Thailand - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 253 (63)

Similan Islands

Tuesday 16th November

Today is finally the day when we get to go on our very first live-aboard, but not before getting from Koh Lanta to Khao Lak a little farther up the West coast of Thailand. Our trip today started with a complimentary truck ride from our resort to the pier where our ferry was already waiting for us to board. Before we did so, I walked a few minutes from the pier back into the main town to withdraw some more money from the ATM. We will at least need to eat an evening meal in Khao Lak and we only have just enough money to pay the balance we owe for the live-aboard.

I’m not sure if it was exactly the same boat that brought us here but it looked very much like it. Before the boat departed, I noticed that we were moored up besides the Blue Planet dive boat that we have been diving from. I saw Moni, our dive master, and we exchanged contact details. As the boat was pulling away, I caught the eye of the Dutch man that saw the whale shark and motioned to him to find another. He motioned back that he would try to do so and photograph it for me. I’ll never forget that one big fish that got away from me.

The two-hour boat trip to Krabi was calm and uneventful and we arrived at the dock to be greeted by the throng of transportation company reps all shouting out the name of their companies with disembarking passengers slowly filtering into smaller groups to be shuttled away each time a minibus or coach was full. The driver of our coach got quite agitated when Sandy refused to allow her main backpack to be placed at the bottom of what was going to be a huge pile of other backpacks. It took a couple of minutes for him to calm down but she ended up keeping her bag with her in the end.

Our small coach was loaded to the hilt with almost no standing room over. Just why they insisted on packing quite so many people in at a time was a bit of a mystery but of we went for the five-minute ride to the next transfer point, the same place where the three young ladies were still skilfully conning fresh arrivals into expensive places to stay on the islands. We had to wait for just a few minutes before our air-conditioned minibus was full and we departed. We didn’t get too far before we stopped and were told to get out and wait for a short while in a coffee shop. Apparently not everyone on our minivan was heading for Khao Lak and this next transit point was where we were again to be redistributed into different vehicles. As it turned out, our vehicle was the same air-conditioned minivan we just arrived in and just when every last seat was packed, mostly with German package tourists, we set off for Khao Lak. Although our driver was not the sort of complete maniac on the roads that we’ve come to expect from Thailand, we quite clearly heard the tires screeching as the minivan careered around the hairpin bends of the steep mountain passes. There had been some rain with the roads being very wet and although nobody voiced it out load, I think everybody in the van was wondering just what the state of our tires and brakes were.

Bald tires or not, we arrived in the middle of the very small town of Khao Lak after a couple of hours of white-knuckle driving. Along with every other passenger in the van, we were let off with our luggage by the side of the road, exactly opposite the Sea Dragon dive centre, the company with whom we will be diving over the next few days.

It was quite busy in the dive shop and the whole place seemed very disorganised to our untrained eyes. After removing our shoes and walking in, however, we were soon latched onto by one of the many staff there and the ball started to roll. After figuring out who we were and on which boat we were booked to dive on, we next had to complete a few forms and get ourselves measured for our equipment. Pretty much all of the staff are Europeans, with Germany, England, Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Austria all being represented by someone.

There are actually two groups of islands off the West coast here that are worth visiting. We are already doing the Similan Islands but after learning some more about them, we are now also considering a second live-aboard around the Surin Islands. To offset for the additional expense of this, we may forego a few days of travelling through Laos and possibly even Cambodia. Laos was always going to be an optional extra country and barring Angkor Wat at Siem Reap, there is nothing else that we want to specifically see in Cambodia either. Since diving is so cheap here in Thailand, we want to maximise the advantage of our being here. We’ve been told that we will get a 10% discount for the next live-aboard as repeat customers as well as another 5% for paying cash. This brings the total of a three-day three-night Surin live-aboard down to just 11,800B (€227) each. With nine dives, that’s a total of just €25 per dive. However, that also includes our accommodation and living expenses for the three days, which saves us up to another €270 so this brings the actual cost of the dives down to just €15 each per dive. We are very much enjoying the diving here in Thailand and it seems a shame to miss up on the opportunity to get more diving in at such a cheap price.

We had a few hours to kill before our boat, the Mariner-1, was due to depart. Neither of us had eaten breakfast so we strolled along the one main road to see about where to get something to eat. There are quite a few dive shops here and we went into a few of them to inquire about prices, just for the sake of comparison. It seems that most of the operators here are fairly comparatively priced so the two discounts that we will receive from Red Dragon makes them the cheapest option for us here. There are also very few operators that actually have a live-aboard for just the Surin Islands anyway.

There are two types of fin that you can wear - the all-encompassing foot type and the strap-on type. My feet are slightly wider than the average foot at their widest and the all-encompassing rubber moult type are always either too long or too tight across the top and as a result, I opted to go for the strap-on type back at the dive shop when we were getting measured up. Several of the staff members at the time told me that it would be advisable to get a pair of dive boots to wear with the strap-on fins as they would otherwise be very uncomfortable. I wore these type of fins in bear feet when we were diving in Koh Tao and it wasn’t a problem so I was reluctant to follow the staff's advice on this. However, my feet also have a tendency to drop in the water and this makes it difficult for me to maintain a good, horizontal profile when diving. The dive boats are slightly positively buoyant and this may help me with my ability to remain horizontal so I decided to buy a pair after all.

Whilst in one of the dive shops, we spoke with a Swede who was telling us about a couple of decent wreck dives not far from here. They are only accessible by one of the local long-tail boats or speedboat and we are considering this also.

The Mariner-1 returns to port at around six in the evening on the final day of diving and this doesn’t leave us much time to arrange accommodation. If we are going to do the Surin Islands live-aboard, and this is by no means a foregone conclusion yet, we will need to spend a few days here in Khao Lak before the boat leaves. We walked down to near the beach and followed the small road for a while in search of some nice accommodation. Some of the places are really plush and well out of our budget range but we decided to have a look at a couple of them anyway. There was one in particular that looked very tranquil very a beautiful pool and proper hotel-like rooms with modern beds and bathrooms. Although still relatively cheap compared to Western standards, the 1,800B (€34,60) per night price tag was outside our budget range. We’ve thus far been typically paying just around 400B (€7,70) per night to a room. When we first set out on this trip, we told ourselves that every now and then, we would allow ourselves the luxury of spending a few nights in a more comfortable place – a sort of holiday from the holiday, if you will. The more we looked at this one resort, the more we liked it and eventually decided that it would be a nice to have a few days of pampering after the tiring live-aboard so we undertook to come back and stay here for three nights at the end of our live-aboard. On the way back into the main drag in the middle of Khao Lak, we were both giddy with excitement at having a real hotel room to look forward to. A nice, soft bed, a balcony and a fully equipped bathroom are divine luxuries compared to what we are used to and it will be a very welcome few days when we finish with the live-aboard. You know you are a budget traveller when you start to get excited about staying in a place that actually provides toilet paper with a flush toilet.

One of the staff members back at Sea Dragon had told us to stock up on snacks for the voyage, just in case we didn’t like the food too much. That clearly applies to us so we found a supermarket and went to town. It wasn’t long before my arm was dragging with the weight of the basket full of biscuits, crisps and various other sundries. I also needed to get reserve batteries for the strobe and they had a stand full of a new kind of battery that I thought might be worth a try. These ‘base nickel’ batteries are marketed for usage with flash cameras so I thought I’d give them a try. We will be doing four dives on day one, three on day two and two on day three. We’ll be using the underwater camera strobe for each dive and I bought twelve of these batteries so that I could refresh them after every day of diving. We aren’t actually sure how long each set of four AA batteries last with the strobe since I’ve been changing them after every day’s worth of diving anyway. We now have quite a collection of used but probably quite full AA batteries that are becoming quite heavy. I’d like to re-use them but I’m not sure if it is worth the risk, just in case I lose power half way through a dive.

A little farther up from the supermarket, there was a fruit stall selling slices of various fruits that I’ve never tried before. They were offering free samples so in keeping with my recent behavioural change of trying new fruits, I gave a couple of these a try. It was a very new sensation and I was quite pleased with the taste but I couldn’t communicate with the woman to learn what they were called so I have no idea how to ask for them again in the future.

We had earlier passed what looked like a very nice restaurant, and indeed was recommended also by the staff at sea Dragon, but it was closed until six in the evening. It was now almost six so we headed back that way to see if they would allow us in already. Fortunately they did, for by now we were both completely famished. There are a lot of Germans here and this was a German restaurant that was run by two very stern looking old German women. The menu was in English and German and there were such things as wiener schnitzel on the menu. I didn’t have to look further than that and Sandy latched immediately on to the steak. It took its time coming out but it was certainly worth the effort in the end. My schnitzel was the largest I’ve ever seen and even with my gagging hunger, I could not get through it all. We may very well have to go back there again sometime soon.

We still had about an hour before our transportation came to take to the dock so we showed the crowd of staff and guests there our ‘best of’ collection of underwater photographs. They went down extremely well and even the people that are familiar with underwater photography themselves agreed that we have some absolutely stunning shots with a very high overall quality.

At the behest of one of the dive masters, we moved our backpacks from the back room, where we had left them earlier, out to the front of the building so that they would be on hand for when we were taken to the dock. We lost track of time after showing our photos slideshow and I suddenly noticed that our bags we no longer out front where we left them. Unfortunately, nobody in the shop could explain this and we both got very panicky for a while, as there was another boat leaving shortly before ours. Those passengers had already been taken to be boarded and it was quite conceivable that our bags may have been taken by mistake to the other boat. It wasn’t just the photography equipment that I was worried about. Our entire lives are in those two backpacks and having them move around the Andaman Sea for three or four days without us is not something that I was keen to allow to happen. The staff already had their hands full with making all the last minute arrangements and getting all the people and equipment onto the boats but after a half hour of frantic calling around, it transpired that the same dive master that told me to move the bags to begin with had put our bags onto the gear truck to be loaded onto our boat. It was actually a very thoughtful thing for him to do but in hectic rush, he had neglected to tell anybody, ourselves included, that he had done this. I told the woman manning the phones that I shouldn’t forget to ‘thank’ him later for his helpfulness.

Shortly before our ride arrived, the heavens opened up with full force and it didn’t stop raining until after we arrived at the dock. It was like several months of monsoon had waited to fall right at that moment. The road from the dive shop to the dock was very dark and windy but this didn’t stop the driver from driving flatfoot all the way to the dock, swerving down some very dark and winding roads in the process. Between the heavy rain, the pitch-blackness of the open truck and the hair-raising speeds, we were all extremely grateful to arrive all in one piece.

The boat is quite large compared to all the other diving boats we’ve seen so far and we have a very comfortable double bunk cabin with, most importantly, an electrical outlet. There is a lower deck that houses the engines and machine room, none of which we divers got to see. Above that at the lowest level that we have access to is the main living quarter's deck. There are five, compact, double occupancy cabins on either side of the corridor with the crew quarters located at the front of the boat. At the aft end of this deck is the dive equipment area where all the tanks and other dive paraphernalia sits. This is where the divers gear up, small groups at a time, and enter and exit the water. Between the cabins and the kit area is the galley and three toilet come shower cabins, each with hot running water, a wash basin and a Western-style flush toilet. Above our cabins is the main deck where all the divers generally hang out between dives. In the centre of the boat is an enclosed, air-conditioned, dry cabin. Here, there is a TV, stereo, some cushions and mats and so on and with its air-conditioning is a pretty good place to escape the heat of the sun. Behind this large and open plan cabin is the eating area. Several permanently affixed tables and benches provide enough space for twenty people to comfortably sit and eat, read, write logbooks or whatever. The top deck is one, large, open space that is half covered and is the place to either lie on a sun bed or swing in a hammock. The entire vessel has a rather disorienting concave shape along the entire length of it. By walking from one end to the other, you will first go slowly down and then slowly up again by the time you reach the other end. As a result of this warping, all the swing and sliding doors have a very odd shape to them and you never really know when you are perfectly horizontal or not. The constant rocking and swaying of the boat add to this confusion and people tend to waddle from side to side instead of walking in a straight line.

Shortly after we all boarded and explored all the boats nooks and crannies, the dive coordinator assembling everybody on the main deck for a briefing. We were given the low-down on all the areas of the boat and he went over the itinerary for the next few days along with pointing out all the necessary safety issues and reminded us all of how to dive safely and successfully. He was working his way methodically through a checklist of things to brief us on and it was encouraging to see such good organisation compared to the chaotic atmosphere back at the dive centre. Now quite late, there was little else left to do but sink into our bunks and sleep for the duration of the trip out to the Similan Islands. Our diving adventure would commence before breakfast tomorrow morning.