05 – 08.2009
I arrived on Koh Tao mainly to start my dive master program and also to spend some time with my friends Gary, Trish and Monique. The island holds as special type of glue that doesn’t let you leave which is why I stayed there for about 4 months, perhaps it’s the beautiful peaceful surroundings, the wonderful beaches, good cheap diving, the amazing people, the wonderful food, the laid back chilled out Thai people, the array of things to do and the amazing weather.
Koh Tao or “Turtle Island” is an island in Thailand located near the eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand which is approximately 21km². Initially the island was not inhabited, there was only the occasional fisherman from the neighboring islands, looking for shelter in a storm or just taking a break before continuing his tiresome journey. In 1933 the island started to be used as a political prison, but in the 50’s it startyed to become inhabited by Thai’s and then in the 80’s discovered by travellers. Since then the island has grown in population and popularity. The main purpose of visiting was to complete my PADI divemaster course so I could then go on to teach diving and maybe go onto do my instructors course. Koh Tao is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your qualification and with beautiful surroundings and amazing marine life it was perfect!
Gary and Trish had already been on the island for a couple of weeks and were doing the AI (Assistant Instructors Course) and were doing this at Buddha View Dive Resort which was located on the south side of the island. After an overnight train from Bangkok to Chumphon and a short boat ride I arrived in Mae Haad (the only port in Kao Tao) on a wet and dark morning, I headed up to the dive resort to see what was going on and to see what the dive school was like. I was not dissapointed as I was imediatley welcomed and I sat down in the center for a chat with one of the instructors about the program, enjoyed one or two iced coffees and waited for Gary and Trish to finish one of their lectures. After a while Gary showed up and we had a short moped ride back to Mae Haad and to the bungalows they were staying at.
Kalapaghna Bunglaows is a perfect place to unpack your bags for a while. Jim and Ed are some of the nicest people you are likely to meet and to them it’s the quality and enjoyment of your stay rather than the cost. Jim (the owner) is a loud, well spoken, funny Thai lady, who judging from photos in the restaurant fancied herself as a model at one point and Ed (her brother) runs the smallest shop on the island. In fact his shop is so small that its doubles as his bedroom! I booked myself in (at £2.50 per night) to a small bungalow that enjoyed cold running water / shower, a fan, double bed, mosquito net, TV with HBO, ESPN and Star Movies. We even had the pleasure of 2 dogs (BD and HT) that lived around the bungalows to protect us from any outlaws (not that there were any) just to make us feel safer! Also staying at the bungalows was Monique someone who was working out in Honduras when I had met Gary and Trish in June 2008 but unfortuntely she was only staying out for another week as she was on her way back to France.
So after dumping my bags and a quick snooze it was supper time and a chance to catch up on the Gary and Trishs’ exploits since I had last seen them. After a splendid meal (I am now offically addicted to all Thai food) we decided to have a few drinks on the Sariee Beach (where most people go to party) watching the sun go down and also catching up on all the countries visited and exploits since our last rendevous in Sydney. What felt like and hour or two later it was 4am I was being driven back to the bungalows high on life and my arrival on the island and meeting up with old friends.
The next day I was diving so straight to bed with a few asprin and lots of water!!! The next day was my first dive on Koh Tao with Buddha View and suffering with a rather painfully headache, surely caused by the blistering heat rather than the amount of alochol Gary had litterally forced down my neck, I climbed aboard the boat for my dive. It was great to be back in the water again and enjoying the aquatic life in the big blue. Soon enough we we back on land after 2 good dives and I was signing up for the divemaster program.
Becoming a Divemaster would enable me to being my initial step into the professional world of scuba diving and expand my dive knowledge and hone my skills to the professional level. PADI Divemaster training develops my leadership abilities, qualifying me to supervise dive activities and assist instructors with student divers. PADI Divemaster is the prerequisite certification for both the PADI Assistant Instructor and PADI Open Water Scuba Instructor certifications which was likely to be my next step if and when I completed the DM program. Once signed up it is always customary to have a quick beer and go through the schedule of what and when we were supposed to do. The course involves a number of marked criteria ranging from classroom lectures (ie understanding physiology of diving, equipment, physics and environment) to assisting in courses and dives, leading dives, mapping dive sites, decompression theory, swim tests, shop training and many other skills programs that develop your skills to become a better teacher and a better diver. The program can be done in around 4 weeks but with Buddha View you are allowed to do as many free dives as you like as in order to pass the DM program you need a minimum of 60 dives.
As you had to pay a subscription to do the DM course and I arrived in Koh Tao with 45 dives already under my belt I was using my free dives for experience only and when I left the island I notched up around 125 dives in total. In total I was on the island for around 3 months which gave me time enough to unpack my bags and it also gave the time to do the course at my own pace. I pretty much dived most days but took around 2 – 3 weeks off at various times to do visa runs, mend blisters, meet friends who came over to stay. On the DM program there were in total around 40 of us all at various stages of the course, but as a group we all bonded very well together and enjoyed some excellent diving and some fun nights out.
The highlight of my diving in Koh Tao was first and foremost my first sighting of a Whale Shark. As soon as I had arrived on the island there were reports of Whale Shark sightings. Gary and Trish had already managed to see two. As they only pass by the island one or two months of the year only luck and patience would allow you to see these beautiful fish. They were being spotted on the deeper dive sights which were only accessed in the morning, so for my first week I was getting up bright and early every day around 6.30am to do the morning dives. On my fourth morning dive I was fun diving with 2 other fellow DM’s and as we were doing our 3 minute safety stop one of my fellow divers furiously tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out to the big blue. As I looked into the distance I saw the head of the Whale Shark swimming directly towards us. The sight of the largest docile filter feeding fish in the ocean (one can grow up to 12m long) stuns you into silence. The one we saw was only a juvenile which was around 4 m long but equally impressive as we were the only ones around it in the ocean and swam alone with it for about 10 mins. Just being able to look the beast in the eyes and able to swim over, under and above this distinctively marked fish is something that will remain with me for ever
Koh Tao food marine life and boasts every thing you’d expect to see in the SE Asia shores from the big like Whale Sharks to some sharks to the medium sized stuff like barracuda, Trevellies, Batfish, Trigger fish (great fun when they attack you), Butterfly fishes, puffer fish, moray eels to the macro stuff like nudibraches, seahorses and shrimp. The only sad fact around Koh Tao is that the island itself is called Turtle Island yet there are no turtles to be seen anywhere. The coral however is in good shape and is protected. So most days were spent in the water diving which I enjoyed greatly the rest of the time was spent socialising and having fun. Koh Tao also has some great rock climbing that I experienced when Gabs came to visit. Whilst I was there I hired out a moped which was essential to get around the island and also enable me to visit a number of restaurants and to sample some of the islands excellent food. There is only one main road on the island that takes you all the way from the south end to the north of the island the rest of the roads are dirt tracks that are taken with care and caution!! There is cuisine on Koh Tao to cater for everyone from Mexican to Italian to Thai. Most days I ate Thai food everything ranging from the spicy Tom Yum Goong Soup, Phad Ka prow, Green, Yellow and Red Curry, Massaman curry, Penang curry, Yellow Rice and Chicken with sweet chilli sauce (a firm lunchtime favourite), boiled Chicken and rice and Pad Thai to name but a few of the amazing dishes. The beauty of Thai food is the fact that it covers most flavours – Sweet, Spicy and sour and all can be combined in one dish especially the soups which most of the time are very very hot!!!
Gary and Trish left the island 3 weeks into my 10 week stay but left after completing there AI (Assistant Instructors course) it was sad to see them go, but I knew that I would be seeing them again sometime soon. Before they went we had a number of fun nights out of which one included a lady boy cabaret where Gary and I were grabbed and pulled on stage and forced to wear women’s outfits!! Thailand has one of the highest number of lady boys (the other country being Brazil). Another strange fact is that as you imagine most Thais ladies are short however some of the men are actually quite tall, using this height advantage Thailand now has a successful Volleyball team however the gender of many is not truly known! Many of the lady boys are in fact quite hard to tell their gender mainly due to the Thai genetic make up of (very slender and pretty) or the amount of facial make up they apply!
Most days on Koh Tao were spent either diving, reading, eating and or socialising and I made some life long friends there. The Dive School was superb and the instructors were excellent. Each instructor had there own style and way of teaching which was interesting to watch and learn from and adapt for future use. There were many dive schools on the island but I found Buddha View to be the best suited for my needs: great instructors, comprehensive DM program, good equipment and great fellow divers. The island itself is a tropical paradise and it was so good to see that there were a lot of conservation programs to keep it that way. Koh Tao still remains as much a tropical island that it can be although I do fear that this is going to give way at some point as bribery in Thailand is rife and money talks, however the gleaming hope for the island is the fact that there are so many dive schools on the island and all are very active in eco tourism. If the dive schools go then 80% of the tourism of the island goes to so a balance is needed. I got signed off from my DM rpogram on my last day in Koh Tao and then enjoyed a few bers to celebrate that night with my fellow divers. I was very sad to leave Koh Tao not only because of the great friends I had made but also leaving diving for a while as this had now become my number one hobby and I am actively looking to take this to the next stage and make a profession out of it. On the other hand I was looking forward to getting back on the road and heading up to Cambodia for around 2 weeks. So farewell Koh Tao and I hope to see you again in the future.