Wednesday 12 February 2014

Koh Laoliang - Is this Thailand's last paradise?

Hello! Sorry for the radio silence. I’ve been offline for much of the past few weeks while in transit, promoting Adventures on Earth, exploring parts of Thailand I never knew existed... 

Getting vertical with Kaud,
my King Climbers instructor
The highlight of my two months in Thailand (and Laos) was without a doubt the three weeks I spent in Railay, in Thailand's Krabi province, doing a 3-day climbing course with King Climbers then climbing until my fingertips started getting ragged from the sharp limestone. The highlight within this highlight, though, was a three-day trip to what could be Thailand’s last island paradise: Koh Laoliang (Laoliang Island).

You’ve probably never heard of Laoliang. I hadn’t, until a climber friend recommended it to me. It's The Beach, he'd said - minus the hand-drawn map, the suicidal Scot and the despotic Tilda Swinton. And it restored my faith in Thailand’s natural environment when I was beginning to suspect that its “perfect beaches” existed only on Photoshopped tourist brochures…

Beach beauty, Laoliang 
Laoliang is that rare thing in Thailand: a gorgeous beach that isn’t overrun with tourists, longtail boats and shacks selling fruit shakes and fried rice. 

It’s a small island national park in Trang province, within Koh Petra Marine Park in the Andaman Sea. You can stay there only during Thailand’s high season, November-April, in one of the 20 tents facing the aquamarine sea. And just getting there is an adventure.

If there are a few of you, Laoliang Island "Resort" will arrange a minibus and boat to get you there from Krabi or Trang. If you’re travelling alone, as I was, the journey there is a bit more involved. 

It started with a longtail boat ride from Railay to Krabi town, where an American guy, Richard (hmm, same name as Leo DiCaprio’s character in The Beach), picked me up – on his motorbike – and gave me a lift to Krabi bus station (it was decent of him to let me use his only helmet). There I boarded a double-decker public bus for Trang, where I was met by a ponytailed guy called Pon, who drove me and two Swiss climbers - in a ute this time - to Hat Samran, where we got into another longtail, for the one-hour trip 20 km offshore to what was starting to feel like a fabled island.

Tent heaven
As we stepped ashore on Laoliang, I could hardly believe my eyes: clear, blue-green water, a dazzlingly white sand beach bookended by high limestone walls, eagles soaring overhead, a thatched open-air dining "room" and a row of green and yellow tents. Sublimely simple.

The tents were perfectly comfortable, with two rooms: a bedroom with two single beds on the floor, made up with sheets and blankets, and a roomy vestibule with fan and light (the generator comes on at about 4pm every day).

Rope ladder starting a climb
Two kinds of people come to Laoliang: non-climbers (mostly couples and families with young, free-range children) and climbers, drawn by the relatively new sport climbing routes you can step onto right off the beach - or from a rope ladder. I climbed a bit with the Swiss couple, Marc and Catherine, and Norwegians Ingrid and Christoffer, but mostly enjoyed hanging out on the beach watching them dancing up the walls.

The best part of Laoliang is the peacefulness. I had to remind myself I was still in Thailand. There were no longtails speeding past day and night. There's no wifi or mobile reception. You can walk everywhere barefoot. The sun is your alarm clock, rising at a civilised hour - just before 7am when I was there. There is a small bar with a bamboo platform and cushions, that plays music at night, but never loud enough to disturb anyone in the tents. Otherwise people play guitar, sing and talk. 

Norwegian climbers
Ingrid and Chris
It’s the perfect place to do yoga on the beach and have a swim before breakfast. After breakfast, you can go snorkelling (there's a small but healthy reef just offshore and plenty of marine life), rent a kayak, go deep-water soloing (climbing low sea cliffs without ropes and falling safely into deep water) or just lie in a hammock with a book. Afternoons are for climbing – when the east-facing walls are in the shade (it’s too hot to climb in full sun). After dinner, look up for the nightly star-show.

It's not for everyone. It's a little pricey, for a tent in Thailand: 1500 baht (about $50) pp per night, including all meals. The dining area seems to have been cobbled together from materials that might or might not have washed ashore. The cold-water showers have almost no water pressure. And except for breakfast, the food is pretty basic and unappetising.

Message in a rock? A natural
anchor found on the beach
But if you like life simple, not five-star, so that nature, not what's on the menu, is the main event, this is your kind of place. Sure, there's a generator and drinking water and all supplies must come from the mainland. But in a country where "eco" is almost a dirty (or at least misunderstood) word, Laoliang is a great success story. May it stay just as it is, for a long time yet.


  1. Simply stunning - reads like a great holiday -new adventures, new skills, new friends, and good fun -sweet as! Great to see you getting into the nuances of climbing too, and isn't deep water soloing just the best-no ropes or pro or complicated rigs - like surfing, so simple.

  2. Thanks C, yeah, loved the simplicity of deep-water solo, but not the falling from a great height! You've got to go to Laoliang when you go to Krabi, it's such a little semi-secret gem.