Thailand – take 2 – Diving with MANTAS!!

Upon leaving Australia, Lane and I made our way back to Thailand.  As you may know, we had been in Thailand before and had planned to come the second round for a longer stay. However, because we decided to extend our stay in Australia,  by three weeks, to attend the surf academy, this visit to Thailand would actually be shorter than the last.

One thing I had read about and was excited to do in Thailand was to dive and hopefully see manta rays. I have always been fascinated by this creature and could not imagine the joy I would feel being in the water with one. A creature so huge, so much larger than me, yet harmless and reputedly curious. So, Lane and I hopped a few flights and landed in a town called Khaolak Thailand which is on the west side of southern Thailand. We stayed a few days and relaxed at a mid-level resort which was quite nice. We had some wonderful food, particularly from a tiny shack of a restaurant just around the corner from our hotel. OMG green curry, panang curry! And my favorite – meat with basil and chili. I’m hungry thinking about it!!

Like many places in Thailand, it is completely open – no walls really, no roof less you count the tarp overhead. This takes some getting used to. Yes, of course, there are more western looking establishments around, and we go to those too, sometimes-  but the best food and the best prices are at these little places !!

Above – sharing a smoothie. The ladies who cook and serve got a good laugh when Lane made my ‘sharing straw’ by linking two straws together.  Ha!

Above- you will see one of these Sporit Houses at nearly every home and business. The idea is that there are spirits all around and you make this house for them so they don’t bother you. Each day food or drink or gifts are left. Fanta is a common one. Red I think not orange. And there is speculation about whether a person should drink the Fanta after a day or two or not. Some say it’s very lucky.

Beautiful flowers remind me of birds of paradise

Our patio.

While some building is Thailand are shacks- ok most are, with corrugated metal roofs or just a tarp – other buildings are quite beautiful. And they may be right next to each other.

Above an adorable Coffee house not far from our hotels.

The gardener/grounds/maintenance guy at the resort handed this to me one morning. He had picked it from the garden. He didn’t speak any English and I wasn’t sure at first. But I ate it. Ha. Can’t be insulting the staff you know. It was like a green apple but more tart. Quite good.

Nice small quiet pool.

After those few days we were picked up and driven to the Headquarters of the SCUBA shop where our liveaboard trip would begin. Scuba Adventures. In my opinion a great company. We were booked on a three night cruise leaving one evening and arriving back also in the evening. After the usual rigmarole of registering, storing luggage etc. we picked up some snacks at the grocery next-door and hopped in the truck to drive to the dock. We boarded the boat, were given the usual (somewhat long-winded) instructions and were ready to go. This boat was much more heavily staffed than the one we had done in Australia. There was, I think five or six crew to help with diving gear, driving and cooking – plus six dive instructors – all for about 18 people or guests on board. Pretty good, nearly one on one. And the guys who helped with the diving!! They put your fins on for you!! Ha. Never have I had such service on a dive boat.

That evening we drove out a ways to reach the famous Similan islands. While we were driving we ate dinner and got to know one another. There were some lovely people on the boat from all over the world. Including some from Vermont in the USA some from China, Korea, France, and even Pakistan. I think everyone went to bed early in anticipation of the 4 dives the next day!!

Above, this is nearly all the guests on the boat. Having fun.

Above, Cathy and Perry from Vermont. Loved spending time with these two.

Because Lane has a junior advanced open water certification from PADI we were assigned our own instructor just for the two of us. There are depth limitations with his age and so we were separated from the rest. This suited me just fine, as a smaller group provides more personal attention and, in my opinion, you see more because there aren’t multiple people waiting to look at the same object or creature when the instructor points it out. Plus With fewer people in your group, it’s less likely that anything will go wrong or have issues that hold up the dive time. If you’ve never been diving, it might be interesting to know, that each dive is generally only about 40 minutes long. And that includes time to get down and back up again. In a large group, if someone has trouble with their ears, or some other issue with equipment, the entire group generally has to wait for that person before they can proceed with the dive. As you can imagine this can waste a lot of time. So, I was quite happy it was just the two of us. Especially because we’ve been driving very recently and frequently so the chances of issues were minimal

The next morning, we had an early wake up around 6 AM for our first dive which would happen before breakfast. This day we would do four dives, including the last, which would be a night dive. The second and third days we did three dives each day. We saw many wonderful creatures including  nudibranches, flatworms, blue starfish, crabs, an insane amount of beautiful fish, including puffer fish which were at times very friendly and curious.

During one dive, both Lane and I, separately, were bitten by cleaner fish which are very small fish that help other fish in the ocean by cleaning parasites and dirt off of their bodies and from inside their mouth and Gills. Apparently, this fish determined that we were dirty. Ha! It doesn’t hurt, in case you’re wondering.  I guess this fish has no teeth, but it is a bit startling. It’s a bit of a joke, actually, because most times your dive buddies can see the fish following you and checking you out, But they don’t tell you, because they want to see the surprised look on your face when the fish finally decides to take an nibble. Ha. Dive humor. Same policy for sharks. Just kidding.

Here is Lane, Jessie and I in the water at the end of a dive. Photo courtesy of my new friend Cathy from Vermont. Funny, the dive instructors in the boat called her and her Husband Katy Perry because her name is Cathy and he is Perry. Ha.

Over the 3 nights at sea we saw some amazing scenery. Beautiful islands and rocks rising from a vast blue sea. Some great sunsets and sunrises. Just beautiful.

Our dive instructor Jessie, was amazing. Always energetic, patient, and excited to have us as her dive group. We became somewhat close her and to the couple from the US. I guess birds of a feather, and all that. It was nice to have Americans around, for a change. I was particularly impressed by the dive instructors on this boat. Each of them speaking a minimum of three languages!!! Allowing for this dive operation to accommodate any and all nationalities and countries.

I’m including some pictures that were not taken by us however they are indicative of what we saw in our dive trips on this trip

Above, this is a nudibranch. It’s about 3 inches long

Above a box fish, only about 3 inches long

Above is another kind of box fish

This is a puffer fish  we didn’t see them puff up  I’ve caught a few in NJ though and they puff up when you bring them out of the water.  Puffers can be very small, like the ones I caught in NJ, or rather large like 10 or 14 inches long like some of the ones we saw on this trip. We saw small ones on this trip too. It was the large ones at the last dive site, at the wreck, that were so curious.  One swam right up to my mask and looked at me, then followed me

Overall the diving was really amazing. The visibility was incredible. And so many things to see. And I’ve never been so relaxed in the water. Well, I wasn’t relaxed on one dive but that story is coming.

They were a few specific experiences that I feel are worth mentioning on the dive trip. One was watching an octopus that our instructor spotted. These are particularly hard to see if you do not have a trained eye, as they are heavily camouflaged and look very much like the coral rocks that they live around. Anyway, Jessie spotted the octopus which was not very large, smaller than a volleyball. We watch the octopus crawl around and hide inside his rock. Then we patiently waited, being as still as possible, and he came back out again. The way they move is like magic.

Another interesting find was during the night dive when I spotted an enormous red reef crab hiding in a rock. At first I only spotted his claw. But then moved and saw the entire thing. It was bigger than a dinner plate.

I also managed to spot a few Nudibranches as well as some boxfish. The box fish are so tiny and so cute with their square bodies. And they come and some of the most beautiful colors. Also, of course, we saw lots of clown fish. Some, of the black variety, which I like very much. And eels. Lots of eels. Some of the giant moray eels. Some of the colorful eels.

We also saw some flatworms. One was swimming through the water. They are so adorable! Wiggling their entire tiny body in what seems like a fruitless effort to get anywhere. Such a tiny vulnerable creature trying to swim in an enormous ocean!

Another cool sighting was the black and White Sea snake. We saw him up pretty close and watched him swim away. Very beautiful. Very fast. Very poisonous too although we were told that, while their venom is deadly to humans, you would have to inject it to die because heir teeth aren’t long/strong enough to penetrate our skin. Ha. This one was at least 4 feet long. Very impressive.

Jesse also pointed out some tiny tiny creatures like a spearing shrimp and a sea horse type creature called a pipe horse.

Most importantly, WE SAW MANTA RAYS!! Not one but two!!! It was the most amazing experience possibly of my entire life. Yes even better than child birth. I mean, we all know that’s got some downsides. Ha.

We were swimming out into the blue, as they call it, which means away from the reef and toward the open sea – like the drop off in Finding Nemo. We were hoping to spot some sharks. We had been told that it was not a good season or year for the manta rays and that hardly any had been spotted in the last few months which was peak season for them. I have not been very hopeful about seeing them and had resigned myself to enjoy the diving for what it was. But, we swim out to the blue and all of a sudden, coming from far away out of the blue, I saw something — big swooping wings!! A FREAKING MANTA RAY!!! . I frantically grabbed both Jessie and Lane screaming into my regulator to get their attention. I pointed and they saw. Jessie grabbed both Lane and I – forcing us to stay still. I guess, fearing we would swim towards it. We sat there suspended in the water as the manta ray swim towards us. At first it swam overhead so close, Lane could’ve touched it. But of course, he did not. That would be improper. Then, as we stayed in the same spot, the manta ray met up with another manta ray. About 10 yards away. They came together, belly to belly, facing the sky, and twirled around each other and what looked like a dance, or maybe it was a challenge. Then they swim away one on top of the other beyond where we could see. Of course, we were ecstatic, over the moon excited. But then, one came back!!  He came back, and swam in front of the three of us and very specifically and obviously trained one of his eyes on us within 5 feet of our faces. Examining us, maybe trying to figure out what we were. He hovered there for at least a minute then proceeded to swim around us a few more times. Unfortunately, my excessive excitement caused me to breathe heavily. My crying, not just tears but actual sobbing – underwater, may have had something to do with my air consumption. I was running out of air! Jessie, our instructor, obviously had stayed calmer than me, and she had air to spare, so we were able to stay down a little longer. I never ended up needing her air, but I probably came back to the boat with very little.

I can’t even describe to you what an amazing experience it was. It brings me to tears just writing this. I hope I get to do that again someday. I’m told in the Philippines they see them often. I’m definitely gonna make it there.

Upon completing the dive trip, we return to land and once again to Khaolak. This time, we would stay in a different hotel, which I thought was a little further away. Much to my surprise, it was a mere block away from the original hotel. Ha! And – happy days- near that little shack of a restaurant that we loved. With all the food and banana smoothies to boot!! Lane’s fave. Both of these small resorts were somewhat hidden and on small streets at least one kilometer from the main action. Which is kind of how I like it. In both resorts,  I was able to rent a bicycle for 100 baht per day which is about three American dollars.  This proved to be the best way to see the sights. Although, one evening when Lane and I rode to dinner the pedal of my bike kept coming off. Yikes! Ha!! Challenges.

A side note in food and drink in Thailand. There are several places that we have visited that we cannot drink the tap water. We are also told no uncooked food of any kind. Unless we wash and prepare it ourselves. Not only is this extremely limiting, and annoying (try to brush your teeth and remember not to use any water) but it also just give you an icky feeling all around. At least for us it did. And then there is all that gray area. Like, washing dishes and can you use them if they aren’t dry? Wash your vegetables in bottled water? No mixed drinks in the restaurant because they have ice? Or lime?

On our first visit to Thailand we ate at the resort restaurant and mostly avoided uncooked food. However at the lunch lessons with our instructors everyone was ordering drinks with lemon and fruit so we did too. Hence the start of Lane’s banana smoothie obsession. Ha. We had found a Good cheap restaurant that we didn’t have to worry about eating at.

Now In Khaolak, same thing. We saw a recommendation in the resort reviews for this restaurant so we tried it. Banana and watermelon smoothies included. We felt fine so we continued to trust that restaurant. And we were fine.

Then in Vietnam, we stuck to restaurants our guide suggested. Or hot food. And at times branched out to other places. Banana smoothies and passion fruit mojito were our best friends. Ha. My conclusion is that as long as it’s a reputable place, either by a personal recommendation or by looking nice and being busy with foreigners – it’s ok. We took some chances. But we used our judgement and it was fine.

But brushing teeth with bottled water is still annoying!! Ha.

Overall, we did spend quite a bit of time relaxing at the hotel before and after the dive trip as spending three days on a boat is tiring enough and doing 10 dives besides – it’s practically exhausting. Ha.

A couple interesting random things

One was this takeaway carrier for drinks, like smoothies. I have not seen these in the US have you?

And these. Crackers? No I did not try them. Ha.

Out of Thailand and off to Vietnam.