4 days and 4 nights on the Andaman Sea

It was 10:00p.m., Friday, April 26th, and I was slowly watching the Thai coast disappear into the darkness. The long awaited day had finally arrived. I was leaving the relentless April humidity of mainland Thailand for the open waters of the Andaman Sea. As lightening lit up the night’s sky, Axl, our lead diver, gave the group an initial briefing on what to expect on the trip as well as an overall layout of the boat. After grabbing a handful of pineapple jam filled cookies, I headed down into my sleeping quarters to rest for tomorrow’s early morning dive.

I woke up at 6:00am, which has become a normal event on my travels. This time, though, I had a good excuse. Full of excitement, I listened as Axl explained our diving groups, the dive site, and what we might see. I hurriedly put on my gear, did an equipment check with my diving buddy Marcus, and did a giant step into the warm waters below. Success! I didn’t immediately sink to the bottom. Sadly, that might have been my only success on that dive. It had been 3 months since my last and only other diving experience, and my rust and inexperience showed. I battled a leaky mask and poorly controlled buoyancy all dive long. Marcus kept looking over in my direction to give me the “OK?” signal. Evidently, my struggles were obvious and with those struggles came extra oxygen usage. I burned through my air pretty quickly, so I cut my first dive short and ascended to the surface. So much for a good first dive.

Thankfully I had a second dive a mere two hours later to redeem myself. I had a clean close shave, adjusted my weight belt, and I spoke with Marcus for some quick tips. It made a world of difference.  After we descended on the second dive, I was floating near effortlessly along the bottom of the sea, taking in the sights of giant fan coral, schools of yellow snapper, colorful clownfish and moray eels.

In between dives we were treated to a variety of treats. Cookies, fresh fruits, spring rolls, sashimi, curries, full English breakfasts, it was all right at your fingertips. I took full advantage and heaped helping after helping on my plate. I’ve never been one to waste food, and I certainly wasn’t going to start.

The trip continued on in that fashion. Wake up, dive, eat, rest, repeat. This continued on for four glorious days.

The highlight of the trip was snorkeling with a green sea turtle. We were resting from an earlier dive (and meal), and heard the boat staff yell out “Tao! Tao!” We peered over the edge of the boat to see a beautiful turtle circling us. I quickly ran to the lower deck, grabbed a mask and jumped in. The turtle was as curious as we were, and came close enough for me to touch. I held back though, as it’s never good to touch the wildlife. We swam with the turtle for a good 30 minutes, and with excellent visibility we could see every detail. It was absolutely breath taking.

Below are some pictures taken from the boat, but all of the pictures of the sea life are pulled from the internet. As I don’t have an underwater camera, I have no underwater pictures. None the less, I wanted you all to understand the beauty of the Surin and Similan Islands.

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(Above: Axl performing a pre-dive briefing)

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(Above: Dive board. Someone gave me crabs)

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(Above: Marcus on the dive platform)

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(Above: Post dive/food coma)

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(Above: Paul forgets what hole the food is supposed to go in)

lionfish clownfish

(Above: Lionfish, left, and a Clownfish, right)

rockmover turtle

(Above: Juvenile Rockmover Wrasse, left, and a sea turtle, right)

seahorse batfish

(Above: Tiger tailed seahorse, left, and a school of Batfish, right)

slug moray eel

(Above : Wart Slug, left, and Moray Eel, right)

coral Barracuda

(Above: Fan coral, left, and barracuda, right)

nudibranch

(Above: Nudibranch)

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Paksong and TCDF Eco-Logic

After Bangkok I made my way down to Ranong for a quick visa run, then on to Pak Song, a small village which is home to Thai Children Development Foundation (TCDF) Eco-Logic. I stumbled across Eco-Logic and regret I didn’t have more time there. TCDF is set up to benefit kids in need from the local villages, be it with education or medical care. It’s the idea of two wonderful women, Ingrid and Rose, who give their time and energy to this cause. When I arrived, roughly a dozen volunteers were tending to the vegetable gardens, building ecologically friendly housing, or playing with children. The atmosphere was warm and open, and I immediately felt welcomed into the family. My knowledgeable host, Chislaine, who herself is a volunteer, showed me around the grounds. The grounds are immense and a perfect mixture of nature and comfort. Dorms, bungalows, restaurants, gardens, school, playground…it was all right there.

I was extremely impressed with the attitude of both volunteer and staff. If anyone you know in southern Thailand is looking for a place to stay that’s off the beaten path, or is looking to volunteer, I can’t think of a better place.

http://tcdf-ecologic.jimdo.com/

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(Above: The volunteer and staff team at Eco-Logic)

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(Above: View from the restaurant area. Food was amazing too!)

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(Above: School for the local children in need. I believe 35 students attend.)

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(Above: One of many vegetable gardens. They hope to become self sufficient.)

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(Above : Views from the grounds, including some recently volunteer constructed housing.)

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(Above: Some local wildlife. I searched for snakes, but came up empty. Which, let’s be honest, is probably a good thing.)

Back in Bangkok

After Songkran in Chiang Mai, I soon found myself back in Bangkok, sitting across from Naama and Noa, devouring vegetarian Indian dishes and ordering basket after basket of butter naan. It was their last night of their trip, as after 5 months of traveling, they decided to surprise their parents and come home earlier (sorry, Mom, not happening). We shared laughs and stories and a final hug.  If history is any indicator, our paths will cross again.

This being my 4th time in Bangkok, and with a few days to spare before I needed to make a visa run to Myanmar, I decided to be a gentleman and class it up a bit. I spent the day at the Bangkok Arts and Culture Center (BACC), taking in the works of famous Thai artists and viewing exhibits on modern Buddhism. I’d like to tell you I understood the meaning behind each piece, but I can’t. I’m sure the plastic table stacked on a plastic chair stacked on another plastic chair stacked on another plastic table (but this time, upside down!) had some deep, thought provoking message, but I failed to see it. Perhaps I wasn’t looking hard enough. That said, there were some amazing exhibits that did result in me shaking my head in admiration and disbelief. My favorite was an exhibit on calligraphic meditation. I think the following picture sums of Thailand very nicely.

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After a few hours of walking around the the BACC while thoughtfully tapping my index finger on my chin, I made my way outside to a colorful street show. As talented as the performers were, the show was stolen by a little girl who ran into the stage to twirl and dance.

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Achievement Unlocked : 90 Days of Travel

Well, I hit my first true benchmark. As of today, I’ve spent 3 months on the road. That’s 90 nights of sleeping in strange beds next to even stranger people. That’s 270 meals of delicious, sometimes suspicious, food in a foreign land. It represents lasting memories, many new friends and even a few conquered fears.

Today was spent in familiar territory. I’m back in Chiang Mai, Thailand to celebrate Songkran, the Thai New Year Water festival. The festivities have morphed from respectful splashing of elders with water into an all out water war that overtakes the entire Old Quarters area of the city. Tens of thousands of visitors, both foreign and Thai, come to celebrate this yearly event. The city comes to a stand still as both water and people flood the streets. One thing is certain; You are never safe and rarely ever dry. Roving pickup trucks filled with ice cold water barrels hunt down whatever is in their path. Kids armed with water guns nearly half their size chase laughing victims down backstreets. I can’t even count the amount of times I’ve looked over my shoulder in fear of an oncoming wave of icy water. If I come home with PTSD, at least I’ll know why.

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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.

IMG_1206 (2) (our jumping rock)

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.