From Cambodia we headed even further south and started in Phuket to kick off our thirty days in Thailand. We spent just a quick night in Phuket Town which, with its Sino-Portuguese architecture and 19th century shops (some of which are still running!), was actually more interesting than we had both anticipated; we’d heard that Phuket is kind of just an insane touristy/party island and so only planned a layover there but Phuket Town might actually be worth a visit. Some day…
Phuket was the easiest place for us to jump off to some islands in the Andaman Sea. There are so many islands in Thailand that we felt kind of overwhelmed when choosing where to go. As it was also high season when we were there, it was the only place where we felt like we should have booked further out in advance to have a better pick of accommodations in good locations. I think we ended up making some rather harried decisions because we felt the pressure to book something as soon as possible. Next time we will do it differently!
The islands we ended up picking were Koh Lanta and Koh Lipe, and while there might be more secluded and “authentic” island experiences out there, these places definitely fulfilled our “tropical islands in Thailand” requirement of the trip.
We took a boat from Phuket to Koh Lanta, which was quite an experience in itself. As you check in for the boats in Thailand, everyone gets a sticker denoting which island is their final destination or what tour they are doing, so that the handlers and helpers can just look at you and know where you are supposed to get off. It was pretty funny, but also quite handy! But I have a sneaking suspicion that the system might break down if you lose your sticker… The boat ride was quite beautiful and afforded us our first views of some Thai islands. We even went by Koh Phi Phi (the “h” is silent…) and saw the beach where Leonardo DiCaprio was in the movie The Beach. Very exciting!
We stayed near Klong Khong beach on Koh Lanta, and even managed to find a few quiet spots where the development and beach bars hadn’t reached yet. It’s kind of a hippie enclave with a heavy reggae vibe, but it was a nice place to relax for a week. We arrived on Koh Lanta on Valentine’s Day and celebrated with cheap beers on the beach at sunset. Our time on Koh Lanta mainly involved relaxing on the beach, swimming in the pool, going back to the beach in the cool of the evenings, watching sunset from our balcony, and then finding food. A rough way to spend a week, I know!
We broke out of our routine a couple times to spend some time exploring more of the island. We found two impeccable beaches along the southern coast where we enjoyed swimming in the crystal clear, bath-temperature, aquamarine waters of the secluded beaches and watching the crabs and monkeys scurry along the sand. (Please don’t hate us!)
We did a pretty big loop around the island and checked out Koh Lanta Old Town, the island’s original trading port with plenty of lasting Chinese and Arabic influence in the architecture.
Of course, we had plenty of tasty food! As with Vietnam the food in Thailand gets spicier the further south you get, so we had some pretty spicy (but yummy!) curries and stir fries. This region of Thailand actually has a pretty big Muslim population which definitely comes out in the food: one of my favorite new things from our time in Thailand is eating roti bread (a flat bread similar to naan, not something we usually see in Thai restaurants in the States) instead of rice with Thai curries! (I have to confess again: we broke our Asian food diet again on Koh Lanta when we went out for delicious souvlaki at a Greek ex-pat’s restaurant.)
We also did a cooking class on the island which turned out to be one of the more informative classes we’ve taken. We came away from it having learned how to actually recreate the food in our own kitchens at home, what brands to look for and what substitutes we can make, what to do with all the extras you buy for a recipe. Of course, half of the charm of the class was our instructor Noi who demonstrated the force necessary to crush things with the cleaver by yelling out his ex-boyfriends’ names before slamming the knife down. Lucky for us, Noi is from Chiangmai and gave us a long list of his favorites for our upcoming visit.
We almost didn’t get to Koh Lipe as our previously-arranged pick-up forgot us and then our reservation wasn’t on the list when we did make it to the harbor, but it got sorted out and we got our stickers and eventually the boat took off for our next destination. Getting off the boat was another matter as it was a wet landing and we just had to jump off and into the water while our bags were tossed down onto the sand! It wasn’t a problem at all, just funny things like this that make us laugh because it would never happen at home.
We jumped off the boat into paradise…almost. Koh Lipe is definitely what you picture when you think of a beautiful tropical island; you, and everyone else. Development is running rampant on the island and has changed it a lot in just a few years: Guide books we read and accounts we heard all made it sound like it was still a pretty untouched island, but those were just a few years out of date and now the island is completely overrun with people. The main “walking street”—which is closed to vehicles in the evenings—was shoulder to shoulder every night with people, such that it was almost impossible to move and aggravated the already overwhelming heat and humidity. So, we were inadequately prepared for what we were walking into, but our expectations of a beautiful island were certainly met.
Koh Lipe has some of the most picturesque beaches I’ve ever seen, all surrounded by extraorinarily turquoise waters and coral reefs, brightly painted long-nose boats clustered just off-shore. It is actually part of a national park that includes a few other islands which have been allowed to maintain their natural wilderness. One day we took a boat taxi over to Koh Adang to do a hike to a view point from which we could see all of Koh Lipe.
Surprisingly, our routine didn’t vary much from our time on Koh Lanta. 😉 Every night we walked to a beach to catch the sunset; we weren’t always successful in seeing the actual setting sun due to clouds building in the evenings, but we did always get spectacular color and people-watching. One evening the clouds actually turned into a massive downpour and thunderstorm; we got caught in the torrential rains and ended up walking from the beach back across the island to our hotel, trudging through the rain and the flooded streets—an experience that is only charming in tropical climates where the rain isn’t actually cold!
The area around Koh Lipe is known for its spectacular diving and snorkeling, so we booked a snorkeling trip for one day. We got forgotten again, and the snorkeling company sent one dude on a scooter to come pick us both up. It worked out in the end and it was a small group for the day: Just the two of us and four trendy young people from Korea; of course, all of the snorkeling spots were full of other tourist boats. We went to three separate snorkeling spots, plus a few other islands. The snorkeling was amazing! So many bright colors—if we are to take fashion cues from tropical fish, the 80s are back and magenta and teal are in again. I think some of my favorites were the giant clams that have incredible neon and phosphorescent lips and the Christmas tree worms which are so cool! (Unfortunately, no photos since we didn’t bring our waterproof camera case, so please enjoy the examples I found on the internet!)
The food on Koh Lipe had a more distinct tourist bend to it and we had a hard time finding more interesting food than bland pad Thai noodles. We did find some really tasty Indian food which I thoroughly enjoyed! The prices of everything were also definitely inflated for tourists, especially as we were there in the high season. Except for the coconut “donuts” sold by the guy across from our hotel who had a little diddy that he intoned all day long and that is still stuck in my head: “Coco-nut dough-nut/ten baht, ten baht.” And we did manage to find some less expensive mojitos, on which we sipped while doing some people watching—what else? 🙂
We both definitely enjoyed our time on the islands but might choose to explore different ones next time, and maybe not in the peak of high season. Lessons learned! But still, we were surrounded by beautiful scenery and amazing water, so all-in-all not a terrible way to spend a few weeks!
Check out more photos from the islands here, and stay tuned for tales from Chiang Mai!