A Bit of a Dive!

Island number 1: Koh Tao

It’s straight off the overnight train from Bangkok to Chumpon, on to a bus that takes us to the 7AM ferry leaving for Koh Tao island. We’ve been told along the way that Koh Tao is a great and also very cheap place for diving, so we have to check it out. We still want to complete our PADI Advanced Open Water certificate so we can experience deep dive sites as well, and if we can save ourselves a few bucks on that it means more diving for us along the way.

The ferry trip is great; it’s a huge high speed catamaran and the humungous engines churn out a jaw-dropping mush of bubbling water at the back. Occasionally you can see those little flying fish flap out of the waves behind us. The whole vessel is bouncing up and down as we get further out into sea; jokingly I look at Ebru and act a vomiting motion.

Ten minutes later she’s vomiting – along with about twenty other people on the boat. It’s quite strange, sitting on this huge machine, gaping at its awesome power cutting through the sea, and around you there’s a load of walking corpses hanging around. Like something from a zombie film.

Unfortunately our visions of tropical islands have been heavily rose-tinted from our amazing time at Boracay and there’s not many places that’ll compare favourably to that. Koh Tao definitely does not! We only look at the main area (after sitting down at a cafe for an hour to get Ebru back on her land-legs) and there’s plenty of dive shops but only about 45cm of beach… during low tide! There are plenty of pateosĀ  built to overcome this problem but it’s not what we’re looking for.

Accommodation is not cheap! Most of the places are dive resorts where you buy a dive package with your room included but we want to check the place out first and decide on the right dive centre for us first. Most of the places are renting out their rooms for 1500THB upward! The cheapest place we find – the only cheap place – offers us a less than hygienic bungalow for 700THB. We meet an American couple and they tell us more affordable accommodation is available about 2km out of town, but even there we’re looking at around 700THB.

Diving courses are definitely comparatively cheap: The A.O.W. course here will cost between 8- and 9000THB, compared to the average 12000THB on Koh Phi Phi and 14000THB on Phuket. However when we speak to some dive centres we’re not inspired with confidence. They all boast good teacher-student ratios of 4:1 and promise varying degrees of felxibility around the schedule. However, the sheer numbers of divers they process per day (at one school it was about 150 according their instructor) is slightly worrying. The clientelle were mostly young travellers, probably gap year students and not too worried about the safety aspect.

Though the equipment in general did look well maintained and was taken to and from boats in tog-bags, I saw one of the long-boats returning to shore packed like a tin of sardines with divers and equipment. I had to wonder how, had anything gone wrong, would they have managed to lay down the casualty on that boat without leaving people behind – or would he/she have laid on people’s laps? I don’t know but unfortunately this doesn’t look like the kind of place I want to learn diving; perhaps I’m too paranoid but if the shit hits the fan down there I want to be as capable as I can.

Also a bit shady was the whole arrangement with PADI books and tables which you (in my experience) normally get as part of the course. Here it was a case of lending you the books and tables for the duration or watching the DVDs… sorry, but if I’m paying to do a PADI certificate I want to walk away with the book and all the dive tables I need to plan my future dives.

We spend the following day WIFI-ing for a new destination and decide to leave Koh Tao the same evening on the Surat Thani night ferry, destined for Krabi and it’s renowned Au Nang beach.

The night ferry from Koh Tao to Surat Thani is an experience of note! It leaves at about 9PM and arrives at 6AM so you spend all night at sea. The inside of the boat has two decks the upper barely tall enough to stand up in and the lower more suitable to crawling. There are no compartments; there is a gangway down the centre of each deck, to the left and right of which there are camping mattresses with “bed” numbers painted above the – one big bedroom for everybody!

I get talking to a couple of English chaps next to me, we play a few hands of cards and one of them goes to sleep. Then I pull out my secret formula (cannot believe no one else on the boat thought of this): a small bottle of Sang Som (Thai rum) and a litre of Coke. We head outside and sit near the bow of the ship, just Ebru, the Englishman and I, surrounded by a calm sea and a crisp, starry sky above us. While the rest of the boat is sleeping we’re chatting, drinking Rum-Coke and smoking cigarettes outside – absolutely beautiful! The only other commotion around is music and laughter from the roof of the boat, where the crew are apparently also travelling in style. I decide to sleep out there on the open deck that night and it’s a restful sleep – just like sleeping in the garden in Reading back ‘home’ (but not in winter).