Koh Tao, Thailand – Certifies More Divers Than Anywhere Else in the World

It was midterm week at ABAC, which meant Spring Break 2014 for the Staves. Our plan was to spend the week in Koh Tao, an island in the Gulf of Thailand famous for it’s amazing (and also reasonably priced) diving. In fact, more divers are certified in Koh Tao than anywhere else in the world. After receiving our scuba diving certification in a hague of Kankakee the last weekend in October a few years ago (other than an awesome haunted house/carnival we found near our hotel, it was pretty miserable), we thought we owed it to ourselves to get our advanced certifications (which we wanted to complete before our travels during this summer, since we’ll be scuba diving in 4 out of 5 countries that we visit) somewhere beautiful and warm. And that’s exactly what we did.

We were supposed to arrive in Chumpon at 6am after our overnight bus to catch the 2 hour ferry to Koh Tao. Instead, we got in at 3:30am. I have no idea why, but these overnight buses seem to always get us in early. You wouldn’t think that would be the case. While mostly everyone else from our bus spent the next two and a half hours sleeping (aside from a few who spent them drinking), Dave and I spent them grading our midterms. We had a whole week and a half to finish our grading, but figured why not try to get it all out of the way so that we could really feel like we were on “Spring Break.”

Dave finished his grading in Chumpon but I continued grading away all throughout the ferry ride as well. But, by 10am we were pulling into the pier in Koh Tao and I was wrapping up with my final essays. Spring Break 2014, here we come!

We had booked a guest house right by the pier and planned to spend our first afternoon scouting out and deciding on a scuba company to dive with for the week (that was, of course, after grabbing a couple beers pretty much the second we stepped off the ferry – hey, isn’t that what you do on Spring Break?). But, since Dave had needed to keep himself busy on the ferry while I was grading, he chatted up a couple dive reps and had already pretty much figured it out by the time we arrived. In Koh Tao, mostly all of the dive companies also own some sort of guest house or lodging (among other things), where they allow any divers getting a certification through them to stay for free. All of the companies pretty much have standard rate for their advanced certifications (8500, or just under $300), so Dave’s strategy was to try to find the company with the nicest resort to stay at for the week. And when we pulled up to Ban’s Diving Resort later that afternoon, I knew he had accomplished his goal.

As I mentioned above, Koh Tao certifies more divers than anywhere else in the world. And Ban’s certifies more divers in Koh Tao than any other company. We sat down with the receptionist to book our room and dives for the week. We’ve made the mistake several times of signing up for a dive, telling the company what dive sites we want to visit (we of course always research the best ones before we arrive), only to show up the following morning and be told that because of the weather or the wind or the current or who knows what else, we will actually be headed to a different (not as cool/popular) site. By this time, we have already paid and already planned the rest of our trip based on the fact that we’d be diving at this particular time, so we never really have a choice but to go along with whatever we’re told. And, we always leave so angry at the fact that we’ve paid all this money (dives usually are around $40/tank and we typically do a 2-tank dive for a day – so $160 for one day for the 2 of us) and spent our time going to a place that we didn’t really want to go to in the first place. Well, not this time. As always, we did our research, but this time, we told the receptionist exactly where we wanted to go (Chumpon Pinnacle, the ship wreck, and we wanted to do a night dive) and told her that we had the time to wait for a day when we could go there. She said no problem and that she would put us in a private diving group with a guide for just the two of us, that way we could work out any schedule we wanted. We were loving Ban’s already!

We spent the next few hours exploring the Sai Ree Beach area (the largest and most popular beach in Koh Tao). We weren’t staying in that area for our first night in KT, but were excited for our next 4 nights and what we hoped would be our best diving yet.

We headed back to Mae Had (the pier area where we were staying for the first night) and spent some time exploring, which for the Staves means looking at each and every restaurant menu to find the best place to eat dinner. We weren’t quite hungry yet, but we settled on a place where they were serving whole chickens, which we’d been wanting to have for a while. After we had figured out our spot, we went to get a few drinks and watch the sunset on the beach. In all the time we’ve been in Thailand and all the beaches we’ve been to since arriving here, I think this may have been the first actual sunset we’ve seen. It was beautiful! After that, we somehow still weren’t hungry so we found a bar with some pool tables and settled in for a few games. Dave’s amazing at pool and loves to play, but as for me… as hard as I try, I’m pretty awful. But, we’ll be at a lot of beaches this summer so I’m hoping that I will have some time to practice and actually get better… but, I’ve been trying to improve my pool game since high school spending hours in my friend Stephanie’s basement trying to get good at pool because we thought it would impress guys with no luck, so maybe it’s just a lost cause for me.

Anyway, after a couple of games, we were finally ready for that whole chicken. It was delicious and a perfect meal after a very long (and great) first day in Koh Tao. By the time we finished, we were pretty exhausted so we headed back to get a good night’s sleep for our first day on the road to becoming advanced scuba divers.

Dave woke up early the next morning with a fever and was not feeling well at all. I guess the 3 hours of sleep the night before had gotten to him. Dave pretty much never gets sick, but I could tell that he was feeling pretty bad. And, he was burning up. He said he’d be ok to dive, but I wasn’t so sure. We said we’d see how he felt when we got to the dive shop, but luckily, we had a couple of extra days to play with just in case. He, of course, wanted to tough it out.

We got a couple of pancakes on the street for breakfast (they are actually more like crepes – we got one peanut butter/banana and one sausage, egg and cheese) and then waited to be picked up by one of the Ban’s tuk tuks at 9am. We arrived at the dive shop, where we met our instructor for the week, Mark. He had been living on Koh Tao for the past four years as a scuba instructor and it just so happened that we were his last group of divers before heading back home to the Netherlands to be with his girlfriend (though he’s Scottish). So, he was just as excited about getting in some great diving as we were.

We didn’t realize, but part of the advanced certification involved us actually learning a few new things about scuba diving (who would have thought??). We spent the morning going over our diving plan for the week and then going through the diving book to learn some new skills before getting into the water. As I mentioned, our first diving certification was in Kankakee but we also had to spend a weekend in a classroom in Dave’s gym in Chicago learning all the skills. This time, we sat at the Ban’s restaurant overlooking the ocean, so this time it was a little more bearable. Before we knew it, we were done and luckily Dave was feeling ok enough to dive (though I still thought he probably should have taken it a little more easy). We packed up our gear for our first 2 dives and headed out to the boat.

Believe it or not, even though Dave and I had been scuba diving about 15 times before this, we never properly learned to assemble our equipment. Once you get on the dive boat, it’s always a rush to get everything together and get in the water, and somehow, our instructors have just always ended up putting our stuff together for us. While we’ve never complained, we always found it a little embarrassing to have to ask for help. This time though, Mark took the time to go through all of the steps with us and helped us put together our equipment ourselves. He explained everything to us and for the first time, we actually got how to do it. I could tell that by the end of the week, we would most likely never need someone to put our equipment together for us again. Now that we’ll be advanced divers, that was a huge relief.

Our first dive was at Chumpon Pinnacle and was our deep dive for our certification. As a regular certified diver, you can dive up to 18 M (45 ft.). Once you’re advanced though, you can dive up to 30 M (90 ft), which pretty much means that you are good to dive anywhere in the world. So our first dive was practicing going down to 30 M. As soon as we got to the bottom, we practiced some skills, Mark cracked an egg under water to show us what happens with the pressure when you’re that deep (the yolk doesn’t break apart, it stays in tact), and also took something out of his pocket to have us guess what it was (to show us how pressure affects how things look under water). I guessed the object was a lemon (Dave said some kind of fruit), but it turns out he had been showing us a tomato. Apparently, the red color disappears when you’re that deep – who knew?

Finally, we were ready to just explore. While we didn’t see anything really out of the ordinary while we were down there, we did see some huge barracudas (about 2 ft.), lots of beautiful coral, and most impressive, were the schools of hundreds (or maybe even thousands) of fish swimming all around us. Of course, we always see fish when we dive (given that the visibility is good enough to see anything at all), but we’ve never seen this many or this many different types. That, on top of the fact that the water was really clear and pretty warm (Dave didn’t even have to wear a wet suit , though I still did because I always get cold) made this one of our best dives to date.

Our next dive was at Twin Peaks, and this was our navigation dive for our certification. We always wear compasses when we go under the water, but since we’re always diving with an instructor, we’ve never actually had to use them. This time, we practiced some navigation skills at the bottom and then Mark left us alone to navigate the dive site by ourselves. He had drawn us a map while we were still on the boat and then we had to find our way around using that and our compasses. I, of course, was confused and turned around within seconds (I can’t tell one patch of coral from the next), but luckily, Dave is pretty much an underwater navigation genius. I have no idea how he did it, but he got us around the dive site like it was nothing. Even Mark was impressed.

After a great first day of diving, we couldn’t wait for the rest of the week. Dave still wasn’t feeling so great so we decided that we should probably take it easy (no buckets or hookahs on the beach for us tonight). We relaxed for a bit at our place before heading out for what we thought would be a quick dinner. We ended up at a Western place right by our hotel, where the special of the night was 200 baht pizzas (about $6.50) and 180 baht ($6) Mexican food. So, we got both. One pizza and one order of steak fajitas, both of which were pretty legit. The restaurant we were at played a nightly movie, which we happened to be just in time for. They were playing Home Front (starring Jason Statham and also weirdly James Franco and Wynona Ryder), which neither Dave nor I had ever heard of, but somehow we got hooked and ended up staying until the end. As soon as it was over though, we put ourselves to bed and got ready for a day of exploring some of the many beaches of Koh Tao.

Our third dive of our certification was a night dive, which we were completing on our second dive day. We didn’t have to be at the boat until after 5, so our plan was to spend the day seeing a couple of the beaches in Koh Tao. Then, we got a call from Dave’s mom, first thing in the morning with some bad news. Dave’s Aunt had suffered from a stroke almost two years ago and has been in pretty bad shape and in and out of the hospital ever since. Dave’s mom called to tell us that she had suffered another stroke and didn’t make it through this one. Although Dave and I both knew that his aunt was not doing very well, the news, of course, still came as a shock to us. We had (luckily) video chatted with her just a couple of weeks before while Dave’s parents were visiting us in the hospital. We had no idea that would be the last time we saw her.

It was so hard seeing Linda so upset and of course, Dave too. To make matters even worse, it was also Dave’s dad’s birthday. He would have been 70. Linda told us that his aunt’s funeral would be that Wednesday (two days later) and I could immediately see Dave thinking about whether or not we could possibly make it home by then so that we could be with his family. We of course, could not. Dave was so sad about his aunt and the fact that he couldn’t be with his family when they needed him. Luckily, we were able to video chat with not only his mom, but pretty much his entire family all throughout the week, which made being away a lot easier.

We spent a while talking to Dave’s parents and when they had to go, we headed out for the day too. As sad as we both were, we didn’t think that sitting around would make us feel any better. So, we went for a nice long walk to Chalok, one of the bays in the SW corner of Koh Tao. Once we got there, we laid on the beach for a bit, explored for a bit, and then found a cool bar (called “High Bar”) up a very, very steep hill with an awesome view, where we spent a little more time relaxing.

On our walk home, we passed the only mini golf course that we’ve seen since arriving in Thailand, and since we love playing mini golf, we couldn’t pass it up. It was one of the hardest mini golf courses we’ve ever played. On every hole you had to go up some huge ramp (or two or three), through some other obstacles, and then to the whole. It was a lot of fun and I only lost by 3 strokes – not bad!

Our last stop on our way back was for a late lunch in Mae Had by the pier where we had stayed the first night. We had seen a sandwich/burger stand that looked amazing, so we had been wanting to try it. Both the sandwich and burger were huge and delicious, which probably explained the extremely long line forming by the stand. We would definitely not be hungry until after our night dive.

At 6pm, we were back on the boat and headed out for our night dive. As cool as a night dive has always sounded to me, I also think that the ocean at night is pretty terrifying, so I had mixed feelings. Luckily, we dove in just as the sun was setting, so it wasn’t pitch dark yet. I’m not sure if I would have been able to jump in if it had been. The dive was awesome. Definitely our best to date. We had to swim with a flashlight so we could see. Not only were the things we were able to see at night different and so cool (we saw a couple huge sting rays, which is probably the best thing we’ve ever seen on a dive), just being in the water at night in the dark was a very different experience. At the end of the dive, we were holding onto the rope ready to go up and we all turned our flashlights off. It was pitch black and when you wave your hands or feet around, all of the particles in the water glow in the dark. It was one of the coolest and prettiest things I’ve ever seen. Dave said that now he wants to do a night dive everywhere we go. I said maybe every 2-3 times (it’s still scary down there at night!).

We got back to shore at around 8:30, and luckily we had eaten a big/late lunch, because we weren’t showered and ready to go out for dinner until about 9:30, and when we got back to the beach, we realized all of the fire shows were going on. We sat down at one of the bars and had a drink in honor of Aunt Maureen and Dave’s dad while we watched the show. Finally, we were ready for dinner. We had a great Thai meal overlooking the ocean and then called it a night.

We were scheduled to dive at noon the following day, so we spent the morning just relaxing and catching up on emails. We spoke to Dave’s parents (and whole family) again and then headed out to get lunch before we had to be at the boat. We were pumped because we had two more dives that day and then we would officially be advanced scuba divers! Not only that, but we were going to the dive site we were most excited about – the ship wreck. The ship was an American WWII ship given to Thailand some years ago. Finally, in 2010, they no longer had any use for the ship, so they decided to sink it and make it a diving attraction.

We got on the boat and headed out. Our instructor told us that the wreck was only a short trip from shore. After about 15 minutes, he came up to me and said, “Hm, that’s weird, we just passed the ship wreck.” Turns out, he had taken us on the wrong boat. Dave and I were furious. Not only was this the dive we had been most excited about, we had so much time in Koh Tao, we told the shop that we could go any day. They specifically gave us the dive going out on this day and we just somehow got on the wrong boat. Our instructor could tell that we were pissed so he told us we could just hang out on the boat and do our dives the next day. Well, the next day was our last day in KT and we had planned to spend the day exploring the rest of the island. If we waited to dive, we would miss out on all of that. We couldn’t understand why we couldn’t get a speed boat (or something) to take us to the right dive site so that we could get our wreck dive in, but that didn’t seem to be an option. So, we compromised and said we would do one dive today and then go out for the wreck dive the following day. Our instructor said that he thought we’d be able to get a speed boat back from the wreck right after our dive the next day so we didn’t have to waste time waiting around for the second dive to be finished. We were annoyed, but there really wasn’t much we could do about it.

We waited around the boat for everyone to complete their first dive and then we joined for the second. Unfortunately, it was at a dive site we’d already been to. That, plus the fact that we were annoyed already about the mix-up made it not the best day for us, though the dive was still nice (and our longest dive yet – an hour).

Once we got back to shore, we sorted everything out with the dive shop. We would go on the wreck dive the following day at noon and be back by 3:00. Fine. We relaxed for the rest of the day and had a great dinner of ribs and fish and chips (our favorite!).

On our last full day in Koh Tao, we woke up early and rented an ATV to drive around the island. We had been thinking about renting a motorbike, but after a couple of crashes on a bike in Laos, we decided that an ATV would probably be safer. Our plan for the day was to drive around to see some of the beaches around the island. We’d do a couple in the morning, take a break for our wreck dive (and the final dive of our certification!) and then finish up in the afternoon.

We headed to the East coast of KT to Tanote Bay. The whole island is pretty small (only 23 km around) so getting from place to place doesn’t take very long (aside from the fact that the island is also very hilly, so you have to go very slow down all the steep hills). Other than Sai Ree, where we were staying, the other beaches on the island are all very small (albeit very beautiful). So, we checked each of them out, took a few pictures, maybe went for a swim, and then headed on to the next. After Tanote Bay, we drove to Aow Leuk Bay and stopped for breakfast. By the time we were done with that, it was already time to head back for our dive.

The wreck dive was awesome. We were at about 25 M (75 ft) swimming all around this massive ship. Dave loved taking pictures saluting near all of the guns. Definitely one of the coolest things we’ve seen. After exploring the wreck, we still had time left on our dive so we saw more amazing coral and tons of fish. It was such an awesome dive and a great way to end our advanced certification and our week in KT.

As soon as the dive was over (we hardly even had time to take apart all of our equipment!), we were picked up by a speed boat and taken back to shore. Within 30 minutes of getting out of the water, we were back on our ATV and headed to Sai Daen Beach. We made a stop there, Thian Og Bay, Freedom Beach, and Chalok for a second time. They were all beautiful and so peaceful. By the time we started heading back, the sun was almost starting to set. We had a little time before it got dark, so we made one last unexpected stop to Mango Bay all the way in the North of the island. We got there just as the sun was setting and were able to see all of Koh Tao lit up at night from the view point. It was spectacular and definitely one of the many highlights of the day. Even after all of the trouble the day before figuring everything out, we ended up having a pretty amazing and epic day.

We finally got back to our room and relaxed for a couple of hours. We had been out since before 8am and we were exhausted, but we wanted to continue the epic day into the night. We finally both felt healthy enough for a bucket and a hookah (our favorites!). We sat down on the beach and weren’t ready to head out t dinner until about 11:30. Unfortunately by then, almost all of the restaurants were closed so we had to settle for a street burger – but even that ended up being pretty good!

Though the trip was very sad because of the loss of Dave’s aunt, we tried to make the best of it and still enjoy ourselves and get the best of Koh Tao. Our diving was spectacular and we’re so excited that now we’ll be able to dive pretty much anywhere in the world. Koh Tao itself is an amazing island. So chill and beautiful.

The next morning we got ready to head back to Bangkok (another ferry to overnight bus) for our 6 last weeks of school.. Up next, RTW 2.0 – itinerary coming soon, so stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Koh Tao, Thailand – Certifies More Divers Than Anywhere Else in the World

  1. Pingback: Getting to Know the Thai Islands | The Stave Diaries

  2. Pingback: Koh Mak & Koh Kood, Thailand | The Stave Diaries

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