It’s taken me way too long to sit down and write this one, but we’re having field day at school and I’ve got no classes.

I left Bangkok on one of the shittiest buses I’ve ever ridden.  That bus ride still clenches itself in my mind as the most uncomfortable seven hours of my life.  The seats were Thai-sized so my knees were drawn up and pressed against the back of the seat in front, the air conditioning was an insignificant trickle that was absorbed by the heat before it even reached my face, and it was bumpy.  A warning to all: if you’re traveling in Southeast Asia, do NOT buy bus tickets from the first travel agency shop you walk past, go to the bus station.  They run these scams by which you get the longest, most uncomfortable ride in your life so that out of sheer exhaustion you’ll stay at the first hostel they take you to.  Sure enough, there were guys walking around on the boat to Ko Tao asking everyone where they were staying and promoting their own hostel.

As I said, the bus ride down to Chumphon took about seven hours, and once we arrived there (at 2a.m.) we had to wait until 7 to get on the ferry.  There was a covered rest area where you could take a nap, but it quickly filled up.  I was more interested in putting back a few beers so I stayed up with this middle-aged guy from north England and a cute girl from somewhere I can’t remember.  There was internet access, food and TV in the little station so I found plenty of ways to pass the time.  And oh yes…it poured rain.

The boat left at dawn.  It was a 40-ft passenger ferry with a deck up top.  I settled down for a nap but I saw the hostel-brokers making their rounds and went up on the deck to avoid them.  With just a little sunlight, what had been simply darkness became tropical foliage, limestone boulders, and the endless blue sea.  There was a nice breeze blowing and the familiar, long-missed smell of salt began to help me forget the ordeal I’d gone through to get there.

Ko Tao remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.  It’s a small, crescent-shaped island, very mountainous in the center, and covered in lush, bright green foliage.  Although the beaches aren’t white sand like in the Caribbean, the water has that effect of being so clear that it turns aquamarine and turquoise near the shore.  Palm trees stick out at angles toward the sea, and here and there the expanse of sand is interrupted by the occasional boulder.  There were hundreds of multi-national sunbathers, of course, and a few of the girls (probably Europeans) went about topless.  These sightings occurred almost daily.

When we came to the dock, I ran past the crowd of placard-waving hostel brokers and settled at the first good-looking place I came to.  It was a good room, but far away from all the action.  The dock is in a small community called Mae Hat; the bar stip and scuba shops are along a much longer beach to the north called Sai Ree.  A 20 minute walk brought me up to Sai Ree where I got my first view of the foreigner-dotted beach with angled palm trees and light green clear water.  On one side is the water, and on the other is another kind of liquid.  Cocktail bars side to side with scuba shops run halfway down Sai Ree where there’s a short break and a couple of bungalow hostels.  Then it picks up again as you get closer to the northern hills, developing into a densely constructed downtown area with, that’s right, more bars.  There’s a couple of 7-elevens and barbershops too, I suppose.

After scoping the beach, I went to a scuba shop I’d heard about from an English guy on the boat: Phoenix Divers.  I signed up for an immediate Advanced course starting the next day, and went back to the beach.  There wasn’t much else to do but order a piña colada, have a seat facing the water, and write a bit.  Here’s a bit from that entry: “Bob is playing on the radio.  Two Aussies with tattoos and mohawks are having a little banter at the table next to me.”  For dinner, I got a green curry nextdoor and ate it on the porch as the sun went down.

I didn’t stay out too late that night.  In fact, I left the bar at 11.  My hotel, however, neglected to mention that they closed up shop at 10.  My key was in the office behind a locked door.  I asked a bartender around the corner for help but no amount of shouting through the window could rouse the owners.  I spent the night in a hammock on the beach.

The next day, I reserved a bungalow at a place called AC.  It was across the narrow street from Phoenix Divers and had a deal with them on accomodation:  Go diving with Phoenix, get a discount on your room.  As the Lonely Planet guide says, you really do get into the hostel grounds by hopping across some stones in a creek.  And there’s a waterfall next to the cave-mouth entrance.  It’s all conspicuously man-made, but you’ve got to appreciate the effort.

For the first two days, I went on five dives to earn my Advanced Open-water Diving Certificate.  The first two were uneventful: master buoyancy and navigation, but the three dives of the second day were some of the best I’ve ever done.  First, a 90-meter deep dive where curious sharks came close enough for us to see their outline in the hazy water or darted below us.  I had actually done a deep dive five years ago on Bonaire; a wreck dive.  But I’d left my dive book back in Georgia.

The second dive that day had many available options and being the trigger-happy cameraman that I am, I chose underwater photography.  I took some good shots of urchins, eels, and various fish; nothing special except perhaps for the puffer fish hiding in a tiny cave.  Back on board, I was putting away my equipment when a Canadian dive-master about my age jumped down from the top-deck and shouted “whale shark!”

I don’t think I’d even recovered from my surprise when the boat (painted to look like a pink cadillac) whipped around and sent everyone lurching and grabbing for the rafters.  We made a beeline for a cluster of diving ships only a few hundred feet away while everyone frantically threw on their flippers and masks.  Once we arrived, I saw many people churning a slow-moving circle in the water.  The boat never stopped as we jumped off one at a time and kicked towards the other divers.  As I took my leap, I reflected that it was a lucky day to have rented a camera.

At first, I couldn’t see the shark anywhere, just a hundred kicking legs sticking down from the surface.  It came into my field of vision quite suddenly and I was amazed at its size: almost six meters long.  The body was gray with random dark splotches, the fins, tail and streamlined shape just like a shark except for that unmistakable broad, flat head.  A streaming cloud of eel-shaped fish swam alongside its mouth (probably picking off bits of plankton).  It was only about ten feet below the surface and swimming lazily along in the warm mid-day water.  In the process of trying to watch it, the divers unavoidably swam into and kicked each other with much adrenaline-fueled apologizing.

Back at the dive shop, the staff put my pictures on a CD, and I promptly posted them up on Facebook in order to gloat in the envy of my friends.  That evening, I went on a night dive with my dive-buddy, Mabs, from Wales, and our French Swiss dive master.  We didn’t see the whale shark, but we saw some snaggle-toothed barracuda and tried to get them to feed by shining our flashlights on unsuspecting little fish.  No luck with that, but amusing nonetheless.

With the diving class done, Mabs and I went to the strip for a boozy night out.  The bars along Sai Ree begin blaring techno around 11, and all along the beach there are Thais and Westerners fire-twirling to the beat.  Most of the twirlers use either a single stick flaming at both ends (which is my favorite), or a set of flaming bolas that they swing around in interlocking circles and arcs.  Occasionally, you can find them swinging a thick-coiled flaming rope.  Instead of dodging the random motorcycles that are constantly moving up and down the drag day-in and day-out, I preferred to get from bar to bar by wading along the cool beach now turned purple from the mixed neon and moonlight.  Looking up, I could see that the moon was almost full.  I had been watching it ever since I arrived in Phnom Penh; eagerly awaiting the party on Ko Phan Ngan.  We were going there tomorrow.