We finally arrived to our last stop on our month-long Thai island adventure, Koh Tao. Koh Tao is the perfect mix of peace, partying and adventure. It’s also known for being one of the world’s cheapest places to get certified for scuba diving. Not only is it cheap, the dive sites are amazing too!
Both Lee and I were dying to come here but because I had a horrible ear incident on a few flights in Myanmar, we decided to push diving until the end. Thank god! My ears would’ve exploded underwater for sure!
After a quick 1.5 hour ferry from Koh Phangan (600 baht, $17 USD), we finally arrived in paradise! After tasting some amazing Mexican food in Koh Phangan, my body was dying for more. Good thing we stayed at Taco Shack 2 hostel. Yum!
Where to stay?
Koh Tao is filled with awesome hostels and dive schools, most of which offer packages when booked together. We had no idea if we wanted to dive and/or what our plans were for Koh Tao so we went with a friend’s recommendation and booked at Taco Shack 2 hostel. Taco Shack 2 is near the beaches and nightlife, Taco Shack 1 is near the dock. Stay at #2!
Taco Shack 2 was moderately priced at 395 baht per night ($11 USD) and had a great vibe. The property included a restaurant, bar, pool table, and tons of areas to socialize. It was also within walking distance to an ATM, large 24 hour grocery store, laundry service, CrossFit gym, regular gym, awesome healthy restaurant called Living Juices, and the most lively part of town, Sairee Beach, where all the best restaurants, bars, and cheap street food can be found. Definitely stay here and tell the lady at the front in the cat ears that Max sent you!
Where to Party?
Sairee Beach is also where the famous Koh Tao Pub Crawl kicks off at Choppers Sports Bar. FYI, this pub crawl kicks off insanely early at 6:30pm. Tickets must be purchased at 6:30pm at Choppers and then everyone meets back up at 7:30pm. The pub crawl provides a free tank top, bucket drink and admission to some of the best bars, as well as access to a special pub crawl “ladyboy show” and “fire dancing show.” Its a crazy fun night and a must if you are on the island! Unfortunately, I didn’t get to join in on the fun because I was too busy waking up early every morning to catch a glimpse at some whale sharks. When you’re there, make time for both!
Should I get scuba certified?
While I had every intention of getting scuba certified, I really don’t like the ocean, hate salt water sticking to my skin, might have a small fear of fish biting me, and don’t know if I actually have any interest to be trapped underwater for what feels like hours at a time. I don’t even snorkel when given the opportunity, so why learn to scuba? Did I really want to learn to dive or was this something I was doing just because I was supposed to do it in Koh Tao?
I went back and forth in my mind and really had no idea what I was going to do. Lee immediately took a nap when we got to the hostel mid-day so I couldn’t ask his opinion either. He made it very clear he wasn’t going to dive so if I wanted to do it, I was on my own. Back and forth, yes no yes no yes no, I finally decided YES!
What scuba school?
I didn’t want to waste any time on the island so I signed up and started the course the same day! Most courses start in the evening of the first day so same-day sign ups are allowed.
I compared dozens of schools, SSI vs PADI certifications, and checked hundreds of reviews. In the end, I chose Taco Divers, a new dive school based out of Taco Shack 2 hostel featuring small class sizes and SSI certification.
All of those things were against what I originally wanted which was a long-running and well-known dive school, large class sizes to meet people, PADI certification, etc, but I am so happy that I changed my mind and I LOVED my open water experience with Taco Divers. I even signed up for the advanced diving certification with them too!
I’ll be typing up a complete guide of what to look for when picking a dive school, but if you have any questions before I can get a guide typed up, comment below.
- SSI vs PADI — SSI is about 1000 baht ($30) cheaper than PADI. SSI allows for online learning at your own pace, whereas PADI requires textbook learning in the classroom. SSI does not require you to purchase the online course, whereas PADI requires you to purchase the textbook. SSI allows you to complete the technical skills in any order, whereas PADI requires you to complete them in a specific order. This stood out to me because if a person could not complete a skill, the entire group must wait for them to pass. In SSI, you can move on and come back to it later.
- Class Size — I originally wanted a large class where I could meet people and share experiences. I thought the more, the merrier. Taco Divers has a maximum of 4 students per instructor. While I thought I would hate that, it was amazing! I couldn’t imagine sitting underwater and waiting for 10+ people to clear their mask or perform a similar skill. Normally there was 3 of us in our group and that even took a while to sit and watch everyone complete their skills one by one. I would’ve hated a larger group.
- Age of School — An older school means more reviews on TripAdvisor and more exposure on travel blogs so its natural to want to go with a well reviewed school. I recently had a friend attend Taco Divers for her open water certification and loved it. Among the dozens of recommendations, she clearly recommended I dive with Taco Divers. While I was on Koh Tao, I ran into another friend who completed his advanced certification with Taco Divers and said the same thing. One thing he said that really stood out was that a new school meant brand new equipment! Score! Also, just because the school is new, that doesn’t mean the instructors are. They all came from other dive schools on Koh Tao and make up an exceptional team.
- Cost — Because Taco Divers is new, they are running a little cheaper than most schools on the island and they offer dorm discounts for those staying on the property. It made my life too simple to wake up and already be at school! Cost and convenience made this a no-brainer decision. FYI, most schools run between 8600-9600 baht ($250 – 275 USD). Be sure to ask if accommodations are included in this price. Note that PADI will also require an additional fee for the textbook.
Scuba school basics
The open water course is 3.5 days and allows you to dive to 12 meters (39 feet). I’ll type up all the details in an open water diving guide but a quick run down is this:
- Day 0 – Introduction to diving, videos and textbook reading assignments
- Day 1 – Confined underwater skills practice and assessment (e.g., clearing water from your mask while underwater, what to do if you run out of air, etc.)
- Day 2 – Two dives at 12 meters
- Day 3 – Two dives at 18 meters + written exam
Learn more about Taco Divers and the class schedule here. p.s. The course is cheaper for people staying at the hostel!
I hate diving
Within minutes of being underwater, I ALREADY HATED IT! I wanted to come up to the surface every few breaths. I hated feeling trapped underwater and I hated feeling like I didn’t have air. While I was perfectly safe, had plenty of oxygen, and knew exactly what to do in case of emergency, I always wanted to come to the surface to talk or communicate or just feel safe. I hated knowing that underwater I couldn’t speak or scream or alert anyone in case of emergency. It was terrifying and I was convinced that I would not be returning for the next day in the water.
If something scares me, I force myself to do it. Scuba diving would now be one of those things.
I was determined to push through my fears and try again. Day two in the water was a success! While I didn’t love it like everyone else said I would, I felt so much more relaxed and actually managed to have a few minutes of fun. However on day three (our final day), my pleasant experience took a turn for the worse when I couldn’t equalize my ears. Since I couldn’t equalize my ears, I was in so much pain and couldn’t get deep enough to complete the 18 meter dive. Without the dive complete, I couldn’t pass the course. I felt like a complete failure.
Fortunately, the instructors made me feel like “this happens to everyone” and told me it would be no problem to join the other class in the morning and complete it then. While that was nice, I really didn’t want to wake up early to do this again. I’ve spent every day on Koh Tao in dive school and I was so over it.
I (kinda) failed the course
I reluctantly woke up at the crack of dawn and met the class at 6:30am for another morning dive. I was exhausted and so scared that my ears wouldn’t equalize again. I’m not sure what happened but my ears easily popped and I had the most amazing time! I even saw a whale shark up close! Today was a game changer for me! I have to thank the universe for this one because I got over any and all fears I had, saw a whale shake (several actually) and swam with sea turtles and sting rays too!
My instructors were amazing and without them, the whale shark sighting would’ve never happened. When the captain, Captain Bell, heard about the sighting, he told the instructors and together they agreed to reroute to new dive sites for the day so that we could all get a chance to swim with the whale sharks (as well as complete the necessary skills for our course). What an awesome team!
After completing my dives for the day, I had a choice to make– do I sign up for the 2 day advanced course or do I explore the island for a few days since I’ve seen nothing in the 5 days I’ve already been here? My visa was about to expire for Thailand so I was on a time crunch. I really wanted to see the island, I really wanted to go on the famous Koh Tao Pub Crawl, I really wanted to sleep in, and I really wanted a day without diving. Looks like the decision was easy to make, right?
I signed up for the advanced course. I start tomorrow.
Advanced scuba school
I felt like an idiot under the water. My arms flailed in all directions and I felt so out of control. I signed up for the advanced course to hone in on my skills, get some practice, and start to feel confident (and therefore happy) underwater. This was the best decision I’ve ever made!
The advanced course consisted of 5 dives– 1 mandatory deep dive to 30 meters (98 feet) and 4 specialty dives. I completed a night dive since I’m terrified of the dark, a ship wreck dive, a navigation dive, and a buoyancy dive. In the midst of all that I even acquired fish identification skills too!
I began every dive a little panicked. What if my ears don’t equalize? What if I freak out? What ifs always filled my mind. But every time I got in the water, I fell in love with diving more and more. The school even joked that I’d be back for my dive master training and teacher certification soon… we shall see!
Here’s me and my awesome advanced instructor Matt! He made diving with Taco Divers such a special experience. I cannot say enough good things about him (and the Taco team). Matt even performed underwater magic tricks for me 100 feet below sea level. How many people can say they have seen that?! Not many! Find out more about the advanced certification here.
We found the first whale shark at Chumphon. We also found a few sharks the next day at Southwest Pinnacle and Shark Island. Whale sharks only come out during a small season, usually starting in April. For the best chances of seeing a whale shark, complete a fun dive to Sail Rock. I had friends go there and swim with whale sharks every day for weeks!
Fun dives usually cost 800-1000 baht ($23 – 30 USD) on Koh Tao and include 2 dives. Fun dives to Sail Rock are normally 1500-2000 baht ($43 – 58 USD) because the boat trip to get there is about 2 hours. Sail rock fun dive also includes breakfast and lunch in most cases. All fun dives include equipment, air tanks, and a dive master guide.
Some other dive sites we visited during my open water training were Twins and Japanese Garden. My advanced training took me back to a few dive sites as well as to White Rock, HTMS Sattakut Ship Wreck, and the Junkyard where we set up an underwater buoyancy obstacle course and met Steve the puffer fish!
Setting underwater records
In my first 10 dives I experienced more than most people do after years of diving. I swam with whale sharks and sea turtles and sting rays and puffer fish. I dived during the night, through ship wrecks, and through underwater junkyard obstacle courses. I’ve completed a 60+ minute dive, gotten narced out at 30 meters, and even witnessed underwater magic tricks too!
I’ll be back
During my 8 days in Koh Tao, I saw everything there is to see underwater and nothing I planned to see on land.
There’s still so much more that I want to see and do on this island but my time is up and I must leave the country. Headed on an overnight ferry to Malaysia next, wish me luck!