Koh Lanta – A Travelogue By Punam Mohandas
I’ve got the Swedish Katja to thank for making it to Koh Lanta. Katja and I linked up on a trip to Cambodia; she had just finished the Thai leg of her Asian trip and couldn’t stop raving about Koh Lanta. Until then, I’d never even heard of the ruddy place. She bugged me till I agreed to do a Google search at least on it, and assured me I wouldn’t regret a visit.
So. Said Google search duly undertaken, I found Koh Lanta isn’t too far away from Koh Krabi, which was one of the places on my radar anyway. Seeing as how it all seemed to fit together quite seamlessly, Koh Lanta went down on my must-do itinerary and well, that was that.
I’ve already written about Khun Chhu and getting my Buddhist tattoo the previous night in Krabi. It really does look jolly good in the morning light and I’m immensely proud of myself as I climb into the songtaew that’s come for my pier pick-up to Koh Lanta. There’s a lanky girl with a mop of curly hair sitting on one of the benches and a Swedish couple on the other. I do the introductions all around; the girl is Amel, a Dutch of Moroccan descent, vivacious and intensely curious about the tattoo, whereas the Swedes take one look at my clingfilmed arm and treat me as though I had a communicable disease and smelt, besides! To be fair, that’s the missus; the husband gives apologetic shrugs ever so often! Huh. Makes no never mind. I’m off to see yet another island and not about to let some sourpuss rain on my parade.
We are deposited at this ticket agent’s place at Krabi town where we are to wait for other travellers to arrive from their destinations. Since I don’t have a hotel booked yet, I get chatting to the agent. Frankly, none of the room pix in his album look too appealing however, he’s nice enough to offer me some sound advice as he says I should book for at least a night, which gives me time to look around at other options once I’m on the island. That makes some sense, so I duly fork over 1,200 baht for the grandly named Lanta Sea Front Resort.
Okay, showtime. All of us are herded to the pier in a mini van, which is when I meet a group of people who’ve linked up the previous night – an Italian girl, an older Spanish lady, a Hungarian with semi-dreadlocks (okay, you’re not gonna believe this but his name really IS Attila!) the Argentinian Paolo and a nutter! Nope, that’s not me being mean, he truly was off his rocker – the others said he tried committing hara-kiri by rushing down a cliff face after his camera. At any rate, he’d got bruises and bandages all over him but seemed pretty nonchalant nonetheless.
Docking at Koh Lanta’s Saladan pier, the Swedes are whisked off in some fancy air-conditioned limo and the nutter vanishes, leaving the rest of us together. We hire a songtaew as we’re all headed to Klong Nin beach (one of the most popular beaches on Koh Lanta on account of its soft sands and clean beach). Amel already has a hotel reservation and the other four have decided to take two bamboo huts and bunk up. Several narrow, winding roads along the brilliantly blue seaface later, we chug to a stop and I’m the first drop. I tell Amel I’ll catch up with her later and wave the lot of them off before picking my bag and turning my feet around.
Being down south, Koh Lanta is very Moslem and it’s quite usual to see the women with the head scarves, much as you would in Malaysia. This is a much more secluded island too and pretty much off the main tourist track, in spite of being cheek to jowl with Krabi and Phi Phi. There really isn’t much to do here if you’re the partying sort, as Koh Lanta downs its shutters come the sunset, barring the half-a-dozen restaurants and sole 7Eleven 😉 Not very many star hotels here either, but the upside is that you get some fantastic seafood at rock bottom prices.
Oh dear. I’m getting philosophical about getting ripped off by Thai advertising by now. When they say ‘sea front’ in the name, they mean of course that the hotel could be near the sea but not necessarily that it’s overlooking said sea or that one is gonna get sea-view rooms anytime soon, and such is the case with this optimistically-named joint. Well, at least the darn thing is across the road from the sea! I march in and am determined to be difficult, so I demand to see a choice of rooms. Presumably they don’t have many guests in-house and so the pleasant Moslem lady at Reception trips over her feet in her eagerness to please. I get a tea kettle, extra towels, extra soap, extra bottles of water and other freebies before I declare myself satisfied and, thinking I’d be foolish to waste any more time here, trudge off in search of other hotels and Amel, in that order.
As luck would have it, I pass this Dutch couple on bikes who had also been on the ferry. They stop when they see me and I learn that they’re searching for hotels too, having first hired the motorbikes, which says much for their list of priorities 🙂 Seeing as how I’m looking for a hotel AND as I speak Thai, we decide to combine the two to mutual advantage and I hop behind the girl. As she zooms off, I wonder aloud why they’ve hired two bikes when surely one would do for a couple? No sirree – turns out she’s fiercely independent and wants to be able to take off on her own if the dude won’t play ball. Aha 😉
After much searching, we do come across a sea-facing hotel that fits the budget, but sadly has only one room available. Since I already have a place to bunk for tonight at least, I generously back out of the running. Leaving them to settle in, I wander along the road still on my search. I’m not too far from Amel’s hotel now and figure that if I don’t find something soon, I’ll just continue at the place I’m at. I come upon a sign for tsunami evacuation and chortle as I click the picture – if there’s one thing that made Amel apprehensive about Koh Lanta, it was the prospect of a tsunami hitting the island.
Ambling along aimlessly, I happen upon Frank’s purely by chance! I hop up to the empty Reception counter and yodel out a “hello”…this tall guy pokes his head outta a window and yells back he’ll be along shortly. True to his word, he appears almost instantly – meet Frank from Sweden, who came here as a tourist and stayed on to run this little guesthouse for the Thai owners. We ascend a narrow staircase to check out the room he’s got available; it’s a really nice large one, all done up in bright colours and with a view of the sea too! I’m fairly sure this is gonna break the bank, so I ask him if I can come back a little later in the evening to confirm my stay.
Frank’s place is across the road from the Lanta Nature Beach Resort, which IS sea-facing. Unfortunately, they only have a poky little room available on the terrace, and the loo is outside; this being December, it’s high season time and the going price is 1500 baht. Bugger L I cheer up slightly as Amel joins me here. It turns out her hotel is across the road and right beside Frank’s! That does it, that’s the deciding factor, and I tug her along behind me as we go to track Frank down….
Who has left for his dinner by now. The girl at the Reception desk helpfully tells us he must be just down the road at his favourite restaurant. I march in boldly and find him enjoying a dinner with his parents. We settle down to haggling price (so what if Frank’s Swedish, he’s got the hang of this basic Thai trait by now!) and he quotes 800 baht without air con or breakfast. “I’ll take it,” I say instantly, and give him an advance.
Seeing me virtually skip out of the joint, Amel gives me a thumbs-up and we head to the market which is about a mile away, to enjoy some dinner. I could wish that she wasn’t so influenced by the fact I’m Indian coz predictably now she wants to have some Indian chow, heedless of my warnings that one couldn’t possibly get authentic grub on this remote Thai island! Believe it or faint but she drags me to Mr Wee’s (merde!) shack and then proceeds to grimace at me as she tucks into a sorry looking, watery daal and some thin pita bread that optimistically passes for garlic naan. I refrain from saying ‘I told you so’ and take her off to the nearby 7Eleven for a pick-me-up ice cream instead.
The next day is marvellous! Thankfully we are both water babies and head for the beach as soon as we’re ready; I’ve been up and about early, as I wanted to get settled in at Frank’s. It makes sense to head for the beach at the Lanta Nature Beach Resort as our hotels are just across from it; although we’re not resident guests, it must be said the restaurant staff welcome us readily and, over the next few days, this one particular stretch of beach will soon come to be recognised as “our” patch 🙂 Amel and I get addicted fairly quickly to some lemony drink the staff rustle up and serve on the beach….man, this is the stuff heaven must be made of (and we’re the houris to prove it too!)
Surprise – during the afternoon, Paolo, Attila and the Spanish lady take it into their heads to check this place out. Paolo tells us that there’s a Reggae nite every Monday at this beach bar down the road and, since today is Monday, we all make plans to meet in the evening and check it out. It would be ludicrous if it wasn’t actually so eminently enjoyable – a Thai band belting out reggae in their peculiarly accented English, the gentle rushing of the waves as a background sound, the cool salty sea breeze, a motley group of foreign tourists either seated on the sand or else dancing away in abandon.
Somehow I manage to lose Amel in this crowd and Paolo and I decide to walk back together after a while. Once outside, we bump into our nutter fellow traveller! He’s wearing some weird loose kaftan and the tuktuk drivers parked outside are all having a good laugh at the poor bloke’s expense. Turns out he’s from Croatia and he just decided to take off travelling on a whim as it appears his family is a little fed up of him 🙂 We ask him how he’s feeling now and he seems surprised at our solicitude as if he isn’t used to such. Can’t help feeling sorry for the chap. I ask him where he’s staying and he waves a hand airily at the beach and says he’s dossed down in plenty of open places before, including railway stations. Paolo’s feeling a mite skittish by now so I cut short the Q&A and we walk on.
Next morning, as we’re lying on our suntanned bellies, Amel asks me where I’m headed to next and I go into these rhapsodies about Phi Phi, which I’d always wanted to visit and which is just 45 minutes away from Koh Lanta. Intrigued by my enthusiastic outpourings, she decides to do a day trip to Phi Phi. Accordingly, after a heavenly lunch of Pad Thai Goong and more lemony whatchamacallit, we cross the road to this little store that doubles up as the local travel agent, convenience store and laundry outlet 🙂 I start haggling on Amel’s behalf as she is lousy at bargaining which admittedly is an art form enjoyed and perfected by the Thais 🙂 I whittle her ticket down by telling the female proprietor that I’d be back in a couple of days for my own ticket to Phi Phi. She really is quite a friendly little lady; much impressed with my persuasive haggling skills, she asks me my name. The next moment, she’s rolling around in splits! Between guffaws, she repeats my name gaspingly. When she’s got her breath back, I ask her what’s so funny. “Poo mean crab in Thai,” she says, and goes off into her cackles again. Slightly offended, I ask her for her name and then stare disbelievingly as she tells me with a completely straight face that her name is Eat! Now, I ask you! Someone actually called ‘Eat’ is laughing at me coz my name means crab. Go figure! It’s my turn to explain now and thankfully she sees the comic side of it and we both end up chuckling.
Amel and I decide to stay ‘in’ for dinner tonight, at the Nature Beach, instead of traipsing all over the island. The hotel’s got a jolly decent barbecue going and we choose some seafood and then go grab a nice table. It’s an amazing evening, the stuff the movies are made of ‘cept here God got it right in one perfect take 🙂 The heat from the burning coals is pleasant and the aroma of the slowly grilling fish and prawns is almost more than the stomach can stand. The seating here is on simple wooden benches that have mattresses and high backs so we can stretch our legs out.
Having visited some of the world’s best beach destinations, I can vouch for the fact that nobody has the beach-tourist thing down as pat as the Thais…every attempt is made to let the tourist have the most enjoyable time ever.
Amel and I are making such a goshdarned racket with our giggles that the couple at the next table smile at us too – meet Roseanne and Berndt from Germany 😉 We soon get chatting and decide to join forces…the helpful staff come along and help push our tables together, when there’s a holler from the table behind us! Jonathan from England is on his own and can’t help feeling envious at our obvious bonhomie, so we include him in the general conversation as well. The staff of course are thrilled at this turn of events, as they mentally count how many bottles of beer will flow under the bridge before the night is done 😉 Most of these places are family-run joints and I’m not very surprised to find the multi-tasking Khun Eat get into her waitress act now.
Amel begins boasting about my bargaining skills and pretty soon I’m roped in by Roseanne to help her get a decent price too. Mai mee pan ha (no problem), I say airily, and we make plans to do this on the morrow when Amel leaves for Phi Phi. It’s time to start quizzing Jonathan now, who has joined our circle willy nilly. Turns out he’s awaiting his girlfriend who flies in to spend Christmas with him – AND he’s dreading it! Apparently she expects him to pop the question and he’s anything but ready, but doesn’t have the gumption to tell her so. And so he begins a harmless flirting with Amel as he whiles away the hours. Men!
It’s a bit of a quiet day with Amel gone however, I am quite happy to get some reading done on the pleasantly hot sands. Towards evening, she’s back, looking broken and almost strangely defeated. I find her sipping dispiritedly on a Coke as I walk back from a loo break. “Well?” I ask eagerly, keen to hear all about the splendiforous Phi Phi. “Pu, it was hell,” she says, quietly. “My head is pounding still. I don’t know what you find so great about Phi Phi; granted, the beaches are beautiful, but so is this. And so much more peaceful,” she moans.
To hear her tell it, Phi Phi is apparently full of tourists and touts. But do I listen to her? Naah. I can’t believe that the quest for my travel Holy Grail is so near in sight and I’m damned if I’m gonna let anything get in the way. Of course, if only I had listened…..as you will read about in the next chapter. I returned to Koh Lanta the very morning after I’d left it; Amel was already on her way to Bali, but Berndt and Roseanne and Eat and Frank all fell upon me like the long-lost prodigal while Jonathan, secretly pleased to see me, growled irascibly in trademark style that “the Russians have landed,”; it seems Koh Lanta has suddenly been overrun by our Bolshevik friends in the space of one night. Oh well. I’m just so happy to be back I literally purr in contentment as I sink down on to “my patch of beach” vowing not to venture afield for a few more days at least.
Punam Mohandas asserts her right to be identified as the author of this work. Any views or opinions expressed in this review is that of the author. All copyright and pictures are the property of the author.