What an amazing experience. After months of anticipation of our “grand finale,” we finally embarked on the four day, four night liveaboard scuba diving trip with Phuket Divers, based in Khao Lak. It had all the elements of the perfect trip: idyllic tropical waters, clear skies, sea breezes, a phenomenal boat crew, delicious food (lots of it), lots to do (four dives a day, come on!) and an unbeatable group of fellow divers. Oh, and sunsets accompanied by the bottle of JW Red Label that we’ve been hoarding since Tioman Island, enjoyed on the top deck with views of an endless expanse of ocean. What else do you need?
It started off a bit overwhelming for me, the sole open water student, to be honest. I had one day of “theory” spent watching mind-numbing instructional DVDs and then a quick two hour introduction to the basics in a pool the day of departure. Despite the standard requirement of four pool dives, I found myself jumping into the open sea for dive number two at 7:30 a.m., surrounded by people who had been diving for years. I wasn’t nervous, really…
The first dive wasn’t so great, personally. Everyone else seemed thrilled, but I hadn’t noticed much of anything (fish? coral? what’s that?) as I was entirely preoccupied with remembering by-the-book steps and gear operation and just praying that I’d make it out alive – I did, and had to take some time alone to calm my nerves and convince myself that I was supposed to be overwhelmed in a situation like that. The worst was surely over!
I was correct on both counts. Most of the people onboard were surprised that I’d handled a first dive in such a situation so well, and certainly sympathized with my shakiness. After a pep talk from Gabe and a great breakfast (more on that in a moment), I sucked it up and suited up for the next dive at 11:00, forcing a smile onto my face.
What a turnaround! I started this one off correctly, remembering to equalize my ears, not to get flustered, to go slowly, and to look around. The result? I had fun! I can’t say that I was 100% comfortable at that point, but I was quite calm, relaxed and finally noticed what an incredible hidden world there is underneath the water, it is truly amazing. By the next morning I was exploring 35 meters below the surface (though officially, it was 18m, as I wasn’t even “certified” at this point) and having a ball. There were a total of fourteen dives over the course of these four days, an infinite world to explore full of technicolor fish, cartoonish moray eels, octapus, sharks and intricate coral beds that I didn’t realize actually existed on this planet. We explored coral gardens, walls, a ship wreck – I was told repeatedly to be aware of how absolutely spoiled I was becoming by having the Similan Islands as the location for my diving introduction!
So what did we do when we weren’t diving? I’d expected to go a bit crazy onboard, as I didn’t forsee diving being too terribly taxing of an activity, and of course there would be no place to walk, much less run while living on a boat. As it turned out, there was never a moment of boredom, and diving wiped me out. We’d be up by 6:30 as the first dive was at 7:30, then it would be time for breakfast and some rest before the next dive, at 11:00. We’d emerge from the water to find lunch awaiting us, which we’d eat as we read, napped and warmed in the sun. Dive number three was typically around 2:30, and a sunset dive would be scheduled for 5:00. After group showers with the spray hose on the back of the boat, changing clothes, making a few drinks and photographing the brilliant sunset, it would be 7:00 and time for dinner. Everyone (the trip began with 16 passengers, though 6 of them were only onboard for two days) would then relax, have a few beverages, chat about anything and everything before realizing at 9:30 that your body was begging for sleep. These sort of days did not get old, especially with such a wonderful group of divers and such a well-run trip.
There were unlimited free drinks, everything from tea to coffee to hot chocolate to sport drinks to sodas to fruit juice, and there were always platters of pineapple and watermelon out for munching on. There literally was nothing to complain about, not one thing.
And the food. Wow. Gabe and I knew as soon as we came aboard that the cook, Da, would be our most important new friend, and we sought her out immediately. Her face lit up at the mention of “Thai breakfast,” and she conspiratorily whispered to us to come by the kitchen in the morning, that she would cook Thai breakfast, very spicy, for us every single day.
After that first dive we took one look at the platters of fried eggs and toast that had appeared and beelined it for the kitchen on the bottom deck. Da was there, wok-ing up a fiery concoction that turned out to be one of the best padkaprow (fried basil with chicken and chilis) dishes we’ve had yet. We brought it upstairs with a big bowl of rice and dug in – score!
We didn’t push our luck at lunch, but a bowl of chilis and fish sauce appeared next to the food and it was rumored that it was especially for us. The Thai boat crew got a kick out of it and would always make sure that we were called downstairs when something extra tasty and spicy was being prepared. Dinner were incredible, hands down some of the best Thai food we’ve had, and there was no need for special priveleges. From big prawns fried with chilis to chicken green curry to red curried pork to fiery cashew chicken to fresh crab brought right out of the ocean around us, we were fed well. Too well – our growing excitement about going home started to be pushed away by food lamentations again!
All in all, there wasn’t a single thing that either of us would change about this trip. The price was unreal, the crew was top-notch (crazy, goofy Thai guys that seemed to be having a perpetual party, yet knew exactly when to be serious and get the job done – plus Da, of course), the divemasters and instructors were wonderful people. It was incredibly well-organized, but never crossed that line of being too structured, the atmosphere was completely relaxed, all of the time. We made a handful of new friends that we will stay in touch with and most likely cross paths with again one day – in short, I can’t imagine a better way to finish out this adventure.
Coming back to land was bittersweet. Despite the fun, I was starting to itch for a run and a day wearing something other than a wet swimsuit. On the other hand, now that this far-in-the-distance excursion has come and gone, it finally seems as though going home is a real thing, and my feelings are more mixed than ever! We’re eagerly anticipating the actual going home, the reunions and the parties and the family and the friends, and reminding ourselves that ending one journey simply opens up the door for the next one, of which I’m sure we’ll have many!
*Note: give me day or so for photos – they’re coming!