World-class diving, pampered luxury and no crowds. Koh Lanta offers the unspoiled Thailand that we all dream of… Words Graeme Gourlay Photographs Magnus Larsson
The leopard sharks can be as playful as puppies, the whale sharks grand and mysterious, the soft corals an explosion of fluorescent colour and the drop-offs dramatic. Koh Lanta has some of the best diving Thailand has to offer. You can stay in the lap of luxury or hang with the backpackers in beach bungalows, and a staggering array of top-quality dive sites are easily accessible by day boats. You are far from the crowds of Phuket and the island has an out-of-the way charm.
This southern backwater is a short ferry ride through karst outcrops jutting out of the Andaman Sea just offshore between Krabi and Trang. It is a 30km long, relatively narrow and flat island, with a string of resorts along its western coast. It used to be left to the sea gypsies and young travellers searching (and finding) the perfect beach. The Chao Leh (People of the Sea) were the first settlers some 500 years ago and the village of Ban Sangkha - Ou or the Old Town on the southeastern end of the island is where many of these formerly semi-nomadic travellers have settled in wooden homes perched on stilts above the sea.
The beach bungalows of the backpackers have now been joined by a wide variety of hotels, from the gloriously indulgent luxury of Pimalai in Kantiang Bay to perfectly serviceable two and three-star hotels along the stunning bays of the west coast.
For divers you are bang in the middle of a range of wonderful, top quality dive sites. You can head north to the sites of Koh Phi Phi, two hours away on a comfortable and spacious day boat and avoid the Jet Ski and packaged horror the once wonderful idyll has become. You can even reach some of the best diving off Phuket without setting foot on the booming, over-priced and over-crowded resort.
Or you can head south to some truly world-class diving at the rock outcrops of Hin Muang or Hin Daeng. The marine life is as good, if not better than the Similan Islands and this is far more accessible than the Mergui Archipelago up near the borders of Myanmar.
This is some of the best dayboat diving going and during the peak season of November to May, the conditions can be perfect – 40m-plus visibility, warm (28ºC), calm waters and plenty of reef life with a good smattering of pelagic stars such as whale sharks and mantas. The dive operators, such as Scubafish, are extremely well run with none of the production-line vibe of the qualification factories you can find in the Gulf of Thailand.
A circle of five small limestone islands with a stack of good dive sites – great visibility and lots of life. Huge schools of barracuda hang in the blue. Dramatic swim-throughs and, on the southwestern face of Koh Haa Yai, a fine cave with two entrances and a 30m ‘cathedral’ with weird, spooky lighting. The shallow lagoon formed by the ring of islands is a good place for macro hunting – plenty of unusual critters to delight photographers.
HIN MUANG / HIN DAENG
These are two stunning ocean pinnacles. But you have to accept that cruel diving paradox – what makes them great sites can also makes them a diving challenge. It is the strong currents that attract the pelagic hunters. Manta rays are often seen waiting their turn at the sites’ cleaning stations. Hin Muang (Purple Rock), a lone coral outcrop in the middle of the sea, is famous for its purple, violet soft corals. It is, in fact, a series of six or more submerged pinnacles, the shallowest at about 8m and includes one staggering 70m drop-off. The area attracts grouper, barracuda, moray eels, tuna and occasional whale sharks and manta rays Hin Daeng (Red Rock) is about 500m from Hin Muang and offers an impressive series of wall dives. You’ll find lots of soft coral and a manta cleaning station, as well as plenty of moray eels peeking out of the rock face.
The two Rok islands offer nine different dive sites – the western side is dominated by impressive hard coral gardens that gently slope away. Fish life is stunning. Large schools of Moorish idols near to the reefs and out in the blue gangs of marauding barracuda, tuna and jacks cruise by.
KOH PHI PHI
The main island of Koh Phi Phi is now rammed with tourists. The best diving is on the three islands just to the south – Koh Phi Phi Leh, Koh Bida Nai and Koh Bida Nok. Very scenic topside and lots of marine life, coral gardens and dramatic walls down below.
SEASONS You can dive all year round, but the two seasons are very different. The high season is from November to April, with dry northeasterly winds, calm seas and visibility at its 40m-plus peak. In the low season, with southwesterly winds from the Indian Ocean (May to September), weather can be unpredictable with rougher seas, rain and lower visibility – boats can be stuck in harbour for days on end as a storm blows in. But you can strike lucky and get stretches of great weather, with just a few tropical downpours at night. Many of the prime dive sites in the national park are shut in the low season. Dive boats leave from Kantiang Bay in the high season.
TEMPERATURES Air: 30-40ºC Sea: 27-31ºC
GEOGRAPHY The main tourist island (actually Koh Lanta Yai) runs north to south and is 30km long by 6km wide. There are a string of stunning, white-sand beaches along the western coast – they get better the further south you go. The eastern coast is dense with mangrove and rocky outcrops. The northern end is connected to the sparsely populated and densely mangroved Koh Lanta Noi by a recently built bridge. There are more than 50 smaller islands dotted around, which form the Lanta group.
THE MU KOH LANTA NATIONAL PARK The national park was set up in 1990 and its headquarters and visitors’ centre are at Laem Tanod, on the southern tip of the island. There are some basic hiking trails, two great beaches and a scenic lighthouse with wonderful views. The national park includes 15 of the outer islands.
CULTURE The conservative southern region of Thailand is predominantly Muslim but with significant numbers of Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, and Sea Gypsies. Most locals speak with a thick southern dialect that is difficult even for other Thais to understand.
2004 TSUNAMI Koh Lanta survived what was one of the worst natural disasters to hit the region relatively unscathed with 20 fatalities. The shape of the island, the direction the tsunami was travelling and the contours of the surrounding sea bed, all helped it deal with the destructive brunt of the Boxing Day floods and storms. However, nearby Koh Phi Phi was devastated, with 60 per cent of all buildings on the island destroyed and 1,300 people killed. A remarkable recovery effort got underway both on shore and underwater on the badly hit reefs. More than 280 tonnes of debris was cleared from the beaches and reefs by thousands of volunteers, many of them divers . More than 7,500 dives were made to lift storm debris from surrounding reefs and, luckily, only a couple of dive sites were severely damaged. Most of the area is now completely restored to pre-tsunami health.
FERRIES There are regular, daily ferryboats operating between Koh Lanta and Krabi, Phuket and Koh Phi Phi.
PIMALAI For the perfect dive trip on the perfect island you might as well stay in the perfect hotel, and Pimalai fits the bill. It sits in one hundred acres of lush tropical forest spilling down the hillside to its own 900m of private, glorious beach along Kantiang Bay – arguably the most scenic on the island. There are 120 rooms, suites and villas scattered discreetly between vast cashew trees, banana plants and dense forests of jungle plants and trees. Some rooms have their own private pools, all are elegantly luxurious. While this is a relatively large hotel, with two big infinity pools, three charming bars and restaurants, a first-rate spa, tennis courts and sports centre, it feels quiet, relaxed and private. This is understated sophistication. Tasteful. Calm. At night, the daytime drone of the cicadas is joined by the joyful racket of the frogs. Out in the bay the night lights of the fishing boats reflect onto the sea and you can pick out silhouettes of the karst outcrops poking out into the star-scattered sky. During the day you are whisked from room to restaurant, to beach, to pool, to spa, to sports centre, in instantly appearing open-sided buggies – up and down the steep hill. The spa is hidden in a dense jungle, with carp pools and streams with exquisitely brutal, yet petite, masseuses who can pummel into oblivion the worst any long-haul flight can inflict on you. The food is excellent, from proudly prepared Thai delights to the best international cuisine. And for the truly pampered diver, the dive boats, run by one of the island’s leading operators, Scubafish, leave directly from the resort’s private beach during the high season from November to May. www.pimalai.com
SCUBAFISH A well-run operation set up by a British television executive escaping to paradise. Her team of friendly staff offers the full range of courses, including extensive video and photography support. Its boats are large, modern and fully equipped. Rental stock, including cameras, is well maintained, new equipment. Dive groups are kept small and guides are well versed in dealing with a wide range of expectations and needs. www.scubafish.com
This article first appeared in Issue #5 of the print edition of DIVE - get your copy!