Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Diving and Bangla Road

Scuba Cat LiveAboard
The day starts early with a pick up by the Scuba Cat crew. Our bags are thrown on top of a tuk tuk van thing, and we’re driven across to Chalong, whence our boat departs. We’re taken out on a reasonable-sized boat – a two level dive boat carrying perhaps 20 passengers, out to Racha Yai, where the boat we will live on is moored. The trip starts smoothly enough, which is just as well, as I’m feeling a bit rough from the previous night. The day leader hands out anti-seasickness tablets but I refuse. Wrong move!

We head out into open water, and goodness it gets rough. Which I’d probably be alright with if not hung over and for the fact that Mark, my instructor, asks me how I got on with the review problem sheets at the end of the chapters I am supposed to have read. Erm, oops! I need one of them for our first dive, which is almost as soon as we arrive, so I read that chapter. I don’t feel good. The boat is being tipped all over the place. I feel increasingly queasy, and have to give up on the second chapter. Why didn’t I take those tablets?! Lots of other green faces sitting and lying about.


Finally we arrive at Racha Yai, in a sheltered bay behind the island. The bay is nicknamed Scuba Cat Bay because this is where their large boated is permanently moored off-season (I think it goes up to the Similans during the Peak). We have a small bunk bed cabin upstairs, with toilets and showers at the end.

Downstairs is a common area, with kitchen, and at the other end, the dive part of the boat, with tanks, air compressors and all the other gear. The boat has staff living on board – perhaps 5 or so, including a young lady who is an excellent cook – the food being the most remarked-upon aspect of this boat before we even left dry land!

First dive almost straight away, and it’s a Peak Buoyancy dive. This involves learning about how to balance yourself underwater, weighting oneself properly etc. I start badly by trying to screw the first stage on to the tank before fitting the BCD. Are you sure you want to do that, asks Mark. Doh! Good first impressions! All goes well after that though, despite being terribly balanced underwater – I partially solve this by shifting my weight belt up a fair bit.

The visibility here is good, and coral quite nice. We see lots of moray eels, and on one dive a turtle swims gracefully right past my face – we follow him for a bit before turning away. There are big concrete boxes (without sides, i.e. just the frame) that are piled up to create an interesting underwater structure. We swim through these, and find some bat fish, which are so tame, swimming around us, and in particular delighting in the stream of bubbles rising up from us – every time one of us would breathe out, they would dart into the bubbles – playing? Trying to eat? Anyway fascinating to watch.

Mark, my instructor

Next dive we (okay Mark) found a ray sitting in the sand – he put a hand under, gently lifted it, and it glided away. In general what made me respect Mark as an instructor more than anything was his ability to spot interesting objects underwater – from camouflaged fish to tiny gastropods? And everything in between, Mark would invariably notice it when I didn’t. We found a large moray eel which we tried to feed – but he just wasn’t biting the dead fish we offered him – unusual according to Mark. The eels do look incredibly sinister, but are generally fairly shy and hide with just their teeth and beady eyes showing as their mouth slowly closes and opens, watching us watching them.

In between dives I would head off with Yumi for some snorkelling. She can’t swim, so was a bit panicky at first, but with a life jacket she soon got the hang of it.

Yumi underwater

Meant more exercise for me too, dragging her along in the water and having four dives in the day! The fourth is a night dive, which is exciting! We take torches with us – the size had to be seen to believe. Worse, I clobbered my shins with the thing as we got into the small boat. Mark just laughs at me, as he’s got an expensive small thing which has about 10x the power of the drain plunger I’m lumbered with.

Anyway, underwater at night is a strange but fantastic experience. You only see what you point the torch at, the rest is pitch black. The most noticeable change, apart from the colours, were the thousands of spiky sea urchins lining the sea bed and every rock and reef. I actually was careful to stay more buoyant than usual, hovering a good metre away from everything because I was so worried about coming down on the spikes! They also look almost like a face when light is shined on them, and when active their spikes wave about like some sort of alien mine.


Night on the boat I found lovely. I knew from the Patagonian Navimag ferry that gentle rocking motion is no problem for me at night, in fact I find it quite soporific. Yumi wasn’t quite as impressed. I left her and went for my first dive of the day, the deep dive. We descended to 30m, partially to cover the extra precautions that deep diving entails for my Advanced course, but we also had an opportunity to see a very poisonous stone fish sitting on the bed, motionless apart from his gills moving slowly.

Lounging about

Next dive we came across a large female puffer (cow?) fish, who was extremely inquisitive, and hovered right in front of our masks. Mark stroked her tummy, which she seemed to like, almost turning towards him to encourage him. They’re so cute because they have enormous eyes which gives the feeling that there must be some intelligence somewhere in the strangely shaped body.

Advanced Diver!

On Mark’s recommendation, we don’t stay a second night on the boat, instead coming back to shore (I take the seasickness tablets this time!), staying the night in Chalong by the pier, then going out on a dive to Shark Point and Anemone Reefs the following day, supposedly the best dive sites in this area. We stay in a bungalow for 600 baht for the night, consider heading along to the Green Man, but I decide this is not a good idea, so instead we eat at an Indian restaurant on the little strip near the pier. Good food and as is tradition with Indian food, I eat far too much!

Diving Shark Point

Divemaster Chart

I have to wait around for a while before my Scuba Cat dive master, Chart, turns up - and we're on a Dive Asia boat, some sort of sharing agreement as Scuba Cat aren't going out to this dive site today. It’s another long choppy trip out to Shark Point, a cluster of rocks so named because of the leopard sharks that congregate in the area. Unfortunately because of the stormy weather the visibility is terrible, and surge and current also bad, so we get to see almost nothing. Except I manage to spot… a leopard shark! Hurrah! Looking very long, perhaps 2m, and sitting on the sandy sea bed, everyone had swum past without noticing him, especially easy with visibility down to a few metres. Unfortunately, camera was jammed off at that depth, no photos!

Beady eyes

Shy fella

Lunch on the boat was ridiculous - the boat was tossing and turning about, so just getting a plate to the table from the buffet tubs was a real challenge. I had almost made it when a strong gust of wind took my salad all over the adjacent table. Oops!

The second dive we do at Koh Doc Mai on the way back to Chalong, having abandoned Anemone Reef because of the conditions. This site was a wall dive around a small island, dropping 30m down, though we stayed higher to lengthen the dive, and the rock was littered with small caves in its side.

Don’t touch

Back to Chalong and on to Patong, and I find that we didn’t have a reservation in the Sea View hotel as I had hoped – they hadn’t confirmed my request so I was a little suspicious. Yumi had found a nice room in the Villa del Mar hotel, a small German run place where they were very friendly – I’d definitely go back. Sitting right facing the beach, we would wander across and swim in the sea, though the waves were beginning to get a bit rough – a couple of days later it was reported that someone died on Patong beach because of the waves!

In the evening we meet Jason and his girlfriend Liz. We plan to meet in the bar in front of Ban Thai, where he is staying, but coincidentally we both pick the same restaurant, Coyote, a Tex Mex, so end up together earlier.

Yumi attacks the meat

The service is appalling though, and for some reason our waitress starts getting funny with us, so I’m glad to escape. Also wasn’t impressed by the bald tinted-glassed 50+ year old on the next table eating with a girl who if she was 18 looked very young for her age. Welcome to Thailand, Farang (foreigner).

The four of us walk along Bangla Road, enjoying the sights, then pick a bar without too many girls and have some beers.

Liz found the conversation enthralling

Jason asks me what my obsession with Green Tea Frapps is, though he’s never tried one himself. We agree to discuss again after he’s tried one.

The infamous Bangla Road

The gang

Girls hanging out

Incidentally, I’ve come across a term which may describe some of what I do or am: Flashpackers! Backpackers who are flash, or perhaps flash cash more than your normal backpacker. Suitable? Comments?!

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