Ko Tao is the smallest of the three famous islands in Surat Thani province, on the gulf coast of southern Thailand — its two larger and more-developed neighbours are Ko Pha-Ngan, and the mega-attraction Ko Samui. Like its neighbours, Ko Tao is a tropical paradise, and is every holiday-maker's dream. Over the past decade or so, the island has evolved into Thailand's premier spot for scuba diving, with about 50 dive schools operating on the island. I'm here to do the famous PADI beginner diver's certification; and after that, I'll stay here as long as I can, because I can imagine fewer places more blissful on all this Earth.
I bumped into this group of three at Chalok this morning, where they were scouring the beach for accommodation. Martin and Flores are two Dutch boys, and Justine is an Indonesian girl who has hooked up with Martin. The three of them have been living and studying in Shanghai, China, on exchange for the past 6 months; and now, they're down in Thailand for a holiday. They're all business / economics students: and after this, they're headed home to continue their university studies. I joined them for dinner and drinks this evening, after my Ko Tao walkabout.
I continued my exploration of greater Ko Tao today; but unlike yesterday's adventures, today I just wandered around on foot. From my new base at Chalok, I donned my hiking boots (which I haven't been wearing much, of late), and covered some serious ground. Ko Tao's a pretty small island, and virtually everywhere is reasonably accessible on foot: this makes walking a good option for reaching most places, especially considering how much safer it is than motorbike-riding on those horrific dirt roads.
With the dive course now finished, it's time to get out of Sairee, and to start exploring a bit more of Ko Tao. To kick off the exploration, today Adam and I rented a quad bike, and took it for a spin. A quad bike costs a fair bit more than a regular scooter motorbike to rent — but it's a much safer option, if you plan to tackle the shockingly poor-quality dirt roads that criss-cross most of the island. Short of running them off the road, quad bikes are extremely difficult to crash or to damage — whereas you can easily (and people regularly do) damage a scooter on a poor road, in which case you'll likely be facing a hefty repair bill. As I was still very much recovering from last night, Adam did most of the driving.
Having now finished my four-day diving course, today I said goodbye to Ban's, and to Sairee beach. I've moved down to Chalok, the second-largest beach on the island, where it's much quieter and more relaxed than Sairee, and where accommodation is much cheaper (I couldn't afford to stay at Ban's, without the complimentary room-for-four-nights deal that they gave us). I'm staying at Taraporn resort, where the bar-slash-restaurant looks out onto the gorgeous bay of Chalok Baan Kao, and where I have a cheap room that's right on the beach, as well as next to a mellow nighttime hippie bar. Now that I'm here, it's time to slow things down a bit, and to do nothing but sit on the beach and swallow a few good books.
After a difficult and lonely afternoon of separation — hell, it must have been almost 5 hours — this evening, we the Open Water crew had a grand and long-awaited reunion. It's been a while, but it was good to see everyone again :P. To celebrate, we drank the legendary farang beverage of southern Thailand: the bucket. Buckets come in two sizes: huge, and f$#%ing huge. Their contents generally consist of whisky, Red Bull and Coke; but they also come in numerous other, more exotic varieties (and, should you drink them on Ko Pha-Ngan of a full moon, less legal varieties :P). Tonight was my first bucket-drinking experience: and please G-d, may it be my biggest. Because if it gets any worse than it got tonight, then I'll be dead.
Adam's one of the quieter and less permanently-drunk Irishmen I've met over the past year. Nevertheless, he's still a right good ambassador of his booze-loving homeland: he can down his buckets all night with the best of 'em. Adam's been in my Open Water course since Friday; although somehow, I managed to avoid meeting him properly until today. Once we met, it didn't take long for us to click — or for the glasses to clink.
Claire and Amy are two young ladies from the city of Leeds, in fair old Mother England. Claire has been doing the Open Water course with me for the past four days, so she knows me and everyone else in the crew. Her friend Amy declined to partake in the diving — "it's not my thing", she said — however, this hasn't stopped her from getting in on the social side of Ban's, so we all know her as well. Lovely girls, and they've been here in southern Thailand so long, and their tan is so dark, that they're looking less English every day.
Courtesy of Ban's, I now proudly possess a PADI Open Water certification. The goodies that come with this include: a diver's handbook (which, being certified, I ostensibly know from cover-to-cover); a diver's logbook; and a temporary PADI membership card. My permanent membership card, which needs to be processed by the PADI head office in the States, will be mailed to me within the next few months. Plus, one other very useful perk: I'm now listed in the PADI global online database, which means that should I ever go diving again, my certification can be checked online by any dive shop in the world.
I did my third and fourth dives this morning, and they're the final dives that I need to do as part of my Open Water course. Today's drill was pretty similar to that of the diving yesterday morning: on the boat by 7:30am; one dive at The Twins, then over to White Rock; and completion of the remaining handful of PADI-required underwater exercises. My group had Ber as our instructor today, instead of Flav, and we descended a bit deeper than we've done previously: we made it to 18m, which is the maximum depth permitted for an Open Water certified diver.
Abbie's a cheerful English girl, who's been travelling around the world for several months, and who's recently completed a long volunteering stint down in southern Africa. Abbie's currently undertaking her DMT (Divemaster Training) course with Ban's, which means that she's living and working here on Ko Tao for a few months. Abbie's been with my Open Water group over the past several days, and this is her first time as an instructor's assistant to a group of Open Water students. Great girl, and quite committed to her diving.