Ko Tao

Taking a quick 2-hour catamaran ferry, I set off from Ko Pha-Ngan to Ko Tao, a small island known for its diving, snorkeling, and relaxing atmosphere.

Not having done SCUBA diving before I was quickly sold on the idea, and had an impressive list of shops to choose from. I had my pick-up truck taxi drop me off in the middle of the strip, a narrow road that parallels the beach. After walking around for ten minutes and viewing a couple of options, I settled on Scuba Junction. Not knowing what to look for in a diving school, I went with the recommendation of a couple who had just gotten their certification there, and my legs thanked me when I was able to drop my pack in the nearby bungalow. I’d made a good choice.

Originally, my plan was to check out Ko Tao for a few days before heading West to the Andaman Sea and visiting Ko Phi Phi and Ko Lanta. I ended up staying a week, so the other islands will have to wait until my next Thailand visit. The beach-front town of Sairee is everything I’d originally hoped for on the islands — a small community, basic accommodations, and good people.

I started my open-water course the very afternoon I arrived, and had the first bit of homework to do since graduating college. The next few days would consist of a morning classroom session (replete with boring videos), followed in the afternoon by a boat trip to one of the many dive sites in the area. Thankfully we did all of the basic exercises in the ocean, as opposed to a pool, so not a moment went by without seeing sea life. Diving is something I’ve wanted to do for a long time, and here I found myself in a paradise setting at bargain prices. As it turns out, the hardest part of diving is its core principle: breath control. After adjusting your weight and finding neutral buoyancy, you learn to control your body mostly by controlled inhalation and exhalation. Though the subtleties of breathing technique were yet to sink in, my group did pretty well in the water (especially compared to our instructor, Ben’s, previous few students), and we were able to do some shallow (9 meter) dives right away.

Over the next few days I would go on to complete the open-water course as well as the advanced diver course, which allows me to dive at 30 meters; this is, I am told, the perfect diving depth, though the one time i got that deep the visibility was pretty murky. Though the list of underwater creatures I saw ended up being pretty long, some highlights were angelfish, Titan Triggerfish (who are very aggressive, and even left a bite mark on one of poor Lyndon’s fins), Bluespotted Stingray, Moray Eel, crazy Sea Cucumbers (which, as it turns out, have legs and are really freaking cool), Butterflyfish, Clownfish (like Nemo), Parrotfish, lots of sea urchins, anemones… During a night dive, I saw coral spawning, in which their polyps bloom, and the rock-like formations turn into fluttering forests of activity. That night we also saw many barracuda, which are very gentle and smart. They use divers’ flashlights to their advantage, so whenever we came across one we would shine our lights on a fish and the barracuda would snap into it with unimaginable speed.

Most of the instructors at the school seem to be folks who came to the island and simply didn’t leave. Ben, from the UK, has been there for almost four years; less jaded, JP is from Quebec, quickly got his teaching certification and hasn’t left in almost a year. The list goes on, and I can now understand how people come and stay a while.. you give things up from the real-world and adopt a fresh lifestyle. Three times a day the school boards a boat, home of captain and teenage son, who accommodate divers for a few hours, seeing them in and out of the water and serving freshly sliced pineapple.

The afternoons better spent in the water or by the beach — my bungalow got to 99.5 °F one naptime; opening the doors and windows thankfully dropped it a few degrees, but the rooster with a retarted crow made it hard to sleep. Nevertheless, Sairee life is not difficult to get used to. The evenings are quieter than on Ko Pha-Ngan, but pack a good crowd at the few bars along the water. There I ran into Matt, the Brit I’d met on Ko Samui (who, incidentally, had told me to come here in the first place), as well as some British girls I’d met on Ko Pha-Ngan. Continuing the meme of friendly folks from the UK, I even met a good bunch on the ferry ride over, and would run into them daily until they left.

With the exhaustion of a day’s diving, it’s impressive that people actually make it out to drink at all, but they do. Though not every night was met with enough energy to party, my newfound diving friends (Daniel from Rome/London/USA, Daniel from Switzerland, space-cadet extraordinaire Romain from France, Lyndon from Alabama, and lovely Renate from Holland) and would find several occasions to celebrate dive course completions and such. After finishing their course, Renate and Jennifer found out the true power of the Sangsom Bucket; I do not envy their hangovers.

Leaving the island was a bittersweet afternoon, almost like the end of a very short summer camp. I had a fantastic time here, even if I didn’t get to see the rest of the island. Clutching my SSI dive certifications, and hoping to run into my new-found friends in the future, I hopped the ferry to Champhon, where Sebastian and I shared a train ride up to Bangkok. Sebastian, from Germany, spent a month in Thailand on a bicycle, and was ending his trip here. Though he was originally in my dive class, but had to take a two-day absence due to a stomach bug, but managed to get his certification before leaving. Since we both had a layover in Bangkok (his before flying home, mine before catching a train to Chiang Mai), we decided to spend a very tired morning in the city.

After grabbing some food and very necessary coffee in my favorite shopping mall (last time I wrote about it, I forgot to mention the Maserati showroom and 10,000 square meter aquarium), we took a tour of the Jim Thompson‘s house, a museum that used to be home to an American textile entrepreneur, who died under mysterious circumstances. After some last-minute tourist shopping on Sebastian’s part, I headed back to the train station.

The air conditioning on the train to Bangkok was broken and I’d woken up dehydrated and out of sorts. This, combined with a day’s worth of the capital city’s intolerable heat, had left me in a pensive daze. Hitting the road alone again after spending a few days with warm people and new friends is something I will learn to get used to. I hope this to be the case, anyway, as I fall asleep dirty and reminiscing, aboard my second night train in two days, on my way to Chiang Mai. At least the AC works this time.

One Response to “Ko Tao”

  1. jamaicamax Says:

    How fabulous you got certified too! We will go diving in Monterey Bay when we are all back in Sf…. Have a great time in Chang Mai! Don´t miss the all you can eat veggie buffet! Also, the elephant sanctuary where they paint is right near by; I regret I didn´t make it….

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