Lanta Lanta Festival: a celebration of cultural diversity

Ko Lanta Yai has some gorgeous beaches

Ko Lanta Yai has some gorgeous beaches

By Lesley Chittayanon

The Laanta Lanta Festival is held annually on Koh Lanta Yai during the month of March. The event celebrates the eclectic mix of cultures and traditions found across the island. In a world where so many nations are divided by religious and cultural differences, it is inspiring to behold this crucible of cultures, where people can reside together in peace and harmony.

The Koh Lanta archipelago is made up of more than 50 small islets, most of which are uninhabited. Koh Lanta Yai is the most popular with tourists and also has the largest population. The island’s topography consists mainly of abundant forest land, mountainous terrain, pristine beaches and plentiful marine resources. Koh Lanta’s original name was ‘Palau Satak’, which means ‘long beach island’ in Malay. In 1917 it was officially changed to Koh Lanta - thought to come from the Javanese word for ‘fish grill’.

Lanta old town, located on the southeastern coast, is worth visiting at any time of year. Once a major sea port and the commercial centre for the island, it provided a safe harbour for Arabic and Chinese trading vessels sailing between Phuket, Penang and Singapore. For more on Phuket culture.

The town’s status changed 50 years ago with the advent of roads and automobiles, which linked the island with the mainland - now tourism and fishing are the main source of income for the locals. Despite the growing tourist industry, Lanta old town retains its quaint charm. Sino-style wooden shop fronts and stilted houses are evidence of a rich history as well as the diverse mix of cultures residing in the area.

The old town is home to three main ethnic groups: Chao Ley (Sea Gypsies), Thai-Muslim and Thai-Chinese. The Chao Ley preceded the Malay (Muslim) immigrants while the Chinese merchants arrived more than 100 years ago.

The Chao Ley have occupied the area for over 500 years, settling along the coast in houses built upon stilts. They are unique in that they speak their own language, have animist beliefs and retain close ties with the sea. Thai-Muslims make up the majority of the population and the Thai Chinese settlers have assimilated into the local community, working as business owners, agricultural farmers and fishermen.

Koh Lanta's festival involves, music, dancing and fireworks

Koh Lanta's festival involves, music, dancing and fireworks

There is no religious tension between these groups and they have lived together harmoniously for hundreds of years. The ethnic diversity is reflected in the old Sino-style houses, mosques, Buddhist temples and traditional Thai housing styles, all on one island.

The Laanta Lanta Festival is held each year as a celebration of this unique community spirit. Locals and visitors congregate to enjoy an array of cultural facets still prominent on the island today. Festivities take place in March and last for three days and nights - featuring music, dance, cultural performances and markets.

At festival time glowing red Chinese lanterns illuminate the streets while the aroma of incense and spice fill the night air. Vendors line the town’s streets as locals and tourists browse the waterside stalls in front of the old wooden Chinese shop-fronts. Craftsmen and artists from the surrounding area exhibit a variety of goods, including leather, jewellery, batik and a miscellany of souvenirs.

The old town’s melting pot of cultures is reflected in the local cuisine. Aromatic flavours originating from India, Malaysia and China are infused in a variety of dishes such as Chinese noodles in fish curry (kanom jeen) and Malaysian style chicken in yellow rice with roasted spice (khao mok gai).

The vibrancy and freshness of the ingredients is enough to whet one’s appetite. Bright yellow juicy corns, freshly caught fish and exotic juices served in bamboo beakers tempt the taste buds of passing shoppers.

The main stage stands brightly illuminated at the water’s edge while smaller cultural displays of music and dance take place close to the Old Town Museum. Popular bands entertaining the crowds usually include Assalee Mala, a band well known throughout Thailand for its traditional Thai rong ngeng folk music. Rong ngengis a style of folk music and dance incorporating Western style dance steps while music is played on violins, Arabian drums and Chinese gongs accompanied by Malaysian lyrics.

Rong ngeng has been popular on Koh Lanta for over a century and is often played at weddings, festivals and by sea gypsies. There have been many recent attempts to keep the music alive, particularly in Koh Lanta and other southern areas of Thailand. The music originates from here so the atmosphere among the crowd is electric.

The amazing mix of culture and traditions makes the festival a thoroughly exciting experience for everyone involved. You can try many different styles of food and hear a variety of music, all while soaking up the lively atmosphere. Visitors can also learn a lot about the colourful history of this interesting island, and take home some great memories.

The festival is an impressive and enjoyable showcase of the cultural diversity of Koh Lanta. Most importantly, it is a positive example to the world how people of different ethnic groups can live together peacefully and respectfully.

Fore more about Koh Lanta.

blog comments powered by Disqus