Thailand: SCUBA Diving and exploring Koh Tao

Koh Tao’s been in the news recently, and not for the best reasons – but we’re not here to talk about that. I was in Koh Tao myself last year (August 2013) and, for any of you who’ve been scared off by the recent events, I’d like to tell you about the island – both the good and the bad.

We went over to do a SCUBA diving course with Big Blue Diving, who were mostly pretty good (more information in a moment). As Jeff had broken his scaphoid bone earlier in the trip, it was only me that got to dive, while he explored the island.

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Getting to Koh Tao from Bangkok

There are a few ways to get to Koh Tao – you can fly to Koh Samui and take a ferry, take a train down to Surat Thani before catching a ferry over, or buy a bus-ferry package deal. We went through Lomprayah, where you get your “VIP” bus ticket and ferry ticket included for 1100 baht (£21) and can book online. The buses leave from near Khao San road. To be honest, the whole set-up feels a little dodgy – you arrive at the ticket shop, go in with your ticket to “sign in” and get a number and an allocated bus, and dump your bag on the pile of other backpacks with nothing but a coloured tag to make sure it gets on the same bus as you. Eventually, you’ll be walked over to the bus stop and told which bus to get on. You’ll get an allocated seat – we were on the bottom of the double-decker, with only 4 other seats. The seats recline back ALL the way and you get a blanket, so it’s possible to sleep.

Our bus left at around 9pm, and by 3 or 4am we had arrived in Chumphon. From there, we got on a ferry that took us to Koh Tao (about 90 minutes). The website had led us to believe that we wouldn’t get onto the island until around 9am, but we were there at 6. Somehow, at the ticket office, we’d managed to befriend the one other guy who was on the same dive course as I was, so we waited with him at the ferry depot for our drive school to pick us up. We tried to call the dive school to let them know that we were early, to no avail – it was gone 9am when the little bus came. Luckily we’d become used to chilled-out, “Thai time” by this point and had just wandered around and found some food/drink to keep us going. We waited on the bus until it filled up with other people.

Big Blue Diving
I’d always wanted to do my SCUBA Open Water, and Big Blue Diving seemed to have good reviews and be reasonably priced. Thailand is one of the cheapest places in the world to do your dive course – it’s currently £188 – which will, of course, take its toll on the coral and sealife. However, Koh Tao is much quieter and less touristy than Koh Samui and other neighbouring islands. The dive school also included accommodation – free, if you didn’t mind dorms and cold water, but as it was our honeymoon we paid around £20 a night for a nice room with air-con and hot water.

When we arrived, we had to wait in one of the school’s restaurants while everyone else – those who had NOT pre-booked, but just turned up, were taken through registration. It felt a little unfair that those of us who’d booked in advance had to wait, but there we go. What I can say is that they were very accommodating when we’d had to change our booking date (due to the motorbike crash) and they didn’t charge Jeff at all, although we’d paid a deposit for two – they let us use Jeff’s deposit towards the total cost of my diving, which was very good of them.

The Diving was good, although we were all talked into doing an SSI course rather than PADI, told that it was exactly the same. I’ve since found out that to dive with any PADI-accredited people (well, in the UK at least) I would need to complete an extra module to “catch up”, which is a bit annoying. My only other complaint was that the snorkels provided by the school were dotted with black mould – when I asked about this, my instructor said “Mould’s good for you… penicillin!” I guess he was a dive instructor, not a scientist, but I would bring your own mask/snorkel if you can.

Your last day of diving will be a lot of fun, and a videographer will capture your dives as well as make you do a load of goofy things like jump from the boat into the sea, which he’ll then edit together into a video. You get to watch the video with your team on a big projected screen that evening, before the unpleasant part – where they try to sell you the video for £40 (or something silly like that). The DVD also costs more the fewer people want to buy it, meaning that you need everybody’s agreement to get a reduced rate – this makes for a very unpleasant atmosphere when, one by one, people decide they don’t want it and the last person standing is suddenly told that it will now be £50. None of us bought it.

Big Blue Diving also has two restaurants/bars on Sairee beach (the main beach). They both make amazing food, both Thai and “Western” – the pizzas are wonderful, and you can gorge on coconut water, smoothies and everything else you could ever want. They also have a barbecue every evening, where a jacket potato, corn on the cob and your choice of freshly caught fish, grilled after you choose it, will come to about £5. I loved the food, even though it was “expensive” compared to mainland Thailand (meaning £3 for a meal).

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Koh Tao

The island itself is beautiful – especially when you’re on the beach. The sea is warm and clear. There IS open sewage running into the sea, but nobody seems to let that bother them. The sea comes up very close to the land at night, too, so Sairee beach is best pictured as a little strip of sand, dotted with bars and men doing fire poi – which is where they swing flaming things on ropes around their heads and it looks pretty cool.

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Despite the loud dance music and overly cheap “whiskey buckets”, the beach has a pretty chilled-out vibe. You only need to walk a few feet away from a bar, wading through the warm tide, for the music to fade away and to be surrounded by the starlit sky and the sound of lapping waves.

Further inland, expect badly paved roads and expensive taxis (about £5 to get from one beach to another), as well as pretty confusing routes to get from one beach to another (meaning you have to rely on the taxis). The taxis are usually little vans that you sit on the back of – not the safest things in the world! The drivers aren’t very open to haggling prices, either, as they’ve agreed prices with each other beforehand. Maybe my hat put them off.

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While I was out diving, Jeff found some pretty cool spots of his own, just by walking around:

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This last one is a bar that stocks Belgian beer and is run by a woman from North Wales!! Sadly I didn’t get to meet her as the bar was closed on the day I decided to go and see it. I’ve found it, and here it is – the Earth House.

Koh Tao also has plenty of conveniences – internet cafes, day trip providers and places to get your laundry done.

On the day after completing my dive course (and with a pretty rough whiskey-bucket hangover) we checked out a few more of Koh Tao’s beaches. I think the first we went to was Chalok Baan Kao, or Freedom Beach – one of the southern ones, anyway. There was a nice strip of sand in the middle of the clear ocean, and a very nice dog walking around.

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Koh Tao was filled with nice, stray dogs – they seemed pretty well-fed, though, probably due to the tourists. There was none of the night-time scariness of being followed around by angry hounds, unlike Mae Sot – maybe beach dogs are far more chilled.

Our favourite beach was Sai Nuan beach (at least, from the beaches we went to). We originally asked the taxi to drop us an Jansom Bay, but it turned out that their beach was only free to hotel guests. They pointed us onto a coastal path that eventually led to another beach, presumably Sai Nuan.

It had big, rocky boulders, a bit of grass, a swing, some wonderful cafés and restaurants and clear water. I snorkelled and saw perhaps more fish than I’d seen while diving around the island, as well as tons of sea cucumbers. After snorkelling for a while, we sat and watched the sunset with some pad thai and a peanut and coconut shake (amazing!).

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Beautiful. Idyllic. Leaving is the problem – and I don’t just mean dragging yourself away. We headed south, following a path that seemed to be the only logical way out without going back the way we’d come. We ended up walking up for a LONG time, up a road, avoiding traffic, in the dark, until we were overlooking the entire island. Then, the road started down. We could barely see at this point. Eventually, a taxi rolled past and took us back to our beach for 300 baht, which is pretty steep for a Thai taxi – but we were just so happy to stop walking.

Getting back to Bangkok is pretty easy – there are shops around the island selling tickets, so you should be able to work it out. We didn’t really want to leave, but there was a full moon party the next night and we weren’t really in the mood for that kind of thing… plus accommodation would have been nearly impossible to find!

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