Koh Tao – Scuba Diving in Paradise

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I finally made it to my island paradise!

After one last night in Bangkok, I said farewell to my comrades and flew alone to Koh Samui, I then hopped onto a two hour catamaran which took me to idyllic Koh Tao (Turtle Island)

I was met with postcard pretty scenery: calm turquoise waters, powdery soft sand lined with plush Palm trees, brightly adorned water taxis and giant boulders that had been gently smoothed over time. Koh Tao is tourist driven but there are no high rise hotels to ruin the skyline. Small beach huts nestle quietly inbetween the numerous dive schools. There is one long street that caters to travellers’ whims with; pancake stalls, tattoo parlours, coffee shops, juice bars, pharmacies, motorbike rentals and shops selling nothing but bikinis and flip flops. The main beach is Sairee beach but there are other spots on the island that can be reached using quad bikes or motorbikes.

My fellow island dwellers consisted mainly of the young international flashpacker set, all wearing mirrored Ray Bans, Havaianas and ironic sleeveless t-shirts that showed off their trendy tattoos and their toned bodies. The place is simply awash with beautiful 20 year olds.

Top tip: Shoes and flip flops aren’t allowed in any inside space as it’s considered to be bad manners. You leave them out, they go missing, you end up buying more. Personally I took to skipping around in my bare feet!

Koh Tao is dedicated to the pursuit of scuba diving and that’s exactly what I went there to do. I checked in at Ban’s diving resort, a famously good dive school. Ban’s had top notch facilities, decent classrooms, helpful staff, a cool bar, two restaurants and three swimming pools for practise. At night there was fire juggling and live music on their own stretch of beach. I had definitely picked the right place for me.

I enrolled in a PADI open water diving course. My room was free whilst I was  a student but it wasn’t great, just a single bed with a crappy fan and a cold water shower.. brrr! Annoyingly, I arrived feeling ill with a nasty cough, cold, sore throat and sinus pains. My immune system had shut down as a result of spending a month travelling and partying across Indochina! I paid the price tenfold. I could barely swallow food, so I survived on a diet of strepsils and chocolate.

Despite my illness, I was kept busy attending all my diving theory classes for the first three days plus completing lots of homework. I actually found the learning really difficult because it’s very scientific and mathematical, and my brain is not.. but I somehow passed my theory exam.

Now the practical side of things; how do I make this a truly honest account?! I turned out to be the worst scuba diver.. ever!
My fellow students and I firstly practised in a pool which made me feel panic, and then we boarded a boat which took us out to The Japanese Gardens reef.

I chose to learn to scuba dive despite knowing that I was really pushing my limits, I knew that my dreaded claustrophobia would rear its ugly head. And I hate to admit this but.. I am also fearful of open sea. Simply trying to breathe on an air regulator, underwater, with a mask on was tough for me, let alone attempting to demonstrate the various skills I needed to pass. I actually cried when they made me jump 2m off the boat in full gear. How embarrassing.

I’d love to give you (my lovely readers) a more positive account to inspire you to try diving but I just can’t bullshit you. What followed was a whole afternoon of me experiencing agony, desperately trying to equalise my pressure blocked ears, whilst the instructor pulled me down deeper and deeper. It felt like I was being punched in the ears repeatedly.

I eventually opened my stinging eyes to witness the magical underground playground of coral beds, sea cucumbers, bright angel fish, territorial trigger fish, elusive stingrays and orange clownfish (Nemos) darting out of their blue anemones. I badly wanted to be like Ariel in The Little Mermaid, but sadly I was more of a flounder, too distracted by my pain.

I was glad to get back on to dry land but I still needed to complete two more dives to get my PADI certification, however, I was close to rupturing my right ear drum if I continued. Sheer bloodymindedness and a persevering nature had got me so far, but I just couldn’t risk rupturing my ear drum and then flying long haul back to the U.K. I felt gutted that I’d finally met my nemesis!

I am certainly no athlete but I’m brave and adventurous; I have snorkelled in Australian shark infested waters, I have twice bungee jumped into the Mediterranean sea, I’ve abseiled backwards down sheer cliffs and dark caves, I’ve climbed many mountains, I’ve driven a rally car and a Porsche 911 at break neck speed around a race track, I happily went up in a helicopter over Sydney harbour, I’ve climbed up a slippery waterfall, I’ve kayaked down rapids, I’ve stood balanced on Dolphins and an Elephant. I’ve held a heavy squirming Python, I’ve tickled a Tarantula, I’ve fed hungry Piranhas, I’ve climbed and swung off Amazonian trees like Tarzan and I’ve crawled through tiny Vietnamese tunnels… But I am fucking shit at scuba diving!

Bad Times

I bought some strong decongestants and some water, then slept off the pain in my hovel of a room. When I eventually emerged from my medication coma, I realised that I had fitfully slept for two full days and nights without leaving my room, I ate no food, got no fresh air and experienced no human contact.

I’d been pally with a couple of people in my class but they didn’t know what room I was in. The instructor advised me to delay my dives until I felt better but no one checked on me when I didn’t turn up. I was weak and shaky. I badly needed looking after and I felt very alone. Looking at the positive side, it made me more resilient, because I had nobody to rely on but myself, and I did.

Suffice to say, the scuba diving took a back seat whilst I got back on my feet. Travelling doesn’t always have to be a gruelling challenge, you can just relax and not feel guilty. So I upgraded to my own air conditioned room and started eating proper food.

Valentine’s Date

I made friends with three solo travellers who had formed their own ‘Wolfpack’. Russ a Royal Marine, Jon a smart mouthed San Fransican and James a 22 year old Aussie, who couldn’t make it through the day without a bucket of vodka red bull. I spent quite possibly the best Valentine’s Day ever with them… no not that!…. We chartered a boat and Island hopped, snorkelling the coral reefs, we swam up to Palm fringed secluded beaches, drank creamy coconut shakes, cuddled a sleepy puppy and fed tropical fish from a restaurant on stilts. We laid out on the famously photographed Nang Yuan sand bar beach; unspoilt, scenic, quiet. I had dreamt of going to that exact spot for many years. It was as though I had stepped into my Pinterest travel board.

Hedonism

After a week of not drinking (trust me that’s a long time when travelling) I fuelled up on vodka red bull and partied like it was 1999, memorably limboing under flaming fire and it felt great!
The Morning After. Oh why oh why did I drink 3 buckets of vodka redbull?! How could that ever be a good idea? After doing an all nighter, that day was bleary. I ate breakfast on powdery Sairee beach, whilst absent mindedly watching the calm bright turquoise water lap lazily against the shore. I walked towards no known destination until I found a dog sleeping on the sand. He’d made himself a little pillow by scooping sand into a mound. Genius. So I lay down and did the same. No beach towel, just huddled up like a little dog and snoozed.

On my beautiful island Time existed in a strange dualism, it stretched out endlessly, yet at the same time, it passed by too rapidly. I often wondered if I was dreaming and would wake up to a cold grey day.

So I never finished my diving course. I dedicated my last week to rest and relaxation. I know this sounds like a joke to hard working employees, but I had packed so much into the previous few months that my head was spinning and my body needed to recharge. I would highly recommend visiting the Thai islands to anybody who needs a break, or who plots an escape from the dreary rat race. Blow away those cobwebs blog readers!

Mad Monday
I met the Wolfpack (aka Team Jackhammer) for dinner and found we had a new addition, lovely Leanne from Canada. She has Vietnamese heritage, so subsequently every waitress/barman spoke to her in Thai which was very amusing as she only speaks English. We got on the party train, did fiery whisky shots, danced barefoot on the sand and watched drunk people skipping over fire blazed ropes. Awesome night.

So Long Tuesday
The hardship of travelling is saying goodbye to people. It’s best to just say “so long”. Leanne and Russ left early for a romantic tryst on the next island; Koh Phan Ngan. San Fran Jon also left that evening.. I can still hear his words “I want it all man, why shouldn’t I have it all”.
I still saw James around but it wasn’t the same. He had a near drowning 30m under when his air regulator was blocked and his dive buddy left him. The dive instructor saved his life. It completely shook him up, but he bravely went back out there and dived again.
Raquel aka La Princesa

I was sat there wishing for someone interesting to pop into my life.. and like a bolt out of the blue I received a message from sexy señorita Raquel who I randomly met abseiling in Vietnam. We met only once, I must have mentioned Koh Tao because she remembered and she had journeyed to my island paradise! It turned out that La Princesa was staying in a hostel right next door to me!

We spent the evening catching up whilst watching the sun set. Raquel is from Spain but she has no home, no roots, few possessions and calls herself a gypsy. She is a free lance journalist for whom travel simply is her life. She’s here for a fun time not a long time and it was very inspiring to be around her.

Wonderful Wednesday
I took La Princesa to my favourite place, the magical sand bar beach at Nang Yuan. We hiked up to the viewpoint in our bare feet, scrambling over rocks in the blazing sun. It was worth it for the spectacular view. The 3 peaks of the island are joined by the sand bar beach which was covered by tide, showing off a shimmering turquoise lagoon. We just sat in silence, no need to talk, drinking in the beauty beneath.
Sadly our paradise was somewhat tainted by swarms of Chinese tourists and general fucktards (excuse my bad language) who snorkel the ankle deep water wearing bright orange life jackets giving them the appearance of corpses floating face down after a shipwreck. They cannot swim, they cover up every inch of flesh incase they tan and they shout when they speak. The worst fucktardery I saw was a man take an Angel fish out of a plastic bag, hold it on his palm for photos, drop it on the sand, then poke it, then he lobbed it into the sea like a tennis ball! No doubt it died from shock.
That night I watched Raquel perform at her outdoor flying trapeze lesson, she was incredible. It takes balls to fly high through the air and trust someone to catch you. We celebrated with drinks and dancing with some other Spanish and Argentinian people. I struggled a bit with the language barrier but it’s an incentive to learn Spanish!

Raquel was not exactly enamoured with Koh Tao, she said it was full of drunk teenagers and wanted to move on to Koh Lipe to spend time with hippies. On her last night she got inked by a local tattoo artist. I watched as he used sharpened bamboo to permeate her wrist with intricate Thai verses. It was a cool thing to witness.

As I said yet another farewell, I actually felt glad to be starting the long journey home the next day. During my trip to Indochina, I had seen and done everything that I’d always wanted to see and do. I had satisfied the thirsty wanderlust that had been rattling inside of me for years. I no longer felt twinges of regret. I was satisfied for now.

… Since I’ve been home, my need to wander with abandon has inevitably returned. At some point in the future, I want to go back to my beloved Peru and see more of South America (Argentina, Bolivia, Chile and Brazil) I want to visit beautiful Nepal despite the devastating earthquakes, I want to see mystifying China, I want to see scenic New Zealand and I want to see more of Europe.

I believe in life’s synchronicities. I believe that no matter where you are in the world, certain people will cross your path at certain times for a reason. You feel a connection and you learn from each other. This benefits your spiritual growth as a human being. Some stay for a day and others for a lifetime, but nothing is forever. Our planet won’t be around forever and there are so many wonderous things to see, so pack a bag and explore.. You won’t regret it!

Exploring Northern Thailand

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So I spontaneously decided to go to South East Asia, although it was a last minute decision, the idea had been burning in my mind for a number of years. There were various reasons why I hadn’t gone previously and those reasons had recently disappeared, giving me the freedom to finally embark on my longed for trip.

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The Indochina loop is a well-travelled backpacking route and I knew plenty of people that had already done it and absolutely loved it. I had no travel buddy available to accompany me so I booked onto an organised trip. There are some notable pros and cons of doing this.

 

The pros were that I felt safe with a group; the mountain of itinerary admin was already done for me, and I was travelling with an English speaking guide who made sure that we visited only really remarkable places. The downside was having no flexibility to stay longer in any particular place, being confined to a group of people for one month and not being able to branch off and be independent. If I’m truly honest I was disappointed with the group that I found myself in, mainly retirees who liked regimented structure and needed their hand held every step of the way.

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I soon learned that I like to wander with abandon! There were only two girls who were my age that I could relate to and I lucked out with my trip long roomie. I’ll try to be polite.. she was a 68 year old hypochondriac battle-axe who we shall refer to as ‘I.J’. She was grumpy, short tempered, talked at me rather than to me and her loud snoring kept me permanently sleep deprived. Consequently, I had to practise Zen like tolerance which inevitably waned as the trip progressed.

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Travelling is an amazing, wonderful thing to do and if you get the opportunity to see the world then take it… but what other blogs don’t tell you is that loneliness can hit you at any time, especially if travelling solo. It makes you question your choices but ultimately makes you a stronger, more resilient, more confident person.

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Bangkok

Bangkok was just as crazy as I’d anticipated, crossing the road was a like running the gauntlet and hoping not to get mowed down by a tuk tuk! I was based near China Town and went exploring on my own, but I got lost and ended up roaming the urine soaked back streets like a homeless mongrel. I met the group and took a klong boat along the river to Wat Pho temple. Along the river way I saw so many ramshackle huts where families lived in very basic conditions, some watched as our boat motored by, others slowly hung their washing out to dry and ignored our curious foreign eyes. Others approached the boat sold their wares from their own boats.

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The temple visit was my first introduction to Buddhism, a fascinating religion and way of living which instantly grabbed my interest. I then took the opportunity to visit the spectacular Grand Palace with my fellow Brit Farzana. Tip: The dress code is strict so be prepared. We struggled our way through the pulsating crowds in the searing midday sun. The grounds and the many temples were striking and beautiful, but annoyingly tainted by tourists boisterously pointing their large DSLR cameras.

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The other well known place that I visited was the infamous Khao San Road, a stretch of Bangkok dominated by international backpackers. The strip consists of neon bars and open air restaurants where the young backpacker set mix with tourists, all sipping on cold drinks and enjoying fragrant Thai food. It’s worth a visit just to mingle, to people watch and to sense the atmosphere. I would say that a few days in Bangkok is enough, it’s the gateway to Thailand and there is so much more to see of this wonderful country.

Chiang Mai

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The next leg of the trip took place overnight on a sleeper train to Chiang Mai, a real novelty to me and I got way too excited about climbing up into the top bunk and swinging like a monkey. It was hard to fall asleep on a moving train but I got some shut eye before breakfast was served.

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Chiang Mai was refreshing compared to Bangkok; clean and scenic and less busy. I took an awesome cooking class with a local lady, first buying fresh produce from the market where I saw an array of delights; live fish, buckets of frogs, colourful exotic fruits and vibrant spices. Vannee was a good teacher and under her supervision I cooked like a total boss; green curry, pad Thai, shrimp and cashew stir fry followed by mango sticky rice mmmm!

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A major highlight of Chiang Mai was Doi Suthep temple, situated high on the hill overlooking the town. As the pink orange sun set, candles glowed and monks chanted to Buddha. It was a real privilege to watch. I received a blessing and a bracelet from a monk which felt pretty special.

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Another more hedonistic cultural pursuit (to say the least) was when we went to watch a Ladyboy show! Wow, it was seriously rather raunchy in parts but I witnessed some top quality lip syncing, hehe. At one point I was serenaded by a curvaceous performer under the spotlight… certainly a first for me haha!

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A really good way to explore any rural town is to hire a bike and have a wander. I enjoyed a relaxed four hour bike ride along the Chiang Mai countryside; you get to see how local people live, as well as drink in the scenery.

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Our group stopped outside a school to say hello and laugh with the kids, they were so happy to see us! Later, the coolest thing that I witnessed was a monk being tattooed right on his belly. The artist was using sharp bamboo dipped in black ink whilst the monk was held down by others.. Totally awesome sight!

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Chiang Rai
As I proceeded further North towards the vast Mekong River, I paid a flying visit to the town of Chiang Rai. There sits the majestic White Temple (Wat Rong Khun) a stunning dazzling white temple. It’s new and it’s unconventional but just so bedazzling to the eyes, a must see for anyone travelling in that area. Make sure you make a wish at the wishing well, it might just come true!

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Koh Tao – Wait and see… Koh Tao shall have its own separate post.