From Phi Phi we travel further south towards Malaysia and stop off at Ko Lanta. The district was established in 1901 and consists of four main island groups: Mu Ko Lanta, Mu Ko Klang, Mu Ko Rok and Mu Ko Ngai. Lanta is believed to be one of the oldest communities in Thailand, dating back to prehistoric times. Interesting about the area is its diversity. Buddhists, Thai-Chinese, Muslims and sea gypsies are all found together on the islands.
Mu Ko Lanta consists of 52 island, most of which are uninhabited. We stay on the largest, most populated island Ko Lanta Yai (commonly known as Ko Lanta), which has nine beaches running down the entire west coast, as well as forests and tropical jungle.
Since the Lanta district is known for its scuba diving we look into this first, but it turns out to be quite pricey at £125 per person for only two dives. Even besides the pricetag, or the fact the divemaster (a fellow Scot!) mistakes Lauren for being Irish, recent visibility hasn’t been good either, so we decide to forget about diving here and opt for snorkeling instead.
A speedboat brings us to Ko Rok Noi (part of Mu Ko Rok), roughly 60km from Ko Lanta. As we’ve come to expect in this part of the world, it’s paradise.
Ko Rok is an area supposedly frequented by Hawksbill turtles, but there doesn’t appear to be any seagrass for the turtles to feed on and at any rate we don’t find any. What we do find however is hands-down the best coral we have seen over the past 7 months!
With all the bright colours around it’s clear the coral is pretty healthy and that attracts a lot of fish and other sea creatures. The corals are littered with brightly coloured christmas tree worms.
Hiding on the bottom of the sea bed, we spot the biggest puffer fish we’ve ever seen, and observe a giant sea cucumber eating its lunch.
Our next stop Ko Haa is one of the tiniest island groups within Lanta, but probably the most photogenic with its jaggy rocks sticking out of the water.
There are a few baby reef sharks in amongst the coral, plus an enormous triggerfish I’m following at my own risk (they can pack a mean bite), and loads of angel fish and star fish. I was almost ready to give up on ever taking a good underwater photo, but Ko Lanta saves the day!
Out of Phuket, Ko Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta, the latter has been our clear favourite. It’s been laid-back, easy to cross by scooter, not overly touristic and has the best coral. There is one last stop to go for us in the Andaman when we visit Krabi next.
From the Thai border at Hat Lek a minivan takes us north to Trat, where we get the ferry to the island Ko Chang. The name means ‘Elephant Island’, deriving from its elephant-shaped headland. There are actual elephants on the island too, but these are not indigenous. Historically, Ko Chang is most known for the 1941 Battle of Ko Chang between the Thai and French Navy.
We’re staying at a guesthouse on White Sand beach, one of the more touristic places on the island. At high tide the water comes right up to the porch, can’t get better than that. The area attracts a somewhat older crowd and the restaurants seem to be a bit better down south, but even the most basic Thai food is already pretty good.
Over the last few months we have been doing a lot of snorkeling and while this was great and allowed us to see turtles, a dugong, whale sharks, and a whole lot of fish, we decide it’s time to take our skills to the next level and get our PADI Open Water Diver certificate. This course combines theory with practical diving experience and takes three days, so we have just enough time to complete it before moving on to Bangkok. It’s a bit costly, but we have been saving up for it while travelling, nice to see our efforts finally paying off.
On day 1 we meet our dive master Tam, who sits us down for a four hour long instruction video explaining the basics of diving, how to use the equipment, and colourful descriptions of every possible calamity; there are a lot! Then it’s into the pool to learn and practice different exercises, such as buoyancy, sign language, changing air supply, etc. It’s a ton of information to take in, and a lot of it is training for eventualities that don’t usually occur, but since we’ll be 18 meters under water it’s important to know the essentials that keep us alive.
For day 2 of the course we’re already on the open water. It’s a clear sunny day when we get on the boat, and the water temperature is a very pleasant 29 degrees Celcius, so, out of all possible hazards, at least there’s probably not much chance of hypothermia today. Before diving in, first we have our written exam (we both pass, phew!), then a swimming and floating test, and finally it’s time to suit up. After some last-minute equipment checks we jump in, nervous but excited!
The dive location is Hin Raab (meaning flat rock), where we descend to 12 meters. The sea is choppy, with poor visibility of a maximum 5 meters, which makes it a bit claustrophobic, but then again it’s probably good to learn how to dive in slightly difficult conditions. First there’s more exercises to be completed, and then we finish with a fun dive around the coral, where we catch a quick glimpse of a baby stingray!
It takes practice to stay buoyant, and after 45 minutes I see Lauren a bit above me, then a few seconds later she’s completely disappeared from sight. Tam turns around and gestures at me: “Where’s your buddy??” We look around us while he’s flashing his light, but Lauren is nowhere to be found! I’m starting to panic and want to go look for her, but we have to follow the plan. After staying put for one minute we head back to the surface. Thankfully Lauren is already there, alive and floating! When we check our oxygen levels it shows I’ve been flying through mine, clearly I’m a heavy breather.. I guess there’s a few things left to improve.
The second dive of the day is not far from Hin Raab, called Blueberry Hill. I’m breathing more steadily, Lauren’s not floating up as much and we enjoy ourselves a lot more this time.
So we’ve made it to day 3, the day of (w)reckoning. In the early morning we head out to the HTMS Chang, a 100 meters long former US warship, which was gifted to Thailand. After the ship was decommissioned the Thai sank it in 2012 to make it into the biggest shipwreck in the country, which has since become a paradise for underwater life.
First we descend to 20 meters about halfway down the ship before slowly making our way forward to salute the (imaginary) captain in the cabin on the front and circle our way up around the mast. Thankfully Tam has got a sharp eye for the dangerous scorpion fish around here and we find a large puffer fish looking at us angrily from its hiding place.
At the crows nest we make a safety stop to get rid of some of the nitrogen that’s been building up inside us and with that our third dive is completed, only one to go. We relax a bit on the boat while we’re heading back to Hin Raab. Visibility levels are just as bad as yesterday, but that’s alright because we’re mostly going through our exercises. We already know how to use the dive computer, now we’re navigating with a compass too. Then it’s back to the coral and one final test for me when my air supply gets knocked right out of my mouth by another diver. No panic as I calmly reinsert it; our drill sergeant has trained us well.
So that’s it, we’ve got our OWD, meaning we’re allowed to dive up to 18 meters! We’ve got log books to keep track of our progress and hopefully we’ll be adding to our experience later on in the Andaman Sea.
The next morning it’s already time to leave. We haven’t seen much of Ko Chang’s surface, but it seems a very nice place, lots of jungle and karst rock formations. Maybe some day we’ll come back here a bit more experienced and dive with whale sharks!