Day 15 | My first dives off Ko Nangyuan

Day 15 | My first dives off Ko Nangyuan

Dive school started at a reasonable hour, 8am today. I couldn’t sleep much because I was reading and doing homework late last night. It was too hot in our AC-less room and I was perhaps anxious about the open water dives. I woke up to my phone alarm at 6am to finish reading the last two of six chapters and complete the homework for those chapters.

At Roctopus Dive Center, our instructor Holly, Alex, Etty and I spent half an hour reviewing how to use U.S. Navy dive tables to plan and time our dives and their corresponding surface intervals aka resting time between dives. Nowadays everyone uses dive computers which are much more precise, but good to learn the old school method too. We then took the 50-question multiple choice test which was easier than expected and took only a short time to complete. My favorite question and answer was Q: How should you treat animals you encounter during your dive? A: Only touch them from behind. Obviously the wrong answer, but I LOL’d at the visual of me tagging fish by their dorsal fins and quickly swimming away. We all passed the test, it was easier than I thought and Holly did an excellent job of refreshing the material with us before the exam and also during yesterday afternoon’s academic session.

Ending early I met up with Maurice at the Jolly Guesthouse and we had lunch at 10am at the next door restaurant Mint Kitchen. There was only one woman who cooked and waited at the restaurant. When another patron ordered an ice coffee and a mango shake, she immediately hopped on her motorbike and left the restaurant. She came back a few minutes later with two mangos and a bag of ice. The patron told us she didn’t have to do that, but it was a very thoughtful gesture.

I then went back to Roctopus for open water dives 1 and 2. Here’s the true test if I can apply the pool skills I learned into the 10 and 12 meter dives that were planned for us. I loved the one day dive I did with three other girls in a cenote in Tulum, Mexico two years ago. It whetted my appetite to get the open water certification in the first place. However, a bad memory from that experience was the instructor was very impatient with the three of us. He couldn’t help us maintain neutral buoyancy, the state of neither floating to the surface nor sinking to the floor, so he kept grabbing us by our fins and pulling us down as if we were wayward helium balloons. I hated it because descending that quickly really hurt my ears.

At Roctopus Dive Center, the instructors loaded our gear for us and all we had to do was hop into the pickup trucks which would drive us 10 minutes to the Mae Haad pier where the dive boat was waiting.

We had to wait about 30 minutes at the pier as the air tanks arrived late. In the biggest surprise of the day, our dive boat was not sitting at the pier ready for us to step into. In fact, the colorful and crowded pier contained stacks and stacks of dive boats lined up next to each other parallel to the pier. We had to step over two other boats before reaching our own dive boat.

Mae Haad Pier

The instructors and the local boat crew tossed the gear bags and air tanks effortlessly from one person’s arms to another across the chain of docked boats. Then the boat was ready and we were on our way.

We set up our tanks and other equipment and performed buddy checks using the mnemonic Bruce Willis Ruins All Films to remember to proper order of checking our buddy’s equipment.

Air tanks on the dive boat

The boat took us out to the northwest of Ko Tao to Ko Nangyuan, an even smaller island which has only one hotel and is known for its abundance of dive sites scattered all across its coastline. It has two sandbars, you can see people walking far off either side of the sandbars into only ankle-deep water.

Sandbar at Ko Nangyuan

The first dive consisted of finishing the shallow water curriculum. First we had to do a skin dive, meaning we had to swim around the boat with just our mask, snorkel and fins and hold our breath to do a duck dive.

Then we strapped on all of our scuba dive equipment and swam to a shallow sandy bottomed area. We each performed the emergency swimming ascent and emergency buoyant ascent while the other two students observed from the surface with buoyancy control (BC) vests inflated and masks pressed into the water. Then we refreshed the skills we learned yesterday in the pool. The most nerve-wracking exercise I did involved Holly turning off my air tank for five seconds. Then she turned it back on, I took a deep inhale and ascended while exhaling into my regulator as if I ran out of air.

Divers like us in the water

Because I have a morbid imagination, I psyched myself up for the dives by reading dozens of Lessons for Life columns from Scuba Diving magazine. Almost all of the columns involve diving fatalities in order to highlight what NOT to do while diving. All stories are sad, though most involve very obvious and stupid mistakes.

After we finished demonstrating skills at the shallow area, we swam to Japanese Gardens. The coral reef was massive and teeming with colorful fish. Holly warned us in advance that the Japanese Gardens site was popular with cleaner wrasses who try to be “helpful” by cleaning your open wounds i.e. eating your scabs. She described this as extremely painful so I asked for her help to bandage up my knee and hold it in place with layers of electrical tape. Readers, you may remember I banged up my knee from falling off my bike in Ko Phangan a few days ago.

After ascending onto the boat for a necessary surface interval break, we then dived into our second site Twins. Again, I saw tons of colorful schools of fish and coral here. The second dive involved grabbing a buoy line (crowded with other divers) and going down further to 12 m. It was hard to equalize my ears but the pain was temporary and easily solved by ascending back to my last position and persistently blowing my pinched nose again. Equalizing my ears smoothly will take a lot more practice. Etty’s ears were hurting too badly and Holly ascended with her, escorting her to the boat to sit out this dive. Another diver in the more advanced group had the same issue and his instructor also escorted him back. I had a very good feeling about the Roctopus instructors from this point on, I knew I wouldn’t have the same experience as in Mexico with the instructor pulling me down to his level.

After getting down to the bottom, Holly worked with us to achieve neutral buoyancy. Alex and I achieved it after a couple minutes and it felt amazing to be weightless. We learned to push ourselves up or down with very little effort. We followed closely behind Holly as she guided us through the reef and Buoyancy World, an underwater “theme park” of sorts with metal sculptures purposely sunk to the sandy bottom with seaweed and other vegetation growing out of it. One of the first sculptures I saw was a giant SHARK. Not understanding what this dive site consisted of I thought it was shark carcass since it was stationary. Moving closer I noticed a section of the shark’s body consisted of twisted metal bars like a cage and was relieved to know it was metal. There were other sculptures of a giant octopus, a treasure chest and other nautical-themed things.

I was lucky that my mask didn’t give me any trouble. It never filled with water nor fogged during either dives. My gums hurt however from biting down on the snorkel and the regulator. Both were ill-fitted for my jaw.

Exhilarated yet exhausted from our dives, we climbed back up on the boats. To me, this is one of the hardest parts because you’re swinging wildly against the boat and when ascending the ladder you feel the full force of gravity as your tank emerges out of the water. The boat took us back to the pier where we had to hop back through another boat to get to dry land. Then we took the pickup trucks back to Roctopus Dive Center.

Leaving Ko Nangyuan

I walked back to the hotel to meet up with Maurice. He spent the afternoon in Sairee Village getting a massage at the Lotus Spa. We went to Sairee Beach yet again to swim and enjoy the epic, I’ll even say biblical sunset.

Biblical sunset in Ko Tao

I bought a pareo / sarong from a local vendor walking up and down the beach so we would both have something to sit on and dry off with at the beach that we can easily roll up and take with us. We also picked up some roasted corn from a food vendor. He was making a killing as the waitlist to get our corn was long!

Roasted corn in Ko Tao

Ended the night with dinner at Rim Lae Restaurant at Koh Tao Cabana Resort. It was an upscale restaurant with loungers facing high up on the rocks facing the north side of Sairee Beach. This is the resort with the luxury hillside bungalows that we kept admiring in our photos. There were barely any customers compared to the restaurants lining central Sairee Beach. Only a few grownup couples and families dined there. We toasted with even more fresh coconuts, why not, to the fact that for the first night in Ko Tao: no more reading nor homework!

Enjoying coconuts in Ko Tao

Day 14 | Memoir of a dive school dropout

Day 14 | Memoir of a dive school dropout

We woke up around 6:30am, tired after a short night of sleep but definitely excited to start our scuba diving practice in a swimming pool this morning. Ko Tao is pretty empty early in the morning and the only tourists we bumped into at that time were other scuba diving students. This is the road where our guesthouse is located, which leads to the main intersection of Sairee Village.

Road leading to the main intersection of Sairee Village

On our way, we walked by The Gallery, the restaurant where we had dinner last night. Note that unlike almost all establishments on the island, they specifically ask customers to kindly leave their shoes on. I think this may be because Chris (the owner who we met) isn’t actually from Thailand.

The Gallery Ko Tao, a shoes-friendly restaurant

We stopped by the 7-Eleven so Mimi could get her morning coffee without which she is unable to function. I don’t have this problem. When we got to Roctopus, our instructor Holly wasn’t there yet so we decided to keep walking down to the beach and enjoy some quiet time there.

We got back after a few minutes and met Holly and the rest of our group. The group consists of only four students: beside Mimi and I, there was a German guy named Alex and a Finnish girl named Etty. Mimi has already tried scuba diving two years ago in Mexico, Etty tried before in Finland, whereas for Alex and me it’s truly the first time.

On the floor in front of us, the Roctopus staff had prepared all our diving equipment, personalized to our size/weight (for the wetsuit, fins and weight belt). This included the large tank of compressed air which I thought was quite heavy. Holly made us inspect all the pieces separately, explaining the important things to double check for each one. Most importantly, we made sure the tank had been controlled recently and was not leaking, checked the air level and also smelled the air to ensure it was clean and safe to breathe underwater. Holly told us a bad sign is if the tank’s air smelled like car exhaust or what she likes to call “Bangkok.” Holly also explained how to put the weights on our weight belt and how to balance them so that both sides are equally loaded.

Once we were done checking our equipment, we changed to our swimsuits and headed to the pool that Roctopus rents for students to practice. We did not put on our gear right away however. Holly first asked us to go in the deep pool and just stay there for 10 minutes. We could tread water or even float on our back, the only rule was that we could not touch the sides of the deep pool. After that she asked us to swim 10 laps of the pool. The purpose of these two tests is for her to ensure that we are comfortable in the water and can at least float and swim for some time. Students that fail these simple tests aren’t allowed to scuba dive. The four of us had no problem here.

We got back to pick up our gear and brought it into the pool. There we started practicing shallow water skills. The first one was filling the mask halfway with water and then clearing it up. This can happen frequently while diving and it’s important to be able to get rid of the water without panicking. Before it was even my turn, I knew I would struggle with this because I find it really discomforting to have water up in my nostrils. I tried to do it a few times but every time I tried, I felt the need to come back to the surface and breathe. The instructor was very patient with me and kept encouraging me. My level of stress increased as we were repeating the same exercise over and over again. Eventually Holly decided to skip me and get back to it later. Mimi was the last on line and did not have a problem clearing her mask.

The next skill to practice was taking our regulators out of our mouths and putting it back in to breathe again. There are two ways to clear out the water from the regulator: blowing air with your mouth or using the purge button. We had to be familiar with both. This was a bit easier for me but at that point I felt like it was hard for me to stay under the water for too long. While others were repeating the moves, I kept coming back up to the surface. Holly understood I wasn’t comfortable and we talked a bit while Mimi was listening on the side. I think I was panicked and started to feel pins and needles in my fingers and toes. That’s when I decided that I should probably pass on scuba diving, at least for now. Mimi asked me to at least stick with the swimming pool practice but I felt too stressed to keep going and did not see the point if I wasn’t going to dive in the ocean anyway. In retrospect perhaps I should have forced myself in the pool (since there is zero risk of drowning or depth / pressure-related issues). I took my gear off and went to walk on the beach while Mimi completed her training session in the swimming pool.

When she was done, it was around 11am and we went for an early lunch at Su Chilli, one of the best rated restaurants on the island. Mimi was a bit disappointed but also very understanding. I would have reacted the same way, and felt pretty sad myself that I would not be able to share this amazing experience with her. We came back to Roctopuss since she had to attend another academics session. I talked to the manager there and they offered me a refund. We were hoping for a full refund but they only gave me back 55% of the total package cost. I left Mimi to her class room and headed back to the hotel to take a nap.

Before 2pm, I was awaken by someone saying “Housekeeping!” at the door. Still groggy from sleep, I opened the door to realize it was just my cute fiancee playing a joke on me. Later, we went to the beach and swam in the super shallow water. Stray dogs were in the water and of course Mimi could not resist petting one of them.

Dogs were also playing on the beach. Cute right? What if I told you that one of these dogs did #2 in the water a few minutes earlier? At least we were far away from the action when that happened.

We got back on the sand and admired the sunset over Sairee Beach.

Sunset over Sairee Beach

There are numerous restaurants, bars and lounges on the beach itself. Tonight we decided to have dinner and drinks at FIZZ beachlounge and tried one of the Thai beer brands, Singha. Neither Mimi nor I are beer fans but we both enjoyed it.

Relaxing at FIZZ beachlounge

Free entertainment was provided on the beach in the form of very talented fire dancers. Locals were also selling paper lanterns like the one that can be seen ascending in the sky in the video below.

We did not stay out late since Mimi still had more homework to do for her scuba diving certification and was in need of rest before her first open water dives the next day!

Day 13 | Back to school in Ko Tao, starting our Open Water Diving certification course

Day 13 | Back to school in Ko Tao, starting our Open Water Diving certification course

Our friendly hotel receptionist Bobo here at First Villa Ko Phangan picked us up from our room early this morning. She escorted us to a taxi that she shared with us to the Thong Sala pier for our early Seatran Discovery ferry to our next Thai island Ko Tao, which means “Turtle Island” in Thai.

She told us about how she loves her job and loves getting to know all her guests on a personal level. For practical purposes, it allows her to shoo away non-hotel guests who come and use the pool and facilities which seems to happen quite a bit and with large groups.

She was proud of learning all her guests’ names by identifying cartoons or celebrities that they resemble. She remembered me because I look like Mulan (too easy, c’mon). She remembered Maurice because he looks like the guy from Night at the Museum. Ben Stiller? Yes! Ben Stiller, she laughs. Bobo told us another guest at the hotel looks just like Mr. Grey while his partner wears glasses and has that mousy look of the girl from the movie (Anastasia Steele).

Today was the first time it rained since we started our long trip. Short bursts of downpours as is typical of the tropics. We waited at the pier wearing our cheesy ferry stickers which the workers use to herd the confused tourists to their correct ferries and destinations.

Seatran ferry to Ko Tao
We enjoyed our low key yet active stay in Ko Phangan despite not going to any of its many full moon, half moon, black moon and pre-moon parties that the island is infamous for. Maurice spotted this drunk dog at the pier who did partake it a little tipple.

Full moon party dog
The ferry ride to tiny Ko Tao was longer than the one between Ko Samui and Ko Phangan, this time we kept the bags indoors to avoid the waves getting our clothes wet.

Upon arriving at the pier at Ko Tao, there were dozens of drivers holding up signs of various resorts and dive shops around the island. We didn’t see one for Roctopus Dive which is where we pre-booked their well-reviewed SSI Open Water Course. Seeing our confused look at least two taxi drivers kept trying to get our business by saying how far Roctopus’s shop is and that they’ll drive us over for a fair price. We kept walking away from the persistent driver as I pulled up my phone to find the confirmation email from Roctopus explaining that they have a storefront located across the street from the pier and that they provide a free ride into Sairee Beach where their actual dive shop / school is located. Frustrating to see how the drivers try to fool you out of a dollar knowing full well the popular dive shop provides free pickup.

Bobo warned us about this behavior earlier today in Ko Phangan, which is why First Villa stopped offering their own pier pickup service because taxi drivers were whisking their guests away at the pier and effectively double-charging them.

At Roctopus Dive, we talked to a few of their friendly staff and completed our course registration on their computer. We were told to come back at 4 pm to begin our Open Water Course orientation with other students. In the meanwhile, they gave us directions to our hotel the Jolly Guesthouse in Sairee Village and recommended we check out Sairee Beach. A nice perk of their relatively new location at Wind Beach Resort is that their students get access to the resort’s pool and other facilities.

We proceeded to Jolly Guesthouse, an 8 minute walk from Roctopus, to check in. The location is not bad and the rooms are very clean but this was the smallest and most basic room we’ve been to thus far.

We went to beautiful Sairee Beach for lunch. It was almost as stunning as Ko Phi Phi in my opinion but I liked it better since the beach stretches out longer, there is more activity, beach bars / restaurants and trees providing shade.

Lunch on Sairee Beach, Ko Tao
View to the south side of the island.

Sairee Beach south
View to the north side of the island which has luxury bungalows built into the hills.

Sairee Beach north
Like Ko Phi Phi, it’s littered with young, fit and attractive tourists.

Paddleboarding on a foot of water
At 4 pm, we went back to Roctopus Dive to get fitted for our fins. We sat in their classroom with 13 students in total and met our instructors Rachel and Ahmed who led us through the orientation and later were introduced to our own instructor Holly, a young Australian who started with Roctopus in the last few months.

We were given our textbooks and schedules which involved morning and afternoon sessions for the next two days plus a morning session on the third day. The sessions included academics, pool skills plus four open water dives in the famous coral reefs surrounding Ko Tao. We would have to get to class at 7 am, 8 am and 6 am respectively. Then we watched some cheesy SSI diving safety videos for 30 minutes. The videos were from 2002 and had great after school special music, as one would expect.

Roctopus Dive Shop
When our school session ended, we went back to Sairee Beach to enjoy the sunset and “swim” in the warm, shallow waters. After dark we had dinner at The Gallery which was a nice restaurant with an interesting restaurant / photography gallery / spa concept. I had white coconut curry for the first time which was pretty good but I usually prefer my Thai curries spicier.

We also goofed off at 7/11 while stocking up on water for our days in Ko Tao. This 7/11 is smack in the middle of the town’s main intersection and we probably each came here at least twice a day everyday.

Happy potato chip smiles
Back at Jolly Guesthouse, I did my dive course reading assignment (~110 pages) and its corresponding homework late into the night in our hot fan-only concrete room with no real window. Maurice spent the whole night writing his yolomimo post and then copied my homework! The guy has got some nerve… Will I be able to trust him as my dive buddy 60 feet under the surface? We’ll find out…