Friday, May 19, 2006

Diving back into Thailand

As our plane dipped down from the smoggy clouds in approach for Bangkok International Airport, I looked out at the dense landscape of twinkling lights and cement towers and said to Andy, "Look at that. In our view are more people than live in all of New Zealand! Hello culture shock."

And with that, our wheels hit the ground and we were back in Asia. Exotic, chaotic, crowded, odorous Bangkok...our home away from home on this trip. Though the city isn't our own, it's become so on this trip. We have "our" guesthouse, where the ladies at the desk are uncharacteristically brisk but know us, "our" cafe with the best red curry in the nation, "our" ATM machines with the best conversion rates, and tons of metered (we LOVE the meter!) taxis with full-blast AC and drivers who sing along to pop music as if they're practicing for American Idol. We always seem to arrive back in Bangkok at odd hours, and whether 12:17am or 3:12am, the familiarity is comforting and we feel happy.

We didn't linger, however, and instead headed right back to the airport after 6 hours of sleep at "our" place and two hours of reshuffling warm clothes for cool clothes, jamming our storage locker full of wool and selling our NZ books on Khao San road for a few hundred baht. Though frankly, nothing is cool enough for us...we're in shock -- it's 20 degrees CELSIUS hotter than where we were 24 hours ago in NZ!!! Andy, master of discount airlines and their websites, found us ridiculously cheap tickets($40 each) to Phuket, so off we jetted to Thailand's most fabled, most touristed island in the Andaman Sea..~> read more


The monsoons start in early May, so we jumped right back into Southeast Asia's turquoise-teal warm waters to scuba dive at Thailand's limestone pinnacles and reefs at least once. On our first day in Phuket, we had tea in an air-conditioned cafe called Andaman Coffee that has ripped off everything about Starbucks including its green and white color scheme and snappy CD mixes. I wouldn't say we miss Starbucks per se, but finding a place where I could actually drink hot tea without breaking a sweat was alluring. Inside, Andy spotted a man wearing a dive shop t-shirt who spoke little English and had a whopping sunburn (like nearly all germans in phuket), but he managed to communicate by pointing and pantomiming and got a recommendation from the guy for Sea Bees Diving. Sea Bees turned out to be a German operation that runs as smoothly as those Porsche engines Andy adores. We did a "Super Sunday" diving extravaganza with them, had a dive master named Armin who was hairless, "huuuuge" in the "pump you up" sense and hilarious because he talked a lot like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Like Ahr-nold, Armin had almost perfect English save for a few winning phrases like his pep talk while we lifted air tanks that included "what not kills you, makes you harder!"

With Armin leading the way and telling us we'd "rohck zee haus fah zhuur" on each dive, Andy and I enjoyed a fun, exhausting day in the ocean that ended in typical German style--on time and with a beer. We saw a number of clown fish (Nemo), lion fish, giant grouper, crabs, schools of squid and glass fish and needlefish, but my favorites were the small nurse sharks and the fairly large-but-harmless leopard shark. Thailand has a number of benign sharks that hang out at their reefs and the amazing limestone islands that sink from the sky down deep into the sea and make for dramatic "wall" dives, and we saw them lazing about under rocks and sleeping on the ocean floor while the "cleaner" fish danced around them. Nurse sharks look just like those gray plastic toy sharks, only bigger, but the leopard shark was unlike anything I expected. That guy truly was truly spotted and speckled in brown, black and gold, and looked just like one of my skirts, quite impressive at around 8 feet long!

Phuket itself was in places beautiful, tropical and dreamy, and in others vividly commercial, seedy and totally infested with sunburnt Europeans. It's a huge island with several different beach areas that we explored on foot and motorbike, having one especially fun day where we hit four different beaches and swam up and down the coast, yet there are always traces of commerical plunder. To us, Phuket's unapologetic tourism plus a healthy dose of the sex trade between Thai girls and old Western men overshadows its charm. I'm glad we visited and saw the sunny sprawl that is Phuket, but I'm not sure we'll be back. The diving was rewarding and fun, but both Andy and I are excited to dive deeper into Thailand's western coast and find a different piece of paradise.


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