Thailand’s latest crown jewel of diving is just an hour away.
The swell and undulating waves rock our double-decker as we reach our first dive site. There’s no sign of rain but the waves are grumpy and the only option is to dive. Or, get seasick quickly.
My divemaster from Kon-Tiki Diving & Snorkelling Center has apparently just arrived from the UK but she seems to know Ko Haa well. Bright-eyed and smiling — and obviously unaffected by the rocking motions — she lets us know our gear is ready.
Despite the weather, the view of the lagoon we’re in is stunning, with a wide swath of emerald signalling shallow, sandy water. And dark splotches indicate the reefs right around us.
Ko Haa means “Five Islands” in Thai, and Islands #1 to #4 (those are their only names) form this lagoon. The aim is to dive as many as possible in our brief two-day stay.
Krabi International Airport serves as the gateway to Ko Lanta, and hence to Ko Haa. It is the shortest of flights from Kuala Lumpur. My AirAsia flight took only one hour and 20 minutes, and I arrived to a surprisingly modern airport. Thanks to the resort driver, we were soon on the way down south.
A ton of dive centres operate along the breadth of Ko Lanta’s nine beaches. Kon-Tiki Divers, located off Saladan Beach, was not on my radar at first but when we were told their boat for the next day still had room, we signed up straight away.
The warm water soothes us as we descend, just in time for us to spot two Hawksbill turtles, sinking their beaks into the most appetising part of the reef. Once we get too close, they break for a lazy retreat, but still manage to easily outpace our frantic paddle-strokes.
The hard coral down below are healthy, and we get encounters with giant moray eels and even a banded sea-snake!
Thailand’s waters are just not the same if you don’t see a flutemouth. We see a pair of adults dancing around a lone lionfish.
Our eventual safety stop is a visual feast of soft coral, an explosion of colours like patchwork on a new quilt. Anemones are abundant here, with regular clownfish and tomato clownfish residing in almost each one.
Having explored Island #5, we surface for a lunch of rice, green curry and fruits, basking under a warm sun and much calmer waters. It’s well before peak season and the boat is large enough for us to take a nap.
The visibility is only marginally better at Island #4, but the reef life is just as prolific. The slim pinnacle extends downwards with coral all around it. A couple of lone boxfish attracts our attention but yellow snappers and a school of trevally swirl around insouciantly and irritatingly out of camera view.
I see lionfish after lionfish hiding under ledges. In between these encounters are huge gorgonian sea-fans and bubble corals. Like a masterly painting, the tiniest detail begs inspection. We spot exotic nudibranchs on several occasions.
A flurry of brief movements between the coral catches my eye. Hovering closely, I notice what appears to be a large fish with prominent whiskers, trying to escape between the rocks. I want to hang around, hoping it’ll eventually peek out for a picture, but our air is running out. Hopes that it is a leopard shark are raised at first but back on the boat our divemaster breaks the bad news — it’s a few rungs down the pelagic feline ladder — a catfish.
Thailand’s sparkling crown jewels of diving may be the Similan Islands via Phuket but few people realise Ko Haa via Krabi is a pretty good alternative.
By late afternoon, we’re back at Royal Lanta Resort, by the shore of Saladang Beach. While entering the driveway from town, it doesn’t seem like this boutique property would have a great beach view. It does, and with charming secluded villas to boot.
The resort sits on a narrow stretch of land, lobby on one end, room somewhere in the middle, and beach-front at the other end. I don’t mind the long walks past the well-manicured gardens and tropical shrub.
The rooms themselves are a little dated but filled with all the amenities one might need for a comfortable stay. The free Wi-Fi in the lobby necessitates the occasional walk in and out, though.
The shore is rather wide and a great playground for its soft, near-immaculate sand. Breakfast and our traditional Thai dinner are usually served at this large, airy restaurant.
Today, we’re seated at our table, watching the wind-powered waves almost crashing in to shore. Ko Haa is clearly visible on the dark grey skyline like an impregnable fort. But the breeze is almost too strong.
Kon-Tiki is a minute’s drive from the resort. I’m told that our first day would also be our last; the winds and resulting waves would be too rough to withstand the hour-long journey by boat. Our flight home is the day after. It’s only then I realise how much I’ll miss diving in Ko Haa again. – By Michael D’Oliveiro
Taxi transport booked by the hotel is RM270 one way.
Price: RM350 for a three-tank dive, inclusive of lunch. Gear rental is extra.