TL;DR – I’m now a certified scuba diver. I got attacked by a fish. Scott talks over people a lot.
On to Thailand. 3 hour minibus at 6am from Penang to the Thai border to collect my 2 week visa, followed by an 8 hour minibus to Surat Thani (only 8 hours due to the 1 hour lunch break half way through – no need), and over night slow boat to Koh Tao. The cheapest place to learn to scuba dive in the world!!
I get to Surat Thani at about 8pm, 3 hours until the boat leaves so plenty of time for my first Thai food and beer – Pad Thai (fried noodles) and Chang. I was also lucky enough to bump into some English speakers (although the boat was almost exclusively western travellers) as I checked in and got food with them. In order of introduction, Brian (American), Scott (Canadian), Phillippe (French) and Katherine (Chino-Kiwi-American – I know, not a real thing) who have all come from the South West (places like Krabbi and Koh Phi Phi, places I won’t be lucky enough to visit now unfortunately) and we all grab some 50 Thai Baht food (£1) and a large Chang (£1.50) and settle at a nearby table, while Scott talks over us all. We discover that Phillippe is a straight-edge, para-glider, before Scott talks over him again. Then we make our way to the boat.
Before we know it, we pull in to Koh Tao (possibly helped by the 2 large Changs each, more probably helped by Scott’s over-the-counter-sleep-aid tablets that were shared round at lights out, i.e. Valium) and we all (except Brian) decide to join Katherine at Big Blue Dive School where she has booked an Open Water course. Scott and I join her on the course, Phillippe just books some fun dives (“Scuba isn’t as fun as flying” – flying being paragliding, of course).
Our Open Water course starts that evening so we spend the morning mucking about in the sea with a ball and a snorkel whilst Katherine moans that we should do something exciting, Scott talks over everyone and Phillippe wears a speedo. We decide to go to High Bar, with a view overlooking the next bay, and we hire a Sŏrngtăaou (converted pick-up truck with benches in the back) to take us there. Bad idea, considering the steepness of the roads up to High Bar!
That evening the course starts. A few videos and some homework on the first night, followed by some theory a session in the extremely heavily chlorinated pool the next day. Before this, we get buddied up into our groups. Scott, Katherine and I get put with two Dutch girls and meet our instructor, Chloe, and Dive Master, Sasha. Then we hit the pool! Whilst Phillippe (in his speedo) takes photos.
The next day we have a test based upon the videos, theory and practical work we have done so far. Everyone except Scott (who fails) scores full marks (serves him right for talking over everyone) but by some miracle he makes enough excuses to pass. Well done everyone! Next we get on the boat for two afternoon fun dives (seeing, amongst other things, Christmas Tree Worms and Angelfish) and the following day we do two morning dives (Hawksbill Turtle, Blue Spotted Ray, and a Nemo!), and we are all now certified Open Water Divers! Go team!
Next up, the Advanced Adventurers course which will allow us to go down to 30m and do night dives, which we agree we will carry on in a couple of days with Chloe and Sasha again. The Dutch girls can’t continue with this one so we get paired up with 2 newbies, Lynn and Viktor. No theory this time, straight out on the boat for two dives that afternoon (a wreck dive and buoyancy test), another one later in the evening once it’s dark (night dive), and two more the following morning (deep dive and navigation test).
During the navigation test, we are given a compass and we have to swim in a square returning to the same spot using headings. Chloe decides that this will be really funny here because there is a Trigger Pit, i.e. an area occupied by a Titan Triggerfish – one of these;
To quote that Wikipedia entry, “although bites are not venomous, the strong teeth can inflict serious injury that may require medical attention” and “the titan triggerfish will not always bite, but can swim at snorkellers and divers escorting them out of their territory” – oh yeah, this should be hilarious! They tell you to get on your back, put your fins between the fish and your body and do some gentle kicks – that should deter it and then it will leave you once you’re out of its territory – just don’t panic! So, we all set off on our squares, as I reach these one corner and come back in the opposite direction I notice that Sasha and Katherine are being attacked by one of these things. They do as explained and our left alone. I have a good laugh to myself.
(Bunning family – if you’re reading this aloud at dinner, Sam better do this bit. Sammy – I want sincere panic in your voice, your life is in danger… Speed up through each paragraph and then slow down again at the end. Okay – Go!)
Next thing it’s after me! What do you expect? You’re in a Buddhist country and you laugh at someone else’s misfortune? Of course you’re going to be attacked by a Titan Triggerfish, you fool! It comes after me and, in my usual cool and casual style, I turn on to my back and give it a couple of kicks of the fins expecting it to back off. But, no. It just keeps coming for me. So, I keep kicking and it keeps coming, so I kick harder, and it’s still there. Harder still, it won’t leave me alone. So much for cool and casual, this things going to eat me alive!! Oh, it’s gone…
I’m alive. I’m fine. I’ve survived. What an experience! Hang on… I can’t breathe. I’m under water. I have an overwhelming urge to gulp air but, for some reason, scuba tanks aren’t built for gulping air. Where’s the surface? 22m upwards. Got to get up there to breathe!!
No. Remember you’re training. You’re a highly skilled Advanced Adventurer. Advanced Adventurers don’t shoot to the top because they can’t breathe. Advanced Adventurers consider the ramifications of decompression sickness, nitrogen bubbles stuck in the body. You know what you’re doing. Remember your training.
(Sam – if that didn’t get across the life threatening panic I was under, then you, and only you, are to blame!)
I swim back over to the group and give Chloe the symbol for “not okay” and then improvise “I can’t breathe” and “my heart is pounding” and she tries to calm me down. Deep breaths. Calm down.
Eventually, I sort myself out and we set off again. My “buddy” (some buddy!) decides that the best thing for me now is to try out our first ‘swim-through’, basically an underwater tunnel. Cheers.
Anyway, as a result of all that stress, I (and the rest of the team, with the exception of Scott who was so busy talking over someone at the time that he forgot to show up for he last days diving) am now an Advanced Adventurer, with a specialisation in panicking when attacked by medium-sized fish.
Next stop, Ko Chang. See you there.
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Time for some much needed rest and relaxation following 2 weeks of drinking heavily in spite of illness; back to KL (not my favourite city!) during Chinese New Year, when everything closes!
I booked up my hostel in advance (near to Chinatown and with a TV room) and found a long book (Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol; two words – ‘anti climax’!) to see me through a few days without needing to do anything energetic, like get drunk, socialise, or leave for anything other than meals. It went well for 2 nights, turning my attention from the book only when I needed to blow my nose or sneeze (once or twice every few seconds) and talking to very few people.
It was actually quite fun, just relaxing and not pressuring myself to enjoy the tourist sites of a city I don’t really enjoy being in. I got a bit more adventurous with food, and even found my favourite hawker stall in the food court. Such a different experience to that day 6 weeks ago when I forced myself to walk round the city for what seemed like hours to discover it was still only 9am and in no way appropriate to pass more time by eating another meal. Urgh. Cities.
Then it was Chinese New Year’s Eve and Jalan Petaling was buzzing with, literally, a firework. Oh, and some firecrackers which were let off far too close to most of the people wandering down the street, leaving most deaf and others needing corrective surgery. Mitch (Canadian guy that I met in Cameron Highlands) had returned to KL from ‘Bamboo Village’ for a flight to Cambodia and had brought an entourage of ‘Bamboo Villagers’ for the NYE party, so I met up with them for beers on their rooftop terrace to watch the firework. So much for not drinking.
Other than that, Chinese New Year was largely unimpressive, more of a family occasion than a partying one, although that’s understandable in a country where alcoholic drinks are (apparently) taxed at 400%! It also lasts for a few weeks, meaning that transport and beds are booked up well in advance by relatives travelling to other parts of the country to visit other relatives. As such, I was told I should absolutely think about what I would be doing next and book bus and hostel as far in advance as possible.
Next, I’m walking down Love Lane, Georgetown, Pulau Penang, after a 7 hour bus ride that I almost missed (“Oh, don’t trust the screens, Sir, they’re always wrong…”) at 9pm searching for somewhere to stay. Full. Full. Full. (“Didn’t you know? It’s Chinese New Year. You should have booked in advance!”) Then I stumble across Red Inn Heritage (the other Red Inn) and, by some freak chance, surprising even the owner when she is told by my new room mate who is watching TV nearby, there is a spare bed in a dorm. Done.
Penang is the food paradise of Malaysia, I am told. Little India. Anytime after 7pm. Beautiful. In fact, everywhere I ate there (I stayed 4 nights) was incredible, but Little India was something else. Hawker stalls tend to sell one dish, a grandma’s secret recipe sort of deal, and it’s all incredibly cheap. The only problem is that you can’t try enough of it!
Since my cold had cleared up, time to head to Ko Tao, Thailand for the cheapest Scuba Diving in the world (apparently). I would have loved to have gone to the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia but it’s still too wet and nothing will open there until April – so, it’s the 12 hour minibus followed by the 8 hour night boat to the islands. Joy of joys.
First and foremost, Gili Trawangan is a beautiful, chilled out place. Generally, the order of the day would be to wake up to breakfast on the porch of your bungalow, where the reggae music will already be playing and to head to one of the beach bars where you can chill out on the loungers on the beach while they serve drinks and food to your spot. You have to take a dip every now and again to cool off and chat to other travellers in the sea, and maybe head out on a snorkelling trip out to one of the other islands, Gili Air and Gili Meno. Later on, you can grab dinner at one of hundreds of restaurants overlooking the sunset behind Lombok where you sit on the floor and smoke some fruity shisha.
Secondly, Gili Trawangan is a great party scene, and it manages it without being seedy (mostly). Generally, the order of the night would be to get to the Irish Bar (oh yes!), Tir Na Nog for 6ish to catch the end of the sundowners happy hour, after a few hours (and a few Bintangs!) when you’ve made enough friends at the bar and it’s worthwhile heading off, head down to the Sama Sama reggae bar where they have a great live band each night who will play the reggae classics as well as Pink Floyd and Rolling Stones covers in reggae style! 3 nights a week there are also big parties at Rudys, Blue Marlin and the Irish bar which tend to go on until the last person leaves. These parties are full of travellers and locals alike. Although it seems the locals stick to the magic mushroom shakes rather than the Bintang which, for most, is against their religion (crazy, huh!?).
The magic mushrooms are everywhere here. The lack of a police force on the island (or maybe something to do with bribes and corruption) there appears to be no rules whatsoever. Walking down the street in a country which punishes drug smuggling with execution and feeling like you’re in the dodgiest parts of Camden is a strange feeling. The phrase of choice for the locals who are offering mushrooms or weed is generally “something else?” and you’re bombarded with it whether you’ve been offered a ‘something’ yet or not. The whole time though, the island manages to remain completely unintimidating. The lack of control seems to send people into dizzy friendliness rather than violence and theft, but maybe that’s the mushrooms. The beach front road (I say road, there are no cars or motorbikes on any of the Gili islands, only here drawn carts) is surrounded by signed saying things like “fresh, sexy mushrooms here” and “super strong shroom shakes” and the menus in these places are ridiculous. You can get mushroom shakes, mushroom pizza, mushroom sandwich, mushroom macaroni, mushroom pie, and the list goes on… Some people drink them like other people drink Bintang!
My favourite local on the island was a guy called Bas, who we renamed The Boss. He ran a shop by the port and late at night he would sit outside with his guitar strumming away and apparently waiting for some drunken tourists to sit down with him and sing along, which of course we did. He was a 50 something guy with a penchant for singing a good few octaves above his comfort level. After rattling through ‘Redemption Song’, ‘Hotel California’ and ‘Wish You Were Here’ he asked if we had heard of 4 Non Blondes… “Of course!” The following few minutes were spectacular!
I met some great fellow travellers too. Two Canadian rugby players, Scott and Jonah, (from Bamf, who said that it was nice to be in Bali where there were fewer Australians than at home!) who I met on the boat over and shared a room with. Kiwi Tim and Shane (actual name Tony, not sure why) and Canadian Brad, who were fly-in-fly-out workers in Western Australia and Papua on their 1 month off before going back to work, were the guys I spent most of my time with, “6 o’clock in the Irish bar” becoming the catchphrase of the week! And also Englishmen James, Eden and “Beast”, who play for Westcliff RFC, who I believe will probably be playing against Tabard next season. I also strangely met a girl from St Albans, who’s name escapes me but she went to STAGs.
I’m heading back to Bali now for 1 more day on the beach, and I’ve booked a flight back to Kuala Lumpur for Thursday 7 Feb to return to some sanity and to stop spending so much money on beer! From KL, I might meet back up with Corbin, Jake and Mitch (who I met in Tanah Rata) who are volunteering building a guesthouse somewhere or may head north to Penang. I need to start heading north soon though as I have 7 weeks until I fly to Mumbai from Bangkok and I want to see Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia before then!
Goodbye Indonesia. It’s been expensive.