Here's a secret about my trip to Southeast Asia: I didn't do any research. I bought a one-way ticket to Bangkok, had a close friend email me some recommendations, and assumed I would figure the rest out by talking to fellow travelers. Thankfully, I assumed correctly and there were very few (maybe one or two) times on the trip when I thought, "man, I really wish I had done more research." Great adventures can't be too planned, after all.
Jessica and I decided on Koh Lanta simply because it was only an hour away from Koh Phi Phi. We went to the dock, evaluated ferry times and prices, and bought tickets. Koh Lanta was wonderful. We stayed at the Peacock Hostel, which had a very hippie vibe with net hammocks jutting out over the water, beanbag chairs, and uneven wooden planks serving as a walkway between the entrance and the dorm rooms. We paid $1 extra for the 4-bunk room with air conditioning, which was obviously worth it compared to the 12 bunk, no AC alternative. So much of traveling in this way is dependent on who you meet, but the hostel encouraged such a welcoming, friendly environment and we quickly found ourselves jumping on the back of new friends' motorbikes, planning beach trips, grabbing dinner together, and singing "Wagon Wheel" in a circle on the dock (like I mentioned, hippie vibes).
Long Beach was beautiful, and the owners of our hostel organized a nightly trip to the beach for the sunset. We all gathered in a rickety pickup truck, drove 10 minutes to the beach, and drank $1 Chang beers while sharing travel stories with people from all over the world. These were my absolute favorite moments of traveling.
Jessica left me after Koh Lanta, and I decided (based on a new friend's recommendation) to head to Koh Mook, where I met another friend from San Francisco.
So Koh Mook was a splurge -- we stayed at the gorgeous Sivalai Beach Resort in the fanciest bungalow you ever did see. It was amazing. We were just steps from the ocean and there were so few other tourists around. This is also the only island I've ever been on where you actually feel like you're on an island, not just the beach. The resort's restaurant was surrounded by water on three sides and it really just felt like we were on a speck in the middle of the ocean.
Emerald Cave is Koh Mook's main tourist attraction. Beware: we went at around 11:00am and the surrounding cove was bouncing with boats from Koh Lanta, their passengers floating in bright orange life vests attached to one another on a rope while the guide pulled them through the cave.....
Naseem and I literally swam under them but it was honestly disturbing and hilarious. We ended up going back at 8:00am the next morning and we had the cave to ourselves, but it was low tide on the beach so we missed the emerald water. (I'd still recommend doing it this way to beat the insane crowds.)
One of my favorite encounters with a local happened on Koh Mook. We were renting a motorbike and I asked for helmets and the lady (who also ran a convenient store, advertised laundry services, and sold gas, because in Thailand everyone seems to do everything...) looked at me with such confusion and simply said, "but it's an island..." The end of the story is that we didn't get helmets.
That (dangerously) became the go-to line for the trip (even though I was technically only on one more island after Koh Mook) whenever it was decision time and one option was risky or something I normally wouldn't do at home.