Southern Thailand is a sun-drenched paradise. It’s also a morass of disrespectful backpackers, sullen locals, and sex tourism. And yet, it is quickly becoming one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world, drawing pilgrims by the tens of thousands with Instagram-worth beaches, mouth-watering food (literally!), and budget-friendly prices.
So what’s a person to do, if they want to sip margaritas on a Thai beach without suffering all the above, or being harassed by touts every two seconds? Go to Koh Lanta, of course.
Koh Lanta is a medium-sized island in the Andaman sea, located very close to the Thai mainland in Krabi province. It’s just a short boat ride away from the famous, but overcrowded, Koh Phi Phi. Some of the best scuba dive sites in the Andaman Sea are accessible from Koh Lanta. And best of all: the place still has a low-key, quiet vibe.
You will certainly see some backpackers, but the place isn’t overrun with the hordes of partiers like Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi are. A single two-lane road circles the island, and most of the route is rural, undeveloped jungle.
It’s a relaxing, authentic spot for a holiday.
(If you are curious about the digital nomad aspect of Koh Lanta island, my other post goes into more detail. This one is for general travelers).
So what is there to do in Koh Lanta?
Learn to drive a scooter
Our first scooter in Southeast Asia.
Take advantage of that deserted two-lane road to learn how to drive a scooter safely.
Motorbikes, or scooters, are the preferred method of transport throughout most of Southeast Asia. If you are comfortable driving one, a whole new world of experience opens up to you. You can scooter the length of Vietnam. Or take a weekend trip out of Chiang Mai to go see the Golden Triangle, where the borders of Thailand, Laos, and Burma converge. Heck, drive to the grocery store. Whatever it is, if you know how to drive a scooter, you never need to charter a tuk-tuk again.
Koh Lanta is a perfect place to learn to drive a scooter. It’s where I learned, and now I can confidently drive one in city traffic. Koh Lanta’s one road is (relatively) well-maintained, and traffic is light. There are a million places around the island which will happily rent you a scooter and give you a quick lesson on how to operate it. Gas is abundant and cheap.
You can take it out for a quick spin in the parking lot, learn the basics of balance and turning, and when you feel comfortable, try it out on the main road. Renting scooters is a perfectly legitimate business in Thailand, and it’s expected to see tourists on the roads. Some people report that Thai police have pulled them over and ask for bribes, but we didn’t experience this. In fact, once, we were even waved through a checkpoint they had set up without so much as a word. YMMV, but worst case scenario, pay the guy his bribe and be on your way. It’s unlikely to cost you more than a few USD.
Can I drive a scooter in Thailand without a motorcycle license?
Yes. This is a huge industry in Thailand and no one cares if you have a license or know how to drive. This is a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it’s no hassle at all to get a rental: paperwork? Insurance? Liability? These words mean nothing to the Thais. On the other hand, it means there are potentially a lot of very inexperienced drivers sharing the road with you. The plethora of travelers sporting scraped knees, crutches, or arm slings around Koh Lanta attests to this.
Luckily, the hospitals are well-equipped for such incidents. The downside is, if you don’t have your motorcycle license, your travel insurance and/or health insurance is unlikely to cover your medical costs. However, these are usually low and easy to pay out of pocket, for most injuries.
Final word: pay attention to the road, go slow at first, and ease yourself into scooter driving by learning somewhere quiet and remote, like Koh Lanta. Don’t try and learn in a big chaotic city like Chiang Mai, Saigon, or Ubud. You’ll save yourself a lot of stress.
Hit the beach!
You didn’t come to a tropical island to waste away inside all day, did you?? Lanta’s got some great beaches: big ones, along the tourist strips, but also smaller, hidden ones only accessible by motorbike or hiking through the jungle. A bit of local knowledge will go a long way here, as will an adventurous spirit. I’m not giving up any secrets here on the Internet, but asking around once you’re on the island will usually yield some local beta.
Lanta’s beaches are pretty tame, as far as waves go. You won’t find anyone surfing here. The tides are pretty easy and manageable, since Lanta’s located in the protected bay of the Andaman sea.
The beaches are a great place to lay out, enjoy some sun, and splash in the water. Unlike more popular beaches in Thailand, you won’t find many touts here. I don’t know about you, but it always helps my relaxation when I don’t have to turn down a sarong or sunglasses every three minutes.
If sand’s not really your thing, you can get a Thai massage at several locations on the beach, so you can listen to the surf while some lady literally stomps on your back. (Thai massage is PAINFUL— But mostly good pain.) Expect to pay $10-$15 for an hour, on the beach. If you go in town, it can be a little less.
Finally, all beaches on Lanta face West, so they’re a great spot to hang out and watch the sun set over the sea. Almost all the bars offer a 2-for-1 sunset deal. The drinks in Koh Lanta tend to be super watery, so this isn’t necessarily the greatest deal, but it’s still nice to kick back with a cocktail (or a Chang) and watch the sun go down.
All beers in Thailand are named after animals.
Although Lanta’s not a huge party destination, it does have some modest nightlife. Beer is cheap, but not as cheap as in Chiang Mai. Expect to pay around 40 baht for a small Chang— about $1.10, give or take. You can buy a BIG Chang for that price in Chiang Mai, but Chiang Mai doesn’t have any beaches. Cocktails and imported beers are considerably pricier— 100 baht ($2.50-3) or more, in many cases. Expect the cocktails to be severely watered down.
There is a rotating party which moves around the island— it’s held at a different bar each night. This means if you want to party, you always have a destination. Which saves you from hanging out in deserted bars with Thai prostitutes. Unless you’re into that sort of thing, in which case you can it find in certain spots of Lanta. Sex tourism’s not my thing, so I can’t really comment.
Several outfits offer Scuba certification courses and trips, although they are quite expensive. A basic PADI certification course on Lanta runs from 12,000 baht to 16,000 baht ($330-$450). The host at our guesthouse was an avid scuba diver himself, and he recommended we take both the basic and deep water courses, if we really wanted to hit the best spots. This would have taken the costs up to at least 25,000 baht ($700), so we passed.
Still, the scuba shops around the island were tempting enough for us to seriously consider it. Had we had enough money, I still think it would have been a fun thing to do.
If learning to Scuba Dive is one of your main reasons for coming to Thailand, you can take a similar PADI course on Koh Tao for 7000 baht, about half the price of those offered on Lanta. However, those courses are considerably more crowded, meaning you may not receive as personalized of instruction. Still, for a 50 percent savings, I know where I will go if I want to learn in the future!
Lanta’s a great destination for snorkeling: both organized trips and just off-the-coast exploring. We bought a pair of snorkels, which was probably a poor decision, since we didn’t use them too often. Renting a snorkel or borrowing one from your accommodation is probably the best way to go.
A snorkel trip can be joined for $15-$30 per person, which covers your whole day: pickup at your accommodation, transport to the pier, a spot on a longtail boat, use of snorkel gear, and food.
Again, don’t expect any waivers or instruction here: snorkel, mask, jump on in! The guys who run these tours are very strong swimmers and would probably be capable of rescuing you if you were visibly drowning, but I wouldn’t test it. I’m not a super-confident swimmer and I was fine, albeit a little stressed at points.
We took the “4 island tour,” which involved a boat ride to two clear-water snorkeling spots, a swim through a tidal cave to a hidden beach inside of an island (think The Beach), and lunch on a different beach, on a different island. Not too shabby.
The engine on a longtail boat. The engine is connected to a propellor on the end of that long beam. The pilot steers the ship by moving this “long tail” back and forth
Our boat actually broke down at the second snorkeling spot (courtesy of this ^ rusty old engine). One of our guides jumped off and SWAM at least a mile to get help (this same guy was catching fish with his bare hands during our tour— quite a sight). A second longtail was over to assist within 15 minutes, and the practiced seamen had our engine up and running again within another 10.
Not a swimmer? Just take a boat trip!
Cruising around the Andaman Sea in a boat is a fantastic way to spend a day. Huge, sheer rock faces climb out of the sea at almost every turn. As a rock climber, the area ignited my imagination in so many ways. The climbing here would be incredible. You can also just take a boat tour, if you want to see the sights but don’t fancy snorkeling. Just ask any of the tour operators; they’ve got quite a few options, including a visit to the photogenic spots of Koh Phi Phi or James Bond Island, a jutting spire which was featured in The Man With the Golden Gun.
So there you have it: six things to do in Koh Lanta, Thailand!
James Bond Island
There’s much more certainly (the mangrove forest
is worth a visit), but some of the fun of visiting a place is discovering things for yourself.