Filed under: Culture, Health, People, Travel, Uncategorized | Tags: Andaman Sea, Bangkok, beaches, Bee Bee Bungalows, boat trip, boats, cooking, Emerald Cave, guesthouse, Hat Khlong Khong, Hollywood, hotel, island-hopping, islands, Khlong Khong beach, Ko Lanta, Koh Lanta, Krabi, Lonely Planet, motorbike rental, motorbike scam, motorbikes, movie, Open Water, pad Thai, police, press, rental scam, scuba, scuba diving, sea, snorkelling, swimming, Thai food, Thai language, Thai police, Thailand, tourism, translator
If it’s the people that make a place, then Ko Lanta’s beauty is merely superficial.
An Andaman Sea island district in Krabi province, inevitably it boasts clean, warm sea water, miles of beaches, countless palm trees and a laidback atmosphere that attracts many visitors.
However, such assets lose their allure once a visitor experiences human failings on Lanta that range from merely unprofessional through to dangerous and even criminal.
I love Krabi. In fact, I’d probably rank it my favourite Thai province outside of Bangkok. So I will doubtless return, although I’ll lose no sleep if I never set foot on Lanta again after a shambolic final day which involved worry, danger, frustration, anger and eventually the police.
Last week, I spent three days on Lanta with my visiting step-brother, Andy, and his friend, Steve. It was OK for two of the days, save for a couple of minor reservations with the accommodation. We chose Bee Bee Bungalows on Khlong Khong beach, primarily because it was given the “Our Pick” rating by Lonely Planet. But sometimes the accolade precipitates a downturn in standards, because it guarantees custom and the proprietors may then cease making an effort.
At least the prices at Bee Bee had not been ramped up – another common side-effect of Lonely Planet backing – and you can’t really argue with 400 baht (£8) per night for a bungalow sleeping three people. The bungalow itself was fine for the price and the location was OK. The beach was overly rocky but swimming possible at high tide, and the stretch of coast was rather undeveloped, which can be what a lot of people are looking for – quiet, calm and with a “faraway” character.
However the staff were sorely lacking. There was often nobody at reception and we’d have to wander around the complex looking for someone. Even when there was somebody nearby, it was often difficult to catch their attention from our table without shouting or walking over to them. The kitchen was agonisingly slow. Even when we were the only ones ordering food one afternoon, it took 20 minutes to make one sandwich and 35 minutes to fry some pad Thai. Ridiculous.
But you might argue they were merely “normal” staff. Surely the manager would be competent. Unfortunately not. Clearly the man (I didn’t get his name) was not well schooled in the concept of keeping his customers happy and safe.
On the second day, the three of us rented motorbikes from a nearby shop and pottered around the island without incident. We returned the bikes the next morning before joining an island-hopping boat trip. It was a shambles – and a dangerous one – from start to finish.
I’ll come back to the Bee Bee manager and the rental bikes later. The boat trip – nominally by a company calling itself Four Islands Centre Riviera Tour – failed to deliver on almost every front.
First of all, the boatmen had taken a payment to transport a couple to a resort not on the itinerary. This added an hour to the journey out and meant one of the scheduled stops was scrapped.
That little bit of side-business complete, the first stop was to visit the Emerald Cave, inside a rocky island which had no shore, just a cliff dropping into the sea. I was snorkelling around rocks with other people, when suddenly there were no other people. The man leading the cave excursion had obviously taken the others through, but had not told me, nor had he done a head count.
I was alone – and that was when I spotted our boat leaving! With nowhere to stand or sit or even hold on to (all the rocks were covered with razor-sharp shells), I was left to tread water in the midst of the Indian Ocean. I can swim well and I’m fit, but at that point I had no idea how long I’d be left like that. The Hollywood movie Open Water – when a couple are left behind while scuba-diving and are later devoured by sharks – came to mind quite quickly.
At least Andy and Steve were also on the tour and they would notice my absence sooner rather than later. But after a while they emerged from the cave entrance (they thought I’d gone ahead of them rather than having been left behind) and were also pretty unhappy with their own turn of events.
The cave bores through to the other side of the island, where the boat picks up the swimmers – or at least those not left behind. Andy and Steve were at the back of the pack following the sole tour guide, who had a small torch and led the swimmers too quickly, rounding a corner and leaving the last two in pitch-black darkness, neck-deep in water and with no idea of which way they had come from. And the guide had not maintained a headcount nor turned back at the loss of two people.
Andy and Steve eventually made their way out – not before Andy raised a welt on his head after striking it on a rock – and they too were left to tread water with me.
At least it’s a popular tour spot, so before long we were resting on another boat which had pulled up and allowed us to sit on it. Finally our own boat returned and the day continued.
After another – thankfully hassle-free – island stop, we paused for lunch. After proceeding gingerly over the shallows of a beach strewn with jagged dead coral, we sat down for what was advertised as a “buffet lunch”, to be served a polystyrene punnet of cold rice, some cold soup with a bit of celery in it, and some cold tinned fish.
Then it was back on to the boat – which was very nearly driven straight into the side of another parked one. This was only averted by one of our fellow passengers sitting on the prow who was strong enough to keep them pushed apart.
Finally, on the way back, the boat’s steering wheel came off in the driver’s hands. Literally. By now, we and our fellow passengers just wanted to get back to shore but we had to wait longer still while our bungling duo of “tour guides” fixed their latest mishap.
We got back safe and sound – somehow! – and reported what had happened to the guesthouse manager, as we had booked the tour through him. We sought a discount, and he said he could knock all of 50 baht (£1) off it! That was not acceptable, because apart from not delivering on the advertised package, the tour was actually dangerous. The manager told us he couldn’t discount further because he’d get in trouble with the boat operators. Apparently the safety of his guests was less of a consideration, and even when I pointed out that dealing with such people reflects badly on him and his business, that didn’t seem to register. But then why would it, when his business is “Our Pick” in Lonely Planet?
We stood firm on wanting a larger discount when yet more trouble reared its head in the form of a woman from the motorbike rental shop.
Although happy enough with the state of the three motorcycles we’d returned at 8am, now they were claiming I had damaged one of them. The Bee Bee manager said they’d first come round at lunchtime, which meant a good four or five hours had passed since they’d happily taken the bikes back. In that time, a scratch had turned up on the front of the bike. Probably they’d tipped it over themselve and then sought to hit us for the repair bill. But I had a playing card.
As we’d still been riding at night the previous day, Steve had pointed out the back light didn’t work, and so made a point of riding behind me from then on so as to ensure my safety. I opened “negotiations” with the bike shop woman by demanding to know why she rented unsafe vehicles. She wouldn’t answer that, only repeatedly saying I’d had an accident. Eventually she said if I didn’t want to pay for repairs, she’d tell the police. I said she was welcome to, so I could report her for renting unsafe vehicles.
To my mind, it was “even” – if she didn’t report me, I wouldn’t report her. After all, the scratch was my word against hers, but the back light was indisputable as it hadn’t been fixed. She’d save herself trouble by not proceeding, but she wanted money – and I wasn’t going to give her any.
She called my bluff and the police came around, along with another woman, the driver from the boat tour and a man from the bike shop. It was apparently an attempt at intimidation. I was surprised they were so dogged, but I was determined to keep calling their bluff in return, so off to the cop shop we went, with Andy and Steve in tow for backup.
I still hadn’t yet told them I was a Thai resident rather than a mere tourist, nor that I worked for the press, nor had I spoken a word of Thai. I figured these were “weapons” I could pull out later if need be. Sometimes it works to not show your whole arsenal immediately. But also having lived here for a few years and working in the media has instilled in me a knowledge that Thai police are often not the most honourable of people, so I knew not to press my luck too far. I’d state my case and see where the cards fell – if the police were on the take, then paying up would be the path of least resistance.
The translator clearly favoured the woman. His opening words were to ask us if we wanted to spend a week in jail! His job should have been simply to interpret what each person was saying for the monolingual officer on duty, but he took it upon himself to cross-examine me. At least I got him to admit that renting motorbikes with broken lights is a crime. Therefore I stuck to my position that I wouldn’t pay and that if she pressed charges against me, I’d press charges against her. So finally she decided not to go that route and the officer washed his hands of the matter. But the translator was still pushing for a cash resolution. As he put it, “if you’re a gentleman, you’ll pay her”. Sorry, but I’m only a gentleman for ladies, not for con artists.
The way he talked also insinuated that it would be in my best interests to pay something, and he suggested a sum of 1,000 baht (£20), which was way too much. But before anything could be negotiated, the woman drove away on the offending motorbike – broken back light and all (it was after dark by now).
On the ride back to the guesthouse, Andy suggested 200 baht – the price of a day’s rental – would be a fair amount. After all, as far as the police and the translator knew I may indeed have been guilty, as it had been simply her word versus mine.
Assuming she would be at the guesthouse, we had the money ready, but she wasn’t there. We waited a while, but she didn’t come. Andy even went to her house to hand her the cash, but nobody answered the door. By the next morning, when we left Lanta, there had been no sign of her. That confirmed her guilt for me.
I’d imagine in 99% of such instances – and the rental scam, plus its variants, are not uncommon in Thailand – more inexperienced folk baulk at the mention of police and pay up. But what I objected to most was that the Bee Bee manager could do nothing to help his guests. The scam was just one of those things – dishonourable people trying to make a dishonourable buck – but he must know of it and should fight his guests’ corner.
But more important was the boat trip issue. That was downright dangerous. Breakdowns at sea, near-crashes and, unforgivably, leaving passengers in the open ocean and in pitch-black sea caves. That such a shoddy business exists is bad enough, but the Bee Bee manager continuing to take bookings for them – and commission from them – and then offering distressed guests insulting discounts of ONE POUND is pitiful.
I will likely never go back to Ko Lanta. By all means visit yourself, and it is a geographically pleasant island, but DO NOT rent a motorbike on Khlong Kong beach, lest you may be scammed, DO NOT book a four-island tour, specifically not with Four Island Centre Riviera Tour, or you will literally be placing your safety in the hands of incompetents, and DO NOT stay at Bee Bee Bungalows, no matter what the Lonely Planet says, because if you experience any trouble they WILL NOT help you.
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