Touring Thailand

 

Busting Bikes and Scuba Madness on Koh Tao!

With notions of grand adventure carrying my heels I set off on my recently purchased Yamaha DT 200 the following day. The bike was a heavy piece of shit though, it sounded rough, had no YPVS (Yamaha Power Valve System - vital for getting the 2-strokes power exerted fully) and starting it was hit and miss. I'd overlooked these faults with the 'kudos' of riding one of the few dirt-bikes on the island (typically back then only instructors were able to ride scramblers and off-road bikes). Eager to join 'The Club' I forked out 12500 baht and bought it. No papers, no plates, nothing legal but on Koh Tao the thai style attitude is 'no rules, they belong on the mainland' and this to a greater extent wears off on the farang too.

So off I rode, up from Chalok ban Khao and then hanging a left at the gas pumps towards the main island generator. Here the concrete road ended and the fun really began! Dips, holes and craters were all over the place. There was no agility to this beast I was riding, it may of only been 200cc but it was underpowered and cumbersome so it was a case of make a line for the nearest clear patch and take it from there, and so on. Hitting the bumps and rough wasn't too much of a problem either as it was designed for the rough. 'Yeah this is cool' I mused, thinking that once I've got through this patch the rest is easy.
Wrong! After passing the place where the half-moon parties get held (every half-moon) I followed Jimbobs 'easy-to-get-to' directions and climbed a hill to it's summit. Nothing there but a coconut farmer wondering what a farang is doing in the middle of nowhere!
'Oh well!' I'll try the next hill. Nothing, the next one. Still nothing. No sign of this elusive bungalow on the cheap! Finally I attempt to take the one remaining route further into the heart of Koh Tao.

The route was uphill again but as I rounded a corner and instead of the usual ruts and potholes it was great heavy boulders and slab-like rocks. They formed a tough path uphill and around to the right (towards Tanote Bay). By this point I'd only encountered heavy suspension rigged pick-ups and should of picked up on the warning signs there and then, but onward I went.

Koh Tao Trail, they get worse than this!!

Without pausing I hammered the bike on full throttle and bounced up the hill like a mad pogo biker. Once at the top it was plain to see I was in the middle of nowhere. The path now descended again sharply and was now loose gravel track instead of the mount Olympus boulders of before. There was not a bungalow in sight! Just the eastern coast of Koh Tao and the coastal settlements there which the downhill track led too. I realised that even if I found the 'hallowed bungalow' Jimbob preached about there was no chance of me wanting to make a daily commute up and down the hellish track every day. Not least for riding home in pitch-black conditions. I took a look at where the descending trail turned left towards the coastal settlements after 300 yards and though 'What the hell, lets see what's down there!'

No sooner had I eased the bike downhill then I realised I'd become undone. Even with the bike in 1st gear the angle of descent was way too sharp and the gravel too loose for a safe descent to the corner ahead. The speed, at best would mean I'd be carried over the corner and face a drop into god-knows-what and at worse collide with the occasional pick-up.
I touched the back brakes then the front ones that created a uncontrollable slide. With no other way out I was about to abandon bike and let it slide into oblivion when I spied a large,upright boulder off to one side. 'Fck it!'I swore and just steered the hunk of metal straight into the thing! The rock cracked, the gas tank came apart and down went the bike fuel pissing out like dying beast! Knowing it was going to take a long time to hike back to civilization I reluctantly worked on re-starting the beast. I finally turned it uphill, got it started and struggled back up the hill. It could barely power itself up the incline let alone grip the gravel so hardly in the spirit of biking I resigned myself to 'walking' the bike up the hill in 1st gear at a near-standstill, engine sounding ready to explode! So ended the Bungalow Quest! (Should of let me have a go! :) -WR)

How did I even end up in that mess? Well it's a long story and is from back when I was bitten by the diving and biking bug.
There's a few cool places in Thailand for scuba diving. Your mainstream choices are: Phuket (excellent nightlife, excellent diving but very expensive), Pattaya (good nightlife, affordable but the diving's pretty lousy) and Koh Tao (ultra cheap and good diving).
For biking it's quite good too, with some offroad areas for having a good scramble about on.

Part 1

Chumpon

I'd already learned to dive in Phuket, and though the nightlife and diving scene there is A1 I'd heard of this other great little island for diving called Koh Tao. Back in the 1990s the island was a real gem in the backpackers map of islands to visit. It was 2003 when I showed up at Chumpon harbour. All I had was a backpack crammed with diving gear, my usual adventurous instincts and a good dose of optimism. The early morning flight into Bangkok and the train journey had taken some of the wind out of me but I still wasn't tired.

The so called 'War on Terror' was raging a world away but to all intents and purposes it was life as usual in the Land of Smiles.

Chumpon Pier

There were five of us waiting to board the six-hour slow boat to Koh Tao. The 250 Baht we paid got us a small mat to lie on at the covered top deck of a converted fishing boat. Clambering on we made our way to sleeping Koh Tao. The other travellers were divers as well, some new wave blonde from the States and a feminazi Scottish little runt.
I soon picked up a few things about Koh Tao that I needed to know. One was that the island was small, it is the smallest island out of the three (the other two being Koh Samui, Koh Phang Yan) and divers were all over the place on Tao.

Koh Tao

Arriving on Koh Tao at six in the morning was like for me. Everything was so quiet, it had just been raining and a real sense of a lost island paradise was there. I'd already made my mind up to complete a Divemaster course at Buddha View Dive Center. I can't remember the specific reason, it might of been a recommendation it might of just been on a whim but soon enough The way Divemaster training works out on Koh Tao is you can do either the 2 week, cram-everything-into it-and-work-like-mad course OR opt for the do-it-at-your-own-pace course. I chose the latter (aka the internship based Divemaster Course). The course was pretty cool looking back to 2003. The divers (almost all of whom were either European, American or Japanese) tended to be easy-going lefties and hippie types. There was (and still is!)drinking parties, opium dens, mushroom shake bars and smoking the wacky-backy was rife. The violence that seems to be more commonplace was seldom for fighting amongst the divers was a rare occurrence (given all the dope and diving going round it wasn't surprising).
The divers themselves tended to be either gap-year students traveling with their partners or lone traveller types. Plenty of them were on 'round-the-world' tickets and Koh Tao happened to be on the way south for them heading towards Malaysia and Australia. Often they'd intend on staying only a few days but end up staying until their cash ran out and their relatives tired of endless money requests!
The nationalities of the divers varied, but the majority tended to be Scandinavian, English, German, Canadian and Japanese. The Divers actually working there as Instructors or Divemaster's were usually either British, German or Scandinavian. Canadians and Japanese divers tended to travel in packs, although they were friendly enough, they usually kept to each others 'clique'.
People from North America tended to be in a distinct minority on Koh Tao and African folk even rarer (I only every met one African in the six months I stayed!).
Anyway back to the story...

After a month or so I was soon got qualified as a Divemaster. Others wanted to go for their OWSI (Open Water Scuba Instructor) but I wanted to get some work first and had had enough of training. I applied for a job with Planet Scuba and was waiting for an answer when I'd found this crazy bar called 'High-Times'. An opium den hangout just a stone-throw's from my bungalow. The place was being overseen by these three crazy thai guys who ran speed-boat journey's back to the mainland and the other islands on the side and the guy in charge was a kept 'husband' of a Katoey! I know, only in Thailand!

Jimbob and Hightimes Bar

A wayward farang guy calling himself 'Jimbob' worked at a reggae bar called Hightimes. He had little money, was in debt, but was making the best of a bad situation by running the bar, creating artwork and stenciling for the place. After a few nights of going there to drink I complained about how the rents were being pushed up all over the island. Jimbob, seizing to this declared that there were bungalows available for free and some as cheap as 1500 baht per month. Ranting and raving like a man with a mission I pressed him for more information. He went on to explain that for an 'Ultra Cheap' Bungalow was going for the knock-down price of between 1500 to 3000 baht per month. The only problem was, though nearer to SSDC (which was in Sairee) it was off the beaten track in the center of the island, vaguely knowing the area I knew an offroad bike would be crucial in getting there. (See beginning of this page)

Wildren and the Rise of SSDC

Back at Hightimes that night I lay into Jimbob (who I'm starting to realise isn't really 'all-there') about his shoddy directions. He tries to play it off explaining that I must of 'taken a wrong turn'. I'm about to press the matter when into the bar comes this man mountain of a guy with his mistress. The fumes, smoke and gloom cleared and I beheld what would be my mentor, leader and friend for the rest of my time on Koh Tao. He's one of the few US guys on the island. Calling himself 'Wildren' or 'Will' for short. If it wasn't for the US accent he could of stepped straight from the pages of a Viking Saga or Barbarian movie. Long blond hair reminiscent of a hippy surfer from Hawaii or Long Beach yet with the strength of three divers. He was wise, friendly and gregarious yet had a foul and dangerous temper when the mood took him. Indeed when he was brooding few could approach him, if you pushed him so far, push any more and God help you. A natural born drinker and womaniser he was (and still is) a real colourful character on Koh Kao. Will ran one of the many fledgling, independent dive shops on Koh Tao: Siam Scuba Dive Center (SSDC). The place is gone now, another diveshop took over the site at the behest of the thai owner but back then it had a pretty wild west reputation. The divers were very much either the semi-outlaw types or neo-hippys. The thai workers for the dive schools tended to have the 'private army' mentality so you'd be able to call upon them for any help you'd need if any customers turned nasty. This was pretty rare but did happen once while I was there. The divers working for the big dive schools tended to be graduates and gap-year types just bumming their way through Asia, although there were both sides on either side too if you know what I mean. The big schools had the left-wing toffs and richboys living off their parents vibe whereas the small schools was more right-wing.

Politics aside But SSDC was known for standing up to the big dive companies and doing things their way, in fact it had already gone to dive sites thought impossible at certain times and proved the critics wrong. Full moon dive at Sail Rock? No problem! The mainstream divers cried out the currents would be too strong to dive it. How can you say something you didn't even know unless you tried it first. We dived Sail Rock on a Full Moon and it was a blast. No major currents. In fact it was Jim's way of diving first and the system's second. Some called it the 'scuba madness' that Koh Tao seemed to encourage but one thing for sure meant that diving with SSDC wasn't boring. Back in the 1990s the dive industry on Koh Tao was a free-for-all with a 'grab the tanks, get your gear and get in the water'. SSDC pretty much was the last swan-song for all that stuff. The hyperbaric boys who came in one day to give a lecture did lament the change of the dive scene, with SSDC being a vivid reminder. It warmed the heart in a way, but the groove changes and that's just the way it goes, even on Koh Tao.

Anyway, back to Hightimes bar and to my surprise Will declared he was looking for a divemaster. Despite knowing that a response from Planet Scuba (a big player on the dive scene in Koh Tao) was imminent I threw in my lot with Will's wild band of merry men and women. Following assurances and contact details that were exchanged I left early and hit the sack. The following day I roared out through a monsoon storm to Sairee beach to pay a visit to SSDC. Will was waiting and I think showing up despite the rainstorm helped me get the job. Having fixed his lap-top (which mysteriously blew-up later! Another story) the job was as good as mine!

Continued in Part 2!

Part 1 | Part 2

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