Goodbye Malaysia and hello again Thailand!
Our final night in Malaysia turned out to be one of those unexpected delights that make travelling the life-affirming experience that we love. As the afternoon wore on and the kilometres ticked away beneath our wheels, we gradually became aware of an increasingly worrying noise emanating from the rear of the Pino. A quick diagnostic suggested it was the rear hub and we decided to cut the day short so that Keith could take a proper look at it whilst there was still good daylight. We soon spotted a sign for a ‘homestay’. It was a reasonably new looking, professionally printed sign. Despite the homestay difficulties chronicled in the last blog post we couldn’t help but allow ourselves a small degree of optimism. We followed the sign down a lane and found another sign at the open gateway into well maintained gardens with some tidy looking bungalows built high up on concrete pillars…..but, sadly, no sign of the owners or any other guests.
Thoroughly frustrated by Malaysia’s homestay system and anxious to get working on the hub we decided to stay there anyway and set up camp on the concrete base below one of the bungalows. Not long after a local man came cycling along the lane and gave us a long stare. I waved hello. A short while later he pedalled back, came into the garden and asked us what we were doing and how we got through the gate. We explained that the gate had been wide open and we were looking for somewhere to stay for the night. He introduced himself as Zachariah and proceeded to try to contact the owners for us whilst Keith stripped the hub and we cleaned and re-greased the bearings.
In the end Zachariah’s efforts to reach the owners came to naught and he had to bid us farewell as it was time for him to head to the mosque for evening prayer. After prayers though he returned and suggested that we come and stay at his home. In other circumstances we would have loved to have said yes, but by this point it was getting late and we’d already got all our kit unpacked and set up in the tent. What we really wanted to do was get an early night and then be on the road in a timely fashion to get to the border the next morning, so we said ‘thanks but no thanks’ in a way that we really hope didn’t make him feel that we were spurning his very much appreciated hospitality.
Zachariah’s generous nature was not to be thwarted so easily though. A short while later, just after I’d gone to bed, he came back again, this time with his wife and two sons. They’d been shopping and bought us two 1.5litre bottles of fizzy electrolyte drink, a huge bag of biscuits and a 6-pack of pot-noodles! Keith was also presented with a pile of old t-shirts to add to his bike-rag collection. We felt so bad at having turned down their bed and were absolutely delighted by their unexpected gifts. The chocolate biscuits in particular were very much appreciated the next day as we pedalled along.
So, Zachariah, if you’re reading this, thank you again a thousand times, and very best wishes for the imminent birth of your daughter.
It was a quiet day in Malaysia as we left it – most of the shops were closed and the only activity was around the mosques as it was one of their holy days. The quiet roads meant we made good speed along the final kilometres of dual carriageway that we were forced to take as we approached the Thai border.
The border crossing itself went relatively smoothly. Keith was lured by the duty-free shop in the no-man’s land between the two border control offices and was unable to resist the “buy 2 get 1 free” offer on a Scottish Whisky and so 3 litres were acquired to sustain us during our time back on Koh Tao.
The extra weight was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back though and as we pedalled away from the shop one of the chain links broke, momentarily delaying our arrival in Thailand. The immigration officer on the Thai side was particularly nice and even let us indicate where we’d like him to put his little stamp – we’re rapidly running out of pages in our passports and a single stamp on an otherwise empty page means one less page available for a visa (which needs a full page).
The weather on the west coast had been much wetter than on the east, with some absolutely torrential rain drenching us from time to time, so we were keen to make good speed across Thailand, partly to escape the rain and partly to get back to Koh Tao as fast as possible to start our Divemaster training. We pushed on through Hat Yai to Songkla, and two days later made it to Nakhon Si Thamarat where we got our 2 month tourist visa extended to 3 months. Initially the immigration officer told us that his photocopier wasn’t working and we’d have to go elsewhere to get copies of our current visa, but after a bit of chit-chat about our bike and our travels he told us he’d go and “check if his photocopier might be working after all”. Hurrah, hurrah, it was indeed working, so that made the whole process much easier for us and 45 minutes later all the paperwork was complete so we can now stay in Thailand until the 12th of January.
The following day we put in a fairly long day’s pedalling and made it to Surat Thani in time for the night boat to Koh Tao. It was SO nice returning to Alvaro Diving – almost like coming home. A few faces have changed, but many remained and we joined a rapidly expanding band of ‘salty sea dogs’ otherwise known as DMTs or dive master trainees. It’s a great team. A range of ages and nationalities present no barriers and we feel genuinely privileged to be here, now, as part of this band of pirates.
Our first task upon arrival on the island was to find somewhere to stay until January. We spent two days at Sunshine 2 resort where (where we stayed in August) and after checking out a few of the other long-term lets on offer we negotiated an excellent rate here at Sunshine. For the equivalent of £4 a night we have a double bed (for sleeping on), a single bed (for dumping stuff on), a fan, a cold shower a sink (with actual plumbing so that the water doesn’t rush out of the plug-hole onto your toes, which happens fairly frequently when using Thai sinks), and a sit-down toilet! Like most loos here there’s no flush mechanism and we use a small bucket to transfer water from a big bucket to the toilet, but we’re well used to that now. In fact, there’s not much in the way of toilet facilities that could raise our eyebrows these days.
Our room is in a secluded corner of garden next to a pond full of noisy frogs, one of which sounds like a donkey. The trees are full of common myna birds which launch into the most extraordinary song cycles each morning. Their range of whistles, chirrups, squeals and clicks seems endless and they string all these different sounds together in long songs that never seem to repeat the same phrase twice.
There’s space to park the Pino under cover next to our little verandah, and we’ve been adopted by one of the local dogs, who went through a phase of following us everywhere (to restaurants, to the shops, to the dive school) until we took pity on her and started feeding her, and so now she just turns up at 9pm and whines for her dinner (what have we started!). We actually had two dogs for a while and they look nearly identical except one has straighter ears than the other and is also slightly less grubby, although no less tick-ridden despite my best efforts at daily removal. At first we were baffled by the fact that our dog seemed cleaner on some days than others and then we spotted them together and the mystery was solved. Pointy-ear dog seems to have ousted bent-ear dog though as bent-ear hasn’t been near our room for a several days now.
Our room is a 5 minute walk from the dive school (through the resort’s garden to the beach, past a rival dive school and the resort restaurant, along a boardwalk over the sea, through a pizzeria, along another short boardwalk, onto another beach, past a bar, and we’re there). It’s the perfect room….almost. The only things lacking when we moved in were a fridge and wifi. The lack of fridge was quickly resolved as Jae the vet (who I cleaned cages for back in August) very kindly lent us one for the duration. The lack of wifi is something we’re just going to have to live with and make do with using the dive school (on the rare occasions when we’re not on the boat and have nothing else to do!).
Although our DMT course is great value for money (if you look at the amount of diving we’re doing) it’s still a big hit on our budget, especially as we’ve had to buy a dive computer each (which start at around £200 and rise rapidly in cost), a compass (we ended up with the most expensive ones in the shop as they will work in both northern and southern hemispheres and as we want to dive in Australia it was cheaper than buying two of the less expensive hemisphere-specific compasses), and a surface-marker buoy each. We’ve also bought some cheap ‘sea-snips’ (for removing fishing nets and other debris from coral, or for disentangling ourselves or other divers who may get caught up in something), and an underwater camera. Because some of our duties involve being stationary in the water for long periods of time (assisting in the confined water sessions for Open Water courses or simply practicing or being assessed ourselves on our skills) we started to feel the cold a bit so we’ve bought ourselves some second-hand full-length 5mm wetsuits. These at least were not budget-breakers. In fact at just £20 each we’re pretty damn pleased with them. Keith’s is a well-worn, rather faded but otherwise perfectly fine blue and black suit. Mine is in better condition, but that’s not surprising really as it’s possibly the ugliest suit in creation, and the fit is terrible – too short in the arms and legs, too baggy round the waist – but after a little creative input from Melissa, one of the other DMTs, it has been transformed into a thing of, if not beauty, then at least a source of amusement.
We think we’re the luckiest people in the world at the moment. Days start at 6.30/6.45 with some sit-ups, press-ups, stretches and occasionally a little jog along to the end of the island before the sun gets too high. We then have breakfast on our little verandah, often accompanied by one of our dogs, and then, depending on when the boat’s due out, we head along to the dive school for sometime between 7.30 and 10am. We check the roster, prepare kit bags for customers and ourselves and then, one of my favourite parts of the day, we jump into a little longtail boat for the short trip across beautiful Chalok Bay to the Sea Cutter: our very own pirate ship. I cannot imagine a better commute to work.
Once on board we prepare the boat for the instructors and customers – turning all tanks so the valves face towards customers for easy set-up, setting up the white board to show who’s on board, where each instructor is setting up and which dive sites we’re going to, and making sure all customers’ bags are in the correct location and each has a regulator. We then sort out weight belts according to each instructor’s needs, and finally set up our own equipment. The day’s diving ranges from observing and assisting instructors, to practicing our navigation, buoyancy, ‘demonstration skills’ and dive briefings, to simply enjoying ourselves on a fun dive. After the diving’s finished and the boat’s tidy we either take the longtail back to shore or, if we’ve got the energy, we swim back, and then get stuck into washing and putting away the customers’ and our own dive kit. Back in our room we wash our swimming costumes and rinse our masks, computers, compasses, camera etc, then we open our books and try to complete another chapter of dive theory before heading out to dinner, or back to the dive school (accompanied by pointy-eared dog) to watch movies with our new friends. Our time here is passing so quickly: each morning seems to arrive only a few minutes after the last one has just been and gone, and keeping track of the day of the week is a completely lost cause. We could of course decide to take a day off from diving – it’s not compulsory, we just need to be sure that by the end of our time we can demonstrate we’ve mastered all the necessary divemaster skills – but what if the day we don’t dive is the day everyone else’s sees a whale shark?? We just can’t risk it. So even though we’re knackered and in a way miss the cycling, we love it here and don’t want this lifestyle to end!
We’ll leave you with a few pictures that really don’t do justice to the amazing world that we visit every day: