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Koh Lanta, Day 5: driving around and a crying elephant

I love travelling during low-tourist season. This way you can expect a friendlier, or at least a more open service with fewer fake smiles. Of course it’s not fun being served by grim staff, but I much prefer that than a fake smile –I don’t know what it is, but I like the real stuff. Many people who come to Thailand for a holiday say the service is amazing and everyone’s friendly and happy. Living in Thailand, especially working in language environment, made me realise how low most of the people’s level of English is, so they use very few words and top that up with a smile.

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Also they cannot ‘lose face’, a.k.a. mess up, especially in front of other Thais. My theory was that when happy chatty tourists ask for whatever they want from service staff/vendors, if a Thai doesn’t understand he or she will hide it with a smile and will go an extra mile to fulfill their request just for the sake of looking professional. But that’s just my theory. And there’s always the other end of the stick – not all Thais are Buddhists, and not all Thais have patience as many think. If you make a Thai lose face, it sometimes ends up in taxi drivers dumping passengers on highways, getting into fights and even murder! (many times on islands)

So here’s Day 5 on the island (if you missed the previous stories you can catch up here: Day 1Day 2 and Days 3,4). At 7 am we got on our beautiful rented motorbike (Yamaha mio FINO, which reminded us a little bit of Vespa). Slowly we headed south, not wearing much clothing and enjoying a cool morning breeze, driving no faster than 30 km/h. At around 9 am we had to wear our long-sleeve clothes to avoid putting on loads of sun lotion later which doesn’t feel comfortable when sweating. And to be honest doesn’t help in general when you’re in the sun for 10+ hours.

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It was the first time I drove a motorbike for such a long time, so for me it was the highlight of the day and partly of the whole holiday, it was so much fun learning how to drive! When we rented it I didn’t even know how to start it. We signed the papers, got the key, and sat down. The guy was like “You OK?” . No… So HE started the bike for US, meaning we couldn’t press a button ourselves…But I was never into motorbikes. The bike allowed us to see many beaches we wouldn’t have reached by bicycles. Also we reached the southernmost part of the island (National park), but there was a fee of 200 or 400 baht, so we decided that seeing a lighthouse – the major attraction in the area – wasn’t worth it, as the views were pretty enough with lots of wildlife everywhere else. We saw lots of monkeys in many places, some of which weren’t friendly at all and scared me a little bit when approaching to take a photo!

Throughout our little drive-arounds on the island we haven’t seen a crowded beach. Most of them were cosy and isolated, without a person, or even a boat in sight. Some beaches had perhaps a couple or two enjoying the sun and the tranquil waters. Honestly, most beaches were so quiet, that you could sunbathe naked. Not that you should, I’m just saying.

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On a more serious note, even though Koh Lanta is a beautiful island with exotic flora, fauna and all the amenities to have a great holiday, it is like many other places in Thailand with unaddressed issues. Just driving along the main road our eyes caught something worth stopping for – a cute little elephant! We parked immediately, as it was the first baby elephant we had ever seen, oh the joy! Unfortunately all the excitement vanished in an instant, when all the surroundings suddenly made sense:

Look, this baby elephant has a little bungalow, a concrete well, some trees, oh wait.. the well’s empty, and he’s chained to the bungalow. That’s strange. Oh… he’s… got… tears running down his eyes. What?! Is he  really crying? But look, he’s playing with some sort of twig or a piece of wood wrapped in his trunk, striking it against the dusty brown well. Ohhh nooo…. he’s trying to show he’s thirsty!

Being animal lovers it was truly heartbreaking. We could only empathise how painful this baby elephant was feeling inside, not just emotionally, but physically too. We wanted to give him water, but kept the distance as there was a mahout (the owner?) at the back, carving something with a pocket knife, watching us closely. There was a big banner at the entrance: “Swimming with the elephants”. That explains everything… They deprive the elephants of water and then of course the poor creatures are delighted to swim with the tourists. I felt ashamed for being part of human race.

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Back at our hotel we bought ferry tickets to Phi Phi, which included a pick-up, and that worked out much cheaper than buying it from the actual pier. So don’t fall for all the reviews online that 3rd party sellers rip you off, as the ones we came across so far were value for money (booking through our accommodation).

We also stopped at a café for a hot dog without the dog, which was basically two pieces of bread with some salad inside. It was pretty good though. And we had pretty expensive coffee, like 120 baht for an ice coffee at some fancy hotel’s bar by the beach. Our hotel’s bar was also fancy, but in a different way. There was a cat so friendly and oh-so confident that he walked into OUR room, enjoyed OUR water, drinking from OUR glasses… They trained him well.

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Luckily we had a nice hotel for our last night in Lanta as the weather which had been perfect the whole time suddenly changed. When we went out for a meal we got caught in a storm, which lasted nearly all night, putting on an impressive show across the sky. It was also interesting to see so many crabs combing the beach after the rain – a sight that reminded me of my childhood where you see hundreds of snails sliming their way on the pavements after rain. It was the first time we had eaten dinner wearing rain ponchos. BEST tempura vegetables ever!

Koh Lanta, Days 3 and 4: cycling, swimming and snorkelling

On our 3rd day in Koh Lanta  (read about Day 1 and Day 2 here) we went cycling and switched accommodation after we got back late in the afternoon. We had a couple of nights booked at a bungalow rather than a room, because it’s nice to explore different kinds of options on the housing menu. Since we were after a basic place, we specifically looked into the ones with mosquito nets. We’re not at all fans of creatures that have an exoskeleton, multiple-part body, multiple pairs of jointed legs, compound eyes or antennae. Thanks, Wikipedia, for making me sound smart!

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So we stayed in a bungalow of a good size, with a net, en-suite bathroom, and a porch, right next to the beach…for only 400 baht (about £8). They had a restaurant right on the actual beach offering cocktails from 99 baht, pina colada’s for 150 – crazy. We had meals there, enjoyed beautiful sunsets and it just felt like a dream. Whenever we have to switch accommodation or catch a ferry, it takes up so much time, sometimes even the whole day, so we can’t enjoy the day to the fullest, however this time we asked the owner at Hostaria 239 to watch our stuff until late, so we could enjoy our bicycle rides around the island.

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We cycled pretty much the whole day. The weather was perfect, but the best time was in the morning, so we left early to avoid the tropical sun. It’s Thai summer you know! I had also brought a long-sleeved jumper to the islands to learn from my mistakes of just wearing a t-shirt all day. (We got sunburnt anyway and used up 2 bottles of suncream). Cycling around the island was extremely fun, as it gave us a chance to notice the little things usually missed when on a scooter. We saw some poor little monkeys chained to a pole at somebody’s property, they were grabbing the chains and pulling them with their tiny little hands, and it was just sad. My thought was they see monkeys as some people see dogs in some parts of Europe and just chain them to a kennel. I don’t know.

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We had another full day to spare before changing hotels again, and we couldn’t wait to see more islands. That’s why we went on a 4 islands tour, which was definitely worth it, I’d recommend it to anyone, just beware that the name ‘4-island tour’ is operated by different companies, and the one we went on was arranged by Mr Claudio from Hostaria 239. I think it was only around 1000 baht per person. This included snorkelling at Koh Ma and Koh Chuak, swimming through a sea cave leading to a hidden beach at Koh Mook (that place was amazing), and lunch at a quiet beach on Koh Ngai (I would consider this island for a long-term stay as a chilled-out spot with pristine white beaches).

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Koh Ngai

The tour was so relaxed, the locations chosen were away from tourist crowds (although in one snorkeling spot there were several huge boats loaded with tourists, but even then our boat stopped far away from the others and we could enjoy snorkeling with plenty of space just for us), snorkelling was fun, and the crew were amazing! The water was incredibly clear in the snorkelling spots and there were loads of beautiful corals, fish and sea creatures to admire.

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Emerald Cave, also known as Morakot Cave or Tam Nam at Koh Mook

The leader was so passionate about what he does, and while in the water he was  grabbing our hands and pulling us down to the bottom of the sea to show some weird creatures and fascinating formations. I was like, “Come on man, I can’t hold my breath for even 5 seconds!”. And then he laughed and laughed because I was so crap at diving haha. He also caught a sea hedgehog or something spiky, and he was showing that it’s poisonous if you touch it with your fingers, but harmless if touched with a forearm or other part.

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The steering wheel of the boat was slowly falling apart (noticed only by the cautious), so me and this small kid were constantly observing the ‘captain’, thinking what if the boat flips over or something. I was fine, but I could see the kid was very frightened… But it was one of the nicest tours we’ve had in Thailand. There were only about 20 people in total on the boat (it was a longtail boat, so you can’t really fit any more than that on it), so it didn’t feel overwhelming. And when the crew really love what they do and love the places they take you to, it makes a world of difference. Even if they don’t speak much English!

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Once we got back, around 6 PM we rented a Fino motorbike. I had never driven one before properly, so I did my research online – thank you youtube! We signed some papers, sat down on it, and we were like “How do we start this thing??”. I’ve been watching the wrong videos apparently. The guy approached us, started our bike by pushing one bloody button, and let’s just say I didn’t feel very intelligent at that point. But driving a bike was awesome, can’t wait to do it again. And its easy too, I’ve learnt how to do it in two minutes. This was after two full days of exploring the island on bicycles, though, so we were pretty sure the roads were safe enough for us to move at a snail’s pace. You don’t wanna go crazy when you’re riding a motorbike for the first time! We checked-out of Hostaria, and parked our baby Fino in front of our nice Green Chilli Bungalow for the night. The story continues here: Day 5.

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Koh Lanta, Day 2: captain Auste steering a longtail boat

On our second full-day on the island (read about Day 1 here) we didn’t want to waste a minute and went to see some surrounding islands. Whilst waiting for the guide to pick us up, we had another nice chat with our host and this time he was sharing a story how the Long Beach got its name. It used to be long in the direction towards the sea. We thought that it was called so, because it is quite a long stretch of sand along the shore. Visibly, in recent years a lot of it has been swallowed by the sea. He also went on about the weird and annoying administration and rules of owning the property on the island, and then how many Thai people are afraid of geckos (salamandra blanca) – they’re so cute!

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So we got picked up and took a ferry to the north island. The ride to a small pier at the south of the island was amazing. The owner – a funny, hip, and stylish 30-something Thai man had an old rusty songthaew truck made out of wood! Racing through the hills of Lanta, ALL the locals had their eyes on the car. We then got onto a longtail boat, just me, Auste, the guide, and the boat operator. They were so cool and chilled out that they offered Auste to steer the boat! It was so funny, and she did steer it for quite a while, maneuvering through the blue waves of the Andaman.

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The Skull island

That day was exceptional as the guy was awesome, because he really enjoys what he does. Since he saw that we enjoyed climbing and exploring and taking photos, he went the extra mile to show us more places than he usually does when he has more people on the tour – he was as excited as we were. The cave on the Skull island was brilliant – with not even a single boat in sight, easy to climb, full of bats and birds and interesting rock formations. Not to mention the views you get through the “eyes” of the skull.

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To be honest, visiting all of the caves was amazing – something we didn’t expect to be as good. As we paddled the kayaks (part of the luckily private tour) around steep cliffs we had a gentle breeze from the sea, cute little splashes of waves, and an actual chance to climb up those cliffs and get inside. We were amazed by the size of the caves, we climbed around, took photos, and just listened to the waves crashing into the cliffs from the outside – indescribable feeling. Although there’s something I CAN describe – the smell inside some of those caves. If you’ve ever had blue cheese or brie, especially the expensive smelly ones – you’d know what I’m talking about, especially once you keep them unwrapped in the fridge for a while. In some caves you could hardly smell it, in others it felt like a Stilton party.

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Towards the end of our exploration we kayaked to a very, very isolated beach surrounded by limestone cliffs and had lunch. This was the time we chatted to our guides, relaxed, and fed monkeys. People, dogs, cats, birds, even monkeys eat rice in Thailand!

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Koh Talabeng – lunch time!

For the tour we paid around 1,300 per person, which was really good. (Compared to our trip to Ang Thong Marine Park from Koh Phangan, where it wasn’t bad, but the views weren’t as spectacular, we spent loads of time on a boat with roughly 50 other people, way too many tourists in all locations and zero time to explore them – and for the same price!) It’s cheaper renting a longtail boat for a day – around 1,500, but then you’d have to know where to go!

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Koh Talabeng

The trip was amazing and extremely cheap for such a quality time. It wasn’t rushed, the people were awesome, we saw amazing places, AND Auste got to steer a longtail boat! When we got back we rented bicycles (90 baht for a full day – score!), ready for some Lanta cycling action the next morning.

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Koh Lanta, Day 1: Cycling

Today was our first full-day on the island – happy! We had booked cheap accommodation because we decided there was no point of paying lots for a hotel, which would still probably be half as nice as what you’d expect.  Many times in the past we booked nice-looking hotels online, which turned out to be very out-of-date, bugs-on-sheets type of places. The fan on the ceiling was rather old and made lots of noise all night, so we both woke up with minor headaches (which could have also been the result of the hundreds of miles of travel the day before).

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If you’re the type who likes honest and friendly service, and don’t mind staying at a basic place, get in touch with Hostaria 239 – a hostel next to the entrance to Phra Ae Park and Phra Ae  beach. The owner is Italian and he honestly advised us of the best things to do and where to get reliable bikes and so on. He also does a good deal on breakfast, so [in the cute little tree-house] we both had a nice coffee, an omelette, homemade bread and fresh juice of passion fruit mixed with orange. I’m getting hungry just writing about it. He was showing me his jars of yeast and explaining bread making processes and so on, it was really cool to meet someone who just loves BREAD.

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Being slow as ever, we left in the middle of the day, with tropical sun burning everything on the surface of the earth. We rented brand new mountain bikes (bicycles) for like 60 baht for the rest of the day as they were closing around 5PM. We cycled along the main road to Saladan Pier, then followed it southwards along the eastern part of the island to the edge of the Old Town (didn’t quite reach the actual town!). There were a bunch of trees growing in weird colour water. I know my description doesn’t quite paint the picture, so you can just look at the picture haha.

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After sifting through the restaurants offering sea-view we found a nice one and had a tasty meal to ‘carb-up’ for the ride back.

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The island is quite hilly for a bicycle ride, so we were sweating non-stop, but the ride back was even hillier, where we were pushing our bikes up the steep forest road. Auste was uncomfortable at first to ride the bike along a narrow road, but the drivers were quite cautious and sounded the horn when overtaking, so we felt pretty safe.

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It was funny when we wanted to explore an interesting looking dirt road and we saw a big snake literally swimming through the tall grass with its head keeping well above the ground. In my head I was like “Dayuum! I ain’t know nothin’ about Thailand!”. I really don’t know anything about the local fauna so we made a U-turn and headed back to the main road asap. That day we saw elephants with their ‘masters’ (a.k.a. abusers), wild monkeys, chained monkeys (#whywouldyouever), eagles, giant lizards, crabs and coloured chickens  (don’t ask me why). Aaaand when we got back, we had the brilliant pizza from Le Colibri again…mmm…

Keep reading about our Krabi trip here. If you’re interested to see how we got to Koh Lanta from Bangkok, head here.