Koh Lanta: The “Just Right” Thai Island 4 min read
I frequently refer to Thailand as “Backpacking for Dummies.” You don’t come to Thailand in hopes of ditching the beaten track. You come for the ease. And perhaps the pad Thai.
The first time I ventured to the infamous sandy beaches in the south of The Land of Smiles, I was meeting my boyfriend after months apart. We’d both been traveling solo through Asia’s more rugged countries and agreed that we wanted nothing more than a warm beach and a slow pace.
After playing Goldilocks with a couple of islands (Koh Tao was too party, Koh Phangan was too industrial) our ferry pulled into Koh Lanta’s Saladan Pier where the rickety wooden patios of the bars and restaurants hang over the shallow water and reggae versions of popular songs play in the background. The sign outside Moo-Uan (The Fat Pig) advertises a 2-for-1 happy hour during the late afternoon soccer game.
We head twenty minutes down the road to Phra Ae Beach (Long Beach) and set off to find somewhere to sleep. We go door-to-door, peeking in the bungalows of fancy, infinity pool resorts and the dorms of trendy hostels before settling on a modern one-bedroom apartment in a boutique hotel.
My born-and-bred haggler of a boyfriend negotiates the price down to $30/night by agreeing to stay at least four days and to rent a moped for the duration of our stay. I stand next to him, nodding along like a bobblehead, making a mental note to grab a bottle of wine later and check out the pool.
With the weight of our backpacks safely stowed beneath the ornately carved wooden furniture in our new living room, we set out on the scooter.
Bunches of bananas are draped on hooks below the thatched roofs of the smoothie huts, above piles of oranges and mangoes. Every few minutes I hear the brief whirl of a blender like a mosquito in my ear as we cruise past another hut.
A sign outside an Irish bar advertises for a pub quiz the following night and I frantically tap the shoulder in front of me and point. He follows my finger and, despite only seeing the back of his helmet, I can sense the eye roll.
You can drive for 30 minutes on Koh Lanta and pass nothing but the color green. Occasionally a sudden movement manifests itself as a monkey strutting across a telephone line.
Unbeknownst to my boyfriend, I have my eye out for a mini-golf place I’d spotted on the map. I lean forward and tell him to take the next left. He spots the sign and I hurriedly explain that they also have pétanque (AKA bocce ball and much more appealing to his French sense of amusement than golf in the miniature).
The owner behind the bar passes us beer bottles in one hand and our putters in the other. “He needs the beer to make it through the mini-golf,” I explain. “He’s much more keen on pétanque”.
“Well you’re here on the right day— we have a bocce tournament going on later,” he tells us. “It’s usually just a bunch of the expats that live here. $20 buy-in, winner takes all. You guys should join. My wife will be making food.”
It was this sense of home and welcoming that made Koh Lanta different. We didn’t end up winning the bocce (though his wife’s pasta was incredible.) We didn’t win the pub quiz the following night either.
But we did each win a few games of poker (between the two of us). Exhausted from throwing the frisbee in the sand and diving theatrically in the waves to catch it, we would play our nightly game of cards from the lounge chairs of our favorite beach bar while the sunset lit the sky on fire and cellphone-wielding silhouettes descended towards the water.
We also found a fun scavenger hunt in tracking down the local market that moved to a different part of the island, depending on the day of the week. Thursdays, off the island criss-cross road. Fridays, up across from the second 7-11. Brimming with everything from superhero flip-flops to unidentifiable-skewered items, we would hunt down the best fish and veggies to cook in our kitchenette for dinner.
The biggest win? The quickness and the ease with which this tiny Thai island felt like home. All it took was a cozy little apartment, a weekly bocce tournament, and the endless combination of fruits to try in our smoothies.