Koh Tao: the diving island. Koh Samui is the resort island, Koh Pha Ngan is for cheap (and allegedly dirty) backpackers, and Koh Tao falls somewhere in between. Not fully modernized, but thanks to the dive resorts and crowds, not real cheap either. Just a little bugger of an island, maybe seven kilometres long and three wide, and packed with divers packed into dive resorts packed onto tiny beaches. It’s also obvious that people come to Koh Tao not only for the diving, but also to recover after partying it up on Koh Pha Ngan. Every first aid clinic prominently advertises the availability of pregnancy tests.
“Congratulations. Enjoy your holiday. Oh yeah, and good luck with that finding-the-father thing. You said he sounded European, right?”
We showed up and were supposed to have two rooms reserved at Ban’s Diving since we had booked our Advanced Course by e-mail. I generally hold out very little hope when reserving ahead because, really, there’s just no chance that anyone will turn away a paying customer at their door in anticipation of someone else showing up according to plan (and who can blame them?). Of course, any place will gladly guarantee you that that is, in fact, exactly what they will do, which is neither here nor there. The point is that we showed up at roughly the same time as everyone else, a couple days after the full moon party on Koh Pha Ngan, and Ban’s was already full. They could, however, provide other arrangements. Just follow Steve.
“We got you a room just down the road at A.C. Resort. Follow me.”
“Sorry, what was that? Did you say a room?”
“Yeah, don’t worry, it’s not too far, only a couple hundred yards.”
“The distance isn’t the problem. Did you say one room?”
“Yeah, there’s four of you, right? It’s a big room, easily sleeps four. Pretty nice, too.” Laynni and I exchanged panic-stricken looks.
“We were actually really hoping to get two rooms. Are you sure we can’t get two rooms?” I smiled weakly.
“Nah, everything’s full. Maybe tomorrow another one will open up. Sorry, it’s just there’s so many people,” he shrugged. “Full moon party”.
It was all I could do to keep my voice from squeaking. “OK, so we come down in the morning and change rooms?”
“Uh, probably. I mean, yeah, come down, and if one opens up…….”
Assurances, pal, certainties. That’s what I need. Lie to me if you have to. “All right…..I……. guess. We’ll, uh, stay here tonight and try to move tomorrow. No problem”. One step at a time.
“Of course, since this is a big room, 600 baht a night, and not ours, you’ll have to pay half.”
What? Now they expected me to pay to share a 10×10 room with my in-laws? What do they take me for? Next thing you know he’d be asking me to trade my backpack for a shiny new spoon. But, no, luckily, it turned out that Steve was wrong. Apparently, the room was still free as long as we were taking the course. Unfortunately, under the circumstances that struck me as a very insignificant victory.
Meanwhile, the four of us feigned nonchalance and made small talk about the various features of our room. You could feel the tension building; who would be the first to crack, and risk sounding as though a communal room was not right at the top of their vacation to-do list? Well, as it turned out, nobody, at least not directly. Lyle and Nadine went for a walk and came back having found another room a kilometre or so away. Problem solved. It also had an ocean view. A reason for moving, excellent work, we don’t even have to admit our fear of sharing small spaces. And it was never mentioned again.
The next morning we started our advanced course along with four others. Two were, predictably, a Canadian from (where else?) Vancouver, and a girl from England. Strangely enough, the other two were both from South Africa and travelling separately. They were the first South Africans we had met all winter. Our instructor was German, and very Aryan; blonde hair, blue eyes, pale and pudgily pear-shaped.
He probably teaches a couple of courses each week and, perhaps as a result, seemed very disinterested and patronizing. He spoke excellent English and, while he had a good sense of humour for making jokes, he pretended not to understand anyone else’s attempts. I guess smartasses are often like that, we prefer to be the only one in the room. Anyway, we watched a cheesy educational video and then headed for the ocean.
Dive One: Navigation Used our compass to swim in a straight line, then, gasp, in a square. Finally we had to navigate the dive site (in pairs) and resurface at the boat. Well, Laynni and I made it about halfway, then I started having problems with my ears. We bobbed around for about ten minutes while I struggled to equalize. In the meantime, the current had swept us well off course. We finally surfaced 200 metres from the boat and had to swim all the way back on the surface. No matter; just like that we had become qualified “underwater navigators”.
Dive Two: Naturalist Took a slate down to record our observations of aquatic life. Laynni drew several sideways bells, some with stripes, some with spots, some blank. Done.
Dive Three: Deep Jacob finally graced us with his presence underwater and, according to his calculations, led us to 30m for fifteen minutes, then up to 20m for another fifteen minutes, then ten minutes at 12m. My estimation: 27m for three minutes, 20m for five minutes, then we dashed around the rest of the site at about 10m for maybe twenty minutes. Evidently, speed was of the essence.
Dive Four: Multi-level This one’s really just a filler, since all dives tend to be multi-level. The only difference is that we were on our own and had to make our own plan and try to stick to it. I have to say that it is definitely more fun on your own. We had only been down a minute or two when we saw a huge triggerfish pluck a spiny sea urchin right off the coral and eat it right in front of us. That was pretty cool. They are reputedly one of the only fish seen on a regular basis that could be considered dangerous to divers. Almost immediately we spotted a second, even bigger one (close to a metre long and half as wide, and, yes, that’s allowing for distorted view under the water, Paul). There was one key difference, though. With no juicy-looking sea urchins in sight he had to decide on a new target. Unfortunately, that target turned out to be us.
Whoa, hold on there, bub, it’s not supposed to work that way. What the-? That bastard just bit my fin! Again! At first I thought Laynni was trying to get my attention. When it darted at my head, though, bumping my snorkel, I began to see things a little differently. Panicked, mostly. The important thing, though, was that, being “advanced divers”, we knew exactly how to handle the situation………flee like little girls. Well, that plan worked for a while, until our erratic flight took us right into the next triggerfish’s territory. Run away! Run away! Whoops, don’t look now, we’ve got more company. Swim, dammit, swim! Eventually, we were unceremoniously herded all the way to the far end of the dive site where we were finally able to stop and catch a breather. I motioned to Laynni, signalling to her how much air I had left. Although I didn’t know it at the time, she was hyperventilating slightly from our hectically narrow escape (she later claimed to be merely “breathing too fast”) and signalled back several heavy breathing motions. I took this to be a shot about how I always use more air than her. Naturally, I gave her the finger. She stared at me in stunned disbelief. Fearing that she wasn’t suitably chastened, I gave her the finger again. She shook her head and turned away, apparently unimpressed with the level of moral support I was offering. A few minutes later we got back on track and found a blue-spotted Eagle Ray. Nice.
Dive Five: Night This was a great dive. You are able to see a completely different group of marine life at night. The highlight, for me, was following a school of huge barracuda while they hunted. It was incredible! These babies could easily have swallowed one of my legs whole. Granted, my legs aren’t exactly massive, but still……..
A couple days later we went to Koh Nang Yuan (a small group of islands just off the northwest shore) and I did some snorkelling while Laynni and her parents hung out on the beach. It never ceases to amaze me that we pay $30 a pop to go scuba diving, yet whenever I go snorkelling I end up seeing things that are just as fascinating. On this particular occasion, I saw a little reef shark which easily lost me when I tried following it. I was still concentrating on finding the shark again when I came around a big rock and practically swam into the middle of a school of guitar-sized tuna. I very nearly “shit my shorts”, as the saying goes.
In other news, despite the various sharks, rays and turtles that we’ve been privileged to observe up close and personal, there is, sadly, still an unfulfilled void in our underwater experience due to our failure to seek out the ever-elusive “penis-slug”. Not surprisingly, that’s only what we call them; I can’t seem to recall the biological name. The important thing, however, is that they all are generously endowed with both male and female sex organs (in fact, some lucky bastards even have two knobs) and, therefore, can be both the impregnator and the impregnee. I’m told their penises are extremely sharp (yep, sharp), penetration is not confined to any particular area of the body, sexual consent is completely optional, and that, on the whole, almost all prefer to be the ones doing the impregnating. Needless to say, when a group of these biological marvels get together the resulting frenzy is said to be quite spectacular. Their other remarkable trait is their impressive power of healing. Regardless of the damage done, they can be back at it within 24 hours, no stitches necessary. Naturally, we’re really hoping to catch a school of these freaks in action but if not, well, there’s always Bangkok.
I suppose that’s probably enough information about sub-aquatic sexual habits so I’ll move along; we are now in Chiang Mai, in Northern Thailand. Thirty hours by ferry and train. The first train was a sleeper, though, with actual horizontal beds. “Wake me up when we get there”; now that is the way to travel. We had a three-hour layover in the Bangkok station while we changed trains. My very first visit to “The City of Sin and Smog” and I saw very little traffic and virtually no sin. We did see one prostitute, obviously reformed and sitting with her new boyfriend: a short, fat, middle-aged foreigner with his short, thinning hair done up in a nifty set of braids. I also got to meet a lady-boy who was being kind enough to help Lyle use the ATM.
From here we are heading about four hours northwest to a small town called Pai. Lyle and Nadine are down to their last couple of days and are planning to spend them relaxing in the Pai area. Laynni is planning to stay with them while I take this opportunity to head out on my own for a bit. I haven’t decided where I’m going yet; all I know is that I’ll be on the back of a motorbike. I figure that this is a perfect chance to go joyriding without leaving Layne on her own. Aren’t I considerate? You can be sure I’ll mention all the sordid details at some point. Enjoy the wait.