“Okay now please put on ze bikini,” she said.
“Yes. You have it on, no?”
“Uh, yeah, sure.” I turn around in my brown swimming trunks. “Does my bikini look alright?”
“Fine. Good. Yes.” She says, half-smiling over her shoulder.
I see now what people say about the French not caring much for learning English. Joelle would be my dive instructor for the next 5 days – taking me on 9 dives all around the West side of Koh Tao. Koh Tao is known as the best island in Thailand for diving – and now I understand why!
I arrived on Koh Tao with no real plans. I thought I might go diving or I thought might wander around and leave in a day or two – the odds were about 50/50. So when I hopped off the ferry, slightly seasick and disoriented, I walked unseeing through the cacophony of “Taxi Boat!?”, “Taxi Cab? Hey! Hey! Where you go?” and found myself on the Southern part of Mae Haad with very few other tourists around.
It’s currently one of the “off seasons” in Thailand (September-October). It was pretty noticeable in Bangkok, where I was often the only Westerner around and I would go half a day without seeing another non-Thai person. In Koh Tao it was shockingly obvious, but for a slighly different reason. The islands of Thailand are almost exclusively driven by tourism, and when there are no tourists, the cities look like ghost towns for half the day.
I stepped onto a nearby, open-air patio, remembering to leave my sandals on the steps, and walked over to a woman casually reading behind a desk. I was so exhausted from my 12-hour journey (and that’s one of the fastest ways to get there) that I agreed to the 500 baht charge for a room that should probably be around 300. Welcome to Koh Tao (and the islands of Thailand in general) – where everything is 20-100% more expensive!
I’m a little embarrassed to admit this, but I thought I was in Sairee my entire first day in Koh Tao! Even after renting a motor scooter to tour the island (for just US$5 a day!) and seeing dozens of “Mae Haad Guesthouse” signs on my way out, I still had absolutely no idea that I wasn’t in Sairee. So after a long and rather uneventful day I headed back to my room and strongly considered hopping on the next ferry out.
Thankfully, I woke up the next morning and decided I would regret admitting that I had visited one of the best and most affordable places to learn to SCUBA dive and didn’t even get wet.
Koh Tao and dive schools should be a case study of the affects of decision paralysis. There are something like 40 dive schools on this 8 square mile island. I tried doing research on the internet before-hand, I really did. But, in the end, I just ducked into the first place I saw that looked semi-respectable – Easy Divers. And it turned out to be pretty great! After the 3-day Open Water course, I was hooked and immediately jumped into the 2-day Advanced course.
Because it’s the off-season, I was just about the only person learning to dive and so both of my courses – from first learning how to use a regulator to diving down to 100ft – were taught one-on-one. In fact, on several dives, there were just 4 people on the boat – the captain, the deckhand, Joelle, and me! Combined with the fact that Easy Divers schedules their dives around the other schools, we were often the only other divers in the area and had the reefs to ourselves. That means that for 45 minutes at a time I got to explore an entirely new world without seeing another soul (well, just one other soul). I can’t stress how amazing this whole experience was – I can’t wait to go on more dives to explore things like underwater wrecks! Apparently, the other islands of Thailand, including Koh Samui and Koh Phi Phi, have their own, distinct environments to explore!
My final dive was a night dive. It is literally pitch black just 30ft underwater and it was a little unnerving when a sleepy, but normally very aggressive, triggerfish appeared in the beam of my flashlight just a few meters away. Fortunately, it was in no mood to fight and lazily drifted out of sight. The night dive ended up being my favorite dive because of the sheer number and variety of animal life that becomes more active at night… though walls and fish suddenly appearing in front of you takes some getting used to!
Koh Tao is a very, very small island. There are no Western chains besides a few dive shops and 3 or 4 7-11s. Internet is horrible. Hot water is hard to come by and I only know of one places that sells decent coffee and bread. There is almost nothing to do besides work, lay on the beach, or go diving.
Yet for some reason, I want to stick around for a while. After living here for 8 months, Alex Baackes explains life on Koh Tao better than I can. So I’m staying here for a while – at least till the end of the month when I’m going to visit Malaysia and then head to the Philippines to meet Courtney for a weekend before she heads back to the States. Yesterday I rented an apartment for a month in the middle of sleepy Mae Haad (there are literally 3 main roads, each only a few blocks long) for US$275. And that’s not even on the low-end!
So, for now, the plan is to work and dive and explore one of the islands of Thailand. Hard to complain!