We woke up at 4am and said goodbye to our little beach bungalow, water bottle piping and all. We carefully made our way down the uneven, dark path to the beach where we would find our long tail boat driver ready to take us to Ao Nang. As we pulled away from Tonsai, we longingly stared back while thinking of the delicious chocolate-banana-peanut butter (and optional coffee) shakes we were leaving behind. I had never been out in the open ocean on such a small boat in the middle of the night and it was surprisingly very calm and relaxing. As we gazed into the dark water, we could see some tiny specs of blue plankton swimming around us. We were dropped off on the Beach in Ao Nang because, like Tonsai, a pier does not exist. Perfectly fine in a normal situation, but hopping down a few feet from the edge of a long tail boat onto the sand with a sprained ankle was nothing short of tricky. Nevertheless, with John’s manly strength and a good deal of stubbornness on my part, I made it safely ashore and we waited for our mini bus to pick us up and take us on a 2 hour, uneventful journey to Surat Thani where we would catch a ferry to Koh Tao to become certified open water divers!
Ferry rides were becoming the norm for us and this next ride would be our longest one in Thailand. It took us about 4 hours to get from the mainland town of Surat Thani to Koh Tao. We stopped along the way to drop the rich tourists off at Koh Samui and the full moon partiers off at Ko Pha Ngan. Once docked in Koh Tao, we set off to figure out how we would get to Big Blue Diving Resort. No matter where we travel in Asia, we never know if we will actually have a ride from our hotel (if pre booked) or if we will have to haggle for some sort of transportation. Emails are rarely responded to and phone conversations are often useless due to the language gap, so we just show up and hope for the best. This situation was no different and we stepped off the pier to find the usual offers for tuk-tuks and taxis. We turned them down, assuring them that our diving school was going to pick us up and ignoring them when they said, “you see them?? They are not here!” One nice Thai guy saw us and told us that the Big Blue shuttle had already left but we might be able to catch them. Not likely with a bum ankle for me, but John took off sprinting in the direction the man pointed. He returned a minute later to declare that he found the shuttle! I guess we took too long for their liking!
We chose Koh Tao for diving because it is highly recommended due to the number of dives in the area, the quality of instructors, and the fact that it is close to the cheapest, if not the cheapest place to get certified. At about $250 per person, we would spend 3 days and 4 nights learning to dive in the classroom and in the ocean, including accommodations. We also had a great recommendation from a friend who was certified at Big Blue. Our first impression was fantastic. The resort was on a beautiful beach and our instructor immediately came out to meet with us and give us the low down about the course. We were also given some juice and told that instead of staying in the dorms with 8 people, we could have our own private room at no additional cost. Score! We were stoked. And very hungry. We finished our paperwork and John ordered some food at the resort restaurant while I made some calls about our stolen med situation. We devoured the food quickly, checked into our room, and took the 5 minute walk down to the second Big Blue Resort (“Big Blue 2”) to begin our orientation. We sat in the room for about two hours watching scuba diving videos and getting briefed on the schedule for the next three days.
We finished the orientation at about 7pm and John wasn’t feeling top notch. He wasn’t sure if it was the coffee he drank during class or if he was just getting hungry again, so we set off into touristy Koh Tao to find a place to get dinner. We walked by a crowded restaurant that had a wait and impatiently left to find something quicker so that we could get to bed early in preparation for our first day of dive instruction. Big mistake. We found a place that was reasonably priced called The Brother and started to peruse the menu.
Now for a quick back story: On our last night in Tonsai, we went climbing with a guy from Sweden and we bumped into him at a street side food joint we had been frequenting during our time there. We had just finished an awesome meal and the Swedish guy and his brother were settling in for a chicken sandwich. It seemed like an odd choice at a Thai restaurant, but the chicken was nicely fried and the guys were raving about it. So much so that John almost ordered a chicken sandwich as dessert. Anyone who knows John knows that he loves nothing more than food and he can’t stand it when someone is enjoying food that he hasn’t tried. He ended up refraining from purchasing another meal and must have been regretting it for the following 24 hours.
This regret lead him to order a chicken burger at The Brother. I ordered a simple veggie rice dish and it was the first time in Thailand that we didn’t split our meals. The chicken didn’t look too appetizing and John said it was edible but not what he hoped for. You may sense where this story is going. John ended up throwing up all night. And the worst part was, as the clock struck 12 that same night, it was his 28th birthday. What a way to celebrate! His birthday was spent in a hot room (that smelt strongly of grey water) under a bug net (or in the bathroom) with ritz crackers and dried mango slices.
We vowed to designate another random day on our trip as his birthday and celebrate then. We had to delay the scuba class for 2 full days until he felt well enough to participate. He still wasn’t feeling great on the morning we restarted class, but he pushed through and we spent the morning receiving some classroom instruction and watching scuba videos. Our instructor’s name was Tim and our group consisted of us and three friendly German guys on a three week holiday in Thailand. The five of us geared up and hit the pool in the afternoon to get comfortable breathing underwater. It was the weirdest feeling to stick my head underwater and begin to breathe. It definitely gets your adrenaline going! We spent several hours in the pool and midway through, I asked if I could take a quick bathroom break. Since I was the only girl in the class with 4 guys Tim told me that I would hold us up by taking my gear off and I should just pee in the pool. I laughed at that and he proceeded to tell me that the pool had a ridiculous amount of chemicals and all the instructors and students pee in the pool. He was not kidding at all and some of the other instructors confirmed this. Gross, minus five points for Big Blue! We did end up getting a bathroom break a little bit later, but it was disgusting to know we were swimming in a confined area with a lot of pee, chemicals or not.
The hygiene in general at Big Blue was less than desirable. It was actually probably the grossest place we stayed in Thailand, and that says a lot when we had just come from a place with water bottle plumbing. It is hard to complain when the accommodations are “free”, but the bathrooms had the worst smell and the fan rooms were crazy hot. We stayed in tons of fan rooms in Thailand and were always comfortable until Koh Tao. The bathroom at the attached restaurant was always backed up and, like many places in Southeast Asia, no soap was to be found. We heard the dorms over at Big Blue 2 were a bit nicer, so maybe give that a try if you are getting certified there. We still aren’t sure if John got sick from showering with the water in the nasty bathroom, the food at the Big Blue restaurant, or the chicken sandwich, but any of the three are valid guesses!
OK, enough complaining about the filth at the resort. Despite the accommodations, the diving and instruction is actually really awesome. Once Tim felt comfortable with our progress in the pee pool, he dismissed us for the night. John and I joined our new German friends for dinner at the busy restaurant we had passed up on our first night on the island. This was our first real meal after two days of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and crackers! The food at Su Chili was awesome! We had a delicious chicken peanut sauce dish, pad Thai, and spring rolls. It felt good to eat delicious food again!
The next day, we returned to Big Blue 2 for some final classroom instruction and we were given a 50 question multiple choice exam. We both passed with flying colors! Hooray for learning! We successfully graduated from the book portion of the course. Now for the fun stuff. That afternoon, we went out on the dive boat for the first time. The dive sites in Koh Tao aren’t too far out and within about 20 minutes we arrived at our first site. We got our wetsuits on and ran through all our buddy checks and stepped out into the open water. The first dive was mostly to get us comfortable swimming around under water. Our group was a little all over the place during the initial descent and John had trouble equalizing, but in the end, we all successfully completed our first dive! We both enjoyed diving a lot more than we expected to and were ready for dive number two!
The second dive was in a really cool area with much better visibility than the first. Colorful fish were everywhere and we even saw a shark! Not a real shark though, ha! Just a big metal shark that was placed underwater as artificial coral. Since this area had a sandy bottom, we spent most of the time practicing our dive skills underwater. Those skills included things like filling our masks up with water and then clearing them, taking our regulator out and replacing it, and an ascent while sharing an air tank with our buddy. I pretended I was out of air and John had to share his air with me and we swam to the surface together. Everyone in our group was much more successful on this second dive and we were able to swim around in Tim’s desired triangle formation.
After a day of diving, we went to Su Chili once again with Simon, Mark, and Michael. We had to be up and ready to go out diving at 6am the next morning, so we got some sleep and woke up to gather our gear and head off to sea. We did two more dives the last morning and went to the deepest depth we would be certified for – 18 meters! The 18 meter dive was our favorite dive of the program. As we pulled up to the dive spot, Tim looked down and called us over to the side of the boat. We all looked down and could see the bottom, over 21 meters below! He said this was the best visibility he had seen since October. After entering the water in a “James Bond” fashion (aka front flip!), we descended into the depths. We saw huge schools of colorful fish and unique, beautiful coral. Since this was dive #3, we were feeling more comfortable under the water and we had a great time swimming around and taking it all in.
Before our next and final dive, we jumped off the side of the dive boat and swam around the boat twice to prove we were fit enough to be certified. We also were being videotaped this day, so we held Go Pro cameras for the jump and were forced to do and say weird things on video. Our final dive was near the area with the fake shark from the day before. We did our last few underwater tasks for certification purposes and spent the rest of the time exploring the dive site.
After ascending to the top successfully, we all cheered because we were officially open water divers! I would highly recommend the diving at Big Blue, just stay and eat elsewhere.
Since we lost a few days from the attack of filthy Koh Tao, we decided to head to Bangkok the same afternoon we completed our certification. We ordered some food for the last time at Su Chili and took the free shuttle to our final Thai island ferry to the mainland city of Chumphon. The ferry was SO nice. It had nice comfy chairs in an air conditioned room with clean bathrooms and music videos playing on TV. We arrived at Chumphon and were pleased to see how much cleaner and quieter it was than the Thai islands. It was there that we boarded our 8 hour bus to Bangkok. We arrived in Bangkok at 2am and found a decent guesthouse to lay our heads. We had to get our rest before the next day which would turn out to be one of the most enlightening and odd days of the entire trip.