Living the Life of a Divemaster Trainee in Khao Lak Thailand: Great Wall of China Toboggan, Arrival & The First Week

  • Updated: November 12, 2019
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

November 2019

As I mentioned in my recent site update I decided to forgo returning to gainful employment for the moment and with no small amount of encouragement from my ever supportive girlfriend decided to take the opportunity to fly out to Thailand for 2 months to pursue my divemaster certification.

The divemaster certification is different from the other scuba certifications I've been collecting as it's the start of the dive professional track aka it's where I can start guiding and assisting in teaching basic courses. (Also it's something completely different from the master diver certification which is basically a pat on the head acknowledgement you've done about as much as you can on the recreational track.)

I looked at options for doing the program locally in Southern California but the part time nature of most of the dive professionals out there meant it wouldn't be quite as involved as I really wanted. Meanwhile it just so happened that my free time corresponded with the start of the diving season in western Thailand and a friend and former student of mine had a connection with a local Thai dive shop there in Khao Lak. The shop was named Sign Scuba and they operated a liveaboard out in the Similan Islands meaning I'd get lots of opportunities to dive out there in addition to pool and classroom learning.

So one day after wrapping up my commitments to the Fall Advanced Mountaineering Program and 2019 Wilderness Travel Course in a slightly frantic weekend out in Joshua Tree I said goodbye to Jen and flew out of LAX at 1:40 am to spend the rest of the year out of the country.

The downside of visiting Thailand from the US is that it's quite a long series of flights. I had a 12 hour flight from Los Angeles to Beijing and then another 5 hours from Beijing to Phuket. And because of how the flights worked out there was a 12 hour layover in between leaving me with a grand total of 29 hours of transit time. Bleh.

The initial 12 hour flight passed reasonably comfortably and by the time I landed in Beijing I had a plan to use some of my layover by going on a layover tour of the Great Wall of China.

In order to take the tour I had to apply for a 24 hour visa in the airport in a slightly confusing process involving a lot of standing around in lines and trying my damndest to follow every possible instruction given by partial English signs and slightly less than humorous immigration agents. Fortunately it was early so I didn't have to spend a lot of time figuring out when I'd made a mistake.

I didn't think I was in a hurry since the tour listed on the website didn't start until 9 am but as it turned out when I stumbled out of security sometime around 6:30 am there was a tour leaving right at that moment. I'd just happened to check in with the counter and was hurriedly told to pay and then hustled out of the airport by a very friendly guide and tossed into a van with 4 other tourists plus a driver and shot off through early morning Beijing traffic.

This had the unexpected side effect of letting me see the Great Wall when there was almost no one else around! At least for a little while.

The tour went to the Mutianyu site which was a little further away but had one particular feature which struck me as somewhere between ridiculous and awesome and therefore something I really had to experience.

They installed a toboggan down the side of one of the wonders of the world.

Embracing my inner tourist I took a ski lift up the side of the wall and with permission I left the tour group to get some distance in exploring the wall. After a short while convinced I'd seen enough sameish wall sections broken up by small towers I returned to the group and then it was time to ride down. This also happened to correspond with when the crowds started to arrive because around 9:30 am we found ourselves wading through a mass of schoolchildren coming in the opposite direction.

So how was the toboggan ride? Controlled and fun enough doing once but probably not worth a repeat. You sit on a small sled with a stick between your legs. Forward releases the brake letting gravity pull you down the slide while pulling back applies the brakes. There are signs warning you not to go too fast and to keep your distance from others and employees on most corners to make sure everyone is behaving. (It is apparently possible to throw yourself from the sled while going around a corner if you go full speed and don't lean into it)

After arriving at the bottom we were soon herded back into the van and spent the hour ride back to the airport having an oddly involved yet friendly conversation about politics and religion. Fortunately we arrived back at the airport before reaching the topic of abortion.

Back at the Beijing airport I had another 5 hours or so to kill and unfortunately while the airport does claim to have free wifi it appeared you needed to be able to confirm your identity via text message which of course means you have to have a functional phone. So that was out. I settled for finding a quiet corner and dozing.

Eventually I was back in the air and after a relatively short 5 hour flight I arrived in Phuket at 11 pm local time with an internal clock that had no idea what time it was.

The shop owner Polphut was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and bring to me a hotel located near the shop in Khao Lak and I was in bed sometime after 1 am.

The next morning I emerged and was able to get my first proper look at Khao Lak.

I was in a slightly more rural area located between the two main tourist areas of Khao Lak. There was a single large road running through town and behind that things soon back up to forest.

The shop had made arrangements for me to stay with a small family run hotel that had the advantage of being located right at the corner of the main street and the small side road leading back to the shop.

The first day was filled with a quick tour of the area by Polphut and then we returned to the shop to going over the specifics of the course and complete with the requisite paperwork.

After initial introductions I was told I'd be spending the next few days on the shops liveaboard called the Similan Quest diving in the Similan Islands. The goal was to get my gear sorted, get acclimated to conditions, and to start getting familiar with the dives.

The Similans are a series of 9 islands about an hour from Phuket via speedboat.

Sign Scuba runs a speedboat that leaves every morning around 8 am from a local pier in Khao Lak and returns around 4 pm. (The day to day operations to make that happen are a better topic for later)

When you arrive out in the Similans (or Koh Bon depending on the day) you meet up with the Similan Quest which is the diving platform for both day trips and overnight stays.

And I have to say the Similans do not suck! The water is almost painfully blue when the sun is out and after a year of mostly diving in the cold California waters it felt almost unnaturally warm even wearing a thin shorty wetsuit. So far visibility has generally been 50+ ft and the water temperature is in the 80s.

For my first trip out I stayed for two nights getting 3 dives on arrival day, 4 the middle day, and 3 more on departure day.

My initial dive photos all came out somewhat disappointing due to hardware issues but here's a few that came out halfway decent while I kick myself for not buying a new GoPro before I came.

Compared to other locations I've dove this year this would probably be my all time favorite if I hadn't visited Komodo in Indonesia. There are beautiful corals and a massive amount of fish but at the same time you can see signs that the coral used to be significantly more impressive. Sadly the 2004 tsunami and the usual human issues plaguing dive sites around the world have left their mark.

After 3 days glorious days and 10 dives it was time to return to the mainland and get started on the divemaster training proper.

Next up, ???

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