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Koh Lanta - The Original Thailand

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The original Thailand

Koh Lanta, where the upmarket mingles with the budget, and development moves sensibly


KOH LANTA: -- “Muddy Earth and Clear Hearts” would make a good folk song title, but a clunky tagline for a small island in Krabi. Until recently, however, the most striking features of Koh Lanta were its hyper-friendly people and crimson soil.

I first dropped ashore in 1996, for no other reason than to go somewhere off the Krabi mainland besides Phi Phi. Electricity was sporadic (at night, non-existent) and Lanta’s 20-or-so bungalows were randomly erected on the two northernmost and, arguably, prettiest beaches: Phra-Ae (aka Long Beach) and Khlong Dao. Lanta’s eight or so other beaches were as quiet and undeveloped as Koh Samui’s were in, say, 1986. Even today, Khlong Nin (the “hippy” beach) retains an ethereal feel reminiscent of that island in its heyday.

A combination of open-hearted, up-front people and a quirky, dramatic landscape endeared Koh Lanta to me instantly. Four times longer than it is wide, the island rises in its sloping center to a median height of 100 meters (soaring to 500 meters in the south). It thus reveals itself as some sort of prehistoric leviathan rising from the depths of the Andaman, with spindly, twisted trees clinging like barnacles to its spine.

The landscape is precisely what kept others away. During the monsoon season, the dirt roads became ruddy sludge traps. When things got dry, the roads became billowing dust depots and hopping on a “taxi” – either a songthaew or makeshift motorbike sidecar – meant being covered in more dust than Viking I on its return from Mars.

Today, activities on Koh Lanta revolve, as before, around beach life (natch), trips to the outlying islands and hikes into the forested interior – by foot, by motorbike, by car (you’ll need a 4x4 to get far) or on a pachyderm’s back. In place of the chang, there’s always the Suzuki Caribian. Driving here requires nowhere near the dexterity it used to now that the west coast road is sealed for most of its 27 kilometers.

You’ll need the four-wheel drive when venturing inland or on portions of the east coast road. But the extra effort is worth it to get to the beaches of the island’s southernmost tip, Ao Nui, Klong Jak, Bamboo Bay and Ta Noad Cape, where the Mu Koh Lanta National Park center is situated. From the cape, perched on the lighthouse point jutting out into the sea and overlooking consecutive sloping bays of picture-perfect sand, you’ll agree that Neptune has got it made.

Speaking of things aquatic, there’s no point going to Lanta without leaving it...for the Maldive-grade clear waters and coral reefs of Koh Rok, or the famed “Emerald Cave” of Koh Mook. A few years back, this required haggling with the fisherman to take you out. Now, instead of sharing space with the day’s catch on a longtail boat, you’ll be bathing in heaven’s lagoon after a brief speed boat ride. Soon enough, you’ll be able to make these journeys on a 20-meter wooden junk, custom-built by Ayutthaya craftsmen.

The junk’s operated by Rawi Warin Resort & Spa (see “Wish You Were Here?”). Lanta’s newest and largest resort (and the biggest employer on the island) joins a half-dozen or so other properties that have changed the island from a backpacker-populated backwater to a stylish getaway for the Thai crème-de-la-crème and foreign Luxe Guide-toting set. Last year’s precedent-topper was the gorgeous Layana Resort & Spa. This year’s openings include Twin Lotus Resort & Spa, Chada Beach Resort & Spa and Best Western Maya Koh Lanta. Not to be outdone, the island’s first luxury property, Pimalai Resort & Spa was anointed with Small Luxury Hotels of the World status.

To these, add smaller, mid-range boutique resorts which cater to young, hip Bangkokians and the increasing corps of Westerners who first came here as backpackers but are now splashing out. You’ll find them at such places as Siri Lanta, Narima, Relax Bay and dozens of other operations offering unique, rustic ambiance and subdued style on a relaxed budget.

The ultra-posh resorts and boutique hideaways are evenly spread out across Lanta, so there’s no “upmarket enclave” and corresponding isolationism. It’s long been known that part of the joy of staying at Pimalai is a dinner at Same Same, But Different, the lovely, down-to-earth restaurant adjacent to it. Future guests at Rawi Warin might be so brave as to make the stroll from Khlong Toab down to Klong Nin’s funky beachside bar/restaurants like Otto and Miami. Mingling between the ostensibly “high” and “low” would never happen on Hawaii...or Phuket.

The mushrooming of hotels on Koh Lanta – one source estimates 4,000 rooms on the island – isn’t astonishing by Thai standards. But, on an 80-square-kilometer island of which only one coast (the west) figures into the tourism trade, this could have been disastrous. Instead, Lanta’s development has inched forward at a human pace that hasn’t blighted the landscape or the attitude of its people.

“Koh Lanta is a place for people who want to have the original Thailand back,” says Florian Hallermann, Rawi Warin’s general manager. “The [local] people here have clear heads and hearts and their willingness to welcome is unparalleled.”

This comes as a surprise for those with colored perceptions of Islam, the religion of 95 percent of Lanta’s population. While the religious composition isn’t particularly visible on the west coast, heading east to the old Lanta town puts you within earshot of daily prayers, a reminder of the kingdom’s religious diversity. Were you were to resort to religious explanations for such things, you might postulate Islam has something to do with Lanta’s lack of gaudy low-budget tourism, runaway development and sleaze.

Phuket continues steaming towards critical mass, with its government and “special interest groups” refusing to budge on crucial aesthetic and environmental issues. But Krabi’s singular energy is still potential. And Koh Lanta, the province’s largest inhabited island, has demonstrated that stylish, thoughtful tourism can indeed work wonders.

--manager.co.th 2006-01-08

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