The last image I have of Koh Pang Ngang is of sitting on the deck of the boat, ready to leave for Koh Tao, and seeing Anna striding along the pier to the next boat along. She is a small, determined figure in her black skirt and blue halterneck, long blonde hair tied up, striding in her flip-flops with her small rucksack on her back, purposely off to claim her destiny. Her destiny at that moment involved a trip to Bangkok and the Finnish embassy and then a visa run (common to long-term Thai stayers) to Malaysia before a return to Koh Pang Ngang, her home for now. I called out to her. She paused a moment, scanning my boat for the voice, and then spotted me and waved. Somehow the image was very poignant. It felt that she had shared essential markers of this trip of mine – and who knows when our respective odysseys will bring us to another meeting point? It made me realise how grateful I was to have had her company along the last month. It was good to have someone around who had also come from six months in India, similar but different to mine, and so with many common references and adjustments. It made the easing into the Thai backpacker scene (which I never quite felt I’ve done) much less traumatic. So thank you Anna – for company, for laughter, for help and for lovely massage practice.
I tried very hard not to be disappointed with Koh Tao. I was there over Christmas and new year 2000/01 and had utterly fallen in love with it then. It has changed a lot in that time, largely over the last four years or so, I am told. It is still very beautiful, but gone are the simple beach huts and easy, laid-back restaurants. The most astonishing quantity of building has gone on, right down to the beachfront, all squarely aimed at the package tourist rather than the backpacker brigade. Prices have consequently pretty much doubled. I barely recognised my old bay, which seemed much smaller than I remembered. I later realised this was because the beach has about halved in size, with all the dive resorts now built virtually down to the water.
But I did quite well on my accommodation. I think I found the last cheapish bungalow right over the sea at a little resort with some of the best food I’ve had since my arrival in Thailand and also some of the cheapest. My bungalow looked right over the bay and seemed to be pretty much the last one left on the beach. Here it is, with my usual colourful array of laundry:
The dive shop was small, German-run and friendly in a very old-laddish way. The overheard conversations of Koh Pang Ngang beginning “As a tantric man, I can…” (this is a verbatim quote) were supplanted by the porno mags scattered around the dive shop office. There weren’t many women around, so I went from artist to tomboy for ten days, hanging out with the divers and boxers. My dive instructor was a cocky Mancunian (but really excellent underwater – and Jackson, if ever you read this, that’s not flattery) and my fellow advanced course attendee was a Brummie Muay Thai boxer. The school’s divemaster in training was a Swiss guy who apparently used to play for his national handball team – so testosterone all round.
(That’s Philip, divemaster from Zurich on the left, and Adam, Brummie Muay Thai boxer on the right.)
I have to say that they were very nice to me, however, including me on their outings and teasing me only as much as I could just about handle.
Not having dived in nine years, I was a little apprehensive about launching straight into my advanced. Jackson, my instructor, assured me he would give me a briefing of the basics and then we would start with a “peak performance buoyancy” dive, which would apparently sort me out. This is basically diving a mini obstacle course (I’m afraid I can’t do headstand underwater, but I’m very accurate going through hoops or under legs, no tanks knocking into boys’ fragile bits) to practise optimum buoyancy (which you control with your breathing as well as your kit) so that you don’t waste lots of energy/air and don’t shoot up or down unexpectedly (not a great thing to do when diving). Despite the confident talk, I could tell Jackson expected some trouble from me – and also that he was quite pleasantly surprised. I did pick it back up pretty quickly and, as ever, it’s not the water but the kit that flummoxed me for a while. Despite my left ear deciding to make its presence felt (which basically just meant I had to go down and back up again slowly), my diving got progressively more confident and – dare I say it – skilful.
Yes, the water really is that clear.
Being an “advanced” diver means you can go to 30 metres, at which point we were tested for nitrogen narcosis. Well, I can still subtract from ten at that depth, though I do confess to feeling a wee bit light-headed, in an “I’m slightly tiddly but perfectly able to control myself if I concentrate” sort of way. However, the deeper you go, the more air you use, because it gets compressed in the tank with the pressure increase. The good thing is that my oxygen consumption is VERY low (because I have such a small brain, the lads kept reminding me), and so my deep dive was an extremely respectable 64 minutes long.
We did a night dive as one of our options. As I was jumping off the boat into the water, all petrol black, I had serious reservations. However, once we were in, I really loved it, and apart from watching the fish and coral doing their thing, I particularly enjoyed watching my breath. It’s a very tangible pranayama: if I inhale deeply, I float up a metre; when I exhale fully, I go down again. After the course ended, I did a few so-called “fun-dives” (can’t you tell PADI is written by Americans?). By that point, we were going through small caves every now and then. Since my stingray encounter (the mark is still on my heel) I’m very wary of touching anything – not easy to avoid when going through narrow caves. But what’s a girl to do when surrounded by gung-ho lads? Deflate her BCD, make herself negatively buoyant and swim, that’s what. And really, it’s fine – but I don’t particularly want to be the first one through, in case an angry trigger fish is waiting on the other side (our diving instructor described one as “a swimming brick”. He should know; he was knocked unconscious by one not so long ago).
Here’s Buddha rock (so named for obvious reasons) from the boat shortly before night fell for our night dive:
I particularly liked our dive boat, manned by Charlie from Burma (not his real name but it sounds like that) who must be one of the most sweetly smiling men on the planet and the Captain. The Captain is covered with mysterious faint tattoos and has three fingers of one hand missing. He’s also a very accomplished diver, unusual in a Thai, who, like Indians, rarely swim. But he came down with us on my last dive and added immensely to the fun – not that any of us understand him or he us. He would also rigorously inspect our kit as we prepared to leave the boat and clip me across the ear when I forgot to turn on my air (I told you I had issues with kit). Here’s the Reef Rider dive boat from the small boat that takes us to it:
I had a couple of beachy days on Koh Tao, but my favourite beach of years ago has been made impassable without walking half-way across the island (up and down some extremely steep hills in extremely hot sun) because all the new resorts have cut off access to it. Jackson and Adam (my advanced dive course buddy) had ambitions to conquer the island by canoe, so I hitched a lift with them one day. Thanks to their paddling, I got to see my old Shark Bay again, but it certainly wasn’t the daily pilgrimage I made it nine years ago. However, I did get to look across the water to my old beach at Koh Pang Ngang, and realised that the island I had seen every day in the distance during my stay there was Koh Tao.
And now here I am in Bangkok, just in time for the explosions of violence not so far away from the Khao San Road area. A friend from my journalism course who is now news editor for a northern radio station interviewed me by phone last night, so I was able to tell him that I’d seen strictly nothing and most of the tourists here seem pretty oblivious to what’s going on. But I haven’t been going out and about in Bangkok. It’s perfectly quiet where I am, but the Skytrain metro system was shut down across the city today.
I am grateful that the most tangible effect the neighbouring violence has had on me relates merely to my rucksack woes. My lower zip, which has been causing problems since November in Dharamsala, then repaired in Rishikesh (I did email Berghaus to say I expected better than this, only a month after purchasing my new rucksack from them, but they never deigned to reply), completely bust the morning I was packing to go to Koh Tao. I sewed the entire zip us with such panicked haste and long lengths of dental floss (very sturdy) that I didn’t even notice the blood pouring from my finger as I raced to get everything packed in time. The dental floss was holding well, but I didn’t reckon its chances with a month of Cambodian travel in the rainy season. After much debating and Facebook advice, I decided to try and get a new rucksack. Unfortunately, the only ones available around the Khao San Road are the cheap knock-offs which I am reliably informed will explode after a week (and probably less when filled with my 26kg of stuff). “You must be able to get a proper rucksack in Bangkok!” a friend said to me. Well yes, but the shopping malls are all in that area occupied by the protestors, currently experiencing sporadic gunfire and so unsurprisingly shut. So I got a Thai lady and an Indian tailor (all the tailors around here seem to be Indian) to reinforce my dental floss job, and now I have a professionally sewn-up rucksack. Unfortunately, it means I have to completely unpack it at each stop in order to get proper access to my things, but I’m sure I’ll manage.
I am told the rainy season is late starting in Cambodia. Koh Tao had no monsoon this year and so the sea never cooled down. You have to take a boat to get to cooler water and all the coral near the shore is bleached white by the hot water that is killing it. The inside of Koh Tao looks more like dry Mediterranean scrub than the lush tropics it sits in. I saw a lot of conservation and recycling activity on the little island (approximately 3x7 km), at odds with the mass building of resource-consuming luxury resorts going on there (all that air conditioning and those seashore swimming pools). April is supposed to be the hottest month in Thailand, and it was very hot. All the Thais are remarking on the unusual heat, and the May cooling hasn’t happened. I notice it more here in Bangkok, where there are no sea breezes to dry the sweat I am permanently coated in. I don’t know if this is more small evidence of climate change, but I am grateful I cope well with the heat and wonder if my journey from Keralan heatwave to Thai heatwave will continue into a Cambodian one.
So tomorrow morning I take the bus to the Cambodian border and from there must figure out my way to Battambang. It seems slightly eccentric, even by my standards, that the first thing I will do when I get to this country I have never before visited is shut myself and my senses away for ten days. But that’sthe plan. Tuesday, I go into a 10-day Vispassana meditation retreat, where you meditate 10 hours a day, starting at four in the morning. We are expected to maintain “noble silence” which means not even making eye-contact with other people.
So you shall hear from me again after the end of May.
From Lucy, with love xx