31 Mar

KOH TAO = DIVING

First, I must once again apologise for the endless problems with this blog. Trying to get it fixed while I was away, with poor internet, was an exercise in futility. I am hoping it is going to work now, and I will play catch up with the posts I could not send while I was away.

 

Thai night train

Recovering from flooding

Any mention of Koh Tao always mentions diving. As I am a diver and a lover of islands and beaches, I could not wait to check out my first island in Thailand. I was spending some time in Bangkok and heard a lot about flooding on some of the islands. Fortunately, reports said Koh Tao was returning to normal by the time I planned to go. I was going to take my first overnight train in Thailand. When I went to buy my train ticket, they have an inclusive train/bus/ferry package to get to many of the islands. I have used overnight trains in other Asian countries, and usually the bed is always a bed. Not so on the Thai trains. An attendant folds the bottom seats flat, puts a mattress on, makes the bed, and then pulls down the top bunk. There is a ladder and privacy curtains – nice touches I had not seen before. Train trip was very comfortable, and we arrived at Chumpon at 4 am. Bus arrived at 5 to take us to the ferry. We boarded a large fast catamaran – I would think it held about 300 people. Seas were rough and almost everyone was seasick. I was fine but felt so sorry for those who were not.
Arriving at Koh Tao it was a short, muddy walk to my guesthouse. I was reminded of Caye Caulker in Belize – dive shops and cafes dominated.

Resorts accessible only by boat

Rocks reminded me of Mwanza Tanzania

I had come here to dive, so my first goal was to find a dive shop, with decent rental equipment, and qualified staff. When you pass a diving course, you get a C card. It shows your qualification. As you take more courses you get different cards. It is common for a divemaster to accompany divers. An instructor in Canada advised me to always ask to see their certification, and I have been surprised how often they have not been able to produce it. In other words, they are not as qualified as they say they are.
My one and only dive was a great disappointment. Cloudy water with not much marine life to see. I later learned the reason Koh Tao is so popular is not because of the great diving – but because it is the cheapest place in the world to get certified. I paid almost $2000, 27 years ago in Canada. In Koh Tao you can get certified for $150. This is certainly a case of “you get what you pay for”.

Typical Dive Boat

Don’t Take the Sand

So, my first island was a disappointment, still hoping to find that white sand and clear water as I move on.

25 Mar

THE KING IS DEAD – THE COUNTRY MOURNS

One of the first things I noticed about Bangkok the first time I visited was the photos of the King everywhere. I am not talking about 8 x 10’s – oh no, most were billboard size. Every house and every business had a photo of him. He had ruled for years and was the longest ruling leader in the world. King Rama IX as he was known died on Oct.13, 2016. I presumed all of his photos would be replaced by photos of his son, Maha Vajiralongkorn who assumed the throne on Dec. 1, 2016.

The Royal family do not actually rule Thailand, but they do have a massive influence. King Bhumibol Adulyadej brought many in his country of about 68 million people to tears when he died at age 88 after 70 years in power. He had stopped coups, spearheaded rural infrastructure projects and met commoners in rough or squalid conditions. His actions helped strengthen people’s confidence in their country with an otherwise wobbly government.
To my surprise almost all of the royal photos are now black and white ones of the former King. There are paintings of him everywhere, and the entire country is truly in mourning. Many people wear black tshirts or golf shirts every day with the Thai number 9 – to represent the past King. Women wear brooches in the shape of the 9. Markets sell huge numbers of tshirts that say “I was born during the reign of Rama IX” both in English and Thai. I was in Bangkok over the New Year and was told there would be a massive turnout at the Palace on NYE to honour the dead King. It was amazing to see the massive number of people, dressed in black from head to toe, many carrying pictures of the King, many in tears. Everywhere I traveled people were getting their photos taken with pictures of the King. At McDonalds, they have a self order machine, and every second screen that appears is a black and white photo of the past King. Every government building is surrounded by black ribbon, and I have seen some eight story buildings that have black fabric at least six feet wide that hangs from the roof to the ground. Every Metro station has a huge memorial with fresh flowers and a condolence book to sign. There is to be a year of mourning, and the celebrations for New Years this year were very subdued – no fireworks etc.
Thailand has the toughest “lese-majeste” laws in the world. These laws protect the Royal family from insults or threats. As a result discussions about their Royalty are very restricted – penalties start with 15 years in prison. The new King is not popular, but no one will say so. When I asked my Thai friends what they thought of the new King, they would just roll their eyes. He is in his 60s’, has lived in Europe most of his life. He has been divorced three times.
I wonder when the year of mourning is over if his picture will be as prominently as his father’s.