Leaving Chiang Mai, we were so ready for some good, quality beach time. Sights set on the South we were prepared to do a little island hopping…Thai style! Little did we know that Mother Nature had other plans in mind. After a very long, but rather uneventful train ride down through the heart of Thailand, we were eventually dropped in Chumphon. From here we had to catch a ferry to Koh Tao and then transfer to another ferry that would take us to Koh Pha Ngan, ultimately our destination. (Thailand is deceiving in its size. It always seems to take much longer than one would initially anticipate to cover such a seemingly short distance.) Koh Pha Ngan is an extremely popular destination for young travelers seeing as it boasts one of the craziest parties on Earth, the infamous monthly Full Moon Party, which we just had to check out for ourselves.
Following a heated exchange with a tout trying to sell overpriced ferry tickets, we finally boarded our first ferry for the day. The sky had been spitting lightly from the moment we got off of the train in Chumphon, but it did not really start to unleash its rainy wrath until we boarded our boat. Considering the fact that we were just a few days out from the upcoming Full Moon Party, it was no surprise that the boat was chuck full of other travelers…so much so that it was more or less a standing-room-only-overbooked ride. Translated, this means that there were lots and lots of people standing and sitting outside of the tiny, cramped cabin enduring the torrential rain storm that we were currently sailing through. We were one of the lucky few to find a spot inside of the stuffy cabin space. That is until I began to get really seasick from the rocky ride and had to vacate to find myself some fresh air and railing space…just in case. Being the gentleman that he is, Ron followed suit and accompanied me outside. After several hours in the pouring rain, we finally reached Koh Tao just in time to board our connecting ferry to Koh Pha Ngan. As you might have already guessed, the rain was showing no sign of letting up anytime soon. Already sopping wet, we grit our teeth and found a spot semi-shielded from the wind outside on the back of the boat by some of the crew members who were equally wet and cold. The difference however was that they were being paid to be there and we were on the flip side of that equation paying to be there. What a difference semantics makes in certain cases!
Finally reaching Koh Pha Ngan, we grabbed our soaked backpacks and trudged towards the taxis. We booked the first place we found in town and began the long, seemingly arduous, task of drying out. We spent the next few days holed up inside waiting out the rain. (We came to find out that despite what we had read in our research, the eastern side of Thailand was mid monsoon season. Oops!) Needless to say, in a place that does not specialize in rainy day activities the rain got rather old rather quickly. It did not take long to realize that we could kiss our Koh Pha Ngan beach days goodbye. Alas…some days all you can say is, “Life…so rich.”
The morning of the Full Moon Party, the rain seemed to be lightening up ever so slightly. By the afternoon, it was all but gone! Cloudy, but not rainy so we will gladly take it! We snagged a shared taxi over to the Full Moon Party beach on the other side of the island and wandered around the otherwise sleepy beach town as party preparations were in full swing. Slowly but surely colossal metal structures were erected from the sand and rickety wooden booths were assembled as far as the eye could see. Slides were assembled off of rooftops and the countless medical facilities stocked up on their bandage supply. (There were literally clinics everywhere which was a pretty clear sign of the night to come.) The most jaw dropping sight however was the sheer amount of booze and Red Bull that were pouring into each of the wooden beachside booths. Wow! This was shaping up to be quite the party!
Things got started kind of slowly, but once they got going…wow! Music was pumping, strobe lights were flashing, neon body paint was everywhere! It does not stop there though. The big thing at the Koh Pha Ngan Full Moon Party is the “buckets”. Essentially these are little plastic beach pails filled with mixed drinks…and Red Bull to add a little crazy to the mix. It is such a strange experience to be able to walk freely around town and up and down the beach with a bucket of booze in hand. As the night really took off, the somewhat contained beach began to fill up with all sorts of rowdy characters. Let’s just say that you can see the need for the multitudes of medical clinics. Fill a bunch of people with ridiculous amounts of alcohol and then add the ocean, rooftop slides, glass bottles, flame throwers, and high structures and you, my friend, have a recipe for injury…and one crazy party! It was about midnight when we realized just how much of a hook-up party this really was. For the first time in our life, and hopefully the last for a long time to come, we really felt that that old married couple at a college frat boy party! It was bizarre! After a fantastic night of dancing, people watching, and just plain gawking, we dragged our old married selves (kidding!) back to our side of the island just in time to avoid another downpour. Phew! Timing is everything!
Maybe not ideal planning after a night out, we caught our ferry over to Koh Tao, our next island hopping stop. Despite our fears of the possible hangover-seasick combination, we were feeling great. However, the same cannot be said for most of our ferry companions, many of whom had clearly made a visit to at least one of the clinics and were subsequently decorated with a range of bandages. The ferry back towards Koh Tao was much less eventful than our earlier boat ride for which we were extremely grateful. Once we docked, we navigated our way through the crowd and found the scuba company we had booked with waiting for us as promised. Woohoo! Scuba!
Koh Tao is supposedly the best place in the world to learn to scuba dive thanks to its world class reefs filled to the gills (Get it?!) with marine life and its extremely calm waters due to its being situated conveniently in the Gulf of Thailand. Plus, it is no doubt the cheapest place to get your official Open Water Diver Certification which we know we need if we are wanting to do any diving on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. Our excitement (and my anxiety) even overrode our exceedingly stinky room complete with standing water. But hey, it was a good deal! In between the time we arrived and the time our class started, I think it is safe to say that I lost a significant amount of sleep due to nerves. I’m still not quite sure why, but scuba is something that has always terrified me despite my knowing how to swim and not being afraid of fish or anything of the kind. Maybe it is the whole idea that you just should not be able to breathe under water, but honestly I am not sure. All of this was a bit of a surprise to Ron seeing as I never bothered to mention my fear to him prior to us arriving in Thailand. You see, my plan was that as the time got closer, I would just not be nervous anymore. Well, that backfired.
We went through our orientation and classroom time with no problems. (Side note: Yet another example of how small the world really is, the two other girls in our certification group were from our hometown of Boulder, CO of all places!) All of the sudden it was time to face the fear and gear up. Before they took us out into the open water, we had a whole afternoon of pool time to get used to the equipment and overall shock of breathing under water. For the first 30 minutes or so, I had pretty much made up my mind that there was no way I was going to continue on with this course. Ron would just have to find another scuba buddy. As time went on though, it started to be more and more fun and almost, dare I say it, comfortable. It was nuts! Breathing under water?! Who would have thunk?! By the end of our pool session, we were both equally excited! Bring on the big bad ocean!
Suited up and ready to go, we made our first open water dive! And then our second, third, and fourth! Over the course of two days, or well, really like 36 hours, we spent over 3 hours completely underwater. Yowzers! It was phenomenal! It did take a little while to gain proper control, but once we got the hang of that we were golden. (Controlling your buoyancy under water with constantly changing air supply weight is actually quite tricky. One minute you are sinking uncontrollably and find yourself stomach down on the bottom and the next minute you are weightlessly floating up when you want to be headed down. Nuts!) Swimming smack dab next to giant coral reefs teeming with fish of all shapes, sizes, and colors was mind blowing! (Unfortunately, since we were still taking our certification course, we were not allowed to bring a camera with us. It’s like they wanted us to concentrate on staying alive or something.)
It was so freeing to be floating along, other divers above you and steep reef drop offs below you filled with life and mystery. The colors were so vivid and the water so warm and clear, I think we could have stayed down there forever…except for that minute detail of needing air. At one point, although totally unaware, we were swimming less than 20 feet from a WHALE SHARK! These are the largest fish in the world. It takes most divers literally hundreds of dives before they see one, so we did not feel too bad that we missed it…well, we were a little bummed, but I guess it just means that we need to go again. Fortunately the range of other spectacular underwater within arms reach made up for the whale shark miss. Unbelievable is the only word I can really think to begin to describe the feeling of exploring this completely different, zero-gravity-esque universe. It was magical. We were hooked. (Did you get my fish reference this time?! Funny, right?)
Now officially SSI Open Water Divers, we were feeling footloose and fancy free. Ready to conquer anything! So how about the flying trapeze? Why not?! A little random we will admit, but while Koh Tao is renowned for its scuba opportunities, this little island paradise is also home to a flying trapeze school. This has been on my bucket list for some time now so when better to check it off than in Thailand? We showed up to the trapeze school just in time for our 1.5 hour lesson, figuring that you can’t possibly learn that much in just over an hour. But, boy were we wrong! In just that short time frame, we learned not one, but two flying catch tricks! Is it safe? Why, certainly! Well, let me clarify. By Thai standards, yes, it is safe! By American standards? Probably not exactly. The first step is to climb up a 40 foot extension ladder and then climb onto the bleacher sized platform at the top. Only then do you get hooked into your harness. But hey, what were you expecting? After two quick practice runs each where you dismount by flipping into the nets below, it was time for the real deal. The catches! As the sun set on us for the last time in Koh Tao, we were catapulting through the air and each nailed BOTH of the tricks! What a way to end our time in Koh Tao! We were no doubt flying high! (This post is all about corny punch lines.)
On our way to the night ferry we had booked to take us from Koh Tao to Surrathani where we would catch our bus to Phuket on the western side of the mainland, I was talking a million miles an hour about how awesome everything in Koh Tao had been. Chitter chatter, chitter chatter, chitter chatter…silence. Cue jaw drop. When our shared taxi dropped us at the pier and showed us our night boat, Thailand really out did itself. The boat we climbed onto is really quite impossible to adequately describe. It was two stories, neither of which had ceilings high enough to stand up in. The floor was covered from one end to the other in two inch thick dirty mattresses which looked to be begging for bed bugs that were packed in there sardine style. It was dark and musty and quite reminiscent of old time slave boats for lack of a better, maybe more politically correct term. Basically, you just found your bed number, plopped down, and tried not to think about the fact that there was only one visible life jacket on board. The cherry on top of this classic Thailand experience however was that…drum roll please…they had overbooked it! There were about ten people on board with absolutely no where to sleep or even sit down. While we, along with our fellow travelers who had already gone through the shock and coping process, were entertaining ourselves watching the priceless expressions that crossed every person’s face as they entered the ferry, we were simultaneously asking ourselves if saving on accommodation costs by taking the night ferry was really worth it. In the end, thanks to smooth sailing and no real disasters, we decided that it was definitely worth it, although barely. Crazy Thailand!