When you've got a subcontinent to explore and only a fixed amount of time and money to spend, the urge to keep moving is powerful. In my case, the immediate urge was to get back underwater after the teasing glimpses I had in Ko Tao and Ko Phi Phi. SCUBA diving is one of the more fleeting experiences you'll see listed in an adventure brochure. You can only stay down as long as your air holds out, and you can only breathe so much compressed air in a day before your blood starts to bubble with nitrogen. Time limits are hardwired into the experience due to its very nature - humans never evolved to breathe underwater. After a handful of really lazy days on Ko Phayam, I was compelled to join a live-aboard SCUBA trip to the Similan Islands, a chain of tiny uninhabited islands far off the Andaman coast of Thailand whose reputation seemed legendary. Every diver I met, from casual beginner to veteran instructor, mentioned the Similans at some point. They spoke about this archipelago as if it was some untamed frontier, new to science, ripe for exploration. "This place is good, and that place is good... but if you REALLY want the best diving, go to the Similans." So I figured I'd go to the most impressive location in the region and dive until I was sick of it. Turns out, you never really get tired of these reefs.
I woke up early and stashed my bulky pack at the dive shop, where one of the dive masters was severely stressing out. She had no idea where the boat was or where on the island it was arriving. After lots of disconnected phone calls and cussing in German, I was loaded onto the back of a tractor trailer with the all the dive gear and we chugged across the island to the docks. 'The Flying Carpet,' a big, colorful dive boat already full with passengers was waiting for us.
I quickly discovered I was the only native English speaker on the boat and the only diver who didn't speak any German. The instructor, dive masters, and nearly all of the divers were from Germany with the exception of a Swiss couple, a Finn, and his Thai wife. The crew, consisting of a captain, two deck hands, and a cook, were all born and raised in Ranong. The Finn and I were the only two who preferred English over the other myriad languages spoken on board, and we were paired up.
As the only two guys on the boat who didn't smoke a pack of cigarettes a day, we had super-human lung capacity. Most buddy teams would have to start their safety stops after about 30-40 minutes, but we stayed down for over and hour almost every dive. We were always last on the boat, usually surfacing far from where the ship was anchored. The Flying Carpet would spot our inflatable safety marker, swoop around to pick us up, and we'd be motoring towards the next dive spot.
The deck hands were fishing off the back of the boat whenever we were on the move. One of them, a guy probably not much older than me, was missing the smallest three toes on his left foot. When they started shouting "Lua! Lua!" the captain would have to kill the motor while they reeled in their catch. One evening they caught a giant tuna, which the cook immediately chopped up into sashimi.
My dive buddy's wife, a young Thai woman who never got in the water and barely spoke the entire trip, had a painfully obvious lazy eye. Another guy worked for a film production company in Germany, specializing in extreme sports. His experience with Americans had been almost entirely with surfers, snowboarders, and wakeboarders, who he made fun of with an accent that sounded like a German Bill & Ted: "Yeah, bro! Like, surfing is my life! I totally wiped out, dude!" It needed some work, but I saw where he was going with it. The cook, a loud and energetic older Thai lady with a tenuous grasp of the English language, had somehow confused the words "spicy" and "sexy." The dive masters refused to correct her, purely for comedic value. "I'll have the fried rice - and make it sexy!"
There was a ditzy woman who talked nonstop, sang songs to herself, and drank too much almost every night. She claimed to be a surgeon back in Germany. As a chain smoker with blistering sunburns on her face and body, she did not seem like the type of person I'd want to take medical advice from. She and the rest of the Germans laughed at me for putting on sun block, but after 5 days at sea, I was the only person without peeling, third-degree burns on 85% of my body. They didn't really seem to understand that technology allowed sunburns to be avoided. That ridiculous looking cream I rubbed on my face and shoulders? Yeah, that stuff reflects UV radiation! To cut through the sarcasm and reiterate my point, there was a surgeon on board who couldn't really wrap her mind around the concept of sunscreen.
Despite the strangitudes of our motley crew and the resulting unpredictable culture crashes, we all had an amazing time and everyone was very friendly. As an American, I was personally thanked by the Germans for replacing them as the bad guys of the western world. According to them, George Bush Jr. finally helped people get over that whole Hitler thing. I immediately accused them of Schadenfreude. Good-natured jabs continued back and forth for the whole trip.
By the end of each day's fourth and final dive, everyone would be glowing from giddy exhaustion and an unreal form of underwater sensory overload. The surgeon would start throwing back Singhas, the Finn and his wall-eyed bride would retire early, and the dive masters would chain smoke twelve cigarettes before everyone started to claim sleeping spots. While we slept, the boat would motor to our next dive site and we'd be in the water again at 7AM sharp.
Describing the actual diving is stupidly difficult, and unfortunately I have no underwater photos. I could use a list of tired clichés and worn out superlatives to convey how amazed I was, but I'll spare you. I saw things I'd never seen, each dive was uniquely incredible, and the raw wealth of life seemed impossible. I'd recommend this experience to anyone without hesitation - see it before it's gone.
I heard stories of the diving in Burma, where illegal dynamite fishing has destroyed entire ecosystems of marine life. The coral reefs were supposedly magnificent, but they were entirely devoid of fish. If you could see how many millions and millions of fish call the Thai reefs home, you get the feeling that a fishless reef would be incredibly eerie and depressing. Even in the Similans, which exist as dots in a gigantic imaginary box labeled 'marine sanctuary and national park,' we saw illegal fishing boats blatantly trawling the protected waters every night.
Cyanide fishing was another notorious problem. In China, the market for large, living reef fish is enormous. People in restaurants will choose the live fish out of the aquarium, have it killed in front of them, and eat it as fresh as possible. They believe eating a fish in this way is (yeah, you guessed it) an aphrodisiac. The challenge for fishermen of third-world countries is capturing these rare fish without hooking them, or visibly harming them, which makes them worthless. So they mix up a potent and toxic chemical compound in large batches, fill up a homemade contraption that looks like a clown's seltzer bottle, and hit the reef. They spray large amounts of this chemical over the face of the docile, slow-moving target fish, which stuns them and knocks them unconscious. They wake up a few days later with a hangover but otherwise not *visibly* harmed. This isn't much of a problem in itself. The issue lies in what those huge doses of chemicals do to the smaller, more sensitive fish and corals living in the reef. It wipes them out, bleaches the coral, and bioaccumulates up the food chain in large predators like sharks and dolphins. They're essentially killing entire ecosystems to capture a handful of fish alive.
A recurring theme of this trip has been that, across all borders, people struggling to gain any possible economic advantage will gladly sacrifice the environment to do so. It seems to be a combination of not knowing any better, and genuinely not having many other choices.
When my deceptively short five days were up, I could have easily gone for twice the time. Climbing off The Flying Carpet and into the dingy, dubbed 'The Floating Throwrug,' I said auf wiedersehen and comically faltered through my short list of German vocabulary, which included too many World War II and Sigmund Freud references to be politically correct: "Howitzer! Mein Kampf! Zeitgeist! Penisneid! Seig Heil! Shiza Batsen! Uh... Auchwitz!"
"That's a city in Poland!" they called back. Shucks, I'll miss 'em.