Tales of Tao 2 - Cultural Baptism
I arrived in Koh Tao somewhat by accident, well sort of anyway. The truth is I wasn't even really planning to come to Thailand, although it was clearly always in the back of my mind ever since I finished my divemaster certification in Brighton.
One of my diving instructors there was a certain Ian McCrone. Ian used to recount stories to me in the pub after we braved the cold and waves, while diving the wrecks and reefs of the English Channel. I loved diving the Channel, still to this day some of the best diving tales of my short, yet on going, 30 year diving career. When the Channel turned on her charms, around 2 weeks in the summer each year, she was just stunning and of course the contrast was stark. I was the only diver there not using a drysuit, my intention was always to migrate to somewhere warm, so the investment didn't seem to make sense. I dived in a 7mm custom made suit, a farmer john with a pull over jacket and hood. It was a nightmare to get in and out of and the wind chills on the waters there were my biggest problem. Occasionally coming close to hypothermia after diving, my dry suit clad buddies would huddle around me to try to block the wind. Ian told stories of warm blue, clear tropical waters brimming with schools of fish, sharks, turtles, and much more. His only regret, he told me, was not going out to Koh Tao when he was younger, "around your age" he would say, as if it were a challenge, more like a red flag to a bull. Little did I know, the damage was already done.
When I finally decided to leave the UK again, I was already an experienced diver and underwater photographer, which allowed me to apply for a job as a photo pro in a dive center in Hong Kong. My family lived there when I was young lad, which was where my parents bought me my first camera, so it seemed like a sensible choice. On top of this, a slightly insane girlfriend had followed me to the UK after finishing my degree in Cape Town, and now she had gone ahead to Hong Kong. So I was off, buzzing with excitement, full of adrenaline, economy Aeroflot tickets in hand. Before I knew it I was coming in to land at Kai Tak airport. This is the moment that everything started to go somewhat pair shaped. Landing in Kai Tak in those days smelled like rotten eggs, sulphur I believe, I dread to think why, but it was a powerful odor that would consume the cabin. With the stench came the memories of living in Hong Kong as a very happy kid, who would want for nothing, and the realisation that it is certainly not going to be the same this time around. Then I remembered the girlfriend, and I had probably, my first real moment of clarity in my short life, a moment so calm and so vivid that the next decision, that seems quite wild when I recall it from memory, became one of the easiest that I would ever make. I am going to get the hell out of here.
I walked down the airplane tunnel and stepped into the airport with a new confidence, all former doubts replaced by utter belief and confidence. Right infront of me was a large sign that read "Cathay Pacific Transfer Desk" and below was an elegant lady who beckoned me over, seemingly already with the knowledge that I would require her services.
"I'm terribly sorry but the flights are all full to Bangkok today, we only have business class seats", apparently emerging from a rickety old Russian plane, alas from the economy exit, gives the game away, somewhat.
"I'll take it", I heard myself say. Funds, in excess of my original flight, were exchanged and I was whisked away immediately to a plane about to depart for Bangkok.
Now I should apologise for the lengthy prologue but the point is simply that I was not expecting to be in Thailand, so in my defense of what is to come, I knew nothing of her food, culture, or language, I simply knew nothing, and I was totally unprepared. Add to that that all my luggage, dive gear and camera equipment was lost in the transfer and it made for an interesting introduction to, what was to become, my new home. The luggage issue is an entirely different story, another Tale of Tao, as I have veered far from the point for long enough, I'm sure you would agree. Bypassing several days and an incredible set of circumstances I arrived on Koh Tao from Chumphon by Songserm ferry. The water was crystal clear, palm and fir trees lined the beaches, I knew that this was it. I remember seeing a taxi with 'New Way Bungalows' written on the side, I remembered this from Ian. The driver invited me to put my luggage in the back and seemed utterly shocked to have a customer, it was very quiet back then. I asked him if I could have 5 minutes as I had seen a dive shop sign, another name I recalled, 'Big Blue Koh Tao Divers'. This, again, is another story but suffice to say that, thanks to dropping Ian's name, I was offered a job and employed and heading back to the taxi, around 10 minutes I'd hazard a guess from memory.
On our way from Mae Haad to Sairee along the dirt beach road, there was no top road then, we encountered groups of Farang and Thai men filling sand bags, and Thai women bringing them beers, as they fixed the road; it was around 9am. Although the sun was shining, and barely a cloud in the sky, it was pretty clear that there had been some heavy rains, that thankfully now, appeared to be over. New Way Bungalows was down on the beach back then, where Silversand and Fizz are now located, and it was paradise, basic, very very basic, but paradise no less. Again Ian's name opened all the doors, I had a bungalow and a credit account in the restaurant, I was home. And it was extremely fortunate, as a result of my lavish spending since parting ways with Aeroflot, I now had just barely over 100 quid to my name.
The community on Koh Tao was just incredible, of course there were one or two exceptions, but in the main the nature of our island home seemed to root out and boot out all those with unpleasant dispositions. They just simply didn't last. The life style here was simple, my bungalow was 50 Baht a day, had no bathroom, the wall actually fell off while I slept through a rather large storm once, yet another Tale of Tao. Within a few weeks, I knew everybody, had squared away a job that I loved, you'd have to love it as we were paid a meagre 10,000 Baht a month. That was probably what set the island apart, everyone was here for the love of the place, not for the money, there was none, the greedy showed up later, and as I say, that is another Tale of Tao, maybe, perhaps. I'm sure that has several folks flinching. I had learned all the dive sites and found more, and fallen in love with this place, Turtle Island, but I still knew nothing of Thailand.
Every morning I would either walk with my dog ACE, or ride my dirt bike on the dirt road to Mae Haad, along the back of Sairee Beach, on what is now the beach road, passed Rama V Rock, up the hill, in between the school and the police station, and down the hill into Mae Haad. I recall one particular morning around 7am I had chosen to go by bike, probably late, as was most usual. Sairee was deserted back then and this day was as peaceful as usual. As I passed In Touch and approached the bridge at Rama V Rock a rope suddenly sprung up across the road in front of me. I skidded to a halt, terrified, "bandits?" I thought. There was a small piece of cardboard attached to the rope, which was now tight across the road, with very poorly scribbled Thai writing upon it. Nobody in sight, what should I do? Everything happened so fast. Run and hide? Drive through it? My heart was racing, perhaps a police stop? With writing on a piece of cardboard? What must have taken place in a matter of seconds seemed to take an eternity. I was now on the edge of panic. Then, out of nowhere came 4, 5 or 6 screaming Thai kids. The first one threw a massive bucket of water straight in my face "what the f@#$", then a small bucket of powder followed, "holy s%&#, what the hell?" then as I uttered expletives, my mouth was filled with blue and red dyed liquid, water I hoped. Another massive bucket of water followed which cleaned off most of the initial mess. The rope was lowered, the kids ran off and I was left alone, perplexed, more confused than ever before. Supposing that I had just been the subject of some elaborate Thai children's practical joke I simply continued my drive, I saw nobody around, anywhere on the road. Until I reached Mae Haad.
Mae Haad was very much the center or capital of Koh Tao in those days. Unlike now where you will find most of the action in Sairee Beach. Back then Sairee was always deserted and Mae Haad had a quiet bustle about it. Arriving in Mae Haad I was greeted by a most unusual site. While still planning how to explain to my friends and colleagues what had just occurred I encountered some of them running through the streets with water pistols, buckets, and talcum powder. Although I felt an enormous sense of relief that I had not been singled out for some bizarre prank I now was more bewildered than before. How did all this come about? There was no mention of it yesterday, a giant water fight.
It was not a practical joke, nor a prank, it was not April the first, it was April the thirteenth 1997, Thai New Year, Songkran. And this was my baptism into Thai culture. So thank you Ian, for if it were not for you, I would not be here; thanks for the face full of powder and dye, thanks for all the years of magic, thanks for my life and even my wife, and all the happiness that Koh Tao has brought me since those days in Brighton. I'd say that I owe you one old chap, cheers!