Warning: this is yet another super long post that I started writing a week ago on Friday, October 28th. Life happened, and it took forever to finalize.
12 days have passed since I set foot on Koh Tao last Monday. I just arrived at Koh Yao Noi, an island not many people know of that’s located between Krabi and Phuket (I didn’t). For the next couple of days I am going to be doing yoga and meditation, that’s all I know. My plan is to stay away from wifi, but I feel like I need to get Koh Tao off of my head before I can focus on what’s next, so first: wifi.
You know that feeling you get when you’ve forgotten something somewhere? Well, I kind of forgot myself on Koh Tao. Leaving one’s heart somewhere has always been such a cliché to me, so I wouldn’t necessarily say I left my heart there, rather my thoughts. There’s no doubt of my thoughts still being there, because I was having the time of my life. (Now that’s another cliché!)
So, where to begin? I spent a total of 11 days on the island, which is a long time, although it feels like three, four days, tops. The days were filled with diving, which was the main reason for me to go there in the first place, hanging out at the diving resort, Ban’s, eating, going out, sleeping, writing and socializing.
They say that once you’ve tried it out – diving, that is – there’s no going back. You’re hooked, and you’ll want to stay. Really? I was finding it hard to believe… at first.
Day 1-4: Open Water Diver
I started my Open Water Diver (OWD) course first thing when I got to the island. I had tried to book it online, but failed to succeed due to extremely slow email correspondence, so I had nothing booked when I arrived. I got out of the ferry and someone asked me where I was going. To Ban’s, I replied. They took me to a truck that had ”BAN’S DIVING RESORT” written on it and I thought to myself, well this went smoothly.
I arrived at the resort, checked in and was supposed to be back at the reception within an hour for the course introduction. My group consisted of three Canadian girls, two Thai boys, and myself. Our instructor was a ladyboy called Sara. The first (half) day was just an introduction to the course: we had to fill in some paperwork and watched a video on the first few chapters of the book. By the time we’d finished our homework (yes, we got homework, and finishing it felt like a such an accomplishment after having been doing ”nothing” for so long) it was 8 pm and I was so exhausted that I went straight to bed. I couldn’t even bother brushing my teeth, nothing. I’d been expecting to be staying in a dorm or something, so I was super happy when I first heard that I’d be getting my own room and that it was included in the course. It had no ac, just a fan, and the bathroom was not the freshest, but being able to spread my stuff all over the room was pure luxury, so it was all good.
The second day of the course was going to be our first day of diving, not in the ocean but in the pool. We tried on the equipment: masks, snorkels, fins, BCD’s (= buoyancy control device, i.e. the ”vest” that you’re wearing when diving to which the tank and regulator are attached) and jumped in. I was slightly nervous of how breathing underwater was going to be, but it turned out I had no reason to. It was a lot easier than I’d even dared to hope; when snorkeling on Gili Air my jaw and even my teeth hurt pretty badly, making me feel sick, so my expectations weren’t very high. We practiced a few skills, such as emptying our masks and taking them off underwater, taking the regulator out, etc. We hung out at the bottom of the pool pretty much until noon, and by the time we got out we were not only hungry, but freezing too. It was raining, and we concluded that we’d definitely want to wear wetsuits when going into the ocean.
The afternoon was spent going through theory. We got off as early as 4.30 pm, and I was thinking to myself that maybe it wasn’t going to be as overly exhausting as I’d expected based on the first day.
Everyone was super excited about day 3: we were going to do our first dives! In the ocean, among the fish! Go down to 13 meters. Shit!
What if I freak out? What i panic? What if I end up doing something stupid and harming myself? What if I get stuck somewhere? What if I’ll be attacked by some monster fish?
My head was exploding from all the questions.
And, of course, I had nothing to worry about, nothing at all. All went well. All went very well, and I was thrilled. It was a whole new world. Just imagine how big a percentage of the world’s surface is covered with water, how much water there is and how much life there’s in it. I was mind blown.
Back home I don’t really care for fish. In fact, I’ve been scared of them my whole life, scared of what’s under the surface as the water’s so dark. But here… oh my! Diving with an instructor who you trust, who knows what you’re doing and where you’re going – I mean, you only have to swim along!
We did two dives, and were practicing the same skills that we’d been practicing in the pool the day before. It was a bit of a hassle to get geared up, and I could barely remember what was included in the buddy check (so many abbreviations!), but we survived. It was fun, more and more fun for each dive.
The afternoon was spent going through some theory and taking our exams. The 40 multiple choice questions did not take a long time to finish. We were almost done, and it was not even 4 pm. I could not believe that we’d soon be done.
And so came the fourth and last day of diving. We went out in the morning and did two dives, one during which we still had to practice some skills and one fun dive, for which we had a photographer join us to take photos underwater. For about half an hour we were just floating around among the fish and coral and it was awesome, so, so awesome. Gearing up went surprisingly smoothly as we (kind of) knew what we were doing by now, except for the fact that Makayla lost her weight belt when jumping in so that she had to go back up to the surface as she was unable to descend without the belt. As dive buddies it’s kind of my job to check that all of her gear is okay and in place, but well… Learning by doing.
After the dive we filled in our logbooks, got our stamps, and were thereby certified Open Water Divers. Wow!
Day 5-8: Exploring the island
According to my original plan I was going to leave Koh Tao on Sunday to go to Koh Lanta or some other island on the Andaman Coast for a few relaxing days before going to the retreat. It took half a day of extreme indecisiveness to make up my mind on whether to go stay at a hostel where I knew that two German girls I had met earlier during my travels were going to stay (they were going to arrive that very same day) although it was located in the wrong direction from the pier, or move closer to the pier so that I wouldn’t need transportation whenever I’d leave.
I ended up choosing the one further away not only because of the girls, but also because it was located right next to a yoga studio. In the process of trying to figure out when to go to Koh Tao, when to do the yoga retreat and whether or not I wanted to go to Koh Phangan for the Full Moon Party, I’d ended up booking (and canceling) the hostel twice so when I finally got there, this time without a booking, they kind of recognized me. “Anna Wallin… Have you made a reservation with us before?” Yup, a couple.
I took a yoga class in the evening and it turned out to be the first one of my travels that I didn’t like, at all, so I was in quite a bad mood when I got back to the hostel. I met up with one of the German girls, Fiona, for dinner at a Mediterranean bistro, after which I just went to bed.
When I woke up on Saturday I was feeling a little low. I realized that it was the day of my brother’s and his (now-)fiancés engagement party, and I wasn’t going to be there. This was the first of who knows how many family occasions that I was going to miss, and I missed them. I missed my family and friends.
Wanting to do something active I decided to go hike around the island. I walked all the way to the southern tip of the island, did some reading, did some wifi’ing. I found a quiet spot on an enormous rock with a beautiful view of the ocean. I could just watch the ocean forever. I wanted to go to one of the viewpoints but ended up walking past it without even noticing it and did not feel like going all the way down only to hike up again, so I skipped it. Great success!
Once I got back, I met a group of guys at the hostel. We ended up going out for dinner and drinks, where, in turn, I met a guy who’d been working as a dive instructor (or something?) at Ban’s. I told him that I’d just finished the OWD and mentioned that I’m heading to Australia, which is why I wanted to get certified in the first place. He replied that if that’s the case then I should definitely get my Advanced Open Water (AOW) certificate. Apparently diving in Australia is so good and a lot of the fish can be found at deeper depths. Having liked the OWD course a lot I admit that the thought of taking the AOW had crossed my mind, but having felt like I needed a break from going back and forth to the boat, not to mention all of the saltwater, I hadn’t really thought it through. Then again, I did not feel like going to just another beach just because, so I figured why not. Why not just do it?
Ten minutes later we’d agreed on seeing each other at Ban’s in a couple of days, and so I ended up signing up for the AOW, which, I must say, was the best decision ever. I loved it. I absolutely loved it. (To quote one of my friends: “All it took was a few glasses of wine and a drunken dive instructor.” Well, yeah.)
I had one more day off before the course would start, and was planning to spend it exploring the island. The guys and I rented scooters and set off on Sunday morning, starting out at the North end of the island, then moving North-East and finally South. They really know how to make money around here; all of the viewpoints required an entrance fee in the form of buying a drink. The conversation would look pretty much like this:
Them: You need to buy a drink to get in.
Us: How much is that?
Them: 50 baht.
Us: But we already have our waters, we don’t need another drink.
Them: Then it’s 50 baht.
Us: Okay, we’ll take that drink then.
At some point I was driving around with a big bottle of water and cans of both Coke and 7up in my rucksack. The views were amazing, though, so it was totally worth it. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves (I’d brought my selfie stick, of course!).
Day 9-11: Advanced Open Water
I started the AOW course on Tuesday morning. Having originally planned to start on Monday, but then ended up postponing it with a day because of a lack of sleep, I was super happy to see that I wasn’t the only one who’d signed up for the course starting that day. There was only two of us, me and a Brazilian girl called Lara. She seemed super nice, and we immediately clicked. Our instructor was a 29-year-old American guy who’s spent the past five years diving. I was fascinated by his story, by how he’d decided to leave his job in digital marketing in New York City to move to what he was convinced of being a happier place where people smile and actually enjoy life. It was easy to tell that he’d made the right choice; he was amazingly excited about the diving. I am pretty that sure that I wasn’t the only one who was already thinking of what would come after the AOW.
The AOW is a two day course that includes five dives. We were going to do a deep dive, a navigation dive, a wreck dive, fish identification and photography, and a night dive, all within the span of two days.
I was excited to be back on the boat. The deep dive went well and was all it took for us to be back on track. Except for being 12 meters deeper, it felt no different to go down to 30 meters than 18 meters. The navigation dive was a little trickier, though. The visibility was not too good, and we were supposed to guide Andrew, our instructor, around the pinnacle where we were diving. As if having to focus on breathing and making sure to not swim into coral or anything hadn’t been enough, we needed to navigate our way around the pinnacle with the help of our compasses and a map that I’d drawn. Additionally, we had to keep track of our use of oxygen. There was a lot to think about, and it was clear to me that the performer in me had come out.
Afterwards, when going through the dive, Andrew told us that we needed to slow down, slow down massively. Diving is supposed to be an enjoyable activity, you’re supposed to take time to look around and enjoy what you see. Apparently we’d been swimming around like crazy (relatively speaking, of course), trying to navigate our way around. I can just imagine what that must’ve looked like.
Once we got back to the shore the sky was looking surprisingly promising for a sunset. I had only managed to see one sunset so far during my stay on the island that was known for its brightly colorful, magical sunsets, and it wasn’t really a proper one anyways, so we decided to go to the beach for a drink and snacks. And I thought to myself, what a wonderful world.
We’d agreed to meet up with Fiona for dinner at an Italian restaurant that we’d been wanting to try out ever since we got to the island. Finding the place required some serious navigation, as it was located away from the hustle and bustle of the main street. Apparently the location of the restaurant, an alley with plenty of restaurant-like spaces stacked in a row, had once been expected to become the place to hang out, but no restaurants had wanted to move there before it got more lively, and so it just never did. The owners were super nice, though, and the pizzas were delicious, so if you ever go to Koh Tao, make sure to pay a visit to La Pizzeria.
Once we’d finished our dinner we headed back to Ban’s to have a drink at Fishbowl, the super busy beach bar attached to the diving resort’s restaurant. This was my first time going out, and the atmosphere was great: the music was good, and the company great. For the first time since I’d left home a few months earlier I was feeling super comfortable. We had one, two (many) drinks, and off we went to continue the night at The Rock bar next door.
The rest is history.
The following day was going to be a long one with two dives during the day followed by a night dive. I had to check out in the morning, so I moved my stuff to Lara’s room, as she’d been so kind to offer me to stay there for my last night.
We’d looked into both buying and lending a camera to bring to the dive at a number of different places, but without success. Luckily, however, we got to borrow one last minute from a girl whom Lara had done her OWD with, and so we got to take photos during the following two dives, which was a lot of fun. Both dives were super nice and relaxed: we were swimming around the shipwreck checking out the different fish and coral. The coolest one we saw was probably a yellow boxfish. I never thought I’d say this, but it was so cute!
We went back to Ban’s to have dinner before heading back out at 6 pm. A night dive isn’t actually a night dive as in a dive done in the middle of the night; the best time to go is either an hour after sunset or an hour before sunrise.
The night dive was the first dive about which I was feeling a little anxious, ‘a little’ being kind of an understatement. Who knew what big fish was hiding down there under some rock, waiting for the perfect catch?! Gulp. According to what we’d been told, though, most first timers have the exact same thoughts before the dive and are most often positively surprised once they get underwater. In fact, to me the most uncomfortable, least enjoyable part in general is the transition from the surface to underwater, when you have to breath through the regulator even though you’re still on the surface and could breath normally. As soon as you get underwater, though, that feeling of discomfort is long lost.
It was like floating around in space. Except for our flashlights we were surrounded by complete darkness, and all you could hear was your own breathing. We swam around for a while and saw some sleeping fish, after which it was time to turn off our flashlights, leaving ourselves into complete darkness for about 10-15 minutes. It was pitch black, and the bioluminescence (the tiny little organisms that light up in the water when it’s dark) was magical. I seriously felt like a magician. I was wondering if that’s what space feels like?
I was amazed.
At the beginning of the course Andrew had said that on Koh Tao what matters is who you are as a diver. Well, me and Lara were now proud to call ourselves Advanced Open Water divers! How awesome is that, and who would’ve known? Not me!
So, to close the circle… What are my feelings about it now, just over a week later?
Did I enjoy it? Yes, I did, a lot.
Am I hooked? Without a doubt!
Could I have stayed on the island? Absolutely. I would’ve loved to stay longer, but I didn’t, I couldn’t. I have way too many plans for the rest of the year. (Funny thing how in the beginning I so strongly felt that I had to come up with a plan to be able to enjoy my travels, and now I’m missing my freedom.)
Am I going back? Some day, for sure.
It all comes down to the atmosphere. It’s like campus life, or camp, scuba camp. Day after day everyone’s just diving, having fun, enjoying life. Everyone’s happy, because they’ve chosen to be there. They’ve chosen life on a tiny little island to be able to do what they love, giving up home country level wages, luxury and comfort. It’s so simple. They love what they do and are living the kind of life that they want, and it shows. And it gets to you.
Lara, Fiona and I were all leaving the next day, and as if wanting to say goodbye, the island offered us the most stunning sunset yet. I wonder if it knew we were leaving.
Can you see why it took me so long to finish this post?