Saturday, 7 April 2012

Koh Tao - Lets go diving!

So the next stop on the trip was Koh Tao. Koh Tao is a small island off the south west of Thailand. There are 3 islands off this coast - Koh Samui which is the most developed and has lots of big resorts and is more for 2 week holidayers rather than backpackers, Koh Phangan which is the party island (home to the famous Full Moon Parties), and Koh Tao which is the smallest, more chilled out island. It is also nick named 'Diving Island' and it's world renowned for its diving and seems to have more dive schools than bars. That's why we chose to go to Koh Tao, to learn to dive. It's something I've always wanted to do. I love, love, love the water and scuba diving just seems like this magical skill to have, giving you a passport to go explore a whole new (under water) world. After all seventy percent of the world is under water, that's a lot to be missing out on! Also the island sounded like it would be right up my street with it's chilled out attitude.

So on Thursday March 15th we got picked up from our hotel in Koh Lanta at 12pm and began our 18 hour (yikes!) trip to Koh Tao. This journey consisted of a mini bus, a VIP mini bus, a pick-up truck, an overnight ferry and another pick-up truck.  Before we headed off I was a little nervous about doing such a long journey as my back was still sore the previous day, but it was so well behaved on the day of the trip I got on fine (Leigh still did all the heavy lifting!). The trip was surprisingly fine (just long), especially the VIP mini bus, which we were in for the bulk of the driving, from Krabi to Surat Thani. It had only 2 other passengers, was fairly swish and had loads of leg room!
What I was dreading most was the overnight ferry (11pm – 6:30am - yuck!!!) from Surat Thani to Koh Tao. The reason it takes so long (and is so cheap) is that it’s actually a cargo ferry that just takes passengers on the upper level. We walked in and were very underwhelmed to see where we'd be spending the next 7 and a half hours. The area consisted only of rows of super thin mattresses beside each other along either side, but once we sat down the couple next to us spotted Leigh’s guitar that he’d just bought in town and we got chatting. The guy played a few songs and his girlfriend gave us some mango and they seemed sound which was comforting to know we were sleeping next to nice people. It put us at ease a bit I think. Well me anyway, whose paranoid brain imagined being stuck next to creeps, thiefs or smelly people. No thanks.
I read for a bit and went to sleep quite easily and got 4 or 5 hours kip that I was fairly impressed with. I had a nice make shift bed with my beach towel as a sheet, sarong as a blanket and a dress as a pillow. Not too shabby.

I woke up at about 6am and watched the sun rise over the sea out the window and we docked about 6:30. We got a “taxi” (I'm pretty sure the taxi drivers on the islands are just random people with pick-up trucks) from the ferry port to Sairee Beach where we were staying. Our hotel obviously wasn’t open yet so we set up camp in the English bar, Brothers, next door and got breakfast. Leigh got his first real sausages since arriving in Thailand. It's strange the hotels and restaurants in Thailand serve frankfurters and cooked ham as part of their European breakfast instead of sausages and bacon, not quite the same so he was pretty happy!.  We got to check in a lot earlier than I expected which was a nice surprise which we celebrated by having a bit of a nap, as the few hours kip on the ferry weren't really doing the job, and then headed off for the beach. On our way out the lady who runs the place made a point to tell me to wear lots of sun cream as I was so pale...I gotta work on that tan!!! #
We had a bit of a wander around the shops, bought some snorkels and set up camp on the beach. We'd read that the snoreklling on the island was so good that you could do it right off the main beach, and the advice was spot on. It was amazing how much we could see just a few feet from shore, in water just up to our knees. I was awed that so shallow on the busiest beach on the island there were dozens of species of fish swimming around us.  The water wasn’t the clearest but it was still really impressive! After an afternoon of swimming, snorkelling and relaxing on the beach we settled into one of the beach bars for the evening and watched the sunset over the sea with some yummy food and pina coladas. Not a bad first day at all! :)

The next day we had two things on the agenda.
1 – Pick a scuba school and book our Open Water Diving course.
2 – Go snorkelling at Nang Yuan Island (where I'd read had the some of the best snorkelling in Koh Tao)

To help us pick which dive school to go with we did our usual Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet scouring and read tonnes of reviews and advice and narrowed it down to two; Simple Life and Scuba Junction and figured we’d go visit them and decide who to go with once we'd checked them out. They both seemed cool, had cheap accommodation for divers and friendly staff, but in the end we went with Scuba Junction. There wasn’t anything huge in the difference that made us go for them, just the reviews were SO good, it was right on the beach and we could start that evening. We signed up for our Open Water SSI course to start that night and we would move into the accommodation the next morning.  It’s a 3 day course, with a brief intro the evening beforehand, that would allow us to dive up to 18 metres once we were certified. It consists of theory, videos, homework, scuba skills and four dives.
So we signed up and were told to come back for 5:30. Off we went via taxi boat over to Nang Yuan Island for some snorkelling. It is a protected National Park and about 10 minutes away by long tail from Sairee Beach and has one resort on it and nothing else but beach.

It’s basically a tropical paradise, and the snorkelling was insane and totally lived up to expectations! Much like Siaree beach day before the fish and coral were in full whammy right off the shore, the big differences though were the water was crystal clear and the abundance of fish was crazy. There were so many fish that were swimming around with us, even some big versions of the ones from the Happy Fish Happy Feet pedicures in Bangkok that got a taste for Leigh’s feet and followed him around biting him. Total bullies! It was the perfect way to spend a day and I would highly recommend a trip there to anyone who goes to Koh Tao, especially those not diving. You get such a view into the underwater world just by paddling out a few feet from a beautiful beach.
After a few hours we were picked up by our long tail taxi driver who brought us back to shore and we headed to Scuba Junction. We had our course briefing where we found out what the next 3 days had in store for us, who we’d be spending them with and our homework (reading and answering questions on the first 2 chapters of our SSI book).They have a maximum of four people per group in Scuba Junction (another plus) and we were in a group with 2 Swedish friends, Philip and Nicholas. We had Gemma as our instructor and Kelly, who was a trainee assisting Gemma for the course. The two guys were lovely, a bit mad but lovely, and absolutely full to the brim with energy. They were 21 year old performing art students and gymnasts and were constantly performing and bending and jumping off things for the few days, providing endless entertainment! Gemma was a good combination of professional and fun, making us feel totally confident, knowing exactly what we were doing and also having a fun few days. Kelly was really lovely and friendly and full of advice for us. Having them there I never for a second had any fear that something could go wrong, which seeing as we were going 18 meters under water for the first time I found pretty impressive.
Leigh, Philip and Nicholas
The next 3 days consisted of early mornings (6:30am), class, diving, homework and early nights. This probably sounds like the furthest thing from most people’s idea of a great holiday but I have to say I absolutely loved it. It was amongst the 3 best days ever, with 50% of the time spent in the ocean. I quickly discovered I was addicted, as was Leigh! As I mentioned in a previous post Leigh’s a nervous, and not very strong, swimmer. Turns out though once he’s below the surface and many meters under sea he’s a complete natural, go figure!

Our time on the course was slpit between the classroom and the sea.
On day one we watched the video that went along with the first two chapters we had read the previous night, which covered all of the theory behind scuba diving. We then went out to shallow water for a skills session, where we would put in to practice what we’d learned. It was all about getting used to the equipment (setting it up and using it), getting used to breathing and controlling our bouyancy under water. It was great how quickly we got used to it, but it was quite strange at first. (I have no way of knowing this but I reckon it's kind of what it feels like to be in space!) The next 2 days we did the remaining four chapters in class and then did our 4 dives, 2 per day. During each dive we had to perform different skills, such as removing and replacing our masks, removing and replacing out vests and tanks, pivoting our bodies in a straight line up from the sand, float for 10 minutes on the surface and swim around the dive boat 3 times (this last two being the ones Leigh was dreading, but he did it!). As well as our skills we had 30 – 40 minute dives where we got to explore different dive sites and spot different marine life. We even spotted Nemo and his parents on one of the dives! Nemo is a saddleback anenome fish, and there are 2 adults and their child living at one of the dive sites. The dive schools have cornered off an area for them to protect them. They were really cute!
My Diver's Logbook and my Open Water Certification Card
Here’s a list of what else we saw: Longfin bannerfish, butterly fish, red breasted wrasse, rabbitfish, blue ringed angel fish, titan trigger fish (to be avoided!), parrot fish, Christmas tree worms, white eyed moray eels, damselfish, fusiliers, sea cucumbers, sea urchins, feather stars, smooth tailed trevali, orange spined unicorn fish and porcupine puffer fish. It was an amazing 3 days and we saw and learned so so much on those dives. It was all put to the test back on dry land after the last dive when we had our final exam to see if we got our certifications. We did! I even got 100%. Woohoo! (it was really easy and I reckon that's a fairly common result, but still I was chuffed!).
100% Woohoo

Feeling super happy with our certification and high on the diving rush Leigh and I decided we loved it so much that we didn't want it to end, so we signed up for the Advanced Adventurer course. This is the next SSI diving certification which consists of a 2 day course with 5 dives and allows you to dive to depths of 30 meters we'd been thinking about it since we started the Open Water but weren't 100% sure. It was a tough decision as it meant we'd be stayng in Koh Tao for the rest of our time in Thailand, we'd planned on going to Chang Mai in the north of the country as it was reccommended by a few friends, but I think we made the right decision. Diving courses in Thailand are a fraction of the price that they are elsewhere, and as we loved it so much we knew we would want to dive in Australia. The diving is meant to be amazing there, especially up at the Great Barrier Reef, and a lot of the dive sites are at a depth greater than 18 meters. So we told Gemma that we had decided to do it and she was delighted. She told us she'd be our instructer again, with Kelly assisting, and we could even start that evening with the course intro.

Let's go diving guys!

That night, to celebrate us getting our Open Water Certs, the 6 of us went out to dinner which was great fun. It was also a little strange hanging out together in dry clothes and not in wet suits! After dinner myself, Leigh, Philip and Nicholas walked down to the beach and watched a fire show (well Leigh and I watched, the boys took par becauae they're crazy!). It was a nice night and a wonderful end to a great few days.
The next morning we started our Advenced Adventurer course (doesn't it just sound cool?!).
4 of the 5 dives on the course are specialities and we got to pick which ones we did. We went for Navigation, Wreck Diving, Perfect Buoyancy and Night Diving, along with the mandatory Deep Dive.
That day we did 3 of our 5 dives; Navigation, Perfect Buoyancy and the Night Dive. They were amazing! I felt so much more comfortable under water than on the first few dives. For the Navigation Dive we actually got to lead Gemma and Kelly on a dive. We'd already tried using compasses in the first course where one of the skills involved going 20 metres in one direction and getting back again. However leading a dive was really cool, and made us more comfortable using the compass and visual referencing. Up until then we'd just been following Gemma around the dive sites.
The next dive was the Perfect Bouyancy. Bouyancy is a crucial diving skill, you basically control how high or low in the water you are just by breathing - breath in and you rise, breath out and you sink - it just takes a lot of pracise and was the one thing I was having trouble with so I really benefitted from this dive where we went to a mini under water assault course. There were hoops we had to swim through and an octopus's tenticles positioned in shapes we swam in and out of.

We had a short break on land and then got back on the boat for our night dive. We jumped into the water just before the sun set and by the time we desended it was dark. It was a very surreal experience being down in the depths of the ocean in the dark, now more than ever did I feel like I was truly peeking into another secret world. We only had a small torch each for light and we got to see a whole range of life that comes out at night, and see some of the fish we'd seen swimming around during the day aleep. I was a little panicked at first because I couldn't see more than a few inches in front of me, but after a few minutes I got used to it and really relaxed. I actually found it really peaceful under there at night, with hermit crabs slowly going about their business, and parrot fish sleeping under rocks. Everything seemed to move a little slower at night, and I found it both eerie and beautiful at the same time. Towards the end of the dive we all pointed our torches to our chests to hide the light and we got to experience more bioluminocity (like in Phi Phi) but this time 18 meters under water. It was awesome!
After doing 3 dives that day we slept like logs that night and were up bright and early the next morning for our final 2 dives. I borrowed an under water camera for these dives, which was really cool, although the visibility that day was the worst it had been all week so the pictures were way less impressive than I expected. Still it was cool. Our final 2 dives were the Deep Dive (where we got to 27 meters) and the Wreck Dive. We (especially Leigh) were very excited for the Wreck Dive (they sunk a ship there 8 months ago and there's already a huge amount of sea life that have made it their home) but unfortunately the clarity was so bad we just got to see the very tip of it (although this was the part with the guns, so it was a cool bit to see). They were still great dives though, and I felt more confident with each one, and we had good fun with the camera too.
Back on dry land we were told we could come back in a few hours and collect our new, Advanced, certification cards.

I'd gotten loads of mosquito bites in Thailand (for some reason they just loved my blood...grrrrr!) and because we'd been in the water so much they didn't get a chance to heal and had opened up and become infected, so after the final dive we went straight to the clinic to see if I needed an antibiotic. I did. I had to get them cleaned by the nurse, and go back everyday to have them cleaned again. It was a little traumatic, and really sore, as she had to cut the skin off some of the sores to clean them out and encourage them to heal. I was given antibiotics, anti-inflamatories and antihistomines.  So off we went back to our hut, my legs covered in bandages with my bag full of drugs, feeling a bit sorry for myself and mighty pissed off with insects when I lie down on the bed and find an ant colony under my pillow! :( Poor Leigh. I freaked out and sent him off to our first guest house to see if they had a room. They did and we checked out of Scuba Junction that afternoon and went back to Sairee Sairee guest house. I just felt so gross with all my open sores, and sick with the infection that I needed a clean room and a bed free of insects. We took it fairly easy that night, watched DVD's in bed and went out for some amazing pizza.

The next day was my birthday, which I was super excited about spending in Koh Tao as we'd planned on going snorkelling at Shark Island. Anyone who knows me well knows of my obsession with sharks, so to say I was excited about this prospect was an understatment! However I wasn't able to get the bites wet so I couldn't do any smimming, snorkelling or diving. This was an extreme bummer because we were on diving island and there is really little else to do there apart from swim, snorkel and dive. So we spent the morning at a cafe on the beach having ice cream and chilling in the sun, and then went to one of the activities on the island, Mini Golf. It was actually really fun and had Goofy Golf rules you could choose to play (obviously we did!) where we would spin the wheel before each turn and get a goofy golf rule to follow for that shot. Some examples of these are to take the shot like a snooker shot, take your shot on one leg, swap points after the shot and lots more crazy stuff. Leigh won (obviously) but I wasn't as far behind as I expected so it was like a mini victory for me ;)

That night we went out for a mexican feast with nachos, quesadillas, tacos and taquitos (so much cheese!) yummmmmy, and after dinner we went to a pub and played some pool and watched some live music wich was good fun. So it wasn't the birthday I was expecting but it was such a fun day, and definitely nice to spend it in 35 degree sunshiney Thailand instead of cold rainy Ireland March weather. We also booked our bus back to Bangkok for the following day, figuring we might as well head back for our last day there rather than spend it on Koh Tao as there was really nothing left to do on dry land.
So a day and a half left in Thailand and then on to Australia! Koh Tao really was a little home from home and a really wonderful, relaxed, fun place. I'm pretty sure Leigh and I will be going back to have many more fruit shakes on Sairee Sairee beach, snorkel on Nang Yuang, swim in shark bay, dive at Scuba Junction and chill out in the sun. Hopefully next time we can go with some friends or family and we can share how lovely the island is with them!

(there are more diving photos here, internet won't let me upload!:


  1. Wow the diving course sounds amazing, and you guys are advanced and all qualified and stuff, thats fantastic! Your blog makes me want to try diving lol!
    oh and I know at least a little bit of your pain about the mosquito bites, my legs were ravaged, although it sounds yours were more infected, ya poor thing!
    Sounds like you guys had a kick ass time! :)

    btw, love your blog! keep doing it! <3

    1. Oh you should defo try it Neadz, it's the best thing ever! Oh no, it's so crap isn't it? No bites in Aus so far...long may it last!