Alex and I arrived into Kao Tao via the high-speed ferry, both feeling cold after spending a few hours with intense air conditioning. Our plan was to arrive onto Kao Tao and search for some accommodation in the Mae Haad Pier area, although we did look prior to arrival to give us an idea of where to go. Our first impression of the island was being herded off into a side street and towards the main two roads on this side of the island. The first place we stayed was called Baan Thai Guesthouse which was a cheapish room with a double bed (600baht a night) and private bathroom however after some further searching we discovered we have a few more places that we could stay at for a similar or the cheaper so we only stay at Baan for the night. The rest of the day we wandered around Mae Haad pier streets trying to find some places to eat that were relatively cheap and we took a stroll over to see Sairee Beach too. We had a cheapish Pad Thai (60 baht) in a restaurant that we ended up heading into because it started raining heavily. In Koh Tao this meant sudden rivers of water pouring down the steep streets. Whilst chilling back at our Guesthouse we also had a power cut for about an hour. They are apparently quite common in Koh Tao as the island has developed very quick without appropriate facilities in place.
We moved to Triple B Bungalows the next day (500 baht per night), whilst also exploring a bit of more the island. Kao Tao is expensive, compared to the north of Thailand, even a back packers staple of 7/11 toasties, cost more due to “island price”. But we found a supermarket to buy some peanut butter and then a bakery that did lovely baguettes for 20 baht. These became our staple breakfast whilst we were this side of the island. Whilst wandering around looking at dive shops we also found the Coffee Boat restaurant where they did large portions of curries for 80baht each, Panang and Massaman curries…delicious.
Whilst in Kao Tao I wanted to look into diving as I had always been interested to see how it felt to be breathing underwater. Kao Tao is known as one of the best places in the world to do a Diving course (either a PADI license or SSI) both due to the sheer amount of dive shops on the island pushing the standards high (about 60-70ish) and the price is one of the cheapest places on earth. The dive sites are ok too.
Alex and I started to feel a little overwhelmed with the sheer number of different dive sites, all offering pretty much the same package with slight tweaks. It was a mixture of the people, the equipment (the inclusion of a dive computer) and the accommodation that sold me on Sairee Cottage. Although the price was more here, it felt overall we had made the right decision. We both booked onto the PADI Open Water which is designed to be the first qualification in our diving licenses. After an Open water, you can dive solo (well with an equally qualified buddy) to 18M.
The basic idea of the course goes as follows:
- Day one (only an afternoon) will be an introduction and a video, as well as some “homework”.
- Day two will be the remaining video and your Pool session to physically learn how to dive.
- Day three would be your first open water dives, Dive one and Two.
- Day four would be your final day diving, two more dives to round out your license and you meet for a video presentation and a beer after.
However, I am getting a bit of head of myself, sorry about that.
Alex and I had spent a few days walking around the island as much as we could in order to both spend some time choosing where we wanted to dive and to make use of the “great” snorkelling around. Our luck couldn’t really be worse in this regard, a mixture of lack of tidal planning (low tide meant you are trying to swim about 8-12″ above the coral) and stormy weather affecting both visibility and wave size.
The biggest example of this was the day we walked from one side of the island to another in search of snorkelling at Haad Sai Dang, which was about a 40-minute walk, in the sun up and down hills. It should also be mentioned that the way we had been told via Maps.Me wasn’t clear and we got lost for an extra 20/25 mins. Being hot and tired when we arrived we both looked forward to jumping into the crystal clear smooth water. Well by crystal clear and smooth it was waves of several feet, strong under currents and visibility reduced to about 8″ in front of your face. I jumped into to double check how bad it was, which resulted in me swimming for about 2-3 minutes. Defeated we walked back (which also meant clambering up the massive hill of the resort we had to walk through to get to the beach!).
So, to paint some context when we both started diving neither of us had really seen anything underwater (on this trip) and we both were excited to explore underwater. Alex had said that she was nervous and wasn’t sure how she would react underwater which is why I was glad we had chosen the place we had, the pool was nice and clear and it helped us both get our bearings underwater. I have to say the first breath you take underwater knowing that you could stay there
indefinitely (until the air ran out), it was exciting and kind of awesome. We moved to our accommodation at Sairee Cottage for the first afternoon of the Padi course. The accommodation was included in the 11 000 baht course so we got a nice private bungalow with private bathroom and balcony at Sairee Cottage resort. This also gave us access to their pool outside of the diving and it was a two-minute walk across the track to the beach. We attempted snorkelling at Sairee beach again before our course started but it was bad visibility so we just chilled out by the pool before starting the course. The first afternoon was just watching theory videos (boring but necessary) and filling in our homework to check our understanding. We rewarded ourselves by more food at the Coffee Boat though.
The first actual day we learnt and practised all sorts of different techniques. the goal was to understand what to do in an emergency as well as understanding how to communicate underwater (you can hardly have a normal conversation). Alex did great, however, she found the whole experience less than enjoyable and anxiety provoking. I don’t think she really enjoyed it at any point despite becoming more than capable of replicating everything the instructor had told us too. That evening Alex and I had a long talk as we discussed if she was going to continue the course. From my perspective I didn’t want to her to regret her decision, however, I wasn’t going to force to do anything she didn’t want to do.
We woke up the next day, and over the night Alex hadn’t had much sleep and knew that diving wasn’t going to be for her. This meant that we told our instructor who understood and just (like me) wanted to make sure she was happy with the decision. The ending result was Alex finishing the Paperwork side of the PADI meaning she has a year to change her mind and do the physical dives in order to complete it. As we had paid for a dive course with accommodation she got some money back for not completing the course and we had to add a bit more money for accommodation however because she didn’t join us on the boat they charged her just the 2 days, not the dives so that helped with the money side.
So, Alex was going to stay and chill by the pool whilst I joined the other 3 lads doing the PADI at the same time as we got onto the boat. A strange feeling leaving her, however, I quickly had to worry about what I was doing and focus on the task at hand.
I don’t have any photos of my 4 dives due to the policy that the dive shop didn’t allow GoPro’s as they caused accidents and often the result shots weren’t worth the risk. This was annoying however I did understand. So due to this, I cannot add any visual elements to explaining how diving felt, but I will try my best.
The first feeling of jumping off the boat with all the gear that you checked and set up yourself felt like exactly what it was, a large step into the unknown. The water was calm and from the surface, you could see schools of fish (and other divers) swimming beneath you. As a group, we floated in the water for a minute and then we released the air in our BCDs (buoyancy control device) and started to sink.
One of the biggest issues with diving is the pressure difference as you head down, which is most apparent in the first 5M. The result is pressure building in your head (ears and sinuses) which needs to be cleared either by blowing into your nose whilst holding it or tilting your head and moving your jaw. This was useful at distracting you from what exactly you are doing, meaning you kinda don’t notice that you are 10M below the water until it happens.
The 4 dives I completed (two on the first day, followed by two the next day) all went without much issue. It was a great feeling to be exploring the underwater world feeling much more involved than you do from the surface. The coolest thing I saw on the dive was probably a Great Barracuda, which was about 6 foot in length.
It is hard to explain, how it feels being underwater for close to an hour each time. Time tends to get away from you, and constantly checking your air slowly becomes second nature. Overall I really liked diving, however, I still feel it is an odd experience. So I completed my Open water, meaning I could Dive with a buddy to 18M which is pretty cool.Woo, go me! That afternoon we chilled for a bit in the pool with the other guys from the course before heading to Bingo restaurant (regular divers haunt) for celebratory and needed food…diving makes you hungry! We hung out at the bungalow for a few hours before watching the gorgeous sunset on Sairee beach full of different colours. In the evening all the people from the course gathered around to watch the video they had filmed of us all which was cool to see and Alex got to see it a bit more (thankfully she was still happy with her decision).
Sooooooo whats next, well there is the advance. The issue with driving is most of the places in which the REALLY cool stuff is beyond the 18M depth that I was stuck too. Shipwrecks and the like are completely out of the question. So after lots of back and forth thinking and talking it over with Alex, I wanted to do my Advanced. My father kindly offered to pay to allow me to do it, which was the final nail in the coffin in the decision. I was going to do my advance.
The Advance is like the open, just kinda MORE. I had to complete 5 dives which I did over 2 days. I needed to complete a Deep Dive (allowing me to go to 30M), a Wreck Dive, A Night Dive, a Navigation Dive as well as an advanced buoyancy dive. I enjoyed all the dives, however, the navigation dive was the hardest (knowing direction underwater even with a compass is really hard). After an exhausting two days, 5 dives, with about 3-4 hours spent underwater I had completed my Advance PADI.
Again, Woo go me.
Mostly that was the Koh Tao I saw, underwater and breathing tanked air. Alex did do things whilst I searched for Atlantis so I will get her to write a paragraph describing it.
Whilst Dave was diving I spent one morning walking around Koh Tao, enjoying an ice coffee and chilling out on the beach. Whilst he was doing one of the advanced days I spent an entire day reading the Girl on the Train/ cooling off in the pool. The other one I headed up to the Two Views viewpoint at the top of the island. It was a long, steep climb in the heat. But it was a stunning view sitting on top of a boulder looking over the beach and sea feeling very small. Mainly, though, whilst Dave was diving I just took advantage of chilling out at the bungalow, by the pool or on the beach though!
Other notable things that we did in Koh Tao, we met up with a girl (Teegan) whom we had met whilst at WFFT, we had a catch-up, dinner and beer on the beachfront which was nice. Between doing my Open Water and Advanced courses we took a taxi boat (300B return) over to Koh Nang Yuan for the day. This meant I got to spend the day snorkelling with Alex and showing her (as best I could) all the different fish that we could find. We arrived a bit too early as it didn’t open until 10 am, as it is privately owned, but we were one of the first people to there when it opened. This meant very briefly that we could get photos of the empty, beautiful beaches and head up to the viewpoint before there were crowds of people. After half an hour of it opening the place was swarming with huge groups of tourists, mostly Chinese from some of the fancier resorts on Koh Tao and Koh Samui. The snorkelling was great though at the Japenese Gardens in particularly and as soon as you went out a few meters there was hardly anyone else around you as most of the other snorkelers didn’t venture out this far. We also headed to Banyan bar one evening for their 6th-anniversary party. This is a diver instructor’s bar mainly. It is just an outdoor bar with a garden and a stage but they had great BBQ for 60B as well as 50B cocktails called Tight Bastards, perfect for us (peach ice tea, Hong Thong whiskey and mango). Dave stuck to a cider and beer. As much as we could have stayed to party we couldn’t afford it and Dave had 3 dives the following day.
Overall our time in Kao Tao was longer than it was both originally going to be, and frankly than it needed to be. The island itself isn’t the best as soon as you take away the affordable diving but I enjoyed it none the less. It is also an island that grew on us whilst we were there. There are some decent places to walk and go to see as well. If you are on a strict budget like us though and don’t want to dive it may not be the place for you. We managed to find some reasonably priced and decent food at places like Bingo, Coffee Boat, New Haven (for their scrambled egg croissants) and 999 Duck for some amazing duck. However a lot of our meals we substituted with pot noodles or snacks from 7/11 as even those places were double what we had spent on food in the north of Thailand.
The next step of our trip was going to Koh Samui which is a place I hadn’t been to in well over 20 years, so I was looking forward to seeing just how much it changed.