The time was 11am at Phuket International Airport on December 31st, 2012, New Year’s Eve. I had just dropped off my girlfriend, Hanna, at the airport, who was traveling to Australia and then back to South Korea to teach.
I had two options: stay and party at the famous beaches in Phuket for New Year’s, or do my best to make it to the famous full moon party island, Koh Pha Ngan (pronounced ko-pan-yan). Phuket was the safe option nearby that would ensure a good time. Pha Ngan was a risky option because it required a 5-6 hour bus ride and a 2.5 hour ferry, the last ferry leaving at 6pm; time would be tight. One of my goals for Thailand was to get my PADI Rescue Diver’s license in Koh Tao, a short ferry from Pha Ngan. Did I choose the safe option, or the challenging risky option that left the opportunity for scuba diving open?
After traveling on my own for over 8 months, I was ready for challenge and uncertainty. I immediately asked the tourist desk at the airport how I could get to Koh Tao that evening. She laughed at me until she saw I was serious. Tourist buses were full, so I would have to make it to a bus stop on the highway to catch the local bus to Surat Thani at 11:30am and hope there was a spot left.
11:05am – I get in a taxi at the airport bound for the bus stop.
11:20am — I arrive at the bus stop and secured my spot to Surat Thani. I board the bus at 11:40am
5pm – I arrive in Surat Thani and ask a tuk tuk driver to take me to the ferry to Pha Ngan; he takes me to a travel agent.
5:15pm – The last ferry from Surat Thani had gone, but there was a ferry leaving at 6pm, 45 minutes away. The agent offers a private taxi for 1800 baht ($60), an absurd price for Thailand. I try negotiating, but it doesn’t work, so I walk out.
5:20pm – The tuk tuk driver offers to take me for half the price. I had come too far to miss the ferry, so I accept.
5:20-6:00pm – The tuk tuk is buzzing at max speed down the highway. Vans speed past us left and right. I nervously watch the kilometer signs, trying to calculate if we will make it. At 5:40pm, we stop for gas. I keep asking if we’ll make it, and the driver says “no problem, no problem” (I’m skeptical). We’re still driving at 6pm.
6:15pm – We pull into the port, and I run inside to buy a ticket. I see a boat docking. The boat was just a few minutes late coming in, allowing me to board. For once, I’m happy that everything isn’t always on time in Southeast Asia.
I barely made it on time for the last ferry, but my adventure was far from over. Below is a journal entry I wrote on the ferry:
“Here I am now, on the ferry waiting to get to Ko Pha Ngan. It’s thundering and rain storming outside. I don’t have a place to stay, which is ridiculous because I heard travelers weeks ago coming up with strategies to stay on the island because everything was completely booked. I don’t really know what I’m going to do but at the same time I’m not too worried. I just hope that there’s no rain because it will make it a lot more difficult to walk around outside with all of my stuff looking for a place. I don’t know what the island looks like, how big it is, or which parts I should go to for New Year’s.”
When we arrive, it’s still raining and all of the backpackers are herded onto tuk tuks bound for “Full Moon Party”. I speak to a couple in the tuk tuk who, because nothing else was available, had to book a room for two weeks online even though they would only be there a couple days. My plan is to drop my bags off in a locker or hostel lobby, stay up all night, and then leave for Koh Tao in the morning. It’s ambitious.
We arrive at Haad Rin Nok, and the party is already started. Kids in their 20s are everywhere in bathing suites and face paint holding mixed drink buckets. I take my bag to 6 or 7 different hostels before I find one that will let me drop it off for a small price.
Finally, I walk out through the small town towards the beach. The streets are lined with bars, restaurants, street food, and stands selling plastic buckets of mixed drinks. I buy a bucket and continue on, pushing through the crowd the beach.
I step out onto the beach at 10:20pm to see a 3km long beach lined from end to end with bars. I walk down and back. Most bars are playing loud dance music. Some are playing variations of pop, 80s, and 90s music. There was even a “chill” reggae bar. The entire beach is full of kids having a good time. I had never seen anything like this. There are also several stands selling balloons filled with laughing gas.
I stopped at the Tommy Resort, which had a live DJ. I watched the clock countdown to midnight and fireworks from several bars. People were going crazy, screaming, dancing, and jumping. It felt great to be a part of the celebration.
Over the next 10 hours, I paced myself; traveling from bar to bar, I met lots of people, danced, and kept a level head slowly sipping on whisky-red bull-coke buckets. I wasn’t looking to go crazy. A couple times in the night, I found some rocks on one side of the beach to lie on and take short cat naps. The party stayed strong until 3, 4, and 5am, until some people started leaving.
Around 6:30am the sky began getting brighter and the sun started poking up on the horizon, bringing life back into the party. The aftermath of the party was also now visible. The whole night, the surf was washing up close to the bars with the high tides. People had been throwing beer cans and bottles, plastic drink buckets, water bottles, straws, balloons, and other trash into the water. Everyone urinated into the water throughout the night as well, the same water washing up on everyone’s feet. The shore was disgusting, littered with tons of trash.
I was ready to leave by 10am. I grabbed my bag and asked the hotel reception to book a ferry ticket for Koh Tao. She informed me that these ferries had all been booked for days. I decided to take a tuk tuk to the port anyway. Fortunately, I was able to get onto a slightly more expensive ferry that wasn’t fully booked. By this time, I had learned that “full” or “not possible” was almost never true if you just show up with cash in hand.
I arrived in Koh Tao a couple hours later, tired and ready to sleep. It took an hour and a half, asking about 10 places to find an open room. It was a non-ac private “fan” room with a private bathroom and two double beds for under $10 a night.
The next morning, I went to Planet Scuba and signed up for my PADI Rescue Diver course. Koh Tao is known as the “divemaster’s island”, as it certifies more SCUBA divers each year than any other place in the world. Since I already had my PADI Open Water and Advanced Open Water certifications, Rescue Diver was the next step to becoming a better diver.
The Rescue Diver course is 4 days, including skill building in the water, a written test, and a final rescue scenario test in the water. The course also includes an Emergency First Response (CPR) certification. It’s both extremely tiring and extremely fun.
Once you step on the boat, you’re expected to notice anyone (instructors) who may have “fallen overboard” (intentionally) and save them. There are several ways that rescues become complicated. First, you must put on at least as much equipment as the victim in order to save them. If they have full scuba equipment, you must quickly don your BCD (jacket with the air tank), fins, and mask, making sure to check for any problems like hoses that were intentionally disconnected by instructors. Also, since victims are likely to be panicking, you have to assume they’re going to be flailing, grabbing, and doing other things that will interfere with your rescue.
The instructors had lots of fun with this. Several times, I’d save one instructor with just fins and a mask as another instructor would jump in the water with full gear. I’d have to save the first instructor, get back on the boat, put my equipment on, and get back in the water to save the second. As I’d approach the “panicked diver”, they’d burst at me, trying to grab me, force me under water, knock my mask off, or knock out my regulator (what you breathe from). I’d have to push them away, descend under the water, and come up behind them, straddling their tank with my knees to prevent them from grabbing me before towing them back to the boat.
I really learned a lot and enjoyed the challenging course. One thing I love about SCUBA diving is how comfortable and confident you become in the water. You really learn to keep a level head, think, and make the right decisions before endangering yourself or others. These lessons transcend diving and apply to many other things in life.
After Koh Tao, I returned to Bangkok to get my visa for India. I had to wait 8 working days for the visa. I spent it with some great people that I met at a great hostel called Siam Journey Guesthouse. We explored the malls, watched movies, and enjoyed the nightlife.
Thailand was a wonderful country and a highlight of my travels (if you missed the first post, read it here). It very beautiful, easy to get around, and had many modern comforts due to the booming tourism industry. It’s a great place to visit whether you want to party, be active, or just sit on a beautiful beach. I really needed the comfort too, because my next destination, India, was the opposite of comfort and would test me as a traveler. Keep a lookout for this post in the next week or two.
Which experience would you most enjoy in Thailand (partying, active rock climbing, hiking, and scuba diving, or lying on a beach)?