Meet Hutyee Boat. Hutyee was my neighbour for the last four months and I'd often come home from a day's diving, or in the office, to find him sitting on the hammock outside my bungalow, looking for gossip. He would always want the latest news from Saladan or to discover which bungalow operations were doing well.
Huytee probably fancies himself as a bit of a 'Del Boy', but I consider him more to be Koh Lanta's version of Moycullen's Ronan Ryan. Like Rhino, he has the gift of the gab, but he has a country innocence which belies his big plans.
He's known to go to the bank with no shoes on, to make them think he's poor, even though he owns about 20 bungalows on Koh Lanta. And at 350 baht a go (about eight euros) his bungalows are better value than virtually any others at the end of Long Beach (Phrae Ae).
It was meeting someone like Hutyee that made living on Lanta so special since January. He invited me to my first Muslim wedding, his niece's, and there were even photos taken of the big Irish guy with the Mayor of Lanta. Handy, I'm sure, if I ever have visa problems.
I also became friends with Pakob, in Saladan, whose wife cooks up the best 'pad Thai kai' (a chicken and noodle dish) on the island. The language barrier didn't get in the way of our love of 'sanuk' or 'craic' as we enjoyed the banter during my regular visits to their outdoor food stall.
It was great to see the Ozone guys doing really well, nine years after myself and Keith Carty first befriended them. They were even asking for Keith and gave me a huge welcome the first time I wandered down to the bar which has the biggest party on the island every Thursday.
But Korner Bar was better, and it was right beside my bungalow as well. I used to try to wrangle my way out of working Sundays with Blue Planet just so that I could enjoy meeting the eclectic bunch from all over the world who turned up there every Saturday night.
In the past, I'd spend ten days or two weeks on the island, diving the odd day with Blue Planet, but would just be getting into the pace of life when I'd find myself moving on. This time around, I got used to living without creature comforts such as a TV in my bungalow at the rear of the Red Snapper restaurant.
The main reason I went there, of course, was to become a Divemaster, and I do feel I learned an awful lot about my favourite hobby since January. Now that I'm qualified, I would love to work at it for a while during this gap year, and the time at Blue Planet in which I wrote seven articles for 'Krabi' magazine showed that I could combine journalism with professional diving.
It's not an easy life, especially when you have to get up at 5.45 a.m. in order to dive Hin Daeng and Hin Muang, the region's two world class sites, and there was a forlorn feeling about the place when I left on the first of May. The season only last six months, before the seas get rough and the monsoon rains roll in, so it's pretty tough for Lanta businesses to make money.
There was a real 'end of season' feel in the last few days, after I had completed the course, as many Thais were also making plans for heading home after six months on this beautiful, tropical island.
Long-termers will tell you that they love low season, but walking an empty 4km beach was quite eerie in the past few weeks. There were virtually no tourists around.
But living there has been a phenomenal experience for me. I've made great friends through Blue Planet Divers, especially my felow DMTs such as Chris and Jane (UK), Raggi (Norway), and Emma (UK), and even a diving instructor from Galway called Oisin Gormally, a teacher on a three year career break.
We'd never met at Scubadive West or any of the West of Ireland's cold dive sites in the past, but it really felt like a small world to be working on the boat alongside someone from Barna. Plus, I had back-up for my showdowns with the British National Front, in the guise of Instructor Kev Skellern, who is under the deranged delusion that there is a place called the British Isles (!).
He wanted a toast to the British Isles on my last night, to which I replied that I'd have a drink to every country that was messed up by the British Empire. Then I realised that I couldn't possibly drink so much, even on a party night. Anway, it was all good fun!
It wasn't all good at times, there were not enough opportunities to get on the boat in the first five weeks or so, the boat staff were pretty rude and surly, but I really learned an awful lot about the dive industry and it was just the change I needed, really, after so long in the same job in Galway.
Some of the staff in restaurants were downright rude and unfriendly to foreigners, too, which made me realise that one of my neighbours for a while, Oonagh from Tyrone, was right to claim that Malaysians are far friendlier.
I didn't intend to become the token Irish man at the Irish Embassy, the island's only Irish pub, but Jamie and Darren were friendlier than any of the other 'farang' publicans along our end of the beach and, like me, they have a passion for sport on weekend nights. Plus, their Thai staff produce a Sunday roast which can only be described as 'legendary'!
On motorbike trips I discovered the joys of Lanta Old Town, which had a brilliant three day festival in March and Songkran, the Thai new year, was the best day I've had all year as we all went on the rampage with water pistols. It would have been impossible to go diving that day!
The three and a half months passed incredibly quickly and I was quite sad to leave, especially after a phenomenal last night at the Irish Embassy, where people were dancing on tables until I baled out at about 4 a.m. Getting a computer virus in Trang the following day only added to my pain at leaving the island.
The beauty of Lanta is that Thai, Chinese, and 'farang' (white foreigner) seem to get on in harmony, with Buddhist and Muslim coexisting without any worries. It was great to see the robed monks at dawn on my way into Saladan in the mornings, but there was also a mosque within 500 metres of my bungalow.
With all that's been going on in Thailand for the last two months, it could be argued that this tropical paradise is a model for the rest of the country. It's certainly a hard place to leave, as most of the DMs have discovered when it came to packing their bags at the end of the season.
Back to Malaysia
So I'm in Georgetown, Penang, for a few days after quitting Thailand on Sunday. The people here have been incredibly friendly ... one guy insisted on taking no cash after spending three hours fixing my laptop and the buildings in this UNESCO World Heritage site seem to be well worthy of exploration.
It's actually good to be back in a city for the first time in 2010, and the food here seems to be fantastic. I'm due to fly out from Bangkok on May 19 and had intended to meet up with a couple of Galway lads before that, but right now a few days of chilling down this side of the border seems a lot more appealing.
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