Thailand I: Bangkok & Koh Tao

At long last, I thought I'd finally write a little bit about backpacking in Thailand over the summer. For brevity's sake (or just to give the illusion of it), I am breaking this up into a couple of posts.


When we first arrived in Bangkok, it was the middle of the night. We hopped in a brightly-colored cab and drove to our hostel in Chinatown. James fell asleep but I stayed awake, trying to catch details in the dark outlines of buildings we passed on the way. 

We were wide awake again by 5am, because of jet lag, and thought we might as well get up and go for an early-morning walk around our hotel. 

We spent only a day in Bangkok before heading to Koh Tao to go diving, and Koh Phangan to hang at the beach. 

A few hours in Bangkok:

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I went absolutely photo-happy at Wat Phra Kaew. I'd pored over photos and guidebooks of Thailand before visiting, but I was giddy about the trip ahead. We had to head back to catch our train/boat/truck combo to Koh Tao, where I planned to get open water certified (James was already certified, but did the course again with me for fun/moral support.)

We had debated about which direction to go in Thailand: Bangkok to Chaing Mai, to the south, then finishing in the islands? Or Bangkok to islands, then north, and finishing in Chiang Mai? We decided go to the beach first, on the assumption that it was better to be jet lagged on the beach than in a city.

Our multistep trip from Bangkok to Koh Tao started with an overnight train to a pickup truck to a boat.


Uncertain what day it was, and still wearing the same clothes I had put on back in Orlando, Florida when we started this trip, I arrived in Koh Tao with real appreciation for how far away from home I had come.

A typical day of diving would go like this: We'd wake up, walk to a cafe for breakfast, then head over to the dive shop around 9 to gear up for our two dives later in the day. Gear bags (these faded canvas duffels) had a wetsuit, weights, snorkel, flippers, mask, BCD (the big vest that everything else straps to), regulators, and oxygen gauge. Then we'd sit by the water and have a quick "class," then a short break before heading out to dive.


"Class" meant working out of these little PADI workbooks that reminded me of middle school. Some of the captions were frightening and hilarious.

Diving thrilled me and confused all of my senses. It was terrifying in a "this feels unnatural and extremely dangerous, but everyone around me is doing it and they look pretty ordinary" way. So I strapped metal objects to my body, put weights around my waist, and jumped off a boat docked far away from shore. 


The first dive was always "skills," and the second was "a fun dive." 

Getting to the boat started with a ride in the back of a pickup truck, to a  hike down a rocky side of the island, to a longtail boat, to a bigger boat -- each time loading and unloading the gear. 

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During a "skills" dive, we sat on the floor of the ocean and were tested on various things: sharing air with our dive buddies, the "out of air" hand signal, and, most commonly, taking our dive gear on and off for no apparent reason. I'm sure there's a good reason why we learned this, but it seemed to me to be completely nuts: on the floor of the ocean, I was to take off all of the equipment that enables me to stay alive under there, with a circle of mask-clad tourists watching. The thing I dreaded most was called "mask skills." While underwater, I was supposed to take my mask off, let it fill with water, put it back on, then make this elephant motion to clear out the water.

I had one panic attack under water.  It was minor because it was short, but it left me shaken (and feeling ridiculous) for hours afterward. 

The panic attack was when I kept breathing in these short, shallow intakes. I was essentially hyperventilating, in slow motion. Then in my panic, I couldn't remember what to do, who to signal, what to signal, or how to go to the top, so I just pressed the button that filled my BCD with air to shoot myself to the top. My diving instructor, a chainsmoking guardian angel with endless patience, caught me, calmly took my hand off of the "up" button," and used some kind of next-level eye contact to calm me down (since obviously, we can't talk under water.)


I recovered and had just one other diving panic: During one of our deeper dives, I noticed I was "out of air" (kind of: it's like your car telling you you're "out of gas," -- you have more time). I desperately thrashed what I hoped was the "out of air" signal. When our diving instructor gestured that I look up -- we had been surfacing (I guess I didn't notice?) and were now just a few feet from the surface.

After a few days, I finally mastered "buoyancy" and finally experienced underwater bliss. The water was warm, the sea was alive with hard-to-describe creatures and fish I'd never seen before. It was exquisite. In our later dives, we dove to 60 feet and despite the however-many tons of water that rested on top of me, I was weightless. I loved the sensation of hovering carefully over a sprawling mountain range of coral and getting to see fish dart in and out, without touching anything. It was a gentler form of hiking.