THURSDAY, AUGUST 31, 2006. KOH TAO, THAILAND. Last night, I caught an overnight bus and fast boat to Koh Tao island off Thailand's southeast coast (400 THB; $11). I found a bungalow, Sairee Cottages, right on the main beach for 500 THB ($13). It's not the Four Seasons--very basic accommodation--but for thirteen bucks a night, it's exceptional value.
The weather is very pleasant and similar to a typical day in Hawaii--partly cloudy with a strong onshore breeze. Based on the people on the bus/boat, most everyone visiting here are young backpacker types, with a disproportionate number of Germans. Many are here to get their scuba certification. I plan to explore the island and do a few dives over the next couple of days.
SATURDAY, SEPTEMBER 2, 2006. KOH TAO, THAILAND. I awoke at 5:30 a.m. just before sunrise in order to do a two-tank dive at Champhon Pinnacles and White Rock, dive sites off of Koh Tao . In Thailand, they call recreational dives "fun dives", probably because the Thai philosophy of life is "sanuk" (fun) and every task is measured by the sanuk meter. The standard price for a single dive offered by all dive shops is 1000 THB ($27). It was difficult to choose a dive company as there are several dozen on the island. I selected New Way Diving in part because, after asking, they gave me a 20% discount on my first two dives (1600 THB; $43). New Way Diving also advertise (truthfully I would later find out) that they are the first ones to a dive site, which is why I got up so early.
My dive master was Simon from Ireland. There were two other Westerners in my dive group, but I don't remember their names so I'll call them Jeff and Maricio. The highlight of Champhon Pinnacles, coral pinnacles whose top is 18 meters below the surface, was seeing over half a dozen reef sharks at the sandy bottom, swimming through thousands of small fish, and coming across a spotted ray (Max. depth 27.6 meters; 91 feet; Dive time: 34 min.).
In contrast, the highlight of White Rock (21.1 meters; 66 feet; Dive time: 46 min.) was an attack by a titan trigger fish on the entire dive team. Simon pointed out the trigger fish, but unfortunately got a little too close. The trigger fish chased Simon for quite a distance. We lost sight of Simon due in part to the poor visibility. We learned later that Simon kept his feet and fins between him and the trigger fish, and was able to get away after four minutes, but not before running out of air and having to surface. After giving up on Simon, the trigger fish returned home and proceeded to chase the remaining members of the dive team (We should have left the area, but we were waiting for Simon to return). It bit Jeff twice on the head and then came after me (Although Jeff's head bled, the wounds were superficial and wouldn't require stitches). This was one territorial mean-ass fish. On our pre-dive briefing, Simon had warned us about the trigger fish. This one was about half a meter in length, although underwater it was magnified a bit. As it came straight toward me, I could see its razor front teeth glaring at me. Following Simon's earlier advice topside, I violently kicked my fins and tried to keep my feet between the fish and me. I eventually got away. In doing so, however, I got disoriented and couldn't find my buddy diver or Simon. After waiting one minute to find someone from my dive team, I surfaced per Simon's earlier topside instructions. At the surface, I found Simon, somewhat exhausted, but unhurt. Simon was out of air, but he told me the rest of the divers were directly beneath us and that I could continue diving. As I still had half a tank of air left, I proceeded back down for the remainder of my air supply. It was hard to enjoy the rest of the dive as we were all full of adrenaline after the trigger fish attack. We nevertheless managed to make it through the remainder of the dive without further incident and can now tell our friends about our brush with death. Well, not quite. But it was damn scarier than the sharks. (Athough we had two videographers diving at the same time, neither of them caught this on video!).
In the evening, two newly qualified dive masters, Caroline (Holland) and Agnus (Hong Kong) (Caroline dived with an Open Water dive class while Agnus dived with my group), had their final exam--the Snorkel Test--at the Dry Bar on Sai Ree Beach. Agnus passed out from the test, but she apparently was okay after performing a "chunder".
MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 4, 2006. KOH TAO, THAILAND. Koh Tao is generally acknowledged to be the place in Southeast Asia to learn how to and get certified in scuba diving. There are over 40 dive operators on this 21 square kilometer island. Most of the dive operators are members of the Koh Tao Dive Operators Club and generally adhere to minimum recommended diving prices. Some sample costs: Basic Open Water (five day course)--9,800 THB ($275); Advanced Open Water--8,500 THB ($226) (my level of certification); Divemaster--25,000 THB ($665). Recreational (Fun) dives cost between 700-1000 THB/$19-27 per dive, depending on the number of dives, discounts, and negotiation. Overall, these are very reasonable prices. And, based on my dive experience, the diving is both excellent and exciting. Consequently, many people visiting Koh Tao are here primarily to learn how to scuba dive. The rest can enjoy a pretty mellow island with some beautiful beaches and coves for lazying about, swimming, and snorkeling.
Yesterday, I rented a motor scooter (200 THB; $5) and explored the northwest and northeast parts of the island. Most of the roads outside of the towns are sandy dirt tracks and better suited for a 4-wheel drive vehicles or dirt bikes. It was difficult to ride the motor scooter due to the loose sand and gullies (caused by rain) that characterize the roads. The end of the roads, however, brought you to spectacular bays with crystal clear waters with few, if any people (Some of the bays and beaches can only be reached by boat.) I found the island exploring quite similar to the islands of the Eastern Caribbean.
Tomorrow, I catch a morning boat to Koh Pha Ngan, about 45 kilometers south of Koh Tao, and between Koh Tao and Koh Samui. The Full Moon Party is on Thursday, so I'll get there a few days early to secure accommodation and explore the island.