Diving lessons: Thailand’s Koh Tao

Rookies take a dive: Scuba lessons turn a trip to Thailand into an adventure
The Sacramento Bee, January 25, 2004


Vacation is not the time for multitasking. Especially on a classic beach vacation, days spent vegging out, dining out and splashing about are as ambitious as one need get.

Still, if you’re like many active people, a few days of nothing but relaxation can get a bit … dull. So, while you’re on vacation – even just a beach vacation – you also can learn a thing or two.

For instance, my three traveling companions and I were eager for a return to Thailand, where the food is delicious and healthy, the people are friendly and fun, it’s always warm and the costs are low. But we wanted to add something new to the trip.

Hiking in the national parks was suggested, but that sounded a bit too far from the beaches. Scuba diving was suggested and quickly agreed to. Thailand is, after all, one of the world’s top diving destinations.

We looked into classes at Sacramento dive shops, but the more research we did, the more we discovered that it made sense to take the classes in Thailand.

Now, the idea of learning to scuba dive in a developing country gave us pause, based on the language barrier alone. But we soon discovered that in this, as in many other ways, Thailand was well-prepared for us. English-speaking teachers, modern equipment and many fellow Westerners had already established quite a diving industry on a small island in the Gulf of Thailand, not far from the popular tourist islands of Ko Samui and Ko Phagnan. On Ko Tao (“Turtle Island,” 21 square kilometers), nearly everything is geared toward teaching farangs (foreigners) how to scuba dive.

Just as important, we found that we could learn to dive in much less time than it would take to learn at home. And we realized that instead of a final certification dive in chilly Monterey Bay, we could do the same dive in the warm waters of the Gulf of Thailand … and be back on shore to celebrate with a lunch of pad Thai, grilled prawns and Thai ice tea.

It should be said that not all agree that this is the way to go. Derek Binon, sales manager and an instructor at Dolphin Scuba Center in Sacramento, says that “most people … don’t want to waste their vacation learning how to dive. They want to do that here, and then be ready to dive when they get to their destination.”

But, he cheerfully agrees, “the training in Thailand is going to be the same, using PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) standards, as it is here.” And, he adds, the diving in Thailand is “fantastic.”

For our part, we figured, on balance, we could save ourselves some money and even time – and still have fun – by doing the training in Thailand. In Sacramento, the typical open-water class can take as many as eight sessions over a month, and we could get the same training in four daylong sessions in Thailand. And that course would have us bobbing up and down in the tepid sea water by the second day.

We congratulated ourselves on our discovery and headed for Ko Tao, just two hours by boat from the mainland town of Chumpon, which is itself an overnight bus or train ride south of Bangkok. A pricier but quicker option is a flight from Bangkok to Ko Samui, then a ferry ride.

It being the height of high season – January – we were advised to book ahead, so we took a shot at Crystal Dive Resort in Ko Tao, a place recommended by a Bangkok travel agent. We signed up for the classes, which cost roughly $165 per person for a four-day, multidive class, at the end of which we’d be certified as “open-water divers” by PADI, the main international diving certification organization. Other certification programs are taught in Thai dive schools. Crystal Dive is one of many resorts listed on PADI’s Web site (www.padi.com).

That $165 is roughly the same as the cost at home, but there were other benefits to Thailand: The overnight bus ride from Bangkok to Chumpon and the two-hour boat ride from Chumpon to Ko Tao were included in the cost. And while taking the course at Crystal Dive, as with most of the other nearly 30 dive shops on Ko Tao, our rooms would be free.

Those rooms – simple but comfortable wood-floored, thatched bungalows with their own bathrooms, fans, TVs (cable!) and porches with views of the ocean – would normally cost about $10 a night. But as we found out once we got to Ko Tao, many dive resorts on the small island won’t even rent a room to nondivers. If you stop diving, most will kick you out. This diving island is not for landlubbers.

After our free (but neck-crimping) overnight bus ride from Bangkok, we landed at Chumpon’s tiny port at 6 a.m. Following a nauseating boat ride to Ko Tao – we caught a particularly windy, and thus choppy, few days there – we were dropped on the beach at Mae Haad, the main town on the small tropical island.

Crystal Dive was nearby, but touts were trying to herd arrivals to a variety of dive resorts, which range from the rustic to the luxurious (prices reaching as high as $60 or $70 a night). All of them are reasonably priced and offer roughly the same quality of diving at the same dive sites.

Initial classes were taught in the Crystal Dive bar, with instructors – one young man from England, another from Holland, both 27 and excellent teachers – using PADI-produced videos. Classes of about 10 kept the instruction moving, and before we knew it, we were underwater.

Warm water. Sailing out from Mae Haad on a small fishing boat retrofitted for diving, we got a new view of the small, gorgeous island. With a ridge of 1,000-foot mountains running down its center, palm trees erupting from the outcroppings of rock and fringing the long sand beaches, Ko Tao is a beautiful spot above the water line.

But underwater, it is a marvel. Though we hit a few turbulent-weather days, making the water murkier than we’d have liked, it still had far greater visibility than we would have had in Monterey. Every time we came up from a training run in, say, underwater navigation or identifying underwater flora and fauna, we’d be astonished by our gorgeous surroundings.

In the subsequent four days, we learned how to put on and check our equipment, which was in pretty good shape for rental equipment, and we got eye-opening tours of various reefs around the island.

The fish around the island are spectacular. In just a few days of diving, down to depths of 100 feet, we saw schools of barracuda, enormous flounders, blue-spotted sting rays, butterfly fish, banner fish with their long dorsal streamers, blue-ringed angel fish and, on one dive, an enormous turtle (tao), which gives the island its name. If you’re a diver, you haven’t lived until you’ve swum with the slow-moving but utterly graceful sea turtle.

On the east side of the island, there is a bay where reef sharks can be seen in the dozens, but the day we went it was so windy that most had gone deeper underwater.

And we didn’t get a chance to see the monstrous whale shark, rarely spotted here.

But the two of us who, inspired by our first course, opted to take the advanced open-water certificate course got another treat: a night dive with an instructor who took us out at dusk and took us down into the dark deep, armed only with flashlights, to about 60 feet.

There, we saw sleeping fish, including the puffer fish. Our instructor caught one while it was sleeping, prompting it to blow up into its spiky balloon shape. He handed it to us, and we felt its sharp spikes as it struggled to get away. He also had us turn off our flashlights and then led us in churning the water with our hands, activating the phosphorescent plankton that sparkled before us like a thousand stars.

And when we rose to the surface, we saw actual stars in the night sky, leaving us feeling suspended between two magical realms, in two different mediums. This was one of those moments for which one is willing to endure long flights and back-stressing bus rides. Magic.

Of course, scuba diving is potentially dangerous. Keeping an eye on the equipment you’re using is always a good idea. You are never entirely safe at home or abroad. Equipment fails, human error intervenes.

More likely, the problems new scuba divers may have concern their bodies. Ears, in particular, are often troubled by the intense pressures as one goes deeper and deeper. Instructors will work with those who have pain in their ears, teaching techniques for dealing with “equalizing” the pressure, but some people in our group had to drop out or wait until their ears had adjusted.

Teachers also give ample instruction regarding returning to the surface, though we never went deeper than 100 feet. A too-rapid ascent can cause the so-called “bends,” a deadly malady that can be cured only by rapid “recompression” in a hyperbaric tank. And the closest one of those was a couple of hours away.

Still, following instructions, sticking with a certified instructor or dive master and using common sense makes something as dire as the bends highly unlikely.

Travel is also about the people one meets. The camaraderie between the various young nationals grew warm as we struggled together to learn how to move and breathe in the unfamiliar underwater world. They included 20-year-old Israeli soldiers who were decompressing from service in the Occupied Territories, Australians on two-year tours around the globe and a few Americans. Stories about fish seen and discoveries made filled the minutes between dives.

That camaraderie extended into the nondiving hours. Mae Haad and Sairee Beach, which extends to the north for a mile or so, have retained a bit of their Thai flavor, but they are also full-service tourist areas. There were neighborhood convenience stores for essentials and upscale restaurants overlooking the beach for some spectacularly good seafood meals. The soft night air, the gentle lapping of the waves and some low music and lights were features of several of the restaurants along the main asphalt footpath that connected the businesses along the beach.

On certain nights, there would be a disco, techno music pounding out across the water from whatever venue was hosting that evening’s party. On our final night on Sairee, we went to a party where divers would lounge in the sand, drinking beer or vodka and Red Bulls, dancing or just talking among the tiki torches and watching the lights of fishing boats bobbing in the near distance.

On one nondiving day, we rented motorbikes – about $6 for 24 hours – and explored the island, riding, and then hiking, up to Two View, a saddle in the middle of two peaks on the island. From there, one can see out over the island, to the east and west.

The restaurant up there, Jimmy’s, was not what we had expected in such a prime location. With no electricity, the growing post-sunset darkness enveloped the spot, making the lights below shine even more brightly. With only the sound of a distant radio, by the light of a kerosene lamp, we enjoyed the cool breeze and vast silence of a place that progress and tourism had only lightly touched.

Tourism has touched Ko Tao more than lightly, yet it is nothing like nearby international resort destinations such as Ko Samui or Ko Phuket on the other side of the Thai peninsula. Because the focus remains so squarely on diving, Ko Tao doesn’t attract visitors who merely want to lie on the beach by day and party in the clubs by night. And while it is no longer a typical Thai island, as a tourist destination, it strikes the perfect balance between development and the natural state that is harder and harder to find.

* * *

Travel wise: Diving in Thailand
If you decide you want to learn scuba diving in Thailand, there are several places you can start before you leave for Thailand. At least at the start, avoid the “official” Web sites, which are commercially motivated and tend to exaggerate the charms and play down the annoyances (one site said November/December, the island’s monsoon months, are “slightly wetter”).

On the Web, the best places to start are those sites that are unaffiliated with any business.

* One is www.kohtao.com, which gives an overview of Ko Tao and provides links to bungalows, dive shops and restaurants.

* A more diving-focused site is www.guidetothailand.com/scuba-diving, which offers lots of solid information on diving all over Thailand, and has many links to Ko Tao.

* Another is www.siamdivers.com, a Web site run by dive master and author John Williams, which offers a lot of information about diving in Thailand and Southeast Asia.

* Lonely Planet’s Web site, www.lonelyplanet.com, is also a good place for up-to-the- moment information on diving conditions in an ever-changing environment. Click on “Thorn Tree” and then scroll down to Asia-Thailand for discussion groups with the latest on travel in Thailand.

* Lonely Planet’s book “Thailand’s Islands and Beaches” by Steven Martin and Joe Cummings was last updated in March 2002, and is one of the best-researched on the subject. Even better for divers is “Diving and Snorkeling Thailand,” by John Williams of www.siamdivers.com, published in 2000 by Lonely Planet.

* Or visit PADI’s site, www.PADI.com, for an overview of the steps to learning how to scuba dive. Where you receive your training doesn’t matter nearly as much as just getting going!

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