Life's a beach

Trip Start Nov 24, 2010
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63
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Trip End Nov 23, 2011


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Where I stayed
Koh Tao Tropicana Resort Ko Tao
Read my review - 3/5 stars

Flag of Thailand  ,
Thursday, August 25, 2011

Birthdays are a funny thing. The older I get the less important they seem but, with advancing age, comes birthday anxiety - definitely not the same feeling I had in the days leading up to my 18th and the day when I would no longer have to worry about whether or not I would get served at the pub using my extremely fake Middlesex University ID. Another year further away from my youth and another year wiser. Or at least I should be. So what exactly was I doing in Thailand, then? A haven for the young and carefree, those on the well-trodden route between school and university, or university and the real world.

To let my birthday slide by, barely a blip on the radar, is now my first thought as the calendar creeps its way towards 26th August. But as the big day approaches I always give into the in-built need for a bit of birthday attention... Not that I had any friends or family to call on in Thailand. I could, however, decide upon my geographical location. Originally, I had thought Bangkok with its infamous reputation would make a good birthday venue. But I also had Koh Tao - the Gulf of Thailand's diving mecca recommended to me by numerous people during my travels - at the back of my mind. The choice was a straight toss-up between big city excess and relaxed island surroundings above and below the surface.

After not too much soul-searching sand, scuba and, hopefully, sun won the day. Frankly, I didn't want to see out a whole week in Bangkok. I had really fallen for Tokyo by the time I left Japan and I just wasn't ready to court another big city so soon after. All that was left to do was to get myself onto the island. It would certainly require a spot more effort than brandishing my JR pass and jumping on the next shinkansen. The very helpful ladies running Smile Society told me that I should get to the southern bus terminal for 5pm and that I would be able to buy a ticket on the fly. They also said it would take 90 minutes to get there by taxi so I found myself flagging down just such a vehicle on the Silon Road at 4pm.

After successfully negotiating that the meter should be turned on rather than settling for a surely over-inflated flat fare we were on our way... For a few metres until we were absorbed into the mega-wheeled beast that is Bangkok's afternoon traffic. At least the meter was ticking over nicely as I slowly sweated on the back seat. After the kind of jostling for position that would have resulted in road rage convictions in London and liberal application of a well broken-in horn we broke free of the automotive crush onto a free-flowing highway. The style of driving switched in an instant. Now there was no choice but to drive as fast as possible as close to the vehicle in front as possible before suddenly swerving into another lane without any reference to the mirrors that give warning of impending collisions. Yet, somehow it all works and I gave up pumping the imaginary brake pedal beneath my twitchy right foot. Without warning my hard-won meter gibbed out and began displaying a series of alarmingly high numbers. I was suspicious that this fault might be linked to the nationality of the punter but the driver was most restrained when it came to settling on the fare when we arrived at the bus station. Dare I say that I might even have saved some money. So much for suspicious minds...

I scoured the various bus company offices for services to my destination and gathered the different fares on offer. I plumped for a combination of overnight bus and ferry from Chompon to Koh Tao. All that sat in the negative column were the five hours that remained until departure. Boning up on the Lonely Planet and chomping on some noodles quickly ate up the time and it was like old South American times when I boarded the over air-conditioned bus blaring out a movie. Except that the Thai movies I saw featured only shouted dialogue. Nonetheless, I had to be roused from my slumber and ejected onto the roadside when the bus arrived in the environs of Chompon at 5am. Bleary-eyed, I was transferred into the back of pick-up truck and, surprisingly, deposited at a railway station. After a train disgorged a hoard of backpackers an hour later I was shuttled onto a small passenger boat. I returned to the land of nod as we approached a jungle-clad island. Koh Tao.

I had already decided that I wanted to get away from the main strip of Sairee beach and head to Chalok Bay where I had been recommended the Buddha View diving school and resort. After negotiating the rickety pier and the gaggle of hawkers I was once again in the back of a pick-up and bumping the short distance across the island. At Buddha View I signed up for two days of fun dives but was told only people taking certification courses were eligible for the inclusive accommodation so I headed next door to the sprawling Tropicana resort where I picked up a nice top-floor room for 400 baht. I whiled away the day strolling along the beautiful beach, eating at a waterside restaurant and drinking a couple of Changs. I was asleep early in preparation for the 7.15am departure the following morning but was woken in the middle of the night by a howling wind which was creating a personal storm in my room - entering the mosquito netting at one end and exiting at the other like a whirling dervish.

It was now my birthday but the gods did not bless me with good diving weather. Gone were the blue skies of the previous day, replaced by slate-grey clouds and a very choppy sea. I checked in at the school and packed the kit I was given into my dive bag for the day. The only other fun diver was a nice German guy called Kris who had plenty more dives under his weight belt than me. He had been to the island before and was whiling away the time while his girlfriend took her Open Water course. We were driven across to the harbour and we boarded Buddha View's huge dive boat, crammed with classes of all levels and nationalities. It felt like a factory boat for PADI certifications and a far cry from the low-key enterprises I had experienced to date in Colombia and Brazil. I was glad for Kris' help when it came to setting up my equipment as I had forgotten a lot of what I had learned back in South America. Our instructor was an enthusiastic English guy called Kip and he led us out on both of my birthday dives. Once the queasy feeling caused by the rough crossing abated I thoroughly enjoyed myself as we weaved in and out of coral-clad reefs spotting infamous trigger fish and a whole host of other marine life. It was just a shame the sun was not shining as, even 20 metres down, it really made a difference to the colours on display.

We were back at the dive school by midday and I had no plans. I spent the afternoon on the beach as the sun broke through and the sea returned to the turquoise hues of the day before. I was getting the feeling that I was going to find it hard to meet other backpackers here as it felt like somewhere people go on holiday as a couple or with friends from home. And the lack of hostels with their sociability was not helping either. I decided to take a walk to a neighbouring beach and, on the way back, popped into a small bar for a beer. I got chatting to a Swedish man and his daughter and was invited to join them for dinner. Jon is married to a Thai woman and his daughter Lisbeth had spent the last four years on the island working for dive schools but now the time had come to return home. And tonight was her leaving party, so I had a couple more beers and chatted to some of her friends including a Norwegian guy who funds his island lifestyle solely with online poker. Surely a risky business at the best of times but even more so with such a frail internet connection. I had made the decision not to tell anybody that it was my birthday as I didn't want to lumber people I had just met with the need to celebrate with me. In fact, I was in bed by 11 in preparation for another morning's diving.

The sea was even rougher and we had to switch our planned dive spot due to the thumping waves. But maybe it was for the best as I made my first wreck dive. Not quite a sunken Spanish galleon, more an obsolete Thai gunboat purposefully sunk a few years before and the controls for the gun turret still worked as I changed the elevation of the barrel by turning a hand-operated wheel. But the real treat lay around the reef where we chanced upon a majestic sea turtle that swam with us for a couple of minutes before rising gracefully in search of air, disappearing into the daylight above. My birthday treat had come a day late, and I felt glad to have left the big day behind me. Another quiet evening followed and I resolved that the time had come to move on. But where to?

I really was not feeling 'it' in Thailand and the islands were succumbing to the rainy season. I had been toying with the idea of a sojourn to Indonesia and now felt like the time to do it. I decided Sumatra would be my next destination and the Gunung Leuser national park that is home to a few thousand organ-utans. I found beach life solo a bit boring and I wanted to get back into the thick of it. I would need to take an overnight ferry the following evening to Suratthani that would take nine hours and then a 12-hour bus ride to Pinang in Malaysia from where I booked a cheap flight across to Medan in northern Sumatra. I was feeling the joy of travelling again as I whiled away Sunday reading and writing. The beauty is sometimes in the tangent. And then I saw Tam, a German guy of Indian descent who had been on the Magic Bus in New Zealand. If only he had arrived a few days earlier. But then things do sometimes happen for a reason.

My Review Of The Place I Stayed



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