Amazingly, the first time I heard of and watched Leonardo DiCaprio’s “The Beach” was last month on Koh Lanta, a low-key island off the west coast of Thailand. Filmed on the neighboring island of Koh Phi Phi, “The Beach” is a favorite among Thailand’s backpackers.
Needless to say, today’s Thailand isn’t the uncivilized wilderness depicted in the film. The tribes in huts have been replaced by clusters of hostels, bars, resorts, and souvenir shops.
On the beaten path, that is.
With a little determination, finding (mostly) authentic Thai culture on the islands isn’t impossible. And chances are the truly interesting people — both backpackers and natives — will be avoiding the tourist trap as much as you are.
That was my Thailand. A constant struggle to escape western influence coupled with a series of the most unique and loyal friends I’ve had in my life.
The Family, as we called ourselves, was born quickly and grew like a snowball tumbling down a mountain. I had dinner with Anna my first night on Koh Lanta. I met Matt and Steffi the next morning while extending my stay. That night, Eddy introduced himself, Wendy chimed in, Anna came downstairs, and we all got hungry. On our way to dinner, we picked up Georgia and the family was born.
We became inseparable, as if drawn together by a magnetic field. We spent our days exploring the island in small groups but never failed to fall in for dinner. Everyone extended their stay (again) and we clinked fruit shakes and Chang “To The Family!”
Koh Lanta (personal favorite):
Hostel: Non La Mer ($10/night)
- Run by three extraordinarily friendly women with a brand new (cheap!) restaurant downstairs run by Nong and Pow (who gave us a Mango Sticky Rice cooking lesson).
- 4-Island Snorkeling Tour (600B w/ Bartering)
- The Family had a crippling case of seasickness and nearly capsized in a storm on the way home, but I’m sure you’ll have better luck! And, the Emerald Cave is a lifetime must.
- Volunteer at the island’s animal shelter by walking dogs.
- Take a Muay Thai Boxing class or watch a match!
- Rent a scooter (150B/day) and visit the Tiger Cave, lighthouse, national park, Old Lanta Town (tourist alert), watch the sunset from Khlong Kong, and just explore — see who you meet!
Of course, The Family had to go their separate ways eventually…at least, most of the family. Matt, Steffi, and I paraded one-by-one across Thailand to Koh Phangan for the famous Full Moon Party and the slew of (superior) parties revolving around the phases of the moon (Jungle, Pool, Waterfall, After-, Half-Moon, and Black Moon Parties). The family grew exponentially as we crammed 14 people around the dinner table on Christmas Day.
Hostel: Smile Hostel
- Off the main road but close enough to Nomad House to be part of the action. Run by Boy and his wife who are absolutely amazing.
Nightlife: Nomad House
- Party-central outside of Haad Rin town. Music from 10am-3am with great social atmosphere but impersonal. Only 100m from Smile and 100x crazier.
- There’s a party every night
- Rent a motorbike and escape to the north. Waterfalls, quiet beaches, small towns, homemade ice cram, and viewpoint hikes.
The new year saw Matt, Steffi, and I on Koh Tao. Called “turtle island” becuase of all the turtles that used to be there…before the tourists came in. Matt’s diving course introduced a new slew of family members, including a German who had been traveling for 16 months and was now touring Southeast Asia by bicycle. I was five seconds from buying a bike and joining him.
Hostel: Baan Chalok Smile Hostel
- Off the resort/dive street, tucked in with Thai neighborhoods and street food (always superior to restaurants). Brand new and clean and walking distance to the town center.
- CK Hostel is the most popular, right among the bars and a block from the beach.
To Do: Hike up to Two View.
- The trail is hard to find, so ask someone or use a GPS. The CityMaps2Go app has the whole trail marked. Take it from me, don’t start hiking at noon, but the view is unparalleled.
- Tao is dive central. Cheap and great diving, if you’re going to get PADI certified this is place to do it.
To Do: Relax. There is absolutely nothing here, not even an ATM. The perfect place to escape reality — especially before/after Phi Phi.
Koh Phi Phi:
In my opinion, not worth staying the night. Maybe one, but even the diehard partier says two nights is more than enough. There is a popular hike with a fantastic panoramic view, but the town is there for the sole purpose of catering to tourists. Phi Phi is Thailand’s party island but to be honest, there’s more construction than culture.
With a little effort and adventurous spirit, Thailand’s islands are magical. And don’t get me started about Pad Thai…fried noodles, massaman curry, mango sticky rice…