Koh Tao

Thai New Year 2016

As the Thai New Year approaches people all over the country are getting ready to celebrate with their family and friends. Otherwise known as Songkran, what started out as a traditional water blessing to bring good luck, it has evolved into a full-on, alcohol-fuelled water fight.  If you happen to be in Thailand during mid-April there is nothing for you to do but get involved.

Songkran is the Sanskrit word for movement or change, and in ancient times there would be celebrations when the Sun moved into the Aries constellation of the Zodiac. The holiday starts on 13th April and lasts for three or four days.  I have experienced this crazy festival three times during my time in Thailand, each time in a different location and each time with a different view.

Songkran on Khao San Road

The first time I enjoyed Songkran was in 2008, when I first travelled around Thailand. My friends had come to visit me, and on the first day of the festival I went to pick up my friend, Hayley, from the airport. Hayley arrived, we took a taxi back to the hotel, and slept for a while before entering the throng of party-goers.

Songkran, Khao San Road, Bangkok

Khao San Road is a small street, filled with bars and restaurants on either side and fairly busy. During Songkran there are stages set up all along the road, and there are thousands of people- all crammed into that little street. Suffice to say I got separated from Hayley within the first 30 minutes.

But, not to worry, after a few minutes Hayley appeared, being carried along by the waves of people. I grabbed her, she was fine, and we carried on partying into the night until we could party no more.

The next day was much the same but in the evening we decided to party elsewhere. So we got dressed up and hailed a tuk-tuk to Silom.  Bearing in mind that there is a massive water fight going on with people soaking you with guns and buckets filled with ice cold water. Even people in trucks hosing you down- there is no mercy for anyone. Why we decided to take a tuk-tuk, God only knows! By the time we arrived in Silom we were soaked to the skin.

By the third day it was getting ridiculous- there was no let up, so we went to Silom again, found an Irish bar and stayed put until 1am, when the water throwing stopped for the evening.

Although we had fun, it is just too crazy. Too many people, and not enough room to move, and to this day I have vowed I would never again celebrate Songkran on Khao San Road. Except, this year I have been persuaded to go again, so I will, reluctantly, be joining the party. Although, I say that. I know once I get there I will enjoy it as much as anyone else.

Songkran, Khao San Road, Bangkok

Songkran in Chiang Mai

The following year, I went to Chiang Mai to celebrate Songkran once more. As if I didn’t get enough water-filled fun the previous year. But, what a difference. I was pleasantly surprised.

In the central Tha Pae gate area of the city there were the resident trucks with ice cold water cannons, music blaring at ridiculous volume levels, and the obligatory alcohol from morning until night, but this time there was room to move, and loads of it.

Songkran, Chiang Mai
Source: http://andrewtaylor.photoshelter.com

Along the canal, the bars had set up tiny little stages so you could dance and watch everyone strutting their stuff to the music, and getting soaked at the same time. There were huge tanks of water where you could re-fill your weapon and get your own back on the barrage of water that was being fired from the trucks and from people passing by.

The atmosphere in Chiang Mai was amazing- everyone was in high spirits and having so much fun. And when the festival ended at 10pm, we all went on to a late bar to continue the party into the early hours.

Songkran, Chiang Mai

When I was there in 2009 the festival lasted for two days. And it was so much more relaxed than Bangkok. I think mainly because there is a lot more room to move and it can be easily escaped. In fact, I had so much fun the first day I didn’t make it out for the second, preferring to rest my weary bones in the hotel room.

Songkran on Koh Tao

In 2010, I visited Koh Tao with my friends, Doyle and Melody, and we happened to be there for Songkran.  Having experienced it the previous two years I eagerly told them what fun we were going to have. A day or so before we went out and purchased our weapons of choice, ready for the water war.

Songkran, Koh Tao

On the morning of the celebrations we went out for breakfast to line our stomachs in preparation for the large amounts of alcohol that would be consumed during the day.

Melody and I, being the little devils that we are, left before everyone else as we were eager to start partying. The others arrived to find us swinging from a large swing on the beach, slightly, well OK, very inebriated. We didn’t last until the end of the day; we were all in bed by 10.30pm! It was just too much excitement, or was it the alcohol?!

Songkran, Koh Tao

In the morning we were up for more excitement but were disappointed to learn that Songkran only lasted one day, due to the island having a water shortage. Quite rightly so.

And while I couldn’t stomach a third day in Bangkok, one day wasn’t enough. I am never happy!

Since then I have managed to avoid any Songkran festivities for one reason or another but this year I will, more than likely, be out and about, somewhere in Bangkok, enjoying the celebrations along with everyone else. Reluctantly of course.

 

Farewells and an Aquatic Accomplishment

When we got back to Thailand, after Laos, and after a quick trip back to Singburi to meet our friends again we found ourselves in Bangkok once more. After a trip to the airport, an hour spent buying a new IPod and a visit to a tattoo parlour I met Tri and her friends in a bar, near to the Khao San Road. After a few drinks Tri told me that she was really going to miss me and that we had become good friends. I totally agreed with her, we had travelled all over Thailand together, been to Laos, and spent a great deal of time with each other over the previous two months. I was really going to miss her and I know she was sad because she was leaving Thailand but she was going off to Australia and New Zealand so, for her, a new start to her journey was about to begin.

Me and Tri
Me and Tri

When you go travelling you meet so many people but there is just a handful that you know you will keep in touch with and Tri is one of those people. We are still good friends to this day,  although we haven’t seen each other for a few years- the last time I saw her was in New Zealand in 2008- but we still keep in touch and regularly remind ourselves of the wonderful times we had in the Land of Smiles. And I am sure we will meet again sometime in the future. The thing that I love is that, when we do meet, it will be just like I saw her yesterday. I have that feeling with all of my friends at home and I truly love them for that.

As Tri was setting off for Australia and New Zealand, so I decided that a new chapter in my travel experience should begin, so I had planned to go back to Koh Tao to do my PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors). After a tearful goodbye, with promises of meeting in New Zealand a few months later, I got on the bus and left Bangkok at 9.15pm. I arrived at Chumphon at 5am and had to wait until 7am for the first catamaran to take me over to the island.

Finally on Koh Tao again I checked into Ban’s Dive Resort which was really lovely- the room price being included in the dive package (at the time around 10,000baht). I was so tired I went straight to bed, and at 3pm made my way to watch a dive video at the office, which was all part of the course. Afterwards, I had dinner in a nearby bar, watched a movie, and decided to return to my room to do some homework for the diving course, which started properly the next day.

Bans Dive Resort
Bans Dive Resort
Accommodation at Bans
Accommodation at Bans

I did the PADI, not to be an instructor, although there are further courses you can do if you wish to go down that route, but to obtain an “Open Water Diver” qualification so I can dive anywhere in the world. The next day I had a session in the classroom watching videos, which was necessary but not very exciting.  The first “in water” session was more exciting- I learned how to assemble the equipment, got my wet suit on, and with equipment and flippers into the water I went. It was a very strange sensation. It felt like I wasn’t getting enough air into my lungs, and after feeling all panicky, I got used to it after a few minutes and the panic subsided. I also learned how to fill the mask up with water and empty it underwater, take the weight belt off and on again, take the Buoyancy Control Device (BCD) off and on again, how to help your buddy diver use your air supply, controlled ascent and free flow breathing. I managed to complete everything successfully but it was absolutely shattering- never felt so tired- and this was only in the swimming pool!

Swimming Pool at Bans
Swimming Pool at Bans

The next day I had two dives out at sea, for which I was rather nervous but decided I was going to give it my all. It was quite choppy but managed to get my equipment ready and wet suit on. I jumped into the water and started my descent but, because of the pressure underwater, my ears really hurt (and it is really painful!) I didn’t think I was going to be able to descend to the bottom but I managed to do it in order to navigate my way back to the instructor using a compass, and do everything I had been taught in the pool.

Diving is not as easy as it looks and, since the time of writing this, I have done a few dives and I always have trouble with my ears so am quite nervous about it (and have had a nose bleed because of the pressure, which put me off the next couple of dives) but once I get down there (if I can go at my own pace I am normally ok) I enjoy the experience of hanging out with all the fish- it’s the initial feeling of anticipating the pain, that I know will come before the nice feeling, that I don’t like.

Sitting this one Out
Sitting this one Out
Divers Getting Ready
Divers Getting Ready

I managed to do all the skills I had been taught in the pool which were obviously a little more difficult because of the swell of the open water. After a morning out at sea I was back in the classroom in the afternoon, followed by two more dives, to 18 meters, the next day.  My ears hurt again but managed to do everything that was required which meant I passed the course so I am qualified to dive to 18 meters in open water. It is such a wonderful experience, (forget the painful ears) we saw loads of beautiful fish, including barracuda and batfish and, most importantly, it opens up a whole new and fascinating world to you.

What everyone wants to see- Whale Shark (picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)
What everyone wants to see- Whale Shark
(picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)
Hanging Out with the Fish (picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)
Hanging Out with the Fish
(picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)
Beautiful Watery World (picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)
Beautiful Watery World
(picture courtesy of Vincent Lewis)

An Intro to Turtle Island

The first time I went to Koh Tao was with my friends, Hayley and Nikki, who were visiting me for a few weeks. Koh Tao- Thai for “Turtle Island”- is the smallest island when compared to its neighbours, Koh Phangan and Koh Samui and like them it is very beautiful but small enough to explore easily. On one of the first days Hayley and I went for a little walk, while Nikki stayed on the beach sunbathing. The trouble was when we were together we got itchy feet and a little bored sunbathing, so off we went to explore the island a bit more.

Hayley and Me
Hayley and Me

We walked for quite a way up towards the north of the island until we basically ran out of road. We followed the pathway and came across a building site for a new hotel, which has now since been completed, and we realised that we couldn’t get through the building site so we decided to walk back, the way we had come, to Sairee beach, stopping for refreshments in a small bar, which had wonderful views overlooking the bay. Then we realised that we only had about 30 baht on us so we had to share a bottle of sprite. Honestly who goes on a walk with no money and no water! (Oh yes, no water in the heat of the day- that was the reason we stopped because we were so thirsty).

A Bar with a View
A Bar with a View

We spent three glorious days on Koh Tao and one of those days we took a boat across to Nang Yuan which is a small island near to Koh Tao. It is actually a dive resort and it is so small that there are no cars or motor bikes, just calm and serene-it is simply stunning and has one of the most beautiful beaches in Thailand.

Nang Yuan
Nang Yuan

 

You can walk round and up to the top of the largest part of the island where you can get fantastic views of Koh Tao, Nang Yuan and the surrounding ocean. It is a bit tricky in parts to reach the top, there being some scrambling over large rocks, but it is well worth the effort.

On the way to the Top
On the way to the Top
Nang Yuan
Nang Yuan

 

There is a coral reef, close to shore, called the Japanese Gardens. You can enter the water from the shore and it is very shallow so perfect for beginner divers and snorkelers. During our day trip to Nang Yuan we went snorkelling here and saw some beautiful coral formations and a fair few fish.

jap gardens2

Japanese Gardens
Japanese Gardens

There is a 100 baht fee for day visitors to Nang Yuan and, in the name of conservation, plastic bottles and cans are banned from the island, but there are refreshments available at the restaurant there but at prices higher than what you would normally pay. Nevertheless, it is money well spent to spend a few hours in this little bit of paradise.