Koh Tao: island paradise but frustrating times; Koh Phangan: vindication and recovery.

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We left out hotel in Chumphon at 5.15 am for our 5.30 am check in with Lomprayah. We kinda got peer pressured into buying this ticket in advance at Hua Lamphong train station in Bangkok by the girls selling us the tickets to Prachuap. In the end it didn’t save us any money but didn’t cost us anymore either so was ok, but locked us into going to Koh Tao before we even left Bangkok. As a result we hadn’t had a chance to read any reviews of their service, they got either slated or praised on Trip Advisor.

Aside:

We have been finding more and more that Trip Advisor, although handy, is also a bit of a double edged sword. For less traveled places it’s great as it’s mostly relatively experienced travelers who know what to expect but for common tourists routes there is such a mix of people and expectations that half the reviews need to be disregarded. Some are easy to spot however.

Hotels: For those who are new to SE Asia they will complain about the hard beds (all the beds are hard) and the shower having no screen. This is every en-suite for the whole area. We disregard them straight away.

Restaurants: Complaining about service. It’s not like at home and if you are in Cambodia, Laos or certain parts of Thailand they don’t really care and you’ll get your order when they get round to it.  Also flies on the food, you get it everywhere, its hot they breed its one of life’s little annoyances. Also the food quality is often better at local places though your table may have had a cat’s arse on it before you arrived so be warned.

Attractions: Again more touristy places you get a mix- for example in Chiang Mai, there are a lot of places that have elephant riding (quite vicious too with pointy sticks), people who care only about the experience love it, those who care about the animals loathe these places, there are sanctuaries too though. Less traveled places get more consistent ratings. 

Transport: You get what you pay for- we actually like the local option, less comfortable but cheaper and more entertaining. You don’t often see reviews of transport though.

If in doubt Wikitravel has proved to be a bit of a gem. Some rare finds especially for restaurants and transport options. Travelfish is hit and miss and Lonely Planet is ok but their maps are awful and they only have the western names not in the local alphabet so almost impossible to find.

As we approached the station, the hoards of zombie like backpackers who had arrived on the night train from Bangkok at around 4.30 am were draped over every possible seat, step and alcove. It was the 27th August, the day before the Full Moon Party on Koh Phagnan where we hoped many of our fellow passengers were going there rather than Koh Tao. After a quick check in we were left to sit about until it was time to get the bus transfer. Shortly afterwards we were at the back of the queue to get on the bus. This was a masterstroke as it meant the bus we were on ended up only being half full, so nice and quiet and on the second check-in at the pier we ended up being the first in the queue and first on the boat…. genius!

Ah the cameraman, looks tiny doesn't it? It was! The Koh Tao bags were placed on the bow under a tarp. We were glad it wasn't raining.
Ah the cameraman, looks tiny doesn’t it? It was! The Koh Tao bags were placed on the bow under a tarp. We were glad it wasn’t raining.

It took ages for everyone to board though and then was over an hour late into Koh Tao. Once we got off and grabbed our bags it was into the usual throng of taxis (boat and car) but with the added dive school touts in the mix. Luckily one of the first ones we saw was for our school- Crystal Dive who lead us through the hoards of people to the road next to it.

So Koh Tao, it is an island paradise. Gorgeous blue warm waters, teaming with corals and fish close enough to the shore for snorkeling and far enough and varied enough for diving- it is the island for diving with some crazy number like 80% of the world PADI certification on this one tiny island. Being an island, everything is more expensive and being a tourist resort finding cheap Thai eats is a challenge. Also there is no sewage treatment so everything ends up in the sea….nice.

When we were looking into booking a dive school there were two front runners; both larger schools based on friends recommendations: Big Blue Diving (PADI Open Water-9,800 B) and Crystal Dive (9,900 B). Though we had more recommendations from fellow travelers for Big Blue, the friend who recommended Crystal was a nervous diver (I was petrified) and she had said they were very supportive in addition I actually thought Crystal Dive’s website was more professional, we would have a private room rather than a dorm included, the shallow water (confined training) was in a pool rather than open water and we would get a digital PADI manual rather than have to buy one each for 1000 B ($27/£18). So all in all we figured Crystal Dive was the best for us.

Although I would have liked a day to settle in (though it would have cost us to rent the room), Gav wanted to start that day. Note we had been up since 4.30 am so this seemed akin to madness for me but anyway start we did. The medical questionnaires were filled out, breakfast eaten, our lives signed away on the legal waivers, our room checked in (basic but clean bungalow with en-suite and cold shower) and we were handed our folders and told to return back at 1 pm to meet our instructor and get started. 1 pm came and we met Pelato, our Spanish instructor, and on wandering into the bar to wait for everyone to arrive and instantly met some of our group! Anna, Marie and Christine from Bochum, Germany! Quickly followed by Hannah and Jacob from Norfolk and Steve from Washington, US. 8 in total.

We were then led into a conference room and had 4 hours of videos, quizzes and some lecturing by Pelato. It was a long, long session around 4.5 hours in total. The group was split in two for the pool session 5 and 3. We were exhausted afterwards so it was a quick dinner and then early to bed.

The following morning we had confined water training in the pool, an early start was were up at 6.30 am for breakfast with the session starting at 7.30 am.

Ah wet suits...
Ah wet suits…

The morning session went fine, but for me on getting into the deep end and trying to descend my ears would not equilibriate. I tried and tried until I was in agony and had to retire. It was quite upsetting but I couldn’t do anything other than take decongestants and ibuprofen and try again in the morning as clearly I had some congestion…..

Feeling a bit disheartened we managed to catch one of the many nice sunsets....
Feeling a bit disheartened we managed to catch one of the many nice sunsets….

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The following days for me proceeded as follows:

29th August: Option to redo the deep pool session postponed as still not right, Due to time constraints, Peloto would transfer me to another instructor for the following day. Went out in the boat with Gav et al and they had the first two dives. Gav really enjoying it and a bit annoyed at me- thinks I’m making excuses. Pool session arranged for the following day with Josh. Completed the theory test so in “theory” qualified to dive…

One small step for man.... or Gav. The Giant Stride entry.
One small step for man…. or Gav. The Giant Stride entry.
kitting up..
kitting up..
Insanely clear water
Insanely clear water
It was a boring hour while I sat feeling miserable on the boat, saw a few fish beneath the surface and then I spotted the guys back at the surface.
It was a boring hour while I sat feeling miserable on the boat, saw a few fish beneath the surface and then I spotted the guys back at the surface.

30th August rescheduled pool session as feeling even worse. Postponed to the following day, this I was putting as my last chance to complete the pool session as I was at the point of giving up. Gav completed his Open Water…

…and starts Advanced Open Water with Jacob and Steve. Peloto had invited the group (including me which was nice) for a Sunday roast at a local bar The Hacineda. First in 5 months. I can no longer cope with UK portion sizes!

Insane portions..
Insane portions..

2015-08-30 20.40.16 2015-08-30 20.40.10

31st August: I join new group- a french couple: Francoise and Laura, a German couple: Mel and Tim and an American: Megan who was to be my buddy, with our new instructor Neal from the UK. I managed to use decongestants to complete the pool session but was sore at the end of each session- even in 1 m of water (Neal assured me this was psychosomatic). Part of the certification involved a swim test (200 m) and a 10 min float which we did after the morning session and I got badly sunburnt. Gav was delighted that I hadn’t reappeared at lunch time when we has back between dives. In the morning he completed his Navigation and Buoyancy dives and that evening he completed his night dive. Judging by what he has said about it I don’t think it is something he wants to repeat- it was quite disorientating.

Horrible arm sunburn- you should have seen my face. It seemed to heal but peeled a week later.
Horrible arm sunburn- you should have seen my face. It seemed to heal but peeled a week later.

1st September- Woke up to high winds and actual waves, today was to be my first two dives. The rest of my group had their final exams so I just mulled around until it was time to go out on the boat. Gav had left early on his final two dives. He had hoped to do a wreck dive, deep water dive- however due to the weather they were unable to do the wreck and he had to do fish identification instead which was a bit annoying for him.

Not that you can really tell from this picture but those are waves..
Not that you can really tell from this picture but those are waves..

At noon we headed out on the boat. Neal had suggested that since I was having ear issues he would take me down first. I was still not 100% but was able to pop my ears on the surface so hopefully I would be ok int the water. I felt a bit panicky in the water but calmed quickly. We tried for 10 mins and I couldn’t equalise ears even at 2 m so had to retire and get back on boat, sat out second dive too. Quite upset about it and ready to give up. Neal suggested that the following afternoon he would take me out, we could go from the beach so I could get used to the depth and if I couldn’t get down I would at least see some fish. I was completely ready to give up but after thinking it over, it was a very generous offer and at least I would get something out of it. That evening Gav had very sore ears so much so we went and got some ear drops for him.

Yep again I was back on the boat...
Yep again I was back on the boat…

2nd September- tried again 1-on-1 with Neal, no go, was able to get to 3 m and briefly to 4 and 5 m but it was quite painful to go further, got to see some cool fish though, Parrot fish, Christmas tree worms, anenomies, pink anenomie fish, bunny fish, bannerfish, batfish, sea slugs, etc. So was quite nice. Once we were back on the boat, Neal suggested that since we had the time it would probably be best to go away for a week, rest up and get better since taking decongestants, ibuprofen and covering myself in Vicks and white Tigerbalm was not working fast enough. He also said that they (Crystal Dive) will work with you until you complete the course- they don’t give up on you, its you who give up on the course.

I managed a single trip into the water, was more like scuba snorkling since once again I failed to get down past 4 m
I managed a single trip into the water, was more like scuba snorkeling since once again I failed to get down past 4 m
Last meal on Koh Tao..for now hopefully.
Last meal on Koh Tao..for now hopefully.
..and time for a final sunset
..and time for a final sunset

3rd September- We left Koh Tao for Koh Phagnan on the Seastrom ferry. We had booked two days in a cheap resort- Lime n’ Soda and planned to find a different place once we arrived. The advice here is to rock up with somewhere booked, hire a moped (a risky exercise in the islands where rip of merchants and dodgy dealers rent bikes and charge a fortune for any scratch) and drive around until you find somewhere you like.

Gav was still having ear drops and not feeling great and I was after something stronger to clear my sinuses as that was the most obvious problem and “Tiffy” containing phenylephedrine HCl just wasn’t cutting it. I was told that provided I didn’t look like a meth addict I might be able to get some pseudoephedrine which is a much better decongestant but is pretty much banned everywhere now. Anyway I was unable to get any talking to some rather unhelpful pharmacists when I eventually found one who suggested that I should see the doctor. Now I felt ok and since I suffer with sinus infections in the UK I figured that it was still the cause but just to make sure, we took her advice and went to the clinic. Later that day and 600 B lighter, I was diagnosed with an infection of the eustachian tubes, the one thing you need to be in top order for diving and given some antibiotics and anti-inflammatories.

Finally some vindication that there was a problem in my ears. Really wish I had popped to the doctor earlier.  So we stayed on at our hotel as I started to feel really unwell with the worst headcold and cough I’ve had in years and the antibiotics set to work. After the second day we were in the 7-Eleven and there was a sudden crackling in both ears and then everything suddenly got louder. Interestingly Gav had been mentioning for a while that he was having to repeat himself when he said stuff to me or to get my attention. I figured this was probably a result of spending 24 hrs a day together for months that I just started partially ignoring him. However it seems that I probably have had this infection for a while, maybe since we went to Cat Ba or possibly Vang Vieng (though he had been complaining about it since before then). Each day it got a bit clearer, but the cold got worse.

There were some nice sunsets from our hotel too
There were some nice sunsets from our hotel too

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In the end we spent the whole time at the same resort which got very tedious. Very, very tedious. We arrived in time for the Half Moon Party, but were too ill to go (plus it was $30 a head), the Black Moon Party came and went, but there was no desire to go to that either as the whole place was deserted so it wasn’t looking like much of a party.

We managed to pick up a cheap GoPro copy, this is me trying it out. Hopefully we will get some cool videos with it.
We managed to pick up a cheap GoPro copy, this is me trying it out. Hopefully we will get some cool videos with it.

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Ah the setting sun..
Ah the setting sun..
We went for a small walk once I was off the antibiotics down to the next beach of Haad Baan Tai, our beach was crap (and dirty) this was not much better. The colours of the sea were nice though.
We went for a small walk once I was off the antibiotics down to the next beach of Haad Baan Tai, our beach was crap (and dirty) this was not much better. The colours of the sea were nice though. Also this skirt- not been able to fit into it in 10 years! Goodbye PhD and soul destroying job pounds!
And there were some guys fishing.
And there were some guys fishing.

Our last couple of days on Koh Phangan we decided to hire a moped, people rave about this island and so far we hadn’t really seen much of it other than the large town of Thong Sala- where we arrived. As the islands (including Koh Tao) are famed for the rip off trade in mopeds- charging crazy amounts for even the tiniest scratch- we decided to try rent one through our hotel as no one seemed to have any issues though it was more expensive. Gav filled out the form and then we saw the prices they intended to charge for the cost of replacement, for the smallest scratch it was 1000 B (~$30), to replace a mirror was 600 B ($16/£10) but it ran all the way up to replacing the engine at over 25,000 B ($700/£450).  Oh and you cannot get damage fixed at a garage either otherwise you get another massive fine. I really wish I had taken a  picture of the contract now. Nowhere else in all of SE Asia have we encountered this and all the bikes are pristine so asking for trouble. Anyway Gav is an experienced driver and we would be with the bike all the time. So the guy rocked up with a bike, took the form and Gav’s passport (this is their bargaining chip to make you pay up) and started taking pictures, so did I. All was going well then Gav spotted the tire. Bald as a baby’s bottom. When we pointed this out, he said it was normal. We were not comfortable with this as it would at best guarantee a puncture or at the worst cause a slide and potentially kill us (the place was very hilly and sandy), he got really aggressive and refused to switch so we refused the bike. So once again were left on foot so we went for a walk so we could at least see some of the island… this time heading north.

Towards Ko Tae Nai
Towards Ko Tae Nai
View of Ko Tae Nai and  Ko Tae Nok from Baan Nao Wok
View of Ko Tae Nai and Ko Tae Nok from Baan Nao Wok

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Anyone else thinks this looks like a dino skull?
Anyone else thinks this looks like a dino skull?
Beaches got a bit nicer heading north, we did stumble onto a few private beaches though. I'm guessing they don't get many folk wandering 2km along the beach to get to them though
Beaches got a bit nicer heading north, we did stumble onto a few private beaches though. I’m guessing they don’t get many folk wandering 2km along the beach to get to them though.

P1100216 P1100226It was a nice day, and really hot but at this stage we were definitely ready to move on, I had hoped to be better within a few days on Koh Phangan so I could go back to Koh Tao and finish the course before our next stop, now it will be after…

Would we come back to Koh Phangan? Maybe but go north and hire a car.

Next stop should hopefully be more interesting. Koh Samui and our first experience with Workaway, helping out at an animal sanctuary.

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