Koh Lanta, Thailand

Koh Lanta was recommended by a friend who had lived in Phuket for two years. Although she had never been herself, she could recall countless backpackers who returned from the island raving about the slow-paced atmosphere and sleepy beaches. It turns out I like those kinds of islands, too.

Choosing islands to go to in southern Thailand is overwhelming. You’ve got the popular islands of Koh Phi Phi and Phuket that are now swarming with resort-goers and drunk high school graduates on gap year. You have Koh Phang Nga, the famous island that hosts the Full Moon Party, a backpackers’ right of passage. But there are hundreds of other islands out there waiting, just waiting, for travelers to roll out their sun-bathing towels. Searching for islands to go to was like choosing a flavor of ice cream. The longer you take mulling the choices, the harder it is to decide. In the end it’s all incredible.

We had time for one more island, so we listened to this Thailand pro and her backpacking friends.

Koh Lanta’s main strip was quiet and organized. Every couple of kilometers there was a dirt trail leading to the quiet beaches. The sand was soft and littered with pine needles which comforted my northwoods heritage. To my surprise, the swimming was close to perfection!

Prices were a bit cheaper, too. The street food vendors weren’t really offering full meals, but rather lots of yummy snacks like papaya salad and banana-Nutella pancakes. These snacks were going for $1.50 and restaurant meals were closer to $2-3. We went to the same restaurant and pancake stand two nights in a row. Marc enjoyed their Massaman curry and I tried their Penang curry and Tom Yam soup. This was another family-run business, and their three teenagers waited the tables. When I asked for the bathroom one of them led me outside and around the building, holding a light over his head to guide our path. Their bathroom was just a little wooden shed. The squat toilet was raised about a foot off the ground, so I didn’t really need to squat. There were two very large barrels in the shed full of water, a tiny sink, and a shower head. There wasn’t much room for a person as all this was crammed into a 20 square foot space. There was, however, room for about a dozen geckos and spiders!

We rented a scooter to cruise down the main strip looking for a place to stay. We stopped at a popular hostel that we heard about, but they were full. They sent us next door to Enjoy @ House (yes, that’s the name!), a small building that rented mountain bikes in the front and had three rooms to rent in the back. The rooms were just big enough to fit a full size bed and a mini fridge. It cost $12 and came with the most giggly, happy owner we have met thus far. Keam was probably in his late 20s, and he slept at this place, too, in an even smaller room. It was probably only the size of a twin size bed. He was so accommodating, but not to the point of being over the top. He thanked us constantly and added “kap” after all his statements, which in Thai is something to say at the end of a statement to show politeness.

Koh Lanta was one of those islands in which its beaches were lined with bar after bar. They all had groovy string lights, lanterns, and of course were pumping out Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. I swear we have heard “Shape of You” eight times a day. Every restaurant or establishment we go to we hear it at least once, sometimes back to back. “Despacito” is commonly played directly after “Shape of You.” I am very serious about this. It has happened at every single destination. As an aside, we’ve talked to other travelers about this pervasiveness and they have noticed it every where they go as well. It’s an interesting shared experience, from Indonesia to the highlands of Cambodia and now to the islands in Thailand – Ed is there.

We went to a body painting party at one of the bars on the beach. It had a good vibe and got really crowded by midnight with other backpackers sporting their pub crawl t-shirts from various Thailand locations. We danced on the sand and painted designs on our arms, but the music slowly turned into a 2011 frat party playlist which was a big turn off. I’m a bit of a music snob when it comes to dance parties. I need that house music.

There were many fire shows on the beach that night. A fire show, for the uninitiated, is either a local or a hippy twirling a stick with both ends lit on fire. We stepped out onto the cool sand and saw a show further down the beach. Distances along the beach are always hard to estimate – walking in the sand is hard work and things are further than they look. We walked for about 15 minutes to get there and once we did the show was over. The guy was taking a bow and drinking in that applause. We turned around to see a new fire show starting at the bar we left from. So, again we started back there only to have the show finishing up when we arrived! Of course, we looked back again and a new one started at the other end. It was pretty comical. We were done chasing fire shows so we ended up sitting outside one of the bars listening to some live reggae music. Reggae is popular everywhere we’ve been. There were also people setting up paper lanterns. We saw these at one other place on our trip and each time it is so mesmerizing to watch the lanterns float gracefully away until you can no longer see them.

We had a scooter during our time on Koh Lanta, so we were able to explore most of the island. The east side of the island had an interesting Sea Gypsy cemetery right on the coast. Every year locals would go to the cemetery to celebrate the lives lost with music and food, like a big party. While exploring the cemetery we could see all the dishes left behind from these parties. Each gravesite was a little shelter, and I assume multiple people were buried under each one. They were built out of tiles, each with a unique tile design. They were very pretty.

The beach at the cemetery was even prettier. We walked alongside the sea for a while admiring the red-toned rocks. As soon as we started walking among the rocks, Marc mentioned that the patters looked like wood grain. A few minutes later, I tried to break one and found out that they WERE actually petrified wood! Our minds were blown. We were instantly captivated -two children in a toy store. We spent over an hour there finding the coolest ones, breaking some of the pieces of wood in half to see the amazing patterns of color inside. It was absolutely incredible. We kept asking questions to each other that, of course, we couldn’t answer. How did these form!? Why this beach!? WHAT!?

I know some of these just look like rocks but you can break most of them with your hands to reveal the swirls and whorls of the wood grain.

There is an “Old Town” area on Koh Lanta right on the water. The houses and restaurants on the coast are up on stilts. At low tide you can walk underneath the buildings amongst the rocks and barnacles. There were a lot of crabs scrambling about. Some of the buildings were archaic looking and built from wood planks. Other houses were extremely modern. There was a lot of construction along the coast with groups of workers trying to preserve the older wooden stilt houses.

The day we explored Old Town, the entire island was without power. We had seen signs announcing the outage the previous day. It’s incredible that an entire island can go about as usual with no electricity. Hell would break loose if this happened in America. Most of the restaurants had signs out front stating they were closed and would reopen at 5 pm. One restaurant had a sign saying “We have a generator! Come eat here!” We found a stand on the street with a small burner stirring up Pad Thai. The dish was filled with these tiny, tiny shrimps with the shell still on. I picked the shell off the first one I ate, which pretty much mangled the entire shrimp. The rest of them I just ate whole. They were so tiny that the shell just made it a little more crunchy. I’m not sure if this was the correct way to eat them, but it’s how I managed.

There were a few caves on the island that we intended to explore, but once there the admission fee was too expensive. Plus they insisted you needed a guide. It can be frustrating exploring these islands when the sites are taken over and monetized. It doesn’t seem fair to charge over $10 for a 20-minute hike to a small cave. It’s more frustrating to have to contemplate these matters. As a long term traveler you can’t do every activity or the costs add up. So, we didn’t see any caves, but we did do a pleasant hike to a waterfall. It turns out there was a bat cave off of the trail we could go to, so we got to see a cave after all.

At the southern tip of Koh Lanta is a national park. It is very small with only a lighthouse, a beach, a 2 km hiking trail, and a restaurant. We got there early in the morning, so there was nobody on the beach posted up yet. This was a site I had yet to see in Thailand. It was gorgeous.

The lighthouse was perched on a little cliff you could hike out to. The drop off was sharp and fell to large jagged rocks. The 2 km hike through the jungle was calming. The trail was made out of tile and there were so many stairs. We went up and up and up, and I thought surely we had to be starting down soon. Then all of a sudden the trail was done and let us out onto the paved road outside of the park. Weird route. So we had to walk down the steep paved road to the entrance again. It struck us as strange that the one trail in the park was not a loop but a one way route out of the park.

Anyway, after the hike we enjoyed a refreshing swim in the ocean. By this time there were dozens of people around enjoying the afternoon on the beach. There were also dozens of monkey. Most of them hung out by the restaurant and bathrooms where a lot of people were. We could hear screams when monkeys got too close, and we could also see people feeding them food. Why do people do this? It creates pests!

As we were swimming, a woman stood from the shore and kindly notified us that a monkey was digging through our backpack on the beach. We scrambled out of the water and shooed the monkey away. They did little damage, but we quickly picked up our stuff. We thought it was a good time to have our picnic lunch since we were out of the water. Amateur mistake! We claimed a nearby beach picnic table and began taking out the ingredients to make sandwiches. The table was high so I couldn’t see the bench on the other side. I did see the same woman stare at me with a nervous frown and point at the table mouthing, “Monkey!” I looked back down at our food to see a monkey snatch our bag of cashews right under our nose! The monkey hopped to a tree and started snagging at the plastic. Marc shouted and stormed toward the monkey, spooking him and causing him to drop the bag as he ascended the tree. Victory! We decided to try a different spot away from the beach. Imbeciles! We never learn! I scooped up the bagged ingredients and started to retreat toward the picnic shelter off of the shore. I stopped for one second under a gazebo to look at a large lizard scaling the ceiling, and two monkeys came out of nowhere! They were big and started creeping toward me. I panicked. Marc was back at the other table repacking our bag. A local watched from a distance, clearly interested in how this tourist was going to fend off two huge monkeys with arms full of food. The monkeys crept closer. I screamed. They came closer. I screamed again! I had a water bottle in my hand. I started…barking? It’s surprisingly hard to sound cool when also fearing that you will soon be attacked by monkeys. Travel Tip: Practice your monkey/stray dog shout in private before setting out. This will save you embarrassment down the road. I squirted them with the water. They only retreated a little before starting toward me again. Faster this time! I barked some more! And then my husband showed up behind me with some kind of large acorn to throw at them! He lobbed three or four in their direction and they finally ran away and up some palm trees. The local came over to me and pointed at my food. No shit, Sherlock! Pouting, I stuffed the food back in our sack. Needless to say we didn’t have our romantic seaside picnic. The monkeys at the park were savages. Here is proof:

Photo credit: Marc!

Bonus! The largest spider I’ve seen indoors:

@ Enjoy @ House!!!

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