It was still dark outside when I left the room. I jumped into the pickup joining the few dozing off at the back. It was way too early for socializing. I closed my eyes. A few moments later we reached the port where a speed boat was waiting for us. I was told that if you get seasick on a boat, you will only feel better once your feet hit the ground again. I took the tiny yellow pill out of my backpack and swallowed it. Vomiting was the last thing I wanted to do the next two days.
The little speed boat was stacked with provisions – water, food, and equipment along with us – four travelers, two dive masters, and the Thai captain. The two-hour-ride necessary to reach the big diving boat, anchored somewhere in the Andaman sea, was only interrupted by a couple of false killer whales passing near our boat. The captain turned off the engine for a while to avoid disturbing their passage.
When it comes to diving, almost any island in Thailand can satisfy one’s hunger for exploration of the marine life. However, the Similan Islands are often referred to as the creme de la creme of the Andaman sea as the shallow crystal clear waters and spectacular coral reefs are home to unmatched sea life including whale sharks, manta rays, turtles, and leopard sharks. The Similan archipelago consists of eleven islands, all protected, covering over 140 square kilometers. The access to many is completely prohibited by law for the protection of wildlife. The only way to reach the desolated diving spots is to join a live-aboard diving group, which is exactly what I did.
It was not until we reached the big liveaboard boat that I realized that besides the Thai crew, I was the only non-German speaking person in the group. Apparently, the company was owned by Swiss people, who had immigrated to Thailand over ten years ago and established the Khao Lak Fun Divers diving center.
As a matter of fact most, if not all, of the diving centers in Khao Lak (the closest port to reach the islands) were run by foreigners. There was only one condition – for each boat they operated they had to hire a Thai boat crew, meaning the captain(s), the cook(s), and sailor men had to be Thai. Only the management and the dive masters could be foreigners. Each season the boat is anchored in close proximity to the islands where the Thai crew spends seven months (October to April) without leaving the boat unless of an emergency, while a small speed boat brings travelers back and forth during the season.
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It was 9:30 in the morning. We all gathered on the front deck to go through the schedule and the basic safety procedures. My first dive for the day was in less than 40 minutes. And Wendy was the name of my dive master – my diving instructor and underwater buddy. The moment I heard her name Wendy, Peter Pan’s Wendy, the girl looking for adventures and refusing to grow up, came to my mind. Wendy was an Australian lady in her sixties. She had been diving for over thirty years in various locations around the world. Her tattoos of turtles and dolphins around her ankles not only showed her unconditional love for the marine life but also represented her free spirit and untamed heart.
I told her about my first diving experience which was a complete fiasco. Water started filling up my mask and I couldn’t get it out so one of the instructors had to take me out immediately. Even though the memory of the water penetrating my eyes and nose 8 meters deep in the Mediterranean sea still terrified me, I was excited to dive again.
After running the safety checks, we were ready to leap off the boat. Standing at the edge of the stern, one hand in front of the face, the other on the chest, I took a giant step forward and … splash. We were in the water. In a head-up position, we started to descend down the anchor rope little by little, taking a moment at every meter to equalize the pressure in our ears.
5th meter: Getting used to my Darth Vader breathing.
8th meter: Mounting pressure in my ears. Pinched my nostrils and blew through the nose. Shook my head. Massaged my neck and looked up. Pop.
10th meter: Got ready to let go of the anchor rope.
Suddenly, we were among colorful fish of all sizes dancing around the candy-hued coral reef. They were above. Below. To the left and right. I was awed by the vast amount of incredible wildlife hidden under the water. Every few minutes Wendy was pointing to something I otherwise would have missed. The venomous lionfish was hiding under a rock. Its striking look screamed “Don’t touch me”. We found Nemo and Dory, the clownfish and the blue tang fish, chasing each other around sea anemones (those mushy creatures similar to jellyfish and coral).
It’s the serenity of the ocean that mesmerizes me. Under the water you lose track of time and space. All your worries stay on the boat. It’s only you and your dive buddy submerged in an utterly tranquil world, pointing things out and communicating without saying a word.
The diving adventure continued on the surface. Over a few beers, we were swapping stories of what we had seen underwater, the places we visited and the places we wished to visit.
By midnight it was already quiet on the deck. Tomorrow we had to get up early for another round of diving.
I spent the night outside, on a sun bed under the stars.
Footnote: The yellow pill didn’t help. The moment I got on the speed boat after my second dive, I puked through the stem two meters away from a group of snorkelers. Wendy tapped me on the back saying that it was OK to feed the animals occasionally.
Want to recreate this adventure? Here is how ?
Getting to the Similan Islands: As the name suggests, you can reach the Similan islands only by boat (islands, duh!). I took a bus from Khao Sok to Khao Lak. Khao Lak gives fast and easy access to the islands (only a 2-hour boat ride). If you are coming from Bangkok, you can either take a night bus to Khao Lak (a 13-hour ride) or fly out to Phuket. From Phuket, you can arrange a day trip or join a liveaboard boat. Full guide here.
Arranging a liveaboard trip: There are dozens of dive shops in Khao Lak that arrange various trips to the Similan Islands. The best thing to do, if you have time, is to spend half a day checking out a few dive shops. Even though the prices of are pretty much the same, you can get more information about the crew, the boat, and the size of the group. For first time divers it’s super important to feel comfortable with your instructor. You can literally love or hate diving because of your instructor. Ask if you could meet them before agreeing on the trip. If you don’t have time, book a liveaboard trip prior to arriving in Khao Lak (or Phuket). A good rule of thumb is to do some research, read reviews, and get in contact with the dive shop before booking.