Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead — so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.
Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right?
Oh, how hard it was to leave my island life! This was my final month in Thailand before jetting off to Brazil and a stateside summer, and it was a struggle to say goodbye. Aside from one hellish visa run and one giggle-filled girl’s weekend in Samui, I stuck close to Koh Tao and enjoyed my last bit of stillness.
This is a simple post for a simple month!
Where I’ve Been
• One night in overnight transit
• Five nights on Koh Tao
• Two nights on Koh Samui
• Twenty-one days on Koh Tao
• Breaking my Diet Coke addiction! Long time readers know that I’ve long considered the stuff to be carbonated gold, and I spent years jolting out of bed and immediately heading out on a mission to source a can if I happened to find myself without it. I was well and truly addicted.
When I started thinking about doing a DIY health retreat, I knew I wanted to kick my ridiculous Diet Coke habit. But it took me months to psych myself up for it! I knew that there was nowhere better than Thailand to do it, since I don’t actually love the Thai formula for Coke Light. And you know what? It was raging success — so much so that I extended my initial four weeks to six! I took a million notes and learned SO MUCH from the process. Literally one of the greatest gifts I’ve ever given myself. It’s basically not travel related at all, but give me a shout if you’d be interested in a post about getting un-addicted from diet soda!
• Crushing my 5K time. Well, perhaps crushing is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did semi-train for a run for the first time ever, and I saw the results! I set a new best pace for myself, and had a blast crossing the finish line. It wasn’t just that final moment of euphoria though — I also cherished my sunset jogs with my running buddy Amy leading up to it.
• Easter Brunch. Our whole Samui girl’s trip was divine — not because we did anything super special (apart from the race, of course) or ate or drank anywhere especially noteworthy. But we were together, and it was our last big hurrah before my summer departure, and I just loved it. The highlight was our Sunday brunch complete with DIY mimosas and endless toasts to friends and upcoming farewells.
• Not one but two diving courses! A sidemount speciality and an enriched air certification were the perfect courses to take side-by-side. I learned so much, I got excited about diving on Koh Tao again, and I got to cap it all off with a group trip to Sail Rock surrounded by friends. I couldn’t have asked for better days in the ocean.
• Celebrating Sonkgran! My first Songkran years ago was just days into a heart-wrenching breakup with my boyfriend of three years, so suffice it to say that was pretty bittersweet. And I’ve been just missing the big day ever since in my comings and goings from Thailand. Finally, in 2016, I got to have a big wet and wild, happiness-fueled do-ver. Travel BFF Heather even flew in from Bali! Honestly, it was the best day I could have asked for. It’s one of the greatest holidays I’ve had the privilege of celebrating!
• Calling quits on Photo of the Week. It had to happen! I didn’t regret it for a second and I’ve really enjoyed focused more on my Instagram and Facebook since. (My newsletter has been far less successful, unfortunately.) It just took so much pressure off!
• Getting enough sleep. It says something funny about our society that I write here every day about my travels around the world but I’m almost embarrassed to say that I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night when I’m on Koh Tao because I know what a luxury that is.
I’ve spent years with various degrees of sleep deprivation due to anxiety and extreme scheduling. Not that both those didn’t flare up occasionally over my time in Koh Tao — and not that I didn’t have the worst mattress on the planet — but overall it was the most well-rested half a year I’ve had.
Lowlights and Lessons
• Another hellish visa run to the Burmese border. Paying to spend twenty-four hours being motion sick and be bored to tears by a bureaucratic puppet show? I vowed then and there to never do another one — and so far I’ve stuck to it! (I take mini-vacations instead.)
• Our Samui hotel was pretty disappointing. After all the fabulous places we’ve stayed over the years, it was kind of a letdown to land somewhere so meh for such an epic trip — I really wanted to treat my girls to something special! Ah well, that’s what we get for booking last minute! We still had a blast.
• My Brazilian visa photo. Lol? I know it sounds like a funny thing to complain about, but I was legit horrified to learn that the awful passport photo I’d submitted with my Brazilian visa application was PRINTED ON THE VISA AND PASTED INTO MY PASSPORT. Of all the passport photos I’ve had to submit over the years, none but the original have actually ended up in my passport! Lesson learned: I’ll never settle for anything less than frame-worthy again. Tears were shed, guys. My vanity knows no bounds.
• The Boat Party… ugh. Honestly, this was so traumatizing of an event that this is the first time I’m mentioning it anywhere in public. And frankly, I’m still going to be super vague, because I’m always on edge writing negatively about anything pertaining to the Thai Government or authorities, considering the country’s track record of warmth towards free speech and criticism.
But basically, what happened was this: a yacht was hired for a private party of mostly long-term expats. We boarded the boat with much elation and enjoyed our fun at sea for about an hour before being approached by a police vessel which boarded the boat and forced it back to a pier other than the one we’d departed from. When docked, we headed for the end of the long pier — only to realize the police had locked it from the other side. We spent two hours in the hot sun with no water or access to bathrooms, portions of it on our knees with our hands over our head, while the police tossed the boat and tried to figure out what charges we could be held on. When we were released, we had to write down names, passport numbers, addresses, and more. It was incredibly traumatizing and I actually cried when we were finally freed. Anyway, that’s the short version — for the longer one, you’ll have to wait for an incredibly juicy chapter of the book I’ve finally accepted I’ll try to write someday.
• Leaving Koh Tao. Seriously, it never gets any easier. This was one of the best seasons I ever spent on the island, and leaving literally felt heart-wrenching. That said, a travel writer stranding herself on an island that is the isolation equivalent of being a 4-5 hour drive from the closest, most expensive airport and a 7-8 hour drive from the more reasonably priced one is not a sustainable business plan and I recognize that my time off the island is necessary for both my business and my mental health! Still, there are always things I long for when I’m away.
Best and Worst Beds of the Month
Best: Well I didn’t really travel much this month but I did soak up my last beautiful weeks of sleeping in my own apartment! Kind of a shame that I loathed, ya know, my actual bed.
Worst: Easy — my evening on the night boat with broken AC followed by a miserable motion-sickness inducing car ride to the edge on Thailand on my visa run. (Though frankly, the hotel in Samui was nothing much exciting either.)
Best and Worst Meals of the Month
Best: Our post-Songkran brunch at my friend Janine’s house! I made banana cinnamon pancakes and mango mimosas — hangover food in the tropics.
Worst: Sorry to be a broken record, but I’ll have to go with “whatever shitty snacks I compiled from a five-minute stop at 7-11 just over the Burmese border.” Yeah, I really hate those visa runs.
I had another nice and low-key month of expenditures (much needed before the spend-storm that was Brazil!). While Songkran and our trip to Samui were mild splurges, my day-to-day lifestyle on Koh Tao is so affordable it can definitely absorb the blow of a few fun activities thrown in per month. In Samui I also used some built up hotel credit I had — nothing special for being a blogger, just normal loyalty programs anyone can use! — to cover the majority of the cost of the rooms.
Unusually for me, two of my biggest splurges were clothes and accessories — new bikinis from local Koh Tao designer Flip Flop and Treacle, and some new jewelry from local island jeweler Amy Jennifer Jewellery. Had to send myself off in style!
Hallelujah! I doubled my income from the previous month thanks to a few big campaigns coming in with my regular blog partners, as well as a successful month for affiliate income. Again — right before Brazil, I seriously needed it.
Health and Fitness
Between my 5K, the training for it, and trying to use up all my gym and yoga passes before heading off to Brazil, I basically crushed it. Admittedly, Songkran was quite debaucherous, but overall
What Was Next
Six weeks in BRAZIL!
I simply couldn’t ask for better travel companions than all of you!
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I’ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.
Oh, my monthly roundups. They are so ridiculously out of sync with real time now (this post is basically one year late, ha ha) that I recently considered axing the series, but I decided to play catch up instead �” so brace yourself for a couple of these coming up! However, now that I’m writing on multiple timelines they do serve as a nice roadmap of my archives for those who want to follow my travels chronologically.
Apologies for the delay, but I suppose better is late than never… right? �Ÿ˜›
Looking back (way way back, at this point!) this was just one of my favorite months ever. Frankly, none of these travels felt wildly exotic — I was exploring my own backyard, in a way, of my adopted part-time home in Thailand. But I got to travel with some of my favorite people, discover new corners of one of my favorite places, and mostly enjoy the fruits of seeds I planted here in Thailand years ago — a close-knit circle of friends, exciting professional opportunities, and an island I love to come home to.
Where I’ve Been
• Two nights on my Thailand Wine Tour
• Three nights in Bangkok
• Three nights in Hua Hin
• Two nights in Khao Sok
• Seventeen nights on Koh Tao
• Hostel highs! We kicked off our wine trip with a night on Khao San Road, where I discovered an awesome new hostel. I’m so excited to have a great place to recommend in Bangkok’s backpacker epicenter! It’s called Nitan Hostel (we booked through Airbnb so we could use my $35 discount code) and we managed to fill a ten person dorm, essentially making it a private room.
• All the wine! My Thailand Wine Tour was an absolute victory. Huzzah. It was my favorite trip I�™ve taken in a long time �” a challenge and adventure to plan, and unbelievably rewarding to execute. I�™m blessed with the most amazing group of friends and getting to explore a totally new destination together in a country we call home (at least part-time, in my case!) is a memory I�™ll treasure. Especially a destination as beautiful and peaceful as this one. All three wineries were totally unique and lovable in their own ways. Granmonte was so special for the beautiful grounds, amazing restaurant, and the fact that it’s a family business helmed by a woman. PB Valley was a legend for letting us pick our own grapes! And Alcidini was a crazy cute family run vineyard with an emphasis on organic. And again, Airbnb killed it — we loved kicking back in our enormous rental house in the countryside.
• Our skyline suite! A few hectic days in Bangkok were made heavenly by the fact that we had a plush suite at the Amari Watergate to call home — considering we had fourteen friends (!) in Bangkok at the time, it provided the perfect ground zero for our group, especially when we learned that we’d accidentally planned a birthday bar crawl on the holiest Buddhist day of the year, when alcohol sales are banned — oops. Hotel suite party it is!
• Spa time! It’s no secret that I love me some spa sessions, and Bangkok was no exception. I treated Janine and I to a spa package at the Breeze Spa in Bangkok and I am now their most loyal fan ever. Mango sticky rice fans, treat yourself to the mango sticky rice scrub — I’m now hooked on the stuff from the spa’s gift shop and feel like I’m eating dessert every time I take a shower.
• Bangkok eats! As always, a combo of new discoveries and old classics. This time it was a big group dinner at Peppina, a chic pizza restaurant I’d long been dying to try, and a much-anticipated ice cream at Coldstone, a serious guilty please from the US with outposts in Bangkok.
• Beach bumming! Ian and I were the worst tourists ever in Hua Hin and I didn’t care — we had the most adorbs hotel ever to hang in. The beach there was unlike any other I�™ve seen in Thailand, with wild waves and a strong salty smell that reminds me of the beaches of my childhood. This charming mainland beach city felt like a different country from the sultry tropical island we live on — and we loved it!
• ….and more win! Hua Hin Hills was the most scenic vineyard yet. Now that I’ve got four Thai wineries under my belt, I think I’ll have to just keep going until I hit them all.
• Khao Freakin’ Sok! This Thai National Park has been top-of-my list for a while now, and so I couldn’t jump out of my seat fast enough to accept when Elephant Hills, Thailand’s first luxury tented camp, reached out to invite me there. Janine and I played with elephants, wore matching ranger shirts, slept in a tent floating on a lake, learned the fascinating history of the park, and relished the rare joy of being out of cell service. It was an awesome little friend-cation too.
• Enjoying life back on Koh Tao! It’s easy to fall into a routine of working obsessively when I get back to Koh Tao after a trip, but if there’s one thing that can peel me away from my laptop it’s a yoga class. Over one fabulous weekend, I did back to back weekend workshops — an acro afternoon at Grounded followed by a day of inversions at Ocean Sound. Double score!
• Tackling a new hike! After one previous failed attempt, this was the month I finally conquered the Dusit Buncha route. Considering we had no directions and were basically feeling our way through the jungle, it was an enormous accomplishment! And this reminds me, I need to hit that trail again soon…
• Trapeze in the breeze! Another fun physical challenge this month? Getting back on the trapeze rig. I had so much fun swinging among the palm trees…
• Boozin’ on the beach! Always one of my favorite activities. Sadly, the amazing establishment that served actual craft cocktails (as opposed to crappy piña coladas) on the beach during the day was short-lived on Koh Tao — but we really enjoyed it while it lasted.
• St Paddy’s Day! It’s always a super-fun holiday on Koh Tao, and last year was no exception.
• House of Cards! Yes, the release of a new season of House of Cards was one of the highlights of my month. What is the purpose of renting a long-term apartment with a couch if not to binge-watch an entire Netflix series upon it?
Lowlights and Lessons
• Our wine trip driver. Seriously, he was hilariously bad. He missed every turn, ignored all our Google Maps traffic warnings, and put us hours behind schedule. But he was a pretty good sport about having a dozen rowdy farang in the van, so we gave him a big tip despite our dozens of internal eyerolls.
• Rooftop bar rules. Nothing annoys me more than Bangkok’s obsession with footwear. Our group was turned away from a rooftop bar because a few of the crew were wearing stylish dress Havaianas, while frumpy looking tourists wearing Crocs were ushered right in because their toes were covered. Hello, is this the fashion police? I’d like to report a crime against HUMANITY!
• Janine’s birthday disaster (turned not-at-all-disaster). Yes, we were bummed when we discovered we’d planned a massive birthday bar crawl for Thailand’s one single day of no alcohol sales. Ha ha. But it turned out beautifully — we stocked up on booze the day before and had a tipsy night of cake and champagne in our hotel suite instead. More quality time together, less overpriced cocktails in bars, and more hours in our sweet suite? It ended up a massive win in my book. Oops — I guess that’s not really a lowlight.
• Getting my Brazilian visa. O. M. G. You guys. That was a mission! I’ve always had empathy for those who have to fight through red tape to nab a visa for every country they want to travel to before, but now I have SERIOUS RESPECT for those people. I couldn’t believe the amount of paperwork (and, um, money) that I had to compile and confusion I had to work through in order to prepare my application. And I was shocked by the interrogation I received at the embassy in Bangkok when I went to submit it! When I realized I had forgotten to copy my passport and politely asked for a copy, I seriously thought my application might be denied based on the vitriolic response I received. Obrigada, Brazil, for letting me in!
• Getting to Hua Hin. Ha ha, yeah we messed up — we just rocked up to the train station expecting to waltz into a second class train seat and found that the only remaining tickets were for third class wooden benches. The next five hours were a hazy hell of profuse sweat, sore bums and jostling our belongings around to make room for an ever-increasing crush of humans. I’ve enjoyed the third class train ticket in Thailand before, but it’s a strict no-go for me from here forward for rides of more than two hours.
• Missing the wine bus in Hua Hin. Then leaving my wine in Hua Hin. Ha ha, we had some vino-related snafus in Hua Hin. First, we missed the shuttle to Hua Hin Hills vineyard, forcing us to pay for a more expensive private taxi (not the biggest deal ever). Then I left my three new bottles of wine at our hotel before heading to the train station, forcing me to pay to have them shipped to Koh Tao (that hurt a little.) Frankly, I think I was starting to get stressed about my work backlog at this point in the trip and so I was letting little things get to me. Ah well, all’s well that ends… soaked in wine.
• Leaving Khao Sok. Oh, how I wish we’d had one more night at Rainforest Camp! Then, that trip truly would have been perfect.
“Because France.” Oh, how we still laugh about this! At Granmonte Winery, our adorable young guide was making an impressive effort to give the vineyard tour in two languages.
However, as one point, she became exasperated trying to explain why their sparkling wine product could not be called champagne, and after stammering a bit finally gave up and spat out, �œ…because France.” Everyone onboard, including the guide herself, doubled over with laugher and �œbecause France” has become our crew’s catchphrase for “ugh, well, you know and I know you know, so why bother explaining it” ever since.
Best and Worst Beds of the Month
Best: I’m pretty torn — our chic beachside design hotel in Hua Hin or our barefoot luxury floating tent in Khao Sok? Both basically blew my mind.
Worst: Didn’t have a bad one — what a blessing!
Best and Worst Meals of the Month
Best: Vincotto. Can’t beat a three-course meal at a winery topped off with grape cheesecake. You just can’t. (Although the next day’s lunch at a castle in Khao Yai definitely made an effort to.) Come to think of it, homemade dinner prepared by friends in our Airbnb didn’t suck either. Basically, we ate well that weekend.
Worst: Again, I can’t remember anything that stands out as unpleasant. Dang, it was a great month!
What Was Next
A low-key final month on Koh Tao and Koh Samui… and then off to Brazil!
Thanks for looking (way!) back over my shoulder with me.
Since I left home for my Great Escape, I�™ve been doing monthly roundups of my adventures filled with anecdotes, private little moments, and thoughts that are found nowhere else on this blog. As this site is not just a resource for other travelers but also my own personal travel diary, I like to take some time to reflect on not just what I did, but how I felt. You can read my previous roundups here.
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
I didn’t get to hit up many bucket list dive destinations in 2016. While I absolutely did some very cool dives — in Thailand, Brazil, Jamaica, and Hawaii! — I didn’t go on any dedicated dive trips and didn’t check off any dream dives. And so, as many of you know, I instead focused on keeping myself engaged and excited about diving by jumping headfirst into a trio of continuing education courses.
So, my fellow dive enthusiasts may know that there is kind of a catty term in the scuba community which refers to someone who is obsessed with racking up specialty certifications — “card collectors.” Well, I’m saying loud and I’m saying it proud — I am now officially a certified card collector. If I could take a PADI specialty in getting PADI specialities, I would probably enroll right now. I loved these courses!
I kicked things off with the Self Reliant Diver course at Master Divers, then made my way to Ban’s for an Enriched Air certification, and finally rounded it out with a Sidemount Diver speciality at Sairee Cottage.
So um, what the heck is sidemount? It’s basically a new gear configuration — it simply means that you carry two tanks at your sides instead of one on your back. I’ll get into why you’d want to do that in a bit! Sidemount originated with cave diving in Europe, where pioneers realized moving their tanks alongside their bodies allowed them to keep a lower profile, and to remove one or both cylinders as needed to squeeze through tight passageways. The modern sidemount configuration as we know it today mostly evolved in communities of cavern and cave diving enthusiasts in Florida and The Yucatan. And now it’s spreading around the world.
Including to Thailand. My friend Gordon is a long-time PADI Instructor who got super pumped about sidemount after traveling to Egypt to continue his advanced Tec dive training. He enthusiastically brought a set of the specialized gear back to Koh Tao and started singing the sidemount siren song! I’m so grateful that he did — I have to admit that not long ago, I wanted nothing to do with sidemount. Tec related courses are kind of intimidating to me, and I just didn’t get what the point was. But after a year or so of watching so many of my close diving friends take Gordon’s course and rave about it, I just had to join the club and see what all the fuss was about. And it turns out I really had nothing to be intimidated by — it was the simplest of the three courses I took in 2016 and required only an Open Water Certification and twenty logged dives to begin.
You have two choices when it comes to sidemount training — the PADI Sidemount Diver course introduces divers to sidemount techniques for recreational scuba diving, while the Tec Sidemount Diver course teaches technical divers how to mount at least four tanks for their technical diving adventures. I enrolled in the former.
One of the best things about my little continuing education experiment here on Koh Tao was finding a new dive shop that was the perfect fit for me. I get asked for advice on this constantly and I now have a much wider range of personalized recommendations to dole out. While I had excellent experiences at all three of the dive shops I studied at, it’s Sairee Cottage that has become my go-to for fun diving with friends ever since.
For me, it’s the perfect size — not so big that you get lost in the mix, but still buzzing enough that there’s always someone to grab a coconut with at the swim-up bar after a dive. What’s that? I should have just opened with the swim up bar? Tell me about it! Between the fabulous pool, the coolest classrooms on the island, and a great team of instructors and divemasters — many of whom are my close friends! — I know where I’d sign up to do my Open Water if I was doing it all over again.
The PADI Sidemount speciality consists of one confined and three open water dives. For Gordon and I, that translated to one pool session, one shore dive from the beach right in front of the dive shop, and two open water boat dives that we checked off on a super fun trip to Sail Rock! We spread that out over three days, but some people do it in two.
The speciality also consisted of coursework from the PADI Sidemount and Tec Sidemount Diver Manual — section one pertains to PADI Sidemount Diver, while two and three are for Tec Sidemount Diver. I carefully read section one of the manual, completing quizzes along the way, and wrapping up with a knowledge review to ensure I’d absorbed the information. Of my trio of courses it it was the least time in the classroom, as there isn’t really any complicated dive theory behind sidemount.
Instead, the primary focuses of the course were learning a new equipment setup, perfecting “trim” (your underwater body position and posture) and practicing “back-finning” (swimming backwards using just your feet and fins), learning gas management, and practicing emergency procedures. When I first jumped in that pool with this strange new gear setup I had a flashback to trying drysuit diving in Iceland. After being a certified diver for eight years a lot of my dive routine is on autopilot, but not on these days! My whole body was like, whoa, what is this crazy thing we are doing! If you need to be shaken out of a dive routine — this is one way to do it.
I actually found the trim and backfinning focus to be among the most challenging and the most interesting of the course takeaways, considering those are both important skills that can be used on any dive. Your trim underwater is as important as your posture on land, and though back-finning is primarily of interest to cave divers who need to be able to negotiate tight spaces, it is also a fabulous skill for underwater photographers and videographers who need to nail the perfect composition, too.
After a long day in the pool and digging into my manual and another day putting our skills into practice with a sixty minute shore dive, Gordon and I were joined by several of our friends for the final day of our course on Sairee Cottage’s popular weekly trip to Sail Rock, where I’d really get the chance to put the pieces of the course together and see how I felt about this whole sidemount situation once and for all.
I was absolutely thrilled to be out on the water and surrounded by so many of my favorite people. The Sail Rock trips typically consist of two dives at Sail Rock followed by a third back closer to Koh Tao. One of the biggest pros to diving sidemount is having double the air, which gives you a significantly longer dive time –of course you still need to follow your dive computer’s limits closely to avoid decompression time.
Our friend Brian joined Gordon and I on sidemount, and so while a big group of us all kicked off the dive together, when the single-tank crew surfaced the three of us on sidemount were able to stay down and complete one super-long dive instead of popping up, taking off gear, having a surface interval, putting gear back on and descending a second time. One point for sidemount!
We set a goal of a 100 minute dive time — crazy, right?! — and while I admit I was getting a tad chilly towards the end, it was a pretty fun milestone to cross. The average dive time, at least on Koh Tao, is around 45 minutes, so more than doubling that at the best dive site in the Gulf of Thailand was a huge deal. Over and hour and a half kicking it with these amazing underwater critters? Who wouldn’t love that!
Eventually we remembered that we hadn’t grown gills, and returned to the surface.
After our amazing underwater marathon at Sail Rock we took it easy and did a typical 45-minute dive at the third site for the day, my beloved Shark Island. I was amazed by how quickly I’d taken to the sidemount procedure. While I did struggle with getting the gear on at time, once I was underwater it felt incredibly natural, and after just a few dives my muscle memory had already picked up the habit of switching between air sources every 50 bar or so — you don’t want to just let one tank empty all the way before switching to the other, as that would leave you lopsided — as the empty tank grew lighter — and without a backup tank.
It was a beautiful dive and the perfect note to end the course on.
Well, that and the swim up bar drinks we had when we were back on dry land!
So after three days and many, many hours underwater, I definitely got a feel for what all the fuss is about when it comes to sidemount. The benefits are significant — increased air supply (which increases dive time), accessibility of all stages and gauges (as they are under your arm instead of on your back), self reliance in out-of-air situation, a more streamlined underwater profile, easier equipment transport (with two small cylinders as opposed to one big), and versatility (it’s great for those with physical challenges that prevent them from diving a traditional configuration).
What are the drawbacks? Well, you do have to switch between tanks throughout the dive, which make it a more complex gas management system. Also, since sidemount is still fairly rare, you’re unlikely to find a buddy who’s familiar with the equipment unless you BYODB (Bring Your Own Dive Buddy, duh). But mostly, it’s just plain cost.
Want more underwater? Read more diving posts here!
I’d recommend this course to potential tec divers who want to get their feet and fins wet,those interested in cavern and cave diving, those who blow through air quickly and long for longer dive times, petite divers who struggle with a traditional configuration, and anyone who wants to shake themselves out of a diving rut.
There are only a few schools on Koh Tao currently offering the PADI Sidemount Diver speciality. The course generally lasts 2-3 days and costs 12,000B. I can’t recommend it — or Sairee Cottage — more highly.
portrait by my friend Paddy of Peach Snaps
Personally, I loved the sidemount configuration. While I have no problem with running out of air (I’m almost always the last person to hit a half tank!), I do have issues with the size of a traditional scuba cylinder compared to the size of my body.
As a 5’1″ woman, I often struggle with the traditional tank-on-the-back setup. Between the system of attaching weights to the tanks and getting the tanks off my back and under my arms, the lower back pain that normally plagues me after a day of diving was completely non-existant! And with slightly smaller cylinders, I’d have even more mobility both above and below the surface. I greatly look forward to sidemount configurations becoming more widely available as I personally would be thrilled to dive this way more often.
I had a blast with this course. Between our hundred minute dive record, the skills I learned, the amazing day I shared with my friends and the absolute badass I felt like underwater, it was not a course I’ll forgot anytime soon.
Divers, would you consider a PADI Sidemount speciality? What should I do next?
All underwater photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing. See a full list of my photography gear here.
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You thought fireworks were cool? Just wait until you see how Thailand marks the start of the Buddhist New Year: with a nation-wide water fight. This is real life.
From April 13th-15th every year Thailand is consumed by the joy of celebrating Songkran, which comes from a Sanskrit word translating to ‘passing.’ Once a solemn, sacred event in which images of Buddha were bathed, young Thais sprinkled water on the hands of elders and traditional dancing symbolically washed away the misfortunes of the previous year and warmly welcomed the new one. Even prior to Buddhism’s introduction to the Kingdom of Thailand, throwing water was part of a ritualistic Spring Festival in which farmers hoped for rain for their crops.
Well… times have changed. These days, Songkran has morphed into a super-soaker fueled, wet and wild water fight. It’s a truly joyful day in which locals, expats and tourists come together to literally bring the party to the streets.
Bangkok and Chiang Mai are among the most popular destinations to celebrate Songkran. In fact, Koh Tao isn’t even close to being one of the biggest draws — but we love our small island celebration and I can’t imagine spending the day elsewhere. While in many Thai destinations the party can rage from the 13th-15th, on Koh Tao, Songkran lasts just one day, April 13th. Conveniently, it’s one of the hottest, sweatiest days of the year.
Read more about Koh Tao’s annual holidays and events!
I’m lucky to be approaching my third Songkran here on Koh Tao. My first in 2011 was a blast, and the 2016 edition was even better. In preparation for 2017’s celebration, I’ve put together my top Songkran tips. While these are specifically written for those celebrating on Koh Tao, I’m willing to bet there are a few drops of wisdom for those ringing in the year further afield.
The Cardinal Sin of Songkran
This is literally the most important thing about Songkran: make sure you aren’t in transit during it! If you’re on the move, make sure to arrive on Koh Tao by April 12th at the latest (personally, I’d add in a buffer day in case of travel delays, and to leave a day to get prepped to party.)
And if you’re leaving the island right after the big day, be careful. The festivities may be over on Koh Tao, but Bangkok and Chiang Mai will still be popping off and you will not be granted mercy simply because you’re wheeling a suitcase.
If you absolutely must travel on one of these days (like I had to on April 14th last year), take a regional flight so you can pass through Bangkok without ever having to leave the airport. Bonus! You’ll get to see immigration officers celebrating at work in their cute Hawaiian shirts, a bizarrely charming part of the unofficial Songkran look (I’ve never been able to get an answer why!)
Also, Don’t Drive!
So you’ve made it safely to Koh Tao and are all settled in in time for the big party. Now, put away those bike rental keys for the day — seriously. I would never drive on Songkran!
Putting aside the fact that you’re most likely going to be boozing, and driving is the biggest safety hazard on Koh Tao on a good day, locals set up stations specifically to throw water and flour at passing bikes, which can cause a serious hazard for those not super experienced on two wheels. Accidents are crazy common. Stick to your own two feet to get where you need to go, and be extra careful on the road even when walking.
What To Wear To Songkran
You can’t just rock up to Songkran. No, you’ve got some serious prepping to do!
First, your outfit. Obviously, I’d start with the base of a bathing suit and wear fairly little on top of that — though I would wear something, because walking around in a bikini off the beach isn’t really cool in Thailand, and this day is no exception. Lots of Thai people wear the aforementioned Hawaiian shirts and lots of Western people wear ridiculous costumes. Last year I wore a surfing spring suit, a sparkly gold visor, and a donut pool floatie. So there’s that. You might also consider goggles or a ski mask, especially if you have sensitive eyes. Believe it or not, Koh Tao has a pretty well-stocked costume shop in Mae Haad next to in the Lomprayah building. Go wild!
A lot of people go barefoot on Koh Tao and especially on Songkran, when they’re worried about losing their flip flops. Personally I’m not about that barefoot life — get a cheap pair of knock-off Havianas, do your best to keep track of them, and you won’t weep if they get lost, but best case scenario you won’t step on a broken beer bottle either. Win-win!
Waterguns are fun to have, but not necessary, so don’t fret if you don’t grab one. They often get broken or bored of fairly quickly; if you don’t feel like spending money or contributing to a landfill a second-hand bucket will also do the the trick.
If you plan to drink throughout the day, bring along a sealed bottle or cup. Open-top cups are just asking to be contaminated with unfiltered water splashes, and I know you know you don’t want that.
Another thing to prepare for — many restaurants and shops close for the entire day. And you will want to line your stomach pre-Songkran. Last year, my friends and I did a big champagne brunch while we got ready — it was a blast! So ask around for somewhere that may be open or gather supplies for a snack-fest in your hotel before you go out. If you get stuck, 7-11 is always open.
Tip: Waterproof Everything
Aside from a water-tossing vessel and a beverage-drinking one, bring as little as possible. I usually have a small bag with my waterproof camera, some cash, and my house key. That’s it. As a contact-wearer who had way too many direct shots to the eye last year, I’ll also be throwing an extra pair into my dry-bag for this year’s festivities.
But basically — if you don’t want it wet, don’t bring it out of the house. If you do, you’ll spend the entire day getting agitated, and that’s no recipe for fun. Buy a proper diving dry bag (they are for sale all over Koh Tao and Khao San Road in Bangkok), grab one of those geeky phone pouches that goes around your neck or just simply seal things into ziplock bags.
But again, bring as little as possible. There’s a lot of spontaneous ocean swims and getting pushed in the pool, so you might want to tuck some cash into a pocket, put your room key on a string around your neck, and enjoy a day totally untethered.
Green Your Songkran
Koh Tao is a little tiny island with limited resources. Consider filling up your buckets, water guns and reserve tanks with sea water. The environment will thank you!
It’s easy to get carried away with day-drinking on such a debaucherous day. But remember it’s a marathon and not a sprint… or whatever it is people tell themselves to avoid blacking out early. Get a good night of sleep the night before, wear sunscreen, seriously drink a lot of water, remember to eat occasionally, and generally make a valiant attempt to pace yourself.
Make a Meet Up Plan
Because I don’t take my phone out on Songkran, I like to have a loose plan in place with my crew so we know where to find each other in we go off on solo adventures for a bit — intentionally or not. We usually kick things off at Banyan Bar before moving en masse down the beach, slowly making our way towards Fishbowl and Maya Bar with an obligatory stop at the DJL Pool. Last year we decided to retreat to a private villa party post-sunset, where I had a blast regrouping with anyone I’d lost throughout the day.
It doesn’t have to be that full-on, though. Just agree that if you get separated, you’ll meet at a certain bar at sunset.
Don’t Be a Jerk
Honestly, just don’t. Don’t put ice water in your water gun. Don’t put food coloring into the water you’re throwing on people. Don’t aim at people’s eyes, or ears, or drinks. (As if that needs further elaboration, you could ruin a contact wearer’s day, you could give a dive instructor an ear infection, or you could give someone a tummy bug. So just chill.) Yes, it’s a day of mayhem and no one should walk outside expecting special treatment, but it would be nice to just like, be kind of nice about the whole thing, no?
Also be aware that there’s kind of an unofficial cease-fire after sunset. After that is when most people head back home to dry off and change before heading back out again to continue their debauchery. Don’t be that one lone dude soaking people at midnight in the bar. You’ll deserve the dirty looks.
Make a Day After Plan
Chances are, April 14th is going to be a bit of a wash (how many water puns can I fit into one post?!) I strongly recommend a fresh coconut, a banana, and a breakfast with eggs in it — my go-to Thailand hangover cure — followed by as many massages as you can fit into the rest of the day.
Seriously though, the island will be pretty subdued, so you might not want to book any major tours or dive trips for that day. Last year my friends and I planned a hangover brunch at one of our houses, a tradition I hope will be annual.
Need one last peek at the fun cyclone headed Thailand’s way in just two weeks? Check out my silly Facebook video of behind-the-scenes footage from last year’s celebrations.
Happy Songkran soon, my friends!
Have you been lucky enough to celebrate this festival?
If so, leave your tips and tricks in the comments below!
Songkran photos in this post were taken with the Canon PowerShot G7X and its Canon Waterproof Housing or with a GoPro HERO3+ — both are perfect choices for photography on a wet day! See a full list of my photography gear here.
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Fellow scuba enthusiasts, do you want your dives to be safer, to stay down longer, and to have more energy for celebratory drinks after rinsing out your gear? I’ll take that as a duh — which is why it’s so crazy it took me so many years to get my nitrox certification.
Earlier in 2016, before leaving Thailand for the summer, I realized I’d hit a bit of a diving rut. My solution? I signed up for three different continuing education courses at three different dive schools on Koh Tao to shake myself out of it! And I chose topics that challenged me. After tackling the Self Reliant Diver certification at Master Divers — which you can read about here — I moved onto the Enriched Air Diver certification course at Ban’s, the largest dive school in the world by volume of divers certified.
The Enriched Air Diver course, also often referred to as “nitrox,” is PADI’s most popular speciality — and it’s easy to see why. (I’ll use the two terms interchangeably throughout this post.) This simple one-day course can be done and dusted in a matter of hours, and in fact as a “dry course,” it can technically be completely without stepping a single fin underwater — though, ahem, why would you want to miss the fun part?!
I chose to take this certification quite seriously. As a PADI Divemaster, I have always felt self-conscious about the gaps in my understanding of dive theory, and I figured this course would be the perfect opportunity to fill them out. And so I turned to my longtime friend and Senior Instructor at Ban’s, Chris Pearson.
As the local coordinator at Hyperbaric Services Thailand, a key member of Koh Tao Rescue, and a PADI Staff Instructor, he was almost over-qualified to certify little ‘ol me in a simple Enriched Air course. I mean, just look at this list of qualification!
• PADI Staff Instructor
• Diver Medical Technician (IMCA)
• Emergency First Responder Instructor Trainer
• C.E.E.R – (Chalenging Environments Emergency Responder) Instructor
• M.I.R.A – (Medicine In Remote Areas) Instructor
• DMR Level IV – (Diver Medical Responder) Instructor
• Hyperbaric Chamber Tender & Operator (SSS Recompression Chamber Network)
Phew! Thankfully, Chris was more than willing to take me on as a student. I knew he’d know exactly how to get the information through to me — Diet Coke lecture analogies, coconut quiz-passing bribes and all.
So, let’s start with the basics. What is enriched air? It all comes down to what’s in the tank. A standard scuba tank is filled with compressed air identical to what we breathe on land, which is 79% nitrogen and 21% oxygen. Nitrox tanks on the other hand have an oxygen content of 22-40%, with 32% and 36% being the standard mixes.
Don’t worry, this blog post does not require a calculator — I just wanted to impress you all with the use of fancy fractions. (Did it work? Discuss amongst yourselves.) Yet the real benefits of diving nitrox go beyond wowing your friends with math and the fashion potential of coordinating with those sassy green and yellow tanks.
Less nitrogen is, for the most part, a good thing. Nitrogen is enemy numero uno when it comes to decompression sickness, long breaks between dives, post-diving naps and something called “no decompression limits,” which calculate how long you can stay at certain depths. Diving enriched air allows you to dive longer (due to less nitrogen exposure), safer (you can dive an air profile on a nitrox tank for super conservative dives), with shorter surface intervals (as there’s less nitrogen to off-gas) and with less fatigue (yup, you guessed it, another byproduct of less nitrogen exposure).
So what keeps the entire dive community from ditching standard air and breathing nothing but nitrox? Good question. The answer, for most divers, is simply price. It’s more expensive! Other factors include limited availability, the hassle of checking the blend in your tank for each dive, and stricter depth limits due to the increased risk of oxygen toxicity (there’s always a trade-off, eh?).
The course itself is straightforward. In fact, it is the only PADI dive course ever to be streamlined rather than expanded. Why? Because, dive computers! In some ways, these magic little wrist machines have made diving nitrox as simple as the touch of a button.
But yet you still need to understand the concepts behind the calculations, and that’s where the certification comes in. Things like partial pressure and oxygen toxicity are, in my opinion, quite complicated, and I didn’t want to just pass the test and move on. I really wanted to understand. And so I didn’t move past a single sentence in the course manual until I felt confident I could explain it to a child if necessary. Bottom line? Praise Chris for his patience.
The course kicked off with an introductory video by PADI followed by a custom lecture from Chris and many interruptions by me to ask questions. Next, I sat down for some quality time with my manual, completing a simple knowledge reviews at the end of each chapter to seal in new concepts. Finally came the exam, which I aced with the humble pride that some accept PHD’s with.
And then we put it into practice. After learning to set my dive computer for various nitrox blends, I mastered how to check tanks with an analyzer tool and record my findings, and finally how to read the markings on a nitrox tank. One thing I didn’t realize before taking this course is you MUST check your own gas blend each and every single dive so you can plan accordingly. While oxygen poisoning is incredibly rare, it is serious, and thus divers have to be vigilant about checking their air blend, making a dive plan and staying within their computer’s dive limits.
Ideally, though this step is technically optional, you’ll conclude your course with a dive or two on nitrox so you can see what all the fuss is about. Which is exactly what Chris and I did, to the HTMS Sattakut, one of my old favorite dive sites on Koh Tao.
While it was interesting to note the different readings on my dive computer and to see the different markings on my snazzy new tank, the contents were indiscernible otherwise from standard compressed air — it doesn’t taste, feel, or smell any differently.
Thanks to our longer dive time and shorter surface intervals, we were the last ones back on the boat from the first dive and the first ones back in the water for the second, at good ‘ol White Rock dive site.
And then I was certified, sealed with a high-five at the surface! As we hopped off the dive boat, I felt ready to take on the world — a far cry from my normal post-dive sluggishness.
So what divers should consider getting their Enriched Air certification? Anyone who wants to dive longer and feel sprightlier! Those doing multiple dives over multiple days — on liveaboards, at dive resorts, etc. — are the primary targets. Those looking to brush up on certain dive concepts (like me!) will also find it a great catch-all little course to really check your comprehension of dive theory, with the right instructor. And finally, those pursuing other specialities like Intro to Tech, Photography, Sidemount, and other courses that involve staying underwater for longer will find nitrox to be a natural step in their continuing education.
If you too are considering this course, you’ll walk away with a comprehensive understanding of what nitrox is, when and when not to dive it, what the risks are, and how to plan for enriched air dives.
I feel strongly that finding the right PADI dive shop and instructor are key when it comes to this course. I’ve heard it described by so many in the diving industry as “an easy sign off” and “a throwaway course” and while I don’t want anyone reading this to be discouraged or intimidated from signing up, I also don’t like to see it treated dismissively. So look for the right fit.
Only a handful of shops on Koh Tao compress their own enriched air. I recommend taking the course at a school that does, and asking your instructor if they actually use it. Ban’s is one of those schools, and Chris is one of those instructors. Clearly, I was thrilled with my experience and can’t recommend Chris more highly. If you’re looking to take this or any other recreational diving or dive medic training course on Koh Tao, reach out to him!
Personally, I’ll be diving nitrox whenever it’s available and affordable to me from here forward. It just feels good!
And as someone who used to joke that I had to stop watching Bill Nye the Science Guy because all the theory was a bit over my head, I was proud to really wrap my mind around this course. If these things come easy to you, kudos! If not, don’t be discouraged. Science has never come easy to me, and for too long I let that mental block dictate what I thought I could and couldn’t achieve with diving. These days I know that with the right instructor, the right attitude, and a bribe of one fresh coconut for passing my final exams, there’s little in diving I can’t do.
Do you dive nitrox? Let’s get gassy in the comments!
This post is brought to you by PADI as part of the PADI AmbassaDiver initiative. Read my latest ramblings on the PADI blog!
This week, Koh Tao celebrated Loy Kratong. And while I may currently be on the other side of the world, I touch back down in Thailand in just two weeks — which makes this the perfect time to share this memory from last year!
It’s likely that, whether or not you knew what it was or where it was from, you’ve seen a photo of Thailand’s infamous annual lantern releases. (You’d only have to casually browse the travel section of a book store, where images from Yi Peng have graced the cover of not one but two editions of Lonely Planet Thailand!)
Perhaps you’ve even heard the terms Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. Technically, Loy Kratong and Yi Peng are two separate holidays, though they typically are celebrated over similar dates and are thus are often used interchangeably by Western visitors. While the dates change annually based on the lunar calendar, they often fall in November. Yi Peng is primarily celebrated in the former Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, while Loy Kratong is celebrated throughout the country.
I’ve been lucky to spend two Loy Kratongs on Koh Tao, and one Yi Peng in Chiang Mai, and they are among my favorite days of the year in Thailand. Yet to be honest I was always a little confused about the differences between the two holidays — here’s hoping this post can clear that up for one of my fellow clueless farang!
Both festivals trace their roots back to Brahmanic festivals in India, but were later adopted by Buddhists to honor both Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and in the case of Loy Kratong, Phra Mae Khongkha, the Hindu water goddess. Yi Peng is closely related to the Indian festival of Diwali, originally celebrated as a ceremony of gratitude to the River Ganges.
Chiang Mai (home of the famous Mae Joe release, which to my understanding is no longer happening), Sukhothai (where the festival allegedly originated) and Bangkok (always a party!) are all popular places for celebrating Loy Kratong. Koh Tao? Not so much. Consider this a guide if you happen to find yourself there.
On Koh Tao, the day kicks off with a parade that starts at the government buildings in Mae Haad and works North towards Sairee. I must admit I have only caught this casual parade in passing, but will make it a point to get a closer look next time I’m celebrating on the island.
That evening, things really kick off. At the Seatran pier area in Mae Haad, a large stage holds traditional dances, a beauty contest, and other festivities, and last year I went down to enjoy them with a big group of friends. One highlight of our night was when Ian spotted his elderly landlord killing it in a dance routine onstage. Another was when I spotted the oversize float I’d spotted being proudly constructed at my favorite roadside food stand earlier in the week. Koh Tao is a beautiful little community when it comes together.
Loy Kratong is certainly a more casual and community-based affair on Koh Tao than the religiously rooted Yi peng I witnessed in Chiang Mai. While we dressed extremely conservatively for the Chiang Mai version, in Koh Tao there was a wide-range of acceptability — I did choose to wear long pants though. And while alcohol was forbidden at the event I attended in Chiang Mai, the vibe in Koh Tao was much more merry-making and drinking was welcomed and encouraged by locals.
And come hungry! There’s an abundance of yummy Thai street food on offer, far beyond what you’d find on a typical night on the island.
At the beach steps away from the pier to the north, Koh Tao’s own little lantern release takes place.
The symbolism behind the release of either type of lantern is beautiful. In addition to paying respect to Buddha, these acts allow time to reflect and symbolically release personal demons, hardships, and negativity.
The term loi means “to float” while “kratong” means a lotus shaped vessel. Alongside the flowers, candles, coins and incense sticks, many Thais will cut their fingernails and hair to put in their kratongs as a symbol of letting go, and will also consider it extremely bad luck for the lantern to float back to them. Sky lanterns, or khom loi, are considered especially lucky if they disappear from view before the fire goes out.
Both are acts of spiritual cleansing and new beginnings. They are also, on a superficial level, stunningly beautiful.
The dates of Yi Peng and Loy Kratong can be tricky to nail down (in Koh Tao, they are always celebrated concurrently on the official date of Loy Kratong, where in larger cities they may be held separately but within a week or so of each other, and large official lantern releases may be held on the weekend closest to the official date.)
I’ve always found the specific date by keeping an eye on local expat groups in Koh Tao and Chiang Mai, but often these groups are closed to tourists. Ask at your local guesthouse or dive shop, or check the website Thaizer, which is a great resource on Thai holidays and events.
I’m anticipate I will receive some questions on the sustainability event. What goes up must come down and that means that the sky lanterns eventually return to earth and the kratongs eventually sink into to the ocean. My advice is to look for khom loi made of biodegradable rice paper and bamboo and kratongs that are made of natural materials like bread and plants as opposed to plastic or styrofoam. Better yet, make a kratong yourself so you can be confident that every component is eco-friendly! Also consider sharing one kratong and one khom loi among multiple people.
There are some people that won’t be satisfied with even those efforts, and they are entitled to that opinion. But I draw on the response I give to cries of waste at Burning Man: sustainability has to be sustainable, and I don’t believe its feasible to ask a country to give up their natural human instinct to gather, to honor tradition and to their celebrate culture. If you are bothered by the waste produced at Yi Peng or Loy Kratong, I invite you to join one of the island’s regular underwater clean up dives or beach walks for trash, or to volunteer at one of the island’s eco-focused charities.
No, Koh Tao will never be on a list of the most popular destination to celebrate Yi Peng or Loy Kratong. But if you want to get away from the crowds and see a small and joyful celebration alongside locals, expatriates and tourists from around Thailand and the world, Koh Tao would be happy to have you.
While I’ve done extensive research and spend significant time in Thailand, I will always be but a guest in the country, and thus an imperfect messenger of its traditions and religion. Any mistakes in interpretation are my own and I’d welcome corrections of any inaccuracies!