Home Sustainable Travel Koh Lanta: The Goldilocks of the Thai islands

This was written by travel writer and friend of ETG, Abigail Flanagan, on her latest trip to Thailand. She stayed on Koh Lanta (a blissful alternative to the touristy Thai islands nearby), and gives us the full low-down.

Phuket too busy? Koh Jum too quiet? If you’re struggling to find the Thai island to suit you, Koh Lanta could be the fairytale ending you’re looking for. Just off the beaten track, this ‘not too big, not too small’ laid-back island gets it just right.

What & Where is Koh Lanta?

Strictly speaking, Koh Lanta is an archipelago of 52 small, largely uninhabited Thai islands in the Andaman Sea. But when people mention Koh Lanta, they usually mean the largest island, Koh Lanta Yai — or sometimes (confusingly) its neighbour, Koh Lanta Noi. The archipelago’s next biggest island, Koh Lanta Noi is minutes by boat from mainland Krabi. Koh Lanta Yai dangles just off Noi’s west coast.

In 2016, the two islands became linked by a short bridge (it’s all of 650m), essentially creating one big ‘Koh Lanta island’. But despite this, they remain strikingly different. Virtually untouched by tourism, Noi is home to small fishing villages, rubber plantations, mangroves, and deserted beaches. Which is all fine and dandy for intrepid backpackers, but for a luxury holiday in Koh Lanta, you must head to Yai, where all tourism is based.

Your Fast-Track Koh Lanta Travel Guide

Koh Lanta Yai (or Koh Lanta as we’ll call it from now on) was ‘discovered’ by backpackers in the late 1980s. Nowadays, the predominantly Muslim island is far more prepared for visitors (for starters, the west coast has a proper road), but it’s stayed true to its roots, and over-tourism is not an issue. So, yes, you’ll find accommodation ranging from hostels to luxury resorts in Koh Lanta, together with excellent local restaurants, rustic beach bars, and enough activities to keep you entertained. But what’s missing (phew) are the crowds and over-commercialisation associated with tourist hotspots like Phi Phi and Phuket.

Life moves gently here, and even in high season, the island never feels overrun. Stretching some 25km or so, the ‘sunset’ west coast—where most hotels are based—is lined with postcard-worthy beaches. While you won’t find high-end beach clubs in Koh Lanta (Koh Samui, this ain’t), each sandy stretch has a unique vibe. The northern beaches, Khlong Dao, Long Beach, and Khlong Kong, together with the island’s small capital, Saladan, are the busiest, most ‘touristy’ spots. But as a rule, the island becomes more serene the further south you go, and it’s here, near its southern tip, that you’ll find stunning Kantiang Bay.

Sunset in Koh Lanta Island in Thailand with traditional boat
Credit: Abigail Flanagan

Where to Stay on Koh Lanta: Luxury Travel

Although the oldest 5-star hotel on Koh Lanta, Pimalai Resort & Spa has aged beautifully and remains the island’s ultimate escape. Backed by limestone mountains and offering gobsmacking views over the Andaman Sea, the 100-acre resort flows through monkey-riddled tropical forest to the sands of Kantiang beach.

The Pimalai, Koh Lanta, Thailand

Boasting the most idyllic location of Koh Lanta’s beach resorts, Pimalai has all the bells and whistles you’d expect of a deluxe hotel. Whether you want sundowners and satay or tenderloin and Tattinger, its restaurants and bars cover all bases (although the gargantuan breakfasts might mean you never eat lunch). The award-winning jungle spa, with its waterfalls and carp ponds, is both brilliant and outstandingly beautiful. And while you’d be forgiven for spending all day by one of the infinity pools or glorious beach, if you can summon the energy, you’ll find plenty of activities and excursions to throw yourself into. Service is excellent, too: the incredibly kind, friendly team here can’t do enough for you.

Pimalai’s accommodation and facilities are split between its Hillside and Beachside estates (buggies ferry guests between the two). Beachside rooms and villas have a contemporary Thai feel and, given their location, are popular with families. One of the best family-friendly luxury resorts in Koh Lanta, Pimalai is Nirvana for older kids. From mountain bikes and paddleboards to pickleball and Muay Thai, the resort’s sporting facilities (many complimentary) will keep tweens and teens from bouncing off the walls. However, while the gently shelving beach is good for younger children, it’s worth noting that bedrooms don’t interconnect, and all pools are unfenced—so, not ideal if you want little ones to have their own room. For advice on the best accommodation for your brood, just give ETG a call on 020 7924 7133 .

If it’s a romantic getaway in Koh Lanta you’re after, head hillside to the private pool villas. (An understandable hit with Koh Lanta honeymooners, I met one newlywed couple who confessed they’d only left their villa twice!). Enveloped by jungle, these huge, walled properties are also fab for wildlife watching. Lazing in my infinity pool, watching a monitor lizard lumber up the hillside as macaques sashayed across my villa’s roof, was my idea of heaven. But if uninvited visitors (including ludicrously loud cicadas) aren’t your thing, you may be happier beachside.

Hillside villas at The Pimalai Resort & Spa, Thailand

Sustainable Travel in Koh Lanta

Leading the way for eco-friendly luxury resorts in Koh Lanta, Pimalai is the island’s first resort to achieve Green Globe certification and works to reduce, recycle, or reuse waste wherever possible. Water comes from the resort’s own well and reservoir, and wastewater is treated before being reused in the gardens. There’s zero food waste, too, with all leftovers transformed into garden fertiliser. The ‘plate-to-plant’ composting process takes months, but while you won’t get a whiff that it’s going on, I’d recommend booking a free nature walk around the estate to see the benefits.

The resort’s community conservation plan includes educational initiatives, recycling points across the island, weekly garbage clean-ups, and an inspired ‘sea trash’ sculpture competition. Held around March as part of the annual Laanta Lanta Festival, the thought-provoking winning artworks (many created by local schools) are displayed in Old Town in the weeks afterwards. Diving deeper, Pimalai also works with marine biologists on coral propagation and clownfish, turtle, and flower and hermit crab release programmes. Take a snorkelling tour and you may bump into some of them.

Snorkelling excursion The Pimalai Koh Lanta Thailand

Out & About in Koh Lanta

As you can tell, I’m a big fan of Pimalai. Still, one of the things I love most about the resort is what lies beyond its doorstep…

Kantiang Bay

For me (and ETG), the icing on the cake is that Kantiang village is an easy stroll down the beach. Despite its small size, this chilled-out little community is home to around a dozen good, cheap restaurants and bars, so you’re not stuck paying hotel prices every night. Here are our favourites:

Drunken Sailors: a hip little café serving an eclectic mix of Thai, western, and vegan dishes. So good me and my husband ate here two days in a row. The Lanta craft beers and cider are excellent, too.

Phad Thai Rock n Roll: Seriously spicy, superb Thai food for a steal. Get here before 9pm as that’s when the chef heads to the beach to play guitar at the Why Not Bar.

A la Carte by Auntie Nang: Don’t overlook this unassuming little roadside restaurant; it serves some of the tastiest, cheapest Thai food around.

K. Himalaya Indian Restaurant: Owned and run by a lovely Nepalese family, the food here is authentic and delicious. The wonderfully kind chef/owner even dropped us ‘home’ after our meal!

Why Not Bar: This bustling beachside bar’s fire show is a blast, and there’s live music nightly.

Aqua Bar: Set right on the beach’s northern tip (look for the red lanterns), this tiny bar serves exquisitely crafted cocktails.

Time For Lime Cooking School

There’s much to love about Time For Lime’s Thai cooking classes: the recipes and tuition are excellent, the teachers are a hoot, and the end results are scrummy. But what I (and ETG) particularly adore about this brilliant little cooking school is that all profits go to support Lanta Animal Welfare (LAW). Both the school and charity were founded by Junie Kovacs in the early noughties. Since then, thousands of dishes have been devoured, but more importantly, thousands of stray dogs and cats have been neutered, vaccinated and/or received life-saving medical care thanks to Junie and her teams’ efforts. LAW’s centre adjoins the school, and you can book a tour (for a small fee) to see the difference your money makes.

Time for Lime Cooking Class in Koh Lanta Island, Thailand with Experience Travel Group
Credit: Abigail Flanagan

Explore the Ancient Mangroves

Guardians of the mangroves that surround their home, the villagers of Tung Yee Peng offer tours into the 775-acre forest by longtail boat or gondola. Choose the latter: gliding along the wildlife-rich waterways, accompanied only by birdsong and the creak of oars verges on meditative. Community-based tourism at its best, I lucked out with having the enterprise’s president, Narathon Hongthong, as my guide. An eco-encyclopaedia who delighted in finding us macaques, mudskippers and much more, Narathon’s passion for protecting the rich ecosystem and his culture was palpable. My morning spent with him was a massage for the soul.

Mangroves excursion in Koh Lanta Thailand with Experience Travel Group
Credit: Abigail Flanagan

Following Giants Elephant Sanctuary

Currently the only Koh Lanta elephant camp ETG recommend, Following Giants is a totally hands-off experience, and all the better for it. The founder, Charae Sangkaow, is the sixth generation of an elephant-owning family. In 2019, Charae transformed his elephant riding camp into a sustainable, elephant-friendly sanctuary, supported by World Animal Protection (previously WSPA).

Nowadays, his elephants roam freely through their forest home, attended by their mahouts, while visitors observe from a respectful, safe distance. There’s no touching, no feeding, no bathing. Just elephants being elephants. Only at night, when their mahouts are sleeping, are the elephants chained for their safety and that of neighbouring villagers. But plans are underway for a secure night enclosure (and land cleared in preparation for its construction), so hopefully these chains will soon be a thing of the past.

I spent the morning with Charae and the elephants, learning about his past and hopes for the future, the struggles the sanctuary faces, and the benefits it brings to the neighbouring village through the leasing of land. I felt he cared deeply for the animals’ wellbeing (helpfully, his daughter is studying to become a vet) and was focused on promoting change within the elephant tourism industry.

You can learn more about Thailand’s complex relationship with its elephants and how to choose an ethical elephant experience in ETG’s in-depth guide here.

Credit: Abigail Flanagan

Head Below Water

Ko Lanta sits within Mu Ko Lanta National (Marine) Park, so you’re spoilt for coral-rich snorkelling spots. Two of the best are Koh Rok and Koh Haa. The latter’s limestone karsts are a magnet for a rainbow of reef fish, including clownfish, angelfish, and iridescent parrot fish.

Numerous local operators offer trips, but it’s worth booking with Pimalai if you’re staying there. Yes, it’s more expensive, but you’ll be well cared for by an expert crew (crucial if you’re a novice or nervous snorkeller) and well-fed, too. The resort’s fleet runs several weekly trips to both Ko Rok and Ko Haa, apart from in July and August, when both islands are ‘closed’ for conservation purposes. During these months, Pimalai offers Talabeng Islands and Koh Ngai/Emerald Cave cruises, so you’ll still have a chance of finding Nemo.

Snorkelling excursion at Pimalai Resort and Spa to Koh Rok island

Mu Ko Lanta National Park

The island’s southern tip falls within the National Park, too. Home to a lighthouse (the views are worth the scramble), an hour-long nature trail, and picture-perfect Tha Nod beach…you could easily while away an afternoon here. But beware of the resident macaques: they’re dreadful thieves.

Lanta Old Town

A century ago, Lanta Old Town was a bustling port and commercial centre. Today, it’s a sleepy little spot, but its heritage shophouses and overwater restaurants are still worth exploring. For a fresh-out-the-tank seafood feast, grab a table at Shine Talay. Afterwards, pop next door to Mayuri’s Bar (follow the winding corridor) for cocktails on the overwater terrace.

When is the Best Time to Visit Koh Lanta?

Koh Lanta’s warm, tropical climate has two seasons: high/dry (November to April) and low/green (May to October). Officially, the best time is December to March: usually, these months are pleasantly hot, with little rain and calm seas. April and May see temperatures and humidity rise. While rain increases, it often falls overnight.

The low/green season heralds the southwest monsoon’s arrival around May-June. This brings windier conditions, more rain, rougher seas, and sometimes storms. But Koh Lanta can also have long periods of sunny, dry weather during these months, too—and when rain does fall, it’s often in intense bursts. Historically, the highest rainfall comes in September-October, while November marks the start of the high/dry season. But the monsoon’s departure can be unpredictable, so nothing is a given!

Peak monsoon aside, the green season is still a great time to visit. The island is verdant and serene, the weather’s warm and fresh, and flights and accommodation are cheaper. Plus, by visiting now, you help support the local economy at a crucial time. Pre-pandemic, many tourist facilities shut for parts of the low season, but islanders are still recovering financially, and all the restaurant and bar owners we spoke to plan to stay open year-round.

Experience the joy of staying here during our ‘Three Sides of Thailand‘ luxury holiday.


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