Aug 6, 2019
Koh Lanta conjures memories of blissful days on the beach, drinking beer in sling chairs and cruising the coast in a chartered longtail. A few years ago, just getting there involved two long waits for ferries, but the world is catching on and catching up to this tropical idyll.
Foreigners now outnumber locals on Koh Lanta Yai’s Khlong Dao—a strip lined with small- to medium-size resorts, tourist restaurants and beach bars—so that, although it never feels crowded, even in high season, you’re not really going to have much of a “Thai” experience here. But when the sand twinkles and the sky runs clear blue to the horizon, nothing else matters. It’s the same most of the way down Koh Lanta’s west coast, with another nine or 10 eye-popping beaches making you feel like a privileged castaway.
An early flag-planter on these shores was the luxe and still very much of-the-place Pimalai Resort & Spa (doubles from Bt7,300). Built discreetly amid native cashew trees on a hillside overlooking striking Kantiang Bay, the venerable 18-year-old resort offers huge, contemporary Thai-style rooms, suites and villas, along with an award-winning jungle spa, two large swimming pools, a dive center and three world-class restaurants. The massive hillside pool villas offer separate living and sleeping quarters, decorated throughout with contemporary Thai art. But whenever I visit, I spend most of my time sprawled on a shaded day-bed between the two, rolling in and out of the splash pool.
On my most recent trip, I wanted a change of pace, so I took a beautiful 25-minute drive from Pimalai across the sparsely inhabited center of the island to Koh Lanta’s lesser-known east coast. Popular myth holds that the island closes down from May to October because it’s deluged by torrential rain from the monsoon. Yes, it’s wetter during the low season, but there’s also plenty of splendid weather, too: in my five days, it rained for less than an hour. In fact, Lanta’s east coast fares better than the rest of the island during the monsoon, which comes off the sea from the southwest. A rain shadow is especially apparent in the island’s southeast corner, which houses Old Town, an all-but-forgotten port. Back when fishing boats and small trading ships from around Asia and the Middle East sailed their way along the Andaman coast from Singapore to Moulmein in the Gulf of Martaban, the sheltered bay here offered the safest mooring.
Nomadic seafaring Urak Lawoi, so-called “sea gypsies,” frequented the bay at least 500 years ago, followed 300 years later by Malay fishermen and Chinese traders, who established a village along the seafront. For most of the 20th century, the village served as Koh Lanta Yai’s district capital. Before backpackers discovered Lanta in the mid-80s, the only way to reach the island was via a slow passenger ferry from Bo Muang pier on the mainland to the long pier here. The town languished in the shadow of its own history once ferry services, and the district capital, moved to Koh Lanta Noi up north in the late 90s. But in the last few years, Old Town has awakened from its slumber, with a renewed attention from tourists drawn to its rustic local charm. “Thai” experiences abound.
Arriving in late afternoon, I park on Old Town’s main street to admire the dozens of baan yao along the waterfront. Thai for “long house,” baan yao refers to the local style of linking several houses together over the sea on narrow wooden piers that can be extended further over the tides for each additional structure. On the inland side of the street, more common wooden shophouses are built in “howling dog” form with roofs sloping from front to back. Among these stands Sam Kong Ong, a dusty red-painted Hokkien temple dedicated to Chinese sea gods.
Every year more visitors arrive looking to spend a few days or weeks in Old Town, exchanging proximity to a beach for mingling with the well-integrated community of Thai Chinese, Thai Muslims and Urak Lawoi, eating fresh seafood, and just generally enjoying a spot relatively unspoiled by mass tourism.
My base for exploring is Muchu House (rooms from US$16), a fisherman-style longhouse converted into overnight guest accommodation by Dutchwoman Maayan and her Thai husband, Mon. The old pier supports two large rooms, each with its own rustic bathroom, plus a simple open-air kitchen between the two, and a spacious sea-facing verandah furnished with a pair of well-positioned hammocks blowing in the breeze. The views of nearby islands are stupendous, and each night I’m lulled to sleep by the sound of waves lapping below.
There is no beach here, and the bay’s ebb-and-flow exposes gray tidal flats for several hours a day. But steep, forested peaks rising immediately to the west complete a mountain-to-ocean perspective that makes up for the lack of seashore. Besides, opposite Old Town there’s Koh Por, a 15-minute longtail boat ride away (Bt300 per person). Dotted with deserted stretches of pearlescent sand, the island also has a small village, a school, and thousands of coconut palms.
Maayan speaks of the evolution of Old Town from a day-trip to an overnight destination. “When I first visited in 2011, it was as a tourist, walking through the little shopping street, eating fresh seafood and enjoying the gorgeous views,” she says. The couple bought a small fisherman’s home in 2012. “It was a real shack,” she recalls, “It was more like camping, but it was amazing to be right over the water like that, with a perfect view.”
Anticipating demand for homestays, the couple opened other spots in around town, including Wooda House, a more upscale two-story pier home with polished-wood furniture and a large deck, and Sweet Life Community guest house, with seven rooms, including two that have air-con and private balconies.
For me, the highlight of the week is the Sunday community market (Old Town Pier Road; open 7 a.m. to noon). Locals turn out in droves to buy barbecued snacks, fish delivered fresh from local boats, Malay cotton sarongs, and intense southern-Thai curry pastes. Another feel-good shopping stop is Hammock House, which sells sturdy, beautiful hammocks handwoven by the Mlabri, a small, enigmatic tribe in northern Thailand who lived as hunter-gatherers until 50 or 60 years ago.
Along the main street, a handful of family-run restaurants, most with open-air seating on wooden piers over the sea, cook up everything from southern-style seafood to pizza. For local fare such as kung phat sataw—a spicy stir-fry of prawns and a strong-smelling local bean—a favorite is Pinto (66-85/883-4049; dishes from Bt180), a narrow longhouse decked out in blue paint and decorated with ceramic-coated metal pinto, multi-layered Thai tiffins. I also enjoy the delicious heirloom curry recipes maintained by Muslim grannies at Old Town Seafood (66-85/ 448-4032; dishes from Bt150), adjacent to the main pier. Visitors can learn to prepare delicious southern Thai recipes on their own at Cooking with Mon (Bt1,600 per person), an open-air, hands-on cooking school that, no doubt, will help create a few new memories.