If I had known what I know now, my trip would have been a lot different. But since I was a novice traveler, I was still under the impression that traveling around the world requires planning ahead. So my trip was planned around a few things — meeting up with friends in Vietnam and Cambodia, participating in Loi Krathong in Bangkok, and a 16 day adventure tour in New Zealand. So as I quickly realized that every stop could have led me on an adventure in a different direction, I was forced to mostly stick to my plan so I can make the next essential part of my trip. Except due to some unforeseen circumstances, I ended up with more time at the end of my Bangkok trip. I’m not sure how I arrived at this idea, but at some point the thought of getting certified in diving entered my head, and I headed for the tiny little island of Koh Tao, known for its smooth sea and countless diving schools.
It was the best decision ever.
Leaving Bangkok was a bit confusing. A taxi dropped me off on a random street corner near Kao San road at 5AM and the bus station was nowhere to be found. Kao San road is the central area for backpackers, and at 5AM on the day after Loy Krathong, there were plenty of people still out. I joined forced with Mario and Aurelien, two other lost souls I found standing on the side of the road, and finally found our way to the dinky Lomprayah office on a small side street. We were soon herded into a double decker bus that actually seemed a lot more comfortable than I imagined. That is, until it started pouring and the roof started leaking -_-
We arrived at Chumporn pier 8 hours later, a bit wet and still very tired, I almost didn’t stop to enjoy the open sea in all its glory as we walked onto the dock towards to boat. Almost. The boat ride was bumpy and uncomfortable. I guess it wasn’t a good sign when the crew started handing out puke bags as we sat down. So after the longest hour and half of my life (yes, I used a couple of those bags), I finally arrived in Koh Tao on a cloudy afternoon. My new travel buddies and I jumped on the back of the truck and headed to Sairee Beach, the main part of town. The road was lined with the most lush greens and the wind blew all the discomfort from the boat ride away.
Since diving class doesn’t start for another couple of days, I got myself a beach front bungalow and pretty much just enjoyed the view from there. When the tide is high, the water came up to about 5 feet away from my balcony, and I was tempted to just leap into the water from there. There was a butterfly that fell onto the beach, and I watched as people walked pass it, some lamenting, others taking photos, and yet others not noticing it at all. People came in and out of the water, some playful, as the boys who kicked around a soccer ball, or the man who unrelentlessly practiced his backflip into the water. The lovers who kissed as if no one’s watching (and perhaps I were the only one watching?), and the child who always wanted his parents to see. There was a taxi stand next to my bungalow, and the taxi boater sat on his little beach chair all day, not seeming to care too much whether he had a customer or not. We would smile and nod when our eyes happened to meet, then both turn back to watching the infinite blue in front us.
The day passed slowly, but when the dusk came it was too quick. The colors shone brightly for a while, then slowly faded into a duller shade, finally turning into a darkest shade of blue that’s not yet black, while a few faint figures of people and boats rocked back and forth with the sound of the waves.
There was seemingly only a moment of quietness, before the beach turned the switch and became alive again. Nightlife starts early on the island, as people went from daytime activities into dinner which was conveniently located right next to the bar. You can order a cheap Chang beer, any kind of fruit shake, or a bucket, which is a gigantic bowl of vodka and mixer. The tide is considerate, receding far enough to reveal a strip of soft sand for people to sit by the candlelight. The locals come out with their spinning fire balls and sticks, and we watch the fire dance rhythmically to the pumping music.
The party lasts well into the night, and far past my bedtime. I fall asleep to the faint music and laughter, mixed in with the constant song of the waves that’s the unchanging soundtrack of the island.
Diving class started at 4 in the afternoon. I wander into the shop early, and fill out a sleuth of paperwork signing away all liability in case I die. My instructor G is an Englishman in his 30s (I think), who was a bit more serious than most diving instructors I’ve met. I will soon appreciated his seriousness, as I learn about all the ways I could die in the water. My classmates joined soon after, the young surfer from Australia, and two friends from a very cold part of Canada. A couple of quick videos and a short lesson later, we were sent home with some homework as we promised no alcohol in preparation for the next day’s first dives.
There are so many dive schools in Koh Tao it’s quite impossible to rank them, so I went with the suggestion from a couple of online reviews and chose Scuba Junction. It’s located in a quieter part of Sairee Beach, and quite easy to find — if you walk down the beach right next to the water, you’ll run into a swing tied to a tree. That would be the place. I almost jumped for joy when I saw it. I can’t really think of a better place to wait for class to start than sitting on a swing with my feet in the water, and I spent quite a few evenings here watching the sunset.
Not that class is too difficult. Since the classrooms are still under renovation (Thai time), we ended up having class on the beach right next to the ocean. It was a bit hard to concentrate with such a beautiful view, but G did a good job of keeping us focused.
Certified divers will know that there’s a pool part of the class. Since the pool is also still being built (again, Thai time!), we did our skills training in the ocean under “pool-like” conditions instead. No complaints here, since instead of 4 dives, we really ended up doing 6 during the course. It was quite scary for me at first. Despite doing all the checks before getting in and making sure there are many ways to handle an emergency, breathing underwater is just an unnatural feeling! But G was a great dive leader, and his calmness and clear instructions prevented me from freaking out.
It’s easy to get past the fear, as soon as I got to the bottom. You are really in a different world down here, it’s like swimming in a giant marine aquarium! I know that’s probably not the most perfect description, but for me, the aquarium is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing the wonders of the underwater world before. As humans, for the most part we are used to other creatures running away from us as soon as we get close (pets excluded!). Underwater, I forget for a few minutes that I’m not part of this. Marine life surround me in every direction, going about their ways, and they don’t seem to be afraid. I’m just one of the many creatures of the sea, and if I’m not bothering anyone else, they will certainly return the favor. This is a much quieter world, and my senses become much more acute. Everything’s in brilliant colors, it’s like there’s a giant strobe light shining from above. Oh wait, that would be the sun. The only sound I hear is my own breathing and the flow of water across my ears, and at moments I suddenly become very aware of myself and the fact that I shouldn’t be breathing under water. A brief panic sets in and I have to tell myself to calm down and breath normally. Then I get distracted by the beautiful scenery again and I’m ok.
I’m always a bit anxious when I first get into the water, but then at the end the dives always seem too short. Our dives lasted from 30-50 minutes, mostly because the boys always use up their air rather quickly. Since I have poor lung capacity, I usually end up with almost half the tank left! Good to know that I can probably have longer dives in the future
On our final night, we received our certificate cards, watched a video of our last dives, and celebrated with the entire school at a local restaurant that had delicious tapas. I was very sad to leave Koh Tao and my fun classmates/instructor. Diving is truly a thrilling experience, and I’m so glad I got to enjoy my first dives on this beautiful island.