It turns out there’s more to Koh Tao than diving and more to Koh Phangan than parties. Of course, that’s what they are famous for – Koh Tao for being one of the cheapest places in the world to scuba dive, and Koh Phangan for being home to the wild full moon, half moon, jungle, pool, and any other excuse they can think of parties. While we didn’t spend much time on either island, we had the chance to glimpse a little bit of their beauty.
We love diving. We really, really, love diving. That’s why a little over a year ago we became divemasters in Utila, Honduras. Utila, as far as I know, is the world’s cheapest place to learn to dive. It compares favourably with the island of Koh Tao, Thailand, which appears to be the world’s cheapest place for a certified diver to rent tanks and go on a fun dive. All in all, we’re doing a pretty good job of frugal living under the sea.
Well, not exactly. The truth is, we’ve had to balance our love for diving with our love for travel and our love for not working (aka, our budget). That’s kept us landlocked and feet-dry for the past year. So, when we arrived at Koh Tao we could hardly keep ourselves out of the water. We arrived sleep deprived from an insane night bus/ferry schedule that found us dropped off at the ferry depot at the ungodly hour of 3:00 am, only to have to wait until 7:00 am to actually get on the boat. We spent that first day looking for a dive shop and were in the water first thing the next morning.
The Dive Shop
We dove with a company called Phoenix Divers. We chose them for a few reasons. Primarily, it was the vibe. We’re professionals, and we wanted a laid-back shop that would let us dive the way we wanted to dive. Most dive shops wouldn’t even entertain the idea of allowing us to dive on our own from the boat. They also wouldn’t all guarantee a small group size, and ensure that like-qualified divers would be paired together. Phoenix Divers came through on all of that. They weren’t pushy, and their price was right. So they got our business.
Of course, being certified, we tend to be overly critical about our dive shop. Especially when it comes to following the standards to keep everyone safe. I like a relaxed shop but in the water, things have to be done right. After 4 days of diving with Phoenix, there were definitely some things I didn’t like.
- No drop tanks on deep dives. They used them from the wreck dive, at our insistence, but it wasn’t typical.
- We didn’t get a boat briefing until day 4. It would have been nice to know that there was a dry room for our stuff on board a bit sooner.
- One of the divers we dove with requested a tank of Nitrox. It’s required that the the diver using the tank personally verifies the oxygen percentage before using it. Phoenix didn’t have an O2 sensor, and they wanted him to use it anyways. That’s a big no no.
- Dive briefings were done individually, instead of as a group. We had no idea which divers were in our group until we were in the water.
On the other hand, there were some really great things about the shop.
- The price for diving with accommodation was the cheapest we found the day we spent looking. 2,700 Baht ($91 CAD) for four dives (two dives each) and 200 Baht ($6.70) for a private bungalow with hot water.
- Our divemaster “F” was really good, except for skipping the whole boat briefing thing.
- The dive boats had free food. Fresh fruit some days, and cookies every day.
- Their equipment was in really good shape.
- They took the boat out twice a day, giving you a choice of diving in the mornings or afternoons. They tried their best to schedule dive sites a day in advance giving you an informed choice of diving in the mornings, afternoons, or both.
Diving in Koh Tao
We don’t actually have the greatest frame of reference when it comes to diving, as we’ve only really dove in two spots – Utila and here. But I can say that the diving was really enjoyable. Compared to Utila, there’s just more fish to see. A lot more fish. The coral seems to be in fairly good health. There’s much worse visibility and much stronger currents.
One of the most interesting things to me was the predictability of the local fish. They showed us a map of one of our dive sites with with a clown fish drawn on it, labelled Nemo. Our divemaster Eff said simply, “This is where we’ll see Nemo.” And he was right. That little clown fish spends every day hovering above a small tuft of anemone. He’s just always there.
Likewise, he was able to show us some large shark-like fish called cobias. They were just swimming circles right where he said they would be.
One of the saddest things I’ve ever seen, I saw while diving in Koh Tao. A fishing net had washed up and covered the Chumphon Pinnacle dive site, trapping several fish.
A collage of clips from our 4 days of diving in Koh Tao
In general, I find underwater movies are much more enjoyable than photos. At least with our little point-and-shoot camera. We’d probably have taken nothing but movies, but our underwater enclosure is damaged (I’m kind of upset that I couldn’t get warranty from Canon) and we can’t change the camera mode back to movies once the camera is installed inside the enclosure. Inevitably, it gets bumped to photo and stays there for the rest of the day.
I was lucky enough to meet up with my mom abroad not once, but twice during our RTW journey.
First, she and her partner, Terry, joined us in Nicaragua and Costa Rica. They had originally told us they would meet us wherever in the world we happened to be in February and we had left home thinking it would be somewhere in South America. We didn’t make it that far, of course, but we had a great time together and appreciated their flexibility.
When they told us they wanted to meet up again this February (making it perfectly clear they wanted it to be in Southeast Asia this time) we decided to be the flexible ones and changed our itinerary to work with theirs.
Seeing my mom after a year apart was fabulous. We had had our challenges travelling together in Central America (mostly due to very different travel styles and budgets), so this time we opened up our budget and let them choose our hotels. We ended up paying about double our typical rate, but it was worth it to be close to them without the hassle of searching for accommodation that everyone could be happy with in each new place.
We met up with them at a less than favourable hotel in Bangkok (the thing with booking hotels online from home is you can never be quite sure what you’re going to get) and explored some of the city sights with them – the Royal Palace, the Reclining Buddha, China Town and Khaosan Road.
Then, we all caught a bus with them to Hua Hin. The beach here was ok, but there was way too much development and too much city encroaching on it for my tastes. When I picture a Thai beach, there definitely aren’t any skyscrapers to be seen. Large swathes of the beach were littered with “pay-for-the-privilege-to-sit” beach umbrellas – they took up so much space that at high tide there was actually no beach left to sit on.
We all beach-bummed around, explored the malls and night markets, and just enjoyed being together again.
Way too soon, our time together was up. Mom and Terry caught a train back to Bangkok to catch a flight to Bali and Mike and I took a fabulous (yes, this is sarcasm) night bus/ferry combo to Koh Tao for some diving.
We had a post about Meeting up with My Mom in Thailand already to publish. But then, I woke up to this…
… on April 30!
So in an effort to cope with the winter that just won’t end, I’m putting myself back on the beach with these Railay Beach pics. It’s one of those picture perfect beaches. The kind you find on the cover of travel magazines and top 100 travel destinations books. This is definitely one of my all-time favourite beaches!
We had too many beautiful pictures from Koh Lanta and the Four Island Tour we took there to leave it at their brief mention in our last Thai beaches post. With the perma-winter that is just finally starting to give way to spring here in Saskatchewan, we already find ourselves reminiscing about our time at the beach. So here’s some hot, beachy eye candy for you…
Infobox: We booked a 4 Islands tour from Koh Lanta. It included two snorkeling stops, a trip to the Emerald Cave lagoon and lunch on beautiful Koh Ngai. The snorkelling was meh, but the boat ride and islands were gorgeous. It can be booked at any of the dozens of travel agents in Lanta. Cost: 700 baht (~$23 CAD) per person, vegetarian-friendly lunch included.
Something happened to us when we got to Thailand. Maybe it was the rough time we had in Egypt just before or the fact we hadn’t been to a beach in 9 months. Maybe it was the somewhat inconvenient timing of our arrival 12 days before my mom’s arrival in Bangkok which required us to double back (more on this later). Maybe it was the fact that we knew we had a plane ticket booked home and we wanted to squeeze everything we could in before it happened. Or it could have been the heat or something we caught from all the other SE Asia backpackers. It was probably a little of each of these things.
Whatever it was, we threw our tried and tested travel style out the window and got it in our minds that we needed to see “everything” in the short time we had left. Big mistake! We found ourselves beach hopping, trying to see every place anyone had recommended to us. It didn’t take long before we wore ourselves out. Or before we realized that, in the end, a beach is a beach is a beach.
Thailand’s beaches are all same same but different.
Our first month of beaching it in Thailand was poorly planned and poorly executed. We felt like we spent way too much time on trains and buses, packing and unpacking our bags, and searching for hotels and vegetarian-friendly eateries. This is why we’ve never liked the “3 days and move” rule that so many travellers seem to live by. We usually consider three days to be an absolute minimum. It’s not until after three days that you start to get a real feel for a place.
Here’s what our itinerary looked like:
Jan. 9 – Arrive in Bangkok at about midnight, check into an airport hotel
Jan. 10 – Go to train station at about noon, book ticket for night train to Surat Thani, spend afternoon exploring (with all our luggage) and waiting in train station
Jan. 11 – Arrive in Surat Thani in the morning, take shuttle to (tourist) bus station, wait for bus to Krabi, wait for ferry to Koh Lanta (which turns out to be a minibus that takes the car ferries). Arrive in Koh Lanta at about 4 pm to discover all the cheap guesthouses are fully booked. Should have booked ahead. Book a budget-busting (800 baht/$26 CAD) bungalow on beach. We do the math – it took us 59 hours to get here from Cairo.
Jan. 12 – Relax on beach. Ahhhh!!! We could get used to this.
Jan. 13 – Move guesthouses to cheaper one in town. This one only has room available for 2 nights. We want to stay three. Doh!
Jan. 14 – 4 Islands Tour – Koh Waen, Koh Cheuak, Koh Mook (Emerald Cave), Koh Ngai
Jan. 15 – Move guesthouses to another cheap one in town since ours is full tonight. Again, knock head against wall for not booking ahead.
Jan. 16 – Catch ferry to Ao Nang. Nearly toss our cookies. Ticket includes free transport to hostel which is not, as advertised, in Ao Nang. Arrive in the middle of nowhere (aka the jungle just outside of Ao Nammao).
Jan. 17 – Catch longtail boat to Railay Beach (only about 30 minutes, after walking 45 minutes into town from guesthouse). Monkeys steal our bananas. Discover the roped off swimming area is infested with hundreds, if not thousands, of jellyfish, but the rest of the water is surprisingly not. Return the same way to find something amiss in our room (didn’t think too much of it, but later put the puzzle pieces together to discover 100 Euros had been stolen from our locked luggage that was inside our locked bungalow). Really not liking this guesthouse much.
Jan. 18 – Check out, leave luggage at front desk, and head back to Railay Beach. No longtail boats are heading back and we have a bus booked to Bangkok, so we have to charter one. They give us a good deal considering. Return to jungle bungalows, take minivan to Surat Thani and get on night bus.
Jan. 19 – Arrive in Bangkok at the ungodly hour of 5 am. Taxi to hotel rips us off, but we’re too tired to care too much. Hotel lets us check in early (as in immediately) and we take a long, long nap. Wake up and explore a little of Bangkok.
Jan. 20 – Bangkok sightseeing.
Jan. 21 – Move hotels. Meet up with Mom!
Jan. 22 – Bangkok sightseeing with Mom & Terry
Jan. 23 – Catch a bus to Hua Hin with Mom & Terry
Jan. 24 – Explore Hua Hin with Mom & Terry
Jan. 25 – Beaching & visiting at Hua Hin
Jan. 26 – Beaching & visiting at Hua Hin. Catch a night bus to Chumphon. Arrive at 3:30 am. Have to wait until 7 am to catch ferry.
Jan. 27 – Take ferry to Koh Tao. Spend our day wandering the town searching for a good dive shop.
Jan. 28 – After nearly a year, we’re finally back in the water. Two dives (and a little seasickness for Ashley).
Jan. 29 – Diving at Koh Tao.
Jan. 30 – Diving at Koh Tao.
Jan. 31 – Diving at Koh Tao in the morning. Catch ferry to Koh Phangan in the afternoon.
Feb. 1 – Walk the very very hilly southeastern road to the Full Moon Party beach (not for the party which wasn’t happening today, just for the beach). Rest up for the walk back.
Feb. 2- Take it easy in the morning instead of beaching it (Ashley wasn’t feeling so hot) and then catch a ferry to Koh Samui. Meet our old travel pal Talon and his son Tigger from 1Dad1Kid. Couchsurf with them.
Feb. 3 – Hang out with Talon and Tigger for the day. Catch up on some blogging and photos.
Feb. 4 – Hang out with Talon and Tigger and walk to the mummifed monk on the island.
Feb. 5 – Go admire the Grandmother & Grandfather rocks on Samui. Catch a boat and then a bus to Bangkok. Have to leave at around noon… won’t arrive until 5 am the next morning.
Feb. 6 – Arrive in Bangkok at 5 am. Check into hotel and sleep. Run errands around town in preparation for tomorrow’s trip to Cambodia (need passport photos, train tickets, and camera cleaning supplies).
Feb. 7 – Catch an EARLY morning train to Aranyaprathet, cross border into Cambodia
Exhausting, right? If you’re keeping track, that’s 4 night buses/trains and 5 other travel days in our first 30 days in Thailand. Not to mention 3 extra hotel moves within the same location. 6 different islands/beaches (plus the 4 islands from the tour). And 6 days spent in Bangkok over 3 separate trips. What were we thinking?
Now, we did see some amazing sights and we’re glad went everywhere we did. We just wish we hadn’t tried to cram it all into 30 days. We would have been a lot happier picking just one or two of these amazing beaches and relaxing there for a while.
Our favourite beach? It might surprise you. While we really loved the laid back vibe of Koh Lanta and Railay Beach’s scenery was worth the crowds, I might just have to pick Koh Ngai. And I only spent an hour or two there. It’s a tiny island we stopped at for lunch during our four island tour. While a little crowded at lunch time (a lot of longtail boat tours stop here), it would be total paradise the rest of the day – no roads, no noise, just 2 km by 4 km of white sand beaches, turquoise waters, and dense green jungle.
Surprise! We’re home! Not in Bulgaria, silly… in Saskamoose-a-bush, Canada, the land of ice and snow.
Okay, maybe you’ve already been surprised. Probably because we’ve already been home for three weeks as any astute Facebook follower would know. If you didn’t know, don’t feel bad. It just means we get to surprise you now. Surprise!
How long are you home for?
Ah, right to it. The first question everyone asks.
We’re going to be home for a while, but not forever. Our rough plan/dream is to go to Bhutan where Ashley will teach math for a year and I’ll either work online or, more likely, go hiking every day and work on my photography. It can always use a bit of work but unfortunately doesn’t pay so well.
Where the heck is Bhutan?
This is the second most common question we get. Bhutan is a small country located in the Himalayas. It’s south of Tibet, east of Nepal, and north of India and Bangladesh. Aside from its premium geographic location, the kingdom is most well known for its so called “happiness legislation”. Basically what they’ve done is given up on the traditional measure of GDP employed by most of the world to determine how well the country is doing, and instead have decided to use the measure of happiness. I have no idea how they measure it, but they do.
Government policies are thus made with the goal of increasing national happiness, which has had some interesting results. The most relevant to would-be travellers like us is their restrictive travel visa. It turns out that cultural preservation makes the Bhutanese happy, while being surrounded by throngs of foreign tourists does not. Travel visas are limited in number, short on time, restrictive on movement, and are very very expensive. Which is why for years, Ashley and I had written Bhutan off as a dream travel destination that we would likely never see.
What we’ve found is a volunteer job opportunity that Ashley is qualified for. Applications open in May. Successful applicants are announced in September. If she’s accepted (fingers crossed), we’ll be moving to Bhutan in January 2014!
If not… we’ll do something else. Probably something like teaching English abroad.
Whoa, January! Is Traveled Earth shutting down until January? What will I read on Fridays?
Don’t worry… we’re not going anywhere. We’ve got a back log of, oh geeze, like two months of stories from our time in Thailand and Cambodia. I’m working really hard on getting our photos ready to publish, I promise.
By that time, this ice ball we call Canada should have thawed a bit, school will be out (relevant as Ashley is working as a substitute teacher right now), and we’ll be travelling Canada. We currently have a poll on our facebook page. You can help us decide which way to head out (East or West) by voting and sharing the poll with your friends.
After our brief (2 month) cross country tour we’ll be headed home for some more work until the cold sets in. Having skipped two winters, and finding this spring quite unbearably cold, I’ve got a pretty good feeling we’ll be re-locating someplace warm a few months before our scheduled arrival in Bhutan.
Phew, I can live with that. So how’s home?
It’s good and bad in ways, but mostly it’s just a little weird. It feels so familiar and yet so different from what we’re used to. It’s been great meeting up with family and friends. We surprised both of our parents (we told them we were coming home in mid April and showed up without warning at the end of March). Their reactions were priceless.
We’ve rekindled our love of board games. We’re cooking up a storm now that we have not only a kitchen, but a whole array of seasonings and spices. Ashley’s even started watching a little TV and movies again (I haven’t gotten there yet, but probably will soon).
Price shock has been hard. Rental rates in this city are unaffordable for us at $1,000+ a month for a single room apartment. A single restaurant meal for one person costs more than what we are accustomed to spending for the two of us during a whole day.
It’s also impossible for us to get by using only public transport. To get to work on time, Ashley needs a car. To visit my parents we need a car (there are no buses). So we bought a car.
As you can tell from the picture above, it’s been cold. It was 38 °C the day we left Bangkok, and -14°C when we arrived back in Saskatchewan. That’s a big difference. We knew the weather would be iffy coming home this early, but a windchill of -27°C on April 9? Come on!
Some other odds and ends:
- Vegetables/fruits are expensive and taste terrible here. We’ve always known that. Everything is picked green and trucked long distances. At least in the fall we can hit up farmer markets.
- It’s nice being able to control what we eat again. Having a full kitchen is bliss. It’s been a glut of whole grains and beans. My bread starter is almost done, so fresh bread should be on the table soon.
- It’s weird not seeing/hearing chickens. Especially in the morning. I miss them. The factory eggs they sell in our stores are the most flavourless, sickly, pale food items we’ve seen since we left home (maybe the zero calorie peanut butter we saw in Florida was worse). Fortunately, we found a source of free-range eggs.
News from Bulgaria.
We got some bad news from Bulgaria this week. Our car has been stripped. They removed the LPG kit, broke the rear window, and stole the tires. And no, we don’t have insurance. It was a $500 car.
Our house was also broken into. We didn’t really have much in there, maybe $100 worth of tools which I’m sure are now gone.
That’s pretty sad news for us. Not so much because of what was stolen/damaged, but because our dream has been squashed. Our plan for the house was to visit it over the next several years and slowly improve it and the yard when we had money. Our goal was to only move there full time once we could afford to do it.
But now, we’ve come to realize that any improvements we could make, like installing new appliances, toilets, cupboards and the like would most likely end up as somebody else’s improvements in somebody else’s house when we’re away.
Not sure what we’ll end up doing with the place now, but if you’re looking for your own house in Bulgaria we’re open to offers…
Back to the regular schedule.
That’s our real-time update for now. Stay tuned for posts on S.E. Asia. Our final trip stats and reflections will be published after that.