October 25, 2012

Splitting The Atom

From Bangkok we took a 9-hour train ride south to embark on nine days of island-hopping. Along the way we passed rice fields lined with banana trees and coconut palms. The time flew by. It was fun to take in the agricultural scene of Thailand.


Researching this island portion of our trip was hilariously confusing. All of the names looked the same to us, and we could never keep them straight. Koh Samui, Koh Similan, Koh Surin, Koh Phangan, Koh Phi Phi….ummm, okay. Now we know that “Koh” just means “island”, and we’re getting the hang of it. At this point we could probably even pick them out on a map.

Our first order of business was to get our international scuba diving certifications. We could have done this a long time ago, but it's half as expensive to get the same certification in Thailand as it is in San Diego or Australia. We chose the island of Koh Tao, which has recently overtaken Cairns, Australia for issuing the most certifications in the world.

Before arriving, we had read this anecdote from one of our favorite review sites:  
Not sure about now but Koh Tao was always like people coming back from a dive, talking about diving, maybe still wearing a wet suit (with the top bit rolled down) and laughing about diving. Are you getting the diving theme coming through? And they act as though they split the freaking atom rather than just went under water and saw some fish.

This made us laugh, and so we deliberately went into it with a laid back attitude. We were careful about choosing our dive shop and went with one that teaches in groups no larger than four. We ended up with our own private instructor from the UK. Nice! 


We spent our first couple of days with instructor Sarah in a classroom learning all of the theory and techniques. Part of us liked the notion of setting aside a few days out of the year to do some learning. Part of us was utterly not used to the reality of having a school night with homework. Let’s just say that beyond currency conversions and map navigation, we haven’t really exercised our minds academically in quite a while. All of a sudden we were learning about Boyle’s Law, buoyancy, nitrogen, decompression sickness, valves, regulators, and hyperbaric chambers. Of course Steve breezed through this like a champ. I was the slow kid in our group of 2. After a couple of initial freak-outs (in a depth so shallow that we could stand up), I finally got used to breathing like Darth Vader.


I don’t know why, but I never anticipated how much boat time is involved in scuba diving. Have I ever mentioned that I get motion sickness? On our first dive, I threw up four times. 
We liked to call it “feeding the fish”.  

By the time we left Koh Tao we had done 6 dives and received our lifetime certification to dive up to 18 meters or 60 feet. Yay! Many, many years ago we both tinkered around with a little game called Jungle Hunt for the Atari. 


That was then, and this is now. 


There are lots of neat things about scuba diving, like how small we look compared to the massive underwater world. It was fun to glance up and see the sun shining through the water surface 50 feet above us. The fish are big, and unlike with snorkeling, you have the freedom to get close. Having a tank of your own air strapped to your back makes you feel like a valiant underwater explorer.


In our dive log (AKA lab composition notebook), we kept track of the sea life that we saw:

Blue-spotted stingray, glass shrimp, angel fish, bat fish, butterfly fish, banner fish, file fish, trigger fish, parrot fish, pink clown fish, puffer fish, big eye fish, scorpion fish, crocodile fish, soldier fish, sergeant major fish, chocolate damselfish, goatfish, needle fish, grouper, cobia, fusiliers, breen, and trevally. We also swam through a school of about 100 yellow-tailed barracuda. So cool.  

  


We saw two crown-of-thorns star fish, which are responsible for destroying 40% percent of the Great Barrier Reef. They are much bigger than we had imagined, and they look like a mix between a star fish and a cactus.

There were giant clams, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, nudibranches, and christmas tree worms – colorful organisms who look like pipe-cleaners sticking out of coral. They retract into their holes with a simple wave of the hand. 
  


Coming here in October was hit or miss. It was hazy most days, but we're so close to the equator that our skin was thankful. It's not the best month for diving conditions…in fact it’s sandwiched in-between the very best month (September) and the very worst month (November). On our dives, visibility was anywhere between 10-20 meters (33-66 feet). In the good months, visibility can get up to 35 meters (115 feet)! The water temperature was 29° C (84° F). Eat your hearts out San Diego swimming friends!  

Any moment we weren't supposedly "talking, laughing, or dreaming about diving", we tried to get out and see the island.


There are palm trees growing sideways, longtail boats bobbing in the water and pretty pink sunsets.


 

 One night we released a sky lantern, a custom in Thailand which is considered good luck.


Everything we had read said that tiny Koh Tao is the least developed of Thailand's gulf islands. But now that we have some worldwide perspective, we were caught off guard. This is a big island and there are buildings everywhere. After 6 days on Koh Tao, we only saw half of it. It's on par with Croatia's most developed islands and way more built up than any of Brazil's. Once we realized this, we scrapped our plans of going to the biggest island, Koh Samui.

We like to explore places on foot, but we quickly learned that Thailand's islands are not set up for this. It would be like going to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico and trying to sight-see on foot between the resorts. That just sounds stupid. One day we walked in the heat for hours only to wind up at a beach that was covered in trash. After some moments of disappointment, we just had to accept it for what it is.

All over these islands there are amazing bungalows perched along the coastline.

 
We have no idea how you find out about them. They are not online, there's no tourist information office, and no booking agents. We never could figure it out. When we moved to our second island of Koh Phangan, we gave up our vision of going on walks from a picture-perfect bungalow, and we checked ourselves into a resort.


It's a good thing we were in comfortable digs because from the moment we arrived on Koh Phangan, it just poured rain. We had our hearts set on taking a boat trip to Ang Thong National Park, but all of the day-trips got canceled. This normally would have crushed us, but at this point in our trip, we didn't really care as much. We have seen other islands, and the Whitsundays in Australia would be hard to beat anyway. We can now also say that we know what a monsoon is like. This is not earth-shattering…it's really rainy.

For all of the unexpected frustrations that we encountered on the islands, there were some unique highlights. Hour-long Thai massages in an open bungalow on the sand cost a whopping $6 each. We can’t think of anywhere else where we’ve had beers or dinners on the beach with waves lapping underneath our table.

 
And our resort hotel room had a mosquito net! I've always wanted to sleep inside one of these. It feels so safari princess. 


To get from Koh Phangan to our next destination, we had to take a truck, ferry, bus, minibus, sleeper train, day train, and small boat. Were the islands worth it? Let's just say at least we split the atom.

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