Getting to Koh Lanta in 2004 represented something of a challenge in itself as one had to drive on and then off two ancient, decrepit, car ferries to cross two pieces of water separating the mainland Isthmus of Kra from firstly Koh Lanta Noi, and then onward to Saladan Town on Koh Lanta Yai.
Now, 17 years later, we are down to just one decrepit car ferry to get there, and that folks seems to be progress Koh Lanta-style for you! Maybe it’s this eccentric indifference to the outside world which fosters much of the charm of this other-worldly island, beloved to the hippy back-packer party crowd, as much as to the sophisticated well-heeled international jet-set hidden away in their luxurious hillside villas, or billeted at stellar five-star resorts such as Pimalai on stunning Kantiang Bay in the south-west corner of the island.
My first visit in 2004 saw me settling into a little beach-side cottage overlooking Long Beach to the south of Saladan Town on the northwest coast. Once settled, I duly called “Mister Koh Lanta” and he agreed to drop over that evening for a sun-downer drink at my resort. A deep West Canadian vocal burr with honeyed edges announced the arrival of the warm-hearted fellow who turned out to be Duane Patrick Lennie… a big teddy bear of a man with a twinkle in both eyes. We hit it off immediately and settled down with some cold ones for a long, beachside chat about the island, as a stunning Andaman sunset engulfed us.
Duane’s story was notable because he had chosen in 2001 to forsake a successful career in one of the world’s most desirable and liveable cities, Vancouver, to travel out to this far-flung corner of Thailand in search of adventure and serendipity. Prior to relocating, Duane was a founding partner in Curve Communications, one of Vancouver’s top billing public relations companies, yet his pioneering adventurous spirit had brought him to this fabled isle to set up various tourism-related businesses and become ‘Mister Koh Lanta’.
Over the ensuing years, by then working as Editor of The Greater Phuket Magazine, I became immensely fond both of Koh Lanta and of Duane himself. I travelled there many times and stayed with Duane at his funky Mango House Boutique Resort nestled in a cluster of 100-year-old wooden Chinese Shophouses jutting out over the turbid waters of the bay in the heart of Lanta Old Town (known as Sri Raya in Thai).
Very few foreigners called this Muslim fishing town home, but one was Duane’s great friend Julie Prescott, who helped him design and furnish aspects of Mango House Resort. With guesthouse rooms, over-the-sea villas and a 50-seat bar and bistro, Mango House Resort was as unusual and creative as Duane himself and became one of the region’s unique places to stay, winning accolades and write-ups in prestige publications from Conde Nast Traveller to The Sun newspaper in the UK.
Over the years I wrote many laudatory stories about Koh Lanta for this ongoing ‘Blazing Saddles’ column, after pedalling along the beguiling beaches, or up into the silent hills of the central spine of this magical island. After each day’s adventures I’d look forward to a sunset return to my romantic base at Mango House and drawn-out suppers with Duane holding court at some ramshackle water-side restaurant long into the tropical night.
As our friendship developed, I had the pleasure of working with Duane as a writer and consultant on several marketing and communications projects which his consultancy handled around the Andaman region. This was not without its challenges, as anyone who has toiled in the shark-infested depths of the property and tourism business around the Andaman will know. However, we managed to keep on laughing and enjoying our shared sense of humour in spite of the many rogues and villains we encountered!
Duane was a major force in the Laanta Lanta Annual Festival, one of the most charming events you’ll find around this region and a rich celebration of the peaceful cultural diversity of Koh Lanta’s residents. It’s a chance for the various ethnic groups to say thank you to each other, displaying the best of their own art and customs to each other and to visitors. Duane and his funky resort were at the centre of all this and many of us enjoyed the wonderful musical raves which Mango House hosted as a part of the Festival.
Tragically, Duane suffered a mild stroke in 2015 and subsequently decided to return to Vancouver in September 2017. His friend Roman Weber took over the running of Mango House and it remains to this day as beautiful and beguiling a place to stay as you’ll find in all the Andaman.
Like so many of his friends around the region, I was devastated to learn of Duane’s passing in August last year aged just 56. It was a cruel blow and it’s supremely unfair that such a lovely, lively soul, who brought so much happiness to others, has been taken away from us.
Personally, I wanted to write this piece to thank Duane for all the laughter and joy we shared. Duane Lennie was certainly a one-off character, a true romantic adventurer, but to me he was and will always be... ‘Mister Koh Lanta’.
R.I.P. Duane Patrick Lennie, 1964 - 2020.