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.
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