Wound-cleaning remoras and other wonders of the deep
Ko Tao, Thailand
Vern: Ko Tao is one of the smallest islands in the Gulf of Thailand, but it punches well above it's weight in terms of visitor numbers. Experienced scuba divers come to dive some of the twenty odd sites in the island's halo, and newbies come as it is the cheapest place in the world to do the PADI Open Water dive course. The noisy bustling tourist infrastructure awaits you as you climb off the ferry at Mae Haad and walk down the pier into the pit of touts.
Keen to avoid the crowds, we found a ride across the island's waist to Tanote Bay, a serene beach with white sand, scattered boulders and a light blue sea, deep enough for swimming. There are no shops or streets, just five resorts peaking out amongst the palm trees (two quite smart, three still basic). We checked into a sea-view bungalow, a wooden shack on stilts rising out of the beach sand, and slept for a long while, making up for a night spent travelling.
The snorkelling right off the beach was engrossing. The reef was mostly brown, orange and green, accented with the frilly turquoise or purple mouths of harshly named 'boring clams'. One type of coral resembled a huge Christmas pudding with icing sugar sprinkled on top, as if it had escaped overboard during the festivities on a passing ship, swelled on becoming waterlogged and settled in this quiet bay. Several varieties of parrot fish, angel fish and pilot fish busied themselves with chomping coral and pooping out coral dust. Under overhangs and in crevices, various reef fish bucked convention, wearing outrageous patterns and prints in luminous colours. Probably the same threads hipsters are wearing now in the fissures of London society.
Mosquitos arrived with twilight and made themselves a nuisance. For a moment, as we shooed them away, we longed for London's septic, bug-free air--can you believe you silly that is--but didn't dwell on it.
After two days on the sleepy private side of Ko Tao (where to our horror, as a captive audience, we were charged double the usual rate for our beloved fruit shakes) we taxied back across to Sairee beach and the hustle of beach bars, sandal shops and dive centres crowded on the thin road which runs behind the beach. We found somewhere to stay, dumped our bags and went out. I was elated to find delicious, affordable street food again and amassed armfuls of goodies--fruit shakes, papaya salad, pad thai and skewers--which I delivered to Andrea who'd been holding our spot on the beach in the shade of a palm tree.
The following day, we dived twice, first at Chumpon Pinacle and then at Twins. The water was warm and clear, the reef featured a healthy variety of coral and blue spotted rays, moray eels and a puffer fish drifted ever so slightly out of their hiding places so that we could have a look at them. Yellow tail barracuda, and travelli roamed the reefs in huge shoals, but while the whale sharks were away (to my disappointment) it seemed that the grumpy giant groupers ruled the roost. Divers communicate underwater with sign language and the sign for "grouper" is an amusing 'groper' gesture with two open hands stretched out and pumping, which gets big smiles. Andrea had slipped on loose sand and fallen the previous day, skinning her knee, and the nasty wound didn't escape the attention of a striped remora, who usually earns his keep cleaning dead flesh of sharks, so she had some unwanted company for a while and had to twirl around to shake it off.
Walking on the beach later at sunset, Andrea mused that having spent a few months in the summer heat and a few weeks on a beach somewhere, we are probably taking it all for granted. Our biggest concern right then was traipsing sand into the hotel room. Somewhat more important issues awaited us back home in just a few days.
Fairy-lights and paper lanterns hung between the trees light up the little beach road and the night soundtrack is provided by dance and reggae tunes seeping out from the bamboo bars. We watched an unspectacular fire show at a popular drinking hole and then did some shopping. At a T-shirt shop, I explained the difference between Hitler and Charlie Chaplin to the retailer who listened with wide eyes. Caricatures of both men appeared as prints on two of his best selling shirts (one an anti-warlords protest shirt which also featured George W Bush, the other a nostalgic composition) and he was eager to know why tourists were clearing his shelves. The enthusiastic shopkeep also knew a little about South Africa, thanks to the Soccer World Cup. We picked a few things out and got to bartering, but after a few tos and fros his lowest offer and our highest still differed significantly. Convivially he suggested a coin toss and even let me flip the coin. Luck was on his side though so we stumped up the difference. Nonetheless, we left his little shop having quite enjoyed the interaction.
Banana shakes made for a splendid night cap, after which we spent our final night on the island dozing comfortably under a hurtling ceiling fan.