Phuket is Thailand’s largest island, lying on the west coast in the Andaman Sea. Although it has Wat Chalong, Ming Mongkol Buddha, and Hat Mai Khao (an untouched beach in a national park) I wouldn’t return. It costs more and smells worse than other places in Thailand, and is renowned for its infamous tuk tuk mafia.
We only visited to get diving licences so we kept clear of the strips, and stayed in a hostel in Chalong to the east. Just 5 minutes walk from us was Chalong Bay, the departure point for many fishing and dive boats.
Getting to our hostel was an adventure in itself. We got a taxi at the airport but the driver didn’t know where he was going, couldn’t read a map, and spoke no English. He shouted. Loudly. In Thai. In the end we used the map to direct him using hand signals. Yet he still charged us 800 Baht (£16), three times the rate in Bangkok.
To get to Nai Harn beach, we thought we’d grab a tuk tuk, but unlike other places where they fill the streets, we couldn’t see a single one (possibly due to where we were staying). Instead, our hostel owner called us a “cheap” taxi. For an unlicenced but comfortable car we paid 400 Baht (£8). Nai Harn beach was small and full of tourists – nothing special.
We tried a final time to get a tuk tuk on the way back. The drivers at the rank refused us, saying it was too busy. When we managed to flag down an independant red truck, he charged us the same for his bumpy, metal ride as the modern car earlier.
The day we arrived we were recommended a local restaurant with a red picket fence. Sat on a main road with plastic Mmmmora banners hanging everywhere possible, it didn’t look anything special. They had around twenty pre-cooked dishes – all vegetarian – and I think they offered to make us some fresh noodle soup. Luckily, a friendly expat explained the set up (and tried to teach me the Thai word for vegetarian!)
We had rice with the choice of three of the dishes, ranging from very spicy curry, or mushroom stew, to fried green beans, or tofu and spinach leaves. They also served us ice water and a plate of mint leaves and cucumber to counteract the spice. It was great food and at only 60 Baht (£1) each, we had to go back again.
There were also a number of restaurants and bars along the seafront. Not a great coast – a small, muddy beach that emerged at low tide and brown water – it housed the darker, cheaper places. It was difficult to tell which girls were serving and which girls were searching for a customer; they all got smacked on the arse. Yet the food was good and the fish was fresh. I just had to keep an eye out for rats that kept closing in on our table.
Practicing in the Pool
There were a ton of diving instructors in the area that all cost roughly the same. We went with Alla, who ran an office out of her house and seemed very grateful for our custom. We immediatley started watching the very tedious training videos and taking tests.
The next day we were taken to a pool split into two different levels, at 1m and 3m. Alla showed us how to put our equipment together – connecting the gas tank to the BCD; hooking up the air to the regulator; and folding away the secondary air source. Finally, we had to prove we could swim by doing lengths and floating for 10 minutes, before pulling on our wetsuits, weights, flippers and mask.
We took a large step into the water, let the air out of our BCD’s and sunk to 1m. I’ve never concentrated so much on my breathing, the number one rule being “never hold your breath”. We powered through all the mandatory exercises in hours – blowing water out of our masks; breathing from a broken mouth piece; and sharing your buddy’s air in an emergency. Going down to 3m I could really feel the pressure on my ears. Equalising didn’t work and my ears hurt the rest of the evening.
Diving at Racha Yai
Our first day out at sea we weren’t sure what to expect. The three of us joined a large company’s dive boat with a mix of snorkelers, certified divers and students. The boat was old, the metal rusting and the wood rotting, but it got us to Racha Yai. The wind was strong so we had to moor up in a popular bay for our first two dives.
We suited up, jumped in the sea, and I’m not going to lie, I panicked. I don’t like fish, I felt claustrophobic and I was worried about the pressure on my ears. I went down less than 1m before bailing out and coming back up. I clung to the boat for half an hour until Sam calmed me down enough to try again. Descending slowly, hand over hand on the mooring line, we eventually got to 12m where we ran through all the exercises again.
Finally, we got to enjoy the underwater world. The visibility wasn’t great but what we did see was spectacular. The sandy bank sloped down from the shore, spotted with rocks and coral teeming with life. We found some tiny Nemo’s hiding in an anemone; bright blue starfish, pairs of fish sweeping the sand to form nests; a well camouflaged lionfish; an eel half buried in the sand; and a boxfish, its little fins moving too fast to see.
Elephants at Siam Bay
The second day we were back at Racha Yai, this time at Siam Bay. Two giant concrete elephants had been placed on the sea bed to shield the reef and attract more life. One was still standing with angelfish swimming around its legs, while the other was on its side, fish hiding in its broken belly. There was another statue standing guard, sword in hand, and an arch that we swam through. All were crusted with plants and coral.
We did our last two dives, practicing navigation, and reaching a depth of 18m (the maximum allowed with open water licences). The mouthpiece began to hurt after a while, my jaw clamped so tight to make sure I didn’t lose it, but breathing became more natural. I was exhausted and glad to get out of the water the final time but sad to see it end.
Back on dry land we collected our certificates and took two days off to recover. We said goodbye to Phuket, knowing that if we came back it would be to travel through it, on our way to a relaxing week at one of the lesser known isles.
Underwater photos thanks to Crystal Clear