Every year, thousands flock to the flawless beaches of Thailand to get up close and personal with all that lives beneath the sea. Thailand’s undeniable beauty, rich culture and hedonistic party scene are definitely part of the draw but the main reason wannabe divers choose The Land of Smiles is its low cost of getting PADI certified. In fact, along with maybe Honduras, Thailand remains one of the cheapest places in the world to get such accreditation.
Where to Go?
From the Gulf of Siam to the Andaman Sea, Thailand is blessed with over 3,200 kilometers of coastline, many offshore islands and even more world-class dive sites. The country is flooded with ex-pats, many of whom have become dive instructors in the overflow of dive shops that have sprung up throughout. Between mainstay chain operations like Easy Diver in the Gulf to well-run live-aboards operating from Phuket and the Phi Phi Islands in the west, you almost can’t go wrong.
Although there are better than other months to get your diving in, Thailand offers divers year-round access to some great sites, a pleasant 28-30C water temperature and excellent year-round visibility of up to 30 meters. The best part is that when it’s low season on the eastern side of the country it’s high season on the west, and vice versa.
Gulf of Thailand (East)
In the 15 years since I got my PADI Open Water certificate on Koh Phangan, I’m told not much has changed. Adjacent Koh Tao used to be more of a dive site than a resort destination back then but has developed exponentially to become the diving jewel of the Gulf of Thailand, with nearby Sail Rock and its whale sharks still the top draw. The season is at its peak here May through September. Koh Samui is your gateway to the aforementioned smaller islands which are accessible by boat only. Flights to Koh Samui from Bangkok on Bangkok Airways operate daily and frequently.
Andaman Sea (West)
West of the peninsula, you can’t do much better than the Similan Islands in the Andaman Sea. Deep water rock formations and colourful reefs of coral offer different dive opportunities and the sheer amount of aquatic life here is jaw-dropping. A higher concentration of plankton between February and May provides an optimal chance for whale shark and manta ray sightings but in general, diving is solid here from late-October to the end of May.
What to Expect
Not gonna lie, 15 years ago, I worried about quality. Never the quality of the undersea life, mind you, but just about everything else; the boat, the dive equipment, the instructor – all of it. I scoped out a couple of dive shops to get a feel and clicked with a charismatic young Frenchman who came to Thailand a few years back and never left. He was a Divemaster at Easy Divers and reassured me that everything in terms of equipment was top-notch. A few days later, I’d begin my PADI Open Water Diver course.
To enroll in a PADI Open Water Diver course, you must be at least 10 years old, have adequate swimming skills and be in (generally) good physical health. The course consists of three main phases:
- Knowledge Development (online, independent study or in a classroom) to understand basic principles of scuba diving.
- Confined Water Dives to learn basic scuba skills.
- Open Water Dives to use your skills.
My cozy group of three, including me, was perfect. A father, his teenage son and I would get all the attention we could hope for and we each asked as many questions as we could muster. The practical part of the course, the in-the-water work, felt like one-on-one learning and there was a general feeling of safety at all times.
Both a written test as well as a practical (open water) test must be passed to get certified. In total, it took me a week to complete it all, including 2 days of boat dives (2 per day) as well as the initial shore-dive to learn the basic skills like clearing your mask, hand signals, etc.
Expect to pay between 9,000-10,000 Baht ($335-$375CAD), give or take. This could include a few nights accommodations or not, depending on the operation, as some dive centres are a part of a hotel, guesthouse or may be a full-on live-aboard.
What You’ll See
At 60-feet, an impressive tornado of schooling barracuda funneled around me till I could barely see through. When they passed, I retreated to the soft sandy bottom for a more panoramic view. A garden of branching coral housed countless chartreuse fish, shrimp and a menacing moray eel. Around me, the sea floor was littered with giant caterpillar-like sea cucumbers. My instructor picked one up, squeezing a sticky white filament from one end to demonstrate its defense system.
A large marbled grouper patrolled the bottom like a schoolyard bully, seemingly fenced in from a steep drop-off into the deep. On the fringe, shadows of black tip reef sharks secured the perimeter of the dark abyss below. I spotted a small eagle ray and followed it.
Out of season, I didn’t get to do what many come here for – a chance to swim alongside the largest fish in the sea, the majestic and docile whale shark. Found off both the east and west coasts, these gentle giants can grow as large as 40 feet and can weigh as much as 40,000 pounds. They are slow enough to swim beside as they cruise near the surface, filter feeding in the plankton rich waters.
My last dive ended when I knelt down on an unsuspecting sea urchin, its venomous spikes piercing my wetsuit, sending a burning sensation through my knee, thigh and quickly, my entire leg. I ascended slowly, in intervals as learned, controlling my breathing and inspecting my wounded knee. Once on the boat, I explained what had happened and was reminded of the sign for ‘danger’ – an outstretched arm with a clenched fist, pointing at whatever the danger may be. Apparently, I missed this underwater, as my instructor tried to point out the urchin I so clumsily knelt on.
Besides the spots outlined above, Thailand is blessed with other, less popular dive sites, such as the Mu Koh Chang National Marine Park, Krabi and the Koh Lanta archipelago, Khao Lak and Pattaya’s sunken Thai navy ship turned artificial reef, the HTMS Khram.
Recently, our fellow Flightie, Troy, returned from his PADI Open Water certification from spectacular Koh Tao. Here is his experience captured by the crew of Ban’s Diving Resort.
All in all, diving is an enthralling, enriching and exhilarating experience. It’s utterly humbling to feel as small as you do when visiting a part of our planet where we, as man, are so out of our element. Once the basics are mastered however, there may not be a more relaxing activity. Apart from the sound of your own breath, the silence and weightlessness is completely peaceful and harmonious. There really is another world down there. Two worlds on one planet – how lucky are we?
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