Travel: Thai dive: waving, not drowning

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The Independent Online
Going on a diving course is like acquiring a passport to a different, magical and painfully fragile world, as Rhiannon Batten found out off an island in Thailand.

That first step off the side of the boat, heart thumping as I hit the water and the weight of the scuba gear dragging me into the water, was probably the most memorable I've ever taken. One moment I was balancing clumsily on the deck of the boat - eyes fixed on the horizon, hands pressing mask to face, the sound of breathing gurgling in my ears - the next I had splashed down under the water alone, silent, and weightless.

Slowly my fellow divers plunged in and joined me. We were surrounded by subdued colour and shape and the mumbled munching of fish. Coral with velvety purple sacks spilled out soft, wafting tendrils to tickle the pretty flecked back of a passing ray. Pairs of bannerfish with long graceful tails swept through shoals of shiny pink and yellow fish. This was the first time I had scuba dived and I knew as soon as I jumped that I was hooked.

Back above the water, a few days earlier, the pastel-coloured boat bobbing across to the island of Ko Tao, off the east coast of Thailand, had been packed with noisy touts, all pushing hard to sell their dive schools. We decided on Planet Scuba dive school partly because it was one of the few that employed no touts. There were other considerations - they had a shop in town that was right next door to the local happy hour bar, the Safety Stop.

If they do not already have a scuba diving qualification, most visitors to Ko Tao take the four-day PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water course for beginners. This is a mixture of classroom lessons and practical instruction. You begin in the shallows of a swimming pool, where people like me can safely panic underwater and splutter their way to the surface, then move on to the offshore dive sites.

Once you've mastered the PADI slogans and grappled with the scuba equipment practice, drills are a doddle. It's all pretty straightforward - putting on and taking off equipment, carrying out safety checks, practising what to do if you run out of air under water (no one ever found themselves in this situation for real) and general underwater health and safety.

The best thing about the course is that the more dives

you do, the more confident you become so, instead of spending the time underwater worrying about whether your air is getting too low or whether you're getting on everyone's nerves because you can't control your buoyancy, it suddenly all clicks into place - rather like learning to drive. Once that happens, you relax and spend the time looking out for fantasic fish to talk about later at the Drop Zone bar.

Ko Tao itself is a tremendously pretty place. A steep and sweaty climb up the centre of the island brings you out at the highest vantage point, Two Views. From here you're faced with a problem: do you head down to quiet Tanote Bay and the best snorkelling for miles, or to Hat Sairee, the island's main beach? This is the nearest Ko Tao gets - for the time being - to a party capital. Pretty bungalows are clustered along the beach, interspersed every now with bars - rounds of B52s downed at the Drop Zone bar, AC Twos and its Black Moon parties, Blue Winds cafe and blueberry lassies gulped down in candlelight, plumped up bodies propped against elegant Thai cushions. Turn right off the beach and you come to the Halfway restaurant which does whole barbecued fish and spice pumpkin curries and, if you're still going on a Friday night, carry on to the Jungle Club to strut your stuffed form on the open-air dance floor.

Of course, though, the best scenery on Ko Tao is off the side of a boat: coral with names like Neptune's Cup, and fish as fancy, and as ridiculous, as pantomime dames. Coming back up to the surface is like popping a giant bubble into earth - even more so after a night dive when you bob back to the boat under a black sky sprinkled generously with brilliant stars. Once back on the boat there is always a huge feeling of satisfaction - and a lot of excited chatter, as though the divers are making up for the silence of the underwater world.

For the moment, Ko Tao is a diver's paradise. Indeed there is little to do here if you're not diving. You spend your days exploring curious fish and flamboyant corals and get back in time to spend your nights partying on Sairee beach. You don't even have to worry about a hangover - diving is the best cure you can get, or so the instructors kept proving to each other.

In fact Ko Tao should have a health warning. After two weeks there I'd become every bit as seduced as the instructors and would-be instructors who had gone home from holidays full of enthusiasm and returned a year or so later to live the life. As we finally dragged ourselves on to the boat, leaving the island's little multi-coloured port, I was full of plans to come back.

Perhaps I should do so soon. Diving, I was told by some people, is destroying the island. The number of dive schools and related bungalows and bars, has exploded on an island that was relatively deserted five years ago. For the moment, though, there are still some deserted beaches, a largely uninhabited inland area and, so far, only limited electricity and low- rise construction. Yet things are changing fast and rumours of airstrips and big hotels being built are currently doing the rounds...

Getting there

Rhiannon Batten flew to Bangkok on Lufthansa for pounds 250 return, on a special deal for under-26s through Campus Travel. In the absence of such special deals, the lowest prices - around pounds 350 - are available on carriers such as Bangladesh Biman, Tarom, and Uzbekistan Airways. From Bangkok you can buy bus/train and boat combination tickets, or travel down to Chumphon or Surat Thani and get the boat across from there. We got a combination boat and bus ticket from Ko Pha Ngan (the next island across) back to the Khao San Road in Bangkok for 300B (about pounds 6). Sleeper trains are fun, but are more expensive.

Where to dive

Planet Scuba is at Hat Sairee and Mae Haad - an Open Water course costs 7800B (around pounds 160) and includes four dives. For a list of UK dive centres contact PADI International Ltd, Unit 6, Unicorn Park, Whitby Road, Bristol, BS4 4EX (0117 9711717)

Where to stay

Rhiannon Batten stayed at Sairee Cottages on Sairee Beach for 100B (about pounds 2) a night for a double bed and private bathroom. There are many other such places - and it's fun to stroll down one of the beaches and find somewhere you like.