With pristine beaches, wild rainforest and abundant marine life, Koh Lanta offers a taste of Thailand before tourism. Risa Merl discovers one of the Andaman Sea’s last secrets at the island's Pimalai Resort
The speedboat skims across the blue-green water, whisking me from the Thai port of Krabi southwards to the lush island of Koh Lanta. As the shores of the mainland blur into the distance there is a growing sense of tranquillity. Koh Lanta’s white-sand beaches, backed by hills of deep green jungle, are blissfully quiet. Yet we’re really only a stone’s throw from some of Thailand’s most-visited stretches of coastline.
Sitting 40 nautical miles south-east of the increasingly popular yachting hub of Phuket, Koh Lanta is actually made up of two connecting islands. Lanta Noi to the north is home to a thriving Thai village of brightly painted wooden stilt houses built out over the sea, while Lanta Yai to the south is home to the lion’s share of the best beaches. Set on the eastern edge of the Andaman Sea, the islands have evaded the cumbersome touristic boom seen on other Thai islands, and this is part of the allure for yachties in the know. “Phuket is more of a city,” says Hugo van Schaik of Camper & Nicholsons. “But Koh Lanta is only reachable by private boat or ferry – it’s less crowded, less westernised and less touristic than Phuket.” Guests looking to visit by yacht can either enjoy the four-hour motor from Phuket – which is home to superyacht marinas such as Royal Phuket Marina and Ao Po Grand Marina – or fly in by private plane from Bangkok to Krabi and make the short hop across.
Koh Lanta may have avoided the mass-market influx of other Thai islands, but this doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of onshore luxury. After 30 minutes the boat drops me in the protective curve of Kantiang Bay at the southern end of Lanta Yai. The golden sands are buttressed at both ends by rocky cliffs, topped with ramshackle beach bars. From the boat I could see roofs set high on the hillside, but once I’m onshore, any sign of development is camouflaged by the rich rainforest that rambles down to the water’s edge.
This is one of the charms of Pimalai Resort and Spa, the island’s only five-star resort – it blends in with its natural surroundings and makes the most of them. Its hillside villas with private infinity pools are reached via winding tree-lined paths, and its beach suites are hidden behind tropical greenery to ensure privacy. These stylish abodes, with their vaulted ceilings and sprawling terraces, are complemented by five restaurants, a beach bar (the best place to watch the sunset), a spa, a gym offering muay Thai lessons, a watersports centre and a dive shop.
The latter is particularly useful, as Koh Lanta’s surrounding waters are famed for their coral reefs. The island sits within the boundaries of the Mu Ko Lanta National Park, a marine park established in 1990 that envelops a 134-square-kilometre area of islands and reefs. “Koh Lanta’s signature is diving,” says van Schaik. “The world-famous Koh Haa, Hin Daeng and Hin Muang sites are around 30 minutes to an hour away by motorboat.” Koh Haa (which means “five islands” in Thai) can be spotted on the horizon from Pimalai’s hilltop infinity pool, and a quick tender ride takes me to one of Koh Haa’s untouched beaches, where the sparkling waters are framed by limestone islets topped with rich green shrubbery. A quick snorkel off the boat reveals colourful corals, an abundance of tropical fish, giant blue starfish and even a baby shark. This is just the start though; don a scuba tank and the underwater world unfolds with more than a dozen dive sites, allowing for epic wall dives and a famous cave dive known as the Cathedral.
An hour south from Koh Lanta, Koh Rok Nok is renowned for its drift dives, with the chance to spot dogtooth tuna, barracudas and trevallies, as well as blacktip reef sharks and eagle rays. A local ranger station occupies a small area on the adjacent island of Koh Rok Nai, but the only other visitors are yachts and local fishing boats. To make the most of the variety of dives on offer, yachts are recommended to hire a local PADI Divemaster so that you can find the best spots and hit the sites at the right time to have them entirely to yourself.
Koh Lanta can easily be added to an itinerary of the Andaman Sea, and it’s worthwhile to allow time to enjoy the island itself. “Depending on the season and winds, there are plenty of excellent anchorages on the west coast [of Koh Lanta] for yachts,” says Captain Mark Wilkinson of the 34-metre motor yacht Xanadu of London. “The island offers excellent exploration, with out-of-the-way bays and beaches, jungle hiking and unspoiled nature both above and under the water.” Pimalai’s general manager Patrice Landrein agrees that you can have a lot of fun when visiting on a yacht: “Much of the island is wild – you can still find pristine, undeveloped beaches.”
I soon discover that you don’t have to stray much further than Kantiang Bay to find these fabled beaches.
A few bays south from Pimalai is an untouched beach where you can play Robinson Crusoe. I make the short hike from Pimalai to reach it, but arriving by tender would be even better – it’s an ideal place for the crew to set up a picnic or sunset beach barbecue, and you would be likely to have the entire beach to yourself.
To get a taste of the wilder side of the islands, I wander inland on Lanta Yai. A moderately strenuous hike leads through an impressive jungle to the Khlong Chak Waterfall, and along the way a local guide points out edible plants and leaves, shrubs to avoid, camouflaged insects and signs of wildlife. The waterfall is tame during the dry months of November to February, but in the hot, rainy season it cascades down. The hike is a sweaty endeavour, and I relish a cooling dip in the pool below the falls. On the way back I stop for a look in the Bat Cave, where massive tree roots seem to be holding the rocks of the cave in place.
I take to the sea again the next day, meandering through the maze of mangrove forests on Koh Lanta’s north-east coast. The mangroves are a habitat for rare birds and monkeys, who call to us from the treetops as we float by. Van Schaik recommends exploring by kayak or canoe: “You can enjoy the opportunity for a silent paddle through the backwaters, observing much more than is possible from a noisy motorboat.”
After all this exploration, Pimalai is a welcome retreat to return to. Even if you don’t stay the night ashore, it’s worth a visit to dine at the renowned Seven Seas French restaurant. Situated on a hill overlooking the bay, it serves up stylish European dishes such as tender duck confit and griddled fillet of red snapper with roasted beetroot purée. The view steals the show here, with an ancient tree clinging to the cliffside the only obstruction to the panoramic views.
Alternatively, for a more relaxed vibe, the beachfront Rak Talay restaurant specialises in local seafood. The giant prawn salad, topped with a Caesar dressing, is so flavoursome that I order it on consecutive days. It’s perfect washed down with fresh watermelon juice and Pimalai’s homemade Thai tea ice cream.
The resort’s spa is equally enticing. Shaded beneath trees and set alongside a babbling brook, it is home to a number of private cabanas. I try the Rebalancing Facial, which refreshes the skin with natural, plant-based ingredients and includes a calming shoulder and head massage. Alternatively, for those looking to make the most of Thailand’s famed climate, the Andaman Sea Salt Scrub is recommended to prep for a tan, while the Thai Cooling Scrub will nourish skin that’s enjoyed the sun a little too much.
Peace and quiet seems to be the resounding theme of Koh Lanta – enjoyed equally by the monkeys and the enterprising visitors who make it here. “For some people, Koh Lanta may be too quiet,” admits Captain Wilkinson. “There’s not the same kind of bar scene as in Phuket or other islands.” However, what this area lacks in loud bars and fire shows, it more than makes up for in serenity and scenery. Koh Lanta and its neighbouring islands represent some of the best cruising grounds in Thailand – chock-full of activity above and below the waterline, as well as plentiful opportunities to take life at a slower pace. For the world-weary traveller seeking solitude, nature and adventure away from the throngs of tourists, there are few better places to play castaway than Koh Lanta. Hillside Ocean View Pool Villas start from £500, pimalai.com.
One night in Bangkok
Bangkok’s skyscrapers, tuk-tuks, palaces and bustling night markets provide a dramatic contrast to top or tail your time in Thailand’s quieter reaches, with direct flights from European hubs and easy access to nearby Krabi, via a private flight.
Overlooking Lumpini Park (known as Bangkok’s Central Park), SO/ Bangkok is an urban oasis. With interior decor inspired by the five elements, the best room in the house is the two-storey SO VIP Duplex Suite. It has unrivalled views of the park and the city, as well as its own spa pool and dining room.
For further relaxation, the 11th-floor spa combines ancient treatments with modern products in a calming environment, along with dark marble floors and glass-fronted treatment rooms. To find your Zen, book in for an Experiential Jade Therapy Massage, where a therapist will rub jade stones over your body to release tension and enhance blood circulation.
Once suitably soothed, the hotel’s concierge recommends a private longtail boat cruise through Bangkok’s waterways, stopping off at sites such as the Grand Palace – the official residence of the Kings of Siam – to get a feel for the city. You can also visit the Wat Pho Buddhist temple complex, which is home to the Reclining Buddha, the longest of its kind at 46 metres.
Bangkok really comes to life at night, with its bustling night markets, fine dining and famous nightlife. If you are missing being on board, book dinner at Apsara, a floating restaurant set on a vintage rice barge that cruises along the Chao Phraya River. Or, after a long day of exploration, head upstairs to SO/ Bangkok’s rooftop Park Society restaurant, where chef Thomas Smith serves up tasting menus including lobster bisque and Japanese Hokkaido scallops, with the city’s twinkling lights providing a sparkling backdrop. The SO VIP Duplex Suite starts from £1,305, so-bangkok.com.
This feature is taken from the 2021 issue of BOAT International. Get this magazine sent straight to your door, or subscribe and never miss an issue.shop now