Last Saturday Ben and I went to Krabi for vacation. This past week was midterms (July 23rd to the 25th), so we had a paid vacation. Since we can’t proctor midterm exams (because we can’t answer the students questions in Thai), we basically had no reason to be present during the midterms and thus had the time off. We decided to then ask for Monday and Tuesday off (July 21st and July 22nd), so we could have the full nine days off.
Krabi is in southern Thailand, on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula (the west side). I decided to go to Krabi because I had heard that the Andaman Sea had nicer beaches than the Gulf of Thailand, but I wanted to avoid going to Phuket (which I’ve heard is pretty, but overrun with tourists).
Thus, last Saturday, Ben and I prepared to catch flights to fly from Nan to Bangkok, and then Bangkok to Krabi. Although each flight was about an hour and a half, there were only a few flights out of Nan each day (we also wanted to use the same airline from Bangkok to Krabi because it was cheapest) so we basically had to spend the whole day travelling (although most of the day just waiting at airports).
Saturday morning, Kru Gai drove us to a bus stop in Tha Wang Pha where we could catch the bus to Nan. She told the driver to drop us off in front of the airport, since the bus passes right by the airport. We got on the bus and took the short ride to the Nan airport (about an hour).
The Nan Airport is interesting. It is the smallest airport I have flown out of (not surprising considering Nan is a city of about 25,000 people), but still nice. It was kind of bizarre though, because as we walked into the airport we had to walk down a long road and it was unclear where the terminal would be. We came to a building that looked like the entrance, but it turned out to be closed. I immediately thought we were screwed, and became frustrated, until some random Thais pointed further down the road while saying something in Thai.
We walked down the road for a while before seeing the terminal. The terminal is actually very new and modern, I was surprised by how clean and spacious it was (especially compared to the bus stations which seem dilapidated and very dirty). The layout of the airport was pretty bizarre though. The long entrance road went by more residential houses than airport-related buildings; I guess most of the employees live as well as work at the airport.
The airport only operates two airlines and has one gate in the terminal. When we entered the terminal we didn’t see anyone else, even employees. We were definitely the only customers there although the employees started coming out of the woodwork eventually. There was one food stand that sold food at reasonable prices; I got a cup of coffee for 15 baht ($0.47).
It was very relaxing to fly rather than take a bus. Everything was spacious and well laid out, compared to the bus stations where we never really know what is going on, when our bus is going to arrive, or where the bus will park.
We had a very long layover in Bangkok, so even with the two short hour and a half flights we didn’t arrive in Krabi until about 7:30. When we arrived at the airport we took a bus into Krabi town (about 45 minutes) to our hostel.
Our hostel was very nice and clean, although it was kind of a party hostel for farangs. It was themed like a school, so all of the rooms were labeled as different subjects, our room being geography. There were ten beds per room (bunk beds), but there were only four other people in our room so it wasn’t too crowded. Each bunk bed had a giant locker under the bed which was really nice in that we could lock all of our stuff in the locker so we didn’t have to carry it around. After checking out our hostel, Ben and I deposited our stuff and walked around town.
Near our hostel there was a walking area with lots of foods and crafts. It was incredibly crowded, but it was cool to see all of the stuff being sold. There were also several different kids break dancing for money which was pretty hilarious. After walking around the market, we headed to a less populous area to find food. At this point, Ben and I have learned that in most places in Thailand, the best place to find food is on the street. Usually there are small carts that double as outdoor kitchens where you can order food, and then sit on the tables they have set up on the sidewalk. The street food is just as good as the food in restaurants, although it is not well presented, and the atmosphere is not always pleasant.
Anyway, we stopped at a street food place where I got kuay tiao sen lak (glass noodle soup with pork). We quickly learned that food in the south of Thailand is about double the price of the food in the north (although still dirt cheap by American standards). After eating, we retired to the hostel, where we relaxed at the rooftop bar before calling it a day.
We had decided to depart for Koh Lanta (a nearby island), the next day. During the high season (January to March), there is a ferry that goes straight from Krabi to Koh Lanta. However, being the low season, we had to take a minibus which drives most of the way to the island, and then takes two car ferries to arrive at the island. We chose to visit Koh Lanta rather than Koh Phi Phi (one of the most famous and beautiful islands in Thailand) because it was known to have a more laid back feel with less tourists, and it is also much bigger so there are more areas and beaches to explore. There are actually two islands named Koh Lanta, Lanta Noi (uninhabited) and Lanta Yai which was where we were staying.
As we neared the islands, we began seeing clusters of mangroves which was cool. I thought the minibus was going to drop us off at the pier, but the driver actually offered to drive us to our hotel. However, I was unable to communicate the name of the hotel to the driver, so I just followed our progress on google maps and had him stop when we were nearby. After getting off the bus, a woman immediately approached and asked us where we were staying, she turned out to be one of the owners of the hotel and thus helped bring us to the hotel.
We had decided to splurge for a nicer hotel (by Thai standards that is, we were paying 380 baht or $11.91 a night each, so still cheap), as we wanted our stay on the island to be as relaxing as possible. The hotel was awesome; it was owned by a Swedish man and his Thai wife that we had met and was just off the main road, although up a hill so it was very quiet. Our room had a clear ocean view as well as a modern bathroom, a kitchen and a balcony. It was also nice to stay somewhere with a Western owner, so there was absolutely no miscommunication.
After checking into the hotel, we walked across the street down to Phra Ae Beach (also known as Long Beach). It was awesome finally getting to the beach after spending the last couple of months in the far north. The water was really nice, although almost too warm for my liking. There were tons of shells everywhere on the beach too, so I collected some as free souvenirs. I relaxed in the water for a while and then went back to the hotel and showered to prepare for dinner. We found a street place near our hotel, that we ended up eating the majority of our meals at as it was much cheaper than the posh restaurants catering to tourists, and it served up all of the Thai classic dishes we had become used too (e.g. kuay tiao sen lak, pad thai, pad sii ew, suki, ba mii giew mu daeng). After dinner we walked to a nearby bar where we played some pool, also a luxury that I am unable to enjoy in Tha Wang Pha, before going back to bed.
The next day we decided to check out scuba diving centers. The owner of our hotel had told us that because it was the low season, many of the scuba diving centers would be closed and we there was a chance we would not be able to scuba dive at all. Although a couple places we checked out were closed, we found a place called Scubafish that was open. Scubafish is the highest rated scuba diving center on the island by Lonely Planet, and lived up to its rating.
We decided to do an open-water certification course which is a four-day course with two days of theory and two days of open water dives (four dives in total). Our instructor, Magnus, was Swedish and an interesting guy. He started diving in Sweden, and had lived in Egypt before moving to Thailand. He was very nice and helpful, so it made me feel more comfortable that I would be learning to scuba dive from him. After the first day of theory (which took all-day, about 9 – 4 pm), we practiced a confined water dive which was just scuba diving in a pool. It was nice to test out the equipment before our dives in the ocean but the pool was not very ideal as it was only a couple feet deep and there was no deep end. This made it pretty awkward learning to swim underwater, as I did not have enough space to move around freely and find my buoyancy. The next day we were supposed to dive out in the ocean but the weather was too choppy for the boat to go out, so we completed the theory. After going through the five chapters of the book on open-water diving, we had to take four quizzes and then a final test. Since I had read a bit of the book on my own and talked about most of the rest with Magnus, I found the test pretty easy and was glad to complete the theory behind the course.
The next day the weather was nice enough to dive, and I was excited but a little nervous at the same time. We were picked up at our hotel, and driven to the pier with other scuba-goers where we loaded onto our boat. There were about ten other people diving that day, so there was a decent amount of divers and instructors on the boat. The boat ride was actually pretty choppy, but fortunately I had taken a pill to prevent seasickness so I felt okay. We were also fed a simple breakfast of sandwiches and bananas on the boat. The boat ride was about an hour and a half to our destination, Koh Phi Phi Ley (the island with the “closed-off” beach from the movie The Beach). This island is uninhabited and the area we cruised up to had steep limestone (?) cliffs with cave depressions. The first site we were diving at was an artificial reef which consisted of giant hollow concrete blocks that had been piled into pyramids in order to grow coral and harbor a reef ecosystem. I was excited to finally dive in the ocean, so that I would have enough space to be able to get used to the equipment in the water.
Before I had scuba dived, I had heard many people describe the ‘weightlessness’ of scuba diving. What they are describing is finding your neutral buoyancy in the water, or the buoyancy in which you do not sink or float. You achieve neutral buoyancy by inflating or deflating your BCD jacket (buoyancy-control device) in the water. The deeper you are in the water, the more air you need in your jacket since there is more pressure and the air is compressed. As you ascend in the water, the air in your BCD expands also, so you need to slowly deflate your BCD as you ascend so that you do not ascend to the surface too quickly (ascending too quickly increases your risk of getting decompression sickness also, or the bends, which is when there is too much nitrogen in your blood).
The first two dives, I was still learning how to find my neutral buoyancy, which was not easy at first. When you are neutrally buoyant, you theoretically float in one place, but you actually descend as you breathe out and ascend as you breathe in because of the air leaving and entering your lungs. This was also disorienting to me at first, but after a while I started to figure out how I could use my breathing to control where I was swimming in order to swim above the reefs without hitting them.
Thus, even though I was all over the place on my first dive, it was an incredible experience. Magnus had told us hand signals for a lot of different fish that we would see, and it was cool when he would point them out underwater. We saw some Moorish Idols, a Yellow-edged Moray eel, Western Clownfish, a Seal-faced Puffer, a Tall-fin Batfish, Beaked Coralfish and Indian Lionfish among others. I love that when you are scuba diving you feel totally immersed in the underwater environment, and some fish have the curiosity to come up to you and check you out. Seeing schools of fish from below was also very cool.
However, being the first dive, I also had some trouble equalizing my ears as I went deeper underwater and experienced a ‘squeeze’. A squeeze is when the pressure outside your ears (in the water) is more than the pressure in your ear canals, and thus you feel a squeeze in your ears. There are several methods to equalize, but the only one that worked for me was to hold my nose and blow air into the back of my nose. I had a hard time getting a hang of this, and so I experienced some unpleasant pressure, but I also knew that if I ascended a few meters I could lessen the pressure, and Magnus knew we would have trouble equalizing at first, so he was constantly checking and making sure we were okay to keep going.
The second dive was also very cool. We went to another site along Koh Phi Phi Ley, which was a sloped rock wall with a reef on it. I saw a Giant Moray eel, Indian Lionfish, a Squat Lobster, and plenty of Barrel Sponges. I still felt like I was all over the place, but I wasn’t crashing into the bottom as much as I did on the first dive.
After we finished the second dive, we practiced a couple more of the skills we had practiced in the pool. Some of the skills we had to learn for the course were: taking off and putting on our mask underwater, clearing water from our mask underwater, taking out our regulator (breathing apparatus) and finding it underwater, using our buddy’s alternate air source underwater (his second regulator, for situations in which we were low on or out of air), taking off and putting on our weight belts underwater, taking off our scuba equipment and putting it back on underwater and on the surface, and finding our neutral buoyancy underwater. After completing some of the tasks, we got back on the boat and had some delicious Thai food for lunch. We also talked about what fish we had seen underwater, and marked these down in our log books. After the dives my left ear felt very clogged with water, so I was a little worried about the dives the next day, but determined to finish the course at the same time.
The next day, we were fortunate that the weather was calm enough for us to go out diving again. This time we boated out to Koh Haa for our first dive, which was at another reef on a sloping rock wall. On this dive, I started to feel much more comfortable underwater, and I felt like I actually could find my buoyancy and thus was able to swim around near the bottom without hitting anything. At the very beginning of the dive, I saw a cool jellyfish that I made sure to avoid. There was a weak current in the area as well, so we began the dive swimming into the current (so that we could ride the current at the end of the dive). We saw some chromodoris which were very pretty (colorful sea slugs), more Lionfish, a Porcupine Pufferfish, more Moray eels, and a couple Scorpionfish which were very neat as well. We also dived deeper than we had on the first day (down to 18 meters or about 60 feet). As we turned back to ride the current, it was fun to feel myself being propelled pretty fast along the wall, and I actually enjoyed the opportunity learning how to ride the current but also stopping when I wanted to observe something on the reef. I didn’t have many problems equalizing on the dive, so I enjoyed it all and never really felt uncomfortable.
For the next dive, our boat cruised out to what seemed like a random spot in the open ocean, and stopped. While kind of intimidating at first, it was cool as we dived down and saw a cool rock spot with tons of sea life. I really understood what Magnus had said about the hidden beauty of the underwater world, as the spot looked very unremarkable from the surface, but turned out to harbor plenty of cool sea life including some Mantis Shrimp, Scorpionfish and Oriental Sweetlips. This spot had a strong current, so I got more used to dealing with the current underwater. I felt very comfortable with my buoyancy, and felt much more in control than on the first couple dives. Although we didn’t see any leopard sharks (which the spot was known for), I still really enjoyed the dive and felt satisfied that I had finally completed everything I needed for my open water certification.
After finishing diving, Ben and I also checked out Mu Koh Lanta National Park. The National Park is at the southern tip of the island. It was very small, but had a cool lighthouse, tons of monkeys, and even a couple monitor lizards. While Ben and I were taking pictures near the lighthouse, a bunch of monkeys scaled the wall behind us and inadvertently posed in our pictures which was hilarious. I was a little wary of the monkeys though, while we were hiking around the park some of them sort of rushed at me which freaked me out so I warded them off by swinging around my camera and got out of there. The coolest part of the park was definitely seeing the monitor lizards; we first spotted one swimming across a lagoon and then another roaming up a hill. They are so huge; they even make the Tokay geckos around Nan seem tiny.
Other than diving, relaxing at the beach, and exploring the national park, we just hung out and got a few massages. I have been getting a massage at least once a week since school has started. In Tha Wang Pha the massages are only 120 baht ($3.73) for an hour, but on Koh Lanta they were 300 baht for an hour ($9.33 – still ridiculously cheap by American standards). Thai massages are generally pleasant and relaxing. They do hit some pressure points and stretch your body in ways that aren’t the most pleasant, but it is one of my favorite ways to de-stress from teaching (or in this case, relaxing on an island).
During our wait at Krabi airport for our flight back, we were in the same terminal as Krabi FC (one of the Thai soccer teams). It was interesting that no one seemed to care in the slightest that the soccer team was there (Thai people do love soccer); I guess it was sort of the way CU students felt about seeing our football team around Boulder (they sucked).
After our long day of traveling, we finally arrived at Nan airport around 9:30 PM (we flew out of Krabi at 12:10). Upon arriving to the airport, we were told by laughing strangers that there were no more buses to Tha Wang Pha, and that we would have to spend the night in Nan or hire a taxi. I was unpleased by our options, but after calling one of the Thai teachers, we found out about a late bus that would take us to Tha Wang Pha. However, even at the bus station the employees seemed to be skeptical of our plan (they seemed to not really know if the bus would come or not), but we decided to wait anyway, as neither of us wanted to rest until we were finally back.
Finally, at 11:45 the bus finally came (we were told it would come at 10:30), and we got back to Tha Wang Pha. It was a long day of travelling, and very relieving to finish it all up that day.
The next day (Sunday) was my birthday, and I basically just took it easy. As a present to myself I got a two-hour massage, and then ate at one of my favorite restaurants in town for dinner. It wasn’t the most memorable of birthdays, but it was nice and relaxing.
The Monday after, my class of Mattayohm 1/1 students (seventh graders) bought me a cake for my birthday. It was very nice of them, and a great way to start my week.
Other than that, there was also a singing competition at the school on Thursday. It was kind of bizarre because one of the Thai teachers was hinting that our classes after lunch would be cancelled but said she was unsure. It turned out that it was ‘implied’ that our classes were cancelled, although never made official. This was another example of bizarre Thai policy that somehow prevented the teachers from being liable for the students during that time (it didn’t make any sense to me either). However, the singing competition was fun to watch. I admired the students who were bold enough to sing in front of the school, and the students in the audience were hilarious too, they were screaming so much it was basically like being at a Beatles concert before they decided to stop touring.
The rest of the week was uneventful, although next week should be nice as Ben and I have been invited to help some of the directors from the province learn English for two days in Phrae. We will be paid extra on top of our teaching salary to miss Tuesday and Wednesday and help the directors. I am looking forward to missing two school days, and it should be interesting to meet some directors from around the area. Sawadee khrap!