Many years ago, while on a Greek island, I tried scuba diving for the first time ever. It did not go well. Essentially, they said here's how you breathe, there's the sea, let's go! Scuba equipment includes an inflatable vest and you control it with a couple of buttons. Let air in, let air out, it is for controlling your buoyancy. The people in Greece said DO NOT TOUCH IT! When in the sea I sank to the bottom and watched everyone swim away into the murky water, leaving me like a bottom-dweller, panic-stricken. I breathed too much, too fast, not knowing how to get back, if I would ever be found, if I would die when the air ran out. It felt claustrophobic. The only way I could move was to pull myself over the rocks by grabbing at the seaweed. A horrible experience which I vowed never to repeat.
Fast forward 18 years and I went snorkelling in Bali and loved it. I wondered if I should try scuba again. Perhaps.
And then I found myself living over a scuba-diving place. A sign if ever there was one.
The "try diving" package includes a two hour boat trip to the famously beautiful islands of Koh Phi Phi (Google it, really), food, one dive with the chance of more, and pleasant company. We set off yesterday morning at 7 to collect more people and then headed off in a long-tail boat to the real boat, a large sea-going wonder that takes over 40 people, but there were just 9 guests, the Finnish guy who runs the school and five young Finnish girls who teach diving, plus the Thai crew. Mostly it was people from Finland (guests too) and I really wanted to tell you that I got into the sea and saw a fin in the water, a poorly disguised Jaws joke (I wasn't really going to do that. Really, I wasn't.)
As it turned out, I was the only one on the "try diving" trip. The others were either snorkelling or were already adept at diving, so I had my very own instructor. We went through the manual and she gave me instruction while heading for the island and when we got there I donned the gear and made ready to walk the plank. It did feel a bit like that. I stepped toward the edge of the platform at the back of the boat (my instructor and another Finnish girl already in the water waiting for me) and was told to hold my mask, hold my weight belt, and jump (walk forward till you fall into the sea, actually). And I really didn't want to do it. My last experience of scuba was terrible, the equipment weighs a lot, and you are about to fall into the sea. You know how The Mob tie concrete to bodies and dump them in the sea? It felt like that, but while still alive. At least in my "never again," mind. This time, though, something was different. All the girls were lovely, filled me with confidence, and M (I cannot remember her exact name I'm afraid, but it starts with M) said she would never, ever, leave my side. And so I stepped forward, fell into the sea, went under and bobbed back up again. The flood of information that accompanies any new physical task had swamped the fact that the vest had been filled with air. She told me, I watched her do it, she said I'd bob to the surface, and it had all slipped my mind amid nervous panic.
It was odd, floating on the water but breathing air from a tank. Part of my brain was convinced that the air wouldn't flow. Okay, THAT breath worked, but what about the next?
I held the rope from a buoy and with her hand on my shoulder strap we sank a few feet beneath the waves and stopped. It was time to do the three things I'd learned on the boat. Take out the mouthpiece and blow a steady stream of bubbles and put the mouthpiece back. Then remove the mouthpiece and let go, using the standard technique for finding it again. Then clear my mask of water. I'd learned the hand signals and we established that I knew what I was doing so far, and so with Captain Nemo determination we pressed the button the let the air out of our vests and together, her holding me, we sank down to the sea floor some 10 meters below. I breathed in. I breathed out. I didn't die, and she didn't let go of me.
M is young and blonde. We were accompanied by one of the other Finnish girls, who is also young and blonde. I felt like I was swimming with mermaids. Mermaids who, we established later, were about 5 years old when I last decided that scuba wasn't for me. But under the water, they were the ones with the years of experience, and I was a clumsy child, forgetting the simplest things while seeing wonders all about me.
M pointed things out to me as we passed them. Shoals of bright fish, coral that reacted when she wafted water over them, walls of coral reaching high above us. It was all colour and movement. She used hand signals to tell me what I was doing wrong and how to correct them. She tugged at my vest, adjusted my buoyancy, gave me a guided tour of a world quite dazzling.
And then she pointed up and I looked. It was hazy at first but I knew what it was. She'd said we might see one. Then it came back, closer, easier to see. It was a shark. Me, the underwater world's rarest and most ungainly creature was in the same water as a shark, and I was amazed by it. It was about 5 feet long I think, and very very shark-like. A harmless reef shark (unless you're a small fish), but not something I ever thought I'd see.
The dive lasted 50 minutes and it was such a positive experience I chose to do another. But, not being a young Finnish mermaid I needed a rest, so I chose to go on the excursion into town for coffee and shopping and sightseeing.
The town was washed away by the 2004 tsunami and quickly rebuilt because the islanders have nothing but tourism. It is a pretty place.
Back on the boat we headed off to another spot and once again I donned the gear. This time my instructor was Iris, who is fun and lively but takes the notion of diving very seriously indeed. They all do. This time, it being my second dive, I was shown how to control my buoyancy myself with the air in, air out buttons, and also something else. The vest, it seems, is the same size as your lungs. And so for fine control over sinking or rising, you can breathe deeper or more shallow (never forgetting to breathe of course), and I found this idea appealing. It works too!
And so there were moments in both dives when I experienced complete weightlessness. Moments when I could float meters beneath the sea and simply enjoy where I was and what I was seeing. Those moments were brief, but for the first time ever I knew why people scuba dive. It isn't being stuck on the bottom and being left to die! It's like being in space, surrounded by fish and mermaids.
The Raya diving school filled me with confidence and I want to do more. This trip is all about budget, so I'll see if, toward the end, I have enough money left to get my PADI certificate. I'd be pleased if I did.
One the way back I was talking to a Finnish couple on holiday in Thailand for a week. It's a popular place for Fins, apparently, and they said that the Raya diving school has a very good reputation. Indeed, they impressed the Fins during the Tsunami by tirelessly rescuing the lucky, and recovering the unlucky. Weeks of using their boats to help. I can imagine that.
One other thing about my terrible Greek diving experience. They did come to find me eventually, and I still have a photo they took of me looking unhappy and holding up some marine creature I was told to hold. On this trip to Phi Phi, however, I have no pictures of me under water. I wasn't holding a confused animal. Why? The mermaids weren't there to take holiday snaps of me. They were there to make sure I knew what I was doing, that I was safe, that the fishes were safe, and everyone ended up feeling good. I'm very glad I met them.
And I saw a fin in the water (I just had to say it, didn't I).
Just a quick entry before I set off for my scuba diving tomorrow and bore you with bubbles. I've just been sitting talking to a cat.
Yes, odd that this should tempt me to write.
This morning I went to breakfast at the little Halal, plastic chair eating place near the rooms over the diving shop. I like it in there. The food is cheap, the ladies smile, and the iced coffee is perfect. I then set off for the beach before it got too hot.
It was already too hot of course. It was 36 degrees today but it feels hotter on my English extremities. I didn't take a camera and wished I had, because I went past the jetty where the longtail boats head off for the islands and found a small slice of paradise. The tide was just right for getting to a small tidal island, and I was, perhaps for the first time on this trip, completely happy. I really like Thailand, and I really like this beach.
As I walked back from the island and toward the jetty I was accosted by a group of schoolchildren, all smiling nervously and giggling. They were about 10 years old and formed a fuzzy group of about 15 kids in green uniforms. One of them was pushed forward and hesitantly said that they were learning English, and did I have time to answer some questions. Yes! I said. They asked me where I was from in uncertain, slightly garbled English, and seemed suspicious when I said England. I don't think they were expecting to have found someone from exactly the right place. Bullseye. Brownie points.
They asked me numerous grammatically incorrect questions. Did I like Thailand, did I like Thai food, did I like Thai people, what did I do in my spare time. One boy then asked if I like....something. I didn't know the word. He said it again. Still nothing. They all said it. Nope. Then the leader, a girl holding an iPhone, spelled it for me. T...O...W...E...L. Do I like towel.
Do I? Yes, I suppose I do. I told them I have a blue one, of which I am very fond. I imagined their school using The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as an English textbook.
Then they took a photo with me in the middle, and it was very sweet and wonderful. As I walked along the sand I saw lots of little groups of kids all having conversations with the tourists, and some had teachers with them. My group had clearly struck off, fearless, in search of educational opportunities.
I like Thailand. It's not at all what I expected.
Later I went to change up some Euros and the exchange rate had gone up since the quote of yesterday, resulting in a theoretically free breakfast. When I got back I read for a while, wrote for a while, then went out for dinner. I sat and calculated that I could live in this room and eat at the Halal plastic chair smiling lady eatery every day for the rest of my life without having to work. That's an interesting concept isn't it. Thailand is still fairly cheap. This room, which has everything a man could need, costs 12 euros a day. All of my food and water and nibbles (I seem to have developed a passion for oreo biscuits) come to 10 euros a day. I get more than 22 euros a day for doing nothing, so I could live by the beach and, well, do nothing. I'd be good at it.
I sat outside as the muezzin from the local mosque sang out the evening call to prayer. It's a sound I've only come to hear since travelling in South East Asia and in the hot evening air when everything seems to have quietened down, it's something I enjoy listening to. For some odd reason, I always end up with Roberta Flack's "The First time Ever I Saw Your Face," in my head. That's not a bad thing to have inside your head.
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
With the sound of a single human voice drifting toward me, a single white cat drifted toward me too, rubbed itself against my leg and lay down beside me. I am an animal person, enjoying their company more even than towels, and it's the first "pet" that's come to talk to me since I left England. It was a day of communication, and when travelling alone, those moments are important.
You can buy sightseeing tours, which are, I think, quite expensive. Alternatively, you can get a taxi driver with no sense of direction and you get a free sightseeing tour, and he even drops the taxi price out of sheer embarrassment. A handy tourist tip. There should be a crap taxi driver app for the fiscally aware sightseer. It could be called CrAppSi.
But we shall get to that later. Firstly, the odd little place in the Malaysian rain forest ended, eventually. I discovered that the room had unusual acoustic properties in that every conversation from miles around were amplified within its thin walls, it filled with mosquitoes through the numerous gaps in the windows and I was invaded by geckos. I don't mind geckos. I do mind noise that goes on until 3 in the morning. And when the noise of other guests (entire families in one room) finally stopped, I discovered one more horror. Air conditioning units drip, and the dripping was onto the enormous tin roof of the car port. Every night was a constant bang, bang, bang, bang, bang (you get the idea).
I then took a lovely apartment overlooking Langkawi harbour. It was the best Airbnb experience ever, I think. I went from a hot tin water-torture box to a huge apartment, and it was more wonderful than a home-cooked meal for this weary man who's now been on the road for what, it seems like ever. Langkawi has some wonderful and popular beaches, and all forms of transport assume you want to go there. But just down the road is the public beach, right by a lovely shady park. A long stretch of golden sand and warm water and not a single person there. It was lovely.
I took the boat from Langkawi to Thailand. The internet told me that arriving by air gives you 30 days Visa on Arrival, but by boat or road gives you 15. I got 30 days. Internet, you are wrong, shocking though that sounds.
I stayed in a marvellously cheap place in Satun, the town where the boat docks. It was comfortable, quiet, friendly and deep down good. I can't say I was a huge fan of Malaysia and I decided from day one that I like Thailand. When I asked how to get to the bus station for my ongoing journey, the woman went to find her boss, who not only said he'd take me to the bus station, but asked if I like fish.
“Um, yes,” I said, never having met a fish I didn't like.
“I have some. I'll make you some fish at 7pm.”
Which he did.
The following day he drove me to the bus station and refused to take any money for it. He said that everyone in Satun feels like family, and as I stayed at his place, I was family too. What a very lovely introduction to the country.
I took a 5 hour bus trip north to Krabi. The bus was decked out like a travelling bordello. It had wonderful orange fringe curtains at the windows and a ceiling composed of some squashy material in orange, cream and magenta, bedecked with mirrors. It felt like a long-distance Beatles album.
Krabi, has some rather wonderful islands, is not too far from Phuket, and an hour or so by speed boat from the famous island of Phi Phi (pronounced, amusingly, as pee pee). That's where they filmed The Beach, with Leonardo DiCaprio. Pee pee isn't the only island of course. There are lots of them. Lesser islands dot the seascape and they look as one might imagine – tall spikes of tree-covered land popping up here and there. I saw them from the bus, and climbed out into the blazing heat of a Krabi afternoon. Being more interested in A/C than travel, I took a room in a hotel close to the bus station, and then made my way to the beach.
The hotel ordered me a taxi and after a while, a strange little contraption arrived, part motorbike, part car, part travelling circus. I sat in the back and we headed off at terrifying speed toward the beach. There is a famous beach here called Ao Nang, and that's where the driver decided I must be going. I mean, I'm white, therefore I am going to Ao Nang. The hotel girl told them where I was actually going, but this man concluded otherwise. I sat in the back holding onto my belongings and my breakfast as we defied physics on every bend in the road, and then I saw the sea and all its twinkly blue island festooned loveliness. Not my beach, obviously, but it was rather lovely.
I had my map app telling me we should go right at the beach and he went left. I banged on the window and he pulled over and I got out and we consulted the map and he did a U-turn. Amusingly, he did another U-turn a few hundred yards later and off we set again in the wrong direction. He really really wanted me to go to Ao Nang. I banged again.
He got out maybe 6 times to ask how to get to where I was going, and when someone pointed left, he went right. And vise versa. Eventually my map and his bike/car thing were in agreement and we were within seconds of my new abode. So pleased was he by this, he asked someone where it was, who pointed, and off we went again along the beach toward Ao Nang. It was lovely. A sightseeing tour de force. It took for ever.
But all good things must come to an end and finally he reluctantly stopped long enough to track down my hotel. He looked so ashamed of himself that he wanted to charge me half price, but I gave him full price anyway because his mistake was my absolute pleasure, and I was also worried about the health of his children, having such an easily confused taxi driver for a father.
This room is not much more than the dirt cheap room in the rain forest of Langkawi, but offers no water torture or unwanted nocturnal conversations. It is over a PADI diving shop, 600m from the beach that's just next to Ao Nang beach, and is clean, comfortable, safe and quiet. I booked 5 nights here, the longest I've booked in one go because I'm tired of constantly looking for the next place to go and thought I'd stop a while. I was very lucky with my random choice.
I walked along this beach yesterday and it's beautiful and quiet. At the far end is a small headland and then you get to Ao Nang. Ao Nang is land of the white man. It is wall to wall tourists. The beach is no better than here, but the tourist industry herds them there in their millions. I didn't like it and I'm glad I'm at the less well known part.
There are trips a-plenty to choose from, including Phi Phi of course. I was almost tempted by it, but some research tells me that Phi Phi takes over an hour by speedboat and when you get there, all you see are tourists. Not my idea of fun, despite how beautiful the place looks.
But didn't I want to try diving? Yes, I seem to remember that. I was snokelling in Bali and I thought...I'd like to try diving, despite having tried it 25 years ago and saying never again. And aren't I temporarily living over a diving shop?
I just asked about it, and for people like me who once said Never Again, they have a one-day try diving thing. They leave at 7 in the morning and get back in the evening. There's food. And snokelling too if you don't want the second dive. And a bit of sightseeing.
“Where do you go?” I asked.
“Phi Phi,” she said. "It takes a couple of hours on the boat but it's a beautiful trip."
So I booked it. I go on Saturday. On the water and under it.
If I live, I shall tell you about it.
Eagle Square, Langkawi. No idea why it's called that.
The empty public beach...
The sun going down on Ao Nang, Thailand
Moving with my dog to Slovenia.