Koh Tao, Thailand (13-19 Nov)

The View from Big Fish beach

When we decided to research options for doing our PADI open water diver certification in Thailand, it didn’t take long for us to stumble upon Koh Tao. It is the second most popular place in the world to do a PADI certification course – and it is also the cheapest! Being the good bargain hunter my mother raised me to be, I knew it was the place for us. Unfortunately, that decision marked the beginning of a lot more debate. Koh Tao is a true dive destination and there are seemingly thousands of dive schools on the tiny island. As usual, the Internet became a blessing and a curse during our search. We obviously wanted a school that would provide good quality instruction, small class size and an overall positive experience. Of course, the biggest schools had the flashiest websites and the most reviews online, but they also had a reputation for an assembly line approach and a careless attitude towards students. Some of the smaller schools that had values we liked did not have the resources (and probably the desire) to put together a cutting edge website, so we had to take what information we could find and trust our gut.

We finally settled on New Heaven, a smaller school that was one of the first on the island, but had stayed small through the years. New Heaven turned out to be a great match for us. Suhail and I were the only two in our class (four was the max size) and we loved working with our instructor, Abel. He had the ability to blend fun and serious instruction, which made the intense 3-day course much easier to survive. I was so excited to become a diver, I don’t think I’d really thought about exactly what the certification would entail. It was not as physically demanding as I expected, but there are a million details you need to know – and you are quizzed on these every day with a final exam at the end! Each morning, we would report to New Heaven at 9am, do our quiz, head out to the boat, learn some new skills in the water (either in shallow water or while diving), head back to the school for a quick break and then another hour or so of coursework with the PADI manual. After we got home, we would have homework to prepare for the quiz the next morning. It was really like a bootcamp! And being the nerd that I am, I was, of course, stressed out about everything the entire time. Luckily, once you are underwater, there are all kinds of distractions like beautiful technicolor fish, slithering Moray eels and Christmas tree coral. It is impossible not to forget about all the work and enjoy the amazing experience. When it came to the final exam, we both passed without any trouble and the next time we dove (about 2 weeks later), our guide complimented us and Abel for his great instruction. Needless to say, by then we already knew we had made the right decision!

Koh Tao Rocks

Koh Tao itself was beautiful, but we did not have much time to explore. We stayed at Big Fish resort, a couple of minutes walk from New Heaven and there was a lovely beach and we got a great deal since it was the off season. The only drawback to the off season was that we did have a lot of rain. The majority fell during the overnight hours, but did still affect visibility on our dives. Even still, Koh Tao has numerous dive sights that are really incredible even with poor visibility and are still relatively unintimidating for beginning divers. I know we are spoiled and will probably be bound to be disappointed most places we dive in the future. Maybe we will just have to return to Koh Tao someday – and maybe you should too! But for now, you can just click here to see more beautiful photos.