Monday, 21 May 2012

Into the Big Blue

Diving and Relaxing in Thailand with Emma

The golden reclining Buddha
Arriving in Thailand the contrast with India was immediate. Flying over a grid of fields and busy highways to land at the sleek and modern airport at Bangkok felt as many miles as it was from the mosquitoes and madness of Mumbai. The streets were clean, the buildings were shiny, and our budget guesthouse was so spotless you could go into the shared bathrooms barefoot! I had met my friend Emma at the airport for two weeks in Thailand, while Karl returned to the UK to help his mum move house. Neither I nor Emma had been to South East Asia before so we were both forming our first impressions as we wandered the streets of the district of Banglamphu where we were staying. The first thing we noticed was how much people smiled, with broad grins aimed at us. A Thai lady stopped just to tell us I was 'short like Thai people, same colour like Thai people, I think you in Thailand long time?'! Even the infamous Ko San road, although touristy and tacky, was much nicer than we expected, and had as many young Thai people there for an night out on buckets of cocktails as it did backpackers. The temples and palaces of Bangkok were beautiful, ornate and jewel encrusted, buddha statues everywhere ranging from 20 metres long to a tiny emerald buddha dressed in solid gold in his own massive temple. Everything in the city was pretty easy, from negotiating the fast new sky train that traverses over highways and past mirrored skyscrapers, to hailing a bright pink taxi that put on the meter without being asked- no arguments or haggling required. This was a holiday, and sometimes you need a holiday even when you're travelling!

Backpackers on the jetty at Ko Tao
We journeyed by minibus up to the overly touristy town of Kanachaburi, next to the famous Bridge Over The River Kwai. The area has some very interesting second world war history, but it is marred by all the hotels, restaurants and souvenir stands selling the usual tourist tat ('Same same but different' t-shirt anyone?). I was beginning to wonder whether it was possible to get away from this scene in a country as established on the backpacker trail as Thailand. The average age of travellers here seemed to be about twelve (okay, maybe they were 18, just), in a standard dress of fluorescent singlets advertising a pub crawl or the notorious full moon party, plus baseball caps for the boys, and baggy brightly coloured fisherman pants for the girls. Transport is organised through travel agents with 'joint tickets' taking you from backpacker minibus to backpacker boat, and it's hard to meet any Thai people this way or really get to know the country. Emma and I decided to just go with the flow, accept it was going to be touristy and enjoy the places we were going to for what they were. And we went to some very nice places, ate some delicious food, drank plenty of Chang and Mai Tai and had a fantastic time! 

On the dive boat with Big Blue
The focus and highlight of the holiday was Ko Tao, one of the gulf islands and Thailand's most popular diving destination. We were initially sceptical about diving with a big summer-camp style dive school buzzing with people, but we can't fault our dive centre Big Blue- we loved it there and ended up doing ten dives including our first ever night dive (the trip budget is not really supposed to allow things like that- but at £16 a dive it's easy to justify another, and then another!). After a full morning diving we'd have beach time in the afternoon and then spend the evenings watching fire twirling while relaxing with a Chang on cushions on the beach. It's an addictive lifestyle, and I definitely understand why people get stuck here and turn into dive masters- we were both tempted!

Our dive school accommodation- not bad for £2 a night!

Heading out on our first night dive

Relaxing at Aow Leuk on the quiet side of the island
It was also lovely to escape the dive scene and cross to the other side of the island, a completely different coastline of little bays between rocky headlands. We had a very cute little hut here, complete with driftwood furniture, up on a headland with first class views of two bays. We explored the coast by kayak and the snorkelling was brilliant. Most memorable were crocodile needle fish hunting, diving into a shoal causing it to twist and contort, cuttlefish darting away into the blue, and best of all the three black tip sharks that cruised past. 

One very impressive gecko!
After Emma sadly had to return to England and normal life, I stayed on this coast in my own little wooden hut by the beach, complete with a huge gecko room mate and frangipani flowers overhanging my verandah. It was actually very nice to be a hermit for a few days, swimming, snorkelling and reading, before hauling on my backpack again and travelling by night boat and bus (one of those backpacker 'joint tickets') to meet up with Karl and resume our trip together.

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