Day 1 - April 9th
We left the Triumph Hotel in Mandalay, Myanmar on Friday, April 8th at 11am, got to the airport at 12pm, boarded our flight at 2:30pm, landed in Bangkok, Thailand around 4:30pm, took an hour and fifteen minute Uber ride (which was a male driver with Hello Kitty head rests and seat belt covers, love it) to the city center, arrived at the Lomprayah head office where we picked up our transportation tickets around 6pm, grabbed a quick bite to eat at 7pm, sat down on our overnight bus at 9pm, pulled up to Chumphon Pier at 5:30am, walked onto our ferry at 7am and finally stepped foot on Koh Tao Island at 9:30am, which is located on the western shore of the Gulf of Thailand. Are you as exhausted reading this as we were living it? Almost 24 hours of travel between cars, flights, boats and buses. But I'm sure it will all be worth it for some much appreciated relaxation and endless fun in the sun.
Dinner in Bangkok...
Vinny getting a workout...
Our overnight bus...
Our high speed ferry to Koh Tao...
Zombie Vinny at 5:30am...
When we got off the ferry, we hopped into the hotels complimentary topless truck and made our way to The Aminjirah around 10am. Unfortunately, we couldn't check in until 2pm. Bummer! We've been so spoiled in the past that we almost didn't think twice about it this time around. Kind of annoying since they weren't sold out but that's their policy so be it. At least we can lay by the pool for now. Not a bad alternative plan given it overlooked the ocean with million dollar views.
Around 2pm, we were able to finally check into our room only to be greeted by disappointment. This was definitely not what was shown online. The photos and description were completely different. One may call this false advertising. Not cool. When I said something to the front desk, they blamed it on Hotels.com for having the wrong information. Whoever's fault it is, I don't care. I just want what we were promised and what we paid for. After a few minutes of going back and forth, they finally apologized (somewhat) and said they would happily upgrade us tomorrow. I know they are not completely full tonight so I'm confused why we have to wait. It seems like everything is pulling teeth with them for some reason. However, my inner thoughts were saying to me "don't dwell on the small things, Kim. You are in paradise. Relax, enjoy and move on". Okay, I'm easily convinced.
Before we left for our big adventure in January, I had about 11 months left on my Toyota Prius lease. Although I absolutely loved my car (Betty White was her name), I didn't really feel the need to pay $334 a month to have it just sit in my Dad's garage. Plus $70 for the limited insurance. I discovered a website called SwapALease.com and was able to have someone take over my lease 2 days before we boarded our flight to India. Talk about in the nick of time. Phewwwwwwwww. Long story long, the guy who took it over suggested that we get scuba certified in Koh Tao (diving capital of Thailand) and then use that certification in Indonesia and Philippines. So we are doing just that. The main reason why we are here on this tiny Gilligan's like island is to learn how to be one with the underworld. After doing a ton of research about various companies, we decided to go with Roctopus. For one, the name is awesome. But really the reviews were extremely positive. Our 3.5 day course starts today. Probably not the smartest idea given we are still brain dead from our insane travel day but since it's only for a few hours I think we can manage (well I can, let's see how Vinny holds up).
We had cappuccinos at Morning View (right next door to Roctopus) at 3pm to give us a much needed energy boost...
And then walked to Roctopus at 4pm for orientation. Blah, blah, blah. Always boring the first day. Videos, paperwork, introductions, etc.
Since The Aminjirah is about a 25 minute walk into town, we decided to rent motorbikes for the 6 nights we will be here. Knowing the next 3 mornings will require an early start time, we didn't think planning for an extra half hour was necessary. Plus, for only 150 THB ($4.20) a day, it's a win-win. However, I had to let them keep my passport. Ummm that's scary. I can't go anywhere if they lose it. Oh geez. Trust, Kim, trust. That night, we grabbed a bite to eat at Thaita Italian Restaurant, which was super duper authentic and yummy. It is owned by a husband and wife from Turino, Italy, who opened the place 12 years ago. It's #1 on TripAdvisor, they make their own pasta everyday and only offer a few options on the menu - all handwritten. We were there around 7:30pm and they had just opened. We felt like the senior citizens who go to Denny's for the early bird special.
Our 32 year old scuba instructor, Martijn (from the Netherlands), gave us homework that needed to be completed by tomorrow morning. HOMEWORK???? I haven't heard that word in over 10 years. One and a half hours later, we finished it and couldn't wait to close our eyes for some much needed sleep.
Day 2 - April 10th
Rise and shine. It's your first full day of scuba school. We were so excited. Our alarm went off at 6am, we were on our motorbike by 6:40am and at Roctopus by 7am. We spent the first hour learning everything we needed to know about our equipment. It's crazy how just a few things can change us from being a land-dweller to somewhat of an aquatic being. A mask lets you see clearly. A scuba regulator and tank provide the air you need. Fins allow you to swim efficiently. A wetsuit helps you stay warm. And a buoyancy control device (BCD) gives you the control you need to hover, weightless underwater - eye to eye with a fish (hopefully never a shark). You inflate the BCD when you want to float up and deflate it when you want to float down. Pretty neat. Do you know that S.C.U.B.A is actually an acronym for Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus? I didn't but now I do. After we mastered the terminology and purpose of all the various devices, we made our way to the pool where we spent the next two hours learning new techniques and going through a series of tests including treading water for 12 minutes (thanks to the Slade boys - Jesse, Tyler and Dustin - for torturing me growing up on waterskiing trips I mastered this task. In a playful little sister way, not in a malicious fashion, I promise), swimming with our fins in a graceful figure 8 form, holding our breath underwater for a minute, clearing the snorkel when its filled with water, etc. All of those were easy breezy. The one I had the most difficulty with and the one that could prevent me from getting certified is breathing underwater through my nose. I know it sounds like riding a bike to some but I've never been able to to do this. At the age of 31, pathetic, I know. Whether it's falling while waterskiing or jumping into a pool or diving under an ocean wave, plugging my nose is the first thing I do, before anything else. I just can't seem to figure it out. And today was no exception, although it's more important than ever that I learn how. Better luck tomorrow or else I can kiss scuba diving goodbye. To top this frustration off, as i was exiting the pool, full of our diving equipment and the ever so heavy oxygen tank weighing me down, I stepped on a bumble bee. OUCH!!! The stinger went right into the bottom of my foot. Oh wow, that hurts. I had to carefully sit down as quickly as possible without letting the oxygen tank knock me over first. Not fun. Martijn was able to get the stinger out fairly quickly which hopefully will help decrease whatever reaction I might have. Speaking of which, why did the bee got to the barbershop? To get a buzz-cut. HA HA HA!
That afternoon, we had lunch at Wind Beach with John, who is getting his scuba certification as well. It's just the 3 of us in a group. John is 40 years young and originally from Washington DC but has been traveling the world for the last 3 years on an abundance of different sailboats across various oceans. Such a unique, inspiring story. The restaurant views were pretty impeccable as well. The ocean was fifty shades of blue. The weather was warm not hot. The breeze was refreshing not annoying. With my Pad Thai noodles, red chicken curry and mango smoothie, I couldn't help but love life at this very moment (despite my foot swelling up more and more with every hour that passed from the bee sting).
Class finished around 4pm, we grabbed some cappuccino's at Morning View again, went back to The Aminjirah, did some more homework for our test tomorrow (ahhhhh) and switched into our new "upgraded" room (although it's what we should have had from the beginning). Despite the initial impression being okay and the views from the balcony being spectacular, after about a minute and a half we both screamed YUCK! This room was even worse. I don't think it had been cleaned in at least a month.
I know you are thinking we are extremely high maintenance, over dramatic and never satisfied, which is completely fair. But here is why we were so grossed out at the moment.
Gecko poop on the ground (not just one pile but two)...
Dead mosquito smashed on the wall...
Moth nest growing on the curtains...
And piles of someone else's hair all over the floor (couldn't capture this on camera). Wouldn't you be appalled too? I can't complain twice though, can I? After much back and forth thanks to the angel on one shoulder and devil on the other, I decided to suck it up and just deal with it. I'll just spend as little time inside as possible, which won't be hard in such a beautiful place like Koh Tao. So I immediately went to the pool and watched the sunset, which turned my frown upside down real quick. I sure hope keeping my mouth shut doesn't bite me in the butt in the long run.
That night, we rode our motorbike to Mint Kitchen for a very authentic, hole in the wall, delicious, inexpensive, spicy as a Latin female dancer, kind of dinner.
Day 3 - April 11th
6:45am wake up call, 7:45am call time. We had more academics in the morning with videos, review and then our 50 question multiple choice (which always makes it a bit easier) test. We needed to get at least 40 right to pass. I hate tests. No matter how challenging or common sense they may be, they are never fun. My palms become sweaty, my heart races rapidly and my head starts to spin. For this reason, I was never a straight A student. However, I got 43 out 50 correct so that's that. Yipppeeee!!
Today we actually go out into the ocean. The salt water. The deep blue sea. And I can't wait. We boarded a massive boat with around 20 other Roctopus students and headed out. The front of the boat was blessed by Buddhist monks to ensure a safe and pleasant journey, which made me feel complete inside. Time to get all of our gear set up, which definitely takes a while.
Our first real dive was at the Japanese Gardens, which was only 5.5 meters (about 18 feet) for 15 minutes. Our second real dive was at Twins, which was 10.1 meters (about 33 feet) for 41 minutes. These dives unfortunately weren't for pure pleasure. We continued to learn new skills and were tested on them afterwards. Most of them were easy except for the breathing out of my nose, on the ocean floor, without a mask on. First attempt, fail. Second attempt, fail. Come on, you need to master this to move on. Don't give up. Take a deep breath, calm down and make it happen. Third attempt, fail. Ugh, Fourth attempt, SUCCESS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I knew I could do it. Yay!!!!! The next thing we had to do was take our regulator (that simple plastic piece that provides you the oxygen to breath from your tank), throw it behind your shoulder, breath bubbles out of your mouth, then swipe your arm backwards to retrieve the regulator and put it properly back in your mouth. Wow, panic attack. But manageable. Go us. We all passed the days tests. Some easier than others but we all survived. It is a pretty magical moment when you stop to look around and realize how deep you are. It's a whole new world down under. So mesmerizing. You feel as though you are living inside a massive fish tank with beautiful coral, colorful fish and various sea creatures. But in reality, nothing is in captivity. This is all the wild. Anything is possible.
What a long yet wonderful and successful 10 hour day we just had. The 4 of us (Vinny, me, John and Martijn) went to grab some smoothies after class and enjoyed another stunning sunset. Unfortunately, around 7pm, Vinny and I both started feeling nauseous. Maybe because we were in the sun all day? Maybe because we were on a boat in the middle of the choppy ocean? Maybe we because we went 33 feet underwater? Who knows but we decided to call it a night and head back to our hotel for some rest. As soon as we opened the door, I ran to the bathroom and threw up. Hmmmmmm, this is odd. Then Vinny followed. For the next 3 hours, we were like a ping pong ball going back and forth. Still not sure what it was from but luckily it didn't last throughout the night. Hopefully we have enough strength to complete our scuba diving course tomorrow because that would suck if not. Cheers to a good night sleep...
Day 4 - April 12th
Our alarms were scheduled to go off at 4:30am because we had to be at Roctopus at 6am; however, I woke up at 3:45am to the awful feeling that my body was on fire. Not fire that could be related to throwing up last night but stinging, burning, itching fire all over. Without thinking about it, I just starting scratching anywhere and everywhere under the assumption that I got a few mosquito bites in the last few days. Nothing abnormal as insects for some reason love me way more than I love them. As I was digging my nails into my skin in hopes of receiving some kind of relief, a lightbulb went off in my head. I don't think these are mosquito bites in fact. Given the rather disgusted mindset we have from this hotel I freaked out thinking they might be bed bugs. Holy shit. No. This can't be happening. After being a host to fleas in 2014 and a host to mites in 2015 (yes I am a person not an animal, I promise), this would be my worst nightmare come true. I instantly became a crazy person. Detective Cantor. Keep in mind Vinny is still sleeping so I have to remain somewhat quiet. I turned on my iPhone flashlight and started inspecting the bed. Without any effort, I found a little red bug casually and calmly crawling along. Oh no. Please don't tell me my theory is true. A few seconds go by and I found another one, a little baby. Ahhhhhhh. I frantically strip the sheets on my side to find the mattress is covered in what looks like little black dots. Is that a sign of bed bugs? What does that mean? So of course I obsessively googled anything and everything I could and long behold, it's all pointing to bed bugs. Eeeewwwwwwwwwwwwww. This is the last thing I want to do deal with so close to getting scuba certified this morning. I couldn't let the bugs escape or else the hotel would never believe me so I grabbed a few drinking glasses and captured three of them for proof. I then threw my pajamas in a ziplock bag and moved all of my stuff as far away from the bed as possible. I'm just hoping that they haven't already entered our backpacks uninvited and created a home for themselves. Oh please no. Let this not get any worse. We did everything we could for the time being but will have to handle it when we get back later today after our final scuba diving class.
I am doing everything in my power to not let the unbearable discomfort I'm currently in effect my experience today. What doesn't kill you only makes you stronger is what I am replaying in my head over and over and over again right now. The three of us (Vinny, me and John) hired a photographer to document our last day of scuba diving, both on the surface and underwater. And although Vinny and I both look a little pale, tired and distressed from the past 24 hours, I promise, we are loving every minute.
First up is to prepare our gear, making sure it all works...
Next up, is to jump in the ocean off the boat - one hand holding your weight belt and the other hand holding your mask. As soon as my body touched the ocean, I instantly felt a sense of relief to my bites thanks to the salt water. Okay, this is manageable right now.
Our first dive, which was at Chumphon Pinnacle for a total time of 33 minutes and a depth of 17.7 meters (about 58 feet), was beyond incredible. The visibility was so clear and there was so much sea life happening all around us. Thousands of fish swimming together, an eel observing us as we observed him (or her), coral beyond belief and so much more. We were literally living a Finding Nemo reality. Completely indescribable.
Our second dive, which was at White Rock North for a total time of 35 minutes and a depth of 14.6 meters down (about 48 feet) was pretty stunning as well but not as breathtaking as our first dive. We had a few series of skill set tests and wham bam, thank you ma'am we are officially certified!!!!! Woohooo!!!! Given how the last three days have panned out with a bee sting, some kind of stomach situation and bed bugs, accomplishing this bucket list item means so much more to me. It wasn't easy and it didn't come naturally but boy was it fun. I can't wait to go on some fun dives in the future.
Now that we were on a complete high from our morning, we had to quickly come back to reality and deal with our bed bug infestation. Ugh. Talk about a bi-polar day so far. Down then up and now back down. When I respectfully and calmly told the manager about my situation and showed her the handful of bites that decorated my body, her first reaction was "how do you know it's from here?". Oh no you didn't. Don't you dare put this on another hotel. "How do I know? Come with me and I will show you". Her face was genuinely surprised when I pointed to the trapped bed bugs and revealed the nasty mattress stains. She apologized a few times and offered us another upgrade to the best room they have with a private pool. Unfortunately, it's too late. We need to get out of here as soon as possible. We politely declined and asked for a full refund for all 6 nights. She without hesitation agreed and we parted ways civilly. This will haunt me for a while, I know it. Vinny and I had to scramble to find another hotel for the remaining 3 nights we have on Koh Tao. That's when we ended up at The Tarna Align Resort, a little fancier than usual but much needed after this horror story come true.
What a hectic last 4 days we've had. But I truly believe our vacation from our vacation will begin right now. We headed to dinner around 6pm at Fizz, which was directly on the beach. The chairs were neon green bean bags and the views were priceless. I literally and figuratively took a deep breath, put my feet up and enjoyed the rest of the evening as much as I could. We watched an epic sunset, indulged in a tasty Thai meal and then headed to Victor's Bar where Roctopus threw all of us "graduates" a fun little celebratory party. It was so great spending more time with our dive teacher Martijn and our new friend John. Reggae music loudly blasting in the background, drinks loosely flowing, and a Peter Pan like vibe where no one wants to grow up was exactly what I needed to keep my mind of the eighty or so bites all over my body from my head to my toes. They sure don't discriminate when it comes to their breakfast, lunch and dinner. Blood is blood.
Day 5 - April 13th
Today is Songkran, or Thai New Year, which is a Buddhist festival and the country's most important public holiday. The word Songkran is derived from Sanskrit and means "Astrological Passage". Songkran marks the end of the dry season (April is Thailand's hottest month) and the beginning of the annual rains in the fifth month of the Thai lunar year. While this holiday has a significant importance to most locals, it has adopted a whole new meaning for others. Nowadays, the throwing of water is the festival's highlight. In fact, the entire country turns into a celebratory war zone. Children with huge water guns roam the streets or sit in the back of their parents' pick-up trucks, which are loaded with buckets of water that is dispensed on anyone who happens to be within reach. In some parts of the country, it is a one day celebration. Others, it's a few days. While places like Chiang Mai in the north, celebrate for as long as a week. Local versions of Songkran are also observed in Cambodia, Laos, Burma and amongst ethnic minorities in Yunnan, southern China and Arunachal Pradesh and Assam in India. It's basically a massive water fight. You can't step foot outside without getting drenched. We had to see what all the hype was about so we made our way down to the main street on our motorbike. Within seconds, we were wet. A few kids squirted us. Within minutes, we were soaked. A few adults poured water buckets on us. It didn't matter if you were 7 or 70, local or foreign, participating or not participating - water was all around. We stood on a corner and observed for a while. What an awesome tradition.
Unfortunately, I just wanted to be indoors with the air conditioning for most the of the day as my bite count was now over 100 and the heat doesn't help the burning sensation. I wanted to crawl out of my skin, shed the first layer I have and pull my hair out. No words can ever describe the amount of discomfort I am currently in. But I will manage as long as I know they didn't follow me here. Only time will time. The saying "goodnight, sleep tight, don't let the bed bugs bite" sure has a whole new meaning now...
Day 6 - April 14th
Today was our last full day in Koh Tao and we certainly wanted to enjoy it to the fullest. Our first mission was to find somewhere to get our entire wardrobe washed and dried. Not hung dry like everyone usually does in Asia but dried in an actual machine. At the highest possible temperature we could. That is the only way to kill the bed bugs and its cycle of reproduction. We tried to do it yesterday but everything was respectfully closed due to the holiday. Great timing, huh? Thanks to the Yellow House, we were able to do every piece of clothing we both had (which really isn't that much in the big picture) for $14 USD. AMAZING. Our second mission of the day was to plop our butts on some sand and do absolutely nothing. We took a 20 minute ride on our motorbike to Freedom Beach, which was recommended by Martijn, and it was stunning. Picture perfect. Endless shade from overgrown trees, hardly anyone else there, clear blue water and peacefully quiet surroundings. All we could hear were the tiny, almost nonexistent waves crashing along the shore. The only thing missing was Wilson from Cast Away. I couldn't be happier right now. We frolicked in the water, rested our minds and soaked up every last inch of relaxation we could. What a lovely way to end such a rollercoaster of emotions over these past 6 days.
That night, we had dinner at The Gallery, "A Complete Sensory Experience". It is a local Thai restaurant that is also a photo gallery, wine bar and spa.
Despite all the hardships that occurred this past week on Koh Tao, we still managed to thoroughly enjoy our time here, mainly in part because of our thrilling scuba diving experience. The island is very small and remote with a cute town existing of restaurants, bars, beaches and viewpoints. It's a bummer we had so many road bumps along the way but that's the price you pay when traveling like we are. It's not always going to be margaritas and sunsets. Sometimes things don't go your way and sometimes you are thrown a curve ball when you are least expecting it. But just like in life, it's how you respond that makes all the difference. I decided not to let the bed bugs rain on my parade and although they sure did beat me down, I managed to get right back up again.