Monday, June 13, 2011

Return to Thailand: Ko Tao

On arrival in Bangkok I headed straight down to Chumpon on the overnight bus - mission: Rescue diver course. I arrived tired after a sleepless ride at around 4am and managed to get on a link bus to the pier at six in the morning. By around eight I was on a small ferry and heading to Ko Tao with the sun blazing and the sea calm and blue - time for a nap on deck! No sooner had I drifted off than I had my first nice surprise! I was woken up by Christina from Barcelona who I last saw in Cambodia as she boarded a bus to Vietnam. Needless to say we were both surprised and spent the rest of the trip to the island chatting about what we had been up to.

The arrival at Ko Tao afforded some stunning views as it was a beautiful sunny day. It was the first and only Thai island I visited but I was not disappointed. We berthed at a rickety wooden pier and the small army of backpackers headed off to find accomodation. My first mission was to find a good place to do my PADI Rescue Diver course before the extreme lack of sleep I was suffering from prevented all my mental faculties from working. It took me a few hours but eventually I settled on Sairee Cottage, a nice small establishment with friendly staff all round. I prefer the smaller schools as it does tend to mean smaller class groups resulting in more one to one attention from the instructors. Ko Tao is a diver factory with people doing every course from Open Water all the way to Dive Instructor as I soon realised on arrival at my first dive site 'Japanese Gardens', for a quick refresher course. The place was swamped with five boats from different companies and maybe as many as fifty divers milling around in different areas doing either fun dives or several of the different courses.

The diving in Ko Tao is absolutely stunning and very unlike what I previously experienced in Malawi. Visibility tends to be good with most of my dives having a good 20-25 metres vis. The range of sea-life around the many coral reefs is astounding ranging from the miniscule (various cool shrimps and pipefish), going on to the many colourful and varied species (bannerfish, angelfish, parrotfish, schools of squid, Moray eels, Stingrays, Pufferfish and Clownfish) and finally on the the most astounding species (Whalesharks and Turtles). I had the good fortune to see all of the above except for the elusive Whale shark as well as a great many more species that are simply too numerous to list here. The turtle who I saw twice was especially beautiful to watch as she effortlessly glided through the water and happily munched on coral ignoring the many divers watching.

Once my refresher course was done I had a day of First Aid training - not much more than a recap after my time as a lifeguard and the course I did at work last year. Then it was on to the Rescue Diver course which is incredibly good fun while also developing a keen awareness of the potential pitfalls and issues divers can come across. The last couple of days were especially good fun although quite testing on my nerves. Dan Hawkes (my instructor) and the Dive masters/trainees did their level best to keep me on my toes with emergencies being enacted one after another with little time to think. Any future dives I go on will be carried out with a much better awareness of mistakes my fellow divers could be making and hopefully the chance to avert any unfortunate mishaps - most problems encountered by recreational divers are caused by mistakes and oversights from the divers themselves.

With the course over I settled into life on Koh Tao as my previous plan to go climbing in Krabi was ruined by reports of the monsoon arriving. Anyway, life on Ko Tao is not too expensive and there are plenty of things to do. The food is excellent with everything ranging from cheap local Thai food, Indian and Korean restaurants as well as a wide selection of western food. I decided to work on my fitness while I had the time and enrolled with a Muay Thai training school for a couple of weeks. Fantastic fun and as with normal boxing a thorough test of fitness. The interval training we were doing there was intense but a great experience and I made a fair few friends while learning there. I had the good fortune to be around on a fight night

when a few of the tourists got the opportunity to pit their skills against some local fighters. Highlights of the night were two of the western boxers, Colette and Max. Colette, an Irish girl who although she lost, showed a fighting spirit that was awesome to see and had most of the crowd cheering for her throughout. Max, an Italian boxer was fantastic as although his opponent was slightly fitter and had legs like tree trunks, he came back late in the fight with a series of high kicks and spinning elbows to score enough points for a thrilling draw.

I was advised that at the south of the island there was a beach called Shark Bay where it was possible to spot small black-tip reef sharks while snorkelling. I headed over one afternoon and spent about an hour and a half mucking around in about 2-3 metres depth hunting for the buggers. I got the shock of my life when I saw my first one and realised that these 'small' sharks are at least the same length as I am tall. I don't mind saying that my heart rate shot up when I saw it although I think it was feeling the same as it immediately did a u-turn and shot off in the opposite direction! Emboldened by their apparent fear I stayed in the water and managed to find another and followed it for about thirty seconds before it got fed up of me and with a tiny flick of the tail disappeared at high speed into the shallows.

I came back the next day with a hired camera resolving to capture images of these beauties but had a lot of trouble getting anything decent. Visibility was low and I had great difficulty focussing the shot while finning as fast as I could to keep up with them although I did see twelve of them this time. I paid the price though as after three and a half hours in the water my prune like skin was all ripped up from friction with the fins causing me a lot of hassle in kickboxing over the rest of the week.

Before I knew it my time was up and I was heading back to Bangkok to rendezvous with my girlfriend who had managed to get a week away from work so we could relax together for a little while. Nothing more needs to be said there other than we had a great time and yesterday she had to head back so here I am now. . one day left of my crazy year out from the world of work! Tomorrow I will probably take it very easy apart from another Muay Thai training session in a nice school I found near Khao San road, and on Monday morning I fly out to Stansted via Dusseldorf. After what will most likely be a sleepless night in Stansted, I will be on my way to Malaga and then finally back to Gibraltar on the 28th. It has been a real rollercoaster ride with highs and lows but I have had the opportunity to visit places and learn things that never in my wildest dreams had I imagined experiencing. It will be good to get back to Gibraltar and work again though (never thought I would say that about work o.O) and I look forward to seeing everyone back home again. Thanks for following me on this crazy trip and see you all soon!

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