Expat Living reader Carolyn Beasley rediscovers the appeal of Thailand’s Koh Lanta after more than a decade away from the holiday destination, this time with her family in tow.
There’s something about Koh Lanta that really grabs me. Its name means “dazzling island”, and the hat certainly fits. The combination of shimmering water under spectacular sunsets, the laid-back atmosphere created by the helpful locals and the family-friendly activities make it a perfect short break from Singapore.
In a distant previous life, my husband Pat and I lived in Thailand and briefly visited Koh Lanta. Thirteen years later, while looking for an accessible, cheap and relaxing beach getaway for our family (three children, nine, seven and three), we came across Koh Lanta again. We were interested to see how it might have changed.
Landing at Krabi airport, I rated our chances of a successful airport-hotel transfer at about 50/50. Sure enough, no driver with the name sign “Carolyn” was in sight, though we eventually spotted one with a sign reading “Cirnlgn”. (I guess that’s me!) Two car ferries and two hours later we were at Lanta Riviera Resort, a hotel on beautiful Klong Khong Beach on Koh Lanta’s west coast.
On arrival, we were greeted by one of Koh Lanta’s famous sunsets overlooking the Phi Phi Islands and several other rocky outcrops soaring skywards from the Andaman Sea. Sitting on floor cushions with low tables on the rustic decking of the hotel bar, we couldn’t have been happier. The kids pottered around on the beach collecting shells and ocean-polished glass, and the Chang beer was icy cold. It was the perfect welcome back.
The beach is gently sloping and the shallow water is ideal for kids to swim safely. There are no currents and no waves. The water and the sand are clean and the rubbish that is evident on many beaches in the region is almost absent.
Although there are a lot of hotels and bungalows here, the place never feels crowded. The accommodation is spread out along the entire 30 kilometre length of the island, ranging from five-star resorts to simple, woven-walled bungalows. There’s no noisy party scene, so it’s perfect for families.
Lanta Riviera Resort is right on the beach and has a simple open-air restaurant, bar and pool. Our “interconnecting Deluxe Bungalows” turned out not to be interconnecting, but rather adjacent to each other. It’s common at these inexpensive (rooms from S$20) island bungalow places for a couple of things to go wrong with the booking or check-in procedure, so we were determined not to let this ruin a great holiday, and reminded ourselves to manage our expectations! Halfway through our stay, the problem was fixed and we enjoyed our interconnectivity.
The Deluxe Bungalows were big by Thai standards, with a king-sized bed, and they were spotlessly clean. The room rate included a sizeable fresh breakfast, which we thought made it great value.
Of course, in a low-key bungalow resort there’s not a Kids’ Club in sight. Instead, the children entertained themselves skimming flat coral across the water while Pat and I tag-teamed at the beachfront Thai massage gazebo. A beach tennis game purchased at the local mini-mart also entertained the family and some local kids for a good part of the day. A pool is always a big hit, too, and the kids put the hotel’s pool through its paces, especially at low tide when the exposed rocks made it harder to access the ocean.
For each lunch and dinner we were able to stroll up the beach to a new restaurant, and eat at bamboo tables on the sand. The kids were delighted to play on the beach while they waited for their fruit shakes, fried rice or noodles. Like almost everywhere in Thailand, the food varies from great to absolutely amazing, so there was never a risk of making a dud restaurant choice.
Snorkelling is one of our favourite activities. But with three kids in tow, the all-day, four-island speedboat tour sounded a bit ambitious. What I wanted was a one-island tour. With much enthusiasm, our breakfast waiter Khun Yob declared he could organise such a trip and asked us to meet him when he finished his shift. Sure enough, he arranged a motorbike-sidecar taxi, the main transport on the island. The five of us piled in and he rode the bike through villages, over a mountain and down past the viewpoints to the other side of the island.
From there, our own private longtail boat cruised out through channels of serene, bird-filled mangrove forest and into the sea that separates Koh Lanta from the Thai mainland. The short journey took us past several other islands and gave us a view of the sea gypsy villages in the distance.
Our destination, Koh Bu Bu, had exquisite white sand and a tangle of tropical jungle. While the snorkelling wasn’t great, due to poor visibility, it was a treat just to swim and hang out on the almost-deserted beach.
Exploring by car
Many people on Koh Lanta choose to hire motorbikes. With a strong desire to preserve the lives of our three children, we thought we would try the safer option of a car. Meandering to the southern tip of the island, we marvelled at the stunning coastline while sticky-beaking at the other villages and resorts along the way.
At the southern tip of the island, we visited the beautiful national park and took a hilly two-kilometre hike through pristine jungle. Our youngest elected the piggyback option, but the other kids relished the challenging haul. After this sweat-fest we needed a swim, so on a recommendation from our car hirer, we stopped for lunch and beach time at picture-perfect Kantiang Bay. The restaurant Same Same But Different is set in an idyllic jungle garden right on the beach. The food and coffee was delicious – and, as the name suggests, slightly different!
On continuing to Lanta Old Town, we were surprised by the charm of the place. Original Chinese-style pole houses built over the water have been preserved and converted into accommodation and restaurants. Here we wandered up the street and bought some souvenirs, many of them handmade.
It’s a devastatingly early time to leave, 6.30am, but it gave us the chance to witness the quiet, subtle spectacle of sunrise reflecting off the Koh Lanta channel, with the limestone karst formations of the Krabi countryside in the background. Muslim schoolgirls rode the car ferry with us, making their daily trek across to the mainland, and while villagers began their work for the day, we slid past in our private mini-van with leather interior. If we have to leave, we may as well depart in style!
Koh Lanta hadn’t changed. Its true there are more hotels, but the relaxed vibe is the same: no one on the beach to sell us things we didn’t want, no loud parties and none of the sleazier side of tourism. We adored our short time on the island, experiencing a great mix of soft adventure and true relaxation. The feeling of sitting with my feet in the sand, watching the kids play on the beach while someone cooked me a fantastic meal was priceless, despite being so affordable.
I feel lucky to be living in Singapore for many reasons, one of them being that I’ll definitely be popping back to Koh Lanta again soon.
Make it happen
Tigerair and AirAsia both fly direct from Singapore to Krabi, from where you take a 70km drive-and-ferry connection to Koh Lanta.
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