Following up from our 10 days of self-imposed exile and relaxation on the barely inhabited and outrageously lethargic Koh Siboya, we really ramped things up by heading to popular Koh Lanta. Despite still being considered far more laid-back and relaxed than the big boys of the Thai island scene such as Koh Samui and Phuket, Lanta has still transformed mightily over the past decade or so of its burgeoning popularity, or so we assume, this being our first visit. But it definitely boasts the ever so typically Thai island feature of numerous beautiful beaches running in a direct line down a single coastline, starting with what was originally the best and is now still picturesque but is now by far the most developed. Then as you make your way farther and farther down the plain, unattractive road lined with shops, restaurants, travel agencies, motorbike rentals, ATMs and gas “stations” selling overpriced fuel by the litre out of used rum bottles, the beaches get progressively less busy, less developed and, at least theoretically, more pristine. The system works great in many respects, allowing every tourist to evaluate the individual beaches and make an informed choice based on their level of interest, or lack thereof, in things such as untouched strips of sand, top-value happy hour specials, umbrella-shaded recliners, shoestring backpackers lounging on sarongs drinking giant bargain beers they acquired in bulk from the local shop, varieties of international-themed restaurants, loudly frolicking children or overweight women wedging their bikini bottoms deep into their ample ass cracks to ensure the most comprehensive tan possible. The one thing they all have in common being a flurry of phones and cameras around 6 when it’s time for a glimpse of the next incredible sunset, those on our beach tending to be a bit on the subdued side compared with some of the rowdy afternoon drunk crowds you sometimes see in places like this, giddy with booze, dehydration and sunstroke after having spent 4 hours lolling about in a couple feet of water guzzling cheaper beer and motionlessly peeing whenever the mood strikes.
We opted for Klong Khong, which is beach number 3 out of around 6 or so, which falls about halfway between cosmopolitan and “washed up on shore all by yourself, completely alone and disoriented with no idea where the rest of your booze-cruise catamaran disappeared to”. We splurged, relatively, for a little bungalow in Coco Lanta, a nice oceanfront place with a pool, good restaurant and favourable descriptions from fellow review-obsessed travellers. Other than it being clearly the go-to choice for every travelling family in desperate need of an enclosed swimming area for their rambunctious offspring, this place fit our “needs” perfectly. Leisurely walks on the beach early and late, shaded loungers on the beach, an infinity pool chlorinated to the point of curing leprosy, and a breakfast buffet unerringly highlighted by a large pan of greasy bacon. I even bought one of the on-site t-shirts and did my best to blend in with the staff all week. It helped, but I think the bright blue $6 shorts I bought in Bangkok still set me apart. That, and the fact that unlike any Thai person ever, male or female, I have body hair. And how. They also had an on-site dive shop, unfortunately slightly out of season at this time, and a large massage area where some of the guests seemed to spend the bulk of their days. I considered it but in the end opted for my usual alternative, vigorously rubbing my back against the nearest pole in a most elegant and provocative fashion.
The view was beautiful, especially at sunset, and while things still looked a little grim at low tide, a fairly common theme in these parts, it was possible to walk a long way in either direction which proved to be more than enough choice to keep our slowly idling minds occupied. Our most active day by far involved a rented a motorbike (or, more accurately, tiny pink moped with Hello Kitty stickers on it) and several hours of meandering the island where we learned that you can cross the entire thing in 15 minutes, that viewpoints on islands that reach a peak of 50 metres above sea level don’t amount to much, that the “old town” was unique mainly in its continuing commitment to wooden buildings built on stilts over the water (at high tide) and rank mud (at low tide), that east side Koh Lanta offers much more in terms of t-shirt shopping, and that Bamboo Bay, the farthest south of the beaches, is still a prototypical beach paradise with better swimming, actual waves, and just two inconspicuous hotels on a spectacular crescent of soft white sand hemmed in at either end by rugged, rocky hills.
We also learned that between 10 am and noon approximately every single tourist on Koh Lanta will also be cruising along one of the island’s two roads on motorbike, and that when women ride motorbikes at high speeds in thin beachwear their nipples come dangerously close to exploding. Male or female, most people wisely wore whimsically colourful helmets, the remaining few remaining helmet-free but frowning defiantly as proof of their courageous disdain for head injuries. You know what they say, there is nothing to fear but fear itself. Well, fear itself, and having a 1-ton truck loaded with cement for the latest hotel development hit you head-on and burst your head like an overripe coconut. So, really, it’s more like two things to fear.
Then, after 5 pleasant days on Koh Lanta, we travelled by ferry to Ao Nang, a popular beach town on the mainland just outside the area hub of Krabi. We were obviously just on the cusp of high season as you could almost feel the crowds growing by the day, nowhere more so than at the pier where hordes of surprisingly unattractive people poured off the incoming boats laden with enough luggage to tackle the Silk Road by shared taxi, their explicit beach-themed clothing and dogged looks clearly expressing their determination to spend the foreseeable future dangerously exposing their pale winter skin to the sun’s harsh tropical rays while remaining extraordinarily drunk throughout.
The couple-hour ferry ride was pretty scenic, passing by and among a number of limestone karsts and rocky islands. Ao Nang itself was another fairly typical beach town, with one long street running down to the beach, along the beach, then back up away from the beach on the other side, lined with basically all the same kinds of places you see on quieter islands like Koh Lanta, just more of them, plus sidewalks, banks and a McDonald’s. We stayed in another hotel that was far too extravagant for the price we paid – TV, A/C, balcony overlooking the pool, beach shuttle, stunning limestone cliffs looming over us like a Hollywood backdrop. The only downside was the Muslim neighbourhood, not because I have a problem with their religious beliefs or an unseemly attraction to girls in head scarves, but simply because I was no longer able to supplement my otherwise healthy breakfast with a slippery, delicious mound of bacon.
On the bright side, though, from a “borderline disgusting eating experiences that remind us of home” sort of way, was our discovery of Crazy Gringo’s Bar and Restaurant, where the food was so good we went there twice in three days, back to back chimichangas for Laynni, BBQ pork ribs for me the one time, the other the best burger I’ve had since summer, a giant cheeseburger that arrived slathered in Jack Daniels BBQ sauce and lewdly impaled with a huge syringe of ketchup. I don’t want to say it was heaven, exactly, but I did say “Oh god” a few times.
Despite the double draws of great food and readily accessible pool loungers, we did partake of a couple small excursions. The first to Railay Beach, occasionally described as the nicest beach in the world, although we didn’t necessarily agree with that statement the first time we visited way back in 2001 and, based on everything I’ve already said about the evolution of Thai beaches, we certainly weren’t expecting massively positive changes since that time. However, we were mildly surprised to see it still basically intact, with no spate of new or outrageously huge developments. Granted, the sand, while still fine and white, seems much thinner than it should be (Climate and tide changes? Or if we looked closely would we find some really high quality cement nearby?), and the path running between Railay West and Railay East is now completely lined with shops and bars (roughly 14 years’ worth), wonderfully including the one thing they had really been lacking during our last visit – a fully service gun range. It’s about time. But other than those small changes it still looks pretty much the same – beautiful crescent of sand, luminescent green water, surrounded by spectacular limestone karsts and riddled with day-tripping tourists (i.e. yours truly), who come by obnoxious long-tail boats to spend the day downing overpriced alcohol and fruit shakes while indecisively shifting back and forth between the sun and shade.
We also spent a morning on a group kayaking trip in nearby Tha Lane Bay, where us and 18 of our newest acquaintances paddled through the bay and into an imposing narrow opening in the rock wall, then on down a small river hemmed in by dramatic cliffs on either side, eventually breaking free into the calm, peaceful mangroves. Of course, our group was not necessarily comprised of the most experienced kayakers you’d ever seen, actually most appeared to be seeing kayaks in person for the very first time, and seeming both baffled and strangely irritated by the oddly asymmetrical shape of the paddles. By the time we reached the canyon Laynni and I had learned to keep a wide berth from the many erratic kayaks routinely crashing into sandbars, trees, rocks and, most of all, each other. It was a lesson which served us well through the several confined bottleneck areas that were to come, sitting safely back as 9 kayaks frantically jockeyed to squeeze through a space made for two, or possibly just one if it happened to feature paddles brandished wildly akimbo like they were being used to fend off a colony of angry wasps. Scenic and funny, that’s what that trip was.
Then there was the pool, and more good food, then the mental and emotional preparation required to forgo the pleasant comfort and incredible value of Thailand in favour of some highlight-hopping in their controversial neighbour, Myanmar. We embarked with a hint of sadness, but the heady expectation of beautiful ancient sites, a strange and unique culture, a precarious political climate and, according to most of those who had gone before us, “hotels that cost twice as much and are only half as good”. Compared to Thailand, presumably, rather than, say, a tent in Bhutan, or your wife’s brother’s pullout couch. I guess we’ll know soon enough…