When we visit the party island of Koh Phangan, we decide to frolic with the fish instead
Most roads have sign posts that read ‘Go Slow’, ‘Curve Ahead’, ‘Horn Please’ and so on, but Koh Phangan has signage that say ‘Floating Party July 8’, ‘Original Foam Party July 9’, ‘Half Moon Party July 10’. In this tropical island paradise off Thailand, every night is a party night, which means you only stumble back to your hotel/resort/hostel rooms in the wee hours of the morning (in our case, a respectable 5 am) when the health-conscious are briskly jogging along the coast looking repulsively chirpy. Under normal circumstances, this could be a tad embarrassing but Phangan is used to it.
But this morning is all about discipline. We are up at 6 a.m. and looking forward to a session of deep-sea diving. We are five on the trip but only three of us have managed to drag ourselves out of bed, while the other two continue to snore comfortably under layers of quilt. A short drive brings us to the pier where the trainers from Phangan International Diving School greet us. We met them the previous evening during our intensive training session in a pool. There is Luke, a tattooed and pierced young man showing off his washboard abs; Ally, the waif-like girl, who prances around like an elf but when it comes to training is a tough task master; and dear old Tony, who is slightly older and with a stern face. Being a bunch of giggly girls, we look like we’ll goof off, so we are entrusted to Tony. We soon figure he really is like a kind, fond uncle with an extra serving of patience.
As the ferry sets sail to Sail Rock, among the most sought after dive sites, Tony starts revising what was taught the previous day. “Underwater, your oxygen tank is your best friend,” he says as he runs through the underwater symbols we are supposed to use, how to readjust the mask if water gets in, how to equalise...
An hour later, the ferry reaches Sail Rock. Numerous other boats are docked around with enthusiastic divers gearing up. Tony helps us with life jackets that have oxygen tanks attached to them. It weighs a good 12 kg, we are told. Tottering under the weight, we struggle to stand straight and slide our feet into fins, tie a weight-laden belt around our waist, slip on our masks, pop the oxygen pipe into our mouths, and then we’re set.
Step One. Jump from ferry into sea. Easy. But the moment we stand on the edge of the ferry and look three feet below into the deep, inky blue sea, a strange sensation grips us. We feel a cocktail of emotions — excitement, joy, uncertainty... After about 10 seconds of dilly-dallying, we grip our belts and masks, stretch one foot out and splash, in we go one at a time and are promptly pushed up by the life jackets. From there it’s a 15-minute swim to where our designated buoy is. It isn’t really the simplest thing to swim with those fins. Instructed to swim on our backs, we paddle rapidly against the rambunctious waves and reach the buoy breathless.
Step Two. Adjust equipment. With the buoyancy of the jackets reduced, masks cleared of fog and water, and oxygen masks checked, it’s time to go down. The visibility underwater is 20 metres. Holding the rope that’s tied to the buoy we gradually make our way down till Tony stops us. We are nine feet under and all around are fleets of divers with colourful fins. But even more vibrant are the vivid fish around us. If I spend more time here, I’ll probably learn a few new colours everyday.
Back to school
They move around in groups, looking all too important and busy. I can spot rabbit fish, butterfly fish, barracuda in the distance, blue ring angelfish... A lot of divers say they have also spotted bull sharks and manta ray here and, if we are lucky, we might come across a few too. In my head I am hoping I don’t, because these look good only from a distance, and even better when they are on Discovery Channel.
The fish are so used to divers they just manoeuvre their routes accordingly. Not a single one bumps against us. The only thing bumping against my head is one of my friend’s legs. For some reason she keeps floating upwards. Tony gets busy trying to bring her down and then realises she’s worn the wrong weight belt. (If only she hadn’t spent all that time chatting up that guy and paid more attention to what Tony was saying!) And promptly like a James Bond flick, a blue-eyed diver materialises from beneath and tucks two extra weights into her pocket. With everything under control, we let go of the rope and start swimming around it. We stay some distance off the rock because there are mean spiny sea urchins sitting there waiting for unsuspecting divers to get too close and then they slyly sting them.
A while later our instructor brings us to a part where we are the only divers. All around are wide expanses of misty blue. Coral in all shapes and sizes lies beneath us like a carpet that cannot be treaded upon. There is also a deep dark tunnel that expert divers swim across. Maybe next year when we return for our advanced diving course we will swim through it too. Finally, it’s time to resurface and as our heads slowly bob above the surface of the water it feels like we just came out after watching an underwater 3D film. And now, even a month later, every night when I close my eyes all I see is the beautiful blue beneath the sea.
The other bash
Koh Phangan, or Ko Pha Ngan, is an island on the Gulf of Thailand famous for its Full Moon Party on Haad Rin Beach. ‘Ngan' means 'sand bar' in Thai, and refers to the many sand bars around the island. The Full Moon Party is held every month during the, well, full moon when party-goers congregate on the beach and live it up till dawn, dancing mostly to electronic music. Crowds range from 10,000 to even 25,000 during the December-March tourist season.