The Gulf Islands – Serenity and Scuba Diving

After a bewildering visit to the Angkor complex, officially ending our journey through Cambodia, we were off to the capital of Thailand: Bangkok!

While in Siem Reap, we booked a bus that would take us to the border, meet us on the other side, then take us on to the capital.  We were surprised at how expensive the tickets were at $28 each.  That is pretty astronomical in comparison to the rest of the buses we had been taking thus far, and a little depressing.

We were picked up in the morning by a tuk tuk that took us to the bus station.  Once we saw our bus, we realized why it had been so expensive.  This bus was jazzy.  Upholstered, clean, unbroken seats…air conditioning…no one sitting/laying in the aisles…all the things you’d hope for in a bus.  We didn’t even have to share seats!!  I don’t even know how long the bus ride was; it was so comfortable we literally slept the entire time.  It was awesome.  This bus was almost a culture shock for us, and really revealed how different transportation and the tourism infrastructure was going to be in Thailand.

Since we had already gotten our Thai visas back in Phnom Penh, the border crossing was a breeze.  We weren’t even asked to pay stamping fees (a common scam that we did have to pay at every other border crossing.)  We got stamped out of Cambodia and stamped into Thailand in no time, and we were back on the bus.

We spent two days in Bangkok before heading down south, but I’m going to give Bangkok it’s own separate post at a later date.  Instead, we’ll start with the journey from Bangkok to Koh Tao.

We got our tickets to Koh Tao at Lomprayah, a transportation company whose headquarters were located near our guesthouse in Bangkok.  For 2200 Baht ($67.66) we got tickets including a bus down to Chumphon and a ferry transfer to the island of Koh Tao.  We did the research and didn’t find any evidence that this price was out of the ordinary…but just like the bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, the difference between this and the transportation costs that we were used to was kind of a bummer.  But we were on our way to paradise, so we focused on that instead.

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The Gulf Islands!

We had to be at Lomprayah at 6am.  When we got there, there were a ton of other backpackers standing outside waiting for the bus.  When it finally came, the sun was up and we all piled on.  It was a really nice bus, just like the one from Siem Reap, but this time we were seated in front of a backpacker couple who would not let us recline our seats.  “There isn’t enough room,” they insisted.  Never mind that they had their seats reclined all the way back; they seemed appalled that we would desire the same.  On 6 hours of sleep, we were pretty cranky that we were being heavily pressured to sacrifice the little comfort we paid for to this duo, but alas, we spent the next 7 or so sleepless hours sitting completely upright with the people in front of us reclined in our laps.

When we finally got to Chumphon, we were pointed toward the ferry pier.   We exchanged our tickets and got on the ferry to Koh Tao.  The ferry was huge and super nice!  The ride was extremely smooth as well, and took about 2 hours.

We were dropped off at the pier on Mae Haad Beach on the west side of the island, which was conveniently one of the cheaper areas to stay.  Continuing north from Mae Haad is Sairee Beach, the most developed and most popular part of the island for partying backpackers.  We settled for a place in northern Mae Haad called Mr. J’s Bungalows.  It was nice because we could easily access both Mae Haad and Sairee depending on what we wanted to do.

By the time we had our room settled, it was late afternoon.  We spent some time on the beach before splurging a little bit on a nice dinner at a place up in Sairee called The Gallery.  We ordered the Massaman curry and a crispy pork dish, both of which were excellent.  The service was really good too (another thing we weren’t used to) and the restaurant was attached to a gallery of beautiful photographs of the island that we were invited to walk through.

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Lovely sunset on Koh Tao

The next morning we had to get up a little early because we were going diving!  Since it had been about a year for both of us, we had to sign up for a refresher course before we could go on fun dives.  Koh Tao is most known for its scuba diving industry and more scuba certifications are issued here than anywhere else in the world.  Because of this, there are an endless number of dive shops on the island making the prices really competitive.  It’s one of the cheapest places to dive on earth.  After doing some research on dive shops, we decided to go with Master Divers down in Mae Haad.  It had pretty spotless reviews and was well known for its professional staff and commitment to safety standards.

We reported to Master Divers at 9am where we met our Divemaster, an Irish veterinarian named Heather, that went over all of the basics of diving with us.  After a short written exam and going over all of the equipment, we were given a break before we had to meet at 11:45 for our skills test.  We loaded our equipment onto the boat and drove out to a dive site called Japanese Gardens.  We geared up, jumped in the water, and swam out to a shallow spot to complete the skills test which included things like taking off our gear and putting it back on while underwater, swimming and buoyancy tests, etc.  Both of us passed it painlessly and once we had it out of the way, we got back on the boat for a surface interval and changed out tanks before jumping back in for a fun dive.

We don’t have an underwater camera and they charged like 1400 Baht to rent one at the shop so we decided we’d settle for just memories.  The dive site was lovely and we saw lots of different coral structures, angelfish, butterflyfish, nudibranchs, and other creatures.  Our favorite was the adult and baby clownfish!  The baby was no bigger than a dime!  Heather told us they were the only clownfish at any dive site near Koh Tao.

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Joe and our divemaster, Heather on the boat.

A full day of diving had us starving so we kinda splurged again on dinner at a restaurant on the beach called Whitening.  To be fair, all of the restaurants of Koh Tao seemed to be pretty expensive.  Plus, we hadn’t eaten much else that day.  They had excellent shellfish at Whitening and it was definitely worth it!

The next day we did two more fun dives and this time some of the DMTs (Divemasters in Training) came along and were chatting with us about their experiences learning to become divemasters.  This time we went to two different dive sites called White Rock and The Twins.  Both were beautiful, though the visibility wasn’t quite as good as it had been the day before.  However, in addition to a lot of the same animals we had seen at Japanese Gardens, we also saw a couple of Blue-Spotted Stingrays and a a huge Hawksbill Sea Turtle!  There were also hundreds of colorful Christmas Tree Worms that would disappear into their holes when we waved our hands near them.

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This time we were a little more conservative on dinner and ate at a restaurant/hostel called Taco Shack for some cheapie Mexican food.  They also had markers available to write/draw on the walls, so we entertained ourselves with that for quite a while!

We had been on the fence about whether or not to move on from Koh Tao the next day, but we just couldn’t resist one more day of diving.  For $30 a dive with everything included, it’s hard to say no!

We were really glad we decided to stay that extra day because we got to see seahorses!  They were big ones too, about 6 inches long!  One of them was just hanging out with its tail coiled around a metal rod on the seafloor, but one of them was ‘swimming’ along the bottom.  It sort of looked like it was half dead and dragging itself along, but apparently that is just how they move.  One of them had a big pregnant belly too, which was cool to see!

After three days of awesome diving on Koh Tao, it was time to move on.  We booked a ferry to a neighboring island called Koh Phangan, most famous for its (literally) deadly Full Moon Parties every month.  It’s known as the biggest beach party in the world, sometimes luring some 30,000 backpackers on the beach at once.  Unfortunately, there have been accidents and even deaths in the past due to lax security and high risk behavior.  Drugging and theft is also really common; you can find all kinds of horror stories on the internet.  The Full Moon Parties are so legendary that most backpackers plan their trip around the date of the full moon so that they can go and experience it.

We did not do this.

Had it been convenient for us to go to a Full Moon Party we most likely would have, but we just didn’t see it as being important enough to plan our entire trip around.

The ferry picked us up from the Mae Haad pier and dropped us off about an hour later in Thong Sala on Koh Phangan.  We had done a lot of research on the beaches of Koh Phangan and they all seemed to be highly recommended.  A friend recommended Haad Yuan and the online reviews seemed very positive, so that’s where we went!

It was kind of a pain to get there, though.  Firstly, as soon as we got of the pier we were hounded by taxi and moto drivers.  We noticed a lot of people from the ferry were ignoring these and continuing down the road, so we just sort of followed, hoping they knew something we didn’t.  It turned out that there was a bus corral a few minutes down the road offering rides to Haad Rin for 100 Baht each, much cheaper than what the taxis were offering, so we paid one and got in.

Haad Rin is the beach where the Full Moon Party takes place.  Although many people only come to Koh Phangan for this party (and thus, only visit Haad Rin) there are actually a lot of beaches on Koh Phangan offering a lot more than just wild parties.  Once we got to Haad Rin, we had to take a taxi boat to get to Haad Yuan, because it is inaccessible by car.  The downside of this is that they were really expensive, at 300 Baht each.

The waters were a little choppy and the longboat ride was mildly terrifying, but once we caught a glimpse of Haad Yuan we forgot about it all.  From the sea, we saw a small cove of white sand with big rocks on either side.  We actually ended up in a bungalow on the rocks, accessible by a reasonably secure wooden bridge.

There isn’t a whole lot to do in Haad Yuan, and that is precisely the point.

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Haad Yuan

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The number one activity on Haad Yuan
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…only made better with a Chang Beer, of course!

We laid in our hammocks.  We laid on the beach.  We laid around in the handful of bars and restaurants on the beach.  A couple of the bars were decked out in psychedelic tapestries and played Deep House music into the night, it was paradise.

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The view from our bungalow up on the rocks
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The wooden steps leading up to our bungalow
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Hammock time looking over the cove

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We spent two days in Haad Yuan before returning to Haad Rin for one night.  To its credit, Haad Rin is a beautiful beach, and because we weren’t there during a full moon, it was pretty peaceful.  The soft white sand looked pretty cared for as well, so there must be some serious clean ups after those parties every month.  The town was pretty dead; a travel agent in town told us that they are only busy for 5 days a month, surrounding the full moon.  That was fine by us though, it was peaceful and we got a great deal on a bungalow.

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The town in Haad Rin is full of tourist shops and restaurants
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We didn’t make the party but we saw the sign…close enough.
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Haad Rin beach
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We saw a thing floating in the water while we were walking down the beach…we got closer and it ended up being some kind of pufferfish.
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It was dead, though. 😦

Haad Rin concluded our time in the Gulf Islands before moving on to Krabi Province!  We had a blast!

3/18:

Bus/Ferry: 2200THB

Chips: 25THB

Coke: 30THB

Sandwich: 90THB

Kebab: 90THB

Beer: 30THB

Pancake: 35THB

Dinner at The Gallery: 540THB

Flip flops: 80THB

Mr. J’s Bungalows: 500THB

3/18 Total Spending: 3,620THB ($111.27 USD)

3/19:

Muesli: 140 THB

Snacks: 88THB

Diving (Refresher Course + 1 Fun Dive): 5000THB

Dinner at Whitening: 560THB

Pancake: 40THB

Water: 20THB

Mr. J’s Bungalows: 500 THB

Total Spending 3/19: 6,348 THB ($195.12 USD)

3/20:

Muesli: 140THB

2 Fun Dives: 4000THB

Taco Shack: 360THB

Pancake: 40THB

Water: 20THB

Mr. J’s Bungalows: 500THB

3/20 Total Spending: 5,060THB ($155.53 USD)

3/21:

Breakfast: 120THB

2 Fun Dives: 3000THB

Dinner: 230THB

Pancake: 40THB

Water: 20THB

Mr. J’s Bungalows: 500THB

3/21 Total Spending: 3,910THB ($120.18 USD)

3/22:

Pancake: 35THB

Ferry to Koh Tao: 1000THB

Taxi: 200THB

Longboat: 600THB

Lunch: 360THB

Water: 30THB

Eden Bar: 150THB

Water: 30THB

Ocean Rock Bungalows: 650THB

3/22 Total Spending: 3,055THB ($93.90USD)

3/23:

Breakfast: Free!

4 Beach Beers: 360 THB

Lunch: 270THB

Dinner: 360THB

Water: 30THB

Ocean Rock Bungalows: 650THB

3/23 Total Spending: 1,670THB ($51.33 USD)

3/24:

Breakfast: Free!

Taxi Boat: 600THB

Water: 30THB

Lunch: 420 THB

Water: 25THB

Ice Cream: 45THB

Swimsuit: 250THB

Dinner: 380THB

Shorts: 230THB

Water: 20THB

Accommodation: 300THB

3/24 Total Spending: 2,300THB ($70.70 USD)

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