While traveling around the Andaman Sea, we tried to get further away from the crowds. To achieve this we decided to spend several days on Koh Lanta which is more laid back, more family oriented, and less crowded than the islands we had visited before it. However, the one thing that occupied most of our time on Koh Lanta was getting our Open Water Diver SCUBA certifications.
Day 1 – Monday, February 2, 2015
The ferry to Koh Lanta from Koh Phi Phi Don wasn’t quite as big or as nice as the one we took to Koh Phi Phi and the ride took about 2 hours. The ferry docked at the Koh Lanta pier in Saladan, which is the northern most point of the island. Koh Lanta is a long, thin island. The popular beaches all seem to run down the west coast of the island. After a lot of research we had decided to stay between Pra Ae (Long Beach) and Klong Dao Beach. At the pier, tuk tuk drivers were waiting to take people across the island or to recommend hotels if they needed them. One thing I noticed right away on Koh Lanta was the organization. The tuk tuk drivers were wearing bright yellow vests to identify themselves and had the same posted rates (however we were able to verbally negotiate the rates lower each time we took a tuk tuk).
We had decided to spoil ourselves a bit and stayed in a nice resort, the Lanta Resort. The Lanta Resort was a beautiful property set up like Americans would expect a resort to be. The main building also served a complementary hot breakfast. There were several swimming pools on the property with bars next to them, and one main pool with a restaurant, kiddy pool, and playground. There was a road down to the beach where private bungalows were and a beachfront restaurant. There was also a small game area with pool and ping pong tables.
We dropped off our bags in our room and decided to walk around the grounds and to the beach. We arrived at the beach in time to watch a beautiful sunset. We also saw advertised that the beach restaurant was having their Steak Night Monday buffet with a fire performance. We were able to book a table for dinner, however the normal tables were filled so we had a low table on a mat on the beach. We ran up to the room to clean up for dinner and came back. The buffet was good and featured grilled foods including steak, chicken, pork, corn, and potatoes. There was also a salad bar, fruit, and dessert. Around 8pm a man did a short performance with batons and other instruments on fire. He was definitely more adapt with some items than with others. A few times he did some great tricks, although the overall performance was short.
Afterwards we enjoyed the cool evening air. We walked down the north end of Long Beach for a while checking out the other beachfront restaurants and bars. The restaurants were oceanside, casual, and much more relaxing and family friendly than the islands we had come from. Before going to our room, we stopped to play pool at our resort.
Day 2 – Tuesday, February 3, 2015
We decided we had enough time in Koh Lanta that we could afford ourselves a lazy day. We slept in and then went to the breakfast buffet. While we were in the main building we checked out the activities desk to see what we should do later in the week. One item we knew we wanted to make time for while in the Andaman Sea was learning how to scuba dive. One of the local diving companies actually had a representative sitting at our hotel to answer questions. We chatted about it briefly and after thinking it over for an hour we were back at the front desk to sign up for a 3-day scuba class starting the next day. Jon actually rode with the representative, on his motorbike, to the dive shop to sign us up and pick up the books we needed for the class.
The 3-day open water diver certification course requires learning one textbook and taking a 50 question exam. We had heard that you could shorten the course at some places if you studied on your own. So to try and save time we decided to spend the afternoon studying the course materials. We grabbed sunscreen, bathing suits, towels, water, and our new textbooks and headed to the pool. The pool was surprising crowded and not many shady seats were left. We started by studying the diving table that came with the book and took a dip into the pool whenever we needed to cool down. We moved to other chairs and continued to read and swim. For lunch we ordered some snacks from the pool bar and kept studying until it was happy hour and we could get drinks. It was a nice day, but we didn’t get nearly as far into the textbooks we were hoping. Finally we gave up studying and went to our room to clean up for dinner.
We walked up and down the same stretch of beach as the previous night checking out some of the restaurants. We finally ate at Second Home because they were the least aggressive and didn’t have salesman on the beach trying to get us to eat there. Looking back, there seems to be a reason why they weren’t actively trying to get customers… the service was incredibly slow. Several times we almost walked out and we did complain about the wait. We noticed that although the restaurant looked full, very few people were actually eating and a few others were looking annoyed about the service too. When our food did come it was fine, but I’m sure it was no different than any of the other restaurants we could have picked instead.
Day 3 – Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Day one of scuba certification! We woke up early enough to eat at the hotel before being picked up by Blue Planet Divers at 8:30am. The truck first took us to a small gear shed where we met our instructor Kev (check out Diving with Kev). Kev gave us each a blue crate which we filled with fins, mask, snorkel, wetsuit, and a buoyancy control device (BCD) that he fitted for us. He also put regulators and first stages (for those of you who know about scuba) into the crates. Then we were driven back to the dive shop.
At the dive shop we were seated in a small classroom, which was also the only air conditioned room in the shop, and told we had to watch 5 videos which corresponded to the five sections in our text book. While the videos were playing we had to check off the answers to questions in the book. Following each video we had a 10 question quiz. The first day we were told to try to finish least 3 of the videos. Any videos we didn’t finish we would have to watch the following afternoons. The videos weren’t too bad, but most of the information was fairly common sense principles and safety instructions. After the first two videos we ran down the street to get lunch to eat while watching the third video. We got street food from some food stands that Kev recommended to us; fried chicken, chicken kabobs, pad thai, and mango sticky rice. We got way too much food.
Finally it was time to get into the water, but just a swimming pool. We were driven, along with Kev and our equipment crates, to a small swimming pool overlooking the beach at a resort. The pool was about 4 feet deep. We got into the water, learned how to put on our gear, and started. Kev told us that he would take us through a series of skills such as clearing the regulator, clearing the mask, and sharing backup regulators. What surprised me is that once we were underwater we didn’t come back up until ALL of the skills were complete. Kev would demonstrate, then point at us to do the skill. I expected to come up after each one to hear about the next, but we didn’t. I enjoyed the way we did it though, because when it was all over with we had more confidence about staying underwater for an extended time. We also had learned a lot of the sign language like signals we would need to communicate while diving.
We had a second round of skills, including swimming without our masks on and some skills without tanks. When the skills were complete we had to take a swimming test. The test was two parts. First we had to swim 200 meters, second we had to float or tread water for 10 minutes. Neither of these were any problem for us. After the pool session the truck returned us to our hotel.
We decided to do something different for dinner and to avoid the beach. At Kev’s recommendation we walked down the main road to Mr. Green’s restaurant. Kev said Mr. Green’s is somewhere he sees the locals eat, however when we were there it was mostly tourists. Still, the food was good. I had basil chicken and Jon had soup. The stretch of road Mr. Green’s was on runs parallel to the northern area of Long Beach we were becoming familiar with. By leaving the beach for the road we found a dozen more laid back bars and restaurants than you’d see from just the beach.
Day 4 – Thursday, February 5, 2015
Wednesday was our first day on the boat. The dive shop picked us up at the hotel at 7:25am. This time other people were in the truck and it made a few stops at more hotels. Then the truck took us to the dock where we boated a catamaran. Kev had our blue equipment crates on the boat and pointed out air tanks which we should attach our gear to. We had a little briefing about the first dive site and then the boat was off. It took about 45 minutes to reach our first site. On the way a breakfast of bananas and chocolate filled croissants was given to us.
Our first dive site was Koh Haa Lagoon. Koh Haa are five small rocky islands named Koh Haa 1, Koh Haa 2, etc. The islands form a circle inclosing a sort of lagoon. Being our first dive, there was a series of skills that we had to do during the dive. We got into the water and started following Kev through the skills. After 15 minutes of skills it was time to descend along a mooring line. Jon was at the bottom of the approximately 8 meter line in an instant. I had problems figuring out how to equalize my ears. After a few false starts Kev gave me some advice at the surface and we tried again stopping every foot or two until I was confident there wasn’t pressure in my ears and could go lower. Once we were at the bottom of the mooring line we swam following Kev. We followed the bottom of the ocean, and so even though it didn’t seem like it, we were still getting deeper until we were at about 11.4 meters. Eventually we started to notice fish and Kev pointed a few out. The first thing I really remember seeing were giant blue starfish. The blue starfish turned out to be quite common place at all of our dive sites, but I’d never seen starfish like that before. One of the biggest impacts on me was when was looking at some coral reef and I turned my head upwards to follow until I realize I was looking at a giant wall of reef in front of me as high as I could see. It was one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. From that point on just watching the underwater world go by was all I wanted to do while diving. Our total dive lasted about 30 minutes, after which we surfaced and boarded the boat. For most of the dive I was thinking about two things. The first was how amazing it was that I’d been fine underwater for as long as I was. The second was a saying that a Penn State gym teacher of mine had about scuba diving, which was that being underwater was such an amazing experience ‘you understand why fish always have that stupid grin on their face’.
Our second dive of the day wasn’t much further away, but we had to sit out on the boat for almost an hour to decompress, or allow the excess nitrogen in our blood from breathing compressed air to abate. During this time we also had a briefing on the second dive which was at Koh Haa Yai. At the start of the second dive we had a few more skills that we had to practice in the water as part of the certification. This time the entire dive went a lot smoother. A turtle had been seen in the area a few days before, so Kev took us in that direction. We never did see the turtle, but we did swim with schools of hundreds of fish. At one point Kev stopped us to point out clown fish darting in and out of a sea anemone. It was one of my favorite sights; something you see on the discovery channel that aquariums can’t quite replicate. Our second dive lasted 44 minutes and bottomed out at 12 meters.
When we got back to the boat, lunch was being served. The Thai boat crew prepare lunch. Everyone is given a Tupperware full of rice and can serve themselves two types of curry from big pots. I’m not sure what the curry was, but the potatoes in it were delicious and I have been obsessed with them ever since. When we got back to shore everyone else was taken to their hotels, but Jon and I stayed at the dive shop to watch the remaining two videos. We felt pretty confident, so we went ahead and took the 50 question final exam rather than wait another day,
For dinner that night we decided to take a tuk tuk back to Saladan. We wanted to eat at a seafood restaurant Kev had recommended, Lanta Seafood, which is right across from the dive shop. Jon and I both feel that Lanta Seafood might be the best meal we’ve eaten in Thailand. There is a menu to order from, but you can also walk to the front of the restaurant and pick your meal from fresh fish. Both of the entrees we ordered were fresh fish from the storefront. We had tiger prawn in tamarind sauce and a pomfret fish in garlic pepper. I’m not sure which one was better, because they were both fabulous. The only interruption in the meal was when I felt something on my foot and looked down to find a crab crawling across it!
We wanted to walk around Saladan for a while after dinner. Saladan was a touristy town full of travel agents, dive shops, and souvenir stands. Still, with the fresh fish and street vendors it felt as through it retained more authenticity than we had seen on Phuket and Koh Phi Phi. The bars were small and although it was busy in the evening with locals and tourists alike, it wasn’t a town that was centered around drinking. Perhaps because it has no beach. We would have walked through more of Saladan, but it started to rain for the first time all trip so we took a tuk tuk back to the hotel.
Day 5 – Friday, February 6, 2015
Originally Friday was to be our last day on Koh Lanta. When we signed up for scuba, we realized we’d need to extend out stay for another day. Once again Blue Planet Diving picked us up from the hotel for scuba. Our second day was also on the catamaran, but this time we felt like veterans. We knew our way around the boat and how the schedule would run. We had our briefing for dive three with Kev and then breakfast while the boat headed towards Koh Phi Phi.
This time the water was rougher than the previous day. Standing in the boat wearing the heavy equipment was difficult and at least one other diver was seasick. We had a few skills to do in the water too, and the waves also made those difficult. One skill that we had to do on the third dive, the CESA (controlled emergency swimming ascent), was the scariest for me. We had to descend to 6 meters below the surface and do an emergency ascent as though we had run out of air. That means we had to swim to the top in a single breath, controlling our speed and exhaling the entire time. Jon went first, but the water was so rough that I couldn’t watch it because I couldn’t find where he and Kev and descended to. Finally we were able to dive below the surface for our dive, and except for all of the boat noise from above, it was much smoother. The third dive was at Koh Bida Nok and Kev took us to the full 18 meter depth our certification will be valid for. Once again the schools of fish and reef were captivating. Our dive lasted for 46 minutes.
When we got out of the water, the waves were so rough that the boat took refuge in Maya Bay so we could decompress and change our gear. Dive four, which is the final certification dive, doesn’t have any skills testing. Instead, Jon and I were to plan the entire dive by ourselves; what the purpose was, where we should swim, and when (based on the remaining air pressure in our tanks) we should ascend to shallower depths. When it was time to dive, the boat took us to Palong Wall. It was one of the smoothest descents we had despite the rough water. Once down, visibility was much worse than the previous dives. Not knowing the area, Jon and I spent time on the dive trying to figure out which compass direction to follow and stay together at the same speed. By the fourth dive I was able to relax and think about the weightless of it. More than my own experience, I was amazed watching Jon be weightless and the way his hair moved with the water. We didn’t get to see as much during the fourth dive, but it was a successful dive which went to 17 meters and lasted 36 minutes.
On the boat ride back we had the same amazing curry potato lunch. At the dive shop our photos were taken from our certification cards. That evening that the hotel we had already received email with our certification information and a temporary card.
For dinner that evening we took a tuk tuk into the main portion of Long Beach and ate at the Irish Embassy, an Irish pub which had been recommended to us by a restaurant owner in Phuket. Irish Embassy had a great atmosphere and was the closest thing to an American bar we had been in all trip. My favorite part was that the bar tender often offered a free drink to the first person to name the band on the radio. The road past Long Beach remained similar to how the northern end had seemed, with lots of open air bars and restaurants scattered about.
Day 6 – Saturday, February 7, 2015
We packed up our bags and brought them to breakfast with us at the hotel. At 9:20 we were picked up by a tuk tuk and taken to the Tigerline Ferry to Ko Kradan; transportation which we had arranged through our hotel.
Koala Bar – A beach bar highly recommended by Kev, whose others suggestions we enjoyed.
Transportation: Koh Lanta can only be reached by boat. Ferries run between Koh Lanta and many of the adjacent islands as well as Krabi on mainland Thailand. The ferries are well advertised at travel agent booths across the region. Additionally, many tour companies offer day trips to Koh Lanta.
Once on Koh Lanta there are a large number of tuk tuks and sam-lors (motorbikes). TIP: Tuk tuks are more organized on Koh Lanta and have set prices but we were always able to negotiate a lower price.
Tourist Tax: When you disembark onto Koh Lanta there is a tourist tax of 20B/person (less than $1.00). The signs say the tax is to account for clean up caused by the excess of tourists.
Money: The local currency in Thailand is the Baht. Credit cards are more widely accepted in Thailand, however cash is needed in smaller stores, restaurants, and street food. Some places may charge an extra 3-8% if paying with a credit card. ATMs were available in Saladan. The exchange rate was 34 Baht = $1.00 .
Visa Information: For American tourists traveling to Thailand for less than 30 days, the need for a visa is waived. This will be done at your entry point to the country, such as an airport, prior to arriving at Koh Lanta.
Water: Don’t drink it. Bottled water is widely available.
Malaria: Unless you are traveling to remote areas of northern Thailand, there is no need for malaria pills. We still wear bug spray often though. We heard that dengue fever can be a bigger problem than malaria on Koh Lanta.