Koh Tao Monkey

So one of the taxi boat operators has a monkey. I can’t remember the monkey’s name but it has something to do with “lots of money.” He was a little rascal and a scamp with a penchant for pulling hair, but I kind of fell in love and took too many photos to collapse the collection into my general Koh Tao post. So the money-named monkey gets his whole own post!

2 more monkeys enter the picture.



From the Dive Boat

After doing my first dives (on Koh Tao, as it happens) last October, I’d kind of… strongly recommended (read: forced) the idea on my family. Not to say there was much objection, I suppose, but I realized maybe only as we were on our way to Koh Tao that I’d never really asked anyone what their feelings on diving would be. I mean. I only think it’s one of the most mind-blowing-but-simultaneously-relaxing/meditative/cathartic-experiences-one-can-have, and it’s my personal opinion that everyone needs to spend a little more time underwater, but I guess I should have left a little more room for choice in the matter.

Of course, there was choice ultimately: dive or not dive? Well, I guess the praises I’d been singing had not fallen on deaf ears. So then: Discovery Scuba Dive or full-blown Open Water Course? After a quick chat with Andreas at Alvaro, Ryan was definitely on board for the full course (at the time his pockets were still ‘overfloweth-ing’), Dad and Nate were undecided, and Mom was pretty sure she just wanted to do the DSD. By our second morning on the island everyone was ready to get in the water!

jesse overseeing equipment set-up training

normally there’s a cute little ‘alvaro’ dinghy to take divers to the dive boat, but the tide was too low before our first dive. so approximately 86 of us piled into the back of a pickup truck (that needed bump-starting, and that had been sitting in the sun, causing everyone to scald the bottoms of their feet as they climbed into the bed! funny in that kind of… painful way. ohhh thailand!) and headed over to shark bay where the water was a bit deeper.

(yes that’s a ‘RUN BKK’ [in the style of ‘RUN DMC’] shirt mom’s rocking. loves it!)

So I ended up doing my standard fun dives whilst the family got trained up. Personally, I love the way Alvaro handles the Open Water courses. Not that I had a bad experience whatsoever with Crystal when I did my own Open Water, but it was run in the common-to-nearly-universal (or so I thought) way where the first set of basic-skills training takes place in a swimming pool. With Alvaro, new divers are taken to a shallow bay where they learn some skills, and then basically get an extra dive as they make their way to the boat once they’ve shown they’re worth their salt when it comes to clearing masks. I think it’s a great way of doing things! Unfortunately, as it turns out, diving really isn’t for everyone, as Mom discovered when she encountered those minor problems of feeling supremely uncomfortable in the equipment/in the water/in general, and not exactly being able to.. you know, sink. Just the small things that come in really handy when trying to dive. But mad props for giving it a go Mamacita! As for the boys, they all ended up hooked and Dad and Nate decided to do the full course as well. Hooray!

the diving family!

darn! my dive finished before theirs and i’d already changed out of my wetsuit.

This ended up being my busiest dive weekend to date: I completed 6 dives, including tagging along with Jesse and the boys on their last dive towards their certification, and another set of wonderful dives with Nate on our last day. (For the first the boat took us to a spot about an hour away called Southwest Pinnacle. Eugene led the dive, which is always a fun experience, and we caught a glimpse at an enormous grouper, marveled at the most hypnotizing of anemone fields, and played with some batfish at the end.) In between I got to dive with my old buddies, as they’d finally made it to the island!

lounging at the dive shop, awaiting our next dives.

we had half an hour to kill before entering the water at one dive site, so entertained ourselves with some cliff jumping.

and chris and jean did some snorkeling (they were also doing open water certification)

professional interview amongst DMTs

fish kiss

after (before?) we dived together

congratulations open water divers!

off to shark island for my final dive it what may be a long time! glad you could be along, nate! (and there shooooould be some underwater shots on their way that i took on jesse’s camera.)

thanks so much, alvaro, for another great diving experience!

Getting To and Around Koh Tao

You may have noticed that one little Ray of Sunshine from the Calonder clan has been conspicuously absent from the Family Vacation posts thus far. Yes, dear little Nate-y was all tied up flying remote controlled airplanes for his summer internship and was only able to secure a week of leave, but in Blog-time the first week of the trip has elapsed and it’s high time Nate made his appearance!

Of course, there is the whole problem with the trains in Thailand always being late. Not necessarily leaving late (learned almost the hard way as we had to run to our train out of Chiang Mai as it made to roll out of the station promptly at 5 o’clock), but definitely arriving an hour or two behind schedule. Which was almost problematic because we should have arrived in Bangkok just in time for a cab to whisk us off to the airport so we could give Nate a heartfelt welcome at the gate. And instead we were still about an hour outside of Bangkok at the time Nate’s plane was landing.

Luckily we had a certain “Wayne Dog” on our side, who was able to page Nate at the airport, update him as to our situation, and give him instructions on getting a cab to the train station. (Of course, given our family history of pranks, Nate later told us he was sure we were all hiding from him and having a laugh as he tried not to look concerned while making his way through the Arrivals section.) So the heartfelt welcome instead happened in between platforms at Bangkok’s Hualamphong Station. And then we waited four more hours to get on the train to Chumphon.

bangkok’s hualamphong station, as seen from the café where mom and i grabbed a cappuccino during another hours-long wait. it’s no exaggeration to say we spent more time waiting in the train station in bangkok than we spent doing ANYthing else

as it should be

This train ride proved to be a bit of a different experience, since we only were traveling by day and therefore opted for a 2nd-class seat option. It was hot and the train did leave at least an hour late (though we boarded on time), and then took another hour just to get outside of Bangkok, but once we were on the open road (figuratively speaking) it was smooth sailing (also figuratively speaking…). Before long we were all in the dining car sharing some Leos, having a bite, and watching the scenery (and some very random monkeys, which instantly put Mom’s trip into the ‘Worth It’ category) go by.

As night fell Ryan saw fit to introduce me to Archer (an introduction for which I’m very grateful!), and after about three false alarms from the nice Thai man whose seat I jacked in order to watch TV with Ryan, we were finally in Chumphon.

And this part should have been easy, right? Just a month previous I’d taken a train to Chumphon, then (half-dazed and at the complete mercy of Wayne’s coordinating, admittedly) found myself on the back of a motorbike that took us to the pier where we got our night boat to Koh Tao, right? A night boat that, while lacking in the nicest of linens, seemed completely legitimate and was full of proper bunk beds and whatnot, right? But somewhere, somehow, things went terribly wrong…

haha, i think ryan’s expression says it all.

We were herded into a songtao and the price quoted ended up being a bit different than I remembered; I decided this must be inflation-related and gave it no more thought. And then we pulled into an unfamiliar pier and I started having my doubts. Next thing we knew we were stepping onto a much smaller boat than I remembered, and stepping around belongings and boxes that were obviously being shipped… a bicycle, a huge crate of coconuts, and lots of backpacks. The whole time I was still trying to convince (read: delude) myself that upstairs there would still be the bunk beds I was expecting…

staying positive…

We followed the people ahead of us up a ladder into what definitely seemed like the hold of a human trafficking endeavor (perhaps my naïveté– and tendency to exaggerate– is showing… I don’t suppose victims of human trafficking are treated even to mats and pillows on the floor, and I suspect there would have been more chains involved, but at the time these seemed like minor details). We clearly weren’t the only ones surprised by walking into a room chock-full of inch-thick, foot-and-a-half-wide mats on the floor, based on the looks on the faces of those around us. One girl mused, as our heads poked through the ladder opening, “Bet you didn’t realize you were coming to a pajama party!”

I was feeling kind of bad for apparently not doing the proper research to make sure my 50-year-old parents didn’t end up sleeping on a floor (for more than 2 nights of the vacation anyway, as they already had done so twice during our Chiang Mai trek!); called Wayne up to see if he knew the name of the pier we’d gone from before; asked my companions if they wanted to attempt to return our tickets and get on the other boat. But they were real champs! They grinned and bore it (wow that sounds better in the present tense…); Mom curled right up in a little ball and, perhaps due to the swaying of the boat, had the best night’s sleep of the vacation so far; the boys and I played Hearts until 1 am, and then I too fell into a nice deep sleep. In fact, we all enjoyed the experience so much, we practically replicated it on our exit trip from Koh Tao as well! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

the pajama party.

Of course, the silver lining to the whole experience was that in the morning we’d be on Koh Tao! I’ve issued a lot of discourse concerning Koh Tao over the past two years, so I think I’ll leave most of my Koh Tao-related commentary to photo captions. There’s a dive-related post to come (let’s just say we’ve got a few more certified divers in the family!), and I guess maybe it goes without saying at this point that we had another motorbike incident, but without such a happy ending (or… at least “retrospectively-‘meh’-inducing” ending) as before. In fact, the story still kind of breaks my heart to a degree that I don’t really care to retell the whole thing, but let’s just say we were all lucky that before coming, Ryan could often be heard proclaiming that his “pockets overfloweth.” And that he learned the hard way to be careful when giving an unfamiliar bike that initial burst of gas…

Anyway. Onto happier subjects!

we stayed at ko tao resort, on chalok ban kao, and they had what they called the ‘paradise zone’ at the top of the nearby mountain. such an amazing view… if only i’d taken my photos on one of the clear days!

Ko Tao Resort

ryan taking over poi duties at babaloo bar our first night. kid’s got skills! (and probably a few still-raw fingers from the steel handles… whoops.)

there’s that blue sky!

crossing the shallow chalok ban kao

on sairee beach with momma

back in the paradise zone

A few days into the trip we also had the happy turn of fate that Wayne was able to meet up with us, accompanied by Collette, Eugene, Jean, Chris, and Michelle, who were all there to do a bit of diving as well.

it was dad’s turn to gift a hat

during our motorbike excursion. we drove out to the northern tip and got a drink at the dusit buncha resort. from there we could see nang yuan island.

Dusit Buncha Resort

amazing menu at dusit buncha.

next stop on our motorbike tour: some point that was up a steep and gravelly hill that finally warranted this exchange: me: “i just don’t have a good feeling about these bikes anymore.” dad: “why not?” me: “well we’ve already crashed one and i just drove off the road. i think i’d just rather go home.” so we did, only stopping at mae haad first to buy ferry tickets. (also, my driving off the road was because the anonymous person ahead of me wobbled and cut me off!)

got a pancake at mae haad waiting for the sketchball ticket dealer to drive dad to the potential ticket buying locale.

haha, i showed my students my pictures and when i got to this one they all just said, ‘oooh teacher, sabai sabai!’

“Sabai sabai” review

full moon setting on our last morning

this is what a banana sandwich looks like. what did you expect when the waiter himself laughed at you?!

lazing on our final afternoon

unbelievable sunset from the paradise zone as we had our last meal before setting out for another night ferry. (thanks dad for this shot!)

pineapple-fried-rice IN a pineapple– way better than a banana sandwich!

Koh Tao (The Bad and The Ugly)

I’ll apologize in advance for this entry being solely text-comprised. No photos were taken of the Bad and Ugly happenings on our last day on Koh Tao (and the getting home process), so time to slip on the ol’ reading glasses and bear with me!

As I mentioned in “The Good” entry, I’d decided to rent a bike to facilitate my passage back to Chalok Baan Kao from Sairee. As I also mentioned last entry, I did this in spite of the fact that I’d been taken for a bit of a ride (no pun intended, and to clarify: charged $50 for a microscopic scratch on a side panel) the last time I’d tried my hand at bike-renting on Koh Tao. To be extra cautious, I’d chatted and joked a bit with the man renting the bike in order to establish rapport, and Sam was clever enough to start snapping photos of all the small scratches already on the bike so that I wouldn’t get charged for someone else’s mistake. Mr. Rental Man kept laughing and assuring me that the small scratches are no problem, and that if I’m just honest with him we won’t have any issues. I handed over my passport (the universally required collateral on Koh Tao), and he handed me the keys. It seems significant in retrospect that in the process of doing this a guy walked up to us to warn us about this guy in particular because his friend had had issues before.

The fact of the matter is, as a few of us discussed upon my return to the dive shop, that people have had issues with every bike rental company on the island, because the companies very much survive off of the issues. Or, more specifically, the fines that the issues produce. Theses guys are renting brand-new bikes for the equivalent of $5 a day. Maybe $6 if the renter doesn’t have the heart or wits to bargain with them. This is not a sound business plan until they start bringing in the big bucks when people screw up. They not only want people to screw up; they need them to. And I did.

We’d considered the possibility of a joy ride around the island the next morning, but decided instead to buy our Chumphon-bound boat tickets at Mae Haad and then spend the day on the neighboring Sairee, where the bike needed to be returned anyway. Alas, three people and our luggage couldn’t fit on the bike, so I drove with Collette out to Mae Haad and we started searching around for the best option home. Suddenly she cried, “Oh my goodness! That’s Juan!” Juan was a Chilean guy she’d met in Laos whom she knew to be on the island, but as she had no way of contacting him she had lost hope of actually meeting up with him. What an amazing stroke of luck! What a delightfully small world! But Juan was not in the best shape. When asked, “So where are you heading now?” he responded, “To Kuala Lumpur. And I’m going to the hospital first thing!” It seems he had stepped on a nasty piece of coral, and was walking with a noticeable limp.

Upon buying the tickets Collette said they could just walk the 15 minute path to Sairee while I went to fetch Wayne, but being that Juan had a hospital-requiring hole in his foot I thought I might as well just drive them. Oh, and Sam thought maybe he’d left his vintage Oakley sunglasses at the bike shop and I said I’d check up on it for him, so I let them off riiiiight on our good friend Mr. Rental Man’s doorstep.

Mr. Rental Man was on the phone, so after sitting on the bike for half a minute to see if he’d wrap up, and then determining he wasn’t, I made to leave. But he motioned for me to stop, walked in his shop, and came back out with a piece of paper. “Oh God…” I thought to myself. “Did I fill it out to say I’d be back earlier? Is he going to try to slap me with a 1300 Baht late fee?”

Nope. His finger slid down to the bullet point on the contract stating, “ONLY 2 PERSONS ARE ALLOWED ON THE MOTORBIKE AT ANY TIME. IF 3 OR MORE PERSONS ARE SEEN RIDING THE RENTER WILL BE CHARGED A FINE OF 5000 BAHT.” $170. Way worse than a late fee. Way worse than anything, including replacing a passport, not that I really wanted to have to resort to that. I told him, “Oh no! I didn’t see… His foot was hurt… It was very short… I’m sorry I must go get my boyfriend… Be nice to me!”

I drove off with my heart in my mouth, trying to convince myself that he would indeed be nice; I’d explain, he’d respond to reason… But at the same time I just kept thinking of the conversation we’d had the day before… they want people to screw up. They need them to. And he had my passport… there was really nothing stopping him doing exactly what he’d indicated he would. When I got to Wayne he also tried to be reassuring. “Speak Thai to him. Tell him we’re teachers. Tell him what happened and that you can’t pay that much. Just stay cool.”

But when we arrived Mr. Rental Man (henceforth known as Mr. Jerky Rental Man, or Mr. JRM) made it clear from the beginning he was going to make the “staying cool” part difficult. He made us wait for five minutes before even acknowledging us as he parked another bike, and blew off all of Wayne’s attempts to be friendly and joke with him about wanting to buy the bike. When I began explaining just what had happened and why I was driving three people, in Thai, he stopped me and told me to speak English to him. He explained that his boss had seen us on the bike, and it was his boss who was insisting that mistake or not, we’d made an agreement and I had to live up to the agreement. Wayne asked to speak to the boss, and Mr. JRM began scrolling through his phone. It was then that I realized, from the language his Contacts list was written in, that he was actually Burmese and not Thai (though I’d heard him speak Thai the day before).

It didn’t take long for him to become blatantly rude… really getting in our faces when talking, accusing Wayne of lying to him, just being really unpleasant. I mean, the other guy who swindled me two years ago was at least a bit jovial, and even offered me tissues when emotion took over and the tears came (ohhhh women…). This guy was just nasty. So Wayne said we were going to the police station. I went along with it, but at the same time was wondering what they’d really be able to do; the fact of the matter is that I had signed the contract, and I had been caught in violation of it.

Wayne made the valid point that we had some potentially vital connections: we’d taught the police in Thung Song, after all, and just generally work for the Municipality. That had to mean something, right? So we went, and this cop with wonderful English stepped up to ask what had happened. I gave him a much more concise version of the story I’ve just shared with you, and concluded that I’d be willing to part with some money on account of my offense, but that 5000 Baht was excessive. Then came the most wonderful words I think I’ve ever heard:

“Oh yes… I think these men are very bad. We have many problems. [Produces a stack of motorbike rental fine documents about an inch-and-a-half thick, the top one displaying a fine of 8000-some Baht.] You say you live in Thung Song? I am from Thung Song, just come here for Full Moon Party [presumably to beef up the police force during this time, not to actually attend the festivities, though who knows…]. It’s okay, you can leave today. Leave passport. I go tomorrow, I tell him a lie. I tell him the embassy call me and say I must take your passport. Then I bring it to you when I come back Thung Song, maybe next week.”

Mind you, Thung Song isn’t exactly one of the major Thai cities… this was a coincidence-and-a-half and the corners of my mouth had about reached my ears as he gave me this news. I agreed that this was a very, very good idea; we exchanged information and I let him speak with one of our police-officer friends just to make sure everyone was on the same page; then headed back to the bike shop to return the bike and its key to the man without putting up any more argument or fight concerning the matter. Later, when I began to worry that maybe Mr. JRM might just dispose of my passport for good measure and called Chet (our new copper friend) to see his thoughts on the matter, he assured me that if the passport had been thrown away he would “arrest him for sure.” I didn’t have much of a choice but to take his word for it.

At this point I’ll include that it didn’t take long for a bit of sympathy for Mr. JRM to creep into my little ol’ heart. To have a job that required such negative interactions with almost everyone he went into business with (or at least one a day, I would imagine), to have been presumably forced to come here and get into such business on account of the lack of options in his own country… I started to almost feel sorry for making any extra trouble for him, and to really hope for his own sake he’d just part with the passport peacefully.

After that, we didn’t really have time for lazing around on the beach at all. Instead we met up with a confused and borderline-concerned Collette and Juan for an excellent lunch at the yet-to-disappoint New Heaven Café, visited my old buddy Tu (to whom I’ve been paying a visit every time I go to Koh Tao after Laura and I enjoyed his company so much on our first visit, and who also lives just outside of Thung Song. So random.), and headed back to Mae Haad to start the journey home.

what do you know, i do have a photo from the last day. this is from the chumphon pier at around 6 o’clock. from here we expected it to be smooth sailing but… no… things got ugly.

So nearly 1800 words into this post and we’ve only gotten through “The Bad.” I’ll be more brief with “The Ugly.”

Whereas we took a train to get to Chumphon on the way to Koh Tao, Collette remembered that she’d had more comfort and success with buses for the return journey. We had the boat-company-provided-taxi drop us at a bus station after leaving everyone else at the train station. We were informed by the ticket counter that the only bus to Thung Song was full just in time to watch the taxi that had dropped us off turn a corner and roll out of our lives forever. Collette was sure that wasn’t the bus station she’d left from before, but the ladies inside offered only blank stares when we asked where the other station was. Luckily a motorbike taxi driver outside knew of one, and said it was a mere half-kilometer down the road. He was also sure there was a bus leaving for Thung Song at 8 o’clock.

But he was wrong. So after walking to that station we had no choice but to head back to the train station, which we also did by foot. There we bought 150 Baht tickets for the train departing at 9 o’clock that would apparently move at the pace of an injured snail in order to get us to Thung Song at 3 in the morning. As we all had to teach at 8 the next morning this wasn’t the most appealing of options, but it seemed we had no choice. That is, until our waitress at dinner became savvy to our situation and offered the good news that there was a bus station just outside of town and she was sure there was a bus that left at around 9 and only took three hours to get to Thung Song! We let her make some phone calls just to be sure, and she came back offering all the same information. Yeah, we’d only get a 50% refund on the train tickets we just bought, and the bus would be slightly more expensive, and we’d need to take a 200 Baht taxi to get us to the station, but for added comfort and a few hours’ more sleep it seemed worth it.

And I’m sure it would have been, had there actually been buses. A bit of insecurity with the whole “plan” set in as soon as we pulled up to the bus station: our “taxi” driver asked if we were going to Phuket or Bangkok. It didn’t sit well that he had no idea what we were doing. Then the man at the first ticket counter looked really confused when we said the words “Thung Song” to him, saying he only sold tickets to Trang. After pressing him a bit his eyes lit up and he pointed to the ticket counter on the other side of the station, saying they had a bus to Thung Song but they didn’t serve food on it. As if this mattered to us at that time of night. So we crossed the station only to be told that that bus too was full. We asked the taxi driver if he knew the woman from the restaurant, and could he get her on the phone? Surely she’d talked to these people, even reserved tickets for us… Otherwise what were the phone calls for?! Why had we cancelled our for-sure tickets if there was a chance there were no seats on the bus?! He said the woman was his sister (of course she was), but getting her on the phone did no good. The bus was full.

In a last ditch attempt I went back to the original man to ask if his buses to Trang stopped in Thung Song. He responded, very enthusiastically, that they did, and also that there were tickets! Then Wayne showed up and asked the same questions and suddenly the answer was that there were no tickets. We were fed up. It was back to the train station, but by this time the original train we were booked on was also full. So we were forced to buy 300 Baht tickets on the 10:45 train that was scheduled to arrive in Thung Song at 4 am. In good Thai fashion, it was actually just after 5 when we finally set foot on the platform. Motorbike taxi home, the most solid and well-deserved 2 hours of sleep ever, and zombie-mode for the entirety of last Monday.

Worth it? Totally.

(Oh, and the conclusion of my passport fiasco: Called Chet on Tuesday to ask about the status of things. He seemed confused as to who I was at first, which was worrisome. Then he figured it out and told me that he already had my passport. Excellent news! Then Thursday, in the middle of my last class before my lunch break, my phone rang and Chet informed me he was in Thung Song and could I meet him at Sahathai that minute. To the kids’ eternal delight they got an early lunch and I ran off to fetch my passport. Chet earned himself a bottle of whisky, which he acted reluctant to accept in the middle of a department store, but I hope he enjoys it thoroughly, as he really did me just about the biggest favor imaginable. The end!)

Koh Tao (The Good)

(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.

he greeted me as we first set foot on the beach and i was sure i’d found a new friend for the weekend. alas, i only saw him but once or twice more 😦

early morning chalok ban kao

‘private beach’ in front of our bungalows.

our bungalows

breakfast at the buddha café– a godsend for divers! one of the only places open early enough to get your pre-dive (or in this case, post-morning-nap) eats.

alvaro’s over yonder

indian miner. i love these birds!

the ‘sitting buddha’ rock formation at one end of chalok bay.

wayne and collette had their 6-hour EFR course the first day, leaving me with lots of time to read, relax, and enjoy the surroundings.

paparazzi shot of the first aid role plays.

haha… not a bad afternoon!

at the bar next to alvaro they have all kinds of creative fish tanks…

sunset on the first day.

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!

with roland and gunda on the way to the big boat!

shoot, the sweet swiss lady whose name i’ve forgotten and sam on our way to the big boat.

view from the big boat

beautiful, clear water!

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.

wanna stay here when you come to visit, family?

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!:)).

our two bags filled with trash (mostly bottles)

unrelated, but an old ugly mean dog that reminded me of ollie.

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 rope ladder… do we dare?

of course! sam has braved his fears and is now on his way to being an australian spy.

heading back down… excuse my mane of hair, i lost my hairtie on the dive. (yes, managed to lose a hairtie and my own band-aid on a clean-up dive… whoops…)

the rock we’d climbed up on.

on the way down.

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.

more new friends getting down

haha… emo wallflower.

but so happy with some friends!

haha, pufferfish.

wayne is having a great time!

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.