(That parenthetical addendum is indeed to suggest that there’s a [The Bad and The Ugly] post to follow, but before you go ahead and get yourself in a fret I’ll spoil the suspense by assuring you that everything has been resolved.)
You’d think, as I’m really starting to feel the numbered nature of my days here in Thailand, I might be getting a head start on my desperate attempts to see all the places I still haven’t gotten around to visiting yet: Koh Lipe, Khao Sok, Pai (or really anywhere in the north)… the list goes on. In fairness, my family’s coming soon (16 days, to be exact! Not that I’m counting or anything…), and I’m planning on checking off a few of those yet-undiscovered places with them. Even so, Koh Tao is the kind of place that keeps calling you back, and last weekend Wayne, Collette, and I took our fourth/third (respectively) visits to the little island.
And it is a little island. But it has so much to offer, which we discovered especially this weekend as we drew ourselves away from the hustle and bustle of the Sairee/Mae Haad area to acquaint ourselves with the more remote and chilled-out Chalok Baan Kao side of things. Collette had ended up there months ago, on a suggestion by a stranger to do her PADI Open Water certification at Alvaro Diving, one of the handful of dive shops that are located on that beach. She found it to be a good suggestion then, and Wayne and I would come to agree over the course of our weekend. Wayne and Collette were both there to do their EFR/Rescue Diver certification (the last big step before becoming official Divemasters-in-Training!), and I just tagged along to do some Fun Dives. We stayed at the Taraporn Bungalows adjacent to and affiliated with Alvaro for 400 Baht a night.
Of course, first we had to get there. Last time Wayne and I went to Koh Tao getting there was a fiasco that involved a mini bus and two boat rides separated by a hectic and unplanned drive across the island of Samui. We were hoping to simplify (and cheapen!) things this time by taking an afternoon train to the port town of Chumphon on Wednesday evening, and then the night boat to Koh Tao. Though it was an unsurprising hour-and-a-half late, the train ride itself was fine. There was that lady in the restaurant car whom we seemed to have pissed off royally by inquiring as to whether we could order a vegan version of the sweet-and-sour dish, and the fact that when we came back to our car a Thai family had taken our places on the long benches and we were forced to attempt to sleep as best we could on the short seats they had abandoned, but other than that no problems!
We’d finally managed to drift off in the most creative of positions on the hard wooden seats when we were jolted awake as the train pulled into Chumphon. We collected our belongings, hurried onto two motorbike taxis who toted us off to the pier, where we were informed that we’d arrived with just 10 minutes to spare! This was welcome news, considering we thought we’d be waiting an hour, and also quite lucky because the train could have easily been much later. I think we were all knackered and prepared to sleep like rocks on the night boat (the night boat from Chumphon has lots of little beds, including pillows and blankets, for its passengers and can be quite comfortable. I hear from Surat Thani it’s more like millions of mattresses on the floor and altogether much less pleasant so if you’re torn between the two I say go with Chumphon.), but as the boat set off we met huge swells that rocked the boat like crazy and despite my attempts to envision myself as a large baby in a very large cradle sleep was reluctant to come.
But we arrived, safe and sound, at 5 in the morning, and had to wait only an hour for the taxi driver we’d organized to come fetch us. At this point day was breaking and we were able to catch our first glimpses of the yet-unseen beach. We had just enough time to muse to ourselves how lovely it was as we crossed the long walkway to Alvaro, still closed, before curling up on the cushions on the floor of the dive shop and finally getting some sleep– at 6:30 am.
Our first night we spent with Miguel, one of the DMTs at Alvaro, eating at Taraporn Restaurant (where I’d taken a lot of the above shot in the daylight hours. Veggie sandwich on wheat: amazing. Pizza [though we’d been really excited on account of the proper oven]: so-so) and then watching some live music at the Buddha Bar just down the stretch. But for the most part, taking it easy because Wayne and Collette had more studies in the morning and I was finally getting to dive!
I guess here’s where I could shed some light on the differences in my diving experiences on Koh Tao, and why I would definitely advocate taking your business to one of the smaller shops away from Mae Haad/Sairee if you’re thinking of doing some diving there. For one, smaller just means a more personal and intimate experience. We really enjoyed our time with Crystal Dive Resort when we got our Open Water certification in October, but though our dive group itself only had six people in it, the fact is that we were always with lots of people. On our dive boat itself, and then at the dive sites when sometimes two or three other very full dive boats would be diving in the same location. It makes things feel a bit hectic and crowded, which is not something you really want when you’re underwater. At Alvaro we not only really had the attention of the staff to ourselves (and a handful of others doing other courses or fun dives), the same was true of the dive sites. Not to mention that the dive sites where much, much better. Really interesting topography and lots of cool animals (including some friendly batfish and yet another turtle! Heavenly!).
I ended up doing two dives in the morning, at Hin Wong and Shark Island (so called, as it turns out, because the rock looks like a protruding shark fin, not because there are actually man sharks around. Drat!). That night Wayne and I also did a night dive at Shark Island, which ended up being much different than our night dive on Gili Trawangan. On Gili T there was quite a bit of a current so we spent most of our time with our fingers stuck into an uninhabited bit of sand, looking around for whatever we could find, which was still plenty cool. This time it was nice, still water and it was just us and our flashlights. Roland actually had an amazing underwater camera with a big light on it as well, so it sometimes helped to stay close to him to see some of the really cool stuff, including an awesome blue-spotted ray we were able to follow for a bit. It really is a whole different world at night!
While walking around with Alex, Nico, and Sam that afternoon (an American, French, and Australian trio also doing diving/snorkeling at Alvaro) I saw an advertisement for a Clean-Up Dive happening the next morning through the neighboring Sunshine Dive Resort. I’ve heard about these a number of times but the timing had always been off, and I was really excited to be able to take part. Not only are they free (and, like most people, I love free!), it’s nice to be able to be able to do something that you love and something that’s good for the world simultaneously! When I came to Collette, Wayne, and Miguel with my good news, the latter warned me that he’d heard these were often just marketing schemes to get people into various dive shops, and that rarely did the divers ever recover much trash. So I wasn’t sure what to expect, and decided to just enjoy my free dive.
This dive was at Lighthouse Bay, a fairly shallow dive site where I nevertheless found myself awestruck by the abundance of neon-blue anemones and funky giant clams. In my group were an English couple and Simon, our guide; both men holding big dive bags with which to collect the junk. A few minutes into the dive I found a little piece of paper that more or less disintegrated in my hand. “Pretty sure I could’ve just left that one…” I thought to myself. Then a Band-Aid, which I was a little reluctant to pick up but such was my duty! A piece of net too wound around a coral to be able to remove without damaging the coral– we were told first, of course, to do no harm. Many pieces of trash (years-old tractor tires, glass bottles, etc.) become very much incorporated into their environment and it’s best to just let them be.
And then we came upon what must have been a plastic bottle dump site. Within three or four depressions in a coral garden were more plastic bottles than we knew what to do with… It was a mad dash to collect them, buoyancy on everyone’s part just going out the window, until before we knew it both bags were entirely full! It was time to return.
The final figures for the collection amongst all the groups that went ended up being over 200 bottles, 2-3 kilos of fishing net, and over 20 kilos of trash altogether! If you ever have a chance to participate in a clean-up dive I would definitely recommend it. Here‘s Sunshine Dive Resort’s blog post about the affair (I’m responsible for one of the children’s sandals mentioned!:)).
We returned just in time for me to bid Collette and Wayne farewell and good luck on their final day of rescue training as they pulled away in the truck to take them to the boat. Our new friends Alex and Nico were also on their way to start their Advanced Certification, leaving Sam and I to hold down the fort. We decided to walk all the way out to Sairee, and then to hike up to the nearby viewpoint. It was an excellent adventure involving presumed princely hangouts, rope ladders, loud cicadas, men with guns, termites, and running full-speed down dirt paths, but unfortunately I only have photos of a few of those things.
The divers had returned right as we reached the foot of the mountain, but I had the key to Wayne’s and my bungalow and we were still all the way at Sairee and so I thought it a good idea to rent a motorbike to make it quicker to get back. Remembering the debacle I had last time I rented a bike on Koh Tao, we were proactive and took photos of all the minor scratches on the bike just to ensure I didn’t get ripped off again. This is funny in retrospect, but more on that next entry. (Yes, the intended “Bad and Ugly” entry.)
That night we had dinner at a nice Thai place with the people we’d been hanging out with anyway and a bunch of Miguel’s Spaniard friends. Afterwards we went to the Castle Party that happened to be going down that night. I think I’ve seen one advertised every time I’ve been on Koh Tao and never really been interested, partially because it was always far away from where I was staying. But this time it was within walking distance and we thought we might as well check it out. It was… interesting to say the least, but fun for an hour or two anyway.
Then Wayne, Miguel, and I left and stuffed our faces at an all-night pizza restaurant. And it was good. Because this is the good.
But the next day, things got bad and ugly. I’ll tell you all about it later.