In very broken English, our Thai guide stood at the front of our wooden longtail boat and instructed us to all put on life jackets, jump into the water, and follow his light. "Very dark, okay? Fast, fast, okay?" he repeated, as we all tried to comprehend what was going on.
As the ten of us on the snorkeling tour worked to get on our life jackets, our guide jumped in the water with a large spotlight headlamp and began swimming towards a dark cave at the base of a towering thousand-foot cliff. Reluctantly, we followed, passing beneath the mouth of the sea cave into complete darkness. We swam in a clustered group for 250 feet, kicking each other and calling out in French, Spanish, and English with only a glimmer of the guide's light illuminating the beautiful emerald seawater and cave ceilings around us. Suddenly a bright light at the back of the cave broke through the darkness, the cave opened, and an unbelievable secluded beach and jungle met our eyes as our feet hit the soft golden sand. Euphoric and relieved expressions of joy filled the air, as we took in the sights around us. The cliffs extended high above into the fog on every side with only a small crescent-shaped beach around the mouth of the cave before giving way to jungle. We all knew that we would be visiting a sea cave on this tour, yet somehow none of us were aware of the beach awaiting us through the darkness. It was a perfect paradise, and we basked in the beauty of such a magical place. After a while, we confidently made our way back through the dark cave to continue snorkeling on coral reefs and bright tropical fish in the clear water.
In early October, we spent a little over a week in the near-perfect paradise of Koh Lanta Yai, a quiet, beautiful, non-touristy island off the Southern coast of Thailand. Many backpackers opt for the more popular islands of Koh Phi Phi, Phuket, and Koh Samui, yet from our research, we knew these "party" islands would not give us the relaxing and secluded feel we were after. Coming off of a very long fishing season in Alaska, a fun and wild week in Bangkok, and long days of traveling and planning, we found ourselves needing some serious chill time. What a better place than the world-famous Thai beaches? Let me tell you, this week did the trick!
We stayed in a beachside bungalow at a resort called Coco Lanta for most of the week, which was perfect. Each bungalow had a hammock on the front porch as well as several others on the beach stretched between palm trees. It was like something out of magazines. The resort also had an infinity pool, a great beachside restaurant where we enjoyed breakfast and sunsets from a wooden deck with low tables and bean bags, and a very cheap Thai spa. We spent many days taking long walks on the beach, reading on the deck, napping in hammocks to the sound of the ocean, enjoying messages, and relaxing by the pool. It truly was a blessing to feel caught up on rest and rejuvenated for the rest of our trip.
We then found that we could rent a motorbike from our resort for $5/day, and the exploring was ON! We drove all over the island and discovered great coffee shops, a secluded gypsy fishing village, and neat restaurants. Riding around on our motorbike was so much fun that we'd often start driving around just to get lost on the small island see what we stumble upon like some amazing beach or jungle. One day, we were driving to the southern tip on the island to see the National Park and in between hairpin turns up the jungle mountain road, we nearly hit a troop of monkeys! We got off the bike to take photos as the monkeys lounged around in the middle of the road, which was so cool! However, at one point the alpha male decided I was close enough and bared his teeth and ran at me for about 10 feet while I turned and sprinted away. Fortunately avoiding death by monkeys, we continued on our way and learned to keep a fair amount of distance.
On another day, we booked the snorkeling trip to 4 nearby islands. We rode about 1 hour in a traditional longtail boat, a long wooden boat with a canvas top propelled and steered by a 10-foot-long outboard shaft and prop. Although the seas were choppy and haze from the Indonesian wildfires filled the air, we were fascinated by the tropical fish, urchins, and reefs that we snorkeled on. We were there during the offseason when the daily rain makes the water murky, but we were still impressed by the emerald water and fish variety. We visited 3 snorkeling sites and the Emerald Cave and loved the experience!
On our last day there, we decided to splurge a little bit and booked a night at the island's nicest 5-star resort. We knew it may be the only time we could afford such luxury on our trip, and it certainly did not disappoint! We ended up with a gorgeous room at the Rawi Warin Resort (at an outrageous cost of $60, more than double our usual nightly expense) and were pampered and treated like royalty! Their grounds were beautifully landscaped and the pool and beach were pristine. We loved our time there and felt so fortunate for the experience.
Overall, much of Koh Lanta was peacefully quiet, ridiculously cheap, and incredibly relaxing. We did not know much about the area or activities, and constantly found ourselves stumbling into places that were just incredible. Through the uncertainty, spontaneity, and unknown, we found some of our favorite experiences thus far. We arrived back in Bangkok a week later (where I came down with what we think was Dengue fever for a week), wondering why we ever left Koh Lanta. It was a gorgeous piece of paradise, and at those times when we found ourselves alone on a beautiful beach, cruising down a jungle road, or in a quant local coffee shop, we felt like the luckiest people on the planet.
As we travel, we want to see more than the sights and scenery and instead, be truly transformed in some way. Koh Lanta gave us the space to reflect on our journey, quiet our souls, and prepare for what was ahead. It reminded us the importance of rest -- taking days off from "doing" and instead, simply "being." Each day was spontaneously enjoyed, which seemed to release us into so many great experiences we may not have enjoyed as much otherwise. It was a week of valuable reminders to slow down, take it all in, operate in the present, and enjoy the beauty we're surrounded by. Koh Lanta was something very special and will definitely be remembered as a trip highlight.