Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
My neighbour Hutyee Boat
eXTReMe Tracker

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Back in the water

It's great to be back in the water after a full week of, literally, looking after my infected eyes, including putting on some mad strong ointment last thing at night. So I got back in the water on Tuesday for two dives at Koh Haa and today (Wednesday) managed to pass my DM 'stress test'.

This for the uninitiated involves swapping all your scuba gear (BCD and tank, fins, mask) with another diver while kneeling on the bottom (in my case at eight metres) and having sand flung in your face, your air turned off, your regulator purged and bubbles blown into your face by some obliging instructor. It's probably one of the toughest assignments of the Divemaster course, so it was great to get it over and done with!

I was lucky because Luke, who became a DM two months ago, has done a few of them and was my 'buddy' for the equipment exchange. He's become wise to Mellisa's sly moves and managed to keeep me calm when she was attacking me from all angles!

It's been amazing to see my hobby from the professional point of view, how the boat works from behind the scenes and, thankfully, the number of divers has picked up in recent days after Koh Lanta got extremely quiet at the tail end of last week.

The dive season usually ends at the end of April, but the rainy season (or a little sample of it) has come early as it has rained for about 90 minutes in the late afternoon for the last four days. It's bizarre to watch the little microclimates from the Blue Planet boat as we return from the dive sites.

I'll do a full blog on the DM course when I finish it, which should be in about a week to ten days. Imagine, I'll be a dive professional! Scary, that. The two most recently qualified DMs, Emma (UK) and Raggi (Norway), are having their 'snorkel' test this Saturday night which will mean copious amounts of alcohol for them (shots are obligatory) and a few little tricks from the boys at Blue Planet.

If we are not diving the next day, no doubt we will end up at the Saturday night party at Korner Bar, my favourite night out on Koh Lanta. The boys behind the bar wear t-shirts from old punk bands like the Misfits and their DJ plays some of the finest hard house and techno I've heard in years. And I thought those days (or nights) were well behind me, me of the ancient Happy Mondays and Stone Roses generation.

It's fantastic to groove to the Korner Bar DJs sounds on a Saturday night, with a totally eclectic bunch of people, while looking out on the Andaman Sea and the glorious 4km stretch of sand which is Phrae Ae (or Long Beach). It's hard NOT to go there because Korner Bar is literally 100m from my bungalow at Red Snapper. I've met kickboxers, divers, hookers, lady-boys, Ozzies, Viking wenches, and Dubs, on verious Saturday nights there and, somehow, they all seem to blend in well together.

That's all for now. I'm up at 5.45 a.m. to dive the world class sites which are Hin Daeng and Hin Muang tomorrow. It's still pretty hard to believe that Ciaran Tierney, of all people, has found a hobby / job which involves getting up at such an ungodly hour!

When the news here is all about rain, tides, sunshine, people coming and going at the end of the peak season, it all seems so refreshing compared to the economic 'doom and gloom' back home. Yes, I know the 'Red Shirts' have been marching through Bangkok for the last three weeks, but they might as well be a zillion light years away from Lanta. Just as all the Fianna Failers, paedophile priests, bankers, GAA officials, and auctioneers (all the lovely Irish people I so sadly miss) seem as though they inhabit another world from this gorgeous tropical island, thousands of miles away...!

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Out of the Water

When I got back from Malaysia, apart from wanting to get pished for Paddy's Night (duly accomplished at the Irish Embassy) my main aim on returning to Koh Lanta was to get the diving course finished as quickly as possible.

Unfortunately, the eye infection I picked up in a kip in Langkawi seems to have put paid to that notion for a week or so. After my hangover on the 18th and two days of assisting on an Open Water course with Kev Skeltern, my eyes hadn't cleared and a trip to Dr. Salarin on Monday brought the grim news that I have to take medicines and spend a week out of the water.

Given that we are getting near the end of the season here on Koh Lanta, I'm anxious to get in as much diving as possible over the next couple of weeks so that I get finished and qualified as a DM by mid-April. Still, what the hell, I love life on Lanta and sometimes living in a place like this should really be all about relaxation and not worrying about getting things done. "Sabai, sabai," as the Thais say quite often!

So this week is all about catching up on dive skills videos, finishing the theory part of the course, and basically just resting until my eyes recover from whatever happened in Malaysia (!). Contrary to what Roan Cambpell posted on Facebook, I didn't hurt my eyes by looking through a hole in a wall in a dingy brothel!

The island seems to be getting much quieter, if one is to judge by my sunset walks on Long Beach . . . not that Lanta ever really gets crowded, in the same way as Phi Phi and Phuket do. The beauty of this island is how chilled it is, which gives the solo traveller a better chance of sparking up conversations in the beach-side bars.

Stuart from Liverpool, who completed the Open Water course on Saturday, joined me for the disastrous 2-1 defeat to Man. U. on Sunday (8.30 p.m., Thai time). I introduced him and his travelling companion, Michelle, to the delights of the Sunday roast at the Embassy. It was interesting to hear Michelle's take on Lanta, she felt like Shirley Valentine in 'honeymoon central' during the three days when Stuart was off doing the diving course.

Had a couple of great chats with Stuart about LFC, their history, legendary away trips, and all their troubles, he's been following them for almost as long as I have. And then, the next day, they were gone to Ao Nang on the ferry. That's the thing about life on a holiday island, you get to meet a huge amount of people, most of whom move on within a day or two.

There's something about Scousers, really. It always feels like meeting another Irish person when you get chatting to them and we always seem to have so much in common. Maybe it's all down to Maggie Thatcher and how she tried to ruin their city, while Ireland was also a basket case in the 1980s. Maybe it's down to the fact that so many Irish ended up there by default, because they couldn't afford the onward coffin ships to America.

Maybe we're going back to those dark days, but hard times do bring out the best in people, which is why I've always loved my trips over to Kieran and Liz in Merseyside. Down the Smithdown Road, which may be a hole, everyone in the pub loves to chat to you. You just don't find the same level of ambience and friendliness in rich and frantic London.

I guess time here flies if you are into something like Muay Thai (kickboxing)or diving, which, of course, is the main tourist activity on the island. If not, you really need to learn how to relax, play football on the beach, swim, tour on motorbike, or just read a book. I think it's only when I leave Lanta that I will appreciate what a fabulous life I've had here since early January . . . beautiful beaches, motorbike tours, lovely Thai food, great new friends, one hour Thai massages for about five euros a go, etc.

The nightlife is not as hectic as on other islands, but that's definitely not why I came here. If you want it, it's there ... there have been Thursday nights spent at Ozone until 5 a.m. or Korner Bar, where the music and ambience are excellent, until dawn, but that kind of lifestyle doesn't really tie in with having to be at the boat at 7.15 (or, God forbid, 6.15 on Hin Daeng and Kingcruiser Wreck days) in the mornings!

Still, when Monday morning involves hopping on a motorbike, driving for 15 minutes to a boat, loading up the gear before bringing people to fabulous dive sites, I can't really complain, now can I? And did I forget to mention that it's over 30 degrees on land every day and 29 to 31 under water, which is why I only need to dive with a rash vest rather than a wetsuit. I can only dream about conditions like that when I dive in Carraroe, the Aran Islands, Fanore, or Inis Bofin!

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Paddy's Night on Lanta

Well I got back to the island just in time for Paddy's Day and as my mini-bus made its way around Saladan I noticed about 20 people dressed in green, with a huge flag, on a bit of a pub crawl, complete with five tuk-tuks to lead the way. It was only 2.30 p.m. and on closer inspection I could see it was Darren, John, Jamie and company from the Irish Embassy.

John was in flying form, having come back from Malaysia, and his daugther won the 'Miss Lanta' beauty contest the day I left. One up for the Irish, all dozen or so of us on Koh Lanta!

I got back to my bungalow at Red Snapper and, after arranging laundry etc, took a tuk-tuk into Saladan where Gin had my beloved motorbike ready for action for another month. There was great excitement in the Blue Planet office, as American couple Antonio and Jenny got engaged underwater. Jenny (Prunty, no relation to the Mayo GAA official) is Irish-American and loves Paddy's Day.

He did well to keep it a secret from her because everyone on the boat knew of his intentions. Later in the day, I interviewed them for 'Krabi' magazine - she smelt a rat when the slate bearing the words 'Marry Me?' slipped out of the pocket of the BCD - and I met them drinking flat Dwyers (a stout like Guinness) in the Embassy. Being Americans, they had the sense to go home at midnight. Being Irish, I was still in the pub after 5 a.m.

My eyes were still bloodshot which meant no diving on Thursday (good job) so after a long walk along Phrae Ae and a two euro meal at a Thai food stall I joined in the festivities. Within half an hour I had met Alan and Michelle, the Irish couple I'd watched the rugby with in Langkawi the previous Saturday night. They're staying on in Lanta for next week's game and we downed the Signa, til it ran out, and then the Tiger until the early hours.

Met loads of people, quite a few of them Irish, and the resident band made up for their lack of talented with some spirited renditions of old Irish ballads. I'd never seen the Embassy so packed, not even the night Ireland beat England in the rugby, and the 'craic' was mighty.

Meanwhile, the texts were coming in from home, informing me of Portumna's demise. I felt for them, even 9,000 miles away, because this team have become Galway sporting legends and have been an absoulte pleasure to deal with in the last decade. Possibly the best club team I've ever seen, at least I can treasure the memories of covering their three victories at Croke Park ... and they are not finished yet, either!

Funny how you can be living on a tropical island in Thailand, but still anxious to hear how the GAA, Galway United, etc. are going. And, of course, I've hardly missed a Liverpool game since I came over because there are more of them on TV in Asia than in Europe.

The Americans forced me to wear a leprechaun hat, seeing as how I was 'real' Irish and I eventually stumbled home at 5.15 a.m. Needless to say, I've been pretty quiet in the Blue Planet office today. Time for a swim now, then a quiet night, cos I'm diving tomororow for the first time in two weeks.

I'm hoping to get the Divemaster course finished in about three weeks now. There are only two of us left now, Raggi (Norway) and I, as the other five DMTs have all completed the course and moved on. Time flies and it's strange not to have the likes of Chris and Jane, Aude and Sabrina, around the office, even though Emma is still on the island. I'll do a full post on the DM course when it's done and dusted1

Tuesday, March 16, 2010


Typical Paddy, really. I had to go to Malaysia for a Thai 'visa run' and was completely oblivious to the fact that my seven day visit would tie in with a ten day Malaysian school holiday. Hence, accommodation was almost impossible to come by, and it reminded me of the scorn on the faces of the Germans I met in January who were only too aware that they needed to climb over 1,200 steps to reach the Tiger Cave Temple in Krabi.

Sometimes it pays to be a little German, as in to do some research in advance! But us Irish never learn. I once went to the famous cave in Koh Lanta wearing flip-flops, with Keith Carty, during a motorbike tour of the island. Needless to say, my flip-flops disintegrated within the cave and I had to drive home barefoot, to the bemusement to the two Germans who were doing the tour with us impeccably dressed for the adventure. But I digress!

Following an overnight stay at the Sri Trang Hotel in Trang City (population over 60,000), I was on my way by minibus to Satun and the ferry to Langkawi. Trang was bliss, it has little to attract the traveller, but the night market boasts extremely cheap eats and you can count the number of foreigners on one hand. My hotel room had wi-fi, satellite TV, and aircon, none of which I'd had for two months at Koh Lanta.

I had been recommended a B&B in Langkawi by a lovely couple, Ryan (London) and Oonagh (Tyrone), who had been my neighbours on Koh Lanta. Unfortunately, it was booked out, so I opted for an expensive 'boutique style' place called The Cabin, which was only three months old. It was good to have booked a place in advance, but a charge of 150 ringit per night (about 33 euros) seemed extortionate in comparison to Thai prices.

But that's the thing about Langkawi, it's so near to Thailand you can't help compare the two ... and I definitely don't claim to know much about Malaysia after spending a week on what is essentially a holiday island. But it's big, and I was able to hire a motorbike for about five euros a day to take in all the sights.

The views from the newish cable car, which climbs to 750 metres, were stunning and I relished a sunset swim at Seven Wells after a sweltering day on the bike. A trip to Kuah, the island's capital, proved pretty uneventful . . . it reminded me of one of those nondescript small towns you tend to come across when touring Queensland, Australia, although it boasts a host of duty free shops in accordance with the island's special status.

Pantai Cenang (the main beach, where I stayed) and Tengah were excellent beaches for swimming, although the former has been ruined a bit by all the jet-skis, banana boats, etc, even if the parasailers looked sublime at dush. And the sunsets were spectacular.

I had planned to go to Penang, and the city of Georgetown, but the ferries were full due to the school holidays. Thinking that the Cabin, for all its comfort, was too expensive, I decided to move out on the fourth day. I checked eight different places on Pantai Cenang (all full) before opting to move into the Delta Motel at the top of the beach. What a mistake that was ... along with the musty smell, my room looked filthy, and it was right beside a building site where the cement mixers commenced action at 9 a.m. each morning. Definitely not enjoyable after watching Ireland beat Wales, along with three other Irish, in Debbie's Place, where they had Guinness on tap (I stuck to the Tiger) and even the RTE commentary. George Hook still sounded like a tosser, even 9,000 miles from home!

My nightly bill for the Delta was 80 ringit, compared to 150 for the first three nights, but it just didn't feel like home and I'm even blaming the aircon in the room for an eye infection which ensured I was bloodshot (appearing almost in tears!) for my return to Thailand this morning. God knows what the Thai customs woman made of the big Irishman with blood red eyes!

Datai, one of the island's most famous beaches, proved to be an 'exclusive' private resort and I was politely asked to leave when I turned up, alone, on my motoribke one morning. Made me wonder why they include it in the maps and brochures, although I enjoyed the winding road up to Gunung Raya (800 metres) and the absolutely idyllic beach at Tanjung Rhu in the north-east of the island, which leads to a river, caves, and mangroves.

One of the most amazing things about Langkawi is the amount of wild monkeys on the roads and beaches. One of them even robbed some tablets from an English girl beside me on the beach when I was lounging in the sun, reading Hemmingway's 'Fiesta... The Sun Also Rises', at Pantai Pasir Tengkorak, where a host of Muslim children got great value out of truck tyre tubes, using them as floating devices. The English girl and I watched in amusement as the monkey opened the wrappers and devoured her medicines ... and she wouldn't tell me what the pills were for!

Langkawi is definitely a lot more expensive than Thailand, but there is also a huge contrast in prices, as I found a delightful burger bar and dined almost daily on the legendary omlettes at the Breakfast Bar, which is something of an institution around these parts. The bill barely came to two euros.

The dirty room, the builiding site, and the dodgy eyes put a bit of a downer on the trip, but I had seen enough of Langkawi over three days on the motorbike to realise what a stunning island it is and why people return there year after year. It's probably not as 'crazy' as Thailand, but there was as much of a 'party' vibe at the Sunkarma retro bar on Saturday night as you'd find in Ibiza or Phi Phi. The sounds were excellent and the scenery was pretty phenomenal too!

So, lessons learned. Make sure the whole country isn't on holidays when you go to a place (!), don't trade in a nice place for a cheaper one if it's too grotty to feel like home, and shop around for bargains in Malaysia because there are gems to be had. After a week it was time to get back on the road, though, and head back up to Lanta to have a right go at finishing the Divemaster course . . . Well, once I've got through the Paddy's Day celebrations with the boys at the Irish Embassy of course!

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


It struck me last week that people can be far too quick to generalise about places. They breeze in with their backpacks, stay for a day or five, lie on the beach, and suddenly they are experts on the place. I met a lovely Irish-English couple two weeks ago who dismissed Koh Lanta after five days as a hell-hole, which had been spoilt by tourism.

If they had stayed around for another week, and left the beach on the extremely 'touristy' side of the island where I met them, they might have got to sample the absolute delights of the Laanta Lanta festival. Basically, this is a three day event which transforms the town on the east side of the island which used to be the old fishing port, but now plays second fiddle to the rapidly developing Saladan.

In Lanta Old Town, the residents should be rightly proud that Chao Ley (sea gypsies), ethnic Chinese, and Thai (both Muslim and Buddhist) have lived together in harmony for centuries, to be joined by an influx of 'farang' (western foreigners) in recent years. The result is a brilliant blend of cultures in a place which is tranquil for most of the year, but boy did it come alive last weekend!

There were thousands in the town, a place which didn't even have electricity until 1997.

There were two stages featuring music and culture from all over Thailand, the whole town was pedestrianised, and both Thais and foreigners came from all over the island - and even from the mainland and Lanta Noi - to sample the huge selection of music on offer. It was a wonderful experience to see contrasting cultures and traditions come together in a real spirit of peace and harmony.

The people of Lanta Town, foreigners included, should be rightly proud of their festival. The place hardly seems to have a beat when you visit it on your motorcycle on a sunny afternoon, and yet here were the local sea gypsies performing a 'spirit dance' around a magic circle just 15 minutes away from their sleepy village which is rarely visited by the package tourists on their trips to Lanta.

It's amazing how little we know about each other's traditions, and yet also how much we all have in common.

It was great to see a ska band from Chang Mai getting the crowd going down by the port, the only worry was the 30 minute motorbike back through the jungle to the 'tourist trap' where virtually all the 'farang' live and stay.

By all means, go and visit places. But don't just lie on a beach and then presume to sum them up after just a few days. Lanta, with a population of just 20,000, has a rich variety of cultures and traditions but you won't find them in the beach front bars. But, for some people, getting out to explore the hidden island is too much of an effort ... and yet they feel they are entitled to cast judgements on places they have barely scratched at the surface.

After two months on Lanta, I don't claim to have unearthed too many of its gems and (given the language barrier) to have a real insight into its people. But after a weekend of wonderful cultural highs and the VIP treatment I received at my first Muslim wedding, I certainly would never categorise it as an over-developed tourist trap along the lines of Phi Phi or Phuket.

For all its massive growth (and it has changed massively in the four years since my last visit) it's the friendly, cosmopolitan atmosphere of this laid-back slice of paradise which draws the same people back time after time.


Well, I have finally succumbed. Seeing as how I am, after all, a journalist, and I am on a gap year away from reality I've decided to put a few thoughts together from time to time. At the moment I am in Malaysia, doing a one week visa run on the beautiful island of Langkawi, but since I left home in the snow and chaos of early January I have spent most of my time pursuing the Divemaster course (or partying, or sight-seeing) with Blue Planet Divers on the Thai island of Koh Lanta.

It was a bit of a mad step to take at this stage in my life, over 40 and 18 years into my career at the Tribune, but I can't say I have regretted it at all. Well, maybe just for a few days when my lovely Irish bank decided to cancel my credit card, but otherwise it's been fab.

In no particular order, I've been a guest of honour at a Muslim wedding, featured on Thai TV getting a traditional massage, been 'forced' to pose naked (but hidden behind a dive tank) for a charity calendar, had a private chanting session with four Buddhist monks in Trang, had five articles published in Asian magazines and websites, danced until dawn at Ozone or The Korner Bar . . . and to think I wasn't sure about leaving wet and windy Galway!