For 24 days in March, we island hopped our way from Thailand to Malaysia, criss-crossing the mainland twice to go from the Gulf of Thailand over to the Andaman Sea and back over to the South China Sea. There was a stretch of 12 straight days where we didn’t hit the mainland, not even to cross the border, moving between islands by ferries of various sizes and shapes. We hit four islands during the Thailand portion: Ko Tao, Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta, and Ko Lipe. We had been looking forward to lazy days, and for that, the Thai islands didn’t disappoint, which is why I am able to sum up our two weeks in one post. We had next to zero cultural interactions, and there’s only so many ways to describe our beach bum lives. We visited the islands during the high season and found ourselves surrounded by tourists. Unfortunately, all too many of them were of the young, partying variety, the types to walk around shirtless or hanging out of a bikini hooting and hollering in a rather conservative (and in some of the islands, Muslim) society. The tourism industry is all too eager to cater to these tourists, with shoddily constructed cheap construction tacked up haphazardly next to sewage and water pipes jutting out of the ground, tourist agencies and shops selling the same crap, and most annoyingly, pounding bass music at night. I didn’t expect to be the only ones around, but finding decent accommodation in a quiet location became the bane of our existence. Everything on the islands is more expensive than the mainland and food and accommodation is not nearly as good. But we managed to find some good stuff, we just had to look a little harder. Plus it’s hard to be cranky when the water’s warm and crystal clear, the sand is white and fine, and the sun is shining. Here’s our take (and photos, of course) from the four islands we visited:
Despite spending 5 nights on Ko Tao, I couldn’t tell you a thing about the island other than it’s great at churning out certified scuba divers at dirt cheap prices. We went there with a one track mind and left after successfully getting our PADI Open Water scuba certification from Buddha View Divers for about $325 a person. Other than that, we saw diddly squat. While we could have made more of an effort to explore, we felt lazy after days spent doing homework for our class and mastering new skills out in the water. So that’s all I have to say about that. (Spoiler alert: we ended up getting our advanced diving certification through Turtle Bay Divers on the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. More on that later, but if I had to do it over again, I’d probably would have gotten my open water certification through Turtle Bay as well since it was
actually cheaper similarly priced [Sean tells me I'm remembering wrong], classes are more intimate and less like a factory, and our instructor Harun was awesome. Nevertheless, the diving schools on Ko Tao get the job done efficiently).
Ko Phi Phi
Ko Phi Phi: definitely winning the award from my least favorite Thai island. You may remember Phi Phi as it was destroyed by the tsunami in 2004. Seven years later, many of the signs of the tsunami are gone, save for new signs displaying the evacuation route. I’m not sure if it was this bad pre-tsunami, but today, it has little charm and it’s crammed full of tourist agencies, trinket shops and clubs. Most people that are there seem to be there to party. In Phi Phi’s defense, we only were there for 2 days and didn’t get a chance to explore beyond the tourist-packed village close to the ferry pier. It rained rather hard while we were there, pinning us in our room and cancelling the boat outing we had planned. And it is a beautiful island, with two crescent shaped bays curving inwards to meet each other. But overall it’s not my cup of tea.
Ko Lanta may be the least tropical of the islands we visited, but it probably was my favorite. For starters, it’s bigger than some of the others (but easily circumnavigated in a scooter), meaning that it is less crowded and more spread out. We stayed on Klong Khong Beach on the central western coast, but explored all over the island from the popular Klong Dao Beach in the northwest to the secluded beaches and national park down a dirt road at the southern tip to the less beachy but quaint east coast where the locals live. As we went south in Thailand, the Thai Muslim culture became more predominant, and Muslims operate most of the guesthouses and restaurants on Lanta. The longer we stayed, the more we discovered little hidden gems like Shanti Shanti’s homemade ice creams and sorbets (we tried lime and papaya, chili mango and cinnamon) or Bulan Lanta’s bargain homemade muesli. Our favorite past time on Ko Lanta was sunset watching; there are great sunsets every night up and down Lanta’s long western coast.
When you’re daydreaming of escaping to the Thai islands at work, Ko Lipe might be the closest to the picture you have in your mind. Only an hour and half to the Malaysian border by boat and in the middle of a marine reserve, it’s less developed and a little harder to get to than the more northern islands. There’s no pier; the ferry picks up and drops off in the middle of the bay. The water was the bluest and clearest of any of the Thai islands we visited and the sand the whitest and softest. Unfortunately, some of those fabulous beaches can also be strewn with a little too much garbage for my liking. Some people fear Ko Lipe is turning into a mini Ko Phi Phi. Like Ko Phi Phi, motor traffic is prohibited on much of Ko Lipe, and any development that is occurring is shortsighted. It’s also a tad more expensive than even Ko Phi Phi (although we managed to find a decent hut for under $20, albeit without a sink). Hopefully, development won’t run amok, as it is a beautiful gem.