Most people have heard about the mythical beach, an idyllic world created by Alex Garland in his book "The Beach", and now a film starring Leo Di Caprio. Set on an island paradise, where all is good until the end. These places only exist in Hollywood or in some writer’s mind don’t they?
Well the island where "The Beach" is set does exist, and it offers the adventurous diving traveler the ultimate destination. Imagine a place where you can rent a beach bungalow for $2.50US a day, where the best Thai meals in a restaurant cost $1.50US and access to the internet will set you back 3 cents a minute. What you are left with is plenty of time and money to dive during the day and party at night.
Sounds too good to be true, well read on and start planning.
The starting point is Bangkok, Thailand. Head South for one and half hours, flying on a forty seater twin prop plane (I put it in the class of big enough to make you realize that it is a plane, small enough to feel nervous), to Koh Samui. Then it’s a ninety-cent bus ride to the Buddha ferry terminal that takes about ten minutes. From here it’s a direct ferry to Koh Pha Ngan. The ferry leaves at 10.30am, 1:00pm and 4:00pm and will costs $2.00US. But remember that Murphy’s Law of travel will ensure that you arrive in time to see the ferry pulling out.
An hour later you pull into Haad Rin, and the bungalows stretch along the beach. All you have to do is walk up and down the beach and find one you like…its that simple. I need to point out at this stage though that this is backpacker country so please don’t come expecting a Club Med Resort with staff at your beck and call. What you are getting is an island paradise, which has fun and excitement and is an adventure, not a packaged Cook tour. You need to bring everything, including your towel and toilet paper, but hey if you forget it don’t worry you can always buy it on the island.
There are two dive shops in Haad Rin, Easy Divers and Phangan Divers. Both are excellent operators with multi lingual staff and a good emphasis on making diving fun and safe. I dived with Easy Divers and had a great double dive day.
The main dive boat for Easy Divers is MV Seaflower capable of handling forty divers with a large wet area and multiple entry points, a cabin with about eight tables and there are still two more areas to lounge about in and relax on the way to the dive or between dives. There are no air-conditioned rooms so be prepared for a day in the tropics, but there is plenty of shade.
The main diving area on the East coast of Thailand is around the island of Koh Tao, about two and half hours cruising from Koh Phangan. But as conditions and visibility had been poor in the previous days, the skipper opted to dive at Koh Ma island, which was only a leisurely hour away. So by the time we enjoyed the morning coffee and sun, put our kits together and had a briefing from the Divemaster we were ready to anchor.
Operators in Asia are becoming far more aware of the environment and protecting the reefs, so whilst it may involve a slightly longer surface swim, the benefits are diving in coral that has not been trashed by anchors and marine debris. Easy Divers insist on a no glove rule that also is paying dividends in coral protection, as most divers are reluctant to hold coral with bare hands. But given a pair of gloves the reef can become a handrail.
The visibility was a pleasant 5-7 meters and the water temperature a pleasant 25 degrees Celsius, so a shorty wet suit and an eager giant stride later, my buddy Jesse and I headed for the reef which was about 100m away.
The diversity of diving in the region never fails to amaze me; here within a small area of reef were three different colors of anemones with clown fish darting in and out. From nudibranchs to batfish, this was a very nice and relaxed dive site.
One of these days, divers will stop trying to see the whole ocean in one dive and stop and look at a coral bommie for more than 5 seconds. Also eager Divemasters will start to slow down and stop trying to show their clients the entire site. Stop and wait! Then the life will come from within the reef to look at you. Cleaning stations were abundant here and given time you could actually notice the wrasse waiting for their turn and when one left the next moved in, just like a car wash.
Schools of yellowtail, moved as a wall and slowly engulfed us as we hovered above the reef, every time they turned the light sifted and changed the complete hue of surrounding coral. The greenhouse effect is starting to show and a lot of the shallow corals on the reef are showing signs of bleaching.
Every dive should have one highlight, be it bizarre or just wow! On the second dive I had noticed some sea whips on the edge of the reef, doing what sea whips do – nothing but sit there and be whips. But later in the dive I was finning along when I noticed ahead what I thought was a very fat whip coming out of the bottom of the reef. Now I have never seen a whip that was 5cm in diameter and this one looked so pale. Only then did I realize that it was a dead moray eel about a metro long drifting in the current. It seems bizarre that you remember dives not for the color and beauty but sometimes for the obscure.
A tropical shower bade us farewell to the site and two minutes later the sun was shimmering on blue water. Off to the starboard on the way back was the island that provided the inspiration for "The Beach" with its two distinct peaks and saddle inviting adventure.
I had not planned to dive on this trip, and was simply walking along the beach when I saw the dive shop, which just goes to prove that you can dive anywhere anytime, its simply a matter of diving into adventure.
"Easy Divers" on Haadrin Beach [email protected]
Information on Phangan Divers
Life on the beach www.kohphangan.com