Friday, March 19, 2010

Sloh Lanta

(Rich's 6th post)

Despite our revelations of relaxation, I must admit it's taken a few days to truly slow down to the rhythm of Koh Lanta. Time creeps by here, all movements and thoughts slow down, and the glass-like Andaman seems to provide a steady whisper of tempo to the day.

We've been trying to describe the vibe of Koh Lanta for the past few days with only halting success. Touristed, but completely unhurried and not particularly concerned with turning a buck. Decidedly uncrowded. Visitors here aren't looking for a party. They're experienced travelers who've done their research, mostly past middle age, they respect others, they're perhaps even sophisticated. High end resorts exist next door to barefoot open flame grill joints on the beach.

We wonder if we've happened upon Koh Lanta at its prime, before the big developers sink their teeth into her.

To make our dive boat, it's an early morning for Janel and me, and we rise at 7am. Right away, it's apparent that our scuba gear bag is going to be one big pain to lug down the beach to the dive boat, so we call up Dive & Relax and ask if they can pick us up here. No problem!

The S.I.B. beckons again. This morning they've got the usual sumptuous selection plus smoked salmon and grape juice. Janel and I again discuss a few stories from my Motorola past, particularly some of the more interesting players from that society. I could write a book some day using those character studies.

Janel is a doll to listen to my old war stories, but says she will draw a line in the sand - no golf stories please.

We hike it out to the main road, and in just minutes Cameron swings by in a truck to pick us up. We also pick up Andreas, and we learn that with today's dives he is completing his PADI Advanced Open Water course today.

Seven other divers will be going with us today, as well as 4 dive staff plus a captain and mate. We meet and greet for a while at the Lanta Castaway bar, then adjourn to the beach, again crossing the "stream" to get out there. Not much water there this morning, though.

We've signed up with Dive & Relax for several reasons. Foremost, Cameron has been immediately great to work with. Just as important, we like their use of a speedboat and a relatively small dive party. Our speedboat will take us just 35 minutes to reach the dive site, while many other operations I checked use a larger boat that can take 3-1/2 hours!

Fifteen folks on our 36-foot boat, plus gear and tanks for 2 dives for thirteen divers, is a just a little cramped. But worth it. The ride out is smooth and fast, and we enjoy various conversations starting among the divers.

Dive & Relax has thoughtfully attached our personal computer hoses to their rental 1st stages, so Janel and I are diving with a familiar piece of equipment. Additionally, the remainder of our rental gear (BC's and reg) are both more comfortable than what we used aboard the liveaboard last week.

Our first destination is Koh Bida Nai, which is part of the Koh Phi Phi National Marine Park. After diving on the Similans last week, there aren't actually any particular things we're aiming to see, and yet, we've retained an interest is getting our equipment wet again. Seems like a good diversion activity while lolling about on Lanta.

We're teamed up with Jeab, our dive guide, and also with two other tourist divers, Phil and Sarah from the UK. We immerse to find wonderful 84F water, a mild current, and crocodile needlefish patrolling the surface schools. Phil takes some extra time with his equalization on descent, and Janel and I discover a gorgeous softball-sized jellyfish pulsing along.

Immediately, we're presented with blankets of urchins and anemones everywhere, the most common features of this dive site. Among our sightings: yellow-tail barracuda, ornate ghost pipefish, copper sweeper, and some distinctive bar-tailed goatfish.

We snake our way through an overhang of rocks. There is a juvenile ribbon eel halfway through - pretty cool. As Janel enters, she watches with some horror as Sarah's knee nearly comes to rest on top of a scorpionfish not far from the eel. THAT would probably have ended the dive!

The boat follows our progress, so we're always swimming with the current. Janel and I want to stop and explore much more than Jeab does, and we have some difficulty in keeping her in sight, way ahead of us in the mediocre visibility. Still, it's a very pleasant dive. Unfortunately, Jeab signals a need to surface after only 50 minutes or so. Janel and I still have half our air remaining!

We dutifully follow her up. On exit, it is quite enchanting to slowly rise up through the polarized hoardes of silversides just next to the island's rock wall.

Phil's had problems with his full-foot fins, and slaps on bandaids. It is another reminder that, despite the hassle of it, lugging our own open fins and booties from the States has paid dividends.

The boat swings into a large cove that contains dozens, maybe hundreds, of boats and a populated beach. Fortunately this is just a mini-tour - I don't think I want to stop in there - looks too crowded. We find a sheltered place further up the island wall, moor, and break for lunch.

Janel is immediately certain that we are eating some kind of vintage cuisine. Mushy cabbage, nicely seasoned chicken pieces, unidentifiable vegetables, tomatoes, and glass noodles. It is no combination of any Thai dish Janel has ever heard of, and seems most likely to be a collection of leftovers. Odd fare, but the taste is acceptable.

While we eat, 2 different turtles surface near the boat. Each takes 3 breaths, then dives again. We learn that this dive site is known for harboring many turtles and it's common to see them here at our second dive site, called Palong Bay. The captain states a 60 minute maximum on this dive - but with a grin we ask that it be 65 - trying to make a good-natured case for some extended dive time. He agrees.

This site has a long near-vertical granite wall dropping about 60 feet into the turquoise blue. A gorgeous band of reef life is located between about 20 and 55 feet, and another mild current will propel us from the island's mid-section to its end while the boat again follows.

More good sightings, among them: magnificent slug, varicose wart slug, giant moray eel, scribbled fielfish, common porcupinefish, blackspotted pufferfish, and spotted boxfin. About 30 minutes into the dive, Janel spies what appears to be a very large anemonefish, but has a gorgeous spotted costume. He swims close to an anemone, but in a strange back-and-forth motion, like a metronome. We learn later that we've found a juvenile harlequin sweetlips - stunning!

Juvenile Harlequin Sweetlips!

We also come across a large soft coral formation that almost looks like a menorah. We later learn that it's called harp coral.

Some 50 minutes into the dive, the vertical wall peters out into a slope, and I assume that we might be nearing the end of the island. Another dive group converges with ours, and at the same time I hear Jeab rapping her signal for attention, and making a turn-around sign.

Seems to make sense, so Phil, Sarah, and I slowly sweep around and begin following her, finning only slightly more into the mild current. As we retrace, I notice that one extra diver has joined us, clad in blue. Hmmm...

In a few minutes, I'm scanning aft and skyward for signs of my dive buddy. Where could Janel be? I'm at once a bit alarmed, but I soon turn that off. We're in 25 feet of water and 50 minutes into the dive. She'll just come up in 5 or 10 minutes. But I want to communicate this to the dive guide Jeab. Finally getting within about 10 feet of her, I begin to realize that, despite the identical black wetsuit and yellow/black Mares fins she's wearing, this actually is not Jeab. I turn to look at Phil and Sarah, clad in their yellow/black, and yellow fins respectively. Lo and behold, it's not Phil or Sarah either.

Oops, my mistake. I do another 180, and start gliding downcurrent again. By this time, I'm sure that Janel has been equally alarmed at my absence. I figure I'll continue to glide to the island end and surface at 60 minutes, probably running into them at the safety stop. In the process I discover another older harlequin sweetlips, this one with the beginning of its finer adult markings. Nice.

In only 2 or 3 more minutes, I find Janel in the hazy water, peering for me. She gives me the "shame on you" pattern with her finger. Hey - it was an honest error!

All is good, and we surface. Fortunately, Janel had exactly the same thought sequence that I did, and figured I would just surface at 1 hour. No turtles on this dive - a bit surprising. We had both been keeping an eye out for them.

A great dive - especially the harlequin sweetlips! The crew works like lightening to disassemble gear and the speedboat zings its way back to Koh Lanta. We talk mostly with Phil and Sarah. With both wind and waves into the bow, the going is a little bit slower, but we're back by about 2:15, WAY before the larger cattle boats return.

Cameron offers to drive us back to Layana, or we can stay and do a dive debriefing at the Castaway bar. We'd like to do the debriefing, with a beer, but have brought no money with us. Cameron says to put the beer on his tab - no problem. Great guy.

Jeab, Sarah, Phil, Janel and I spend the next hour poring through fish books recollecting the dive sightings over beer - a most enjoyable afternoon activity. Cameron finally takes us back to Layana. We still want to tip the dive crew and will return to Dive & Relax tomorrow.

VERY nice dive experience - exactly what we wanted to do today.

Linda soon returns from her spa treatment, this one a seaweed scrub. Unlike the seaweed wrap that Janel has had, this one involves active exfoliation of expired skin cells. The one hour scrubbing of her skin has left it slicker than snot, and she can't stop grinning about it.

Blogaphilics Janel and Linda spare no effort in reminding me that it is MY blog day and I don't even have any photos to use yet. Oh man, the pressure! I must get the shutter finger in gear.

Blogging in the late afternoon

We finally pushed our beds together

Is there a pea behind these pillows?

We adjourn to the pool and happy hour is soon upon us. Once again, the pool curiously clears out just as the sun sets and the temperatures get perfect - we can't quite figure this out. Today, however, at least there are 4 or 5 couples sit beachside on the pool deck to catch the sunset.

1st round: caipirinha, foo-foo Thai drink, Mai Tai
2nd round: caipirinha, foo-foo island drink, Mai Tai

The caipirinhas are really good - it is the cachaca that provides a nice bite and the granular brown sugar that moderates - excellent. Janel enjoys her Mai Tais and Linda her foo-foos.

Where is my drink?

Linda brings me a drink menu so I won't have to get out of the pool

They're coming ! They're coming!

Poolside drinks with a smile

Now we're talking

One other couple lingers in the pool, and the well-built girl does a series of model poses on the beachside pool wall while her boyfriend snaps photos. At one point we even overhear him suggest, "More cleavage."

Not to be outdone, the lovely Linda follows this up with her own model shoot.

The Lovely Linda

Looking TRULY Fine

My Doll


Oooh La La

Me gusta! Me gusta!

Followed by the jewel Janel.

The Jewel Janel



Looking VERY Fine


More cleavage!

After the photo shoots, a very loud cicada pipes up right next to us, and we find him perched on a low branch of the tree. I snap this close up:

Worthy of Nat Geo?

We enjoy an evening walk up the beach, discussing the merits of Indian food versus another round of fish for tonight's fare. Both win out when we stop and sit at a beach place called Funky Fish.

The table is perfect, in the sand directly facing the water and our young Thai waiter has got a quick smile and is fun-loving. Janel uses all her Thai skills, and some she doesn't have, to sustain snippets of conversation with him. He really likes our fruity Thai nicknames.

The Funky Fish

Decor at the Funky Fish

We wait quite a while for our orders of masala curry with chicken, nahn, shrimp something, rice, and yet another whole white snapper. Fortunately, our waiter keeps us supplied with ample frosty Singhas while we wait.

We discuss Koh Lanta at length, trying to get a handle on why we like it so much. I suppose this is great problem to be having, and it really doesn't warrant excess analysis, but it is a little perplexing nevertheless. I find it interesting that Linda comments that we'll probably never return here again. She's right, of course - there are tons of other places in this world to go. But when mentioning a place that she loves, she most often talks of returning some day.

Our food orders are all quite excellent although we all agree that every dish could use more hot seasoning. As usual when the fish arrives, it steals the show - it might even be as good as Thai Cat's!

Whole grilled white snapper - needs garlic?

Snapper feeding frenzy

As we are finishing up, we spot Phil and Sarah walking by on the beach and call them over. Soon enough, they're seated at our table and we're ordering another round of beer for all. They're married and traveling the world, wandering as it were. They're also relatively new divers, and we discuss the UK, other travel destinations, and dive characteristics of many places. They've been to both the Maldives and to the Red Sea, both on our list.

Our friends Phil and Sarah join our table

Janel starts to fade a bit earlier than the rest of us, and we're soon giving our good wishes to Phil and Sarah. Both extremely nice folks - we're lucky to have shared some time. Maybe we'll see them at a music festival somewhere.

The beach is quite dark and we enjoy watching sporadic little dots of bright light at the front edge of inrushing waves. Bioluminescent plankton. They look like stars speckled on the night beach. Linda starts picking them up and they soon wink out, only to be revitalized with a drop of fresh sea water.

I blog back in the room, check the stock market, but soon I'm too pooped to pop. Linda and Janel have already hit it, but I waken them for a refrain from the tokay outside.

1 comment:

  1. Love the model shots . . . especially the ones with "more cleavage"!