Our one-splurge-per-continent choice for SE Asia? Koh Tao.
Can't mince words here - Koh Tao in July was a hot mess. To be fair, we aren't beach people in general and it probably didn't help that we arrived right after the full moon party. By day the few shadeless, smallish shores were crowded with farangs on holiday. By night it was impossible to walk through the narrow streets brimming with oncoming motorbikes, truck taxis, Hummer-sized ATVs and tourists. There's no shortage of pub crawls, endless happy hours, western restaurants or people wearing far too little clothing. And any place that has pharmacies open until 2am... Well, that should say it all right there.
Koh Tao in a nutshell
When you're 20-something on holiday from university this all probably sounds amazing, or at least tolerable. When you're us on month 16 of extended travel... not so much. Of everywhere we've been, we took the fewest number of pictures here. The hikes on the island were hot and dusty with minimal viewponts and the beach itself was kind of pretty but offered very little shade.
ninety bazillion degrees
uphill both ways (seriously)
the beach by day
the beach by night
So why on earth did we choose this island? See, Koh Tao is THE place to go for diving certifications. Patrick got his Advanced Open Water certification several years ago in the cold waters of the Pacific Northwest. With Australia and New Zealand in our future and countless opportunities along the west coast and in Central America when we get back, crossing my certification off my "to do" list in nice warm water was a no-brainer. A pricey no-brainer, but still less expensive than most places in the world, so a no-brainer none the less.
Five days, a heck of a fin blister, 381 minutes underwater, and lots of cool fish later, we are pleased to announce that Slowly Global has expanded their travel capabilities to include the deep blue sea!
up to 30 meters, anyway
(awesome tan lines sold separately)
(awesome tan lines sold separately)
We did a bit of research and decided on Big Blue Diving, mainly because of their proclaimed environmental commitment and the fact that they offered either PADI or SSI training. Both courses are world-recognized and teach the same skills. I was pretty set on PADI before we even got to Koh Tao but I listened to the options presented in the orientation. What I heard: PADI has been around longer, is more structured, and costs a bit more money; SSI is more fun for the instructors to teach.
Guess which one I chose? I didn't expect to be the only one from my orientation class of 30+ people in the PADI course, but I also didn't expect to be the only one over 35 taking the course. (On the plus side, I got my own personal trainer for two days! On the con side, being solo in a mentally and physically taxing underwater course was pretty overwhelming. I did the SSI version for Advanced Open Water just to see if there was a difference. There wasn't, really, and I had five other students with me that time.)
While I was training Patrick enjoyed lots of "fun dives" around the island - also more reasonably priced here than in other parts of the world. The giant wall of barracuda was definitely a highlight for him. We even got to do two "fun dives" together on our last day. These were by far my favorite dives. No stress, no skills tests, no chaos. Just us, a nice woman from Italy, our dive master and lots of amazing fishies. We even saw an eel swimming, and that never happens!
When neither of us were underwater we holed up in the dorm and avoided everything and everyone like the plague. There were moments when it was hard to justify the money being spent and the extended stay in a place we generally didn't really enjoy, but all we had to do was talk about the fish to bring our focus back to the purpose of our mission.
Remember the jar we used to fund our Canadian National Parks Discovery Pass? We've found a new use for it: local dives to keep our skills up while we plan longer-term trips to Mexico or Honduras/Belize or wherever. And so the journey shall continue...
Food notes: everything on the island is really expensive! Bags of muesli were surprisingly inexpensive at the markets so that plus 7-11 yogurt was breakfast every day. Here are a few other ways we cut costs without skimping on taste...
- most importantly, the 20b samosas from the guy who hangs around Big Blue Diving are pretty good - no photo available (they were gone too fast)
- 995 Duck had really tasty noodle soups - we ate here almost every day
very reasonably priced too
- the chicken tikki masala kebabs from Shalimar were filling and pretty tasty
only 1000b for two
- we stayed at Koh Tao Garden Resort our first night in town - it was a little pricey (for us) but fine, the garden was lovely, there were cute kitties everywhere and we were able to check in early (important since we got to the island around 6am)
- our discounted dorm beds through Big Blue Diving were in their newer resort - the room was large, clean, quiet, and pretty conveniently located
Travel notes: after reading this blog post we decided to take the Porntaweesin night ferry from Chumphon to Koh Tao. For 400b per person we got two costs in one - a hard dorm bed plus transportation. It was totally fine so we did this on the way back too. We got in super-early but things are bustling by 6am in both towns so coffee and breakfast were easy to find while we killed time. Highly recommend!
cleaner than some of our recent hotels
One last stop in Bangkok (finally, Bangkok!) and then it's time for Cambodia. Can't believe our Thailand adventure is almost over...