Ko Tao - Turtle Island

I'm urgently shaken awake at sunrise by three German brothers who shout "American! Wake up! This is your stop!"

It was not my stop. It was actually about 200 kilometers north of my stop, but plans change quickly when you have no destination. I had taken the sleeper train out of Bangkok with plans to go to Surat Thani and catch a ferry to Ko Phangan. It took me about 30 seconds after the train left the station to realize that I was in Chumphon, not Surat Thani. This is a lot of place names to be throwing around, but let's just say I was very much not where I intended to be.

After riding on the back of someone's motorcycle to the money exchange kiosk, helping a Thai gradeschooler with her English homework, and unfolding my giant 'look-at-me-I'm-a-tourist' map, I bought a ferry ticket. Ten minutes later I was in the back of a military-style truck with benches parallel to the road and big canvas flaps for a roof, riding to the docks along with the aforementioned German brothers, an American dive instructor, and a Sweedish bartender, all of whom I'd shared drinks with at some point on the train. We were heading to Ko Tao, a place I'd never heard of.

This all turned out to be hugely in my favor. Josephene, the bartender, was in with a diving outfit on the island, and hooked the Germans and I up with accomodation and dive trips for 4,000 Baht. That's about $130, and it included a beachfront bungalow to crash in for five nights, equipment rental, air, taxis to and from the docks, and boat fare to the dive sites. We did a deep water dive, a long and shallow reef dive, a remote shoal dive, a night dive, and a wreck dive, all in the course of two days. Our guide was a British expat who has lived on the small island for four years with his Thai wife and newborn.

It was an incredible deal and some of the best diving I've ever done - wetsuitless, breathtaking, teeming with color and life. Turtles, eels, irridescent stingrays, octopi, giant barracuda, towering coral formations, bioluminescent plankton, and billions of psychedelic fish of all sizes and shapes. The wreck of the HTMS Sattakut, however, was the highlight. Formerly the the USS LCI-739 this WWII infantry landing craft was sold to the Thai Royal Navy shortly after the war ended. It was recently sunk in June, skuttled as an artificial reef and for technical wreck dive training.

We approached the massive ship from the bow, so that when it's threatening silhouette came into view, the twin cannons commanded your attention, projecting beyond the broad deck at uneasy angles. We swam through the bulkheads of the ship's bridge, over the landing ramps that put troops on Iwo Jima, and around the rear cannon before circling back near the ships hull, peering through holes where the steel had been broken and rusted through.

The diving was phenomenal, but staying in a tiny beach bungalow with three loose-canon German brothers was a whole different experience. Two of them spoke very good English with a thick Bavarian accent, while the youngest and craziest of the brothers spoke hardly any. He spent most of the time trying to teach me the filthiest German phrases he could think up.

They enjoyed openly discussing their level of horniness and how much they love taking a shit, always speaking at full volume and wanting to "make a party." Three days in a row, Manfred was too hung over to dive. I'd tell a joke, get three blank stares, then thirty seconds later when they finished translating it amongst themselves, they'd howl with laughter and buy another round. Whenever I would introduce myself to someone, they'd crack up at my name. "JT? Like a J and a T? Those are just letters! His name is just letters!"

At the end of one dive, Andi, the oldest brother, fully inflated his BCD at 10 meters (33 feet!) and shot to the surface like a god damn cork. The dive master was furious, and for good reason, explaining how dangerous this was due to the expansion of air at different pressures and the possibility of a lung embolism or decompression sickness. He turned out to be fine and went diving the next day, but the dive master had to sit him down and explain in protracted, simplified terms with full sign language that he needed to ascend SLOWLY SLOWLY SLOWLY. He did the same thing again the next dive, this time at 5 meters, and wasn't allowed on the dive boat after that.

Andi, Christian, and Manfred were great guys to hang out and drink a few beers with, but they were terrible house mates, especially considering how we only had two beds between the four of us. They were really nice guys and very welcoming, but it got a little too cozy and I had to get my own place after three nights.

The next two nights were much mellower and I got to enjoy the dives more. I walked the entire length of Sairee beach twice, swimming when I felt like it, eating when I was hungry, drinking when I was thirsty, and sleeping when I was tired. It was comfortable, but time to move on.