8 Feb 2018

Koh Tao: Traveling Solo and Getting Certified

After dropping Amy off at her 10-day silent meditation and yoga retreat on the way from Bangkok to Surat Thani, I headed out to the island of Koh Tao all alone. After five full months of traveling together, it was almost eerie to not have someone to turn to and chat with. I spent a week on the island, with most of that time dedicated to getting my PADI Open Water Diver certification, a course which typically takes 3.5 days to complete. In my free time I found some great food, had my first in-Thailand Thai massages, and fit in some beach time.

Koh Tao is best known for its diving (learning to dive here is very cheap compared to back home, but still very professionally run) and its tourist night life (which I was too tired afer diving to care about), but didn’t feel as tourist-trappy as I expected it would before arrival.

I had started researching dive schools all the way back in December, after we had such a great experience trying diving at the Great Barrier Reef. Amy’s retreat seemed like the perfect time to do it, and being close to Koh Tao already made it a no-brainer, since it is such a diving hub with lots of competition and choice among the dozens and dozens of dive shops. I specifically wanted a company that: (1) had small groups and small dive boats, so I wouldn’t be fighting for attention; (2) conducted its training dive exercises in the ocean instead of a swimming pool; (3) was flexible if something went off-plan during the course, or if I had to repeat a dive; (4) dove early in the day, when conditions are generally better; and (5) of course, had good reviews from prior students. I ended up picking New Way Diving, which checked all of those boxes, and enjoyed my experience with them.

I also booked a room at Sun Smile Lodge, just around the corner from them, so I never had more than a 5-minute walk to either the dive shop nor the beach. It ended up being a lovely room with a balcony looking over the tops of the palm trees, and lovely service from the hotel staff while I was there. I’d definitely stay there again if I come back and highly recommend it.

What I Did on Koh Tao

Day 1: After spending the night in Surat Thani, so we’d have a place to regroup in case anything went wrong with Amy starting her retreat, I set out on a pre-booked trip with Seatran Ferry from Surat Thani all the way to Koh Tao. The ticket includes a bus from Surat Thani to the Donsak pier and then fast ferry from there to Koh Samui, continuing on to Koh Phangan, and finally arriving at Koh Tao around 6-7 hours later. While it’d be a long trek, I had snacks packed and some good books on my Kindle, and it wouldn’t be that bad.

The wrong ferry.

While the bus trip to Donsak went seamlessly, unfortunately I somehow got put on the wrong boat to Koh Samui. Seatran has 11:00am departures from Donsak to Koh Samui for both its car ferry and its passenger ferry, and the staff directed me to the former when I should have been on the latter. It looked like a bigger boat than in the photos online so I asked two other staff members who both confirmed I was on the right boat… which I wasn’t. This error was made worse by the surprise upon arrival in Koh Samui that the two ferries use piers on the island that are about 30 minutes apart by road, so even though the passenger ferry hadn’t departed on its next leg yet I couldn’t make it there in time to get on board. While it was definitely frustrating, I was surprised how willing Seatran was to arrange a free taxi for me and the two other travelers in this situation to get to the other pier and await the next passenger ferry, just 3.5 hours later.

Can't complain too much about the view from the passenger pier on Koh Samui.

I do have to wonder whether I would have ended up on the wrong boat if Amy had been there as well–can be very helpful to have someone to check your “this doesn’t feel quite right” feelings with! Overall it wasn’t the end of the world, just meant more reading and relaxing time for me, but did mean that I couldn’t start my Open Water class that afternoon as planned. Instead when I arrived around 6:30pm I picked up my paperwork and course book, checked into my hotel, and got to spend a couple hours reviewing the materials solo.

I also found 995 Roasted Duck a few minutes away from my hotel and on one of the main streets near Sairee Beach, which quickly became my go-to restaurant for the week. They don’t serve many things, but the roasted duck they do serve is wonderful, and the spicy soup you can get it on top of is also great. At 2-3 USD a bowl, it really couldn’t be beat, and I ended up going back four more times in the next six days.

Day 2: We began my first day of the Open Water course with some “classroom” time, going over the material in the first couple sections of the PADI course book. The morning, complete with PADI-mandatory quizzes to ensure we were learning as we went, was really a throwback to high school classes and used a part of my brain–rote memorization–I feel like doesn’t get much exercise anymore. Of course, none of the material is very complicated, as its all written in the hopes that a 12-year-old can understand it.

After a quick lunch break we headed to the pier to hop on New Way’s dive boat and went up to Mango Bay for our first “confined water” dive. I love that New Way does these dives in the ocean (under just a few meters of water on the sandy beach bottom, but still!) and we all practiced our basic scuba skills, including habits to get into for when things go wrong (switching to a buddy’s air supply, replacing your mask underwater, etc). I definitely spent more time watching the three other students in my group attempt to complete the skills than I did actually doing anything myself, but could use that extra time to practice my buoyancy control.

New Way's bigger boat (they have two).

After we all passed those skills, we got back in the boat and made the short trip to Twins, where we did our first dive to 12 meters. As with every dive during the course, in addition to some time moving around, looking at coral/fish, and enjoying ourselves, we also had more skills to complete. I think my least favorite skill of the whole process was the requirement to remove my mask, swim around underwater while continuing to breathe through the regulator (with my nose uncovered) and then put my mask back on eventually. Breathing through your mouth with your nose in the water makes you feel a bit like you could drown at any moment, and is a bit panic-inducing at first so its probably good they force you to practice…

We got back to the dive shop around 5pm, had to clean and store our gear, and then I got the privilege of watching the full 90-minute video that PADI mandates for all students, which my classmates had watched the previous afternoon while I was stuck on my ferry journey. When that finally finished I was both starving and exhausted and made the 1-minute walk straight to 995 Roasted Duck for another great dinner. Afterward I made a quick loop to check out the scene at the beach (full of fire dancers…) and then holed up to finish the last two sections of reading and worksheets out of the book. Really a full day of thinking about diving!

Day 3: The next day was a mirror image, complete with classroom time, a confined water dive at Mango Bay, and our second dive at Twins. Normally New Way mixes up the locations more, but most of the time I was on Koh Tao the winds were higher than usual and the only calm dive sites were on small the leeward edge of the island.

While I didn’t have any more homework to do, I did have an early bedtime so I could survive my 5am alarm for the final day of the course.

Day 4: Unfortunately after hearing that 5am alarm, scarfing down some instant noodles, and making it to the dive shop by our 5:45am call time, our instructor didn’t show up. He was eventually roused, and apologized profusely, but at that point it didn’t make sense to try to fit in two morning dives as the weather worsened.

With an unforeseen day “off”, I took full advantage and headed to Massage With a View for my first Thai massage–and at a 20% discount since it was before noon! I have been looking forward to getting cheap massages in Thailand pretty much since we started talking about taking this trip years ago, and this 10 USD one (including tip) did not disappoint. Just a few minutes from my hotel and on a second-floor balcony right over the beach with nothing but the waves to listen to, this was pretty much ideal.

Rain, rain, and more rain.

Afterward I walked south down the beach and got lunch at Blue Water. The food wasn’t great, and is on the pricey side for Thailand, but the setting is lovely. I spent two hours on their upstairs deck eating, reading, and watching the now-arrived storm pour down all around me. Many of the streets of Koh Tao were built because of the wide, flat strips of land already there–generated by flash flood rivers–and turn back into rivers when it rains hard. I made it back to my hotel during a pause in the downpour and then spent the afternoon on my balcony watching motorcycles try to navigate through rushing rivers. Since the internet was working great, I also took advantage of the downtime to catch up on some blogging, do some more planning for future stops, and get new books on my Kindle.

Day 5: Another day, another 5am alarm. New Way had generously upgraded me to a Sail Rock trip for my final two dives, which I was pretty excited about since it is supposed to be the best dive spot in the Koh Tao area. We were on the boat before 6:30am and making the ~2 hour trip to the small pinnacle in the middle of the sea between Koh Tao and Koh Phangan. The swell was pretty rough and the captain considered turning back, but we kept going and ended up being the first boat there. I was feeling a little seasick, but not bad enough to keep me out of the water. For the final two dives of my course we had a couple skills to complete, but got to spend most of our time enjoying the dive site itself, all the way down to our maximum of 18 meters. The best part of the dives was definitely moving up and down through the chimney, a vertical tunnel through one side of the pinnacle going from 12 meters to 18 meters and full of colorful corals.

Left: Dawn at the pier. Right: Sail Rock.

The trip back was much smoother, moving with the swell instead of into it, and before we knew it we were at Shark Island for my first post-certification just-for-fun dive! This ended up being my favorite dive of the trip, with much better visibility than at Sail Rock and more variety of sea life than at Mango Bay or Twins. We finished our dive, packed up, headed back to the shop, and got our official certification paperwork.

While it was only mid-afternoon, I was exhausted and did nothing the rest of the day except go to Pa Loy Thai Food for dinner. A few buildings further up the road from 995 Roasted Duck, I had their amazingly-flavorful Penang Curry while watching the locals swing by for to-go pickups on their motorbikes.

Day 6: Even after sleeping almost 10 hours, I was still pretty exhausted from all the diving and sunshine. My last full day on Koh Tao, I wanted to explore a bit more than I had had time to. After getting my onward ferry ticket to Koh Phangan arranged by my hotel, I got my second massage at the same spot (even better than the first one), and then took the long walk all the way to Mae Haad, along the beach and parallel pedestrian path. This is the same distance we had gone by pick-up truck every day between dive shop and dive boat, but by foot was a great way to see the full spectrum of beachfront bungalows, bars, and dive shops on the long stretch of sand between the pier and Sairee Beach. I had a nice lunch at the Greasy Spoon in Mae Haad, took the same waterfront route back, and went to get my third haircut of the trip. I went to a nameless one-seat barbershop in an alleyway between my hotel and dive shop and they did a great job for 6 USD.

Left: Sairee Beach. Right: Mae Beach.

With my time on Koh Tao coming to an end, I spent sunset reading on the beach and then had a final dinner at 995 Roasted Duck and then packed up.

Day 7: I took advantage of my hotel’s free taxi to the pier at 9am and then got on my 10am Songserm ferry to Koh Phangan. It was a bit sad to leave on what was probably the nicest day of my time on the island, but Koh Phangan isn’t far away and should get the same nice weather.

The right ferry, this time.

How I Did with Our Budget

For my time in Koh Tao, we had budgeted as much as 42 USD a night for accommodations, since there was a chance Amy would end up joining me if she wasn’t able to start her retreat. I ended up spending exactly that, which was well worth it for a lovely room at the Sun Smile Lodge. I probably could have ended up paying slightly less if I were willing to wander around with my bags upon arrival comparing rates, but that wasn’t worth it to me.

We had also budgeted 8 USD per day per person for food and 10 USD per day per person for entertainment for our time in Thailand. Out of that planned 18 USD per day for just me, I ended up spending 21 USD per day on average, including my massages (21 USD total for two), my onward ferry (11 USD), and my extra dive at Shark Island (22 USD). My Open Water Diver course itself was a lovely Christmas gift from my parents, so luckily did not blow up our budget for Thailand. With Amy spending nothing during her retreat, we’re doing well overall!