Koh Tao

Getting There There are many ways to travel around South-East Asia - low-cost flights, comfy VIP coaches, battered local busses, trains, ferries, songthaeuw - and my chosen route from Kuala Lumpur to Koh Tao in Thailand used as many as possible: rail, bus, air, taxi, train, bus, ferry, songthaeuw. The fun bit was the train ride from Surat Thani to Chumphon - a three hour journey in 3rd class which only cost 34THB (less than a pound), where I think I was the only westerner on the entire train. Basic wooden benches, no windows, no doors (even at the back of the train), cheap Thai food (20THB for rice, egg, and spicy minced pork), fantastic views, and the company of an entertaining Buddhist monk called Mr Montri. It was by some distance the best bit of travel during my entire trip to date - I was so happy I had a broad smile on my face the whole way, which anyone who knows me should appreciate how rare that is. One strange thing though. I had a preconceived view of how monks would behave, and Mr Montri confounded that convincingly. Not only did he have a smartphone, smoked like a chimney, and was very interested in trying out my SLR (with mixed results), but he also had a unique Buddhist view of the environment - after I had finished a can of iced coffee, he asked me for it and I thought he was going to put it in a rubbish bag. Nope - he just threw it straight out of the window. So, monks are just like the rest of us, they just wear odd clothes and sit in the best seats on planes 🙂
The view from the back of the train, Surat Thani to Chumphon

The view from the back of the train, Surat Thani to Chumphon

A monk on a train.

A monk on a train.

Island Life Once on Koh Tao, I booked myself into a luxury cottage for a few nights (Sairee Cottages, very nice but expensive), then went to meet Ben and Fiona, the couple I had originally met in Fiji at the start of my trip. They had been on the island for a month, and were due to leave the following day for Myanmar, so I wanted to catch up before they left. Naturally, their final night turned into a long drinking session on Sairee Beach, drinking Chang Beer and buckets (small plastic buckets, filled with the local whisky and local red bull, with ice and four straws) until the early hours. I'm not sure how it happened, but through the night as people started to leave, they all seemed to hand me their half-drunk buckets - and what's a guy to do but finish them off? This left my balance sufficiently compromised that Graham (one of the diving instructors from Fiji who had moved to Koh Tao) took advantage and repeatedly pushed me off the dance floor into the sea. Luckily the drop was only about six feet, and the water only six inches deep!
Sunset at Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

Sunset at Sairee Beach, Koh Tao

Fish

Fish

My main reason for visiting Koh Tao was to get some more diving done, and in particular to get my PADI Advanced Open Water certification. I chose the dive shop where my Fiji Open Water instructors were based, and this turned out to be a good choice - friendly staff, instructors, dive masters, and one of the only dive shops who did early morning dives. The sheer volume of people diving at Koh Tao meant that getting the first dive done before all of the other boats set out was a very pleasant bonus. It may just be me, but the last thing I want to see underwater is other divers (except, of course, my buddy/divemaster). Over the week or so I spent on the island, I completed eleven dives including the Advanced certification, Nitrox course (which essentially allows you to use a different air blend to dive more/deeper), and various fun dives. The conditions weren't perfect, with reduced visibility most of the time, but some of the dives were stunning. In particular the night dive allowed you to take full-spectrum colour to the depths - if any physicists want to put an explanation in the comments feel free - I probably wouldn't explain it clearly 😉 The final dive was also spectacular as large shoals of barracuda, groups of remora, and many other fish were circling Chumphon Pinnacle. Away from the diving, I didn't do a huge amount. A couple of party nights, eating at the excellent restaurant opposite the dive shop, and chatting with the other divers in the dive shop. Despite that, I really had to drag myself away from the island in the end. A few more days training would have qualified me to start a Divemaster course - free diving for the duration of the course, while learning how to lead dives - but I realised that I couldn't stay for another two months on the island. There would be too much drinking, and I had places to go, things to see. Maybe another time 🙂
Dive site at 6:30am

Dive site at 6:30am

Dive site at 6:30am

Dive site at 6:30am

Off to Bangkok Leaving Koh Tao for Bangkok should have been a pretty straightforward affair - a ferry to the mainland, then a night bus to Bangkok. Easy, right? I made my first mistake by not checking which of the two ferry companies I would be travelling with. Instead of the comfy, roomy, stable and fast Lomphrayah catamaran, I had a ticket for the slow, cramped, monohull run by Songserm. By the time I got on board there were no seats left inside, so Sihem (a French girl that I'd been chatting to at the terminal) and I were forced to sit on the gangway outside, legs hanging over the side of the boat. Now this might have been pleasant in perfect conditions, but this day wasn't perfect - occasional light rain, medium swells in the sea, the boat constantly rolling. I hate to think was the inside of the boat was like, but outside was cold, wet, people being sick over the side, which combined with the wind made for a very unpleasant experience. Fear of sliding through the railings into the sea and the unremitting spray meant a lot of people, me included, wrapped up with whoever was next to them to try to create a sense of safety and retain some warmth. When the boat closed in to shore three hours later, and the weather eased, I thought that the rest of the trip could be used to recover - no so 🙁 The second mistake was to pick the rearward facing bench on the bus. Eight hours with no reclining seat, constant noise, an hour-long breakdown made for a very unhappy sleep-deprived Rich. By the time I reached my hostel in Bangkok I was totally broken, and spent the best part of four days in bed recovering…
The view from the cheap seats - Koh Tao to Chumphon

The view from the cheap seats - Koh Tao to Chumphon

Tips: DON'T GET THE SONGSERM BOAT! DON'T SIT ON A REAR-FACING BENCH ON AN OVERNIGHT BUS! Links: New Way Diving
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