Diving on Koh Tao

Last Wednesday evening, after work, I made my way to Hua Lamphong railway station in order to catch the train to Chumphon. Once there, I would hop on the catamaran to Koh Tao for my first diving course: the PADI Open Water!

I had nearly forgotten how short I really am. Packed with my backpack in between other backpackers who were mostly falang (although I am falang too, with my 5’3″ height and Asian looks, I am more like a falang in semi-disguise), I remembered life in the Netherlands again – feelings like a gnome amongst giants! I suspect there were quite some scandinavians as some were really – REALLY – tall! The train I took this time was considerably less comfortable than the airconditioned train I took last time to Chiang Mai.
Plus, I chose the less comfortable upper berth because I wanted to save what, ฿150? I considered paying for an upgrade on the way back. The employee came and made up all the beds. I crawled up and listened to music on my iPod for a while. I had my curtains closed, but I had to open them again after ten minutes to allow the fan breeze to reach me. The ride itself was allright – less comfortable than the Chiang Mai trip, but not too bad – I decided to kep my ticket after all.

When I arrived at Chumphon railway station on Thursday early morning, all I saw were backpackers – still – and most of them continued by catamaran, like me. The boat ride was ok too – wobbly because of the windy weather, but ok. I sat next to a Dutch couple (man, did I see/hear/meet a lot of Dutch people the next few days, it was almost as if I was back in the Netherlands again – especially when I saw someone with Verkade biscuits – oh, I longed for those!) and I started getting into social mode and talked to them in Dutch. Somehow, I always bump into Dutch people. Even when I was in a super-remote part of Lesotho in 2008: it was all nice and quiet and suddenly a busload of Dutch people arrived… I guess I should be proud we Dutchies travel so much! But still…

On Koh Tao, there were hordes of people with diving school signs up. I searched for mine and joined the rest of the group. I met Sam and Cheng, two students in Australia who came to Koh Tao to dive as well. We boarded a pickup truck and headed to Buddha View. Buddha
Views is amidst other dive centres and we all gathered in the lobby
to register. I was shown to my room and was told the introduction to the Open Water course would start at 4.30 pm.
My room was basic, no frills – ok for a room that’s included in the diving course. The bathroom was strange though: the sink was on the floor and there were spare parts all over the place. Hmm… Yeah, I went back to the reception to report this and they fixed it right away. The toilet had no option to flush – you just have to fill a bucket with water and flush it down. No problem, it reminded me of my time in Kenya and I’ve surely had ‘worse’: a open field for a toilet (shared) in Mozambique, for example.

The first class started with paperwork to fill in. After that was done, we watched a film covering chapters one and two of our course manuals. We were told to read these chapters and make the tests before tomorrow’s class. After class, I went to a lounge cafe and had dinner. Sam and Cheng joined me. After dinner, they went for a walk (or so they said – later it appeared that they had fallen asleep and didn’t bother getting up for that walk again!), and I stayed to read what I was assigned. It was very interesting and I hoped I would remember all the technical terms and steps to follow. I hoped it would come naturally in practice. I was told I was taking the studying “way too seriously,” but I laughed and responded with “I’m a nerd,” which kept them quiet. After a few hours, the lounge area closed down, but I was allowed to stay at the table next to it, so I did and continued studying there. After a while, I heard light and quick footsteps approaching me from the front and when I looked up, a kid put down a can of ice tea, an ice-filled glass and a straw on my table and said, with a slight French accent: “from the bar.” I looked puzzled and he repeated “from the bar” and pointed to the Bar Next Door, adjacent to the place I was at. Surprised, I muttered “thank you…” and opened to can to pour the drink in the glass. It was very refreshing. A little while after, it was almost 11 pm by then, the cafe staff told me they’ll close down the area I was in too. I told him ok, but he saw I hadn’t finished reading yet. I had only a few pages left, so he said “ok, follow me” and he showed me where the light switch was! That was too kind and I was amazed at how relaxed everyone was on this island. In most places I would’ve been kicked out by now! So I stayed for ten more minutes and turned off the lights. I returned the glass to the bar, to a friendly French rasta dude called Johan and told him I would have a drink there the night after because I was too tired to stay. At 11.15 pm, I was done with all the work and ready for tomorrow’s class. I was looking forward to learning more and to be in the water!

The night in the basic room was fine. It was sort of like I returned to my lowest budget backpacking trips: cold shower, toilet without a flush, but it was ok. However, soon I realised it was a very noisy place! Drunk people shouting and singing, car and motorbike engines igniting at random times… Before I came here I was hoping there wouldn’t be too many old perverts around and my colleague ensured me that Koh Tao isn’t like that. He was right. It reminded me of mediterranean party islands! Yet, it was cool and relaxing.

The next few days flew by so quickly. I don’t even remember what I did besides diving! Well, on Friday, our group spent the morning in the classroom with Jesper teaching us what we should’ve read in chapters one and two. I guess I was taking the studying too seriously as all important points were emphasised, but I like doing things perfectly somehow. The afternoon was spent in the pool: practising skills, like throwing the regulator out and finding it back, clearing the mask, swimming around without mask, fin pivots, and most importantly – how to blow O-bubble rings in the water! Unfortunately, we all failed this last task. It was a fun afternoon.

On Saturday, we spent the morning in the classroom again and we prepared for our first two dives in shallow water! Jesper told us that G. would be instructing us due to other obligations (or maybe he was fed up with our group). Mamma G. turned out to be really cool and funny, and a great instructor. We went on our way for our first dive! We boarded the boat, headed for Aow Leuk, and once we got there, we put on the gear that we had set up earlier. We jumped into the water, one by one, and inflated our BCDs for the first time in open water. It was really exciting! I was a little worried I would overlook something but it all went really well. Mamma G. kept an eye on her “water babies” and there were were, in between the fishes! We did a few skill trainings and continued swimming around. We had a break for over an hour and did a second dive with more to see and more skills. I loved it! After we came back, we did our exams straight away. I thought we had a little more time before the start, so I took a shower, but when I returned to the group, they had already started, so I quickly got into exam mode and filled in the questions. I only had 30 minutes because I started so late, but I managed to finish them all. (I got the results back the next day: 100%!) After the exam, I went to the bar to find Johan and to thank him again for the nice drink the other day. I had a few Coca Cola Lights at the bar – it was such a relaxing place! I didn’t make it too late as I had my final two dives planned the next morning, leaving at 7.15 am. I slept early and couldn’t wait until the final day.

Everyone was ready at 7.15 am the next morning, ready to go for a deeper dive! We all climbed onboard and were headed to Chumphon Pinnacles. It was deeper than we could go as Open Water divers, so we had to stay mid-water. We jumped in and looking down from the surface, I already knew this place was amazing! The visibility was amazing and the colours (also because the sun was shining strong and bright) were beautiful! Soon, we all went down – in between the fishes, loads of fishes, rocks, anemones, and other divers (underwater traffic!). It was amazing, so beautiful, everywhere you look! Our second dive was at Twin Peaks where we did a few more skills and after, we played around in the water – summersaults, backflips, matrix fight moves… It was fun! We continued diving and saw blue spotted stingrays, pufferfish, butterfly fish, bannerfish, angelfish, baracudas, clownfish, rabbitfish, fusiliers, eels… It was truly a new world for me – underwater safaris! I only wanted more of this! After our last safety stop 5m below the surface, Mamma G. congratulated us that we are now certified Open Water divers! So, when we reached the surface – yeah, there were some cheers! ^.^

Very happy and a little tired (but in a good way), we packed up our gear, filled in the logbooks and headed back to Koh Tao. Back at Buddha View, we got our dives stamped, photos taken for the PADI card and we got a temporary certification card from Mamma G.! I had successfully finished the course! ^.^ I hope my official card will arrive soon. I had such a great time – I want to continue learning! But, it was time to head back to Bangkok, the Big Mango. Back to my home, back to ECPAT International, back to the VIE FIT gym I joined, back to hectic daily schedules… But it’s all good – it’s not like “all good things come to an end,” more like, good things make space for other good things. Besides, now I’m qualified, I can always pick a new destination and dive there for a weekend! How to save up money for my new addiction on a NGO-salary… Hmmm… In my head, I’m planning my next dive trips and the PADI Advanced Open Water course already – I hope the financial means will catch up soon so I can put these thoughts into water action! I’ll just have to decide where to go for the Advanced course too – if it’s in Thailand, I’ll return to Buddha View for sure! If it’s elsewhere, I think Bali or Borneo wouldn’t be too bad either? ^.^

Update: 13.08.2011 – I went back to Buddha View on Koh Tao and obtained my PADI Advanced Open Water! I feel so addicted now, I am considering to continue with the PADI Rescue Diver and PADI Dive Master too…

Update: 02.01.2012 – I continued with the PADI Rescue Diver and got certified through Sea Dragon Dive Center in Khao Lak. I also went on a Similans liveaboard trip with them. It was amazing!

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