Word on the street is that you’ll get the best scuba diving deals in Southeast Asia.
I spent two hours on Khao San Road in Bangkok, bouncing from agent to agent, searching for a diving package to ring in my first solo birthday on the road . Finally, my four-day PADI open water diving certification program was booked at a jaw-dropping low price . Travel gossip didn’t lie.
I’m not lucky enough to be one of those travel bloggers to score sponsored press trips nor am an ingenue haggler, but I don’t scold myself. I make up for it by being a queen hunter of basement bargains and cheap day tours of reasonably good quality!
What did my package include? Round trip transportation to the island of Ko Tao, a 4-night resort stay and 4 days of licensed training, confined water dives and 4 open water dives to a maximum of 18 meters. Sounds like a lot, doesn’t it?
Ko Tao is an island known mostly for diving and snorkeling.
A popular tourist destination for travelers and local Thai, Ko Tao is an island off the south eastern coast of Thailand and was a three hour ferry ride to the island. Known as Turtle Island for its shape and the fact it’s a breeding ground for turtles, the island is quite small.
There are only two main towns (Mae Haad and Sairee) and one main strip of road dotting the island’s western shoulder ( I rented a motorbike for a day and the ride takes about 2 hours to complete). It’s an enjoyable ride and you can stop off at small shops and markets along the way. Mae Haad is the capital and port town and it’s stocked with everything you’ll need. Sairee is the peaceful and romantic sister town with a chill vibe, beach side bars and resorts and warm nightlife .
Photo slideshow of the island & tourist conveniences
My “budget package” was a styled birthday prize
My package said “resort accommodations”, but holy cow, for the price I paid, I didn’t honestly expect it! Arriving at Sairee’s Coral Grand Resort, I was floored by the luxury before me. It sure looked grand.
A pool for diving lessons
Sairee Beach connects you with neighboring resorts, seaside bars and ultimately,
Sairee town, where there are restaurants, stores, nightlife and my favorite, 7-11. The walk to town by beach or road is approximately 8-10 minutes.
Rooms were booked full when I arrived. They didn’t have the non- air conditioned “cheapie” room I reserved, so the desk manager upgraded me to an A.C. room, while gesturing a secret “Shhh..” to me. Score! Dang girl, my birthday present to myself was starting to look up.
My room came complete with a queen-sized bed, free wi-fi, air condition, full amenities and an outdoor balcony. It was purrr-fect pampering and rest from my road of solitude.
PADI diving certification is the hub to meeting international travelers
By the time I unpacked and had lunch, it was 2PM.
I met my group at the resort’s dive center, Coral Grand Divers, for an in-class orientation, where we were given instruction manuals and shown a video. The center buzzed with training groups led by a crew of instructors. It was like a U.N. factory for divers. Impressive!
Manuals were in most major languages and the dive instructors heralded from various parts of the world. If you spoke a language other than English, the program would find a dive instructor to help you. Initially, we had a French girl in our global group (of Spanish, German, Chinese and Burmese), but she eventually got her own private French-speaking instructor!
I even saw a Korean group led in Korean!
Suit up for dive lessons in the pool!
It’s the first day of our confined water dive, we familiarized ourselves with the scuba gear, took a 15 minute treading water test and learned how to deal with underwater emergencies, like recovering our mouthpiece, clearing our mask of water, learning hand signals and helping a buddy in emergency situations.
“The ocean is a foreign environment. It’s not our natural environment, even though we’ve spent the first stages of our life in water.”
From my first time traveling solo to living abroad or moving to different cities, I’ve experienced many types of “foreign”. I’ve always adapted with enthusiasm. But cities and countries have limits. Could I adapt to being submerged below sea level, surviving off of an oxygen tank, in an endless ocean?
Afraid of Jaws (who wasn’t traumatized by that film?).
A Hawaiian who can’t swim well.
Perhaps I was meeting an upgraded challenge?
“You may start off feeling odd and scared by it, but it’s something you’ll learn to adapt to,” Kevin reassured us.
As our Irish instructor, he fell in love with diving, picked up and moved from Ireland to dive and teach. That was over 10 years ago.
Main points to remember about diving:
Some of them initially sound terrifying, if you’re an over-thinker like me. But once I got in the pool, my adapting began.
1. Never hold your breath while you’re diving.
I tried coughing and sneezing in my mask with the regulator in. Not a problem.
2. Equalize (swallow or pinch your nose and blow) a lot when you’re descending; so as to avoid water pressure from damaging your ears.
3. Don’t ascend too quickly
4. Beware of trigger fish. *They’re small but if you dive in their territory, they might attack you.
5. Rule of the sea: nothing will attack you unless it feels threatened.
7:30 am: Our first two open water dives (aka in the ocean)! Maximum depth: 12 meters.
Driven to the port in Mae Haad, we board a boat which takes us out to two of the twelve dive sites around Ko Tao.
Captain of the boat!
On the boat, Kevin prepped us to the game plan, with a string of last-minute reminders. He wanted to make sure we remembered safety.
But my big question: Sharks.
Kevin’s answer: They don’t like the taste of humans. If you were to be accidentally bitten, it’d probably spit you out!
Good enough answer for me.
I jump off the boat, swam out and grabbed hold of the anchor’s rope. Regulator in mouth, I was breathing like Darth Vadar and descending… Blub, blub, blub.
Clearing my mask was a problem. Water kept getting in my mask and despite my freakout, I survived.
I’ve had childhood dreams of swimming over watery worlds and breathing underwater.
This was a literal dream come true. Hovering over palatial coral reefs or exploring it at eye level is a trip. The coral reefs were like towers with brilliantly colored sea anemone, sitting like patches of grass. The ocean bed was a slow shifting desert. We saw fishes and eels. At one point, Kevin gave the signal “Shooter“, while pointing to the infamous trigger fish, we had learned to avoid. It was hiding in a cave.
After our exploration dive, we went to a new spot, a cove where we ran our emergency drills again, while kneeling on the ocean floor. A bit boring in comparison to our earlier dive, but still thrilling to be out in the open waters.
7:30 am: Dives #3 and #4 at the maximum depth 18 meters.
Similar routine. We started with a fun dive of exploring the reef and waters. I practiced more of my hovering skills. Hovering is the ability to swim/float at a consistent level. Your lowering and rising in the water is controlled by the amount of breath in your lungs.
Then we moved dive locations to do emergency drill practice… again. But its part of the requirements for licensing. This time however, it was more fun. We had a videographer to shoot our dive. He wanted us to do crazy things underwater. I got to walk on my hands, do funny dance moves with a pair of sunglasses, do sommersaults and blow smoke ring bubbles. It was a blast!
I am a graduated and licensed scuba diver!
I did it! Spending my first birthday alone went off remarkably well! I lived my dream of breathing underwater (in waking life) and though I celebrated my birthday on the solo road, it will go down in my history as one of my most memorable, profound and proud moments.
Not to mention, after experiencing the magic of scuba diving, I’m now a fan! Maybe, I’ll start booking travel according to dive locations. We’ll see!
Big Mahalos to all the agents on Khao San Road, Coral Grand Resort, Coral Grand Divers and my dive instructor, Kevin for a memorable stay and fantastic dive experience!
Recommended Ko Tao dive information:
Website: Pressure Drop Divers
Coral Grand Divers
Asia Divers Resort (Sairee Koh Tao)
Ban’s Diving Resort
Haad Sairee, Koh Tao
Ph: +66 (0) 7745-6466
Note: The abridged version of this article will be published in print at Daegu Compass, February 2012 issue and on the PADI newsletter.