The reason was that access to this lovely island was constrained by the need to cross two small pieces of sea by two extremely slow and rather decrepit vehicular ferries, which took up to two hours to negotiate, often in blazing sunshine.
Hence the island was largely undeveloped in the mainstream touristic sense, although there was an abundance of bric-a-brac backpacker-style guesthouses, bars and internet cafes strung along the cratered road that ran through the town of Saladan where one disembarked.
Fourteen years later, in May this year, I packed my oldest, toughest mountain bike onto my car’s bike rack and set off south once again to see what had changed.
The short answer to this is, “Not much”.
True, a bridge linking Koh Lanta Noi to its bigger “Yai” sister opened about three years ago after many years in the planning and building, but you still have to negotiate the stretch of water between the mainland and Lanta Noi by the same decrepit ferry. Time consuming and very hot it is too!
While rumours that the mayor of Krabi Province owns the ferry and so it will never be replaced swirl through chat rooms and bars, I have no desire to comment on such potentially libellous chatter.
The roads around Koh Lanta in May 2018 are, if anything, even more degenerated, flooded and rutted than when I last visited about two years ago. There are with some shocking ridges and furrows in the concrete, so I strongly recommend taking a really tough mountain bike if you do undertake a cycling trip to Koh Lanta.
The island is a long narrow teardrop running north to south. It’s about 16 kilometres long and no more than four kilometres at its broadest. There’s basically one road that runs around the perimeter and two cut-through roads that slice across the central ridge of hills that run down the spine of the island.
That’s it folks… it’s charming, quiet, bucolic and impossible to get lost!
My plan was to ride the length of the island to the National Park at the southern tip and then have a hike, prior to staying the night at the luxurious Pimalai Resort and Spa with dinner with the General Manager Franck de Lestapis at their lovely beachside restaurant.
The road south from Saladan is pretty flat and runs parallel to the beach, bordered by a clutter of ramshackle bars, guesthouses, massage joints and billboards exhortation you to join the next Full Moon Party at dubious-looking bars up in the hills. After five kilometres of this, the building frenzy abates and at last the road comes to run along the comely beach itself with stunning views out across lower Phang Nga Bay with the dramatic silhouette of the limestone karst island of Koh Ha seemingly hovering in the heat haze on the horizon. There are a couple of laid-back beach bars here, worth a stop for a refreshing juice and a plate of fresh fruit.
As you enter the southernmost quarter of the ride, the roads start to buck and weave like the back of an irate snake, with some vertiginous climbs and descents which are made all the more hair-raising by the appalling state of the road.
In compensation the scenery is pretty sensational with great vistas across the surrounding sea. At the park gates I paid the foreigner price of B200 to enter, but the walk through pristine rainforest down to Ta Noad Cape at the island’s south was worth the price and I saw no other hikers during my two hours on the trail.
I cycled back north for five kilometres to Pimalai Resort, which occupies a stunning amphitheatre within the rainforest overlooking beautiful Ba Kan Tieng Bay. Pimalai is without exaggeration one of Thailand’s premier resorts and its pristine beauty is unsurpassed.
Franck de Lestapis, its convivial GM, is an old friend and he very kindly gave me a beachside villa for the night commanding sensational sunset views. A relaxing session in their tropical garden spa and a beachside seafood supper of fresh yellow snapper and crunchy veggies washed asunder by a NZ Sauvignon Blanc made all my leg pains evaporate.
My second day dawned with laps in one of the huge Pimalai infinity pools and a Herculean buffet breakfast, my flagrant calorific intake being self-justified by the day’s cycling ahead.
I cycled back north for a few clicks then took the right turn onto the cut-through road that leads up and over the central hills and then down into Lanta Old Town.
This is a charming Chinese and Muslim fishing village with many of the waterfront houses built on stilts out over the water and a long pier thrusting eastward into the sea. It’s decidedly sleepy with slumbering dogs gracing the middle of “Main Street” and some nice cafes in which to linger over a coffee.
Eventually I re-mounted and cycled a charming stretch of road up the island’s east coast, avoiding sundry water buffalo and chickens, to the cut through road that leads back to the west coast and the final six kilometres to Saladan Town for lunch and then the bridge and ferry back to the mainland.
I took a couple of happy days cantering around Lanta, but it can certainly be circuited in a day if you wish.
It’s a charming escape from Phuket and rather quaint in a run-down sort of way… all you need are tough legs and an equally tough mountain bike and you’ll love it.