I may be the last Aussie on Earth to have visited; but now, at the grand conclusion of my world trip, I've finally visited Thailand. And let's face it: Thailand is the no. 1 budget travel destination in the world, and no true round-the-world backpacking trip would be complete without it. The Land of Smiles is home to sunny beach paradises, steamy tropical jungles, curry that redefines curry, a Buddhist religious heritage of great richness, cheap shopping to please anyone... and more. The only thing that remains a puzzle: what took me so long to get here?
The second day of our PADI Open Water course began quite similarly to the first day: with more theory, and more boring educational diving videos. We revised yesterday's material, and went over our "homework", before finishing off the 5-part video series. The theory is a total joke — the instructors don't take it seriously, the material is largely common-sense stuff, and it's all done simply "for the record" — but at least we're now through most of it. Then, in the afternoon, our practical tuition began: for the first time, we got fitted up with scuba gear, and we jumped in the swimming pool at Ban's for our introductory "simulation dive".
Dex and Jasper are yet more Dutch people in Thailand: two old mates from back home, who are here on holiday to enjoy the beaches and to soak up the sun. They're part of my class in the Open Water course that I'm doing, here at Ban's — and they're great blokes. Quite fond of Caroline, too: but then again, who isn't? I went diving with these guys during my course; and they then went on to do the 2-day advanced course after we were finished.
This afternoon, I commenced the first session of my PADI Open Water diving course. We're a big group: 16 people in all (although 1 person dropped out the following day) — but we're being split into two groups for the actual diving. This afternoon, the course's introduction consisted largely of boring but essential theory information: we had a short lecture from Flav, and then we sat and watched parts I-III of the PADI instructional video series. Not the most boring educational videos I've ever been subjected to in my time: but then again, not far off it. One thing I couldn't help but observe: never before in my life have I been in a classroom with such an amazing view :P.
There are divers. And then there are fanatical divers. And then there's Flav. Originally from the Netherlands, Flavius is one of the longest-serving instructors at Ban's: he's married to a local woman, and he's been living here on Ko Tao for no less than 14 years! Hasn't even gone home once, in all that time. Flav's a part of the furniture around here, and diving is his life. I was lucky enough to have Flav as my instructor during my Open Water course this week: and despite my utter lack of natural suitability for the submarine world, he did an amazing job of getting me down and of bringing me back up.
Ban's is one of the biggest resort / diving-school joints in Ko Tao: but don't let this put you off. It's a great school: highly experienced instructors, friendly service, and all the support you could need. It's a great resort: lovely rooms, a superb bar / restaurant, and an unbeatable location. Plus, despite all that, it still manages to offer pricing competitive with many of its lesser rivals; and even more amazingly, it still manages to retain a cosy, chilled and friendly vibe. Alex, Caroline and myself stayed at Ban's for four nights (accommodation complementary with the PADI course), and we had a blast here.
Like other places in Thailand, Ko Tao is also home to the delicious late-night street snack roti (pancake). Ko Tao's roti is no different to the roti anywhere else: but in this case, it's how you cook it that makes all the difference. Ko Tao is home to the legendary Pancake Ninja: this guy can be found in his little stall on Sairee most nights; and no matter who or what you've witnessed previously, you ain't seen flippin' til you've seen him in action. In 30 seconds flat, pancake cooking meets Kung Fu. Check out the video.
And it's called Sairee Beach, Ko Tao. I'm blurting out the secret — so consider yourself privileged. This place is heaven. For our first day on Ko Tao, Alex, Caroline and myself spent most of the day semi-conscious on Sairee Beach, letting the water lap at our feet and the sun pour down on our backs. We managed to fit in some time for shopping around, as well — and after some quick research, we've booked our 4-day PADI Open Water course at what we hope is a good place. It was a chilled evening: just a few drinks at one of Sairee's super-mellow beach bars, sprawled out on the island's ubiquitous cushion-and-mat "seating", before exhaustion overcame us and we crashed into bed. If the rest of my time on Ko Tao is going to be like this, then things are looking real good indeed.
Yesterday I was halfway there. Today I made it all the way — I've landed in paradise, on the scuba-mental island of Ko Tao. Only took two nights, two buses, and a 5-hour ferry: and let me tell you, it was worth it. My second night bus left Bangkok yesterday evening — after my little pre-bus adventure had concluded — and the ferry from Chumphon to Ko Tao departed at about 6am this morning. Now that I'm here, I've got a feeling that I won't be leaving for a while.
Alex is a dutch bloke, who's currently studying finance and economics at university. Caroline is a half-Swedish, half-French girl (she's lived in Sweden since age 12), who works as a secretary back home, and who's here in Thailand for a one-month holiday. I met these two great people on the bus to Chumphon (very early this morning), and I stayed with them on the ferry to Ko Tao. The three of us ended up sticking very close to each other, for almost a week on Ko Tao — we signed up for our dive course together, and the rest is history.
Bangkok would have to be the absolute least suitable place in the world to go running. Unfortunately, however, that's exactly what I was compelled to do this evening — when I was being led on foot to my next tourist bus, and I suddenly realised that I'd left my small bag on the side of the street near Khao San Road, I had no choice but to sprint back for it. The city's searing heat — and, far more pertinent, its horrendous air pollution — left my lungs feeling somewhere in between a wheezing petrol pump and a burning car tyre. And that was after a mere five minutes.