Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Koh Tao, Thailand

Of all the places I've been in Thailand, so far, Koh Tao is by far my favourite. I arrived on the island on the Friday afternoon following an uneasy journey on the Songserm boat from Koh Phangan Its one of the slower boats (and cheaper) but if you suffer from seasickness badly, it's not recommendable. As I disembarked the boat, bags were shifted down to the pier for collection by a somewhat questionable shoot. None the less I retrieved my backpack and headed to land. I'd pre booked with a dive resort who had offered to pick me up when I arrived. After about half an hour of waiting I gave up and found a taxi to take me there instead. I arrived at Coral Grand Diving Resort which had been recommended to me by various people and seemed to have really good reviews online, and went to check in. My course was due to start the following day so I headed to my room to dump my gear before having a look around. Several hours later I woke up! Lack of sleep following the half moon party had definitely caught up on me... This is actually my first room without air con and just a fan instead. The difference is unbelievable! Through the day it can get so hot and even at night it doesn't always cool down very much but its included in the cost of the course so saving money doesn't harm you once in a while. I went to get some food and whilst at the resort bar, I met Alan. I'd been told to look out for him as he's a friend of a friend but I was surprised to meet him on my first night! I got to know him a little bit over a beer but it wasn't long before I was ready to go to bed.

After a good nights sleep I woke relatively late and went to have a look around and get some food before the first part of my course. You can walk along Sairee beach past many dive schools, bars and bungalows and its easy to find the town. The atmosphere here is much more chilled out than Koh Phangan and its evident that a large number of western people live here; some working in bars but most as Dive masters or instructors. Koh Tao is also a popular spot to do the dive master training. My course starting at 3pm and consisted of filling in medical forms and safety information and then watching a video which went through 2 of 5 sections of the course. This in it's self proved difficult with 2 power cuts in the middle. Power cuts are very common on Koh Tao especially at the moment: their monsoon season is November however it seems to have come a week early, bringing heavy rain in the morning, usually followed by hours of sunshine, then becoming reasonably overcast by sunset. I was asked to wait one day and join two other girls as as it stood I was the only one on the course running from that day – they gave me an additional night's accommodation for free so I didn't object. I spent my free day relaxing on the beach and in the evening went to Fishbowl – the bar linked to Bans diving school (biggest on the island) with some guys I met from Argentina. They had fire shows as per usual and live music which was actually really good! I've missed live music, and well any form of decent music since I've been away

Monday was essentially “day 2” of my 4 day course. I was on a course with two French girls. After watching the first 2 sections of the course information it became apparent that one of them was not proficient enough in English to continue. After a big debate, it was decided they were to get a French instructor, and I was to continue with “day 2” the following day! I thought it was a bit of a joke but again, another extra night at no extra cost on Koh Tao isn't the worst thing in the world... The weather was beautiful in the afternoon so we chilled out on the beach. I met Alan again that evening and went for a meal with him and his family in Mae Hat which is where I got off the boat, a little more south from where I am now. I then got taken out in Sairee by a few of the DM and DMT's which was a nice way to spend my birthday.

So eventually I got to start my course! I met them in the morning, 2 Canadian guys and a guy from England. All really nice and a good laugh. We did a bit of theory then got to practice some skills in the swimming pool. Even that was pretty cool! We learnt to take off, replace, and clear water from our masks underwater, same with the regulators. Also we had to do scenarios in our buddy pairs – for example if one of you were to run out of air, breathing through your buddy's alternate air source. It was all really good fun and not as difficult as I'd anticipated – I'd not been looking forward to the mask stuff! The rest of the day I just spent getting to know the guys a bit better and had a few drinks later on. I love the atmosphere here at night - the vast majority of the bars are beach bars, more chilled out than Koh Phangan though, with bean bags to sit on, fire shows and music. One bar even has giant jenga!

The next day was our first day diving in the sea. In the morning we had a bit more theory to go through but in the after noon we headed out on the boat. It was actually quite rough Wednesday afternoon and assembling our gear whilst trying to balance was difficult. The guys on the boat were all really friendly and helpful which made it a lot easier to get things done. After a quick briefing by Jules, our instructor, we got geared up and entered the water. Our first dive was at Lighthouse Bay. We stayed at 12 metres for this dive but still got to see a wide variety of sea life. We spent most of this dive practising swimming and maintaining buoyancy. I had no problems when I was down there but during the ascent, I think I must have breathed some water in through my nose as I ended up coughing and spluttering on the surface. Once out of the water I was fine. The boat had free tea/cofffe, biscuits and fruit on board after the dive which was well needed. Once everyone was back on the boat we set off for our next dive site: Japanese Gardens. This was a slightly shallower dive but the visibility was much better and we saw a few more things. We also did some underwater skills on this dive.

The last day of my course came really quickly. We met at 6am (my “buddy” agreed to wake me up as early mornings haven't been my strong point over here) and headed to the boat. Today Alan came with us: he's a videographer and actually sometimes works with Coral Grand to produce a film for people doing their Open Water Course. Our first dive was at Chumphon Pinnale, and second at White Rock. My favourite moment of the first dive was when we saw a turtle; it was such a beautiful creature and amazing to watch it swim by. The two dives were both a lot of fun – we reached our full depth of 18m and had some skills to carry out too. On returning to the resort, we washed the equipment and then got our certification done. At this point I decided that 4 dives wasn't enough, so I booked to do my Advance course too: this would give me 5 more dives, and the ability to dive to 30m. Alan came to the bar that evening to show us the video which all four of us opted to buy. It has an hours worth of extra footage which fish identification on which is handy as I haven't a clue what different fish are called. After seeing the film, our group went for food and then for a few drinks.

For the advance course you have 2 compulsory dives; deep and navigation, and 3 optional dives. I choose Night dive, underwater photography and Peak performance buoyancy. (PPB) For the navigational dive we were dropped off at Red rock and swam round to Japanese gardens. For PPB there is a site set up at Twins with obstacles to swim through which was a bit of a laugh. I did my deep dive (30m) back at Chumphon Pinnacle – this was probably one of my favourite dives, everything seemed to click and I didn't feel like I had to think about what I was doing as much. Next was the photography dive; I had to hire the underwater camera and annoyingly it played up a couple of times when changing depth but I managed to get some photos. We were dropped off at Satakuk to see the wreck there and then headed to Hin Pee Wee to take more photos. I also really enjoyed this dive as it allowed me to play around with my buoyancy. I experimented hovering upside down, on my side and getting very close to the coral in order to take pictures. As the visibility wasn't great for the night dive we stayed on Sairee Reef (most people will tell you White Rock is the best place for night dives). It was a bit strange at first on the night dive – you can't really gauge what's around you and where the coral is. Obviously you have a torch but that only lights up where you shine it. I managed to spot two different type of sting ray and a crab. You don't tend to see these during day dives so that was pretty cool.

After my courses finished, I decided to move resort so I was slightly closer to town. I booked for two nights as I wanted to stay for Halloween. The extra couple of days I just spent chilling out on the beach when it was sunny, and when the rain came I didn't do much either! The diving had taken it out of me and for about 48hours it felt like the ground was moving under me. Not sure if this was because of my ears or delayed motion sickness, either way I didn't feel like doing much. Halloween was a great night out - loads of people made great efforts with their costumes. I didn't have a costume what-so-ever but the guys from Coral Grand were out dressed as pirates and I managed to acquire an eye patch at some point. My big mistake was drinking buckets! For the most part, I've managed to stay away from them whilst in Thailand and stuck to beer, but I wasn't feeling up for beer last nights and the girls I was with talked me into getting a couple of buckets and today I'm definitely suffering ! I really can't handle hangovers in the heat! 

I've actually been on Koh Tao about 11 days now - its gone so quick! I feel settled here and don't really want to leave if I'm honest but there are other things I want to do so I've booked my trip to Koh Phi Phi. I get the night boat to the mainland tonight then a bus and another boat in the morning. I think its about 14 hours journey in total! Lets see how it goes...

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