Islamic terror ... Lanta style

Islamic terror ... Lanta style
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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lanta in Low Season

A piece I've written about how tranquil the island becomes in low season (May to October) when tourists desert the island.


Laid-back Koh Lanta is
a low season delight

Words and photos by: Ciaran Tierney

With its deserted sandy beaches and fantastic deals on accommodation, the delights of low season on Koh Lanta are among the best-kept secrets of the Thai tourism industry.
While Lanta retains a laid-back vibe even in its busier months, when the island’s popularity never matches the intensity of Phuket or Phi Phi, it’s during the monsoon season that its character really shines through. Just ask some of the ex-pats who have made the island their home about how hard they find it to leave.
For them, low season provides an opportunity to relax and engage with their friends, to enjoy long walks on empty beaches or party with the ‘hard core’ who visit the island when the seas become rough between May and October. Apart from the month of September, it only tends to rain for about two hours per day during the low season, if it rains at all, and for the resident ‘farangs’ it can be a magical and peaceful time.
“It’s just really relaxing,” says Irish man Darren Troy, who operates the Irish Embassy bar on Long Beach. “There are great deals in the resorts during low season and the couple of hours of rain cool the day down nicely. We call it the green season. During the low season you have more time for your friends, because you’re too busy during high season. People tend to get more involved in Lanta life, because they have more time.”
Darren ‘discovered’Koh Lanta during a backpacking trip with his ex-girlfriend and immediately fell in love with the island. Within days of first visiting, he decided he wanted to live on Lanta, and he opened up his first pub, the Laughing Leprechaun, in late 2004.
“I thought it would be affordable to open a business here, because I could not live in a really busy place like Phuket,” he says. “I opened my first business just six weeks before the Tsunami and eventually moved down here, to Long Beach.”
The Irish Embassy has built up a reputation as Lanta’s leading sports bar, with soccer and rugby games on four screens on weekend nights, and the staff are expecting quite a few regulars in during the World Cup football tournament over the coming weeks.
They intend to stay open throughout low season, with reduced hours, and will continue to serve food, including the legendary Sunday roasts which have become firm favourites among the ex-pat residents on the island.
“I still enjoy life on Lanta, after almost six years on the island,” says Darren. “I love when I go out every day on my motorbike, before the bar opens, and the scenery still takes my breath away. I love to just drive around and take in the sea and the jungle. If a place can still do that to you after almost six years, there really is something about it!”
Dutch woman Joyce Quarre, co-owner of the acclaimed Red Snapper restaurant, easily discovered the joys of life on Lanta. Her parents, Joop and Clarie, had retired to the island about seven years before Joyce and her husband, Ed, also made it their permanent home.
Chefs back in Holland, the couple used to visit her parents regularly before Joop spotted what they believed would be a perfect site for a European style restaurant in a tropical garden at the southern end of Long Beach. It didn’t take them long to make up their minds!
“After my parents saw this spot, within a month we got married, sold our house, and came out,” says Joyce. “We knew the potential of Koh Lanta, that the island was growing, and we were among the first people to provide quality European style cooking on the island.”
That was in October 2003. Since then, Red Snapper has become known as the best ‘farang’ restaurant on the island. Joyce, Ed, and their staff work seven days a week between mid-December and the end of January, which is why she loves the peace and tranquility of the monsoon months.
“When you have time off, you just enjoy the wonderful sunsets on the beach,” she says. “In low season, it is really friendly here and everyone has more time for each other. It doesn’t actually rain as much as people think and the island doesn’t shut down completely. I love it here around this time.”
This year, Red Snapper is shutting down for six weeks from mid-May, but Joyce and Ed intend to be back in business by early July. Until October, they intend to take a well-earned break every Tuesday and Wednesday.
“I love the weather in low season,” she says. “Because of the rain, it’s not that hot. You have more time to have a chat with your friends and neighbours and it’s also nice to have more interaction with the customers in the restaurant. I find that the same people come back here every year and that people just don’t want to leave Koh Lanta!”
English woman Mellisa Bunyan first came to Koh Lanta to run a dive centre on a six month contract in October 2006. She loved the place so much that she became a partner in Blue Planet Divers by the end of her first dive season.
“I had been working in Greece at the time and could either have gone to England or Thailand,” she says. “I had been to Thailand ten years ago, with a boyfriend in Koh Samui, but I didn’t know anything about Koh Lanta. I bought a share in the business in April, right at the end of the season, and expected to be inside all the time, watching videos and hiding from the rain, for the following six months!”
Mellisa was pleasantly surprised by how little it actually rained during her first low season on the island and also by how much she actually enjoyed the monsoon rains. “It really shocked me, how little rain there was, even though it really was heavy when it did rain,” she says.
“Most of us who live here really look forward to it; we start to get excited in March. People just seem to have more time for each other in low season. It’s kind of sad to just stop talking to people because you don’t have time. People who come here in low season really notice how much time we have to talk to each other.”
She has had a busy high season at Blue Planet and now she cannot wait for long days off, walking the dog on an empty beach, watching videos, or enjoying a few beers. “There’s always diving on the island, but it’s less predictable in low season because you cannot dive every day between May and October” she says.
“We spend a month getting the boat ready and we do repairs to the shop. Last year we spent a month completely revamping the shop. But it was a social thing. We come in, do a few hours, and then have a couple of beers. We’ve got plenty of time.”
Mellisa intends to keep her dive shop in Saladan open throughout low season, apart from September, which is usually the wettest month. She could go home to England, but all she wants to do is enjoy the most relaxing time of year on the island.
“There’s nothing better than going to an empty beach to walk your dog and feeling like you own it. Parties are great, too, because everyone goes to the same bars. Koh Lanta feels more and more like home to me every year. I have four or five months off when the boat doesn’t go out, but all I want to do is stay on Koh Lanta!”

* This piece was written for the June edition of 'Krabi' magazine. I've been a bit lazy the last ten days or so, due to an ear infection and the 'distractions' involved in finishing the DM course on April 16. I'm due to leave Lanta, sadly, on May 1, but the island has become extremely quiet since Songkran. I'll update the blog as the next episode in my adventures begins....

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Songkran Celebrations

Considering what a turbulent few weeks Thailand has had to endure, it was great to witness the Songkran celebrations take over the west coast of Koh Lanta yesterday. Foreigners and Thais alike came out from mid-morning to sunset to fire water bombs, water guns, saucers, and buckets ... basically, any vessel that can carry liquid is fair game (or a fair weapon) on Thai New Year.

In a way, I felt a bit like Oisin in Tir na nOg yesterday. We had no diving, so we spent the entire day firing water at people, including occasional raids along the coast road in the Blue Planet van, which was stocked to the gills with water.

Having left Ireland in early January 2010, suddenly I was enjoying my third New Year's festival of the year. And, suddenly, it was the year 2553. Have I really been away for 543 years? Well, let's say I had as much fun as Oisin in the 'Land of Eternal Youth' yesterday.

Sometimes, it can be quite scary, but the world's biggest water fight, which extends from the Laos and Cambodian borders to the Deep South, is probably the best and biggest outdoor party in the world. It was also a welcome respite from the troubles in Bangkok, which have seen a host of Governments warn their citizens against coming to Thailand. Just what the tourism industry needs!

The whole idea of the water bombs is that you wash your troubles of the past year away, and obliging Thais also come around to put talcum powder on your face in the midst of being drenched from top to toe maybe 100 times in one day.

It's actually considered rude not to slow down your motorbike when people want to throw water on you as you make your way around the island, so let's just say that the journey home from Saladan to the end of Phrae Ae was memorable as I got soaked at least a dozen times ... even with my trusty water gun at the ready!

A huge crew had gathered around The Tavern, which seemed to be the centre of the action for the day, but there was also great fun to be had in Saladan, where rival dive centres and businesses took turns to load up their trucks with water and guns and attack their opponents up and down the island.

It was, quite simply, the best fun I've had since I came to Thailand over three months ago and really showed this country in a wonderful light. People may have troubles and disputes and tragedies, but Thais love to party and have 'sanuk', which is their own word for 'craic'.

Considering that we are getting near the dive season, and the peak tourist season, it really was brilliant to see the island in full-on party mode for a day. I can see now why some tourists make Songkran an annual event, because there is hardly anything like it in the world.

Sure enough, Chris and Jane came back from a month in Malaysia for the celebrations, and the Tregembo family from Cornwall (whose gap year is being filmed by Channel 4 in the UK)could not resist coming back from Cambodia for Lanta's massive water fight.

It really was a phenomenal party!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Divemaster dreams

Since I got to Koh Lanta in mid-January, I've been earning my keep at Blue Planet Divers by writing monthly articles (sometimes two) for Krabi magazine, which is circulated all around this region and in Bangkok.

As a 'part-intern' I have 'part-paid' for my Divemaster course and writing a half dozen articles about diving on the island has been a good way of keeping me active on the keyboard as well as being of benefit to the centre.

Stories just seemed to pop up every few weeks, such as the family from Cornwall who have sold their house and are touring the world for a Channel 4 documentary to be screened in the Autumn. They did their Open Water course with us. Then there was the American couple, Antonio and Jenny, who got engaged eight metres underwater on St. Patrick's Day.

Now that the course is virtually over, I'm not looking forward to leaving the island, even as I watch the numbers of tourists dwindle away. Lanta seems to cast a magical spell over people and many tell you that it's hard to leave. Some of the DMs are going to stay right through the rainy season, even if it's virtually impossible to get work in diving.

Anyway, here is the article I wrote about the Divemaster course for next month's Krabi magazine. I hope it captures some of the magic I've experienced here, trying something new, something that I love, and meeting new people. It really has been a phenomenal experience.

Next week is Songkran, the Thai New Year, so the whole place is about to go crazy. A fitting way to end what has been a thoroughly enjoyable season, as we see in the year 2554 (!). So.. Happy Songkran!


Divemaster dreams on Koh Lanta

Words by: Ciaran Tierney

It had always been something of a dream. On four previous visits to the Krabi region, and Koh Lanta in particular, I used to fantasise about extending my holiday in order to turn the hobby I love into a whole new career. But reality always seemed to get in the way of my dreams!
Somehow, ten days or three weeks never seemed to be enough, and the thought of returning to my wet and windy home town each November or December used to fill me with dread. Days spent diving at Koh Haa or Hin Daeng, or touring the island on my hired motorbike, seemed to be light years away from the winter gloom I had left behind for two to three weeks each year.
But I never did much about turning my dreams into reality, apart from a few half-hearted inquiries at the reception of my bungalow at Phrae Ae (Long Beach) or a few brief chats with the staff at my favourite dive centre, Blue Planet Divers, in Saladan. After diving for fun for 11 years, I felt that the chance to become a PADI Divemaster had passed me by.
And then, out of the blue, the financial crisis hit Ireland. My boss, acting out of financial necessity rather than any huge desire to see my dreams come true, asked whether there was anyone interested in a 12 month career break. Not one other person in my company put up their hand, but suddenly I found myself blurting out that I wanted to get away for a year to become a professional diver.
Emails were exchanged with Mellisa Bunyan, co-owner of Blue Planet, after my boss gave me a few months to make up my mind. Mellisa was full of enthusiasm and encouragement, as she had taken the same route (i.e., a career break) into the dive industry herself a few years earlier.
She had no regrets about leaving a well-paid job in London behind and sent on all the necessary advice about getting the visas required to spend four months in Thailand.
And so in early January, a little anxious but also very excited, I found myself on a ‘plane bound for Bangkok, and then Krabi. On the ferry to Koh Lanta, I hardly had time to consider what lay ahead as I chatted to a couple of fellow tourists, before I found myself, rucksack in tow, walking into the Blue Planet shop which was to be my base for the next three months.
Mellisa had already fixed me up with a bungalow at the back of the acclaimed Red Snapper restaurant and, within hours of my arrival, I had a lovely motorbike which was to become my mode of transport over the following weeks and months.
Being slightly older than the ‘normal’ Divemaster (DM), I was still full of trepidation as to what lay ahead at first. Who would I meet? What would the skinny and super-fit 20-something instructors make of this big Irishman in the midst of his midlife crisis?
My fears were totally unfounded. From day one, I was made to feel part of the team. I had to be on the jetty 45 minutes before the customers, but I got to know how the whole dive operation worked from the shop and the office to the boat which departed for glorious dive sites in the Krabi region each morning.
I soon discovered that I was the eighth and last DMT (Divemaster Trainee) to join Blue Planet for the season. And they didn’t all fit the stereotypes I had conjured up in my head!
I was totally inspired by English couple Chris and Jane, in their late 40s, who had decided to change their lives and sell their home after she had bravely battled a serious illness two years earlier. They were full of enthusiasm and encouragement in the first few weeks, when I wondered whether or not I should have been there in the first place!
There were the two French speaking girls, Aude and Sabrina. Aude moved to Sweden in March after falling in love with one of our customers, while Sabrina was so sad to be going back to France at the end of her course that her only desire was to sell her car, get rid of her flat, and move back to Thailand to work as a Divemaster!
Then there was Luke, from England, who was just finishing the course as I began it in January. He had also left a career behind in the UK to try something new and helped me to improve my dive skills which had become ‘rusty’ over a decade of diving since I first undertook the Open Water course in cold Irish waters.
Well-travelled Emma, from London, was delaying her return home after a year in Australia and 20-something Raghnild (or Raggi, as she became fondly known at the dive centre), from Norway, was perhaps the party animal of the 2010 DMTs. She enjoyed her nights out, but it’s hard not to enjoy the beach bars and restaurants of Koh Lanta!
At first, things moved quite slowly, and boring days of learning dive theory in the Blue Planet classroom, when I really wanted to be on the boat, made me wonder from time to time whether the whole course was worth the effort.
In the first few weeks, my appearances on the boat were rather infrequent – and sometimes I’d receive rude awakenings when I was asked to go back over the basic skills! – but later I could see the logic behind Mellisa’s approach. After getting the boring stuff out of the way in peak season, when there were more customers on the boat, we had more time for quality dives through the months of March and April.
Those who know me might find it hard to believe I’ve chosen a hobby or job that involves getting up at 5.30 a.m. on certain days, but there is a magic about spending two hours under water, looking at turtles or leopard sharks or rays or tiny shrimp, which only fellow divers can really understand.
It was great to dive with a variety of instructors over the three months, learning each professional’s quirky ways of dealing with customers, how they brief dives, or how they guide the guests around the beautiful sites of the Andaman Sea.
Every day, whether in the shop or on the boat, I seemed to be learning something new, which I could hardly say about the job I’d been in for years in Ireland. If we weren’t diving, we were practicing basic skills on Long Beach or helping out in the shop, where a variety of customers from all over the world took part in Open Water, Advanced, and Rescue courses. Diving really is a great way of meeting new people.
By their nature, dive professionals are a sociable bunch, so even though I’d come to Lanta on my own I soon found myself with a whole new set of friends from a host of countries. Every week there seemed to be a party or two and the socialising could get quite frantic for people who had to be up and on the boat at the crack of dawn!
As each and every one of us passed the course, the infamous ‘snorkel tests’ loomed. For some DMTs, this was tougher than the course itself as they were put through gruelling and amusing tasks at Opium Bar.
Highlights of my time on Koh Lanta included the Andaman Freediving Challenge, the only competition of its type in Thailand, in February and the three day Laanta Lanta festival in which the whole island seemed to party together in Lanta Old Town, with bands from all over South East Asia playing into the early hours. Plus, of course, the lunacy of the Songkran (Thai New Year) celebrations in April.
At one stage, Mellisa managed to coax the male members of staff to pose for a charity 2011 calendar which is bound to be a big seller on Koh Lanta . . . thankfully, I will be off the island by the time that appears!
Sightings of sleepy leopard sharks and turtles became so frequent that it was easy to forget how exciting they were for the customers on the boat and, after a good deal of practice, I finally got my rusty basic skills in order before finishing the course in April.
So now I’m a PADI Divemaster, licensed to guide divers all over the world. And was it worth it? Well, even if I never end up working as a PADI Divemaster in the long term, I can honestly say that my three months on Koh Lanta were among the best experiences of my life.
• For information about pursuing the PADI Divemaster course on Koh Lanta, including three month internships, check out