In turning north after Lanta I still wanted to dive again before heading to Chang Mai and Koh Tau in the Gulf of Thailand has a rep as a very good diving area. Multiple friends had been there previously and pronounced the diving both good and cheap so after ferrying back to Krabi I snagged a combined bus/ferry trip over to the island. This was probably the most pleasant bus trip thus far with a cushy bus and a driver that drove quickly but not like an extra in Death Race. The ferry was quite busy but reasonably comfortable legroom wise though far from fast.
The three big gulf islands served by these boats are the large Ko Samui that has resorts from the mega-5star to humble hostels, Ko Phangan which is the center of ‘full moon party’ madness and Ko Tau which is one of the top dive cert centers in the world. On my trip we got to and left Samui without much issue but as we arrived at Phangan the pier was just a solid line of people waiting to get on the boat and onward to Tau or on to Chumphon on the east coast of the peninsula (all the boats seem to go back and forth between Chumphon and Surat Thani. I managed to keep an aisle seat for legroom but the boat was otherwise pretty packed.
Arriving in Ko Tau itself is a bit of a madhouse as there isn’t much of a proper pier area once you get off the boat. I’d only booked my guesthouse on the boat over so I didn’t have much hope of a pickup but after a long walk I managed to find it and sink into a chair. I wasn’t super impressed by the hotel though it was at least clean and air conditioned (registration was at another hotel up the road and there was zero mention of this on my reservation or even on a sign at the location, I was just lucky that a staff member saw me wandering around on their CCTV and took pity on me.) Still, after a glorious shower and a bottle of water I was ready to explore a little and headed out to see what I could see before sunset.
As with the other islands Koh Tau (Turtle Island) is a collection of beaches separated by lush rolling jungle hills. I was at the top of one of the southern hills and randomly chose to head down into the southern bay. Where most other places in Thailand you’re looking at a massage shop every 3rd business here it’s dive shops. Just on the ten minute walk down to the water I counted at least 12 different dive businesses. It turns out a few of these were smaller outposts of the main ones in the larger town called Sairee beach where most of them depart from but it was still a ludicrous number. In the end I sat down at a gorgeous beachfront restaurant/guesthouse and ordered a matsuman curry/beer and enjoyed the red rays of the sunset flickering over the bay. The curry was probably my fave matsuman of the trip so far, super tamarind-y with tons of flavour.
I’d emailed a company with a good rep about catching their weekly trip out to a sea mount with a chance of whale sharks but as it was kind of late I ended up going to bed not tons later without getting a response (not that I really expected one given the hours.) The next morning when I woke and checked my email I was told to come down and sign up at their headquarters because there were still a few spots left. This unfortunately gave me yet another sign that I should have sprung for a hotel in Sairee Beach but I loaded up and hiked up and over the hill again, past the ferry town and into the long stretch of beach town that was Sairee.
Turns out one in three shops in my closer beach was child’s play… Sairee is more or less 90% dive shop or dive shop/resort catering to dive shop’s client, at least on the beach side. Up on the main road there’s a fairly impressive array of restaurants catering to a variety of crowds. Most common were the backpacker haunts more focused on beer and cheap pizza than anything but there was a surprisingly great japanese joint and a chinese duck noodle house that was apparently great but seemed to be closed any time I was in the neighbourhood and hungry. On this visit I registered for the (expensive) long trip out to Sail Rock and then went for a swim on one of the small sections of swimming protected shore (lots of the beach being used for the long tail’s the dive companies use to transfer out to their bigger boats.) Somewhat to my disgust I would have to be there for the trip at about 5:45 and they didn’t offer me an at hotel pickup so when I finally did go back I was timing the walk to see when I would have to leave if I couldn’t order a taxi for that time though the thought of walking that more or less zero sidewalk road in the dark was somewhat terrifying. In the end the ladies at my front desk told me they could get me a taxi for 5:15 to be safe and that it would be the equivalent of $8, that seemed steep but I wasn’t really in a position to argue and was mostly thankful to be getting there easily. That settled I decided to grab a shower before dinner and emerged to hear thunder rolling… looking outside there was one hell of a tropical downburst underway and I was thankful it hadn’t hit 30 minutes earlier with me climbing the pass and forced to dodge amateur motorcyclists. Unfortunately it meant I was very hungry without much recourse as I didn’t really want to break out my raincoat given I didn’t think it would last too long. In the end it didn’t, but it was a hungry Tristan who set out 2 hours later.
One side benefit of walking that road repeatedly is that I noticed that the pizza joint a literally 1m walk from my front door always seemed to be busy with both locals and tourist types of various ilks. Checking it out a bit later I noticed 3 pies for sale by the slice all of which looked delicious (decent crust, actual pizza topping looking toppings) and visible in behind were a couple legit looking pizza ovens and an italian dude (presumably the Lorenzo of “Pizza di Lorenzo) getting some dough ready. I put aside ‘never pizza in asia’ and tried a giant slice of the spicy salami pizza. Wonder of wonders… crispy crust, spicy salami, rich flavourful sauce and just the right amount of decent mozzarella. A pretty perfect dinner for the night before diving.
Next morning came pretty damned early and wasn’t helped by the taxi driver showing up 15 minutes early as I was trying to get my contacts into very tired eyes. He seemed to think I was checking out as he kept asking for my key. Not sure how he though I was leaving the island in a swimsuit and a small wetbag with my dive mask, sunscreen and a water bottle but no matter. He still got me there by 10 after 5 so it was another half hour of sitting by the water having the security guard shine his flashlight in my eyes every few minutes until the staff started rolling in. Once things started rolling we were geared up and ready to go pretty quick, though again they were surprised that I wasn’t going to use a wetsuit in 30C water.
Diving out of the beach was a different experience. Because their dive boat can’t get into shore safely (there are no piers on that section of the beach and due to a limited number in the port town I’m guessing docking fees are expensive) they use a long tail to run things out. That means to board we’re hiking out bags out into the water and hopping over the sides of the thing awkwardly. On this particular morning that included 4 people working on their dive master course, two people working on their advanced open water course, a bunch of fun divers, 6 or 7 staff or interns and the remaining boat crew. Add to that 60 odd aluminum tanks, gear for all of us and some other provisions and the freeboard for the boat was not… excessive. We somehow got everyone on without tipping though and then off again out at the aging dive boat.
My body may not have appreciated the early start but the diver in me did. The aim in the schedule was to be first out at the rock (any dive site around Koh Tao is a busy site) and get our first dive in before anyone else showed up. Unfortunately what had been a slow drizzle as we got on the boat turned into something a bit more as we rounded the point and went face on into the wind. This was not a fast boat to begin with and it was facing an intense headwind, I honestly wondered if we’d have to turn back… doubly so when the divemaster came up and said the captain had asked people to try to distribute themselves more evenly on the top deck. We’d all been noticing a fairly noticeable roll to port and people scurried to comply. Even once we were a bit more stable it was a pretty sizable swell and we had a long trip straight through it out to the rock making a few people a bit green around the gills. For those of us who don’t get sea sick there was a delicious breakfast including the ubiquitous giant vat of hardboiled eggs that seems to show up at every event provided meal.
The rock really is just a rock, a small sea mount out in the middle between Ko Tao and Ko Phangan on this particular morning it was more or less out of site of all land. Definitely a new experience for me, even when certifying out of site of land on the Great Barrier reef there’s just so much reef around that it feels more landlike. Here looking out into the blue really felt like looking out into a true void. My mask decided to be stupid (I think the guy washing it at the last shop buggered the straps) but eventually I got it fixed and we went down. I was diving with a guy named Cole from Monterrey in California and our guide was a woman named Kyri originally from Hull (the UK one) who’d been in Ko Tao off and on for a couple years. Cole was here with a couple of friends (I never did find out why they weren’t diving together, perhaps Cole was Adventure Diver as well and that’s why we were paired since we could go deeper, not that we ever went particularly low.) Younger than me by a few years, all three of them were boat captains having met at maritime college. It was strange given my mental image of any kind of boat captain definitely trends towards the Captain Haddock/McAllister age but kind of interesting talking to them and seething with jealously about how they rent a catamaran every Christmas in the virgin islands because they can legally captain anything with their certificates.
The first dive was fantastic despite some pretty low visibility. The Sail Rock dive area is a great pelagic site and was just swarming with trevally and barracuda with smaller numbers of angelfish and other things hovering around closer to the rock. Of course the grand hope was for a whale shark but unfortunately with vis so low it was unlikely we’d notice even if one was relatively close. It was still a very cool, very different dive but as we began to make our way up to the safety stop we began to hear (and occasionally see) other boats arriving. Still the timing worked out well as we began our surface interval (basically a safety time above water to let your body relax and be ready for more diving) just as they were all swimming in to do their first dive. That was the other positive of getting there first as due to it being an open water mount the mooring buoy was mounted to the rock not the (VERY DEEP) sea floor so later arrivals either had to hover around or moor to our boat which gave us the best placement/least distance to travel in the heavy swells.
I’ve mentioned it to anyone I’ve encouraged to try diving but jesus… you get what you pay for. Never go with the cheapest group. As a few of us rehydrated with some pineapple and gatorad-ish drink we watched one of the scariest things. A group in a small speedboat had arrived and just the boat was scary… our journey in the big boat had not been pleasant, this boat was of the size you’d see on a whiteshell lake and would have been bouncing around like crazy.
The true horror began when they dumped off two larger groups and two instructors/divemasters. I’m not sure whether the people in one of the groups were open water certification students or discover scuba people but neither should have been there. Even slightly sheltered by the rock the swells were large and occasionally coming from random directions and it was the same subsurface. In the end one of the staff people took extra people who were competently swimming and this one instructor was left with three people: one guy who was slowly getting the hang of it, and a totally helpless japanese couple. Before long the guide had the woman in more or less a rescue headlock and was swimming her towards the rock, her mask was off and she had her eyes tightly shut and looked terrified. While he was doing this he was screaming at the husband to swim towards him (because screaming always works for panicked people.) Said husband then started swimmming the wrong way, eventually got turned around but didn’t seem to have his bcd fully inflated and was making no headway as he was paralel with my spot on the bench for at least 10 minutes. He also had his reg in most of the time and even on the surface probably chewed through at least half his air. None of that should have mattered though because any dive leader worth his salt should have had those two back on the boat eons before that happened or, let’s be honest, should never have had them out there period unless they really really lied about their experience level. Yet he actually took them down. Yikes. Don’t get me wrong, I love diving, I think it’s very safe for what you get out of it… but it’s safest when you are calm, cool and relaxed.
Dive two was simultaneously very cool and super frustrating. We were paired with a third russian guy for this one who’d spent dive one getting his deep water AOW task done. Now Cole was a super experienced diver, definitely had better air management than me but I was at least somewhere in his ballpark. Cole was also swimming around with a goPro on an underwater selfie stick and was very good at using it. New guy also had a goPro and was the underwater equivalent of those people at a tourist site who blunder around, into and in front of everyone only looking at the camera screen. He also nearly got out guide to back out of our promised trip down the chimney (a 15 odd meter vertical cave that was fantastic to float down watching all the creatures peeking out at you.) I managed to get through that but for the entire rest of the dive he’d suddenly come swimming (using his hands constantly which is a diving no-no) up from below me and do his best to smack me in the face with his tank. Multiple times he snared my air and did his best to pull it out… or he’d turn from some random direction right in front of me without looking and I’d smack into him. He was definitely a nervous diver and obviously wanted to be touching distance from someone at all times but also spent all his time staring at his camera screen. Meanwhile Cole, Kyri and I had been doing a good loose supporting formation on the first dive. Staying close together when trying to see the same thing but loosening out far enough that were weren’t in each other’s way while still having sightlines and being a few hard kicks from grabbing someone’s fin if need be. The other factor which you’ve probably spotted if you’re a diver is that with russian guy bouncing all over the place and being awkward he was churning through air.
Now Kyri was already running a pretty conservative dive profile. She wanted us to turn around and start making our way back a bit earlier than normal, I wasn’t against that initially, with the swells the way they were having a bit of spare gas if need be wouldn’t hurt, but for that second dive I had double the usual tank pressure left and I’m sure Cole had gotten nowhere near halfway through. This didn’t get any better for the third dive even at a shallower depth and overall I got nearly an hour less time underwater over those three dives than I had in Lanta. I was happy we’d still managed to finish the dive by swimming into an absolutely enormous school of trevally (I am going to try and find an image online of this as we didn’t have a photographer with us this dive and it was amazing.) After dive two I shared a look with Cole and secretly hoped that our guide had noticed the russian’s struggles and would reassign him to another group but sadly I think the only appropriate pairing with space had explicitly paid for a private dive so we were stuck. Still, another dive boat curry lunch (could get used to that) helped cheer me up a bit as we cast off from Sail Rock and headed to another dive site for our third and final dive.
Final dive was at a shallower dive just off the coast of Koh Tao. Getting there was… hairy. We got a command from the captain to overload the starboard side as the roll to the port was starting to hang an awful long time when the swells came from two directions at once. Our boat captain passengers started talking about how high the boat’s center of gravity was and complied. Thankfully the worst of it was past by the time we got about halfway back and with the sun coming out people spread out a bit to enjoy it. The dive site itself was called shark rock due to it’s shape, not due to a particularly high shark siting level. Happily we did see one juvenile black tip a few times once we were down though. Overall the site was quite pretty with a variety of coral, nudibranches and a very pretty bluespotted ribbontail ray. While in sight of us one of the other divers managed to anger a territorial triggerfish who slammed into his mask repeatedly then went after someone else right in the back of the head. There were also tons of anenomes with accompanying fish but no proper nemo clownfish sadly.
Sadly our big blundering russian bear kept up his tricks and we were the first ones back on the boat again though I’d done my best to avoid him by immediately stopping and swimming to the other side of Kyri anytime he came close to me. At one point he managed to loop his air hose around my hand as I swam in a straight line and I finally gave him a “back the fuck off” gesture that kept him away from me for a solid 5 minutes. :p Don’t get me wrong, both dives were still great I would have just prefered this (likely my last dive of the trip) to be more carefree. Once we were back on the boat we very happily discovered that this group provides a post-dive beer for the trip back to the dock and we all had a cheers together to an excellent day. (Though I discovered later that the reason the staff were up enjoying the beer is that the boat doesn’t have freshwater tanks at all, I guess because it doesn’t dock. This sucked for not being able to rinse off after each dive and get the salt off, but it also meant that all the equipment got taken ashore for washing, which meant we the customers washed most of it with them not doing any of the logbook stuff until that was done. Let me be clear that I’m not against this in the abstract heh but the level of service between Lanta and here was just VERY different for a very similar price. Still, from watching them on the boat then later watching an instructor working in the pool while I did my log book entries I would unequivocally recommend them as a dive school. Eavesdropping on the divemaster students made it clear that getting a job with this particular company would be seen as a prize to all of them. Gear wash, log book and post game drink complete I started the long walk back to the hotel for a shower still kinda miffed at the lack of a shuttle but thinking “well maybe they don’t have a truck for that.” Then what do I see about halfway back? A taxi equipped truck with their logo heading back empty from the direction of my hotel… grumble grumble grumble.
After a hell of a long desalting shower I debated what to do for dinner. Energy levels were… not high and the next morning was going to be reasonably early to grab the Catamaran out and start the speed trip back to Bangkok to reposition up north. Turns out staying awake wasn’t a problem though as just as I got out of the shower a loud booming racket started somewhere nearby. Turns out saturday night in Koh Tao (or at least that particular saturday night) was some sort of combination night food market/talent competition. While this was great for finding some good quick grub, for some reason they’d set the volume to GWAR and as my hotel room was about 100m max away when I gave in to my fatigue and tried to sleep even noise cancelling headphones weren’t cutting it. It was 2 am before they stopped for the night followed by half an hour of people revving their moped/motorcycle engines to max as they peeled out. I was a bit of a grumpy bear getting ready to check out the next morning.
So there are three main boats that serve the islands. One high speed catamaran, one slower boat with a decent rep, one boat with a rep for having their heads up their butts. I’d taken the latter on the way over and had no problems but they were definitely not kings o’ customer service. For the way off the island I’d chosen the catamaran really only due to the fact that the start time was early but not too early, the fact that it was faster across the water portion was really only a side benefit.
The day started with a quick wake up and pack, checking out and finding out there was a shuttle run to the pier was a bonus, finding out they soaked you 300BAHT not so much (my trip to the dive school with special charter at 5am was only 200 and that was easily twice as far.) Kinda skeevy. Checking in at the catamaran desk made you wonder why they had a rep for better CS with one woman checking in a lineup of hundreds of people. Getting on the damned boat was even worse.
First off, one wasn’t really filled with confidence that they’d made sure they had seats for everyone. Secondly, despite the fact that the catamaran’s passengers are probably 90% western the seating was clearly configured to be tight for locals. To make matters worse all the seats are permanently reclined. I could only fit in a seat by wedging my knees into the cracks and when the staff member tried to make me move to the middle of a row of six seats I had to say not a chance. Even managing to get one leg into the aisle I was in agony most of the trip. Some poor guy around my dad’s height had to beg someone to move out of a front row seat or he was just going to give up and sit on the floor. The best thing you could say about it was that it was at least fast compared to the other boat.
Unfortunately for me I’d changed my plans out of early morning grumpy/lazyness and decided to just pay the extra money and hop on the ferry company’s bus as well all the way to Bangkok, where I’d originally planned to hop a train once off the boat as they left relatively often. Mistake! The company (no doubt to encourage you to spend money at their businesses at the dock) makes everyone check in again then adds a 30m wait before they even start loading busses after the boat completely unloads. Legroom was again an issue with the counter person assigning the front row bar seat to me and another person of 6’ish height for no good reason. Once the bus finally left we were treated to some terrrrible three point turning and lanekeeping.
Two hours into the bus journey we pulled over at what was a super entertaining rest stop. It had a pseudo starbucks coffee shop, two sit down restaurants, a giant food court with at least 15 stalls and an enormous market selling everything from dried fruits to ice cream. We stayed there for about half an hour but I only bought some peanuts and a drink as I wasn’t really hungry. If I’d only known. Chumpon to Bangkok is a pretty long way, roughly 550km including the transfer distances. After that stop at about the two hour mark, we did not stop again over the following seven hours. Our driver was terrible, dangerous, overly fast at times and unnecessarily slow at others. Woe betide you if you stayed in the speed lane a moment longer than was necessary because by god he was going to take his 100 passenger bus and tailgate you… even if you were a double length fuel truck. Once we were closer to Bangkok he seemed to think he was some sort of driving hero by diving into the service road the moment the highway speed slowed down at all… which was super for the first length, then he’d inevitably get caught in on/off ramp tailbacks while the momentary slowdown on the highway cleared and we’d add 10 minutes of unnecessary time to our journey… then repeat the whole process fifteen minutes later. Then at one point we had to pull aside for what I’m guessing was a royal motorcade coming back from Hua Hin. The entire last hour and a half into the city was him jerking the bus around so much that we could smell baking clutch and the top half of the two level bus just swayed. I couldn’t help but think dreamily of even a third class train seat… stable… constant motion… multiple only sorta stinky bathrooms… a restaurant car.
In the end about the only positive was that the offload point was a corner I knew well about a 5 minute walk from my trusty cheap guest house. I’d originally planned to just grab something near the train station for ease of luggage storage but I couldn’t resist a cheap known quantity. Unfortunately that meant literally pushing our way through touts who were standing three deep right at the bus door. Assholes. A much needed shower and a plate of noodles to recharge later I went for a walk in the cooling bangkok night to work out the kinks in my back before turning in, really ready to get up north to the supposedly more laid back Chiang Mai.