Sunday, December 14, 2014

Bobbi and I on holiday fun diving on Koh Lanta Thailand, Dec 10 through 14, 2014

My dives #1318-1327
Here's a map of the area thanks to Ocean Divers showing the areas we were taken to during our stay on Koh Lanta

Our dive logs ...
  • Wed 10-Dec-14 - first 2 Ko Lanta dives with Dive and Relax on Koh Haa. My dives #1318-9
  • Thu 11-Dec-14 -two dives with Dive and Relax on Koh Bida Nok, my dives #1320-21
  • Fri 12-Dec-14 2 dives with Dive and Relax on long trip to Hin Muang and Hin Daeng, my dives #1322-23
  • Sat 13-Dec-14 2 dives with Dive and Relax on the new wreck the Klet Kaew and Koh Bida Noi, my dives #1324-25
  • Sun 14-Dec-14 we went with Palm Divers to Hin Daeng and Ko Haa, my dives #1326-27
Details and impressions ...

We start with our Sat 13-Dec-14 dive on the new wreck the Klet Kaew

(waiting for it to register on YouTube)

More videos will be posted as we edit them

Koh Lanta has been on our bucket list – from its own websites and reports of other divers it seems superb. Our FB friends even were posting videos from their recent encounters with mantas on Hin Muong. For us, as sometimes happens but sometimes not (we do get very, very lucky sometimes :-) we were not lucky this time.

Koh Lanta is in that circle of great diving starting from Havelock Island in the Andamans going southeast to the Similan Islands, further SE to Phuket, east to Kho Phi Phi and nearby Koh Lanta, south to Lankawi in Malaysia, and on around back west to Pulau Wei on the north coast of Aceh, Indonesia.

As in Pulau Wei earlier, I would rate KL diving very good but not excellent. For the price, I would say that PW was the better bargain (unless you see mantas on KL, and then it's worth whatever you pay). But if you don't see mantas, or in retrospect didn't see them, then KL is quite expensive by comparison for similar diving. A day of diving can cost 4000 bhat, or 5000 for the distant dive sites (with park fees and fuel surchages). In PW it's much less.

But after hours, those long overnight surface intervals, things are much more interesting in KL than in PW. KL is a laid back place, not crazy like KPP (though we've never been there, but Leonardo di Capio apparently oversold that one). There is plenty to do and eat and drink on Long Beach at KL, sunset happy hours being almost dangerous. We certainly enjoyed ourselves on KL, enjoyed the diving as well, relaxed very well in our beach bungalows (once we got ourselves in a room away from the reggae bar). There were no such activities on PW except at the dive center. It's very quiet, very peaceful on PW, with the option of excellent shore diving where you can just take a tank, wade into the water, and guide yourself.

From North Beach at KL you can see the Phi Phi islands, and the dive shops on KL go there, though our diving tended to focus on just three areas, the Bida Islands, the scenic rock pedestals of Kho Haa to the west, and the deep reefs of Hin Muong and Hin Daeng less than an hour past Kho Haa, assuming good weather.

We were not there in good weather. There was a storm (Ruby) hammering the Philippines when we were there and on our last day, our last boat ride from Hin Daeng to Ko Haa, just that stretch between the two dive sites, normally half an hour apart, took almost three hours beating slowly against the waves, Blue Planet catamaran unable to plane.

On our earlier days in the area, the beach weather was great, plenty of sunshine and balmy breezes, but these translated to winds and waves at sea that we were hardly aware of, but those who knew local conditions could somehow sense, so that the second promised dive sites almost never materialized, and we were forced to shelter in the same spots we had dived the first dive, but to avoid repetition we would go left instead of right this time. The diving was always good mind you, but other dive boats seemed under the same constraints, so the sites were crowded, and even first in from our boat usually dropped down on a reef spewing bubbles from divers passing underneath.

As we often do, we chose our dive center based on those who answered emails. For KL the best correspondent was far and away Cameron at His outfit was professional and friendly and his dive guides very competent. Unfortunately, they only did Hin Muong trips twice a week on Tuesdays and Fridays. HM was where the mantas were, but they hadn't seen any there in a couple of weeks anyway, so for us it probably didn't matter that we could only go there with them on the Friday. Still, we would like to have dived there our first day, Tuesday. We landed in Krabi on a Monday afternoon and had read it was possible to reach KL that evening, and we saw kiosks at the airport offering to take us there, but Cameron required a significant deposit in order to book space on the dive next day. He said we would have to be at the dive center by 5 or latest 6 pm that evening to check in for the dive next morning, and tailbacks at the ferry landings made that an iffy proposition, which meant if we couldn't get to DiveandRelax within three hours of our plane landing at Krabi, we might lose our deposit, which made gambling on the Hin Muong trip on Tuesday a risk.  When we eventually met Cameron we had the impression he might be flexible on deposits in case you couldn't make your dive due to ferry hassles, but we had no way of telling by email.

So we opted to relax on arrival and overnight in Krabi instead of rushing to Koh Lanta that evening. Bobbi had booked a room on Ao Nang beach, one of the most popular in Krabi, but far from the airport. Once we reached there we were happy with the ambiance and sunset happy hour from the beach, but after dark and next morning we realized we could have been on Kuta Beach or Waikiki, so we were happier still to get away from there next morning and move on to Koh Lanta.

For those who need to know, which is anyone who lands in Krabi with little sense of how to get about, there are at this writing two ways to get to KL. You can take a large ferry which leaves Krabi somewhere and arrives at Sela Dan on KL. The only catch is it goes on a set schedule each day which you have to get up for. I don't know more about it than that because we opted for the mini-bus each way. These pick you up at your hotel, with pickups hourly or half-hourly, and they take you where you have booked. In our case some passengers were going to Phuket etc. We couldn't figure out how that was going to work until we saw they took us to a station where they had passengers transfer to other destinations. We were put on a KL van leaving right away that took us to another transfer point just by the harbor in the center of Krabi town. Again we changed vans but this one took us south a half hour or so to the first ferry landing. Here we waited until one of the two ferries plying back and forth here arrived at our pier and had space to take on our van. We didn't have to wait long.

On the other side we drove on a few km and repeated the process at another ferry landing taking us to Sela Dan, the port town on Ko Lanta. We noticed they were building a bridge here so one day soon this second ferry crossing will be eliminated, and eventually most likely the first one as well.

In Sela Dan just after the ferry landing the van stopped and we were again ordered out. We tried to claim that we had booked transport to our hotel but in fact we didn't know what we had booked, so the van driver prevailed. Fortunately there was a tuk tuk there whose driver offered to take us to Palm Beach Resort just a few km up the one main road on that part of the island, and then up a side street to Long Beach, where our hotel was.

Our first night there we were so sleepy that we had no trouble falling into a trance after discovering the happy hour sunset place (Sen's) and enjoying a few Changs over Thai food at a nearby street restaurant. But the following night we were more moderate in what we imbibed and not so sleepy, and we were kept awake by a steady base beat that went on and off till three a.m. We suspected a nearby rave party on the beach, but when the same repeated the following night, and us having to get up at 6 a.m. for our Hin Muong trip Friday morning, we investigated and discovered our local bar was to blame. We met another person diving with the same company who also stayed at our place and she told us she had be given the room behind the bar and had moved after one night. So the hotel owners, as sweet as they were, knew about the problem, and they found a place a few bungalows further away for us, and we slept like babies after that, ten hours a night some nights, but that's the business, where you move people into rooms others have not been able to sleep in, and see what happens. In the end we were very happy with the Palm Beach Resort bungalows, but not when waking up in the middle of our first nights there.

We were there to dive, and we were also happy with Dive-and-relax, but again the industry has come a far cry from what it used to be. Dive operators these days will get complaints from people like me who think they should have pushed a little closer to the edge to dive places that might have been more interesting or that I might have dived differently if left to my own devices, but then again we'll never know if that would have made any difference. And they also have to cater to those who might get seasick or whose skill levels might put them in difficulty if they encounter currents or anything verging on challenging conditions. The result is an experience that the majority of customers seem to embrace, since they may have been only a few days ago on a dive course, or haven't been diving for a couple of years, and I can understand that it's best to be conservative and cater to the majority and dive safely every dive day, minimizing risk of incident let alone accident. This also means being sure that every diver is closely monitored at all times and again, I can't blame operators for doing that.

Problems will inevitably arise when divers are left on their own. Bobbi and I were allowed to go free in the Maldives once, and we came to a current we couldn't go back on, so we decided to go with it, and it took us clear across a channel to another island. Fortunately, we were carrying an SMB, and the dive boat figured out what happened and came looking for us. Opportunities to deal with such situations make the most interesting  diving for advanced divers, but as more people get into the sport, I can understand that dive operators prefer that everything is controlled to plan. It's the way it has to be, and we are lucky that in UAE where we usually dive, that the community of divers is such that the regular divers normally dive freely and monitor conditions according to their skill level. Somehow this results in safe diving as well, and is the norm we are used to in the context of UAE diving.

Our first day in Koh Lanta, the Tuesday, we visited the dive shop after arrival that afternoon, and left our gear there. The next morning, Wednesday, we were picked up promptly at 8:10 and taken to Castaway resort for a routine which included a quick cup of coffee, a thorough and friendly briefing each morning (a good touch), a chance to use the bathroom, assembly on the beach, and then walk along the beach to the boat pickup point, where we got aboard and found our equipment assembled (beforehand by our dive guide) and in the place we had been told it would be, so we would sit opposite it.

Our first day the trip was to Koh Haa, a picturesque collection of islands about half hour or 45 min. boat ride from the beach where the dive center was. We were going to dive one of the islands at KH and do the second dive on another, but on arrival we found that sea conditions were such that the dive plan had to be changed from something other than we had been briefed, since the wind was stronger than expected and the ocean more wavy. As was often the case other boats diving there that day were reacting to the same conditions and so the boats clustered in the lee of the island and everyone in the area did both dives from the same spot, one to the right to visit the caves, and the other to the left to see the reef in that direction. No complaints really, both dives were superb, reasonably clear, lots of interesting things to see in the water, and Chris the dive guide was excellent and personable. There was only one problem, which was that we had been teamed with a diver whose air consumption was twice ours. In our videos we can see him kicking constantly to control his buoyancy, something we do with lung volume. At 45 min into the dive he was at 50 bar, we had to turn around, and all go shallow, while Bobbi and I were still over 100 bar. We felt this compromised our diving but now that we have been back there we realize it probably didn't make all that much difference. Still we mentioned it to Cameron who explained that of course they didn't know who would be compatible first day, fair enough.

Next day Cameron provided the two of us our own guide, named Kla, who was an experienced and beatifically polite local instructor. We went to Bida islands that second day, a pair of islands next over from Koh Haa. Another boat was going to Bida and another site just north of there in the Phi Phi chain. We had requested to be on that one but agreed in advance to accept wherever they decided we should go since they knew the sites, we didn't. The plan was to do the first dive on Bida Nok, or north, and the second on Bida Nai, or south. But again when we arrived we were told wind and waves would not allow us to execute that plan and so we would dive from a sheltered spot in the lee of Bida Nok, start with wall on our left, and turn to return to the boat. For our second dive we would move a little further north and dive wall on the left down to the initial drop in. The plan was not what we had hoped but again the dives did not disappoint. For our introduction to diving Koh Lanta we were having reasonable vis, mild to nil current, and turtles, scorpion fish, lion fish, nudibrachs, and schools of snappers, beautiful, relaxed diving.

The following day was Friday, time for the dive we were looking forward to. On this day Diveandrelax was going further afield to HM and HD.

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