Southern Thailand ~ Beaches, a new culture and martial law.

Once again, being in a country where something “happens” is very instructive. When we leave Bangkok after 10 days, the crisis that is playing out in the streets of Bangkok remains opaque.  It doesn’t seem clear how the two camps are going to resolve the multi-year conflict that has once again been re-ignited. Peaceful protests have slowly escalated into some casualties, on both sides. 
By the time we arrive in the beautiful island of Koh Lanta, after one taxi, one short (1hr and 20 mins) flight, two buses and a couple of ferry crossings, we catch up on the news:  the Army has stepped in, in what it describes as a “half-coup”. The Army aims to broker a dialogue between the two parties, and return the country to social peace.
The best way we can describe the Thais we meet along the way and their reactions to the political situation is… blase.They go about their normal business.  There is no sense of impending doom.  Many predict that it will go back to normalcy in a matter of days.
As of now, TV stations have gone blank, showing only the flag of the military services coordinating actions as they seek to restore peace.  By Thursday May 22,  the General in charge of the operationalization of Martial Law, keeps reassuring all who will listen that his intent it get to a valid election in a few months.  In the meantime, some practical steps are taken:  over 1000 radio  (including CNN) and TV stations have been shut down; a curfew has been set up between 10pm and 5a.m., about 100 top Thai personalities have been requested to present themselves at military headquarters (or else be arrested for failing to report in).
By Sunday, the “half coup” has become a full “coup”, in the words of the very General who has had to assume power, temporarily, until things calm down politically.  Sounds serious, right?
Hmmm… It actually feels rather remote from our current reality.   As the coup gains momentum in Bangkok, and we follow the local English newspapers as best we cam, we spend the good part of a week swimming in the clear and warm waters of the Andaman Sea  that surround Koh Lanta.
 We explore the island by renting motorbikes and visit thriving Muslim open air markets rich with local produce; We hike through the thick lush jungle; We stop by a “sea gypsy” town; and we go for a short kayak outing in the sea.  For now, the coup is not felt at all in the region where we are visiting…Only thing is, there is a curfew for everyone to be back home, off the streets at 10pm.
Hmmm, so now what do we do that we can’t just go out for mango sticky rice at any hour?
The Adaman Sea is a somewhat protected sea that converges into the Bay of Bengal, itself a carve out from the Indian Ocean.  Something about that combination of geographic attributes makes the water warm, REALLY warm.  It is a peculiar feeling to go from land climate, say of 37 degrees Celsius, to a sea water temperature of 37 degrees.
The warm waters of the Adaman Sea
We arrive at our destination, the Lanta Round House, just in time for a walk to the beach (and discovery of local bright orange pineapple-seaming fruit.  Apparently much appreciated by island monkeys, and P who throws it like a ball.
Peta likes!
A beautiful hike through the jungle in a protected national park, leads us to what we anticipate will be a cascading waterfall.  At this time, it is but a trickle, as we are at the end of the dry season, but Peta makes the best of the cold fresh water to cool down…
We spot a beautiful beach cove from the road above and make our way down to find a lovely restaurant with good green curry and awesome sea views.
“Aaahhh this is the life!”

We are heading for Koh Lanta’s National Park, which is at the Southern most tip of the island. We see a family of Macaque monkeys and a huge iguana crosses in front of us as we start out on a lengthy hike through the thick jungle on a trail which winds up and eventually leads us down to a beautiful beach and lighthouse at the South of the island.

HUGE beautiful trees and thick foliage, make for a great hike through the jungle on Koh Lanta island.
The hike winds down to a vista and beautiful beach
The thick jungle foliage gives way to dark teal sea views.
Great end to a hike ~ a gorgeous beach and a leisurely swim.
The sun is setting as we climb up the hill from the beach to where our motorbikes are parked at the entrance to the National Park.

A foodie surprise, when we start navigating Koh Lanta, is a roving Muslim market. (Each day it sets up in a different location on the island.)

The food market is in a different location on the island  each day of the week and is particularly friendly and welcoming. The colored umbrellas are great for their shade and their brightness against all the equally bright produce and clothing around.

We buy freshly grilled small whole fish which is delicious, small rice flour and coconut luscious desserts, large mushrooms for our morning omelets, and mounds of exotic and delicious fruits such as lychees, mangosteen, fragrant mangoes and rambutan.

The sudden change of culture from Bangkok’s primarily Buddhist population, to a mostly Muslim population is an interesting surprise.  On the audio side, we hear an occasional call to prayer (but few and far between, especially in comparison to our stay in Yogyakarta, Indonesia.)  The market, however, offers an opportunity to chat with local shoppers and vendors and see the local Muslim fashion.  (The traditional hijab is worn “open”, without hiding the lower part of the face.

The same bright colors we enjoyed on the streets of Bangkok, now reflected in the local hijabs of this Southern island.
The bright fire of red chilis. There are so many different varieties of chilis, from very mild to badass killer stuff. We are slowly working our way up ~ as our taste buds acclimatize to the spicy fire which is innate to Southern Thai gastronomy.
A woman enjoys a cool drink at the market while chatting with her friend, the “sweets” vendor.
Desserts are often made from combinations of rice, coconut, palm sugar, and eggs.
Waffles and several more local pancake type goodies.
Pink hijab for a strawberry motif T shirt. This crispy rice puff has corn kernels in the center is her specialty. We quickly become “addicted” to finding all the different varieties of this deliciously yummy treat.
Curry with a  smile. The individual touch of the cook influences the taste of these Southern curries. Many have coconut at their base, with a myriad of flavors and spices which meld together into each unique dish. No two curries are the same. So of course, the only way to decide which we like most, is to keep eating more. And more. YUM!
We both are enjoying the  fabrics and bold use of strong patterns and colors by all generations of women.
These two friends enjoyed their  fermented rice noodle and fresh herb dish, along with Adam
This grilled mackerel was ABSOLUTELY delicious. Moist, fresh and flavorful. We bought it several times and took it away with us (as is the custom) and had it as a sunset picnic on the beach. Fish doesn’t get any better than this!!!!
Beautiful women selling beautiful vegetables. What a visual treat. Love her polka dots with miniature lime green eggplants (in the foreground).

After we have spent two nights on the beach side of the island, we cut across the central spine of the island with our scooters. Our destination is Old Town Lanta.

Old Town Lanta is very interesting architecturally. Century old wooden homes on stilts, hug the shore of the Andaman Sea. The community lives by the rhythm of the fishing industry and at the same time participates in a very low key way in the budding tourism that is coming its way. There are a few curry and seafood restaurants, a few low key stores, fruit stands, street food and a pier that juts out into the blue ocean.

Old Town Lanta
The oldest settlement on the island, all wooden and all on stilts.
A good spot where we enjoy a Chinese herbal tea
View across the sea towards numerous islands, from Old Town Lanta.
Fishing provides a living for many of the residents of Old Town Lanta.
Not too far from Old Town, is the existence of a resilient sea-faring community of what they call locally “Sea Gypsies”. To get there, we ride our scooters through thick lush bright green forest on the one side, and amazing sea views on the other.
Sea Gypsies seem to be the descendants of Malaysian nomadic fishermen who populated this part of the Thai islands starting 100 years ago. Their language is distinct from Thai; They live on mostly stilted houses at the edge of the sea and subsist on the bounties of the sea.
We see many of these stick traps being made by fishermen alongside their houses.
Fish drying in the sun.
This gorgeous enormous solid wood boat is getting some TLC from its owner.
The different cultural make up of the Sea Gypsies becomes clearest when looking at the women’s clothing.  They wear wrap around cloths, perhaps more akin to the Indonesian sarong women wear.
Newest addition to the community of Sea Gypsies.
Finding the “inner sea gypsy” in us, we go kayaking to a nearby island.
Adam forges ahead in his kayak.
We have the island to ourselves…..

9 thoughts on “Southern Thailand ~ Beaches, a new culture and martial law.

  1. Sharon Rosenzweig

    Idyllic. How lovely to sit by an open window here at home and learn about these amazing cultures, thriving side by side. It’s interesting that the political tension has nothing to do with it.
    Thanks for the map, by the way. How do you decide where to go?

  2. Peta Kaplan and Ben Sandzer-Bell

    We usually do a bit of reading and research about where we are and whats around us and then decide what is appealing. So for example, one of the reasons we chose Koh Lanta over a host of islands, was because of the description of it as a laid back, smaller, less developed island. Other times we might go where we have a home exchange or where there is a National Park or something else of interest.

  3. JB

    This must be a most extraordinary life experience for Adam !!!!!! Much more interesting than Antony Bourdain who, in my opinion, has no soul, only taste buds.I wish you were paid by CNN..!!!!!!!!

  4. Anonymous

    Hi! This looks like a fantastic trip. Keep having fun.
    Somehow it seems it’s just BKK involved in all the political upheaval, and it has been going on for quite some time. The rest of the country seems untouched by it all. How extraordinary.
    It looks so beautiful and so interestingly different place wherever you go. Have a great time. Zwi.

  5. Gili

    The cool fruit you found is likely the Pandanus Fruit – we had seen it in Thailand as well, but only discovered what it was in Honduras, where we had a delicious juice made of it. The muslim market looks like a neat surprise. If you are continuing south, we highly recommend Ko Tarutao Marine National Park: we stayed on both Ko Tarutao and Ko Adang, both of which are not very developed, but I believe there are some cabins on both (we camped though). In fact, a photo of the amazing view of Ko Lipe from Ko Adang still hangs in our living room. Check out our photos (we took way less photos back then) at:

  6. Pingback: The bounty of food markets of Asia (Part 2) – Empty Nesters on a Green Global Trek

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