This is going to be a long one… The highlights are summed up in the end for convenience.
After we had survived India we wanted to get to somewhere where it's warm and comfortable and where people are nice. In other words, Thailand. We had booked the tickets to Bangkok but until the last days in India we didn't have much of a clue what we would do from there on. We'd been thinking about different islands, mainly Koh Lanta, Koh Tao and Koh Chang Noi (the small one in the Andaman Sea). Had we gone to Koh Tao it would have been to get a certificate for scuba diving. That would have cost quite a lot though, and we weren't that interested about diving anyway. We'd read about Koh Chang Noi from Lonely Planet and the internet, it's a small island with very little infrastructure and not even 24 hour electricity. At first it sounded like heaven after the hectic India, but looking into it, it would have been somewhat difficult and expensive to get there…
So, we opted for Koh Lanta, and we're glad we did. It's touristy, yes, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. We booked tickets from Bangkok to Krabi town only a couple days in advance and they still only cost us about 46 euros a piece. We had to spend a night in Bangkok between flights, but that was OK. We booked one night's accommodation also in Krabi, at the Diamond Home Resort for 400 baht. Nice clean room with fan and hot water, the swimming pool in the back was nice. They also had a travel agency at the reception desk so we could arrange for the transportation to Lanta from there. We decided to take the minivan for 300 baht per person, the boat would have been 400 baht and we would have had to get to the pier by ourselves. The minivan picked us up at the resort and dropped us off at the next one in Lanta. The only downside was that we were there just after the Chinese new year which meant a lot more traffic than normally. The minivan was 1,5 hours late and the 2,5 hour trip ended up taking nearly five hours! There are two ferry crossings to get to the larger of the islands. The second ferry, which is being replaced by a bridge, was very small and could only carry a handful of cars at a time, which cost us time.
Once in Koh Lanta we were dropped off at the resort we had found and booked online, the Lovely Lanta Resort next to Long Beach. They have about a dozen concrete bungalows with tiled floors, big bathrooms and nice terraces. Price per night was 600 baht, and they wouldn't negotiate any lower even though we ended up extending our stay twice. It was a little more than we had expected to pay while we were planning the trip to Lanta, but during high season all the places were charging that or more. We looked at one place that had bungalows going for 250 baht during low season and for 1000 baht now. We enjoyed our stay at Lovely Lanta, though, and we ended up staying for nine nights. The room was cleaned almost every day and as they did that they brought free water bottles and more toiletries than we could possibly use. And, most importantly, the room had a fridge. This meant that we could prepare our own breakfasts from the groceries we bought at 7 eleven (20 minute walk north by the main road), our favorite store out of the very many available. They have a whole lot of things the other minimarts lack, such as ham for the bread and boiled eggs, not to mention those lovely little pizzas that we liked to take with us to the beach and warm up in the sand.
And then there was the freezer compartment… With the ice tray… We'd been good our entire trip, we hadn't had a single drop of alcohol during our stay in Nepal and India. But after India had worn us out we wanted to have a little luxury and that came in the form of the heat of Thailand, a nice resort and drinks chilled and served from the best dish imaginable: a children's sand bucket. We bought one for 200 baht, later to find a store that had similar ones without the shovels and such going for 13 baht… Anyway, we saved a bunch by buying local booze, Thai rum was going for as low as 220 baht for a 750ml bottle. A bucket of rum and coke on our own terrace under the stars was all we needed to put our previous troubles behind us.
That, and hammocking on the beach. We thought long and hard about bringing our hammocks with us on this trip, they're Ticket to the Moon-brand parachute nylon hammocks and as such pretty lightweight and small once packed, but still… Sini's is a Double, mine a King size, and we love them dearly. We're glad we brought them, there's nothing quite like finding a couple of trees by the beach and to hang between them in the shade, reading good books. We spent seven days doing not much else. Mostly we hung out on the Long Beach closest to us, a four kilometer long stretch of smooth sand with a few resorts by it, but still very uncrowded. There are good spots for hammocks in the middle of the beach with a long gap between resorts that has plenty of trees. The best spot however was at the northernmost end of the beach where we found an abandoned bar made to look like it was carved out of a huge boulder. The beach is a little more rocky there, but since it's the end of the beach, there's hardly any people there and there were good trees for the hammocks.
Long Beach is only one of many great beaches on the island and it's impossible to say which is the best. We visited Kantiang Bay in the south very briefly and the sand there seemed to be a little coarse and there were a lot of rocks in the water. Relax bay south from the Long beach was OK, but we didn't find it any better. The best beach we found was between Relax bay and Klong Kong beach, a nameless hidden spot that can be reached by mopeds from the main road or by foot along a path from Relax bay. Starting from Relax bay you come to a smaller beach first, but continuing on takes you to our "secret" spot. The sand is very fine, there are very few people, and very nice hammocking trees right in the middle of the beach. Also, the secluded nature of this beach seems to have awarded it with a small nudist colony, so if you're looking for a place to do topless or nude sunbathing in Koh Lanta, this might be the best spot. Another funny thing about this place was that there were a bunch of palm trees there and a local guy who had trained a monkey to climb them. The monkey would go up and drop coconuts for the guy who would hack them with his machete and sell them. We didn't buy ours though, we got it as a gift from an elderly Caucasian guy who apparently lived in Thailand. We figured it wouldn't be poisoned and drank some of the juice inside before storing the rest in an empty water bottle to use in a bucket drink later. The monkey trainer cut the coconut in half after it was empty and carved out some of the white stuff for us to eat. We saved some of that for the drink too!
We didn't just hang in our hammocks and drink rum for the nine days in Koh Lanta. We went snorkeling too. Once… There's no shortage of tour operators in Lanta and they all sell the same exact products for about the same prices. We bought our Four Island snorkeling tours from a place on Long beach next to Somewhere Else resort. They had three different types of boats, of which the longtail is both the cheapest and most authentic. We paid 700 baht per person, which included transportation from and back to our resort, water bottles, a fruit snack and lunch, the same as everywhere else. One thing about the longtail boat, it is loud, so if you're planning on staying in the shaded back portion, bring earplugs. We were told that the maximum amount of people on the trip was 20. There were 19 of us and that was a little crowded. They advertise Koh Lanta's snorkeling as one of the best in Thailand, which I hope is overstating things. It was by no means bad, the water is clear and the fish come right to you, but there weren't that many different fish, nor that colorful, and hardly any coral to be seen. We were on a similar trip in Malaysia's Tioman island and the underwater scenery there was like from a different planet compared to this. Still, it was worth the trip and the cost wasn't that great either.
If I were to give tips for future travelers going to Koh Lanta I would encourage staying at Long beach, where there are huge amounts of places to choose from. If not the Lovely Lanta a little further off the beach, I would look from this dirt road that turns towards the beach by the Merng Ya-restaurant at the northern part of the village. There are a bunch of bungalows, some hippy-style, that at least look affordable. These include Somewhere Else, Hello Me Me, Funky Fish, David's Camp, etc. There are also many cheap places to eat at by the Long beach, by the main road we liked Papaya, Mr. Green and Merng Ya, which all had plenty of dishes for 60 baht. The portions are smaller than we would have liked, so we often ordered three dishes. There are classier places to eat at straight on the beach, we tried the Sayang Beach Resort and liked it very much. For shopping, there are dozens of minimarts for food and clothing stores everywhere. Other than the 7 elevens, the best minimart is found on the hippyish dirt road opposite to David's Camp's restaurant (which is also cheap and good). The minimart there had the cheapest sunscreens, a wide variety of snacks and the 750ml Thai rum for 220 baht. For buying anything else than clothing or food, I would suggest looking at this one store by the main road a couple of minutes north (by walking) from the hippy dirt road, on the east side. They have just about anything from buckets to hammocks, from beach toys to machetes, from towels to portable DVD players, you name it, and they'll have it for cheaper than other places. For fans of Thai boxing there are fights to be seen at least a couple times per week. Those who miss the Full Moon parties need not fret, they have half-moon and new-moon parties too. If you dislike walking for many kilometers in the heat to reach places, there are mopeds for renting everywhere you look, most for about 250 baht per day. There's also an abundance of motorcycle taxis or tuk tuks, which are mopeds attached to a frame with seats and a sun cover. These are especially cool looking during the evening with flashing lights to go with the hammocks some of them have!
So there you have it, Koh Lanta through the eyes of someone on a shoestring budget (I don't know where the term comes from…). It's not quite as cheap as we had hoped, but that was mainly because of the high season. It's not too expensive though and most importantly, it is very relaxed, very warm and very, very recommended.
Best resort: Lovely Lanta at the Long Beach
Best beach: nameless beach between Relax bay and Khlong Kong beach
Best spot on Long Beach: abandoned bar at the northernmost end
Best coconuts: the ones dropped by a monkey
Best place to buy a bucket: big store by the main road at the north end of Long Beach
Best drink from a bucket: anything with Thai rum in it