Koh Tao: Scuba Diving, Bamboo Tattoos & Old Friends

Days 82-86 in Southeast Asia (April 16-20, 2016)

Koh Phi Phi to Koh Tao (Ferry, Bus, Ferry)

At 8am on Saturday morning, despite all three of us forgetting to set our alarms in our drunken state the night before, Segev woke up (by some miracle of fate) just after 8am… we had to be at the pier at 8:40am with all of our bags to catch a ferry. We dragged ourselves up and out of bed, threw our clothes (half of them still wet from the beach) into our bags, and made a run for it. We made it to the pier with moments to spare, and went straight to the bottom floor of the ferry, where the a/c was blasting and the lights were dim.

The ferry from 9am-10:30am took us to Krabi, where we caught a connecting bus to Suratthani. When we arrived at 3pm, we caught a final ferry that took us to Koh Tao (first stopping at Koh Samui and Koh Phangan). Finally, at 6pm after a full 9 hours of hungover travel, we arrived a the pier in Koh Tao, completely exhausted and still hungover. The joint ferry/bus/ferry ticket cost us each a total of 900THB/$33CAD, and all in all it wasn’t such a bad trip, and there were washrooms, a/c and snacks along the way, so we survived.

Ban’s Diving Resort!

When we got to Koh Tao, we hopped on the back of a pick-up truck taxi to take us to Ban’s Diving Resort, where we’d be spending the next 4 nights, hoping to take the PADI Open Water Diving Course to become certified scuba divers. Since Segev is a divemaster, which means he took his PADI open water course, advanced diver course, and divemaster course (in Israel), logging over 250 dives now (several at Ban’s diving for fun when he was in Koh Tao a couple months ago), he is somewhat of an expert on diving, and Maddie and I decided to trust him when he recommended Ban’s diving. He said they had the best instructors, equipment and accommodation, located right on the beach.

Normally, the resort costs about 1500THB per night ($60CAD) for a room, and if you sign up for a course you get it at a discounted rate. However, Segev decided to call the resort ahead of time and use his “Israeli connections” as he likes to call them, and ask that since he recommended Ban’s to both Maddie and I that we all get a room to share for free for the 4 nights that we’d be on the island, saving us each a total of about $80… They said yes. Thank. You. Segev.

The course at Ban’s cost us each 9800THB ($363CAD including the visa charge), and began the following evening at 5pm for orientation, followed by a full day of practice in the pool as well as in-class learning, the third day of 2 ocean dives and more in-class learning, and the fourth day of 2 more ocean dives, finishing just after noon.

After we settled into our new (free) accommodation, (which consisted of one giant bed, plus a small extra mattress that we ended up not even using, because it was so small and pathetic, in a fairly small room with both a/c and a fan), we went out for dinner to a place that Segev recommended that specialized in duck. 90% of the menu was duck with different rice, noodles or soup. Maddie and Segev got duck and rice, and I got it with noodles. The cooked meat had a melt-in-your-mouth texture, like butter, complimented by a sweet sauce that went perfectly with both the duck and the noodles… it was delicious, and not long after our late dinner and a drink on the beach we went off to bed, excited to start our course the following evening.

First Day on Koh Tao & Day 1 of our PADI Open Water Course

The next day was quiet and relaxed. We found a spot right on the beach to sit, drink tea, and use the WiFi to blog/e-mail/chat, and just hang out… the view here is spectacular, and it’s actually really quiet on the island right now. We went for a swim, walked on the beach a bit, and went back to the room to clean up before our orientation for the course started at 5pm.

Of course, since Segev is a divemaster, he would not be joining us for the course, and would instead just be doing some “fun dives” through Ban’s the following two days on his own, which are less expensive than courses, and obviously more fun for those with experience who don’t need all the lessons in underwater safety and how to use the equipment. For our 3 hour orientation, we met our instructor (Poli, from Israel), our assistant instructor (Frank), and our soon-to-be-divemaster (Ryan). We were introduced to the other students in our course (9 of us in total), filled out the mandatory paperwork, and after a brief explanation of how the course worked, we sat for 2 hours to watch the videos of chapters 1-3 in our dive book, for which we had an accompanying multiple choice quiz on paper.

As we watched the videos, we filled out the answers we thought were right, and the next day we’d review the quiz, and then write an actual test later on for the same material. The videos were boring, but not as painful as just reading would have been, and of course included important information for safety, and to help new divers understand how everything works, and the risks and dangers associated with it if it is done in an unsafe way.

Getting A Doctor’s Note to Dive

Finally, at 8pm, we were finished with the videos, at which point myself and another girl from the class were sent to see the doctor for approval to go diving because we had pre-existing medical conditions. The other girl had mild asthma, and of course I have type 1 diabetes. I had read online months ago that many places won’t allow you to dive if you’re a diabetic, primarily because of the risk of a low blood sugar happening while underwater, and of course if I’m 15m below the surface and a ten minute swim to the boat and I have a low blood sugar, I might not be able to make it back to the boat in time, and would risk having a seizure or going unconscious underwater… not ideal.

A lot of places recommend that you bring a letter from your doctor approving you to dive, but most doctors (including mine) won’t do that, simply because it’s their license on the line if something does happen to go wrong. However, my doctor had confidence in my experience with my diabetes and my blood sugar control, and said that he didn’t think I’d have a problem working around it. I felt the same, and planned on going into the water only with a high blood sugar, to ensure that I wouldn’t go low in the hour until we were back on the boat. Still, I had been mentally preparing myself for the past few months that while I’ve been DREAMING of diving here, and hopefully other places in the future, it might be something that I simply can’t do because of my diabetes. I have a few real limits because of my condition, and this may be one of them. As devastated as I’d be to hear that I simply couldn’t dive, I was preparing myself that I might have to accept it.

We went to the doctors office around the corner, and they sent us to a “specialist” even farther down the road. We sat and waited, and Emma went first. 5 minutes later, she came out with her stamp of approval and a smile. My turn. I went in, sweating and shaking I was so nervous, as the doctor asked me about my condition. The exam went as follows: I sat down. He asked, “You have diabetes?” I replied, “Yes.” He asked, “Are you taking injections?” to which I replied, “No, I am on an insulin pump.” He pointed to the table for me to take a seat. I sat on the table, he listened to my breathing for a collective 4 seconds, asked if I had good blood sugar control, to which I replied, “Yes, very,” and he sent me out of the room. I had my blood pressure checked by the nurse at the front, paid 200THB, and received a stamped letter approving me for diving…

Are. You. Joking?!…

I had been mentally preparing myself that I might not be able to dive, when THAT was the physical exam I needed to pass?! Now, I know I should’ve been happy at that point, and I was because it meant I could dive, but in all honesty there are a lot of diabetics (some that I know personally) who would not know how to manage their blood sugars in this type of situation and don’t have as good of control as I do, and knowing that pretty much anyone, good control or not, could basically just pay a 200THB ($7CAD) BRIBE (which is what it felt like) to get approval pissed me off. It took me a couple of hours to shake off the feeling that I had been taken advantage of, and that my health was of no real consideration when it came to the approval letter, but eventually I realized that it was up to me regardless of an approval letter, and that even though it meant nothing really, I had confidence in my own experience with my diabetes to know how to handle my blood sugars for diving. I just had to be extra careful to not mess it up now.

Bang Burgers

To help me de-stress, Segev took us to another place he had been to the last time he was in Koh Tao, Bang Burgers, where we enjoyed some AMAZING cheeseburgers and fries, and a couple of beers.

To top it off, Seg and I went out afterwards (Maddie was too tired) for some Thai Massages for 300THB each for an hour. It definitely took my mind off of the stress I had earlier, and although it was painful, I felt like a million bucks afterwards, and my masseuse told me that I was a “strong woman”, after bending me into positions I guess most people can’t handle, and digging into me pretty hard. She also said I had a “beautiful body” as I was getting dressed afterwards, which was really just icing on the cake. I slept like a baby that night, relaxed and ready for the following day, when we’d get to try out the diving equipment in the pool for the first time.

Practicing Using Our Scuba Gear In The Pool

At 7:30am, we met our group at the pool where we learned how to set up our equipment, and got in the water for the first time. We practiced breathing underwater and several emergency scenarios for the next few hours until 12:30pm, when we we had a shower/lunch break before more classroom time. At 2pm, we met in class, reviewed chapters 1-3, wrote our tests, and watched the videos for chapters 4 and 5. At 5pm, we finished up just in time for Segev to meet up with Maddie and I for a BBQ dinner on the beach and to watch the sunset, which is apparently only more and more beautiful here every single night. I love this island.

Shopping Area & Tattoo Shops in Koh Tao

We walked through the shopping area (Segev and I bought matching bracelets), and checked out the bamboo tattoo shops around here, which I’ve been admiring since I first saw the artists at work in Koh Phi Phi…I had decided a long time ago that if I found a place that I trusted was safe, and felt strongly enough about a tattoo while I was travelling, that I’d get one with bamboo, the traditional Thai style of tattooing, using no machines and only a long sliver of bamboo dipped in ink, done entirely by hand.

To me (as an artist), regardless of the tattoo itself, the process was beautiful enough on its own to carry meaning for me, but of course I wouldn’t get something unless I really loved it. I had seen some lotus flower tattoos on Koh Phi Phi that were stunning, and after spending some time in Zoko Tattoo here in Koh Tao, I decided to ask the owner about drawing one up for me. He told me to come back the next day when he’d have a drawing, and if I liked it and he had time that he could tattoo me the next night. I was feeling pretty excited even just at the idea of some new beautiful artwork on me, and couldn’t wait to go back the next night to see what he had drawn up.

Our First Day Diving in the Ocean!

The next morning, we met our diving group in the restaurant of the resort at 7:15am, where we’d leave at 7:30 with our gear to head to our first actual dive site in the water. 25 minutes later by boat, we arrived at Mango Bay, where we dove to a depth of 10m for 45 minutes. Unfortunately, my buddy (Maddie) couldn’t equalize her ears properly, and she went back up with Frank, our assistant instructor, who spent some time with her working on it, and they ended up diving in another spot after the rest of us had kept going, and I was now buddied up with Ryan (our divemaster) and Katie (another student).

Diving was awesome. Just breathing underwater and being able to see so far (visibility was amazing) was an entirely new and wonderful experience for me. I felt completely absorbed in this new world, and felt completely natural underwater, as strange as it sounds, like I had found something that came naturally to me as I focused on my breathing, floating still near the coral in order to see the fish without scaring them off.

Ryan told me it was refreshing to see someone so new, so absorbed in what they were looking at, rather than just focusing on what they’d been taught and how to swim and breathe, which is a lot to focus on by itself.. which is probably why I cut my finger on a bit of coral, not paying attention to my hands as I followed a few fish I was watching, but it was a small cut, and it stopped bleeding very quickly even under water.

Our second dive was at Twin Rocks, where we dove to 12m for 45 minutes, this time with my buddy (Maddie) back in the group. The dive was awesome, and we saw one puffer fish and a bunch of other small fish that were brightly coloured and beautiful. I wished I had my GoPro the first day, though Poli told me to wait until the second day to bring it with me, only because he wanted to make sure I was comfortable with everything I HAD to do, before letting me add something else into the mix, which was completely fair.

After the second dive, we went back to the restaurant where we had an hour lunch break, followed by another hour of practice in the pool with some emergency scenarios. At 2:30, we went over chapters 4 and 5 in the classroom, and wrote our tests on the chapters, as well as our final exam, which we’d go over the following afternoon. We finished at about 4:30, at which time we met up wih Seg at the room and went back to the same spot as the night before for dinner and the sunset. It really is just incredibly beautiful here every single night.

Getting a Bamboo Tattoo At Zoko Tattoo!!!

After dinner, we went back to Zoko tattoo, where Zoko showed me the lotus flower he drew up for me. It was beautiful, but I honestly wanted something a bit differrent. I told him what I had in mind, showed him one of the drawings on the wall, and he drew it up for me an hour later exactly as I imagined it. We changed the sizing, held the drawing up to my arm, and I was sold. Ed, the “master” at the shop, stenciled it out for me and sat me down in his chair. They told me it’d be about an hour and a half (bamboo tattoos take far longer than machine ones), but after 20 years of experience with bamboo tattoos, Ed was finished mine in under 40 minutes.

Now, I’m not going to say it wasn’t painful. It was, much more than my other tattoo that I got a year or so ago back home by machine, but it was bearable, and it didn’t even bleed at all. I paid 4500THB ($164CAD) in the end, which was an absolute deal for the beautiful new artwork that I’d carry forever.

Aside from being a beautiful piece of artwork on my forearm, the lotus flower is a popular symbol in Buddhism. It grows beautifully in the mud, and is therefore seen by buddhists as a symbol of the overcoming of suffering to achieve enlightenment. It is also a very symmetrical flower, that is often used as a symbol of balance and peace. Most importantly though, I loved it, and it was something that I decided to do without anyone else’s opinion or advise, which is something I’ve been trying to do more of in my life, especially in my travels. I felt empowered.

I sent a snapchat to Alex and my parents afterwards to let them know what I did… which maybe wasn’t the BEST idea, but after the initial shock they all seemed to agree (I think) that it was beautiful, and certainly a memorable souvenir.

Second Day of Diving in the Ocean!

The next morning, our final day in Koh Tao (and of the diving course) we met back in the restaurant of the resort at 7:15 to head out on the boat again. Our first dive was 49mins at 13m at Hin Nham (Beautiful Rock), where I had the foggiest mask I’ve ever dealt with in my life, and could barely see anything the entire dive. Not only that, but we kept doing exercises that involved flooding our masks, and removing them entirely underwater, while breathing at the bottom, and remaining calm as we put them back on, blew water out of our nose to clear them, and continued on. We did it about 5 or 6 times over the three days in the water, and ever time ended with me having water up my nose that I was trying to blow out (into my mask) for the rest of the dive, and my eyes burning from the salt. I was glad we were taught to do it, and of course I never would’ve tried to do it had I not been forced, but it was my least favourite part of the course hands down.

After our first dive, we went to Shark Island (named for its shape, like a dorsal fin, not its aquatic life), for our final dive of the course. I switched masks and made sure to soap mine up plenty to prevent it from fogging up this time. Visibility wasn’t incredible, but the site was.

We went to 18m (our maximum depth allowed at this level of diving), for 45mins, and saw an amazing amount of aquatic life below the surface. There were beautiful plants and fish, as well as a bit of metal frames etc. underwater that looked like wreckage, where we saw a giant puffer fish and tons of beautiful brightly coloured small fish. I took so many pictures with my GoPro that I know won’t accurately express just how beautiful it was down there, but trust me when I say that it was incredible.

When we got to the top, we were given our official diver logbooks, which we filled out for the 4 dives during the past 2 days, and Poli congratulated us on our awesome work. We went back to the restaurant, marked our final exams, which we all passed, and celebrated the fact that we were all officially certified scuba divers now. We said our goodbyes to our new friends, thanked our instructors, especially Poli who was incredible, and went back to our room to shower and pack.

Leaving By Ferry For Koh Pangan

We finished getting ready with just enough time for lunch before heading out to catch our ferry to Koh Phangan at 3:30. We took a taxi (included in our 350THB/$12 ticket price) from Ban’s to the pier, where we walked about 10 minutes with our bags to Songserm Ferry and waited in the crowd of sweaty backpackers for our ferry, which left 20/30 minutes late at around 4. The inside was actually pretty comfortable and had air con, which was nice, and we arrived in Koh Phangan at 5:30pm.

Pink’s Bungalow & Finding David!

We hopped in a taxi for 100THB each to take us to Pink’s Bungalow, where we had booked ourselves in for the next 3 nights in a “family room” which fits up to 5, giving us plenty of space for the three of us, plus our good friend David, who we had travelled with back in Thailand and Laos. He and Segev (who are essentially brothers) are travelling to the Philippines together soon after Maddie and I leave for Bali, and after finding out that Seg, Maddie and I, as well as a few of his other friends that he had met while travelling, would be in Koh Phangan for the full moon party this month, he decided to make it a part of his plan to join us.

Our bungalow at Pink’s was ON the beach, less than 20m from the water, with an incredible sunset view from Baan Tai Beach (the full moon party on April 21st, tomorrow, is on Haad Rin beach, but we decided to stay a bit farther from the madness on Baan Tai, where it was quieter and much cheaper, and take a quick taxi ride, about 10 minutes/8km, to Haad Rin for the party). The room cost us each 427THB/night, or $15.50CAD, which is nothing compared to the prices on Haad Rin for bungalows during the party.

We watched the sunset from our private room, grabbed some dinner, and sat on our porch and hammock while we waited for David. Finally he arrived, and the four of us chatted and caught up for several hours on the porch before calling it a night. It feels so good to have him back, and I’m thrilled that we get to spend the next few days, including the full moon party, together again. I fell asleep to the faint sound of the ocean just outside our window… It doesn’t get much better than this.

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