Ko Lanta, Andaman Islands, Thailand

lanta marina 2Thailand went from a wisp of an idea to a sharp hit of hot air upon entry at Krabi Airport. I love a place that seems exotic in every respect, reminding me every minute I’m not at home through smell, sight and a general sense of unfamiliarity. But I thrive in the heat, and I happily stripped off layers, anticipating sea breezes and cold drinks. My boyfriend and I boarded a bus for Krabi town, then joined a haphazard line of other dazed travelers waiting for a shuttle van that would take us to the pier.

The cold drinks were a bit further in our future than we would have liked. We had to take one more shuttle and two ferry rides to reach our Andaman Island of choice, Ko Lanta. That was before I learned that everything in Thailand takes longer than expected. The Thais are in no rush, and neither should we be. If your shuttle driver feels like stopping for take-out food, you’ll catch another ferry after the one he was aiming to make. If you have to wait an hour for that next ferry at the pier, you’ll while away an hour watching feral cats play. The sooner I let go of the idea of a timetable, the happier I was.

Porch life at Lanta Marina

Porch life at Lanta Marina

Long Beach (Phra Ae Beach) stretches most of the way down the west coast of Ko Lanta (Lanta Island). It is about a ten-minute ride by van or tuk-tuk from Saladan port. All the way down at the south end of the beach is the very best place we stayed: Lanta Marina Resort. A simple thatched-roof beach bungalow quickly felt like home.

We spent halycon days soaking in the Andaman Sea and drying on the hot sand. We ate fresh curries at restaurants on the beach at sunset. The same old sun we see every day all over the world draws worshipful devotees as it descends into the sea here. We turned to face it each day – on our towels, at our restaurant tables, on the massage platforms, on yoga mats – watching it slowly swell, redden, and disappear below the horizon.

beach barThere are rocks in the water at this southernmost tip of Long Beach, which isolate it a bit. This made it feel wonderfully special as compared to the rest of the beach, which gets a lot of (bare)foot traffic. It does mean that you’d have to swim past them to access the rest of the beach (we didn’t find the need), or don some rugged shoes to cross them at low tide, or walk north inland a few hundred yards.

Cheap massages (about $5) are available up and down the beach, but the first one I found was right “next door”. After an hour stretched on the open-air platform, I floated to my feet and joined my boyfriend on a cushion 30 paces south-west at the beach bar,  to worship the latest miraculous sunset.

Beach platform: yoga by day, restaurant by night

Beach platform: yoga by day, restaurant by night

Near the north end of Long Beach is Blue Sky Resort. For our second stay on Ko Lanta we hadn’t pre-booked, and the online rumors are true: you can just rock up and find a place to stay for $15 to $25 a night. We found another idyllic beach bungalow with little effort, and booked the last available air-conditioned hut. Two short rows of huts were divided by a sand path leading 100 yards directly to the beach. An AC unit wasn’t a requirement for us, but I can’t imagine our time there without it now; my stomach reacted badly to a benign-looking mango lassi, and I spent an evening dragging myself from toilet to cool bed.

sunset rebirthjpgThe next morning I felt much improved, and by sundown felt well enough to take a barefoot run along the beach. The foamy surf marked my finish line, and I plunged in gratefully to float,  pant, and feel my muscles let go. The sky had turned this little world pink and perfect, and I felt a small but essential part of it.

We began to wear less and less as the week went on, due to minor sunburn and the sweaty discomfort of fabric, and the mere realization that it’s pointless to wear clothes when you are in the ocean 75% of the day. Shoes are actually discouraged indoors, and we quickly learned to leave them outside when entering the small market in our “neighborhood”.

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I think the only other place I’ve ever found too hot to drink alcohol in daylight was Palm Springs, California. The pro of such a con is that you can stay hydrated, if you’re conscientious, and not pass out before nightfall. Our nightlife was mellow but just stimulating enough on this north end of the beach. The beachfront bar-clubs have DJs and colorful cocktails that could make a supreme vacation night out, but you can opt to walk the beach or lie in your front porch hammock; the sounds of revellers are barely audible as the waves make their foamy ascent and descent. We passed hours sitting and sipping beers, idly listening to the many languages of our beach hut neighbors whispered from other front porches.

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Blue Sky Resort entrance

This area is primarily jungle and wetlands cut back for the beachside resorts. Behind those is a network of dirt roads and small tin-roofed establishments – bike and scooter rentals, ice-cream stands, shops with beach toys and sun lotion.

If you want more life, you can hire a tuk-tuk or ride a bicycle to the port town of Saladan. We chose sea life over human, and booked a day snorkeling trip through one of the small shops on the beach. A large speedboat picked us up the next morning and we set sail for Koh Rok. Along the way there were two places we stopped to anchor and snorkel. Brilliantly colored anenome and fish loitered near the rocks of passing islands. Sunlight filtered through the water and reflected off technicolor fins. The journey was turning out to seem better than the destination, except for the life we found on Ko Rok.

IMG_1666Our crew parked the boat on the island’s south shore and set about making a fire for our lunch. The island is home to monitor lizards, which no one told us about beforehand but you can easily Google and watch amusing encounters on YouTube. Two of them lazily approached our group and hung at the outskirts, flicking their forked tongues. Our crew warned us not to get close, as their tails can cause serious damage when used as a whip. But they don’t seem to pose much of a threat, considering a public campsite is in their backyard and boatloads of people visit this shore all day. After lunch we spent a blissful hour walking the long expanse of white beach and napping in the shade.

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What sets Ko Lanta apart from other Andaman Islands is its perfect symbiosis of activity and tranquility. We wanted peacefulness and privacy, but also a meal and a cocktail each evening. We wanted to buy beach balls and towels, without tons of shops and customers. We wanted to live sparsely but still be able to shower. Here we could pamper ourselves without luxury. Most importantly, we found pockets of solitude to remind ourselves what a very special time and place this will always be.

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REMEMBER:

  • SPF 30 sunscreen for sun-up, Jungle Formula insect repellant for sun-down
  • Cash machines aren’t everywhere; take advantage when you see one
  • Remove your shoes before entering a business or home

FORGET:

  • Packing anything more than essential clothing; you’ll hardly wear it
  • Drinking the water, and don’t eat ice, salads or raw fruit unless it can be peeled
  • Blowing your nose in public; it’s rude

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society

Phuket and Khao Sok, Thailand

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Khao Sok jungle. But first, Phuket…

The guidebooks said nothing about techno tuk-tuks. Our driver zipped us through the busy roads of Phuket’s main city, away from the airport, and headed to the west coast of the island. This tuk-tuk, dubbed “Tiger Kingdom”, was operated by a man who regarded booming bass and heavy synths as essential to transit and he made me a believer. We flew past families on scooters, trucks, and other tuk-tuks with staring passengers, our soundtrack a blaring beat-riddled “Mr. Sandman” (if you can possibly imagine).

IMG_1535Phuket struck me as crowded and a bit dirty, but people rave about the raves, and the beach resorts. My boyfriend and I weren’t up for its iconic full-moon parties, but this Andaman Island was on our way to the Thai jungle, further north, and we were ready for some some nice cocktails and good food. I figured Phuket must have earned its reputation with more than pills and parties. I was half-right.

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Kata Garden Resort

After the hot tuk-tuk journey we dragged our bags down a main beachside road that featured expensive hotels and zero character. It took us close to an hour to find a cool restaurant to sit down in and recharge, coming up short in the search for a room for the night. The beach hut we left behind in Ko Lanta was seeming more and more like a dream. We eventually only slumped into the restaurant to avoid heatstroke and reconsider our options. I used the free wifi to find a decently priced hotel up the road, and after some icy drinks we hopped into an oddly silent tuk-tuk and rode up to the Kata Garden Resort.

The grounds were lush with tropical flowers, a big, beautiful swimming pool and curving wooden stairs that climbed far up a hillside to our room. After a rest we set out on a short walk down to Kata Yai Beach. The journey was lined with cheap touristy shops and sidewalks crowded with Westerners. The beach-goers were beginning to thin out when we arrived and the sun began to set. We bought beers from a stand and settled onto plastic loungers to pay tribute. What followed ended up being the most incredible sunset I have ever witnessed. Just to our left were about a hundred people packing up their towels and throwing out their trash, and here was the Sun, easing its way down between the coast and a small island, beyond long-tail boats that had docked for the night.

phuket sunsetAt dusk we walked south, all the way to the end of the beach, and ate lobster at a restaurant perched on a seaside cliff. It was a perfect, tranquil evening in a place that seemed otherwise hectic, touristy and overpriced. Upon returning to our hotel, a live band was playing in the restaurant. We lingered to listen, dangling our feet in a small pool off the lobby, savoring the warm night.

The next morning we ordered a tuk-tuk and headed for the bus station, bound for the jungle. Our bus followed the coastline north for about an hour before veering inland, up heavily forested mountain roads. It was a fast and comfortable way to travel, and we slowed only to allow some passengers off and to make way for an elephant and his leader.

The Khao Sok National Park area is pretty vast, and it’s not even necessary to enter the park proper to enjoy this beautiful region. We had pre-booked accommodations, but our shuttle from the bus stop outside the park passed several good options. Ours was a treehouse at My Jungle House, a wood shack built into a tree beside a quiet river with hanging rope swings.

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I was looking forward to the canoe tour we booked, as well as evenings in the open-air treehouse bar and meals below on the veranda, but I won’t lie: my primary interest was monkeys. I’d never seen one outside a zoo, and my research told me this jungle was filled with gibbons and spectacled langurs. I was green with envy overhearing some guests talking about monkeys breaking into their treehouse while they were out, stealing food and vandalising their belongings. “What’s mine is yours, comrades,” I thought. “Just show yourselves.”

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Monkeys?

A crudely drawn map led us on a nature trail around the resort’s property. Faint wooden markers were nailed to trees to guide us, and the map pointed out semi-obvious landmarks like “giant banana tree”. Just when we suspected we were lost, and no monkeys in sight, the boyfriend walked into an enormous spider web. Gasping, he broke free by lunging backward as the occupant scuttered up the web and froze, awaiting our next move. Mine was towards the camera. Richard’s was to dance around in horror, brushing imaginary web filaments off him and yelling. We ended up having to dash underneath the web, as it stretched entirely over our path, and the spider seemed nonplussed. Back at the resort, they told us it was a golden orb web spider; large, but harmless to humans as its hooked appendages can’t penetrate human skin.

Monkeys!

Monkeys!

The next morning I got what I was waiting for. I heard a noise at dawn and crept out to our deck to watch a band of marauding monkeys descend on our neighbors’ deck. They loped and swung in from various angles, checking the locked door and sniffing around before moving on through the treetops, looking for another target to hit. I was thrilled, and was rewarded again later, when we went swimming down the river and walked home down a dirt road canopied by trees and swinging monkeys.

Thailand let me live out an adventurous fantasy in Khao Sok, after days of living out a peaceful beach fantasy. Not since Hawaii have I been in a place so like paradise. Only on this side of the world, paradise is dirt cheap and decidedly un-American.

 


REMEMBER:

  • Pre-booking accommodations seems a good idea on Phuket
  • Long pants and sleeves are best for jungle walks, to avoid bugs and plants
  • Take a flashlight if you’re staying in the jungle

 FORGET:

  • Beautiful accommodations are not dirt cheap in Phuket; you can pay quite a bit if you’re not careful

Help me fight Alzheimer’s for my mother: donate in the US: Alzheimer’s Association; in the UK: Alzheimer’s Society