Archive for the ‘diving’ Category

Similan islands liveaboard

Friday, November 9th, 2012

While twiddling my thumbs in Khao Lak, waiting for the phone to start ringing and offers of freelance instructor or dive master work to flood in I needed to do some diving. There is no shortage of dive shops to choose from and basically three types of diving – day trips, liveaboards and hybrid platform trips.

  • Day trips generally leave in the morning on a speed boat. They visit local dive sites around Khao Lak – like the Boonsung wreck, or more remote sites in the Similan Islands or Surin national park. There are usually two dives, one in the morning, a second in the afternoon. Lunch is provided in between the dives. The boat returns mid- to late-afternoon. Prices are around 3000-6000 baht including equipment and refreshments and depending on how remote the dive sites are.
  • Liveaboards make multi-day trips with guests sleeping onboard overnight in varying degrees of comfort. Trips are anywhere from three to six days in duration. Shorter trips tend to concentrate on just the Similan islands, or just Surin national park. Longer trips are likely to include both areas. Prices start around 15000 baht for a three day trip including a two or four bunk shared cabin, meals and refreshments but excluding alcoholic drinks, national park fees and equipment rental. A three day trip usually includes 10 dives, a four day trip 14 dives, a five day trip 18 dives. They are intense.
  • Platform trips are a combination using speed boats or longtails to deliver customers to a large boat which functions as a dive platform and may also function as a liveaboard.

I chose to do a four night, four day liveaboard trip with Big Blue Khao Lak. It was the first outing of the 2012/3 season for their new boat, M/V Hallelujah. And it was brilliant. Everything about it was brilliant – the boat, the accommodation, the catering, the crew, the staff and of course, the diving. We did 14 dives (three days of four dives per day, plus two dives on the last day); six in the Similan islands, two at Koh Bon, two at Koh Tachai, three at Richelieu Rock and one at the Boonsung wreck just off Khao Lak. I saw more lion fish on the first dive than I have seen on Koh Tao in over eight months, and more porcupine fish on one dive on Boonsung wreck than in all my previous dives combined. The visibility was generally excellent – often as much as 30m and the water so clear on some dives it felt like we were in an aquarium. We were inundated with lion fish, box fish, trumpet fish, cuttle fish, octopus, porcupine fish, box fish, trigger fish and moray eels. There were also plenty of nudibranchs for the macro lovers, a tiger tail seahorse, a peacock manta shrimp and a white tipped reef shark and a leopard shark. Sadly we didn’t see any manta rays (too early in the season for them) or whale sharks (but I’ve seen lots of them in Koh Tao recently).

Many people had told me how good the diving from Khao Lak was, how much better it was than the diving in Koh Tao. So I was expecting to be blown away and I was. Really there aren’t enough superlatives to describe how good this trip was.

Unfortunately I have no photos from the diving; I need an underwater housing for my camera or better still, a new camera and an underwater housing. Wonder what I’ll be buying myself for Christmas? In a way though, that was a good thing. It meant I got to spend more time looking at more critters than if I had been busy pointing a camera at a few of them trying to get the perfect shot.

Have you dived the Similans or Richelieu Rock? Have you dived anywhere you think is better? Tell me in the comments and maybe I’ll go there next year.

Khao Lak first impressions

Wednesday, October 31st, 2012

Khao Lak is a resort area spread along a few miles of the Andaman coast a couple of hours north of Phuket. There are a number of beaches from Khao Lak beach in the south to Bang Sak beach in the north. What is generally referred to as “Khao Lak centre” corresponds with Nang Thong beach, at least on my map. There is one main road running north-south with a number of side roads. The beach is about a quarter of a mile to the west of the main road. Stretched along the main road are a plethora of dive shops, taxi stands, assorted Thai and European restaurants, massage places, convenience stores, tourist shops, and reminiscent of Hoi An, dozens of tailors. The most amusing tee shirt I’ve seen for sale says “No, I don’t want a fucking taxi, massage or new suit”. Someone has their finger on the pulse then.

Many of the dive shops and restaurants have strong German connections, so many that I’m already thinking of the place as “Little Germany”. There are also a couple of Italian restaurants, English pubs and even an Argentinian restaurant although I’ve not seen that one open yet.

The season hasn’t quite started here yet and the town is fairly empty of tourists. There are a few down on the beach, mostly fat middle aged Germans, many of the men in speedos and the women in nowhere near enough clothes. It’s not a pretty sight. At least the beach is not littered with empty Chang or Singha bottles, unlike Sairee beach on Koh Tao. There are some huge resorts between the main road and the beach. I imagine when they fill up the place is going to be buzzing.

I spent a tiring afternoon on Friday looking for somewhere to live for at least the next month, or hopefully six. Several people had told me about an abundance of bungalows around the 6000-7000 baht per month mark. Well they may have existed last year, and they may have existed last week but not any more. I found one room for 6000 baht per month and it was not nice. I don’t need luxury but I’d prefer something more than a dank, musty smelling box with a knackered double bed, no other furniture and a skanky looking bathroom with cold shower. After speaking with some of the staff in a few dive shops it seems I arrived about a week too late. Most places are now only offering accommodation on a daily basis, around 400 baht per night for a fan room with wifi and hot shower. The best I could find was a nice looking fan room with double bed, wardrobe, bedside cabinet and small fridge, bathroom with hot shower, wifi and a small patio for 10000 baht per month. There are places asking 15000 baht per month for lesser rooms. Apparently there are still rooms around the 6500 baht per month level, but too far to get to without a motorbike. I don’t ride a motorbike and if I did they’re about 3000 baht per month to rent so not really much cheaper than what I have now.

Over the weekend I visited all the dive shops that were open, dropped off a CV at each and inquired about work. They all confirmed their full-time positions are filled but most expected to need some freelancers from about mid-November. So I’ve got a couple of weeks of thumb twiddling to look forward to and then the phone will start ringing and I’ll get to go diving.

Oh yeah, and it has a McDondalds :-)

Back by popular demand

Thursday, October 25th, 2012

Many people have asked why my blog has been silent the last few months. Some ask where I am and what I am and have been doing. One has been particularly persistent in the “Why aren’t you blogging?” department.

“Where” is easy to answer: Koh Tao, a tiny island in the Gulf of Thailand about half a days travel from Bangkok. It is the most northerly of a group of three islands, the others being Koh Pha Ngan and Koh Samui. All three are firmly established on the backpacker trail through Thailand and SE Asia with about half a million visitors each year.

“What” is also easy: people mostly come here to dive; that’s why I came here last year and why I returned in April. There are about 50 dive schools on the island. There are two main certifying agencies in the dive world, in alphabetical order they are PADI and SSI. Both are well represented on Koh Tao. The largest dive school here is reputed to issue about a quarter of all the new PADI Open Water diver certifications in the world every year.

So I’ve been diving, and pretty much every day for the last six months. There has also been some yoga, meditation, watching sunsets and a two-week trip to Minneapolis. There hasn’t been any dancing. People, usually drunk people, have been known to shuffle about in bars playing too loud music shortly before passing out and falling over, or falling off their rented motorbikes on their way home. There’s a club which hosts monthly parties with international DJs and “dancing” which might appeal to anyone missing their last trip to Ibiza or needing to “throw some shapes”. But there is no proper, partner dancing. Or if there is it’s a well kept secret no-one has shared with me. This is the one real downside to being here.

The diving has been great. For the first couple of months I was mostly a virtual DMT (dive master trainee) with Big Blue, the school I used last year. There is a glut of dive masters on Koh Tao. There aren’t a huge number of permanent DM positions and competition for them is intense. There are more freelance dive masters than there is work for them all. As a freelancer I might have dived (and got paid to do it) once or twice a week if I was lucky. As a virtual DMT I got to dive every day (but for no pay). For me the trade-off was worth it.

In July I did the PADI IDC (instructor development course) with Bans Diving Centre. There are many times more jobs advertised worldwide for SCUBA instructors than there are for dive masters. Afterwards I completed an SSI instructor crossover with Big Blue so now I can teach both PADI and SSI courses, roughly doubling the number of opportunities open to me. Remember how I said there are more freelance dive masters than there is work for them? Well the same is true here for freelance instructors. And the dive schools keep turning out more new instructors every month.

I’ve taught a mixture of PADI and SSI open water, advanced open water, speciality and rescue courses and racked up a reasonable number of certifications. As we approach November the monsoon is just about starting, bringing strong currents, poor visibility and of course lots of rain for the next few weeks. People say Koh Tao is a pretty miserable place to be and to dive during the monsoon. Lots of the dive shops send their boats away for maintenance, some close down completely and re-open in December. Many of the freelancers leave and seek work elsewhere. One of their favourite destinations is the Andaman Sea west coast of Thailand. Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Khao Lak are the top three diving resorts for the November to April season. The Similan Islands national park is open during this period and there are numerous live-aboard and day trip operators needing staff. The diving in the Similans is reputed to be much better than in Koh Tao. I like the diving here and think it’s pretty good so it should be spectacular over there.

A couple of days ago I had my best day of diving so far: three dives with a whale shark at Chumphon pinnacle. I’m looking forward to being blown away by the west coast diving. Tonight I’ll be leaving for Khao Lak. There I will find a well paying job involving a mixture of live-aboard and day trip diving, dive mastering and instructing, and avoid the east coast monsoon. I might even blog about it.

Happy now, N.?