Ko Tao is one of the best places in the world to learn to scuba dive. There are a large number of dive sites in close proximity to the island and a huge number of dive schools offering the full 4-day PADI course often with accommodation included. After the debauchery of the full moon party, and our ensuing peaceful stay on Ko Pha Ngan, we decided that it was about time we did something active, especially since Ko Tao was on our doorstep – well almost. So we selected our dive school, paid our deposit and prepared ourselves for a couple of days in the classroom whilst looking forward to beginning to explore the deep blue.
Unfortunately, it was not to be. I won’t go into all of the details; mainly because I don’t particularly want to re-live the 24 hour nightmare of frustration that ensued, but also because it would take up this entire post. The basics go as follows: we arrived in Ko Tao, were picked up by dive school rep, taken to dive school resort, handed medical clearance questionnaire. No problem so far. However, the questionnaire asks if you suffer from asthma and/or take regular medication, both of which apply to me. In order to make sure I was covered by our insurance should anything happen (and in the interests of honesty) I answered ‘yes’ to both of these questions. After that, we explored all possible options/avenues to obtain medical clearance for me to dive, including a 7 hour wild goose chase round trip back to Ko Samui to visit a diving specialist doctor, but to no avail. In the end, we sacrificed a large proportion of our deposit, and were left on Ko Tao, feeling rather frustrated and with no accommodation. Gutted.
However, we made the best of our stay. To soften the blow, we found a pleasant hut near the beach and had a great unplanned night of revelry that started with a particularly lovely pair of pizzas in an Italian restaurant with glasses of wine (my glass of red was so good that we followed it up with a full bottle – special treat) and ended up with us sitting on the beach, drinking a bucket of rum and coke, watching fire shows and dancing in the sand. Oh no, sorry, I’ve just remembered – after the bar closed we went for a dip in the sea; it was literally as warm as bath water.
Although scuba diving was out of the question, we decided we’d have a look into a snorkelling trip, which we did on our penultimate day on the island, and it was excellent. We spent the day on a small boat moving to various sites around the small island, snorkelling amongst the coral formations and observing the wonderland of sub-aqua life that plays out under the waves. A friendly crew, a complimentary lunch and free tea and coffee (always a clincher in my eyes) made for a great day out. A particular highlight for me was diving repeatedly off the top level of the boat into the clear waters – I’m such a kid!
So although our time on Ko Tao was nothing like what we had had planned, we ended up with good memories from our stay there. Looking forwards, we had a vague South-Westerly direction in mind as we knew that we were going to be heading to Malaysia at the start of April. We were wondering about visiting Ko Phi-Phi, famous for being the setting for Alex Garland’s ‘The Beach’, and we’d also heard good things about Krabi and Long Beach on Ko Lanta … but for fear of turning into total beach bums (even more so than we’d become already), we opted for a mini-jungle adventure first in the form of a stay at Khao Sok National Park, a 160 million year old lowland rainforest in central southern Thailand featuring the vast Chiaw Lan lake.
It was a refreshing change from the beach to open the door of our hut and see a palette of shades of green, interspersed with flashes of colour from various flowers, and to hear the never-ending chamber music of the forest; some call it a symphony, but to my ears it’s a far more delicate score, I’m just sorry I can’t name any of the instruments. Actually, that’s not quite true, there is one specific sound that we heard intermittently but that became familiar – that of the Tockay Gecko. It’s a large gecko, a sort of greeny grey colour, with orange spots, and it makes a very distinctive ‘to-kay, to-kay, to-kay’ sound. The sound doesn’t last for long though and they seem to run out of steam after about five or six ‘to-kay’s and end with a sort of sigh, as if their call takes a huge effort each time.
Apparently, the best way to see Khao Sok is to book an overnight tour, so that’s what we did. We jumped into the back of a pick-up and were whisked off with a bunch of others towards the park. The geography of the place is absolutely stunning and we were amazed by the gargantuan limestone rock formations that rose up either side of the road – and we weren’t even in the park yet. Soon we reached a jetty, and were ushered into a long slender wooden boat that housed a huge, growling diesel engine at its centre. The driver sat nonchalantly on a battered seat that appeared to have been removed from the cab of a truck (probably the same one from which they nabbed the engine) and revved the beast with his foot. The first part of our trip was to be a boat ride across Chiaw Lan lake, a man-made lake created to power a hydro-electric dam, which forms the centre piece to Khao Sok. Once our boat was loaded, the driver gunned the engine and we were soon leaping and lurching across the surface of the emerald lake, to be greeted almost immediately by more limestone karst formations, this time rising up out of the water. These rocks (or are they mountains?) are so impressive; huge in scale and sheer in gradient, they look down from all sides, asserting their dominance on the landscape. Trees and shrubs clamber for space, covering every inch of the rocks, leaving only the steepest of cliff faces uninhabited. And they do have something of the look of faces about them; a white limestone background is painted with burnt oranges and reds, shades of green and brown, hues of purple and blue; flashes of yellow put the finishing touches to this giant geological paint palette.
As we travelled further along the lake, the mountains gradually reduced in size, and we soon saw evidence of the landscape as it had once been in the form of tree trunks standing in the water near the edges of the islands. These leafless and lifeless trees, ashen and grey in colour, were bizarrely haunting. The futility of their plight for survival made for interesting viewing and I desperately tried to catch something worthwhile on a photograph – silhouetting the trunks against the water and rocks behind.
Soon we reached our overnight accommodation – a group of floating bamboo huts. Now, when they said we would be staying in floating huts, I imagined a carefully engineered construction of floating platforms, specifically designed for the purpose…oh no, not even close! The huts were balanced on huge tree trunks that were sunk two or three feet below the surface of the water. Onto these major trunks had been tied and nailed a lattice of various other logs and lengths of bamboo creating a floating platform that provided a foundation for the feet of the huts. The unplanned, chaotic nature of the construction proved to be a large part of its charm, enhanced further by the way the whole series of huts rose and fell with the waves each time a boat arrived or departed. That, and the fact that we were in a secluded part of the lake surrounded on three sides by the forest.
After a bit of lake swimming, we had lunch (which I particularly enjoyed because there were seconds available. And thirds!), and then Pon, our guide, took us hiking into the jungle to find a cave. Although the path was well-worn, and this was clearly a trek that lots of people do, we still enjoyed working our way through the bamboo forest. We quickly came to a stream and Pon pointed out a large collection of butterflies that had formed on the opposite shore, some large black ones with white flecks and some smaller, bright yellow ones. When he crossed, they took off and the air was momentarily alive with colour. At this point, Pon also explained that we would be getting wet feet on this trek, so we may as well just walk across the stream. Every one of us, however, stepped carefully across the slender branch that acted as a bridge. Five minutes later, we had to cross the stream again. ‘You will get wet feet later, so don’t worry. Walk in the water, it’s ok,’ he said. This time we each picked our way across stepping stones. This scenario played out a couple more times as our path weaved back and forth across the stream, and most of us were still trying to prevent the integrity of our dry shoes right up until we reached the cave – which was an entirely pointless exercise as the stream runs right through the length of the cave!
The musty smell hits you as soon as you venture through the opening in the rock, and Pon lead us progressively further down the cave, with the sounds of trickling water intermingling with the noises of bats. We had head torches on and saw large stalagmites and stalactites, smooth channels carved out of the rock by flood waters, bizarre formations created as water seeps through the limestone, various large spiders, some bizarre insects and numerous bats hanging from the ceiling. And flying – yep, the bats were flying. A lot!
About half way through the cave, Pon stopped us and took all our cameras and valuables, ominously placing them in a dry-bag. ‘The water gets a bit deeper,’ he said, ‘maybe up to here (indicating his thighs), or here (indicating his waist) or maybe here (indicating his chest).’ So much for keeping dry trainers! Sure enough, as the walls closed in around us, the water increased in speed and depth and we found ourselves wading up to our waists. In the end, there was a section where it was so deep that I just opted for a little swim! Soon enough, we made it out of the cave and worked our way back through the forest to the huts.
The remainder of the time on the tour was spent on various safari type expeditions (with varying success) and another trek to a second cave where the number of spiders and bats increased by about 1000% and there was also a pretty large snake hanging around too…
So we had a great time! Planning our onward moves saw us getting a mini-van to Krabi. This was to be the first of a few mini-van experiences in the next few weeks and all of them seemed to follow the same pattern: we’d get picked up pretty much on time, the driver would load the van in an intricate jigsaw system using every inch of available space for either people or luggage, and we’d be off. But we wouldn’t necessarily head towards our destination, we may run a few errands in our place of departure first, pick up a few packages, drop off some money, grab a bite to eat, that sort of thing. And then, throughout the journey, we could stop or deviate at any given moment to complete an errand from earlier, or chat to another mini-van driver, or pick up another unexpected passenger for a part of the journey. And so the saga continues until you eventually reach your destination, at which point you probably need to book some onward transport because you’re nowhere really close to where they said you’d end up. Standard mini-van operational protocol it seems.
Krabi town turned out to be a pretty quiet place with the only distinguishing feature being a night food market on the harbour. So we got some great fried fish there, and made plans to get to Railay the following morning, where we had an unexpectedly awesome few days.
Railay is like Khao Sok but on the sea. The rock formations are just as gargantuan and impressive and the fact that it’s brimming with beautiful beaches and calm seas just elevates it to new heights. Railay is also famous for rock climbing, something which neither Hels nor I had ever done. Problematically however, you can only reach Railay by boat as it’s peninsular location is not served by any roads, and that means that the accommodation prices are sky high – well, in relative terms anyway. More importantly, the beer is also inordinately expensive, an altogether more challenging situation that involved a lot of searching around and comparing prices but to no real avail!
We managed to bag a hut on a hill on the edge of the forest, a bit of a walk away from everything but about the only place that was a reasonable price. We didn’t mind the walk to and fro and it had the happy coincidence of walking us right past a very zen coffee shop, sometime bar and rock climbing outfit that was run by a dredlocked dude called Chaow. He also plays the guitar a bit and we spent an amusing evening listening to his part-renditions of songs that he could only remember bits of! I did join in with a bit of harmony when he was playing Stir it Up though, and he also did a pretty decent Proud Mary… We (unbelievably it seems looking back) weren’t sure whether we wanted to have a go at rock climbing so we spent a day exploring first. The guide book said that there was a ‘hidden lagoon’ that could be found by following the path and signs (so not that hidden I guess!) but that the path was challenging and steep in places. Although we’d semi planned to visit the lagoon, we hadn’t really thought it would be that hard of a hike and so both of us were wearing flip flops when we saw the sign pointing us up a hill. The ‘path’ wasn’t really a path at all, more a muddy clamber/scramble up a slippery hillside that enticed you in and then made you just want to keep going. We considered going back to get our hiking shoes but our hut was a fair way off and, well, how hard could it be? The presence of a thick rope to help you get up the hill, and the stream of sweaty, muddied hikers returning in the opposite direction should have given us a clue, but we started and were soon bewitched by the need to carry on. Starting onto the path was like walking into a different ecosystem; super hot and humid air meant that I was drenched in sweat almost immediately – an attractive image I know. It was so hot that my feet began to slip around in my flip flops making them worse than useless, so I opted for a bare-foot approach. Getting back in touch with nature felt great, until we hit the final part of the hike. Once you had climbed up, to get to the lagoon, the path then descended again rapidly, ending in three 10 metre vertical rock faces. Once again, there were ropes present to aid climbing down and back up again but after the first one Hels decided to take the safer option of staying put while I belligerently ventured onwards. The climbs were really tricky and pretty nerve wracking (no harness to save you if you slipped), but I made it down and came into the lagoon. It was a pretty cool sight, and yet another geographical formation that I have no idea how to really describe or explain, but it was a huge, almost perfectly circular opening filled with a shallow and very muddy lagoon. The surrounding walls of rock rose sixty or seventy metres straight up and the only way in or out was this slight crack down which I had climbed moments before. I felt like I should swim, so I did – in a fashion – and then got a fellow explorer to take a few pictures before heading back up to meet Helena. By the time we made it back to our starting point we were sweaty, filthy (I’d ruined a pair of shorts I bought in Bangkok!) but happy with our adventure.
Over dinner that night, we discussed whether or not to try rock climbing. We were still feeling a bit sore about the Ko Tao experience, and this was another relatively large expense in terms of our day-to-day budget. It didn’t take very long really – we pretty much came to the conclusion that we’re on this trip to have a go at things when the opportunities arise so we would go for it (we just prayed it wasn’t going to go to waste).
We were not disappointed! Coming down to the cafe in the morning, we met up with our instructor Chaow and he equipped us with shoes and harnesses. Since his shop is directly at the base of a rock face, we just stepped round to the rock to begin. We were taught to tie a safe knot, then made to untie, re-tie, untie, re-tie, untie… Well, you get the picture. Chaow then started explaining to me how to belay (at least I think that’s what it’s called), where you stand at the bottom of the rock face holding onto the end of a rope as a climber scales the rock. It’s a crucial job in rock-climbing because you are the climber’s safety mechanism – if they fall and you let the rope go, they keep falling. Not good. So I was listening intently, trying to take it all in, not realising that the reason he was telling me was because I was about to belay for him while he climbed up the rock to secure a ‘top rope’. Once there is a top rope in place, it’s easier to climb because the rope goes from the climber’s harness, up to a secure point high on the rock, and back down to the person who is belaying. The only problem is that to get the rope there, someone has to ‘lead climb’ the rock, clipping into safety points along the way. All the technical stuff aside, Chaow had basically put his safety in my hands after a three minute lesson – I was a little nervous!
His initial climb went without a hitch though (the chances of him falling were next to nil), and soon Chaow was back at the bottom with us and Helena was tying herself onto the rope. Chaow wasn’t a fan of over-complicating things unnecessarily and so he just told Hels to climb – which she did, very well indeed! I was a little nervous for her, especially after the experience at the lagoon the day before, but she got all the way to the top with minimal fuss and came back down buzzing! I followed next and also made it to the top, much less gracefully, but also loved it. You do have to take a moment to wonder what you’re doing and how you got there when you’re half way up a rock face, looking out over Railay’s beach with the sea reaching off into the distance … incredible!
After our first climb we had a little break before attempting another one. Chaow assured us that this one was the same difficulty and this time I went first. It was totally different, especially at the start as the rock was quite flat. ‘Use the crack on the side,’ said Chaow, and I found myself trying to climb sort of sideways up the rock. And then suddenly, and it was very sudden, I realised I couldn’t hold onto where I was anymore and just fell off. Now, that was a bit scary to say the least! Chaow hadn’t mentioned anything about falling and I wasn’t mentally prepared for it at all! But never fear, the harness held (and somehow this small guy didn’t take off when I fell off the rock) and I just got myself back into shape on the rock, had another go, and this time made it up to the top. Hels went second and fell off too, at exactly the same spot (I had to conceal my competitive sense of relief at this point…) but also made it to the top with no major issues.
Our third and final climb was double the height. ‘This one’s harder, right?’ I asked. ‘No, pretty much the same,’ came the reply. On this climb, both Hels and I learned that climbing is as much about falling off as it is about getting to the top. There was an outcrop of rock that foxed me entirely!! I just could not get over it and every time I tried, I lost the grip from my hands, and my legs were no use at this point. I was getting tired, my arms were burning and I was ready to give in. ‘I can’t do it,’ I shouted down. ‘OK, one more go,’ said Chaow. This is it, I thought. I chalked my hands, visualised what I needed to do and where my hands and feet were going. ‘When you get there, you have to go fast,’ came the advice from below. So I went for it and … fell off. Again!! ‘Argh!! Damn it! OK, I’m done.’ ‘OK, one more go,’ said Chaow, again. Bearing in mind that this was about the eighth time I’d attempted it, I was sure he must have been getting frustrated, but I went for it again and somehow, finally, managed to haul myself over the outcrop and up the rock. The sensation of elation (and relief) was tangible as adrenalin rich blood fizzed through my veins. ‘Yes!’ I didn’t make it to the very top of this climb as there was another tricky bit that defeated me but it felt like a victory. Hels also struggled on the same section but got over it in many fewer attempts than I’d taken!
That evening we were contemplating extending our stay in Railay and doing some more climbing but we realised we were getting a little short on time and our Malaysian race deadline was fast approaching. So we decided on Ko Lanta for our next destination, booked another magical mystery tour mini-van experience, and searched the internet for accommodation options. ‘I can get us a double room in a place called Chill Out House for two nights,’ said Hels. ‘Chill Out House sounds pretty good,’ I said, ‘Let’s go there.’ This was to prove an awesome choice, but that’s for the next blog!