Part two of our little Thailand trip, lamentably delayed…
With time on our side we’d have favoured the 12 hour overland route from Bangkok to Krabi province to see a bit of the countryside, but as this time it wasn’t we took the carbon heavy 1-hour option and flew. Sitting on Thailand’s western (Andaman) coast, Krabi province is a land carpeted in thick jungle with limestone kast formations which sit jagged against the skyline. Beautiful as the mainland is, over 150 castaway islands languish just off the coast, and while we’d have loved to explore the mainland, island life was calling loud.
Our criteria for island selection was simple enough; relaxed, beautiful, diverse enough to remain interesting for a week, and close enough to the mainland to avoid losing a day to travel at either end of our stay. Reachable in 2-3 hours by minivan / ferry combo, and close enough to neighbouring islands for us to hop off elsewhere if we wanted, 40 x 5km Koh Lanta seemed a great option. Its proximity to some of Thailand’s best dive sites also gave us ample opportunity to dust off the diving skills picked up in Utila (Honduras) earlier in the year, and once again frolic amongst fish.
At the mainland car-ferry pier at Ban Hua Hin, fat late-monsoon raindrops rolled off air-conditioned vans to sizzle on hot tarmac, and sweet-smelling corn cobs popped over stallholder’s coals. With just enough time to munch down a few gilled fishy things at the pier, it was straight onto the boat for the half hour transfer to the island.
Arriving on Lanta island, our first stop was Hat Phra Ae (aka Long Beach) 10kms down the islands western coast, where first impressions were a bit of a let-down to be honest. Although the coast road is barely 50 metres from the beach, ramshackle breeze block and bamboo buildings almost completely obscure it from view. This is a pity, as once we’d threaded our way through the development to the beach, we were greeted by a sweeping sandy bay and views out over a seascape dotted with the green peaks of other islands.
Thankfully Koh Lanta was to offer much better, and as we rattled south on a tuk tuk, the settlements got smaller, and beach views better until we arrived at Kantiang Bay. The vibe here was immediately more our bag; a palm fringed beach of fine golden sand, jungle covered headlands framing the bay, and low-level wood and bamboo buildings strung through the trees.
After dumping our bags in a beach-side guesthouse, we wasted no time before wandering up the road to book a 3 day / 6 dive package with recommended outfit Scubafish. Our days work done, we got down to alternating between bobbing in crystal water and lounging on the beach…tough gig.
If you’re after a base for diving in the Andaman sea, then you could definitely do worse than Koh Lanta. Dive shops can be found all along the coast road, and there are certainly enough dive sites to happily see you sinking and rising through clear warm waters for days on end. We spent our first two days diving at the site of Ko Haa, a cluster of 6 limestone islands a couple of hours boat ride away from Kantiang bay. Amongst the limestone towers, numerous underwater channels thread through rocky reef covered in brightly coloured soft coral, swaying to the gentle rhythm of the sea while fish dart and shoal in abundant variety.
Returning to Koh Lanta after our first days diving, rising wind and choppy waters made the dive crew favour the longer trawl around to the more sheltered eastern side of the island, rather than risk decanting punters into longtail boats for the transfer back to the beach. This gave us a good chance to take a quick look at Lanta’s quieter side, where attractive 100-year-old, chinese style chop-houses clustered around the old harbour entrance. Although these days the houses contain mostly tourist nic-nac shops and restaurants , it was nice to get a feel for how the islands settlements looked once upon a time; dark wooden houses sturdy on one side of the street, stilted and rickety over water on the other.
Evening’s in Kantiang are pretty sedate affairs (definitely not a party destination) and most nights we found ourselves inexorably drawn to “Why Not” bar immediately adjacent to our guesthouse. Here the beer was cold, the local rum (Sang Som) cheap, and all served to the beat of the house band, in residence for an aledged 365 days a year. The band was surprisingly brilliant, banging out a nightly set of strict rock covering everything from AC/DC to Zeppelin, with the pint-sized vocalist hitting all the notes but little of the pronunciation.
For our third and final day of diving, the boat pointed west, pitching and rolling for 4 hours until we reached the sites of Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, reputedly two of the best sites anywhere in Thailand. Unlike Koh Haa, there’s very little to see above the water, just a small rocky outcrop, but what it lacks in stature above, it more than makes up for below.
Descending down a bouy-line, the submerged rocky pinnacles of Hin Muang sloped steeply, the bottom some 70 metres below, and invisible until we’d dropped down to around 20 metres. Although the rocks were largely covered in bright coral and clusters of large fans, it was the huge number and variety of fish that took our breath away. Everything from tiny little glass-fish, shimmering in great shoals that clung close to the rock, to giant 1.5m long barracuda gliding by just at the point where bright blue dimmed to darker shades of purple. And everything appeared to be chasing everything else. The activity was so great, and so quick, we could actually hear the fish slicing through the water, and at times didn’t quite know which direction to turn our boggle eyes first.
The Hin Daeng site, just a hundred or so meters from Hin Muang, offered more of the same…jaw dropping abundance of marine life in all directions, and thankfully no sign of the ‘ripping currents’ that can sometimes render these sites a challenge for even the most experienced diver. The boat back was filled one filled with contented grins as the sun dipped down towards the horizon.
And so our final day on Lanta slid forward to meet us. We spent our last day taking a tuk tuk ride around the parts of the island we hadn’t already seen (via the old town for another quick look) and enjoyed riding through verdant green forest past clusters of wooden huts where chickens pecked and children played in the dirt.
Back at long beach in the north of the island for our final night, we enjoyed a few drinks in a bar run coincidentally by a childhood friend (“you’re on Lanta?..come to my bar!”…the power of facebook) and a last night stroll on the beach where twinkling lanterns drifted up into inky blackness.
And so 5 hours after embarking on our return leg via bus, ferry, plane, skytrain, and taxi, we found ourselves back on Khao San Road tucking in to Tom Yum soup and yet more chilled Chang. The perfect end to a great little trip.
And if there was any doubt, in Thailand we were mostly drinking…