The alarm went off at 4am…
We battled the throes of unconsciousness; packing the last of our stuff and making our way to the lobby of Quip Bed & Breakfast where our good friend K saved us from falling back asleep in one of the innumerable armchairs.
On the menu: a free ride to Koh Samui with a Thai gentleman who’d kindly offered us passage to the island on one of his frequent business trips.
A few days prior, K had given us yet another ride (I think it was from the Anantara Resort to our hotel in Phuket Town, Quip), and in so doing we’d shared a few moments of conversation with one of his badminton buddies (Mr. Kim!) who told us that he was heading our direction on the 27th and happened to have a couple spots in his vehicle for us on the ride to Koh Samui.
Not being ones to turn down a free ride, we gratefully accepted this untoward generosity, which put us in the back seat of a Chevy SUV heading north at 5:30am the morning of the 27th. (In actuality, Mr. Kim was planning on leaving on the 26th, but ended up delaying his trip a day to wait for us. Such unexpected kindness!!!).
After 5 hours of driving (most of it at 160km/hr), we arrived in Surat Thani, where we stopped for breakfast (paid for by Mr. Kim); getting to know Mr. Kim, his sister and his son all that much better as they each played the part of benevolent tourguide/host with ease.
A short while later, we boarded a ferry at Don Sak terminal (the tickets also graciously paid for by our host/driver, who we are eternally grateful to for such kindness)
and after enjoying the beautiful sunlit coastline
settled in for the ride.
Before we knew it were disembarking onto the island of Koh Samui (‘koh’ means ‘island’ btw…)
where the driver’s son, our now good friend Tospol (Pure) proceeded to show us around.
Our hosts also made sure we got to try some local delicacies (zomg spicy!) for lunch before our onward ferry to Koh Tao.
After lunch Pure drove us on a whirlwind tour of the island, even entertaining our impulse decision to visit the sales office for his newly built beachfront condo that we thought might be a good investment for ourselves :p (spoiler alert: NO, we didn’t do anything silly like buy a condo in Thailand on this trip).
We ended off the tour near the ferry docks and downed a couple quick pitchers of Singha and Chang draught,
before boarding the Lomprayah fast boat to Koh Tao at 5pm to visit my cousin Derek who I hadn’t seen for many years.
The trip was over in a heartbeat, and before we knew it we were in a mad scramble with a hundred or so backpacker types, collecting our luggage and trying to make our way off the dock onto the island
where we were met by none other than Mr. D. Hanna himself.
He helped us find a ride to his part of the island (Sairee beach) by getting us onto one of the innumerable thai mafia-run songthaews
which for 100 baht each (pretty hefty for a non-private taxi to go a few kms) dropped us off in front of the Big Yellow House where he’d arranged a room for us.
This was to be our home for the following two weeks, so we settled right in to catch up over a couple ice cold bottles of Leo on the balcony, the view a glow of squid fishing boats off in the distance framed by rustling palms.
Hello Koh Tao!
We spent the next day wandering around the Sairee beach area, snacking on streetside goodies
and enjoying sundowners with Derek at Fizz beach bar when he was done working for the day (he’s a dive instructor, so I doubt he envied us all that much for being jobless 😉 ).
Btw, on the way home, we played with a cat.
Not one to leave us stranded or hungry, the next morning Derek showed us his (and what would become our) go-to breakfast spot
then nice and full, dropped me off at his mechanic (Pong!) so we could rent a scooter (150 baht/day for a little auto 100cc honda, no passport required!), and just like that, we had our own wheels, our cue to start exploring this incredible little island!
We took the bike as far north as we could go, where the now dirt road ended in the parking lot of a quaint resort on the rocky north-western shore.
Then we took the bike south, to see what we could see, and after feasting our eyes on the clear blue waters of the beach
we stopped by a roadside fruitstand to get our fill of pineapple that rivalled the Phuket same fruit for deliciousness.
We filled up on gas (from the station that doesn’t put water or worse in their product)
and stopped by Sairee beach for a much needed rest.
Much needed because I was about to take advantage of our proximity to the aptly named ‘ice shop’ to pick up a case of big Leos with the assistance of my trusty sidekick Julie.
What better way to celebrate a fully stocked fridge than to go back to Sairee beach to lazily enjoy sundowners (at Lotus Bar this time)?
Oh, and I brought my camera again, because I didn’t get enough sunset beach shots last time 😉
The following couple days were a slow blur of relaxation, eating, and exploration
interspersed with some light reading (stupid PADI manual 😉 ) to prepare us for our first day of the PADI Open Water dive course which Derek had graciously agreed to instruct us in.
At his 5-star resort, Jamahkiri 😀
Day 1 was a pool session: learning how to setup and use the gear, how to breathe, how to maneuvre underwater, communicate, etc…
There was even some evilest of the evil: classroom work and written tests (*throws up*).
I guess I shouldn’t complain so hard though, because even though it was pretty basic stuff, it was all very necessary for our survival once we hit the open water on day 2.
We didn’t bother bringing cameras onto the boat for our first day of diving, so I’ll have to describe the scenario with words.
After a short ride on the Jamahkiri Junk (boat), we suited up (Julie in a half length wetsuit, me in a rash vest and board shorts) , did our pre-dive safety check (BCD, Weights, Releases, Air, Final OK… a list that can be easily remembered by the acronym: BWRAF, or if you forget that, then the phrase “Bangkok Women Really Are Fellas” generally helps to jog the ol’ memory), and before I could comprehend what was happening, we were giant striding off the deck into the crystal clear sultry blue waters of the Gulf of Thailand at the Hin Ngam dive site.
Regulator in place, gauges showing a healthy 190 bar, we made our descent to 12 metres…
… where I promptly panicked and had the most unbearable feeling of imminent death I had ever experienced in my life.
Every synapse fired with the intent of self preservation, demanding me to yank out my mouthpiece and swim for the surface.
My alveoli screamed for fresh air.
Every ounce of reason disappeared as I fought against the crushing weight of a billion litres of unbreathable salt water.
My breathing got shallower and shallower as my wide unblinking eyes stared at my pressure gauge in the murky blue half light, the air supply dwindling as I watched:
140, 135, 130, 125…
I looked around as my companions swam off to a sandy patch where we would be doing some basic exercises (fin pivots, mask clearing, etc…), and decided I didn’t want to die like this.
As I reached towards my mouth to yank the regulator and head for the surface, I began breathing deeply, knowing that sweet sweet relief was moments away just 12 metres above me.
Then I took another deep breath.
My head cleared instantly, and instead of looking at my pressure gauge again, I reversed my decision to swim upwards, and instead decided to follow Julie to the sandy patch to participate in the activity which I’d invested much time and money in.
This whole episode took less than 30 seconds, but in that span I re-learned my humanity, and was humbled not only by the great power of Mother Nature, but also by the power of the unhinged mind.
I’ve never experienced such fear or such an impulsive response to survive in my entire life, and even though I thought I’d prepared myself mentally and physically to handle what I’d presumed would be a relatively easy activity, I was sorely mistaken.
As my breathing returned to normal and I focused on the tasks at hand as instructed by Derek, I was able to waste less and less air with each passing minute, and instead of worrying that my tank would expire at any moment, put my faith in the equipment and more importantly in myself, and was able to make my air last for 45 minutes, long enough for our small group of 4 to complete a very satisfactory and even fun first dive.
We began our ascent when my tank hit 50 bar, and after a safety stop at 3m for 5 minutes, we surfaced comfortably with more than enough air in my tank to have kept me going for another 10 or 15 minutes had we ignored safe diving practices.
Whew, what a rush!!!
I’m very glad I conquered fear incarnate and completed the dive, but when I shared my near-death experience with Julie afterwards, she told me that although she’d gone through some healthy bouts of fish-fearing prior to actually getting in the water, her experience at the bottom was nothing like mine because she was just focussed on trying to keep up with the Derek.
Way to go Julie!!
After a small lunch (fresh fruit ftw!!!), we did some dive review, swapped tanks, and prepped for our second dive of the day.
This time I was prepared for the fear, and instead of letting it get a grip on my being, I punched that sucker right in the kisser (*POW*) and remembered to breathe properly the whole time, enabling us to dive for 50 minutes and surface with 60 bar left!
By the next day (I also brought my camera this time)
it was almost second nature to suit up
and descend down to 18 metres at White Rock dive site, and it’s a good thing too, because this time we had a professional videographer tagging along with us to enshrine our dives 3 and 4 in the history books.
We were blessed with good viz for the first dive, and got to see some impressive marine life on both, so by the end of the day, I realized why people like my cousin Derek fall so deeply in love with the activity that they turn it into a career.
Not only was it a great way to reconnect with a family member who I’d missed for most of my adulthood thus far, it was very inspiring to have someone so passionate about diving bring us into his world to show us the ropes (or whatever the equivalent dive term is).
We were even lucky enough to have an opportunity to do 2 more dives at Chumpon Pinnacle and the Twins (dive sites at 18 & 16 metres respectively) a couple days later when Derek was able to include us on a dive trip his resort was doing, so all in all we were able to do 6 wonderful dives, cementing my, and more surprisingly Julie’s enjoyment of the scuba experience.
We wound down our two week stay on Koh Tao by eating well, sleeping well, and exploring as much of the island as our weaksauce little scooter would allow (it had trouble making it up many of the sheer little dirt roads that were the only access points to many of the more remote and beautiful little beach havens).
Oh, and more cats.
On our last full day, we took a water taxi from Sairee beach through the stunningly clear waters
to go snorkelling off the beach at Nangyuan Island, which was extremely beautiful.
We also got to see how the ‘other half [-million]’ learn to dive in the unfortunately over crowded shallows next to the ‘Japanese Gardens’ dive site.
“Gross” says I, and I have to say again how lucky we were to have learned with Derek with only one other person.
We enjoyed our afternoon, watching the crowd thin out as the day wore on
and finally we ourselves bid the private island a goodbye
and water-taxi’d back to Koh Tao
to enjoy our last sunset on this incredible island paradise.
The next morning, we said our manly (tears-free 😉 ) goodbyes to Derek and boarded the Songserm slow boat for Chumphon
where we would be catching the overnight sleeper train to Bangkok.
Stay tuned for this very wet and chalky adventure 🙂 (which might take another 4 months for me to publish :D:D:D )