Koh Lanta is the gateway to some of Thailand’s best diving, as well as being a great apres-dive location too. Joe Guilmette describes what makes Koh Lanta’s diving so special.
Octopus, Hin Daeng, Koh Lanta
Diving Koh Lanta – Dive Happy Episode 27 Show Notes
- Dive Crew BK – Joe’s very active Meetup group for Bangkok divers (also on Facebook)
- Blue Planet Divers – the Koh Lanta dive shop with the catamaran. I usually dive with GoDive – there are several other long-established and reputable dive shops on Lanta.
- Koh Lanta: Manta Ray Paradise – my (now very old) article for Asian Diver magazine about diving Koh Lanta
- Amazing Lanta – comprehensive guide to Koh Lanta island
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Diving Koh Lanta – Dive Happy Episode 27 Transcript
[00:00:06] CM: Hello and welcome to Dive Happy, the podcast about finding the best scuba diving in Asia. I’m your host, Chris Mitchell, and on this episode I’m joined by Joe Guilmette, the founder of the very active BK Dive Crew Meetup group here in Bangkok.
[00:00:21] JG: Hi. How are you doing, Chris?
[00:00:23] CM: Good. Thanks, mate. We were chatting online because we still have actually yet to meet each other in person for obvious reasons we won’t go into. But the thing that piqued my interest is that the last big trip that you did was leading a large group of divers to the island of Koh Lanta in Thailand. How many people did you take there?
[00:00:44] JG: Off top of my head, I think it was 13 or 14, something like that.
[00:00:47] CM: Wow! That’s a lot of people to organize.
[00:00:51] JG: Yeah. You know what? It sounds more complicated than it is. I mean, organizing a trip like that is really just like organizing a trip for yourself. You just have to be more explicit about all the things you have to work out, but it’s really just book flights, book transport, find a place to dive.
[00:01:06] CM: These people that you do travel with before or was there a lot of new faces and –
[00:01:10] JG: There was – It was a mix, right? A lot of – Most of the trips these days, it’s a lot of the same group of people and then maybe like 10% to 20% new people, which is really nice. That’s why I started the club to begin with was because I was kind of tired of going on back trips with like just one other person or two other people. Then you show up and you’re in a group with people you don’t really know. Then by the end of the trip, when you finally know them and know how they dive and you’re having fun, you never see them again. So you never really improve. It’s really nice to show up with a full boat people that you know and like it and comfortable with.
[00:01:45] CM: Yup. We were just talking before we’re recording. I mean, you’ve been to Koh Lanta a few times. How did you like pitch it to the rest of the people? Did you sort of sing its praises in particular?
[00:01:58] JG: I mean, I don’t or I try not to really sell the trips. What I try to do is I just try and like think about like where will I want to dive and then I really just write like a really simple description of where it is when I post the actual trip, one or two paragraphs about the trip, what to expect. I try and put, for example, like mentioning things like whale sharks or zebra sharks or stuff like that. They have them in the area, but you don’t want to say like – You have to be careful about describing the likelihood of seeing those things, so I usually try and actually undersell the trips to people, because really it’s not – I mean, of course, the diving is a lot fun but it’s more about going with the people that you like to dive with, and that’s simplicity because it’s posted in a group.
[00:02:41] CM: Do you have a real mix of ability in the groups and just thinking Koh Lanta’s dive sites are a great place for people of different levels for them all to enjoy themselves? I mean, how did you figure that out?
[00:02:53] JG: Yeah. That’s actually one of the things that’s really nice is it’s been a mix of people all the way from never dived before and are just interested in it, all the way out to dive instructors, dive masters, a lot of technical divers in the group, and then just people in the middle with like a hundred something dives and they’re advanced. We have literally every single type of diver I think. They’re all welcome.
[00:03:13] CM: Right. When you got to Koh Lanta, did you do the usual fly down to Krabi Airport and then get on there? Or did you go by liveaboard?
[00:03:22] JG: Yeah. This is interesting. The way we got down there was I tried and optimized the trips for not having two days off of work. So we wanted people to be able to get off work, fly down to Krabi Airport, and then get in the water the next morning. The problem is that we fly to Krabi Airport. The ferry stopped running at like I think 10 o’clock, and so you’d have to land by 8 o’clock, but some of the people were landing at like 8:45. What we did was we ported out with the dive shops, so we got a private van to take us and then we got – We’ve like sent the ferries some extra money to run an extra trip for us afterwards so that we –
[00:04:01] CM: Very good.
[00:04:02] JG: Yeah. We showed up at the dive shop at like 11 o’clock at night and then just got up in the morning and dive in.
[00:04:07] CM: That’s fantastic. That is so Thailand as well.
[00:04:11] JG: Yeah. I was trying like old tricks so we can fly as late as possible so people can get an extra day.
[00:04:20] CM: Once you were on Koh Lanta and for the benefit of our listeners, Koh Lanta is actually separated from the Thai mainland by another smaller island which is funny enough called Koh Lanta Noi, which means small Koh Lanta. It’s not arduous but it’s never quick to get to the island. You got to be prepared for like a kind of a three-hour round-trip from Krabi Airport to the island itself. But it’s worth the extra hassle, because basically the island has been kind of protected because it’s a bit more difficult to get to.
[00:04:55] JG: Yeah. It’s a really nice island actually and it has the east side and the west side, and they’re very different and then the southwest corner throughout national park east. So it feels like – I mean, it was one big island but it feels like three or four different islands. It’s cool. I like Koh Lanta a lot. I think it’s great. I mean, diving aside.
[00:05:12] CM: Yeah. I think it’s something like 80-square kilometers of island and it feels like it’s a lot bigger because it’s got – Or like you say, like it’s six different beaches down the west coast, and they all just change characters. The further south you go, the more and more kind of natural and jungly and remote it feels. Where did you guys stay when you were there? I mean, you were just doing day diving, right?
[00:05:39] JG: Yeah. We went with Blue Planet Divers, and so they run – Their pier is on the very north end of Koh Lanta. I picked them because they have a high-speed catamaran, and we wanted to dive in Hin Daeng and Hin Muang and Koh Haa, which is the far side. If you go in a normal tide dive boat, it’s a – You leave at like morning and you’re back at like six o’clock at night. Well, with their catamaran, you wake up in the morning and go diving and you’re back on the island at like 2:30 and you have the rest of the day to spend on Koh Lanta.
Their catamaran is beautiful. It’s enormous. It cruises at like 18 knots or something, brand new, fiberglass, custom-designed for diving works. It’s really nice. Their whole guesthouse is directly on the pier, so you wake up and it’s like 15 meters and there’s the boat with all your gear.
[00:06:26] CM: That is awesome. I had no idea that someone had launched a catamaran on the island. I knew there were – Like you say, there’s the traditional way just to go on the Thai dive boat, which are basically converted fishing vessels, so they’re pretty slow. That is nice particularly if you’d never done it before, because as long as you know that you’re in for a long journey, you can just chill and enjoy the scenery because it’s pretty out there as you cruise out to the sides. But, yeah, if you wanted to get back and forth quite a lot, it maybe loses its charm.
[00:06:59] JG: It’s such a shame too, because Koh Lanta is a really nice island and it’s – I mean, to spend like an extra like about four or five hours on a boat is kind of a shame.
[00:07:07] CM: The other way to like get out to the dive sites is on a speedboat, but that can be really bumpy. It never appealed to me.
[00:07:14] JG: Right. There are some really good speedboats operators in Koh Lanta. But just generally speaking, I think it’s a pretty bad idea to take a speedboat to Koh Haa and Hin Daeng and Hin Muang. So we were actually diving in Koh Haa, which is halfway between Lanta and Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang, the kind of more famous dive sites. The wind picked up when we were on Koh Haa and there were some other – I think they were snorkeling or something, but they were on a speedboat, and we had to take all of their passengers onto our boat to bring them back to the mainland because they’re all getting sick and it was kind of dangerous to be on a speedboat out there. It’s also like a safety issue too.
[00:07:48] CM: Well, yeah. Absolutely. That’s the thing. I mean, they’re fast and zippy. But, yeah, they’ve got quite a few drawbacks as well because – Anyway, you mentioned Koh Haa, so that is yet one of the really famous dive sites. I have to say the first of the time I went to Koh Haa, which is a long time ago now, like 2004, it blew my mind because you leave Lanta and I suppose as the listeners have probably picked up now, the dive sites are quite far away from Lanta. It’s a couple of hour’s steam on boat or a speedboat or a catamaran is all too quicker. Yet, it’s a proper steam. We got into Koh Haa. You leave Koh Lanta. You obviously lose sight of the islands and then suddenly Koh Haa appears. It’s like a James Bond lair right in front of you just coming out of the sea. It’s really quite spectacular, isn’t it?
[00:08:38] JG: Yeah, it really is. It’s pretty wild. It really feels like you’re like steaming out in the middle of nowhere and you just see these like little limestone like dots on the horizon just like rising out of the sea. It’s pretty classic Thai and it’s really nice.
[00:08:50] CM: Yeah, exactly.
[00:08:50] JG: Beautiful dive sites too.
[00:08:52] CM: Yeah, yeah. Well, that’s the thing is that the reason it’s called Koh Haa is because Haa is the Thai word for five, and it’s – Well, remind me, Joe. I think it’s five islands but it’s actually six. I could never remember. There are some disagreement about what’s actually called five or whatever.
[00:09:08] JG: Exactly, yeah. I mean, other really islands like – But they’re just rocks with some green stuff on them really.
[00:09:13] CM: Yeah, exactly. I know what that is. They’re just big limestone rocks, so they’re classic, again, like you would see in the James Bond movie, the man with the golden gun and they didn’t shoot around this, around Koh Haa, but it’s that same classic beautiful limestone cast. Inside – It essentially forms a natural lagoon, doesn’t it?
[00:09:31] JG: Yup.
[00:09:31] CM: Which is a superb place for people that do not have many dives, so it’s sort of a wonderful introduction to open more diving.
[00:09:40] JG: Yeah. If you have a little bit like – Sometimes, the current gets a little pushy, so you can shelter in that lagoon and kind of hide behind some of the rock formations. Or you cannot do that if a little more experience. It’s kind of fun to like go out to the corner and maybe you get lucky. There’s some pelagic hunting there where the current gets a little zippy on the edges, which could be pretty fun as well. There’s some nice like swim throughs and some caverns and stuff. When we there, the viz was spectacular. I mean, there was just some – It was a really nice dive site, and actually I enjoyed the diving on Koh Haa in that trip more than Hin Daeng and Hin Muang.
[00:10:13] CM: Well, it’s always a mix. But we’ll get on to Hin Daeng and Hin Muang in a minute. I mean, Koh Haa – The other thing that’s great about it is it’s got the cathedral. Can you still ascend up inside it and take a breath of air in the air pocket or is that all kind of gone?
[00:10:27] JG: It’s hard to remember, because on that same trip there is a similar dive site where you can do that off Phuket. I can’t remember the name of the dive site. I think it’s like Shark Fin rock or Shark Island or something like that. There was another dive site with a chimney on it Phuket where you definitely can do that, and I can’t remember if the one in Koh Haa is still active or not. We’re doing that on the same trip like multiple times. On a previous dive, a previous trip to Phuket, we were doing that as well, so I think so. That sounds familiar.
[00:10:56] CM: Well, whether or not you actually got into the air pocket and if it is still there, the cathedral in Koh Haa, it makes for a fantastic entrance because it’s a huge – It’s like a massive underwater gothic archway, and you pass through that, and then obviously you can ascend it. The way that ambient light comes down through there is fantastic, and the other thing about Koh Haa that is wonderful is just like the stacks and stacks of coral that are around.
[00:11:21] JG: It’s very healthy reef.
[00:11:22] CM: Right.
[00:11:23] JG: Like really healthy reef, tones of nooties everywhere. When we dropped in, there was a zebra shark like right underneath us.
[00:11:28] CM: Nice.
[00:11:28] JG: Yeah. It was great. It was solid diving like cuttlefish mating and laying eggs and all sort of different stuff.
[00:11:35] CM: Yeah. Were there any turtles around the lagoon because they seem to like it in there?
[00:11:39] JG: Yup. There are always some turtles. I think I can’t remember the last time I went diving in Thailand and didn’t see a turtle.
[00:11:47] CM: Well, I had. The last trip I did in Thailand was in February when I was in the Similans and I met this lovely couple, Sunita and Sudesh, and they dived in the Similans and then they went to Koh Lanta and they went out diving at Koh Haa. All the time in the Similans, they’re kind of, “Oh, we really want to see a whale shark,” and I was trying to manage their expectations that, “Well, you might get ready lucky but don’t expect it.” I think for that 25th dive, there was a whale shark that has swim by. It’s remarkable.
[00:12:19] JG: Of course.
[00:12:19] CM: Of course.
[00:12:19] JG: I had to do 500 dives before I got to see a whale shark in the ocean. Maybe the kids like Koh Tao or getting on one of their open water course. It’s like, “You know what?” It’s not right.
[00:12:30] CM: I’m right with you there. I am – I consider myself the world’s unluckiest diver. Pretty much every time there’s something amazing to see, I miss it. I am the classic guy that I turn out to someone and they’re like, “Oh, you should’ve been here last week.” I’ve just kind of – I’ve accepted my lot in here and that’s just how it is. But I have to say at Hin Daeng, so like in a long time ago now, 10, 12 years ago, I had what was in the best dive of my life and a very hard topic ever since is that when we descended on the pinnacle – Now, you know the pinnacle sits at still pretty shallow, so I think we’re only at 10 meters or so. There were five manta rays just circling around the pinnacle.
I’ve been told that this happens by dive guides who work there and obviously they’re in the water every day. I was like, “Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, sure. Sure that happens.” I got in and I saw it. It was just absolutely incredible, and they didn’t go away. They stayed there the whole day. I had to be dragged away.
[00:13:36] JG: They’re oceanic mantas, right?
[00:13:38] CM: Right. I mean, yeah, exactly. They were huge and I guess they were. They must have been filter feeding, because I don’t think they were cleaning. I don’t know. I’d have to ask a scientist. But it was the way that they were just there. It’s sort of mesmerizing. It’s sort of a ballet of how they were just going round and round the pinnacle and just completely unfazed by these like idiot divers. But then, Joe, this is the kicker, right? I’d stayed there, and other people got bored and gone off and done the usual gone down deep, yada, yada, yada. Because as we both know, it’s a very deep dive site. I had stayed with the mantas, and so I saw quite a lot out there at the end of an hour. Then as I reluctantly went to kind of do my safety stop, I’m hovering at five meters. Then a whale shark passes with the manta rays.
[00:14:25] JG: Are you kidding me?
[00:14:28] CM: No. Most people got back on the boat, so I came back out and just the smuggest person [inaudible 00:14:34].
[00:14:37] JG: I’m sure that it’s all good about going down and looking at the barracuda down at 20 meters.
[00:14:44] CM: But, yeah, the thing was there, of course. Did I have a camera? No. Yeah, that was just the classic, and my memory is but nothing else.
[00:14:55] JG: What year was this?
[00:14:56] CM: This was back in 2007, 2008 I think. Yeah. That’s been an interesting thing about how the dive sites around Lanta have kind of waxed and waned, because I’ve been diving Lanta since 2004 and I stay at friends who live on the island who are dive guides. So they just dive day-in, day-out. Apparently, the manta rays used to be very active at the beginning and end of the dive season, November and April. Then they kind of just disappeared and then they come back again.
[00:15:29] JG: This past season, there wasn’t a ton of them, right? Our dive master was saying – She’s been there over a number of years, and I think that she said this season she saw the oceanic mantis I think one-time last season on Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang and it was just like a flyby, but they go to Hin Daeng and Hin Maunang every other day weather dependent, so not a ton of data points, but still it’s not what it used to be from what I understand.
[00:15:55] CM: Sure. Like I say, it’s one of these things, isn’t it? Some years it just doesn’t seem to have much going on and then it’ll kickoff. I mean, I think we should be clear. Even if manta rays and whale sharks are not there, they are still pretty spectacular sites.
[00:16:10] JG: That’s the thing. Koh Haa and Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang are really good dive sites, and with or without whale sharks and mantas, they’re amazing. When I pick a dive trip, I want to pick a place like Lanta, a place that has the opportunity to see whale sharks and manta rays, but are still good dive sites even if you don’t see them. If you go somewhere like Bali and you do Mola Mola dive and you don’t see a mola mola, you’re just sitting in the blue. That’s not super fun and that’s not a really good idea to get on the plane and go do that, and then when you don’t inevitably don’t see them on that one trip, then you spend the whole trip steering off in the blue. Places like Lanta are really special because you can get really good diving. Then if you go lucky, it’s just even better.
[00:16:54] CM: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, there’s something as well about Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang because they’re both oceanic pinnacles and they’re really deep. I think they might even be the deepest dive sites in all of Thailand, because they drop down to 60, 70 meters I think. I know a lot of tech divers do stuff there, which I try not – Which I don’t know anything about, but I know – Yeah, they’ve gone down to at least 60 meters.
The other thing about both places is, number one, you really are in the middle of the ocean. You’re in the middle of nowhere and it’s the sort of place where the marine life is going to come to you for protection and shelter and to hunt and the other is it’s just something really beautiful and mysterious about those places because you just don’t know what’s going to happen.
[00:17:45] JG: Yeah. Deep water pinnacles, like open water pinnacles on the middle of the ocean are my favorite dive sites just because there’s always that like X-factor what’s going to come out of the deep and come to a flyby.
[00:17:55] CM: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah, I mean I suppose we should mention the only downside, and that is you can get some really strong currents out there.
[00:18:05] JG: Potential downside. Current can be really fun if you know how to play around in it.
[00:18:09] CM: Sure, and then it can get to strong, it’s not fun.
[00:18:17] JG: Yeah. Places like Komodo are some of my favorite places to dive, and some of my most favorite dive sites are just the most current slap like ridiculous ones, like the magnet in Lambac and stuff like that. Whenever we get to these dive sites and they’re doing their current check, I was kind of like hoping it’s going to be a ripper, just because they can be so much fun.
[00:18:33] CM: Yeah. I’m ambivalent. I don’t mind if I don’t have a camera with me and it’s a drift dive. I’m very happy to sit in it, but if I just want to bubble around and take photos, I am not thrilled about fighting my way, that stuff.
[00:18:48] JG: Yeah, that’s true. Camera definitely complicates things.
[00:18:52] CM: Sure. Sure. Cool. Actually, obviously we’re both huge fans of Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang and Koh Haa, the other dive site that you always see on the dive boards on Koh Lanta – Basically, again, to just explain. When you’re on Koh Lanta, all of the dive shot is kind of grouped in one port village, which is called Saladan and all of them will basically advertise where the boat is going the next day. Hin Daeng, Hin Mauang and the Koh Haa are the two you see, and the third one is Koh Bida. Did you go there, Joe this last trip?
[00:19:25] JG: Yeah. When – Blue Planet, what they do with their catamaran is they split it. Every other day, they go to Hin Daeng, Hin Mauang, Koh Haa, then every other day, they do Bida, Kled Gaeow Wreck and those dive sites up there. Basically the far Phuket dive sites.
[00:19:41] CM: All right. Okay.
[00:19:42] JG: Which are also fantastic. Yeah.
[00:19:44] CM: Do you rate Bida much on kind of like, “Eh, it’s okay.”
[00:19:49] JG: It’s fine.
[00:19:52] CM: [inaudible 00:19:51] phrase. It’s fine.
[00:19:54] JG: It’s fine. I like the wreck a lot. The wreck is great.
[00:19:59] CM: Yeah, tell me more about the wreck. I can’t remember much about that. I’m not even sure if I’ve dive it. It’s not the King Cruiser.
[00:20:04] JG: It’s not the King Cruiser. The King Cruiser is usually dive by the Phuket shops, because there’re two wrecks in that area and the King Cruiser is the closer one to Phuket. They usually dive that. Then the Kled Gaeow is closer to Lanta, so they don’t usually go that far out. But the Lanta shops, when they’re going to the Phuket area to dive, near Phi Phi and stuff like that, will dive the wreck. It’s a really nice wreck. I don’t know if it’s as good as the King Cruiser just because the King Cruiser is kind of amazing. Yeah, it’s a nice wreck.
Then, also, there’s the Phi Phi sites, which are great, like tons of black tips and stuff like that and all these like really amazing swim throughs, and there’s that chimney. I think it’s Shark Island where the chimney is. View is fine. It’s a health reef. I think there was a zebra shark there as well maybe on this trip, one before. We did a lot of trips to Phuket and Lanta, so they’re all kind of blending in mind together. More cuttlefish and stuff like that, which are always fun. It’s crazy, like an alien encounter.
I mean, it’s just a disappointment when like you know the boat could be going south to Hin Daeng, Hin Mauang, and Koh Haa, so you go, “Okay, I guess I’m going to beat them today, because somebody wants to do a different dive site. Fine.”
[00:21:10] CM: Yeah. Also, if I’m not mistaken, it’s only from Koh Lanta that you get boats regularly going to Hin Daeng and Hin Mauang. They don’t like to go there from Phuket or Koh Phi Phi, because it’s a long way to go.
[00:21:24] JG: Yeah, they won’t do it. Also, there are some shops in Krabi that do it too, but I think it’s a little bit of a further steam and they are the slow boats anyway.
[00:21:33] CM: Right. Basically, yes. Unless you’re on Koh Lanta and taking a day boat, whether it’s a fishing boat, a speed boat, or a catamaran, or you’re on a liveaboard, then you’re not going to get to Hin Daeng.
[00:21:45] JG: No, and it’s also season, because it’s in a national park. The season just ended May 15th, I believe.
[00:21:50] CM: That’s right. Yeah, so it’s October to May now, isn’t it? The season?
[00:21:55] JG: Something like that. There are rumors they’re maybe going to open it up for a year-round diving, but I would not hold my breath.
[00:22:02] CM: Okay, Joe. Thank you so much for talking to me about Koh Lanta and letting me reminisce. I hope we’ll end up diving there together at some point in the future.
[00:22:14] JG: Yeah, anytime.
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