta

Our plans had been to spend 2 weeks on Lipe but after 8 days, we’d had enough of the relentless wind and the generic tropical village ambience; we decided to make an unscheduled stop at Koh Lanta, north on the way to Phi Phi. Speaking to a fellow traveler at the Mountain Resort about the changes on Lipe, he concurred with the Canadian man from Saskatoon we’d spoken to earlier that Lipe had changed almost beyond recognition in the past year. A paved road had been put in, financed by the Thai royal family’s princess, as well as prefab row shops and small concrete bunkers ready for more “south seas” massage and tattoo parlours. He also told me that the princess was responsible for the erection of a bungalow palace that we’d seen being built on the far side of Cozy Cove. The overall effect is a cross between Mexico’s Playa del Carmen, on a much smaller scale, and a west coast gulf island; there remains hardly a vestige of Thailand.

Rather than take the Tiger Line directly to Phi Phi, a trip that takes about 8 or 9 hours, we decided to splurge on the speedboat to Koh Lanta and stay there for 4 days. The speedboat costs 1,800 B per person, about $54, and takes 3 and ½ hours to get to the island of Lanta, with 3 other island stops on the way. So, we were up at 6 am, down to the beach in front of the Mountain Resort at 7:30, on a long tail boat to Pattaya Beach and at the Bundhaya speedboat platform in the water by 8:15 Tuesday morning. The boat holds40 passengers when full, plus the captain and 3 crew. Our boat wasn’t full – 29 intrepid passengers made the journey up the Thai coast with us. The first half hour was kidneycrushingly rough; we rocked along to reggae tunes played at full blast. The remainder of the journey, though, the sea was relatively calm and the trip not so punishing. Luckily, no one was sea sick enough to puke.

After stops at an unknown island, Koh Mook, and Koh Ngai to let off and take on passengers, we cruised along a channel through a mangrove forest. This was an amazing part of the journey. The captain slowed down so that we could more fully appreciate the unique vegetation and the beauty of the scenery. Shortly after, we emerged into a larger body of water and docked at the port of Saladan on Koh Lanta.

Lanta is much bigger than Lipe, about the size of Libong (about Saltspring size). Upon disembarking, we were immediately seized on by housing touts trying to get us to stay at their particular resort. These folks were amazingly persistent and would not leave us alone. One woman, though, was more low key and polite that the rest so we decided to go with her. She led us off the dock and around to the parking lot, where the van for Lanta Garden Home was parked. Joining us in the van was a German family from Berlin we’d met on the speedboat. After taking a look around, we decided to stay at the Garden Home. For 600 B a night (about $18) we have a very large room with private bathroom in their family run complex on Klong Dao beach, on Lanta’s west coast about 3 km from Saladan Village. For comparison, we paid 800 B on Libong ($24) and 1100 B on Lipe ($33). In addition to the usual king size bed, our room has a fridge and a TV, neither of which we’ve had to date. The complex itself has everything – a restaurant upstairs right on the beach, an internet facility, a mini mart, a bar, a hairdresser, and a massage hut, all right on the beach. It’s great and the family running the place is large and very pleasant.

The only thing the room did not have, which is a necessity for me, was a mosquito screen. So, one of the first orders of business was to get one. After much miming, hand gesticulations, and laughter with 3 old Thai saleswomen at the “sell everything” Thai equivalent of a giant dollar store, I managed to find a mosquito net, some pins and some string to erect it. Ty did a great job of rigging the whole thing up in our room.

The beach out front is beautiful, 3 km long and sweeping. However, one very serious problem here, which we had only just heard about a few days before we decided to come, is that the beaches here – all of them – are infested with thousands of purple jellyfish. Hundreds of them roll up dead on the beach every day and the water is full of live ones. We think that the large purple ones are not dangerous, but there are other, smaller, brownish ones with long tentacles which may be very poisonous. Speaking to the owner of the Swedish Bakery on the main drag, we found out that the jellyfish were recent visitors, having been swept here by the high winds generated by the northern Siberian cold front which had also brought cold and freezing temperatures to other parts of Thailand, as well as the torrential winds to Lipe.

So … the beach is beautiful to look at, lovely to walk along, but no swimming in the water for us! A few people are swimming but not very many. Piles of jellyfish carcasses lie everywhere along the high tide line. It’s really a shame because I’m sure that visitors have dropped off since the jellyfish arrived. We were both surprised at how inexpensive accommodation is here – this is the least we’ve paid so far and we had expected Lanta to be much more crowded and more expensive than Lipe. Having been here before, Ty figures that tourism is down on Lanta by maybe 70 %; we’re not sure whether that’s because of the jellyfish, or the trouble in Bangkok last December, or the general economic malaise. The beach front resorts here, in most cases, are almost deserted. Our place seems to be the exception – it’s full, perhaps a testament to the woman’s sales technique or the low price – maybe both. If the jellyfish remain, we think that within 5 years this island could be a ghost town in terms of tourists, with all the big splashy beachfront resorts slowly rotting back into jungle. Around here it will not take long – the jungle grows very, very quickly if it’s not pruned back daily.

Our first night here we flagged down a tuk-tuk taxi, a small motorcycle and sidecar with a surrey on top, and drove into the village for a great seafood dinner on the river at the pier. The village itself is mainly composed of stalls and shops selling wooden masks, shell and bead jewellery, sarongs and T-shirts. Ty and one vendor had fun teasing each other; the man tried to sell him a bead bracelet which he said had a depiction of the Buddha. When we looked at it, though, the Buddha was actually the virgin Mary – a bit odd, I thought, in this part of the world.

Wednesday, our first full day, we took another tuk-tuk down the west coast to Klong Hin beach, the furthest away from where we’re staying. We rode with a father-daughter duo driving the small taxi – it was a blast to sail along with the wind in our hair. As usual, no one wears a helmet – the little 2 year old girl riding on her Dad’s lap was allowed to clamber all over the taxi and us as we drove. I was a bit nervous that she’d fall out if we hit a particularly big pothole in the road.

Later, we enjoyed a walk and a drink at the Funky Fish resort on Phra-Ae (Long) Beach, the middle and longest beach (at 4 km) on the island’s west coast. We had an interesting conversation with a beach vendor who sold me an anklet for 50 B, her first sale of the day. She said that she lived with 6 others in a one-room flat off the beach and that jewellery was a difficult sell these days. (50 B is $1.50).

We decided to walk back to Klong Dao along the beach, clambering over huge and extensive volcanic rock formations to get there. Along the way we saw many rock pools, jellyfish graveyards and abandoned fish nets. Coming out at the end of our beach we saw many old fish nets and piles of debris, as well as quite a few long-tail boats parked. In the forest that touches the beach several tents and hammocks are erected, and derelict tuk-tuk cages proliferate – this is where many local single men live.

So far, I’ve had two great massages at our little beach side massage hut, we’ve both had some very tasty seafood and curry and three great tuk-tuk rides. The three main beaches on the west coast of Lanta are enormously long and lined their distance with resorts both large and small, some with swimming pools, and beach front bars, coffee bars, massage huts, and volleyball nets. Once again, the visitors seem to be mostly Swedes, with some Germans and French. Not much English is heard in these parts these days. Behind the beachfront resorts are the houses where the locals live; here these are somewhat more elaborate than those on Libong and Lipe. One large paved road runs around the entire island, travelled by rental mopeds, tuk-tuks and resort vans. Saladan Village reminds me of some of the villages that I saw in Turkey and, like there, the vendors are quite persistent. They have to be – tourists are fairly sparse compared with earlier years and a certain air of desperation can be felt in town.

Thursday we walked into Saladan Village along the main paved roadway. Ty watched as hatted and masks workers poured and smoothed concrete for a new sidewalk. We found a gallery selling local handcrafts and bought a beautiful set of three wooden butterflies forthe wall. The gallery manager explained to us that all Thai handcrafts are made in Chan Mai, and that the techniques are passed down from generation to generation – the person who carves the birds cannot also carve Buddhas. Each artisan has a particular specialty.

From there we walked back down to the beach, deserted except for jellyfish remnants, and carried on to the village. There we had lunch at the Swedish Pub and Restaurant, a blues bar on the water decorated in the Swedish colours of blue and yellow. Several talking myna birds entertained us as we ate. After lunch we went to a local painter’s studio and watched him working on an oil of a flamingo. After quite a few minutes of haggling with the painter’s wife, I bought an oil painting of two elephants with enormously long legs in a surrealistic Thai landscape for 1,700 B. The artist had several works in the style of western artists such as Picasso, Dali, and Warhol; it looks like he works on these from western art history books or posters.

Thursday we spent the evening on the beach, having a few tequila sunrises, playing beach volleyball and singing along to – what else – the Eagles greatest hits.

See more pictures here and here.

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