Neither Mark nor I would have considered ourselves beach people, but we were really looking forward to the Thai islands. Because we were limited by the 15 day visa, we had to be selective and only had time for 4 islands. We started off in the east coast of Thailand (Gulf of Thailand side) in Ko Samui, which had long beautiful beaches of white sand and turquoise waters, but we found it was over-developed. We only had 2-1/2 days on the island, so we spent our first half-day at the main beach (Chaweng) just relaxing and watching the sunset, another day just relaxing on one of the other quieter beaches (Lamai) reading, napping and swimming and on the last day, we joined a speed boat tour which took us to the Ang Thong Marine Park where we went snorkelling (not great), sea kayaking (nice views), swimming at a private island (water felt like it was 35 degrees), and visited some viewpoints of lagoons (good pictures).
After Ko Samui, we made our way to Ko Tao also on the east coast. Our sole purpose of going to Ko Tao was to learn how to scuba dive and get our open-water certification. Apparently Ko Tao is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your certification. We signed up with a company called Scuba Junction (everyone seemed to be from the UK who worked at this place), which we researched was the best and most reputable place on the island to learn.
There were only 4 people to one instructor, which was a good ratio, because we heard some other schools had 8-to-1 and had more of a factory feel. Our instructor, Paul, was fantastic and we also had a Dive Master in Training join us for all our lessons and dives, Jack, and he was one of the friendliest people I’ve ever met. The certification took 3-1/2 days to complete and involved watching a series of videos, reading a textbook, answering questions as homework each night, completing a set of skills (e.g. mask removal, clearing water from mask, air regulator removal, removing our air tank cylinder, navigating, hovering, etc.) on our knees at 4m depth and later at 15m depth, and completing 4 dives (first dive was around 8m, the next two were at around 12m and the last one was at 18m). Each day, I was petrified of what I was going to have to do – like take off my mask? take out my air regulator? – especially because there are so many terrible, terrible things that can happen to you if something goes wrong. Everything sounded so crazy and I was totally scared when I was doing each skill. But by the end, I felt really accomplished and proud, and I couldn’t believe that we were diving at 18m of depth by the last day of the course. We had a videographer follow our group around on our last dive, we did some goofy stuff for the camera, and Mark and I even performed an underwater kiss at 18m for the video. Unfortunately, the visibility wasn’t great because it was full moon and the coral apparently were all spawning at this time, which produced this white haze in the water. We still some saw really cool sea life, like blue-spotted string rays, titan triggerfish (which can be aggressive and cause harm), angel fish, parrot fish, etc.
We did have one incident in our group that freaked me out. On our third day, I was buddied-up with one of the girls in our group and we were supposed to complete this skill where we communicate to the other buddy that we are out of air and take our buddies secondary air regulator. Unfortunately, when it was her turn, she took my secondary air regulator and put it in her mouth upside down and when she took in a breath, all she got was a big gulp of salt water. At this point her eyes were huge with fear, we both panicked and we started going up to the surface really fast (which is very dangerous because of the high levels of nitrogen in our body at this depth in the water). Our instructor, Paul, was close by and grabbed us and bought us back down and gave this girl his air regulator, but it somehow went into her mouth upside down again. She got another gulp of salt water. Finally, she got the instructors secondary air regulator in her mouth the right way up and got her air. This whole episode only lasted 15 seconds or so, but it was so frightening, especially because all I could see was the extreme fear in her eyes. I felt guilty because I did see my secondary air regulator go into her mouth upside down, but by the time I saw it, it was too late. By the time we got up to the surface, she was crying and said that she thought she was going to die down there, but she summoned up the courage and finished the course with us the next day. It is in situations like this where a 4-to-1 ratio is good, I don’t know what would have happened if we had 8 people in our group and the instructor wasn’t right beside us. Oh ya, and another girl in our group and I almost came in touched down in the sand on a scorpian fish, which although wouldn’t cause any serious medical issues (so they told us), would have hurt like crazy.
Otherwise, our group got along so great and we had an amazing time. Mark and I have decided that to-date, this was our favourite experience. On our last night, we all went out with a bunch of other people from the dive school, as some other Dive Masters in Training also completed their course on the same day (as part of their hazing, they had to drink buckets of alcohol through their scuba masks and snorkel tubes), so it was quite a party.
For those of you who might be curious, we were right next to Ko Phan Ngan (the island hosting the infamous full moon party) during full moon, but we did not go. Although I don’t think that party scene would be my thing, I still wanted to go and see what it was all about, but Mark refused.
With no time to waste, the next morning we caught a ferry off of Ko Tao, hopped on another bus and then another ferry to the west cost of Thailand (Andaman Sea side) and in the Krabi region, we arrived at Railay. We were only here for a couple days, which is a shame because it was such a mellow place and the scenery was absolutely gorgeous with turquoise waters and beautiful limestone cliffs and caves with hidden lagoons everywhere.
We spent most of our time at Railay rock climbing as it is one of the premier locations in the world for it. Our guide we were with told us Railay has over 600 paths for climbing! I’ve only ever done climbing indoors at a birthday party when I was a kid, and Mark had never done any climbing before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. My arms and legs were shaking by the end of the day, and we only did about 5 climbs the highest being about 30m I think. I was able to reach the top of 4 of the 5 climbs; the last one of the day, I was about a foot short and just didn’t have the strength, but it was so satisfying to reach that top ring and abseil your way down each time. I think Mark was able to make it to the top of 2 of the 5. Apparently, the fact that women are better climbers than men (at the beginning) is not unusual, because men tend to incorrectly rely on their upper body strength instead of their legs, where as women correctly rely more on their legs because they generally don’t have the upper body strength. Needless to say, Mark was enjoying himself, but was frustrated that he wasn’t performing well (or performing better than me at least.. haha).
We didn’t end up having time to go swimming at the beach, but it may not have been a bad thing because we actually met another couple from Toronto with whom we have a bunch of mutual friends, and she was stung by a jellyfish, which also happened to some other people she saw that day. Yikes. To finish up our time at Railay, we also did some more kayaking at Ao Thalane, through mangroves, lagoons and caves, and the scenery was unbelievable.
We had to move on from Railay only after two short days, to Ko Phi Phi, another island in the Krabi region. This island is famous for being the location for the movie The Beach with Leo DiCaprio, but neither Mark or I have watched it. The town area of Ko Phi Phi was tacky and thoughtless, but the beaches we could safely say were the best we’d been to. The first couple days, we just relaxed on the beach and walked up to this really great view point where you could see the two main beaches cut into each side of the island. We were tempted to dive or snorkel, but we were just too busy on the beach reading and relaxing. Locals in the village started calling out Bin Laden as Mark walked by (think it has something to do with the beard?). The US may have claimed that they got him, but the Thai people thought he was alive and roaming their streets!
The last couple days we decided to splurge and stay at a nicer resort where the infinity pool and beach was absolutely amazing!!! It was a tough decision each day whether we should lounge and swim at the pool or at the beach. We were so sad to leave, but the fact that it started raining on the morning of our departure helped.
All in all, we were really lucky with the weather because it only rained one morning and a few overnights during our whole two weeks in the islands. I think Mark and I may be beach people after all. We maxed out our 15 day visa as we departed Ko Phi Phi and moved forward to Malaysia.