4th December 2011
As the dark of night slowly lightened bringing the new day, the crew and shore men unloaded the ferry’s cargo onto motorcycles, pickup trucks, and any number of weird and wonderful transportation the boys slept on while Tania and I took our first look at our new destination. The bay was scattered with long tail boats bobbing gently in the swell and schools of fish swam through the clear water. At the bows the harbour was still relatively quiet save for the unloading and beyond, the town of Mae Head slept on through the dawn.
As 7am approached we gently woke the boys from their slumbers and gathered our gear. Descending the gangways to the cargo deck we dodged the workers and vehicles and made our way onto the dock. Heading inland we climbed the up-road past the ever present 7-11 and found the bakery and café recommended by Ayesha from Master Divers where we grabbed some breakfast whilst we waited for the shops and dive schools to open their doors. As we checked emails and finished our coffees the boys were off exploring.
They have a fascination with motorbikes and mopeds which I guess is not that unusual for boys, and they found a nice one across the road. Mateo mounted it and was happily turning the throttle and pretending to drive it when Luca pressed the starter. The engine fired into life and since Mateo was still revving there was a sudden surge forward pitching the bike over little Mat unable to control the machine. We watched in slow motion as the bike shot off and then quickly fell to the ground, fortunately not on top of the young man – but it did give him one hell of a scare, and Luca too, not to mention us who could only watch helplessly from the other side of the road.
Racing across the street to rescue the little fellow there were mixed emotions of fear for his safety, he was fine, and then anger at their actions, a perfectly normal reaction for any parent, swiftly followed by worry that the bike was damaged and we would have a large bill to pay. Everything turned out OK, but it was a big shock for all concerned, and a lesson learned for the little ones that motorbikes were not toys and should be treated with respect.
With the drama over we headed along the seafront until we found Master Divers (http://www.master-divers.com). We were warmly greeted by Elaine (the manager) and made to feel instantly at home. She and Rachel (the shop girl) explained the Open Water course to us and how the schedule panned out. They searched out accommodation for us, and they had also found a play school for the little ones in Sairee, the next town over. This meant that instead of having to do our courses separately, Tania, Oskar and I could take our Open Water course all together whilst the boys got some education and a chance to play with some children of their own age. While we were discussing the ins-and-outs the boys were looking around and playing with the shop cat (Grumble) and Oskar was introducing himself to the staff, eager to know what was going on and why people were doing what they were doing.
When you go to a company to train you safely in a new and potentially dangerous skill, you have to feel you trust them fully. Master Divers are a professional setup, with friendly and dedicated staff, knowledgeable in all aspects of scuba diving but small enough to have a family feel, and of all the dive centres we had contacted they had been the first to reply and had kept up a constant stream of information and help via email before we arrived. We were impressed and signed up with them for our Open Water course.
Elaine had found us a bungalow a few doors down from the shop and so we headed up there and settled ourselves in. A single bedroom with one king and one double bed, a bathroom and a kitchen area with a fridge and a sick, but no stove made up the accommodation. The bungalow was set in a leafy garden and the porch area had a couple of chairs and a sun lounger made from recycled tyres. After unpacking we ate a quick lunch and then headed to the beach with our snorkel gear. The visibility was better than Khao Lak and the sea bed was littered with sea cucumbers and the few fish we saw went about their business below us. The water was warm and the sun shone on us as we swam lazily through the gentle sea.
The boys left us to swim with a couple of Thai boys who were in the sea next to us and then they moved to the two couples who were swimming alongside. They were unprepared for the ensuing attack as the 3 monsters started a water fight and chased the ladies through the waves splashing and giggling – fortunately they were good sports and took it in good spirits. We eventually coaxed the boys out of the water and walked the short distance back to the bungalow to clean up, before heading out to the Tattoo Bar a few doors up for dinner. The food was OK but nothing special. We were all pretty tired after the night ferry journey and it was with great delight that we fell into bed and shortly after into a deep sleep.
5th December 2011
We awoke to the sound of birdsong and sunlight streaming through the windows. The air was damp after overnight rain and the towels and swimming stuff were wetter then when we had hung them up the night before. However, the sun was shining so there was a reasonable chance that they would dry out, eventually.
We popped into Master Divers to finalise the training plan for Tania, Oskar and me, and to sort out the play school for Luca and Mateo. Then it was onto exciting things – motorbike rental! It is difficult to imagine anything exciting the boys more than the prospect of having our own bikes to zoom around the island on. Just up from Mater Divers is RPM (Red Power Motorbikes) run by a lovely and reasonable Thai and highly recommended by MD, particularly as, if the worst happened and we crashed, he would only charge for the repairs rather than a whacking amount which most of the other renters do on the island.
Kitted out with two bikes and helmets for everyone we set off to explore the island a little and to visit the play school. Heading out of Mae Head (the main town and port) we arrived in Sairee, smaller and more compact built around a crossroads. Straight on (north) leads to dive resorts and private beaches, left to the beach and the various clubs and bars, and right leads into the quiet suburbs with a few hotels and some smaller roads which are largely residential. It was here that we turned to find the play school.
The area is given over to trees and large fan palms, and quiet secluded spot with white painted bungalows hiding in the vegetation. Crossing a small bridge we arrived at the play school. Nicely decorated with a play area out the front, a nursery school to the left, and a newly created infant school to the right, as some of the children had now reached the age for proper schooling. We introduced ourselves and had a quick look around. We discussed how it would work with the children and the PADI course and then bid them farewell.
At the crossroads we went North to see what we could see. Eventually we arrived at the end of the road and Dusit Buncha Resort where a sign advertised a “view point”. We thought, why not? and defended the very steep slope to the resort, through an arch created by two giant boulders and winding our way through wooden buildings, walkways and steps to arrive at the coast.
The view was pretty good ;o and the islands you can see have a resort on them and two dive sites (Japanese Gardens and Twins) – so in the afternoons the waters are full of boats and divers exploring the underwater sights. I’d be pretty miffed if I had stumped up the cash to stay on this island, only to have the vista blotted out by bobbing boats and bubbling breaths from wet suited adventurers. Still, I am not going to moan as we are likely to dive there ourselves on our course!
We tracked back to Mae Head for a quick spot of lunch and then its was PADI Open Water time for us. Starting at 2pm we hit the books, videos and module reviews with our instructor Donnie. Luca and Mateo amused themselves with Uno and electronic devices, but watched some of the videos, particularly enjoying the “silly man” who usually featured a couple of times doing something silly!
I am not going to go into great detail about the course in this post, as we will do a family one all about our diving adventures in the very near future.
As Tania had only rented her scooter for 1 day we decided to head back to Sairee for dinner so that all the boys could have another ride. Parking up by 7-11 we wandered about looking for somewhere to eat that also had WiFi. The first place we sat down in said that they had wifi, but it was actually someone else’s that they had “acquired” the password for. After 5 mins the WiFi connection went down and didn’t reappear, so Tania (slightly fuming) cancelled the order and we left, the restaurant staff none too happy. If you lie to your customers and are caught out in the lie then you should not be surprised if the customer takes positive action and leaves.
Across the road was an Indian Restaurant – Roti!!!! But no WiFi… hmmpphhh. Moving on down we found a promising Thai place – no WiFi though they pretended they had (it was the next door places). So we ended up next door and Simple Life which was one of the dive places we had been in contact with before coming to Kho Tao. A large menu of western food (expensive) and Thai food (reasonable) was available which when it arrived was tasty and a good sized portion.
Sated, caught up on comms and the world in general we paid up and jumped on the bikes for the short trip back to Mae Head and our bungalow in the shade. All too soon the day was over, but we still had work to do for the course tomorrow. Oskar and Tania wimped out and went to bed, and I managed to get the end of module 2 before I too had to call it a night.
6th December 2011
Up and breakfasted we prepared all our things for the day, sacks for the boys, swim wear and dry sack, books and test sheets for us. Heading to Master Divers we spent the morning doing more theory work whilst Mat and Lu amused themselves. Soon enough, it was time to take Mateo and Luca to play school whilst Oskar and Tania sorted out some lunch and prepared our kit for diving for the afternoon. Luca and Mat were super excited about going to school and rushed to the door when we arrived. Miss Emily warmly greeted us and they were quickly settled in.
The school runs from 9-3pm and the diving finished at 4:30pm, so after school ended, the boys went to Gigi’s place (one of the teachers at the school) next door to stay with her grandson Phoenix who was also in their class. They had some food and some TV, but most importantly of all, there were loads of boys toys!! Woohoo, what a treat for them after 3 months of no toys. Tania, Oskar and I spent the afternoon diving and when we arrived back at the dive centre, I jumped on the bike and left Tania and Oskar to clean the kit and pack it away, speeding my way to Sairee to collect the boys. Oh how happy they were. What joy to have spent the afternoon in school with other kids, a super playground and songs and toys. They had passed a wonderful afternoon at school and then a Gigi’s afterwards and could not wait to go back the next day.
Thank goodness, because we had decided that the boys could go full time for the next few days due to changes to the course schedule. In short, Oskar had found it very cold in the water with his huge wetsuit and we had been forced to abort some of our confined water skills for fear of the little fellow turning bluer than the water! This meant a catch up session the following morning, and we couldn’t have the little ones around for that. When we told them they were over the moon.
Tania was super tired after the day’s exertions and so she elected to stay at home and go to bed rather than join us for dinner. So the boys went out on the town where we imbibed copious drinks and gorged until we could eat no more. Well, we popped into Tattoo Bar for some pizza and some fizzy pop and were home before the clock struck 8pm – what a wild life we lead – not like all the other divers on the island, that’s for sure. We returned to find Tania asleep reading her PADI manual, pencil still in hand, bless! I packed the boys off to bed and hit the books myself, sitting on the porch with the anti-mosquito coils burning by my feet and a cold beer in hand, the frogs croaking, crickets chirping and the odd millipede or two scurrying across the path below me. It could be worse I suppose!
7th December 2011
We were up early today and hit the road by 08:30 in order to get the boys to school and give me the time to get back to the dive centre in time for our day’s confined water skills. It wasn’t an issue to get them moving, they were so keen to go to school. It was a little harder getting Tania and Oskar up, but they made it to Master Divers before I returned.
The day passed, we trained and studied, swam and bubbled in the sea in front of the dive shop (so Oskar could warm up regularly) and it was a great day for us. The boys had a fab time at school again. The focus there was turning towards Christmas and so they spent the day making snow flakes and snow men, writing cards and decorating trees, singing songs and generally having a great time.
All too soon 5pm rolled around and I sped to Sairee to pick them up and return them back to Mae Head and our temporary home. They babbled excitedly about their day, almost as much as we did about ours – I am really not sure who is having more fun, the boys or us. It really doesn’t matter as long as we are all happy – and Tania and I were especially happy that day care had worked out and we could do the course all together. Result!
Here are some photos taken from the Pier next to Master Divers showing our dive boat, the dive centre, the long tail and some of the crew, plus an OK sunset ;o)
We ate at Pranee’s, a restaurant recommended by the good folk at Master Divers, it was a pleasant, friendly restaurant with good food and generous portions. Returning home, more study beckoned so the family duly went to bed and it was me, the mossies, module 4 and the Recreational Dive Planner – an essential tool in determining the level of nitrogen in one’s blood after a dive and for working out the maximum length for a subsequent dive; we don’t want to get the bends now, do we!
8th December 2011
Great excitement today all round. School for the little ones, and first open water dives for Tania, Oskar and I. Up and at ’em, breakfast done, I was soon on the way to the play school with Luca and Mateo, and then back to Master Divers for some underwater adventures. After a morning of study we had a little time to go and buy a wet suit for Oskar that actually fitted him and a long-sleeved rash vest. That coupled with another larger wet suit on top would surely be enough to keep the lean mean swimming machine warm during our open water dives…? It did the trick – woohoo!!
Dives done, skills passed we returned to shore and I headed off to get the boys from school, whilst Tania and Oskar once again washed all the kit – who got the better deal I wonder? The boys were once again happier than pigs in clover with their day at school, and to cap it all, they were entertained with some Michael Jackson tunes on DVD which they were dancing to when I arrived. Jumping on the scooter we cruised back to Mae Head and the dive centre. This time we rode all 5 of us on the bike back home (50m – please don’t panic dear reader) – which resulted in some very amused looks from locals and tourists alike.
As tomorrow was the day of our final exam for the PADI course, Tania, Oskar and I started revising whilst Luca and Mateo watched Tom and Jerry (in Thai, but cartoons are pretty much universal). Oskar had a little bit of trouble concentrating with the sound of the cartoon in the background – no surprise there then! We ploughed on for an hour until we had had enough and our tummies were beginning to rumble. Abandoning our homework we went to dinner at the Pranee’s where not only did the young men dine well, but they also got to watch Antonio Banderas in Zorro (or “My name is Puss-in-boots” as he is know to our children).
We headed home for an early night and were all soon in the land of nod, some of us dreaming about regulators and the first rule of scuba diving.
9th December 2011
Exam Day!! There was a palpable air of nervousness in the air. Not only did we have an exam to sit, but our final 2 dives and a good number of skills to demonstrate and pass in order to get our Open Water qualification. We were up early and breakfasted before 8am. Tania and Oskar put in some last minute revision whilst I got the boys ready and took them to school, waved them off at the gate and chatted with a few of the parents, before jumping back on my dependable steed to get back to the dive centre.
We had a good day’s exams and diving of which you can read about soon, and arrived back at Master Divers in a blaze of glory and congratulatory applause from our fellow divers on the boat – we were now Open Water Divers! The photo is at the moment we passed and a big thank you to Donnie who patiently and with good humour steered us through our course.
Once again leaving Tania and Oskar to clean up, I scooted over to Sairee to collect the boys from school (or rather Gigi’s). I chatted with Bree, the school manager, daughter of Gigi and mother of Phoenix about the possibility of the two boys continuing full time at the school until Christmas, and was met with a favourable response and a promise to think about a suitable fee including the days they had already been there for.
We headed back to Master Divers to see a slide show of the day’s photos taken by Phil. When we emerged, having bought the lot, we found that some malcontent had slashed the seat of my scooter for no apparent reason. I suppose that everywhere has random acts of vandalism but when it happens to your property it is difficult not to imagine that its personal. As we wracked our brains for a reason we arrived at no conclusion, the action was inexplicable. One thing was sure, it was going to cost us to get it repaired, additional expense that we can ill-afford. The scooter was due to be returned the next day which made it doubly annoying.
Tania and I had pretty much discounted Bangkok for Christmas and we had planned to go to Kho Phangnan, the neighbouring island. Other that ticking off another place we have visited, there was not really anything more that Kho Phangnan could offer us that we didn’t already have here on Kho Tao, plus we had made friends here, we got discounted fun dives, and there was a school for the little ones with Father Christmas arriving on a long tail boat on 23rd Dec. With the course over we had no reason to stay in our bungalow near the dive centre, and charged ourselves with finding somewhere we could call our own the next day, somewhere we could call home and make homely for Christmas in Thailand.
We ate an early dinner at Pranee’s again – no action movie this evening, a love story involving 2 people thrown together looking after an orphan and the convoluted path they follow to eventual realisation that they in fact love each other. Not the best film to watch with children aged between 10 and 5 who understand little about adult relationships and spend the whole film asking “Why?”, and who, when you explain why, then ask “But why?” Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings.. why indeed do we make our lives and relationships so overly complicated? That in itself probably requires a whole new blog!!! We left before the last reel to escape the questioning with a “they get together in the end”.
Still buoyed by our PADI success we skipped home to bed so as to ready ourselves for the following day’s house hunting and the inevitable packing.
10th December 2011
The new day dawned quietly, light crept into the room and the occasional bird song broke the silence. There was no particular rush to be anywhere today, our only deadline was to be out of the bungalow by 11am (to avoid incurring a charge) and our only task for the day was to find somewhere to live until after Christmas. We stowed our things once more into our backpacks, settled up with Save Bungalows and recovered our key deposit and then headed to Master Divers who would look after our gear until we found somewhere to stay.
We chatted with Rachel, Ayesha and Charlotte about possible places to live, preferably with two rooms and a kitchen and they came up with a few between them and even rang the owners to arrange for us to come and look at the places. On the seat-slashing they were as mystified as we were, but genuinely sorry that it had happened to us. So armed with potential properties we headed up the hill to RPM to extend the rental of my bike and get a new one for Tania. Showing the rental man the seat and explaining that it had been deliberately slashed sent him scurrying across the road to get the owner. He assessed the damage and told us that the cost would be just that of replacing the seat cover, 300 Baht Thank goodness that we had taken Master Divers advice and gone to RPM to hire the scooters, the ones near the beach charge an extortionate price for repairing damage that run into the thousands.
We explained that we were staying longer on the island and that we wanted to hire the scooters until Christmas, and would they do us a good price. Eventually after a bit of haggling and head scratching we got 10 Baht a day knocked off which we were very happy with, and we mounted up to head to Sairee to look at some houses.
First stop, the Bottle House, so called because it is part-constructed from glass bottles (rather cool and eco-friendly). As we approached the house the heavens opened and we got a good soaking before we were able to take refuge under a porch whilst we awaited the owner, an Aussie, to come and show us around. The bungalows were all single bedrooms with cooking areas, spacious enough, set in lovely surroundings – we could see ourselves there, but they were not exactly what we had in mind.
On the road to the play school we were told of an internet café that managed a number of properties in the area. Make sure to talk to the son was the advice we had been given as the mother did not speak much English. We called on him, a very genial man and welcoming, but he did not have any properties for us.
Strike two, where do we go from here? As we returned to Sairee main road the boys spotted Chloe, the mother of one of the girls from play school. We stopped to have a chat and in the course of the conversation we explained what we were up to and were looking for. Chloe straight away leaped into action, made some swift phone calls, and came up with a few ideas for places for us to stay which were unfortunately either gone or unsuitable. Then, a eureka moment. Just across the road from her place was a bungalow, two bedrooms, kitchen, lounge/diner, garden in a quiet cul-de-sac. We went to take a look and met Paw, who was looking after the property for a friend.
The house had only been rented out once with the previous tenants leaving sometime in June/July. It had not been cleaned and the last residents had left belongings behind, as well as mess everywhere, food in the fridge and cooker. Looking past the dead maggots and the mess, and the very slow draining toilet we realised that this was an ideal place for us to set up home until after Christmas. Paw and Chloe between them mobilised a clean-up crew and we were the renters of a great property in a superb location for 12,000 Baht for the month plus electricity at around 3,000 Baht (c. £300 all in or £10 per day).
Accommodation found we jumped on the bikes and headed back to Master Divers to pick up our gear. Now no-one in their right mind would attempt to move 2 adults, 3 children, 5 rucksacks, 2 other bags, 5 snorkel kits and a body board in one go on the back of two scooters, not even the Thais, and we were no exception. Taking the boys bags and the two other bags with food and IT kit we ferried it to the new house where cleaning was in full swing. I had every sympathy for the poor lady who was cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen.
Electing to do the man’s job I volunteered to make a couple of trips to Mae Head to get the remaining stuff. Even without the extra bodies on the bike, it was still a little uncomfortable carrying 20 kilos on my back whilst trying to avoid pot holes, bumps and sand on the road not to mention the 4x4s and other motorcycles. When it came to the final trip (my rucksack) the matter was further complicated by having to wrap my knees around the body board and counteracting the gusts of wind that periodically caught the large profile of the board upsetting my already delicate balance. This was not a time for bravado, but for prudence and so my top speed was around 30kph and I arrived at the house in one piece without a hairy moment in sight.
Ere long cleaning was complete and we were left in peace in our new abode to unpack and settle in.
Et voila, our own place, home cooked food again, and somewhere to celebrate a family Christmas.
We had a simple vegetable and pasta for dinner, bought a 30 day internet access for 1000 Baht and relaxed in our home from home. Fabulous.