January 09 - 13, 2013
19.01.2013 - 13.01.2013 31 °C
After coming back from our short Christmas break in Miami we had a few days ‘to kill’ before we needed to travel to Phuket. So we just spent a couple of days in Bangkok getting our food and massage fixes, rented a car again and drove around to Koh Samet and Koh Chang for a day on the beach and went back to catch our flight to Phuket. Already in early December we had booked a live aboard trip from Phuket to the Similan Islands, which we’ve always wanted to visit. The Similans are supposed to be some of the best diving in Thailand and in fact anywhere in the world – it always shows up high on rankings for top diving sites in the world and we can now understand why.
We didn’t really plan on spending any significant time in Phuket since we had been there a few times. It is a pleasant island but we just wanted to get on the boat as quickly as possible. So we just booked a night in a relatively cheap hotel in Phuket (in Patong) and just had a quick dinner in the evening in one of the many seafood outside restaurants. They look a bit like the hawker centers in Singapore and the seafood is typically pretty decent and fresh. Before going to bed we got another relaxing foot massage and retired early.
Our pick up the next day was not until around 4pm, so we used the time to get another foot massage and manicure in one of the local massage shops that we actually had visited a couple of times on one of our last visits here. We even recognized a couple of the staff from the last time, which was more than 3 years ago – they seem to have good retention mechanisms here. We had a good time and chatted with the staff about this and that. But Anna and I were quite intrigued by the “girl” who massaged Anna’s feet and then manicured my hands. Her name was “Cat” and she was actually not a girl – she/he was a katoye, or as it’s more commonly called a ladyboy. Now, everybody who has ever been to Thailand has probably seen or heard of the infamous Thai ladyboys and they are actually all around. Although there is a certain social stigma attached to being a ladyboy, they still seem to be fairly accepted in the Thai society. You can see them everywhere, as waitresses in restaurants, store owners, shopkeepers, in massage places and in many other businesses. Many of them are relatively easily identifiable, either by some physical features like large hands, feet or Adam’s apple or a dark voice. However, ladyboys blessed with a feminine body structure in the first place or the ones who start very, very early with hormone therapy can appear as feminine – in many cases even more feminine – then naturally born women. There’s a saying in Thailand that is used jokingly, “the prettiest women are ladyboys” and in some cases this might actually be true.
Anyway, Cat fell into the latter category and although Anna and I were both relatively certain that she/he was a ladyboy, she was one of the prettiest and most natural looking ladybodys we’ve ever seen and she could easily win beauty contests against a number of quite attractive looking women contenders. Unfortunately we were not comfortable taking pictures but just consider Anna and I as ‘experts’ in these matters.
Anyway, it was time to head back to the hotel where we got picked up by a minibus together with a few other fellow travellers who were already waiting in the bus. It took us more than 90 minutes to get to the boat jetty which was north of Phuket but we finally reached the boat at around 7PM in the evening. There were probably 4 or 5 other live aboard boats that were about to leave that night and we were glad to see that our boat looked the nicest, cleanest and with the least amount of passengers on it. The preparations took more than an hour and while we received our first briefing on the boat the crew was loading up our luggage, food supplies and diving gear for the next 4 days. (The MV Pawara, our dive boat)
Now, everybody who is a diver and who has been on a live aboard trip will be familiar with some of the following descriptions but there’s probably a need to summarize how these trips work for the uninitiated. “Live aboard” obviously summarizes the main idea: for several days a bunch of hobos live on a boat and do nothing but sleeping, eating and diving. In some cases this routine is interrupted by throwing up or diarrhea but I’ll get to that part later. Once everybody was on the boat, 16 of us plus the crew (5 of them) plus the dive instructor team (4 plus a private dive guide for one Japanese passenger), Vince did the initial briefing. Vince, the head dive instructor and safety guru, is an English cat and he was always dead serious. He has a military background and used to be a fireman before he hired on as a mining rescue diver, rescuing injured or stuck ocean miners in depths of up to two miles! underwater. That’s probably where he had developed that ‘dead-serious’ attitude since every little mistake in those depths means death 100% of the time. But we were glad that he was responsible for safety and he always did all the safety briefings before every dive and dive site. ("Tough guy" Vince)
The initial briefing mainly covered the names of the crew, main safety rules on board, how to use this and that, meal procedures, and the itinerary for the first night and next day. Once that was done dinner was served, which was quite tasty and we had a little time to get to know our fellow travelers, who were quite an eclectic bunch. There were Lauri and Paulina from Finland, who we both liked a lot, then a couple from Holland, who we and most others didn’t seem to care for that much since they always appeared to be miserable and judgmental. There was also an Indian couple, Anu and Johann, who were both investment bankers with JP Morgan Chase in London. They were really nice folks but interestingly spoke very negatively about their mother country India in terms of corruption and willingness for reform. (Anna and Anu)
Then there was Tony and Alison, Tony being an Ozzi and Alison British and both are living in the UK. They were very sweet and they were our dive buddies for most of the dives. There was also an Australian couple, who we really didn’t spend much time with and then there was this quiet Japanese guy, Hiro, who mainly hung out with his personal dive instructor and “entertainer” Chiko. Chiko was an interesting character; she is a Japanese woman, close to 40 but looks much younger, very petite, in excellent shape and she has been living in Thailand for the last 15 years. She used to be a diver instructor on different boats but is now a freelancer and gets mostly hired by private persons, mainly Japanese, as their personal instructor. She smokes like a chimney, which doesn’t seem to affect her diving, she likes a cold beer or two and she was typically one of the last ones on deck chatting with Hiro. And finally there were two solo travellers, Chris and Mike. Chris is an Australian who lives in Papua New Guinea and he’s a security officer with the UN. He was very secretive about his job since his job comes with security clearance requirements but otherwise he was a very talkative and somewhat funny/awkward guy. Mike, who is an American and married to a Thai woman, lives in California but still visits Thailand once or twice a year. Mike looked and talked like a hardened biker and smoked like a chimney but interestingly he was an ordained Buddhist monk. He told us that he decided to go through the ordination process and the required time in the monastery to prepare him for being a monk because there are no male relatives in his wife’s family, so he wanted to keep the tradition alive of having at least one male in the family being an ordained monk. So, as you can see, this was a rather eclectic group of people and conversations were hardly boring.
In addition there was the Thai crew, who were all very nice but hard to have a conversation with since none of them had any English skills to speak of. Of the group of dive instructors, I already talked about “tough” Vince, besides him there was Yemmi, a guy from Quebec in Canada who was the dive instructor for our group; Anna, myself, Toni and Alison. It was very nice that every dive group only consisted of max. 4 people. Yemmi was a great guy and even when he got a stomach bug with high fever and diarrhea he insisted on doing his job and guided our group under water.(Our dive instructor Yemmi feeling sick)
The other instructors were Fernando from Brazil, who never spoke a word, at least to anyone outside of his group, and Cam. Cam had also an interesting story. He is Chinese and grew up in Hong Kong before going to college in California US. He was doing well and got hired straight out of college by “Hustler” magazine as a graphics designer. He got married, bought a house and lived the American dream. But at some point he and his wife decided that they wanted to escape the ‘rat race’ and move to Thailand. They just made a nice chunk of change by selling their house 2 weeks before the bust of the housing bubble in California, so they were all set to move to Thailand, buy a small place and “live the life”. However, his wife got cold feet just before they were about to move and they broke up over it – and the divorce process was apparently very ugly. But for the last 4 years Cam has been living in Phuket, enjoying life, hiring as a dive instructor once in a while (although he doesn’t have to) and not stressing over the ‘rest of his life’. We hear a lot of interesting stories with as many diverse people as we meet on this trip. Once you start asking a few questions people tell you their whole life story – seems to be a basic need of people. On the other hand, we also meet a surprising number of people who like to talk about themselves but don’t seem to be interested in the least in other peoples’ lives.
There’s probably nothing worse than being on a boat for 5 days and just feeling sick to your stomach; throwing up, having diarrhea and headaches. Unfortunately someone brought a stomach bug onto the boat and one by one, almost two thirds of the passengers on the boat caught the bug including Anna. So at any given point in time the group that was diving was decimated significantly and several people were laying in a fetal position somewhere on deck on one of the benches outside or inside or on one of the recliners on the sundeck. This put a little damper on the mood on board but everybody just dealt with it on their own and typically people were feeling better after 24hours. So, as said Anna had the bug for 24 hours and could rejoin our small group of divers after one day and I had to take a break for three dives on the first day, not because of the stomach bug but because my ears were not adjusting to the depth due to a cold. We suspected and blamed Chris for brining the bug on board because he was sick when he arrived for the trip. Unfortunately there are not many options to escape from a boat other than jumping into the water and not coming back on board for 4 days but that would probably not be conducive to having any fun. (People chilling and recuperating on the sun deck)
Diving in Similan Islands, Koh Bon, Koh Tachai and Richelieu Rock
The diving itself was very good; varied and some of the best we have ever experienced. Although we didn’t see many of the big fishes, like sharks or mantas, we saw plenty of interesting other animals, colorful corals and terrain. The difference between the different dive sites that we stopped at is quite stark and we had everything from large, rocky pinnacles at Koh Bon to the most amazingly colorful soft corals at Richelieu Rock, to a wreck on our way back to Phuket. Also the small islands of the Similans and Koh Tachai and Koh Bon are beautiful to look at above the water and we did a small excursion to one of the islands in the afternoon of the 2nd day.(Koch Tachai)
If you have never done a live aboard trip but are a diver we would definitely recommend one since it is a very unique experience. We really liked most of our fellow passengers on our boat and we had many interesting conversations with a number of them – there’s just not much else to do and you are consumed with the basics; eating, sleeping and diving. So the distractions are small and people are typically very relaxed after a couple of days. Four dives a day also means that your are really getting into a routine of diving, you can work on your skills, really enjoy the little and big things under water and feel pretty tired at the end of the day.
Anna and I also used the experience to advance our diving skills and certifications. Anna is a certified Open Water Diver, which means that she officially is only allowed to dive up to 18 meters (60 feet), so she completed a Deep Diver certification, which includes theory and practical elements; a written test, and a dive to 30 meters (100 feet) while completing a few tasks. These tasks include calculating numbers or writing your name backwards (which in Anna’s case was relatively simple☺). All of this is designed to experience how your body and mind reacts to deeper depths, so you can recognize the symptoms in case you react to the depth on one of your future dives and take appropriate measures, i.e., ascending slowly.
While I am certified as an Advanced Open Water Diver I used the opportunity to complete a certification that’s called Enriched Air, or Nitrox but let me explain briefly what this is about without trying to get too technical, the divers amongst you will be familiar with this explanation. While normal air contains 21% oxygen and 79% nitrogen, Enriched Air contains typically 36% oxygen and 64% nitrogen. Many divers these days use Nitrox since it has a number of advantages compared to normal air. The first one being that diving with Nitrox extends your allowable bottom time, i.e., the time you are allowed to dive at a certain deeper depth without being required to do a safety stop at defined depths. This can be a great advantage since longer dives are now possibly without “pushing” near decompression limits. The second advantage is that Nitrox reduces the overall nitrogen load in your body, especially on multiple dives. Divers who use Nitrox report that they are less tired after multiple dives and don’t have some of the other occasional effects of multiple dives like sleeplessness or headaches. Anyway, the course includes a theoretical test after reading a book and watching an instructional video and a practical piece, which includes analyzing the gas mix in your tank and adjusting your dive computer to the different gas mix, i.e., enriched air. Nowadays, almost all dive computers can be set to enriched air and then they calculate your bottom time, decompression limits and surface time accordingly. The time we had on the boat was a good opportunity to complete these further certifications with the appropriate attention and supervision by our dive instructors.
So, we used our newly acquired skills on our next dives, Anna could dive with the rest of the group at 30 meters, which many of our dives started out with, especially the first couple of dives of the day.
The typical day’s schedule began at 6:30 AM with a light breakfast, i.e., tea, coffee and some toast and a first dive at 7 AM, which ensured that we were typically the first dive group in the water in case there were other dive boats nearby. After the first morning dive we had a bigger breakfast at 8:30 AM and a second dive at around 11 AM. Lunch was at around 12:30 PM, a third dive followed at 2 or 2: 30 PM and the last dive was at 5PM, just before it got dark shortly after 6PM. There was one night dive on the first day, which we didn’t participate in since neither of us are big fans of night dives.
But as said above, the overall diving experience was great and instead of trying to describe the underwater world in words, we’ve uploaded a video that is a compilation of most of our dives and includes encounters with the amazing underwater world and creatures of the Andaman Sea. We hope you enjoy watching it; it’s not National Geographic quality but a very personal summary of some of our best underwater experiences.