Monday, July 27, 2009

Koh Tao & The Coral Grand Dive School...

*** There are a couple underwater video clips at the bottom of this post. Check them out!***

Monday, July 20th

An afternoon nap puts me in the right place to spend the next few hours filling out paperwork and getting an orientation talk for my Open Water Diver certification. I've chosen to take classes at the Coral Grand Divers scuba school based on a recommendation from a fellow traveler and a complementary write up by National Geographic Traveler. The school (and the island in general) is recognized as one of the best places in the world to get scuba certified. Koh Tao is only second to Australia's Cairn Islands for the number of certified divers it churns out annually. At about $350 U.S. (about a fifth of what it costs in the states), the price is a bargain that I can't pass up. Besides, I'm no good a just sitting on the beach...

Three hours of instructional videos and some basic talking points, followed by so several hours of assigned reading rounds out Day 1 of dive school.

Tuesday, July 21st

John Allen, my British instructor, sends me and two other classmates to the swimming pool for a day of confined diving lessons. I'm joined in my studies by Eliza, an Italian woman from Milan, and Eric, a Norwegian and professional Thai Boxer. The four of us spend several hours in the resort's swimming pool gradually learning how to assemble, operate and apply new breathing and equipment skills in practical training underwater. The pool was packed with other classes and made for a challenging learning environment but by afternoon John has taught us all the basic skill we'll need for tomorrow's first open water dive.

The certification course teaches and tests more than 20 skills in open water (the ocean) over the course of 4 dives. Once we pass the practical skills, there is a 50 question test that one must pass. Upon completion of the course, students become registered divers who are able to dive anywhere in the world to a depth of 50 feet. I'm excited about this prospect but am now faced with the dilemma of having to allot vacation time to both the surf and the mountains. Woe is me...

Wednesday, July 22nd

After a morning review session, we board the boat at noon and head to "White Rock" dive sight for our first taste of open water. After buddy checks (Eric is my buddy), we get into the water and make our way towards the mooring line. When everyone is ready, John gives us the signal to descend using the mooring line as our underwater guide. I will never forget these first few moments as my head dips below surface. About a dozen divers are cued up along the line, gradually working their way into the depths. Their backs are turned to me as they breath from their regulators, bubbles floating the surface. It's as though I've entered a portal to another world. One filled with deep blue mysteries and excitement lurking in the depths.

We gradually make our way down the line to a depth of 12 meters (39 feet) and spend 48 minutes underwater practicing our new skills. We swim around in our buddy groups, observing corals, fish and crustaceans. The dive sight is teeming with life and my senses are overwhelmed by a world filled with strange color and movement. It takes only one dive for me to be completely enamored by my new hobby. I can't wait to get down here with a camera!

Our next dive sight (the boat always visits two on each outing) is at "Twins." It is a sandy shoal littered with large boulders and growing coral. It's not a particularly stunning sight but the shallow depths and sandy bottom make for a good spot to practice skills. John teaches us to exchange emergency regulators underwater and has us practice a few navigational skills.

We return to shore after our dives and back to the books. We spend the afternoon reviewing our readings and preparing for the next day. I eat a nice traditional Thai dinner at Crua Thai in Ban Hat Sarie (the town) and head to bed. This will become my daily routine.

Thursday, July 23rd

We meet at the equipment shack at 6:15 a.m. for an early start today. The boat is headed to "Chumphon Pinnacles," a deep water dive sight that is often frequented by Whale Sharks. Although it's not the season for them (May is the right time of year) everyone is excited about the prospects of seeing the gentle giant. No one mentions the plankton feeder by name, for fear of jinxing a chance encounter. Everyone instead talks about the chances of seeing the "big fish."

We hit the water by 7:30 and gradually make our way down to 18 meters (60 feet), the limits for a diver registered for Open Water. 30 meters (100 feet) is the depth limit for an Advanced Open Water diver. Our group bottoms out at exactly 18 meters and we practice breathing at this depth. Our air tanks will run out more quickly at this depth, so John moves our group to a shallower depth so that we may explore our surroundings longer. Strange aquatic life bustles around the giant submerged outcropping of rock and coral. Fish dart and morays skulk. Corals dance and plankton flutter in the light. We do not see the "big fish."

After a 36 minute dive, our group surfaces and is transported to our final dive sight for our Open Water certification. We head back to "Twins" where John runs us through underwater navigation drills, an emergency descent and a surface BCD removal task. We spend the rest of the 12 meter / 44-minute dive exploring our underwater playground.

We return to shore and after a decent lunch break (back to Crua Thai), my classmates and I dive into our written exam. Everyone passes with flying colors and we are now officially Open Water Divers! John hands us our temporary dive cards and our new dive logs and welcomes us to the club. It is at this point that I realize I've not gotten my fill of the ocean and I sign up for another Advanced Open Water course. This way I will get 5 more dives and be certified for a depth of 30 meters (100 feet).

Students can pick a particular focus that they'd like to pursue and I'm anxious to hit the depths with a camera. I will rent a camera from one of the instructors and shape my next dives for an underwater photography specialty. After renting a camera for 2 days and paying for the course, I'm committed for another $350...

Despite my empty pockets, I hit the town for an evening celebration with my classmates. We eat a fancy seafood restaurant along the beach and drink beers along the shoreline. By 1 a.m., I'm knackered and ready for bed.

Friday, July 24th

I meet John at noon at the equipment shack. I feel bad because after working for 25 days straight, he is supposed to have a day off. He shrugs it off and diligently tends to my instruction. As the only available instructor qualified to teach the underwater photography specialty, he will be my instructor for another 5 dives. I now have one-on-one course and am happy to continue on with him.

Knowing that I am a professional photographer, John goes light on the camera instruction and lighting theory. I have read the chapter on underwater photography techniques and feel comfortable with the concepts. John hands me his personal camera & strobe setup as we climb aboard the dive boat for another 2-dive session.

We spend a collective 90 minutes underwater at depth of 14 meters (45 feet) because the shooting is always better closer to the surface. Our dive sights include "King Kong" and "Aow Leuk," two sandy shoals along the shoreline of Koh Tao. The water visibility isn't the greatest but at least the sun is out and I'm having fun trying to shoot images underwater. The usually simple task of operating a point-and-shoot camera (beefed up with a strobe) and trying to remain still proves to be challenging underwater. Although I'm sure my images are crap, I have a blast shooting underwater. This is why I signed up for the courses in the first place! I humbly return to the boat to contemplate my future as an underwater shooter. I've opened up a giant can of worms and look forward to the new challenge.

The only bad new from the day is that while we were diving at the wrong sites, a whale shark spent the morning hanging out at "Southwest" dive site. I guess the damn fish didn't want his picture taken...

Saturday, July 25th

We meet at the equipment shack at 6:15 and gear up for my deep dive certification class. Today we will head to 30 meters and I'll qualify for future deep dives at the end of the course. The motivation for me to do this is simple. Many superb dive sights are beyond the 18 meter OW certification limit. An AOW diver has much greater access to dive sights around the world. My new dream is to go on a live-aboard 10-day cruise aboard a sailboat rigged with a dive station. There are many operations in exotic locales around the globe. This is the underwater equivelent of heli-skiing.

John and I hop in the water at 7:30 and are both hoping for a run-in with the "big fish." "Chumphon Pinnacles" is a common hangout for the 7-meter-long beomoths of the deep. My instructor gradually coaxes me down to 30 meters and we spend 28 minutes underwater exploring the depths of "Chumphon Pinnacles." I shoot a few photos before the camera gets stuck on video mode (see videos below). The highlighs of this deep dive include spotting a Giant Moray Eel and nearly being encircled by a huge school of Barracuda. We do not get to see a Whale Shark.

Our next dive is back to "White Rock" where I must practice some more complex underwater navigation skills. The 16-meter dive lasts 40 minutes and it's my last chance to shoot with my rented camera equipment. It's a nice day above water but the visibility below is limited. I make the most of it and try shoot something worthwhile. We are back ashore by noon and I spend the afternoon filling out some knowledge review exams as I wait for time to tick away. I'm anxiously anticipating my upcoming night dive.

I meet John again in the evening and we gear up for my last dive in the AOW certification course. The boat takes us to "White Rock" and we are in the water by 7:45. John leads me into the dark blue, guiding the way with underwater dive lights. My own little dive light is the only protection I have from the uncertainty of the surrounding black abyss. I don't have a camera in hand becuase my instructor doesn't want me to get lost in the inky-blue evening waters. I'm scared shitless! It's not so much a fear of what lays before me, so much as what is behind me in the dark.

The familiar dive sight is transformed at night. Much like a forest, all the daytime creatures have gone into hiding and the nocturnal animals are out in force. A Great Barracuda lazily swims past us, completely unconcerned by our presence. Various sting rays cruise along the ocean floor. A large Hermit Crab meanders across the bottom in search of food particles. He is favorite night-time creature. The dive ends quickly and we return to shore where we wash the gear and John unceremoniously congratulates me on completing the course. After 27 days straight, he is ready for bed and a couple days off. I thank him for his effort and wish him well as we part ways.

Sunday, July 26th

I've still not had my share of diving so I sign on for two more well-earned "fun dives" and climb aboard the morning boat. I will leave Koh Tao in the afternoon and don't know when I'll get a chance to go diving next. For a combined $50 fee, I can't possibly turn down another opportunity to head into the deep blue.

As the boat makes it's way towards "Southwest," everyone chats about the "big fish" that made an appearence here two days earlier. We all secretly hope for a chance-encounter as we slip over the side of the dive boat. I'm in a group of four certified AOW divers with much greater experience underwater than me. At 9 completed dives, I'm the rookie. Nonetheless, our dive instructor (acting in a guiding fashion) leads us down to 23.5 meters (78 feet) and we tour the gorgeous underwater playground of "Southwest." This dive sight is by far the most beautiful that I've visited. Schools of fish navigate between towering boulders that are layered with corals and anemones. The dive ends too quickly (39 minutes) but it's my fault. As the newbie, I'm the one who sucks through my air tank the fastest. The group must always dive together and underwater time is limited to the shortest air supply. They tell me that my breathing will become more relaxed over time. Our dive is fantastic but we aren't lucky enough to swim with the "big fish." Oh well... "Southwest" and Whale Shards are ample reasons to return to Koh Tao.

Our second dive is at "Shark Island." Unfortunately the local fishing fleet has exterminated the local shark population of Koh Tao. Shark fins is considered a high-dollar delicacy in Thailand and throughout Southeast Asia.The shallower dive, 18.5 meters (61 feet), lasts for 50 minutes and our explorations are limited by poor underwater visibility. By the end of my dive, I've had my fill of the ocean and am ready to make my way back to the mainland and on to Bangkok.

I'm aboard the ferry at 3 p.m. and back in Chumphon to await my 9 p.m. train back to Bangkok. Somehow between boarding and off-loading the boat, I lose my $40 train ticket (traveling misadventure #2) and am subjected to an evening aboard a night bus.

Monday, July 27th
My bus arrives at 4:45 a.m. and I will spend the rest of the day burning time till my 11:55 p.m. flight back to Frankfurt and then home. I'll write one more post from the other side to review my route and give a post-trip wrap-up.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Journeyman...

Sunday, July 19th
In the course of about 24 hours, I will travel more than 950 miles from Hanoi, Vietnam, through Bangkok, Thailand and finally onto the island of Koh Tao, located off the eastern shores of Thailand's southern peninsula. I make this journey by taxi, then plane, bus, tuk-tuk, train, bus, boat, and pickup truck sequentially.

My flight leaves Hanoi at 9 a.m and I arrive in Bangkok by 11 a.m. I have a several-hour layover in Bangkok between my flight from Vietnam and before boarding the night train to Thailand's southern peninsula. I take comfort in the familiarity of Bangkok's Banglamphu (Koa San Road). I use the brief stopover for a rejuvenating Thai massage, beard trim & straight-razor shave and laundry stop. I also take the time to arrange the final stage of my three-month journey. I will travel to Koh Tao to attend a several-day Open Water Diving certification course which will train me and enable me to go scuba diving anywhere in the world. By nightfall I climb aboard an overnight train to Champon.

Monday, July 20th
At sunrise I'm in Champon on the southeastern coastline of the southern peninsula and I await my 8 a.m. shuttle via catamaran speedboat to the island of Koh Tao. By journey's end at 11 a.m., I am really tired. Upon arrival there is no time for rest, as I start dive school on Monday afternoon...

A Night in Hanoi...

Saturday, July 18th
Upon my return to Hanoi on Saturday afternoon, I set out to explore and document a couple of Hanoi's distinct cultural assets. My first visit is to the Hanoi Water Puppet Theater. Water puppetry has existed as an art form in Vietnam since the 11th century. As the pictures show, the concept is simple. Puppet masters hide behind a screen and use a surface of water as a stage. They operate their figurines that are mounted to long poles that stay hidden beneath the surface. An accompanying orchestra provides background music, sound effects and occasional dialogue (in Vietnamese) to drive the storyline, which is generally based upon Vietnamese folklore and myth.

I really enjoy watching and shooting the 45-minute performance. My heart and spirits are particularly lifted by the attendance of a small Vietnamese boy sitting in the seat next to me. He is no more than eight-years-old and he just laughs and giggles throughout the performance. I have a chance to live vicariously through him and my own enthusiasm for the show heightens.

After the performance I head back to the streets and to Hanoi's "Freedom Cross," the intersection known as the epicenter of the city's Bia Hoi (Beer Hoi or "Fresh Beer") operations. I spend a couple of hours drinking beer and shooting a series of photos. I aim to capture a glimpse of the cultural phenomenon that occurs when freshly-brewed micro beer kegs are legally dropped on a street corner and pints are sold for less than a quarter (3,000 VDN). "Fresh Beer" is low alcohol content beer that does not contain any preservatives. It must therefore be consumed immediately and the masses are happy to oblige. "Freedom Cross" is a great crossroads for western travelers and native residents alike. People of all races, creeds and color come together to socialize and cool down on a hot summer night in Hanoi. I really dig the Beer Hoi concept and find it to be a poignant argument against open container laws in the U.S. So lift a glass in solidarity where ever you are in salute to Hanoi and Bia Hoi...

I head to bed by midnight in preparation for a huge looming travel day on Sunday.

Hanoi, HaLong Bay, Hanoi...

Thursday, July 16th
After a rewarding couple of days shooting in the greater northwest region of Vietnam, I take a breather on Thursday to edit photos and catch up on my blog. I spend the day lounging, eating at working at a French-owned and operated establishment known as Le Petit Gecko. (It takes a lot of work and time to maintain this blog). By 5 p.m. my images are edited and my blog is written to date and I hop on the shuttle back to Lai Cao to board the night train for Hanoi. The eight-hour journey passes without incident and by 5 a.m. on Friday morning, I'm back on the streets of Hanoi.

Friday, July 17th
Today I'm heading to HaLong Bay in anticipation of what is supposed to be the highlight of my Vietnam experience. HaLong Bay, located about 50 kilometers east of Hanoi, is a beautiful body of water that was recognized in 1994 by UNESCO as a "World Natural Heritage Sight." The 120,000 square-kilometer inlet is dotted with dozens of islets and islands made up of limestone karsts. Innumerable caverns snake through the limestone, much like "holey" Swiss cheese. The bay is home to an active fishing industry and dedicated to a hyperactive tourism industry.

My shuttle pick up for transfer to Ha Long City arrives at 8 a.m. and I'm boarding my cruise ship's tender by noon. I am immediately disappointed when I observe the spectacle that makes up the city's port. Over 450 registered cruise ships, modeled as Chinese-style junks (but without working sails), cluster together to await the daily influx of tourists. Westerners arrive by the thousands to board their boats for a one or two night excursion.

Once aboard, I check into my luxurious cabin. I've splurged on a $100, one-night cruise which provides a stately cabin with a queen-sized bed, large port windows, air-conditioning and a private bathroom with heated shower. I'm big-pimpin' now! The ship pulls away from the port by 1 p.m. and joins a long procession of boats all booked for a one-night excursion. To my dismay, the cruise ships must stick to a pre-assigned travel plan that is regulated by the Vietnamese government. The armada resembles a floating trail of ants as the fake sailing barges putt 5 miles off-shore to a protected bay with a well established tourism center.

A small group of passengers spends the afternoon with our unnecessary, ambiguously-gay, overtly-enthusiastic, and continuously-screeching "male" Vietnamese tour guide. He takes us into a cavern that has been manicured much in the same fashion of underground theme park. Literally thousands of tourists shuffle along a defined concrete walkway each day, stopping to gawk at rock formations that are lit by multicolored halogen bulbs and are supposed to resemble various mythical creatures. When did I get to Disney Land, exactly?

We then brake down into groups of two (as a solo-traveler, I'm stuck with the overzealous tour guide) and follow a long procession of other tourists on a short paddle aboard sea kayaks. My "partner" chats my ear off about this and that (I quickly stop listening) and I return the courtesy with a meager conversation of my own (and the guide chuckles at everything I say, as if I'm a stand-up comedian). We paddle into a cave and come into a hallow opening inside a karst where a "floating bar" boat greets tourists and attempts to sell overpriced drinks to the thirsty paddlers. Am I now at Club Med?

We return to our cruise ship in the late afternoon for swimming, showers and dinner (the bright point in the cruise ship curriculum). Our captain has anchored the ship in a well-protected cove along with no less than 50 other cruise ships. In this north-facing inlet surrounded by high-rising rock outcroppings, the ship is well-protect indeed... well protected from both the sunrise and sunset. Befuddled and and disappointed, I crack into my previously-purchased bottle of Jameson with a couple fellow passengers and am customarily charged a mandatory $10 service fee for ice! That's $10 just to sip from my own bottle of booze aboard their ship. Bullshit.

By 10:30, a French couple and I have played a dozen games of Ginn Rummy and the bottle is dry. I head to bed with no intent to rise for the invisible sunrise. I am not making the images I came here to shoot and there's nothing I can do about it. I knew that I'd signed on for a touristic trip, but after nearly three months of thinking for myself, nothing could have prepared me for this.

Saturday, July 18th
I lazily rise at 8 a.m. for breakfast and a "half-day" of cruising. We're really back at port by 11 a.m. and are on the road back to Hanoi (after a group lunch) by 1 p.m. I am really disappointed with my HaLong Bay experience and although it is touted as a "must" on the Vietnam circuit, I would earnestly discourage any traveler from signing on if they tend to be a "wolf" rather than a "sheep." In retrospect, if I'd had more time and greater financial resources, I'd come to HaLong Bay under my own power and charter a small sailing vessel for several days to explore the outer reaches of the bay. I really wanted to document the lifestyle in the nearby floating fishing village and try to get a feel for the Vietnamese life at sea. I really wanted to shoot the iconic image of an ancient seaworthy sailing vessel cruising to the backdrop of the rising karst islands. All in all, I'm very disappointed with my shoot and overall HaLong experience. Oh well... perhaps it's a reason to come back to Vietnam?