Archive for April, 2007

Ko Tao

Thursday, April 5th, 2007

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.

Ko Pha-Ngan

Sunday, April 1st, 2007

Sweden has a population of about 9 million people. I’ve been told that about 300,000 of them come to Thailand every year. That’s 3 percent, and very impressive. I spent several days on Ko Pha-Ngan with mostly Swedes, the large majority of them beautiful, half-naked and dull. I have very quickly developed a disdain towards them (well, at least the ones here.) Though I highly recommend this phenomenon as beach-front eye candy (words would fail to describe the criminal and oft bordering-on-statutory material here — sorry, no pics), they turned out to be the most insular bunch I’ve seen thusfar. If I sound like a disgruntled, dirty old man, well.. I’m seeking a petty revenge towards Them (and am trying to make you jealous.) Apparently some people travel half a globe just to hang out with people from home. With the exception of a great couple I’d first met in Bangkok, my friendly smiles at Swedes have, by and large, been answered with a blank stare and a turn of the head; all these gross generalizations have been confirmed as practice by Erik, the friendly Swede, and Hella, a boisterous Norwegian who tells me that the Blonde Ones do nothing but complain while in paradise.

Ok. End of rant. I feel better: the Swedes may all be gorgeous, but they leave much to be desired. [I should mention the large population of Israelis. They at least seemed to properly enjoy the beach without pretense. Their female population was also beautiful, but very small compared to the men. Oh well.]

Luckily, Sonia and Sean shared a couple of days with me on the beach in Haad Rin, location of the infamous full-moon party, and center of young tourist life on the island. Haad Rin is the perfectly sized village as far as party destinations are concerned, and every night is an excuse for a celebration, full-moon or not; all over the island are signs, in fact, advertising all manner of party — full-moon, half-moon, black-moon, geisha-moon… waning-gibbous party, anyone?

Spending several debaucherous and sleepless nights here was the perfect antidote to the more mainstream Ko Samui. After a lazy afternoon on the beach, the tourist population generally enjoys dinner and a movie: most restaurants show bootlegs of American films, including screeners of current releases with hilarious engrish subtitles. Schedules are posted along with the menu, leading to the phenomenon of picking a restaurant for its entertainment, rather than food.

The evening usually continues at the numerous beach-front bars, where my Burner heart was warmed by excellent fire spinners. Free food, drinks were often given away for one reason or another (bar anniversary, hoop throwing contests..) and the infamous Buckets (a $10 sand pail of ice, thai whiskey or vodka, red bull or other mixer) are peddled late, and dance music is blasted well into the morning. As you can imagine, after a few buckets the party starts to lose control a bit. Late one night some guy (non-Thai) tried to steal a girl’s bag. Immediately he was thrown to the ground by half a dozen inebriated but sharp-eyed bartenders and locals. Dragged off the beach and into the alleyway, he would likely have been beaten to death had Sean not intervened, explaining that he was an American medic and he couldn’t let it go on. The kicking stopped, and while waiting for the police it was explained that the man had come to Haad Rin before and stolen passports and other valuables. In the end, Sean’s heroics diffused the situation and as a result we were offered free drinks. Of course.

Overall, Haad Rin has its charms. Between fresh fruit shakes on the beach, dogs sleeping in the middle of traffic, cheap sandwiches at 5 in the morning, winding, treacherous roads, barefootedness, coconut groves and jungle/beach parties, the small town feel of the town remains one of my favorite stops so far. If you expect a party atmosphere, you wouldn’t be disappointed; but though other spots on the small island offer yoga retreats and sleepy towns, and general peace and quiet. I fully expect to make my way back here some day.

Haad Rin, like all popular destinations in the area, is growing rapidly, and threatens to lose its summer-camp-esque atmosphere. To wit, I had to change hotels when I could get no sleep due to thumping techno till 5, then construction right next door at 8 in the morning. Indeed, it seems that the entire local economy and sleep schedule has begun to revolve around the demands placed by dance-craved Europeans. I just hope Starbucks doesn’t decide to drop in..

My final night I went to Half-Moon party in the middle of the jungle, where an open-air club was set up, and hundreds of people danced the night away. I decided to skip the full-moon party, happening in a few days, as the place apparently gets more crazy than it usually is (hard to believe.) After a late night pool-party and nightly beach dancing, I think I’m good. Besides, I think I’ve had my fill of euro-techno for a while, and hope to find a bit more substance at Burning Man in the fall.

Instead, I’m headed to Ko Tao for some SCUBA lessons and more beach laziness before heading up north.