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Ben In Japan...And Thailand (Part 2 of 3)

Saturday, January 14, 2006
A short plane ride, a terrifying van ride, and a more terrifying trip in the back of a pickup truck later, Liz and I arrived at Bang Bao, the southernmost point of Koh Chang, Thailand's second largest island. It was warmer than Bangkok, and it smelled warm, of smoke and sea and grass that's been in the sun. I had read that Bang Bao was a fishing town built along a long pier, but I didn't really realize what that meant. The pickup dropped us off at the water, and the driver pointed down a long dock. It was night and we couldn't see much, so we started walking, Looking for a sign that would point us to the Bang Bao Sea Huts. The dock was long and narrow, with houses and shops along the side. We walked a ways down the pier and then a couple of young Thai ladies asked us where we were going. The way we were going was off the end of the pier, we had missed the junction for the Sea Huts. It wasn't our fault, the turn was the pier equivalent of a dark alleyway. Unmarked, with rickety old planks (with treacherous gaps!) went off between two dark buildings, out behind them, and then out over the water with no railings. The whole thing was maybe three feet wide. Again, the pictures I wish I had taken. After raising his eyebrows skeptically at the mention of a reservation, the owner took us to our hut. It was coming up on midnight on Christmas eve, so we went to sleep.

Christmas morning was somewhat surreal. It was hot, and there was nary a Christmas tree in sight. There was no family, no winter, no carols, nothing Christmas-y really. I was woken up not by my sisters telling me to get up so we can open presents, but by the sound of a boat engine passing by the window, and the family of birds that flew in and out of the room, sometimes stopping to look at us, other times ignoring us and pulling out pieces of the thatch roof for a nest. It's funny, Christmas in Thailand, it doesn't really feel like any sort of holiday. For almost all Thais it's just another day, no one treats it any differently, and business goes on as usual. I feel like I didn't really have Christmas this year, which is surprisingly fine.

Part of it being fine is where I was though. I went to brush my teeth and opened the wood shutters to find a pretty cool view.

I leaned out the window and looked down to see little schools of fish swimming around the stilts holding the room up. I opened the door and looked out to see what I could see.

Thai fishing boats heading out in the morning. It looks scenic and restful, but let me tell you, they are loud.

This is the distance I like them at. Not as loud.

I walked out a little bit to see where exactly we were staying.

I don't know how deep it was, but I'd guess around six feet.

For about 30 dollars a night, this was by far the most expensive place we stayed, and probably the nicest.

The days were mostly full of studying Scuba Diving at Dolphin Divers with Sina, our chatty Iranian/English teacher. From Sina, we learned that Koh Chang had been "discovered" as a tourist destination only four years ago, which explains why maybe half the beachfront real estate is under construction. It also explains the single road on the whole Island, and the fact that the infrastructure is perhaps not the greatest. It makes it all the more impressive though, that the island has a number of banks with ATMs, that fresh water is piped all over the island in little blue pipes, and that in four years maybe six good size towns have sprung up, all catering exclusively to tourists. There's plenty of places to check your e-mail or buy a bikini and some sunscreen, but want some vegetables? Good luck. I'm getting ahead of myself though. Bang Bao is the oldest town on the island, it used to be reachable only by boat, and on the pier you could buy fruits and vegetables, along with other things that tourists don't need.

The main drag of Bang Bao in the early afternoon.

I got an e-mail from someone regarding this blog and all the sunsets on it. They said they never realized I was such a romantic. I'm just getting started, we've got plenty more sunsets, and then in part 3, I've got a waterfall. Seriously though, a nice view from the hotel in the evening. A jolly British man came out of his hut and we talked about politics, cameras, and the Sea Huts. He told us he was going to stay for the winter.

The resorts that are springing up around Koh Chang. From a distance they are nice. Up close they are full of concrete, air conditioning, swimming pools, and fences to keep the nature out.

The couple days in Bang Bao passed quickly, on a hot day it was kind of a crummy place to be as you were surrounded by beautiful clear water but there was no way to go for a swim. Kind of torturous. I spent my first two days on Koh Chang about five feet from the Gulf of Thailand, but I couldn't touch it.

After our day in the pool doing dive skills, we were driven to find a bungalow on the beach. No problem, Sina said, there will be plenty of rooms available. It turned out that there was one place that had rooms, the dubious Tiger Hut. Ten dollars doesn't buy much in Japan or the States, but in Thailand it's a pretty standard cheap room fee.

First of all, Tiger Hut seemed to be new, like built in the last few months. The grounds behind the huts looked like they had been cleared yesterday, with all manner of debris scattered around on the dirty sand. In front was a little better, but the beach in front of our hut (just off the right in the picture) was less "clean white sand beach" and more "a bunch of tree trunks that we didn't feel like dragging that far." There was water though, it was blue and clear and I finally put my toes in the sea. It was delicious.

Liz and I resolutely accepted our new accommodations, figuring at the price, how could we complain? As night came on, the list of amenities lacking in the Tiger Hut grew. As far as we could tell, the things that Tiger Hut did not have was:
  • A window with glass.
  • A doorknob
  • A place to sit (Not just the hut, the entire establishment. Not a single chair.)
  • Steps up the 3 feet to the door. (People had stacked their luggage, rocks, coconuts,)
  • A mattress (They didn't fool me, that wasn't a mattress. It was a board.)
  • Grass
  • A mirror (broken or otherwise)
  • Relatively clean bathrooms
  • Toilet paper

Looks homey. Oh wait, no it doesn't.

After a night where lying on your side seemed to produce bruises, we agreed maybe someplace else would be good. The neat part about the beach we were on is that if you want to find another place, you just walk down the beach, and if you find a place that looks nice, you just walk up and ask someone if they have a room. We found the Thale Bungalows about ten or fifteen minutes walk down the beach. It looked similar but had a nice restaurant, grass, and each bungalow had a bench. We made some inquiries, found out that these huts were going for five dollars, that one was available, and we grabbed one.

Doesn't that look nicer?

Also, the beach at Thale was pretty great.

There's our hut, the middle left. To our right was a French couple who added things to their bungalow every day. First it was a hammock, precariously strung up, then a shell collection on the porch, then a back for the bench. If they are still there, they have central air, a pool, and a waterslide into the ocean.

Breakfast was nice too. Walk down the beach, find a little cafe on the beach, sit at a table while the water touches your toes.

Thai orange juice. When they squeeze the oranges, it's actually that color, and it's delicious. The oranges themselves are green though.

I've had breakfast in worse places.

(See above)

That day was the first day of Scuba Diving for real. The single picture I regret not getting more than any other on this whole trip is everyone in the full gear, with the instructors on the boat, but I didn't get it, and you'll just have to imagine it. We looked awesome.

This was the first site we dove.

Scuba diving was great, a little scary, exciting, and totally different than anything I have done before. We were a group of four and an instructor. We started at the beach and swam out over rocks and coral. The visibility was only so-so, but to be honest I was concentrating so hard on remembering all the things I had to do, trying to remember to breathe, to keep an eye on my air, my buddy, my buoyancy, and my gear that it really didn't matter much. I saw some coral that looked like an enormous purple brain, I saw little fish all around, and most importantly, I saw the surface, and then as we went deeper, I lost sight of it. By the time we all sat down on the bottom to do our drills at nine meters, the surface was just a few beams of light shining down. As we all did our skills, losing our regulator, taking off the mask and putting it back on, giving air to someone else, and that sort of thing, I looked up towards the sun to see if I could see the surface. I couldn't, but passing through the light were dozens of fish, swimming in schools far above me, visible only as darting silhouettes in the shifting rays. I took a deep breath out of my regulator, exhaled a long stream of bubbles, and enjoyed it.

Things went downhill from there though, as we pushed off and started heading up a little bit, one of my ears equalized suddenly, leaving the other one under some pressure, and triggering something called alternobaric vertigo. The long and short of it was that all of a sudden it was very confusing the bubbles didn't seem to be going up, the other divers all seemed to be rolling over, and I started trying to rotate to get my bearings. The bearings were not to be had, and I realized the vertigo was getting worse, not better. I kept it together enough to figure out which way was up, and did an emergency swimming ascent. The further I went the stranger things got, until I was right near the surface, but it seemed to be tilting away from me. I never totally lost it though, and I never felt nauseous. I inflated my vest and surfaced. On the surface it was almost stranger than being in the water. Everything was spinning around me, and that might sound trite, but it really was spinning. I tried to look at the boat and keep my eyes on it, but I couldn't. I tried to hold my hand out of the water and focus on it, and I could, but it was like everything behind my hand was flying around. It felt like it went on for a long time, but my guess is that the total time was maybe 20 or 30 seconds.

So there was that. The first dive was ending anyway, and I wasn't about to skip the second dive, so we all got back in the boat and got ready for the second dive.

The second dive site was a lot more intense looking, no beach, no trees, no other boats docked, just some jagged rocks sticking out of the ocean with a couple of fishing boats nearby.

I was a little nervous after the first dive, but determined to do it, so I started setting up my gear. As I attached the high pressure regulator to the tank, checked the instruments, and opened the valve, there was a loud bang. I looked over, and my instruments hose had blown, and it was venting high pressure air. Not the best omen, but these things happen. They got me another regulator and hose, and I tried it again. I checked the vest inflator, and found that the button used to inflate the vest had somehow fallen out in between the two dives. I was out a buoyancy vest and a regulator, and the sun was going down. I was getting bad vibes. One of the dive masters said she would sit out this dive and gave me her gear, and warned me not to break it. It set up without incident, I zipped up my wetsuit and put on my fins and jumped in. Everything seemed to be going a little wrong, but we kept at it. Finally we descended. Things went smoothly for about two minutes. At two minutes, Martin, a 13 year old Swedish boy swam up behind me and tapped my shoulder. I looked at him and realized he was breathing out of his second regulator, which you use to give air to someone else. He signaled to me that he was out of air, and his eyes were wide behind his mask. I fumbled around, looking for my alternate air source, trying to remember the two times I had practiced this, and finally got it. I stuck it in his mouth, and we went up. On the surface he was a little panicked, I inflated his vest for him, signaled for help, and dragged him over to the boat. He was close to tears, and that was the end of the diving for him. We never figured out exactly why he thought he was out of air, he had plenty.

After that the dive went without incident. We swam around those rocks, between big boulders and over cliffs that went down as far as you could see. There were moments where I'd be floating along, and I'd look next to me and see Liz hovering next to a vertical rock wall, and then above me some other divers, and below me jagged rocks, fish, and the seafloor disappearing into the blue.

I surfaced without incident, we all came up together under a brilliant orange sunset, and headed home.

Thale bungalow.

A couple of slow days, exams for the Scuba certification, paperwork, watching the PADI Open Water DVD, eating delicious food, sitting at the beach, watching the French couple work on their bungalow. Not so terrible, as days go.

Liz, on the beach at high tide.

A man walked around the grounds with a knife on a really long stick and chopped down coconuts. I still didn't walk under the coconut trees, the sound they made as they hit the ground (or, at one point, someone's truck) was enough to convince me that I was better safe than sorry.

I had two final dives at seven in the morning, they were focused on doing skills and working on buoyancy control, so we didn't go anywhere crazy. Both were without incident, and also without significant wildlife. It was fine though, just being in the water and breathing and skimming along, six inches off the sandy bottom was enough for me. After I dove, when I went swimming in the ocean, I just wanted my gear so I could see what was down there. I'd swim down and hold my breath, but it doesn't really compare. What hath the scuba wrought?

The last evening on Koh Chang was indeed excellent. We had a nice dinner, got our scuba certifications (Look out fishes, Ben is a PADI Open Water Diver, qualified to 18 meters anywhere in the world!). We headed back early and packed, but it was slow because I kept going out to take pictures of the sunset.

I didn't really appreciate having the beach to walk on until I got back to cold Japan.

And so the last day on Koh Chang ended. The next morning we caught a boat off the island, took a bus to Bangkok, spent a night in a crummy overpriced hotel, but had a great meal on the street, and then set off for Chiang Mai.