Tag Archives: Koh Tao

Koh Tao 1- 24 August

Our home for the last few weeks has been a little piece of tropical paradise called Koh Tao, or Turtle Island (not that we’ve seen any turtles, but allegedly a few still remain).

STOP PRESS: I was in the middle of posting this when Keith came sprinting back from a spot of snorkelling to announce he has just seen a turtle.  I am green with envy!

Despite being just 3.4 km wide and 7.6 km long Koh Tao manages to pack in over 60 dive schools around its sandy beaches and boulder-strewn capes, and so much competition makes it one of the cheapest places in the world to get your Open Water certification. Friendly locals, clear water, acres of coral, and more sea life than you can imagine makes Koh Tao THE place to learn to dive. It’s also got some fine snorkelling, breath-taking scenery, great bars and a very hard-working vet who’s always happy for volunteers to wield a poop-scoop.

We’ve fallen so in love with the place that we’ve been seriously tempted to spend the next few months here training as professional Dive Masters. It’s funny to think we hadn’t even realised we wanted to learn to dive until a handful of months ago! When we returned to China back in February this year my (Tamar’s) brother had just got his Open Water and Advanced Open Water certificates. He enthused about the experience and soon announced he would to be returning to Koh Tao in August with his girlfriend for more underwater adventure, and so we hatched a plan to join him.

We arrived on Koh Tao a few days ahead of Duncan and Spring and decided to ease ourselves underwater with a ‘Discover Scuba Day’ before signing up for the full Open Water course. Ostensibly this was to find out if Keith’s ears would be cope with the depths (he had repeated surgery on one of his ears as a child) but it was also a chance to find out whether scaredy-pants me would cope with clearing my mask and just being so unimaginably far away from the surface: something I was secretly rather apprehensive about.

The view from Alvaro Dive School: not the reason we chose this dive school, but no hardship either.

The view from Alvaro Dive School: not the reason we chose this dive school, but no hardship either.

Bruno (the manager) and Sascha (our DSD instructor) must have picked up on my ‘excitement’ (I can’t imagine how – I normally have such a good poker face, ahem!) and quickly got us kitted up, onto the boat and into the water before I had time to talk myself out of it. To our delight and amazement (and after only a couple of false starts with the mask) we were soon doing our very first dive. Even though it was only in a shallow, sandy bay with relatively little coral we were instantly hooked (fishy pun intended), and the next day launched enthusiastically into the Open Water course. ‘Scuba Steve’ was our OW instructor and thankfully he was just as professional and reassuring as Sascha had been (I was still not particularly enamoured with the mask-clearing process). The rewards, however, were well worth any momentary, eye-stinging unpleasantness and four days later we were certified Open Water divers, competent to dive to 18m.

Certified divers!

Certified divers!

We were so captivated by the experience we immediately signed up for the advanced course and with the lovely Judith as our instructor we improved our buoyancy skills, learnt how to use a dive computer and compass, dived down to 30m, investigated a wreck (from the outside only as to enter is a more advanced specialism) and did a torch-lit night dive.

Alvaro Dive School’s boat, the vaguely piratical Sea Cutter.

Alvaro Dive School’s boat, the vaguely piratical Sea Cutter.

Spring, Duncan, Tamar and Keith on board the Sea Cutter (with Scuba Steve in the background). Arrr, me hearties!

Spring, Duncan, Tamar and Keith on board the Sea Cutter (with Scuba Steve in the background). Arrr, me hearties!

Scuba diving is a thrilling sensation: suspended weightless in the depths and surrounded by shoals of darting fish, we glide slowly past intricate coral structures, watch blue spotted rays undulating sedately along the sandy bottom, peer at moray eels as they mouth at us from their lairs, and have to remember to breathe when something unusual swims by and excitement nearly gets the better of us. Many fish are curious and fearless, swimming right up to us; others keep their distance and make us work for the privilege of seeing them; and some, like the territorial titan triggerfish, have to be treated with a degree of respect if we want to be allowed to share their world unscathed. But no matter what we see, every time we go underwater we feel incredibly privileged to be there.

Unlike terrestrial wildlife, which generally disappears the minute we spot it (if we even get to see it at all), submarine life is often more than happy to get up close and personal with us (or is simply too immobile to effect an escape). In fact at times it was all too easy to become distracted from our training as shoals of fish swam in front of our noses. From the moment we enter the water we’re dazzled by troops of stripy sergeant major fish; forests of bright, primary-coloured Christmas-tree worms; pairs of sunshine-orange butterfly fish; colourful, coral-crunching parrot fish; iridescent green and purple moon wrasse; serene, ultramarine-striped angel fish; and streamer-trailing, black and white banner fish. Strip-thin crocodile fish flash silver just below the surface. Grotesquely distended sea cucumbers and rapier-spined sea urchins patrol the seabed in slow motion. Giant clams open their soft lips to us. Corals fan out expansively, spread like lichen over boulders, fold over and over like cerebral gyri or branch rigidly like a forest of antlers. Swathes of staghorn coral make the seabed look like the spoils of a spectacularly successful Highland hunt – an underwater antelope graveyard. Anemones bloom like huge, carnivorous chrysanthemums and barrel sponges sit like sunken cast-offs from a potter’s wheel. If we’re lucky we might see a comically-shaped porcupine fish. Its blunt face is about as streamlined as a double-decker bus and its gibbous eyes and ‘o’ of a mouth give it an expression of surprise at odds with its lethargic movements. Equally rare treats are peculiarly inverted razor fish, hanging motionless, head down, tail up near the seabed, and lugubrious metre and a half long groupers, which are a stereotypical “fish-shape” but blown up to such massive proportions they unsettle Keith. In his world big fish are meant to be a different shape to little fish and these over-sized imposters offend his sense of scale. Keen eyes are rewarded with a glimpse of tiny, translucent shrimps or diminutive, dalmation-spotted nudibranches which, for some unfathomable reason, are the darlings of more than one of our dive instructors (although I suppose that for slugs they’re quite pretty). With so much to see wherever we look, writing up our dive log is a bit like trying to remember items on the Generation Game conveyor belt, and a challenge we repeatedly fail to master.

We have yet to invest in an underwater camera so for now these aquatic delights will have to be conjured by your own ample imaginations. Enjoy!

Scuba Steve is trying to persuade us to stay on and do our Dive Master qualifications, and we’d be lying if we said we weren’t sorely tempted. But our diving budget is finite and with so many enticing dive sites still to come in Malaysia, Indonesia and Australia we’ve decided to stick with the qualifications we’ve got (for now) and spend our money diving in different locations over the coming months instead.

One unexpected benefit from learning to dive has been a massive improvement in our snorkelling skills. Keith was always happy going underwater but only to a depth of one or two metres, at which point his ears would become uncomfortable, and I didn’t like getting water in my snorkel so refused to do anything more challenging than drift around on the surface with my face in the water. But our new familiarity with the underwater world means we can both now easily swim down to depths of five or six metres and stay underwater much longer than we ever thought feasible. In fact we’d love to do a free-diving course and improve our breath control even more, but for now the budget dictates we try to glean as much as we can by simply hanging around the dive school and enthusing with the instructors.

Back on dry land our time has been split: Keith has predominantly been trying to diagnose whether our computer’s hard drive is about to go soft on us, and if so then working out how to make a copy of the system to install onto a new hard drive; I’ve had the far more enjoyable occupation of volunteering at the island’s veterinary clinic.

Over the last few years Koh Tao’s only vet, Jae, has waged a successful neutering campaign on the island’s dog population and is now aiming her busy scalpel at the multitude of fecund cats that islanders are happy enough to feed but aren’t comfortable taking responsibility for when it comes to reproduction. The veterinary clinic is currently home to over twenty kittens and young cats, all needing new owners, and Jae is aided and abetted in her mission to reduce these numbers by a small band of helpers who bring in any unneutered stray cats they come across. I spend my mornings cleaning litter trays whilst being used as a climbing frame by a horde of mewling, needle-clawed kittens, each determined to sit on my shoulder, purr in my ear, dance on the poop scoop, upscuttle the litter tray and generally be as entertainingly disruptive as possible. I love it!

A piratical purring parrot.

A piratical purring parrot.

Worn out.

Worn out.

Hello!

Hello!

Yes, I am very handsome aren’t I.

Yes, I am very handsome aren’t I.

Jae, the vet, with another ‘satisfied customer’.

Jae, the vet, with another ‘satisfied customer’.

Much of Jae’s work is done on a charitable basis, and with the current glut of hungry felines on the premises (in addition to the handful of canine waifs and an injured fruit bat that call the surgery home) her operating costs are considerable. If you want to help some cute animals then you can make donations here.

One of the vet practice’s resident dogs.

One of the vet practice’s resident dogs.

Peek-a-boo with a fruit bat.

Peek-a-boo with a fruit bat.

If you get greater satisfaction from helping humans then please visit our Just Giving page (if you haven’t done so already) where we’re appealing for donations for MAG (Mines Advisory Group) who work tirelessly to clear unexploded ordnance and make safe new land for schools, hospitals, villages and farming. We first came across MAG and the work they do, when we travelled through Laos earlier this year and you can read why we’ve chosen to support them here.

JustGiving - Sponsor me now!

One of the few terrestrial creatures than didn’t immediately vanish when confronted with Keith’s camera.

One of the few terrestrial creatures than didn’t immediately vanish when confronted with Keith’s camera.

 Some crabs ‘dry tooling’ on a vertical rock face.


Some crabs ‘dry tooling’ on a vertical rock face.

We assumed this microwave was for bar snacks until we looked a little closer.

We assumed this microwave was for bar snacks until we looked a little closer.

Spring, Duncan & Tamar after a hard afternoon’s diving.

Spring, Duncan & Tamar after a hard afternoon’s diving.

Post-dive entertainment on the beach.

Post-dive entertainment on the beach.

In Thai culture the head of a boat is sacred, so to avoid offence please refrain from impersonating Leo and Kate on the prow.

In Thai culture the head of a boat is sacred, so to avoid offence please refrain from impersonating Leo and Kate on the prow.

Just in case you thought we’d forgotten this is supposed to be a cycle touring blog.

Just in case you thought we’d forgotten this is supposed to be a cycle touring blog.

 

Bangkok to Koh Tao 16 July – 1 August

Snorkeling, swimming, monkeying around, painting the Pino, playing cards…and a little bit of pedalling too.

The indolent mood that enveloped us in Bangkok has continued as we’ve meandered down the east coast of the Thai peninsula. In fact, in 17 days we pedalled just 640km. I’d love to dramatise and announce with world-weary stoicism that it’s the cumulative effect of many hard months on the road that’s reduced us to our current enfeebled state…but in reality we simply have no particular deadline driving us at present and are really enjoying beach life.

The mid-afternoon sun tends to have a soporific effect on us.

The mid-afternoon sun tends to have a soporific effect on us.

We left the hustle and bustle of Bangkok slowly…which is pretty much the only speed possible on Bangkok’s traffic-choked streets. There’s only one main road to take you down the peninsula from the city, and so, unsurprisingly, it’s usually quite busy, especially at the weekend with hordes of urbanites heading out to Hua Hin. However, our Bangkok hosts Paul and Natt showed us a cunning route to avoid the worst of the traffic. Instead of heading west, we headed south east from Bangkok on Sukumvit Road. At Samut Prakan we heaved bags, bike and trailer onto a small river ferry which took us across the Chao Phra Ya River.

Keith and Pino on the Chao Phra Ya river crossing.

Keith and Pino on the Chao Phra Ya river crossing.

We then followed a canal-side road west to Samut Sakhon where we were forced onto the main road for the next 40 or so km, but after that took a quiet back-road past sea salt fields and shrimp farms from just after Samut Songkran all the way to Hua Hin.

Using techniques very similar to those we saw in France in 2011, the Thais evaporate sea water from shallow ponds to extract the salt.

Using techniques very similar to those we saw in France in 2011, the Thais evaporate sea water from shallow ponds to extract the salt.

Salt for sale on the highway.

Salt for sale on the highway.

Chasing down lunch.  If you can’t quite make sense of the picture this is a rear view of a motorbike with a sidecar kitchen. The lady riding pillion (visible) is cooking whilst her partner (not visible) drives the motorbike. The food smelled so good as they passed us that we put on a spurt and flagged them down.

Chasing down lunch. If you can’t quite make sense of the picture this is a rear view of a motorbike with a sidecar kitchen. The lady riding pillion (visible) is cooking whilst her partner (not visible) drives the motorbike. The food smelled so good as they passed us that we put on a spurt and flagged them down.

Although we’d spent a weekend in Hua Hin for the bike hash we hadn’t really seen much of the town as we’d been based at a hotel out on the southern edge, away from the main tourist centre. This time we booked into the Mod Guesthouse which is built out over the sea on stilts and well-located for pottering around the tourist markets. If you stay at Mod try to get room 10 at the farthest end, out over the sea. It’s the lightest, airiest room with the best views. We liked it so much we stayed for 4 nights.

Keith tried out the snorkel, mask and fins we’d bought in Bangkok, but reported visibility to be next to nothing in the turbid water, so I decided to wait and christen my snorkelling kit in a more visually profitable location.

The night we arrived we met up with John (a friend of Paul and Natt’s) and had a splendidly chatty evening with him. We’d met up mid-afternoon and the plan had been to relocate during the evening to a bar showing the Tour de France…but the next thing we knew it was closing time and the TdF was over. It felt like our conversation had only just begun though as John’s such an interesting guy – thanks for a brilliant evening!

The company in Mod Guesthouse was also very friendly. We particularly enjoyed meeting the family from Crawley in West Sussex. Small world!

From Hua Hin we rolled along coastal roads to Prachuap Khiri Khan, the county town. The place to stay in Prachuap is a guesthouse called Maggie’s. The rooms are basic, but there’s a kitchen and large sitting room/dining room so plenty of opportunities to socialise. We stayed for 6 nights, but still felt like blow-ins as it seems that most people who get to Maggie’s like it so much they stay for weeks or even months. Our stay was over too soon…we still have an outstanding card-game of Five Hundreds with Aussies Bart and Paddy to account for one day.

Long-tailed macaques.

Long-tailed macaques.

Keith did some more snorkelling in Prachuap, but reported the same poor visibility as in Hua Hin, so my kit continued to stay dry and instead we headed up the 369 steps to the small Buddhist monastery which is overrun by long-tailed macaque monkeys. Keith made the bold decision to take some bananas with which to feed the ravening beasts. I told him it was a bad idea, but he insisted. We ascended cautiously, stepping with care over the casually strewn tails of well-muscled, sharp-fanged simians. On a flat section I stood well back and watched as Keith withdrew the carrier bag containing the bananas from his rucksack. Within moments he’d been rushed by a large male which grabbed the bag, and, after a brief tussle (which Keith lost), the macaque scarpered with its prize just before another one landed on Keith’s back, causing Keith to retreat to a safe distance and give up on any idea of handing bananas one by one to the polite and patient primates of his imagination.

The banana thief with his spoils.

The banana thief with his spoils.

 

Baby macaques are far less intimidating than the adults.

Baby macaques are somewhat less intimidating than the adults.

We went back the next day devoid of food but with a freshly-charged camera battery (our other big mistake on our first visit was to forget to check the camera) and began to relax and enjoy ourselves. The macaques are definitely not to be trifled with, but if you just walk quietly among them and don’t try to interact then they’re more than happy for you to be there and will just get on with their monkey business. If you’re a regular visitor then it’s possible to get even closer. Keith saw one of the locals (who feed them daily) stroke one of the big males on the head – although not when there was any food around – but for strangers like us that wouldn’t have been a good idea. We spent a good couple of hours just walking and watching. It felt like such a privilege to be there. It was as if we’d been allowed into the enclosure at a safari park. In many ways it was actually all the nicer for not physically interacting with the animals and just watching them go about their natural business.

Grooming...the monkey equivalent of a massage by the looks of it.

Grooming…the monkey equivalent of a massage by the looks of it.

In mum's absence a tail is something comforting to hold on to.

In mum’s absence a tail is something comforting to hold on to.

Quite a few monkeys had discovered that scratching stones on the concrete left interesting marks....monkey artwork or just a by-product of play?

Quite a few monkeys had discovered that scratching stones on the concrete left marks….monkey artwork or just a by-product of play?

One of the few temple roofs with tiles left on it...but not for much longer if these two vandals have anything to do with it.

One of the few temple roofs with tiles left on it…but not for much longer if these two vandals have anything to do with it.

After a while we felt much more comfortable getting closer to the macaques....but not too close.

After a while we felt much more comfortable getting closer to the macaques….but not too close.

Feeding frenzy.

Feeding frenzy.

The roiling mass of monkeys parted to let the big boss have his fill.

The roiling mass of monkeys parted to let the big boss have his fill.

A large male relaxing with a full belly.

A large male relaxing with a full belly.

Don't try this at home kids!  I think this local lady has been feeding the macaques for quite some time to build up this relationship with them.

Don’t try this at home kids! I think this local lady has been feeding the macaques for quite some time to build up this relationship with them.

Whilst we loved watching the macaques, we still couldn’t resist a bit of interactive monkey business so we paid a visit to the troop of dusky langurs that live over at Ao Manao, on the other side of the bay from the macaques. Dusky langurs are smaller and are much more gentle creatures than macaques. They have a penchant for peanuts and we didn’t feel at all threatened even when they leapt onto our shoulders and tried to pry extra nuts from our hands.

The comical little dusky langurs were a lot more approachable than the macaques.

Comical little dusky langurs are a lot more approachable than macaques.

Tamar having her eyeball stroked by a langur.

Tamar having her eyeball stroked by a langur.

Gis a peanut!

Gis a peanut!

Dusky babies are orange for the first 3 months.

Dusky babies are orange for the first 3 months.

Keith also took the time at Prachuap to do some bike maintenance. The Pino’s handlebars had become quite rusty in places so Keith sanded and painted them with some anti-rust paint. I lounged around reading books of course, useless partner that I am.

From Prachuap we rolled sedately down to Chumphon taking 4 days to cover a distance we could have easily covered in 2 days, as we stopped off overnight at Ban Krut, Bo Mao beach and Thung Wua Lan beach (where I finally christened my snorkelling gear). It had been raining a little each day but never for too long until the day we rode into Chumphon when it poured all day and we arrived soaked to the skin. We had a couple of chores to do before getting the boat across to the island of Koh Tao, the first and most important of which was to enquire about renewing our visa. One of the guys we met at Maggie’s mentioned that an immigration office has recently opened 8km from Chumphon (if travelling from the north then it’s on the left hand side just as you turn off route 4 towards Chumphon), so even though our visas were still valid for a further 23 days, we wanted to know whether we could extend them for a further 30 days at this early stage, or whether we’d need to wait until they were closer to expiring (necessitating an early departure from Koh Tao). Thankfully they said they could do them early, and indeed could do them while we waited. We tried not to leave too many damp patches as we filled in the requisite forms, and about 30 minutes later we were on our way back to Chumphon (via Tesco Lotus to pick up a few bags of muesli and other items we anticipated would be pricey on the island) with a new exit date stamped into our passports allowing us to be in Thailand until 22 September. Anyhow chores completed, we made our sodden way back through Chumphon and down to the car ferry terminal. It wasn’t a large vessel and after a couple of trucks had driven on the remaining deck space was soon packed with a variety of cargo including mounds of fresh fruit and veg. Last on were a Harley Davidson and our Pino, lashed unceremoniously on the steeply sloped bow end of the deck.

On the bright side, the bunk beds were comfy and we managed to get a little sleep between our 9pm departure and 2.30am arrival. After docking we were allowed to stay on the boat and sleep for as long as we wanted, but only after we’d moved the Pino on to the shore so that the rest of the cargo could be unloaded. OK, so when I said “we” I really mean Keith, and of course, knowing the Pino was standing unattended on a busy dockside wasn’t really conducive to careless slumber so by 6am we were on shore and hunting for a) breakfast and b) somewhere to stay for the next two to three weeks. Both missions were accomplished by 10am and by the end of the following day we’d also selected which of the multitude of scuba schools we wanted to attend.

For the next few weeks we’ve got some serious underwater fun to engage in. Expect the next blog entry to be even less bike-oriented than these last two. I apologise in advance to those of you who want to read a cycle touring blog!

Fisherman at Hua Hin.

Fisherman at Hua Hin.

Thai fishing boat.

Thai fishing boat.

Unloading at the docks.

Unloading at the docks.

Mending the nets.

Mending the nets.

Superficially Thailand can sometimes feel more Muslim than Buddhist, but this head covering is actually for sun protection rather than religious reasons.

Superficially Thailand can sometimes feel more Muslim than Buddhist, but this head covering is actually for sun protection rather than religious reasons.

It's a hard life on the road.

It’s a hard life on the road.

Chalok Bay on Koh Tao.  This is about 50m from our  room, with our diving school just out of sight along the walkway to the right.  I think we can handle a few weeks of this.  :-)

Chalok Bay on Koh Tao. This was taken about 50m from our room, and our diving school is just out of sight along the walkway to the right. I think we can handle a few weeks of this. 🙂