Photo Gallery : Sen Monorom, Trekking in the Mondulkiri Province, Elephant Bathing

Yep, I’m at it again. Evidently, when given a choice to do things, I will almost always choose walking through forests and playing with elephants. So original…

I’ve been in Sen Monorom, provincial capital of the Mondulkiri Province for the last few days. I’m staying at a lodge run by a small family (including a 9 month old boy full of laughter and pee.) that has incredible views of the valley. I have my own bungalow/bathroom for only three dollars/night, plus the best curry I’ve had on my trip. No wonder I stayed an extra day. Instead of my usual long winded stories, lets get straight to the good stuff. Photo time!

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(Above: Walkway down to my bungalow at Tree Lodge)

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(Above: Babysitting the lil one.)

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(Above: Camera discovered, right before we almost dropped it)

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(Above: Waterfall #1 on our two night trek. Cold, but just what you want after a morning hike.)

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( Above: Rock/Tree jumping at the waterfall.)

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(Above : My trekking group. 2 guides (Toon & Tet), Ana,from Slovenia, Johan (misspelled I’m sure. Pronounced Joo-on), from France, and not pictured, Maud, from France)

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(Above: Maud and Toon. Toon loved having his picture taken.Seriously. He loved it.)

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(Above : Our beds for our night in the jungle. Comfy.)

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(Above: Cooking sesame in a bamboo shoot.)

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(Above: Waterfall #2, which was right next to our hammocks. Also shown :Ana looking slightly annoyed at everyone taking her picture.)

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(Above: Walking under another waterfall on our way to the elephants)

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(Above: Toon, leading us through some controlled burn areas on our way to the village.)

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(Above: Bathing with the elephants)

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(Above: Me staying far enough away so I don’t get stepped on when the elephant begins to stand.)

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(Above: Elephant emerging from the bath. Looking good, feeling good.)

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(Above: Roasting recently caught frogs for our lunch)

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(Above: Two of Toon’s daughters)

(Above: Language lessons in the forest. I’m not a quick study.)

Disclaimer : Most photos were taken by Maud. And when I say most photos, I mean all the good ones.

One Hundred Hellos

After the depressing day that was the Killing Fields and S-21, I needed a pick me up. I decided it was time to move on and grabbed the early bus to Kratie (Kra-cheh), a sleepy town known for critically endangered Irrawaddy dolphins, sunsets, and the Mekong River Discovery Trail. The 7 hour bus ride was…cozy. Side note, but I swear that in every possible opportunity, regardless of plane, train or bus, the people sitting in front of me immediately throw their seats back as far as possible, and don’t move until we arrive at our destination. So there they are on the bus, happily snoring away, and I’m doing my best accordion impression. After removing my knees from my nose, I chose the most passive aggressive approach (naturally) and started hitting their chair. Nope, doesn’t help. Now I’ve turned their seat into a massage chair from Brookstone. Next time I’ll just try asking them to move. It’s just crazy enough to work.

Anyways, I woke up the morning of the 18th, grabbed a quick bite, rented a bicycle and started peddling north on the Discovery Trail. It was 15km to the area of the river where the dolphins are known to live, and I was ready to enjoy the countryside. With the ever expanding Mekong River on my left and stilted bamboo huts and grain fields on my right, I rolled across the bumpy roads of Kratie Province.

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As I peddled, I would pass home after home. Many homes had a business stand out front, perhaps selling sugar cane or dried bananas. These stands, normally run by the matriarch of the family, were often surrounded by children as well. It was then I began hearing “Hello! Howareyu? Whaisyurname?” Grinning ear to ear, I answered each call with a big “HELLO! My name is Larry. What is yours?” and gave them a long wave. Hellos are contagious, and even more so, addictive. Soon I was the one yelling out “Hello”, regardless of age or situation. Old man sleeping in hammock? “HELLO!” Young couple driving by on a moto? “HELLO!” It really didn’t matter. I guess I was too busy spreading my greetings because I missed the dolphin site and ended up in the Kampi Rapid area, roughly 1km past the dolphins. I’m glad I did, because I’m not sure I would have even gone otherwise. I ended up spending just a short time there, playing with kids and listening to their music with them. One was very proud of his remote control car that played music.

I decided I would come back soon, but first I headed back to the dolphins. Hopping on a boat with 2 other tourists, we puttered out into the Mekong and were greeted with dorsal fins within the first two minutes. I had pretty low expectations because unless you’re in the water, it’s hard to get a good look at marine life. I was pleasantly surprised with the experience, though. Small pods were all around us, exposing their fins and tails, almost playfully chasing each other. Sometimes they would expose their rounded heads, at which point I could really understand these weren’t the usual dolphins I’m used to seeing. I believe only 7,000 of these dolphins exist in the world, a fact which wasn’t lost on me while I watched them surface all around me.

I tried to take photos of the dolphins, but I always shot too fast (that’s what she said). However, for your enjoyment:

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(Above : My crappy picture of an Irrawaddy Dolphin)

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(Above: A picture of an Irrawaddy Dolphin I took from the internet)

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(Above: A picture of Dolph Lundgren, actor and martial artist extraordinaire. I don’t think he’s from the Irrawaddy. Regardless, you’re welcome, ladies)

After the dolphins, I headed back north to the rapids, as it was actually a popular Khmer swimming hole. Huge stretches of shaded bamboo platforms ran out over the Mekong, and after picking up another tourist, Karin (I was still addicted to saying Hello), the two of us headed for a swim. The water was shallow, perhaps up to my waist, but quick moving. The cool water felt great against our scorched skin, and Karin and I floated and thrashed about for a short while. Karin’s stay was short lived (her tuk-tuk driver came looking for her), but I stayed for some time. A Cambodian family, roughly 30 in all, came to my platform and began talking with me. We had some fun, played in the water, and did our best to communicate. Soon I found myself sitting around large servings of curry, fish, sticky rice and watermelon, scarfing down food and learning new words. An hour later I said goodbye and headed back home through another smile inducing gauntlet of greetings.

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Tomorrow I might head over to Koh Trong, a 15km island in the Mekong, for a homestay. Either that or find a bus to take me to the Elephant Valley Project, an NGO which saves abused elephants. But first, I have a sunset to attend to…

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S-21 and the Killing Fields

This will be a short entry, more for me than any other reader. On my last day in Phomn Penh, I visited the Killing Fields (One of hundreds just like it in Cambodia), where roughly 10,000 men, women and children were murdered by the Khmer Rouge. The audio tour was informative and clear, and the stories from both former prisoners and guards alike were gut wrenching. It’s a must do if you are ever in PP. One of the most fascinating/disturbing facts is that bones,teeth and clothing continue to be unearthed to this day. After heavy rainfall, new pieces will be exposed and those responsible for maintaining the site will round them up and add them to displays. There is a large stupa in the middle of the killing fields that houses hundreds of skulls in what can be described as a stone/plexiglass tower. To see the skulls was powerful enough, but to see the cracks and holes caused by machetes and hammer blows…you just shake your head in disbelief.

Additionally, we visited S-21, a former school that was turned into a prison, mainly to interrogate political prisoners back in the mid to late 1970s. Equipment, cells and beds were kept in place since the Khmer Rouge fell, and you can’t help but get chills when you walk into the dank cell rooms. The Khmer Rouge even turned former workout equipment that the children used to play on into torture devices. The most devastating rooms were those filled with all the pictures of the prisoners. I believe I was the first one in our group to leave. I couldn’t handle much more that day.

No pictures were taken.

Catching up from Cambodia

My, my, time travels just a little too fast. It’s been over a week since my last update, and I’m officially 1 month into my trip/life change/life escape/best decision ever.

My last post left off with my hiking on Koh Tao and cutting up my hand a bit. Everything healed nicely, so it doesn’t seem like I’m going to get any bad ass scars. Oh well. Looks like I’ll have to rely on personality to make friends. Sigh…

So I ended up staying on Koh Tao for a total of 12 days, with the vast majority of those days made up of diving. I completed my Advanced Courses and can dive to a depth of 100 feet. I will say the Advanced courses were a different beast than the beginner Open Water courses. The Open Water courses are less “diving” and more “follow your instructor around and don’t die”, while the advanced course begins to delve into buoyancy control and navigation. I really appreciate the skill and control of an experienced diver because they make diving look so easy when in truth, it is everything but. My training also consisted of a night dive, and luck have it, it wasn’t a busy night at our site. Dropping down 60 feet into darkened waters would have been a nightmare a couple of weeks ago, but I embraced it with open arms. I felt a feeling of peace and heightened awareness as I slowly moved across the ocean floor. With only a flashlight to light the way, I was left to focus on only the small area I could see, and sea life that I would have missed in the daylight received the attention it deserved. Giant shrimp, blue spotted rays and illuminating plankton all captured my imagination. My night dive was only outdone by my final dive, which was, simply put, an embarrassment of riches. Blessed with sublime visibility, several blue spotted rays, pufferfish, moray eels and even a rare sea turtle came out to say goodbye. It wasn’t an easy goodbye. I’m not sure what was saltier, the ocean water or my tears.

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(Above: video from one of my dives)

I said a final goodbye to my friends and neighbors on Koh Tao and headed back to Bangkok for 2 days. I ended up in a wonderful guesthouse smack dab in the middle of a Thai residential area. The mornings consisted of snaking along a walking path through Thai houses and emerging in the middle of a breakfast market. You could get lost on the walking path, so make sure to follow these directions. Take an immediate right at the guesthouse entrance, take a left at the large iguana, make a right at the picture of the king, turn left when you smell food, and you’re there. Like Google maps, but better.

After a day and a half of lounging, eating, laughing, making friends and napping, it’s off to Cambodia. Word of advice for anyone in Bangkok…always go with a metered taxi when possible. It eliminates the haggling, it’s comfy, and it’s probably cheaper than bartering since you likely won’t know price points anyways. Unless it’s rush hour of course. Then, moto all the way!

I arrived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia in the late afternoon on the 13th and looked for my taxi. I had pre-arranged for a taxi at the airport for two reasons. First, it’s nice not have to think when you get off the plane. No rushing about. Second, it makes me feel important to see someone holding a placecard with the name “Larry Kuechler” on it.

I hopped in the taxi with a couple of folks I met at the airport, settled into my hostel and headed out for some drinks. It was a carefree evening that lasted well into the night. In my limited experience, the Cambodian people have been extremely friendly. It seems that many are eager to practice their English, and I met plenty of walking partners during my nine hours walking around the city on the 14th.

I have yet to visit the main tourists areas such as the genocide museum and killing fields, as I’m in the middle of finishing the book “First They Killed My Father”, a personal account of a child living under the Pol Pot regime. I hope this book will help give me more of a feel and understanding of what happened during those years. It definitely opened my eyes a bit. When I look around the city and see the elderly, I can only imagine what they have been through. A bit of perspective.

On a lighter note (not that there are many heavier notes), I did make my way down to Olympic Stadium at dusk to watch people perform mass calisthenics. Hundreds of people spread out across the rim of the stadium, all waving their arms and legs with the sounds of Korean Pop music providing the necessary motivation. 8-10 instructors, almost as if competing with each other in a jazzercise battle of epic proportions, lead their hordes of middle aged Cambodian women through endless routines. Sadly, I left my sweatbands at home, so I didn’t join in. There’s always tomorrow!

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A couple other highlights were the National Museum showcasing Khmer artifacts, lunch at a Romdeng, a restaurant that employs street children in hopes to helping them improve their lives, seeing the Independence Monument lit up against the quarter moon, playing Jianzi with two 10 year olds under the Independence Monument (totally not creepy, I swear), visiting the monument for the recently deceased former King Norodom Sihanouk, and amazing fruit shakes.

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(Above: Pool for customers at Romdeng restaurant. You bet I went in)

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(Above: My Jianzi teachers. Jianzi is like hacky sack, but with something similar to a badminton shuttlecock)

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(Above Monument for the deceased former king)

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(Above: Independence Monument)

Let’s Go Hiking!

Alright folks, it’s time to go hiking with Larry! Let’s run through our checklist first.

1)      Improper shoes? Check!

2)      Vague directions to a place you’ve never been, surely to result in you getting lost? Chiggity check!

3)      Leave around high noon, pretty much the hottest time of the day? Cheeee-yeck!

That being said, I did remember to do some things right. Before my journey I made sure I had my first aid kit (mental note, buy a new first aid kit. First one all used up now), my flashlight, a huge bottle of water, 3 bananas, and about a dozen mangosteins (a delicious fruit).

So off I went, sandals flopping on a winding dirt road as I slowly ascended the mountain on what I expected to be a 90 minute round trip hike to Fraggle Rock, which is known to offer a fantastic view of the west coast of Koh Tao. Well I guess I zigged instead of zagged, because an hour later I was on the other side of the island, hadn’t seen anyone for 45 minutes and was now at a dead end. Dripping with sweat, I was determined to keep going. I didn’t see any trailheads, but I could hear the ocean in the distance. At that point an angel appeared on my shoulder. Either that, or I was dehydrated and the hallucinations were starting.

“Don’t even think about trouncing through that forest, young man. No one knows you’re here. You didn’t tell anyone and if you hurt yourself, you’re trapped”. It turns out that the angel had taken the form of my mother. Mom has always been so logical.

“I know, Mom. I’m totally with you on this. But I’m just so close.”

“Well come back tomorrow. You have a week left on the island”

I nodded, packed up my belongings, said goodbye to the dozens of butterflies who had been fluttering around me and proceeded back up the road. A couple minutes in, I noticed a wooden post on the side of the road. What an odd place for a post, I thought. Right then, a devil appeared on my shoulder. It had taken the form of my father.

“Pssst….son. You should go investigate that wooden post. I bet that’s an old trailhead. Just go look…a quick peek, that’s all.”

My Dad had a good point. It was just a peek.  I moved past the first post and began to scramble over rocks and push my way through overgrown foliage. Down the mountainside I went, following from what I could tell was a trail that was barely, if ever, used in the last few years. I pushed my way through thorned bushes and banana trees. 5 minutes later, another wooden post.  Success! Buoyed by this new find, I kept moving forward. Each time I found a new post, the confidence grew inside me. That feeling was all too short-lived as I found myself without a new post roughly 2/3’s of the way down. Again, I could hear the waves crashing against the shore, so I went for it anyways. I was concerned I wouldn’t be able to find my way back to the last wooden post, so I did what any reasonable person would have done; I began leaving a trail of mangosteins. Doing my best Hansel and Gretel impersonation, I walked towards the sound of the ocean, searching for anything that looked like an old path while strategically leaving delicious little fruits on rocks and in tree branches. Soon enough, I made my way to a clearing and found myself staring out at the ocean. Victory has never tasted so salty.

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I had the beach all to myself, and poked around for some time. I later found out I had stumbled across Mao Bay and that it was one of the only beaches on the island without human presence. Content with my accomplishment, I began my journey back up the mountain. The mangosteins were a success, and I celebrated each time I found one by quickly devouring it. Soon I found myself back on a familiar dirt road and began the journey home. Well, until I came to a fork in the road, that is.

Confident from my recent exploration, I decided that it was too early to go home, went left instead of right, and made my way down a dirt walking path. 20 minutes later I found myself at an abandoned resort. It was an eerie feeling at first. Normally this type of environment is bustling with foreigners, but here there was nothing but silence. Bamboo bungalows were barely standing, windows were smashed and the main lobby was covered in graffiti. After a closer look, I realized I wasn’t alone. I noticed a tent near the lobby and introduced myself to a middle age Russian man named Micha. He was a kind man, and told me that he came here to escape other people. It didn’t work he said, as I was the 8th person to visit him today. Just as he said that, 3 more people came down the hillside. Now Micha was up to 11.

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I struck up a conversation with Florena, a young French woman celebrating her 23rd birthday. She was here on a mission. She was determined to find the best place for rock jumping, and this old resort had some of the best spots on the island. So off we went, soon finding ourselves on a rock roughly 20 feet above the ocean. She kindly offered to test the water for me, and hurled herself into the water below. One large splash later, she popped up on the surface, touched the top of her head with a fist (Scuba sign language for “I’m ok”) and swam off. Now it was my turn. I kept waiting for the angel to pop up on my shoulder again, but nothing. I counted to 3, took a deep breath, and pushed off with full force. It was over before I knew it. There I was, bobbing along in surprisingly rough waters, sharing big smiles with a new friend. I wish I could say exiting the water was as enjoyable as entering it. The rough waters made it difficult and the swells pushed me into the muscle/barnacle covered rocks a few times. I tore up my hands pretty bad, and I left a trail of blood as I walked to my gear. Luckily my new friend was a nurse, so we emptied my first aid kit and treated my wounds. She made one more jump and we began our journey home. Tired and thirsty, once we reached the main town we found the nearest fruit shake stand for a well-earned treat.

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It was a long day, but a fun one. I ended it by stopping by my scuba school and signing up for the advanced courses. 2 more days of diving, starting on the 7th, and I’ll be certified to dive 100 feet. I’m very excited, especially since Will was free to be my instructor again.

I showed my torn up hands to my neighbors Tom and Zebrina, an older couple from Germany who have been coming to the island for 12 years. I visit them a couple of times a day and we have become very friendly. Zebrina saw my wounds and gave me a plant I’m supposed to rub on it every few hours.  I’m not sure if it’s going to work, but what the hell.

I’ll stay out of the water and relax until I start scuba again. Better safe than sorry.

Oh, and since I haven’t included any pictures of my bungalow or “home” beach, here you go!

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3 weeks in and nothing has been lost yet!

However, I have misplaced a few things. I think the first misplacement of note would be my shoes. It’s especially impressive when you consider I only brought one pair. Thankfully the trekking company found them in the back of their van and delivered them to me while I was still in Chiang Mai. I can’t imagine it would be easy to find size 13s in Thailand.  Do you know what they call size 13 shoes in Thailand? Boats.

The 2nd notable misplacement would be my room key in Koh Tao. After a long day of diving and dinner with new friends, I walk up to my bungalow door and get a sinking feeling. I empty my bag to find my feelings were accurate, that my key is nowhere to be found. I scuttle back to the dive shop but no luck there, and my breakfast cafe, the only other place I could think of being that day, had already closed. Disappointed, I head back to my bungalow. Thankfully I’ve made friends with my neighbors, so I ask P.J, an American living and working in Taiwan, if I can sleep in his hammock. Sure, he says, no problem.

Sounds great right? Sleeping in a hammock on the beach, under the shimmering light of both moon and stars…who doesn’t want that? Me, that’s who. Oh the beach is great, the moon is fantastic…it’s the mosquitos that I don’t care for. Those flying needles used me as a human pin cushion all night long. All I had to cover me was a towel from that day’s dive and dirty laundry I had let air out on my bungalow deck. So there I am, wearing two pairs of shorts (one pair at my waist, the other starting at my knees. Shorts + Shorts = Pants. It’s simple math, really), laying under a pile of dirty shirts and a slightly wet towel. I leave a crack of space so I can breathe, then hope for the best. Throw in the fact that the beach resorts were playing music until 2 a.m., it’s safe to say I’ve had better nights.

Koh Tao? More like Koh Wow! Am I right? Hello? Is this thing on?

It’s been awhile since I last updated, which is to be expected. It’s hard to get a good WiFi signal 60 feet underwater…

On my last day with my father, I had decided I was going to try scuba diving. I purchased a last minute bus/boat ticket that would ultimately deliver me to the island of Koh Tao, which is the world’s second leading location for Open Water Diving Certification. I researched several schools, hoping to find a good fit. There were large schools that churned out certificates, specialty schools that taught in only certain languages, and several smaller shops that offered a more intimate teaching approach. I made a decision that the only real distinguishing factors between schools that I cared about were; 1) small classes (no more than four students per teacher) and more importantly, 2) teacher reputation. I scoured tripadvisor reviews for teacher references, and found the perfect match. I sent off an email in hopes of booking and getting accommodations, but had to start my journey before I heard a response, so off I went, ready to figure it out when I docked on the island.

The bus ride was unremarkable, and our coach had definitely seen better days. However, what the bus lacked in comfort, the passengers made up for in exuberance. Both young and old alike, everyone was excited to leave the traffic and heat of Bangkok behind and dip their toes into the warm water of the Gulf of Thailand. Eight hours and 13 swatted bugs later, we arrived at the dock. We had roughly 3 hours before the 7a.m. boat departure, so the 60 or so passengers sprawled out on whatever they could find, be it bench, table, ground or each other, in an attempt to get more sleep. I attempted to distort my 6’3 frame so it would fit comfortably on a 5’0 long bench, but to no avail. Limbs dangling in every direction, I watched a spectacular sunrise as the minutes slowly ticked by.

A 3 hour boat ride later (with a sunburn thrown in, free of charge), we docked in Mae Haad, Koh Tao. Koh Tao is unlike any place I’ve ever been. I’m naturally inclined to choose mountains over beaches, but I’m beginning to question my priorities. The island is small, I think about 10KM long and 3 KM wide, with the vast majority of the ~8,000 strong population living on the west coast. The waters are calm, with waves that lap instead of crash. The island is separated by a small mountain range which offers wonderful hikes to secluded beaches. Palm trees filled with coconuts dot the beaches, and people mill about, soaking in the sun, drinking an afternoon beer at the beach bars, or snorkeling just off the shore at an old shipwreck.

I soak in this paradise for a moment, then jump off the boat. My first concern is to find my desired scuba school, Ocean Sound Scuba. I move past the eager taxi cab drivers, find a map and locate my school. I decide to walk it, full pack and all, even though I’m told it’s a 50 minute walk. 35 minutes later (those taxi drivers must have told a white lie), I’m soon talking to Will North of Ocean Sound Scuba, who had been expecting me. I could immediately tell I made the right choice in schools, as Will seemed both fun and genuine. Luck have it, Will arranged a beach side bungalow for me. Situated on stilts and roughly 20 meters from the beach, I couldn’t believe my luck. My own bed, my own bathroom, my own deck…what else do I need? All for 400 baht! (roughly $13/night)

Scuba classes began the 2nd day in Koh Tao, and I watched videos, read my teaching guide and completed “homework” assignments. It wasn’t until the next day of teaching did we get into the water. My class size was only 2 people, including myself. My new scuba buddy was Yaniv, an Israeli who had trouble the first time he tried to learn, so they sent him to Will to retry. Will is something of a scuba whisperer. His patience, understanding and ability to breakdown concepts to the uninformed is amazing. Before scuba instructing, he taught middle school in Canada, and he definitely flexes those teaching muscles when dealing with Yaniv and I. I felt at complete ease with Will, at both 6 feet and 60 feet. The same could be said for Yaniv, who passed with flying colors as well.

Once in the water, that’s when the fun begins. We ran through various exercises, learned about buoyancy, our equipment, equalization, how to safely ascend, etc.  Will made sure we were comfortable in each area before we moved on. Each day our dives got deeper and deeper until our final dive at 18 meters (roughly 60 feet). Starting at 6am, our boat took us about 30 minutes off shore and we jumped into the awaiting water. Once we completed our slow descent, we found ourselves at the ocean floor, surrounded by clams, giant anemones, groupers and cobia. The most impressive experience was being surrounded by a school of thousands of barracuda. Yes, thousands. To watch those creatures move as one, artfully darting away from perceived threats was a sight to be seen. We surfaced, chowed down on fresh pineapple and watermelon, and began our trip to the next dive site. I stood on the deck, watched the sun continue to rise, and was overwhelmed with contentment. What a day and it wasn’t even 8 a.m.

Long story not as long, I’m now open water certified. I plan on doing a couple of fun dives in a few days, and might go for my Advanced certificate so I can dive to 30 meters (100 feet). Either way, I plan on being here at least a couple of more days. I know I need to be in Bangkok by Feb 12th, so why not spend the rest of my time here? The island might be small, but the ocean floor is seemingly endless.

Sorry for the lack of pictures. A combination of spending most of my time in class or on a boat, locking myself out of my room for a night, and a slow Wifi connection at the cafe has made my small cache of pictures unloadable at the moment.