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Learning to dive on Koh Tao

THAILAND | Wednesday, 17 June 2009 | Views [1974] | Comments [1]

The bus though was a pleasuredome of luxury compared to the insomniac 'sleeping bus' we had been used to in Vietnam. We were originally thinking of taking a train to Chumpon and then a night ferry over but Lompraya were offering a bus and a high speed catamaran which would get us there in half the time for half the price. They were located on Khao San Road and the bus was leaving at 6am so we had an early start. The seats were comfy and reclined. There was a movie (ok the sound didn't work but that's not the point). There was a toilet. A sit down toilet! After a few hours we were given a sandwich! Welcome back to Thai hospitality – sometimes it's good to be in a country with a well developed tourist industry.

When we arrived at Chumpon harbour, a few miles outside the town the twenty first century catamaran was waiting for us at the end of a nineteenth century wooden jetty. I'm afraid no new mode of transport can be awarded for a catamaran because we had already been on a double hulled boat in Peru. This one had jet engines while the first one had no engine but rules are rules. The gentle swell of the sea lulled us both to sleep for the 90 minute journey to the island.

We awoke just as we came into NangYuang island about 100m off Koh Tao. Not only is it pretty but it's unique too: three islands which at low tide are connected by spits of  sand. Of course a swanky resort has been built on it. About 100 day snorkelers wrapped in towels got on and shivered in the AC.

Minutes later, as we arrived at Koh Tao itself there was an announcement for everyone to move to the front of the boat on account of the low tide. We had to get off at the front anyway so were happy to oblige. Down another rickety jetty and we had our first taste of island life. “Taxi!?!” We didn't know where we were going so declined.

The entire purpose of coming to Koh Tao had been diving. It's one of, if not the best value place to do a course here and that was my intention. Claire wasn't sure ... maybe she'd try it out for size but wasn't very committed after getting freaked out once in the water as a teenager. I wanted to find somewhere which would do a dive and accommodation deal but that would take time – I was keen to check out a few places and we couldn't do that with our backpacks on so we needed a place for just one night – enough to dump the bags and have a look around.

The Lonely Planet mentioned a place called Mr J's. We went for it mostly because it was only a few hundred metres walk from the jetty. Mr J is a strange but entertaining man who has a very unique philosophy about life the universe and everything. He tried to explain it to us after we checked into the very basic room on offer. It involved ladyboys, buddhism, karma and beer and he had it on A4 laminates plastered all over the place but I think we were in a different age demographic from his target market. He also said we would get free stuff the longer we stayed. “Two night free Pepsi, three night free chocolate, three night free beer”. It was pretty cheap at 350 Baht but we wouldn't be swayed. I'm sure some people love him (there were lots of testaments to him from punters including one appearance on top ten coolest people in the world list in Loaded magazine) but he wasn't our cup of green tea.

Mr J did however recommend we head to Crystal Dive resort, just down the road. They were offering the PADI Open Water course, the standard entry level diving course for 9800 Baht with reduced rate for “backpacker standard” accommodation. I didn't get the feeling at all. It took five minutes to attract someone's attention from what seemed to be a group flirting exercise in reception. We moved on. Asia Divers had an office just near the jetty. The guy behind the desk gave me the basics, 9000 Baht plus free accommodation but when I asked more complicated questions dialled a number on the phone and passed it over to me. Claude, with a pleasant Home Counties accent talked me though the process and answered all my questions to satisfaction. Low maximum class size. Discount as I had my own book (I had found one in a hotel drawer in Chiang Mai). No problem for Claire to stay and come out on the boat. Pool she could hang out at. It seemed like a good deal and he was a nice chap. But I wanted to check a few more before making the final decision.

An advert in one of the island information magazines for Black Tip Divers School had caught my eye so I was keen to hear what they had to say. This time the girl at the desk picked the phone straight up and passed it over to me. The person at the other end seemed annoyed with me for interrupting her. They were charging more for the course and a lot more for accommodation. No discount for a book. Claire would have to pay to come on the boat. No feeling at all. We left. Visiting one more, a smaller operation near the jetty my mind was made up. They were chatty and friendly but had no accommodation and charged more. They did tell us a good story about Mr J though. Apparantly he used to arrange visa runs (where someone needs a new passport stamp as they have or are about to overstay their tourist welcome). Well the story goes that he never took them to immigration at all just to his mate on Khao San Road who had a dodgy stamp. They got caught and ended up having to pay a load of bribes to stay out of jail. Who knows if it's true.

After lunch we decided to walk the 2 or 3 km north up the road towards Sairee Beach, where Asia Divers was based. I wanted to have a look for myself before signing up. It was only walking up the path did we start to realise how beautiful the island is. Palms trees waving in the wind along a crystal clear beach, pretty bunglaows and restaurants right on the beach. Sure there were shops selling board shorts, bikinis and sun tan lotion and the occasional moped driven by a sunburnt westerner but it is a beautiful place. There was an increase in the concentration of shops and bars at a certain point ... we had reached Sairee village.

Asia Divers is a short walk away from the beach and village with an open bar and restaurant area. We went in and sat down to have a drink and soak up some of the atmosphere. We would potentially be spending some time here so wanted to make sure it felt right. There were a crowd of Francophones beside us. I asked them if they were doing courses here. Some were instructors, some were studying to be instructors and one girl, Isabelle from Brussels was a Divemaster from another school who hung out here every night because there was a good atmosphere. The signs were all good. A group who had just finished their open water course arrived in high spirits and enthusiastically watched the DVD of their dives.

It felt like a happy place and one that I wanted to be part of. I went into reception, introduced myself to Claude and signed up for the course. Not only did it feel the best but they had the best deal too. Isabelle, who also happened to be a nurse invited us to eat with her so we had a lovely blustery dinner in the suitably named Wind Cafe on the beach.

When we got back to Mr J's we wanted to sit on the beach for a while so asked him if we could get to it from our room. He said “Oh yes!” Private beach straight down” His directions lead to a building site which we picked our way across to reach a beach littered with a combination of construction materials and household refuse. Needless to say we didn't stay long and were happy to be leaving. We took a 4WD taxi up to Asia Divers in the morning, checked into a fabulously well appointed (and free) room and then chilled out by the pool for a few hours. It was like being in another universe from Mr J's.

In the afternoon Claude had asked me to come in to the office to meet my instructor, Terry an outgoing Canadian with a quick smile and firm handshake, and Ian, a fellow Canadian who would be doing the course with me. I had been reading the first few chapters of the PADI book in preparation. We were shown a DVD which was a carbon copy of the book. I was a real swot – taking notes and trying to get all the quiz answers right. It felt really good to be exercising my brain again!

In the morning we spent time in the pool. First we had to show we could tread water for 10 minutes and swim for 200m. Then we did our confined water dives which were all about getting used to the equipment, how to use it and some procedures like clearing a flooded mask, breathing from your buddy's air source and ascending safely. I struggled a bit managing my buoyancy but apart from that it was a-ok. After lunch we were free to chill out at the pool (and do some more reading.)

One of the great things about doing a diving course in a resort, and particularly about the one I had chosen was the buzz of people around. There was a large group of people on an intensive instructor development course so they were always around. Also there were a few people learning to be divemasters and some other open water courses going on so at all hours of the day people were in the restaurant chatting or reviewing their distinctive blue coursebooks. This was really important for Claire (although she did have to put up with an increasing amount of 'dive-talk' as the days went on!)

Asia Divers give students a discount at their shop so to give Claire something to do I bought a mask and snorkel so she could get comfortable with it in the pool and do some snorkeling off the boat while I would be doing my dives.

We had an dinner at an excellent little Thai place called Tic two doors down. Neither of us had ever eaten quite so well and quite so cheaply in a restaurant wedged in the corridor between two houses. Perhaps unsurprisingly the place was full of fellow Asia Divers.

The next morning was spent in the classroom where Terry patiently reviewed our homework (scribbled answers to questions to prove that you had read the chapter), explaining where we had been wrong. Diving is very logical, if a tiny bit technical but my problem seemed to be thinking too much. It's in my nature to look at a problem from all angles ... the answer to any question is rarely clear cut in my view.  I was rapidly discovering that in diving it usually is.

After lunch is was time to get in the water for real – open water dives 1 & 2. We prepared our gear and about 15 of us piled into the back of two 4x4s headed for the harbour. We clamboured across another boat before reaching Asia Diver's own, much  bigger than I had  expected with room for more people than we had on board. I was impressed that the tanks were already there waiting for us along with unlimited biscuits and a sun deck up top which Claire took full advantage of, while a lot of nervous first timers went through their set procedures below.

Obviously Terry would lead Ian and I through the dive but a genial Dutch guy called Oli, a DMT (dive master trainee) would be assisting, as is the procedure I believe. As we made for Mango Bay sheltered cove on the North side of the island Terry briefed us on the top deck about what would happen on the dive.

As we got close to the put-in Ian and I started our buddy checks as we had been taught. BWRAF. BCD (Bouyancy Control Device). Weights. Releases. Air. Final Check. Much more memorable was what Terry had taught us. Bangkok Women Really Are Fellows. And then we John Cleese funny walked into the depths.

OK it wasn't very deep at 8m but hey! All our exercises went well, the major ones being to control our descent and get used to ourselves.. Apart from a few issues equalising ears there were no issues during the 45 minutes.I hadn't even noticed but Claire had been snorkeling around above, tracking our movements.

The second dive, after about 90 minutes surface time was much more challenging. We went to a site called Japanese Gardens but the conditions were very rough despite the site being sheltered from the worst of the swell by NangYuan Island.

It was really hard to hold on to the guide rope as it swung up and down with the boat. Terry had a nightmare keeping us all together. Ian had real problems equalising. I had something called a reverse block, a painful condition caused by expanded air trapped in the sinuses. We did however manage to get through the exercises once we got to the bottom where the rough water wasn't an issue. We seemed to fare better than some of the other newbies who didn'.t get in at all or were forced to retire early. Still a good learning experience.

We spent a long time at the bar that evening chatting to Claude and getting to know his little dog. Jammie. Or more formally Jammie Bastard. He was an instructor but a nasty moped accident had robbed him of the chance to dive. Very sad – he would have been a brilliant, patient teacher. I think if he had have still been instructing Claire would have given it a go. Such a shame for poor old Claude but he's the type of character who infectious laugh and dry not quite cockney wit are indomitable. He recommended a place on the beach called King Crab for dinner so we took him up on the advice. The food was great but they only managed to get Claire's order. We waited for a few minutes but when we saw the barbeque being put out we thought something was up but they rectified it quickly enough.

I was annoyed with the alarm when it interrupted my slumber early the next morning. I could have done with two more hours sleep and two less beers the previous night but it was time for the next open water dives. This time we were off to Chumpon Pinnacle about 10km off the southwest of Kah Tao. I was armed with Sudafed to prevent the blockage and determined to enjoy this dive more. I certainly did.

If the first two dives had been about getting used to diving, this one was where I started to enjoy it. The pinnacle is a 25m tall mountain in the sea surrounded by beautiful corals. I was starting to see why people spend so much time diving. It was spectacular, swimming through a huge shoal of  tiny baby chevron Barracuda. We went deeper than we had before – to 18m (the limit for our level) and the 37 minutes were up too quick.

The final Open Water dive was to White Rock, south of NangYuan Island. It was even better – I was starting to feel much more comfortable in my underwater skin and actually have fun. I was finally starting to get the hang of my buoyancy. Ian and I navigated around a square using a compass (after the second attempt to be fair). As a last hurrah Oli turned himself into a human ball and played a game of underwater human pong. Afterwards (still underwater) Terry shook our hands and wrote on his slate “Congratulations you're Open Water Divers!”

That, however wasn't strictly true. There was still the small matter of the exam. We still had the afternoon in the classroom anyway and the plan was to do it afterwards. I found the afternoon class hard going – it was all about dive planning, nitrogen levels in the blood and majored on maths involving tables. Tables were never my strong point. We agreed to do the exam the next day rather than go straight to it. As I sat by the pool studying I met Angus, a friendly fellow round the worlder from Donegal. He was only a few weeks into his odyssey so we had plenty to chat about.

It seemed the whole crowd from Asia Divers was out that night. A trapeze school had set up down in the village and was having its grand opening. After a few post-dive beers accompanied by the usual banter and exaggerated fish sightings (“it was enoooormous and it was coming straight towards me!!”) we joined Terry, Haruna, his Japanese dive instructor girlfriend and many others for the show.

They are aiming at the market of other halves who are dragged along to Koh Tao but have no intention of diving. The idea is that they spend a few days picking up the ropes (literally) and then showing off their skills on the last day. It's a good idea and I think they'll be successful but they had a few teething problems on the night. Firstly it rained just as it was all supposed to start so I think they lost a few people during the 30 minute delay. Secondly, they started with their newest students, who were under a lot of pressure to succeed. Some of them, including the poor guy who was first up failed to make it across and landed ignominiously in the safety net, legs flailing. If I was them I would have put the instructors on first, with a dazzling display. “This is who you could become with our training”. Then the trainees. “These guys have got this far after only 3 days!” Doing it the other way round just didn't seem to have enough of a wow factor. Best of luck to them though it's a great idea.

People lost interest and we moved on to office Bar, a great little place on the side of the the Sairee path.  One of the French trainee instructors was doing proposition bets which I had no time for but kept a good few including Claire entertained (and out of pocket). The running joke in Asia Divers was that there was a party on every night. Someone would say “There's a party tonight”. People would ask “Where?” and the answer was always Lotus bar. This was the first time we had visited and it actually was a very carnival like atmosphere. Trancy techno music, rattan rugs on the sand, intricate displays of flaming diabolo in the style of Glastonbury's stone circle, all with the waves lapping softly at peoples feet. Its a fun place and it was a great night.

The exam the next morning was tough, I found. I was ok until I got t the part working out the pressure groups with the tables. Ian finishing a good 30 minutes before me didn't help. It took me a long time but in the end I handed my paper in to Terry and was delighted to have gotten 90%. We spent the afternoon chilling by the pool and looking at the trainee instructors get put through their paces. Looked complicated. While everyone on the whole island seemed to be out the previous night there wasn't a sinner to be found out in the evening. Escept Angus. He had decided to do the three week Dive Master Course with Asia had moved into a little bungalow to save on accommodation. He invited us up to his house to warm it up (if thats the right phrase when its 30º C all day every day). It was an early night by all accounts – the previous evening had taken its toll on us all.

Tags: boat, diving, island, trapeze



Mate, you have missed your calling... have you been taking notes?! haha. Sounds like you're loving out there - i am amused by the progression of your random haircuts, and have concluded that the permfro sported onyour blog page is the best!

How long are you out there for now mate? I am sorely tempted to jump a plane to thailand for a week or two and hang out xx

  James W Jul 16, 2009 9:38 PM

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