Where not to miss on your trip to Thailand: Part One - Koh Phayam

I’ve been living and loving Thailand for quite a few years now, and like to think I know a thing or two about places to visit if you’re looking for some time to really unwind and forget the stresses of the real world. Personally I think the real beauty of Koh Tao is underwater, so when I want to really take advantage of the peace and tranquility that this wonderful country has to offer it’s time to grab that backpack and head to the other side of Thailand to explore some of the lesser-known gems that still manage to hide away from the masses of tourists now visiting this country.

In these next three blogs I’d like to look in detail at my all-time favourite islands for those wanting something other than partying every night!



Koh Phayam

My absolute number one choice due to its easy accessibility from Koh Tao, Koh Phayam is like taking a step back in time to the days when Thai beaches were filled only with palm trees, crabs, a few simple bungalows and the odd skinny beach dog.

This gorgeous little island is around 35 kilometres square, and is the second most northern Thai island found on the Andaman Sea. It’s just 20km from Ranong and has long white sandy beaches, warm seas, beautiful views of neighbouring Burmese islands, fascinating wildlife and no ATMs, 7-11s or cars– although there is a weird tractor-type thing that you see on occasion carting large groups of Thai tourists to their plush resorts! It's the perfect place to really get away from it all, with great treks through the jungle or on the beaches revealing playful monkeys, the weirdly wonderful great hornbills, sea eagles, many types of butterfly and hordes of crabs going about their business. The interior of the island is home to large rubber and cashew nut farms which line the narrow ‘roads’ that link the main beaches and villages of Phayam – the smell of the cashew trees in bloom in March is amazing!

Great Hornbill 1


It’s not a place for those wishing to enjoy the clear, coral filled waters that so many Andaman-side islands can boast, but one thing that I’ll never get bored of is the 1 metre-plus breaking waves on the busiest beach of Long Beach, making it possible to surf and boogie board– one of only a two places in Thailand that can offer this I believe, the other being Phuket, which as we all know is a sh1thole.

There are a few really nice beaches around this island  - most of the accommodation is on Aow Yai  (Long Beach) and Aow Khao Kwai  (Buffalo Bay). Ao Yai is the largest bay on the west-coast with a lovely 3 km long beach perfect for sunset strolls and watching the bioluminescence, and there’s the occasional party in high season and cheap simple bungalows on the far north and south of the beach – expect to pay a minimum of 300 baht per night for the most basic. The amount of resorts and bungalow operations on Long beach has risen dramatically the last few years, but it’s still a great place to hang out during the day and eat at night – most of the best restaurants are located on Long Beach.



Buffalo Bay is a quieter beach, especially the south-east part of the bay where you’ll find me lazing around in a cloud of smoke and Chang bottles in my time off from Koh Tao. More upscale and better quality resorts dedicated to families, couples and Thai tour groups are found here, but there are still a few low-budget places on the beach and overlooking the bay – prices start at around 300 baht per night for the most basic wooden bungalow.

At the south end of Buffalo Bay is a small sea gypsy settlement which is worth exploring, especially when the locals return with their daily catch – just remember to ask before taking pictures of them, they’re gyspy/pirates so I imagine they’re pretty tough guys!



When you feel like snorkelling or a spot of scuba diving it’s possible to sign up for a day trip to sublime Ko Surin or the islands in Laem Son Marine Park to the south, plus on the odd occasion I’ve seen adverts for Liveaboard trips north into Burma’s Mergui Archipelago. Those of you thinking of doing your PADI Open Water course here should expect to pay around 15,000 baht for the 4 day course, which is 50% more than what you pay here on Koh Tao.

Koh Phayam’s tourism season lasts from November to May, with the high season kicking in around late December through to February. It’s not necessary to book in advance for budget travelers, and discounts are often given when dealing face-to face with the resort of your choice.

 A ‘cashew festival’ is held every year in March to mark the harvest with music and sports on Long Beach for all you nut fans!



How to get there:

In Ranong, take a taxi motorcycle or ‘songthaew’ to the Koh Phayam pier. This will cost between 50 and 100 baht, depending on the mood of the driver.

The slow ferries and speedboats leave every hour or so nowadays, so it’s easy to arrive and book on to the next available boat out most times of the year – though in the peak of high season it may be a good idea to book in advance at least the day before. The slow boats cost about 200 baht and takes 2-3 hours depending on the waves, and the speedboats cost around 400 baht and take just 40 minutes.

The last boats to Phayam are at 14.30 in low season, and 17.30 in high season – again subject to change depending on the mood of the drivers and the weather of course!


Trip Advisor has a bug!


For many years now all of us here at Big Blue have been very proud of our Trip Advisor status here on Koh Tao. With more reviews than any other business on the island, and more 5 star reviews than the nearest competitor has total reviews, we’ve always been ranked very near the top of the ladder in rankings since the first reviews started trickling in in 2010, when we were still all wearing short pants and had not a single white hair between us!

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Trip Advisor/Yelp/Facebook reviews have a lot of value for any business in the service industry. Getting first hand feedback from those who have already experienced the business you’re thinking of frequenting is very handy for the potential customer, and from our own research we have seen that about one quarter of our divers have checked our review before making up their mind to dive with the best dive centre on the whole of Koh Tao – and for this we are very grateful.




Of course, there can be flaws. One of the negative aspects of any site that relies on customer reviews is that anyone can write the review, even if they have never actually experienced any part of the business they are reviewing. This is also always open to abuse from those trying to smear a competitor, or simply by writing praising reviews for their own business to get one over the opposition. We’ve heard many stories of businesses pressuring their divers to leave a 5 star review before they finish their course, offering incentives to those willing to leave a review or simply paying for reviews from one of the many sites online that offer this way of cheating to the top. Famously this year was the story of the chap in London who managed to get his garden shed to rise to No. 1 on the rankings for restaurants in the area, despite it not even existing – it’s worth googling if you didn’t already hear the story, it's incredible how they did it!


Anyhow, I’m digressing a little here. The reason we’re all a little upset at the moment is to do with the ranking system employed by Trip Advisor, in which they use some fancy algorithms to determine which are the top scuba diving centres on our lovely tropical island of Koh Tao.
For year now we’ve been in the top 10, where we belong – after all we have the nicest big boats, a great sunset facing dive centre/bar/restaurant and the best damn instructors and divemasters in the whole of Thailand. Then, one night last week everything changed. Dive centres that had been rated in the top ten with us for years, dropped by 10-20 places...we somehow went from (slightly disappointing) 4th place down to 40th! A bad review? Nope. Other dive centres getting more reviews than us? Well, two of the ones that rose above us actually went out of business over a year ago, one of which hasn’t had any reviews for almost 2 years!

After trawling through the Trip Advisor owners forums, it’s turned that this wasn’t an isolated incident, and had in fact happened all over the world.



So what exactly is going on at Trip Advisor HQ?

We found this post from someone who’d noticed in February of this year that a whole chunk of their positive reviews had disappeared, with a lot of other businesses suffering the same fate. An email they received from Trip Advisor regarding this said:

"Hi everyone! Thank you for reporting an issue affecting the reviews of some attraction listings. Unfortunately we have a bug in the system and our engineers are working to solve it as soon as possible.”


And then another post from a business in Hawaii just last week regarding the sudden rank changes:


“"Hey all - I finally got through to TA about the sudden drop in our property (Sail Maui). It's a known issue and they are looking to resolve it. Fingers crossed!"


So it’s all good? Soon to be fixed, after all without the businesses cooperation Trip Advisor will become moot, right?

Well, not if this is to be believed:

" TA representative…assured me there is a glitch in the system and they will work on it, however; the technical support team does not work weekends”

Of course they don’t!


And finally, another diving business in Krabi, Thailand received this earlier this week to add that a lovely bit of confusion to the whole affair –


“We already got a feedback from our network engineers and was told that there is no bug affecting the popularity index and the current ranking of your property on TripAdvisor is accurate and correct"


So where does that leave us, the humble business that relies on our excellent customer feedback on sites like Trip Advisor?

Advising our divers to look at the reviews and not the rankings, and we hope this is all fixed soon please TA team - we miss out top 5 status and want it back!




5 Reasons to do the Advanced Course







  1. Because deeper is always better


We dive for one main reason – to see cool stuff underwater. Years of experience have told me that most of you want to see the biggest creatures that patrol the divesites – hunting barracuda, flapping mantas, big fat grouper, nasty-looking sharks and the fattest fish of all, the mighty whaleshark. So where’s the best place to find the big stuff so many of you desire?

Deep is where all the biggest stuff likes to roam. Our huge schools of pickhandle and chevron barracuda are always hanging out at around 25 metres on our best sites of Chumphon Pinnacle and South-West Pinnacle, and witnessing these in action is something that all visitors to Koh Tao should experience at least once; there’s nothing quite like being circled by a mighty group of tightly-packed fish, often blocking out the sun with their density!

The massive (delicious-looking) grouper we’re also lucky enough to have underwater here tend to chase and flirt with each other on the bottom of the deeper sites, and the majority are usually found at a depth of 25-30 metres. It’s at these depths where we can also see large schooling fusiliers fighting for their lives against the tennis-racket sized queenfish and trevally, which like nothing better than a feast of fusilier for breakfast. Watching these larger predators working together to separate a victim from their group is a joy to behold, with the balling and rolling smaller fish giving a visual treat to the lucky deep diver!



  1. If you’re not a night diver, then you’re not really a diver

Ask anyone about to do their first ever night dive how they feel, and they’ll usually admit to feeling a mix of excitement and a little bit of pooping themselves too. To be diving in the pitch black water is an intimidating thought at first, but ask the same divers on their return and more often than not they’ll describe the dive as very relaxed, peaceful and whole lot of fun!

To put it quite simply, there’s something very special about diving at night. One of the most stunning sights you can see underwater is to witness the hundreds of tiny star-like bioluminescent phytoplankton streaking from the fins of your diving buddy, and as you only have this small circle of light from your torch to concentrate on it’s not long before you’re taken away into a beautifully tranquil world, where hidden wonders now pass by freely, using the cover of night to hunt.

Miss it at your peril!




  1. No more unwatchable shaky videos, or out of focus photos

One of the recommendations from all of us here at Big Blue is to do the PADI/SSI Perfect Buoyancy dive of the advanced course. Not only does it help you perfect your technique underwater and have you gliding around the reef like a dolphin, but it also emphasizes the importance of good buoyancy control, using just the lungs to move you through the water and no longer having to kick up and down, like a peasant.

With this perfect buoyancy you have now obtained, the quality of your images and recordings dramatically improves. Most of our divers now carry some sort of camera, and it’s nice to be able to show off your dives with pictures that are in focus and clear, and video that doesn’t look like it was shot by Michael J. Fox. These days where everything needs to be instantly put on Instagram and shared on Facebook, why not show off with the types of recordings that wouldn’t look out of place in National Geographic!



  1. Abandon your dive instructor!

One of the tasks that must be completed in the Advanced course is the Navigation dive, where we will teach you how to use a compass to find your way around a dive site like a pro, and also how to use the natural features of the dive site to work out where all the most interesting things will be without getting totally lost and making a fool out of yourself. Once you’ve successfully mastered the (surprisingly easy) navigation techniques, it’s possible to safely and competently dive with just a buddy - no more following your instructor like a sucker!

This independence underwater is something that you’ll strive for every time you dive after you try it for the first time, as when you’re at the front of the group you’ll realise that you see a hell of a lot more marine life that you do merely following. It also gives you a lot more confidence underwater too, and with this increase in ability comes, as ever, extended dive times – more confidence always leads to more relaxed breathing, which in turn gives us maximum time underwater!



  1. Filter out the bad divers

Something that most fundivers have experienced at least once (and the scourge of many of my own Thailand diving trips) is the bad diver in the group. Kicking up sand, banging into you from all angles and usually breathing at an incredible rate, sharing your dive with someone of limited ability can really ruin your diving experience, and a fast breather in the group can easily make your whole dive party ascend well before you were planning to.

More often than not if there’s someone breathing too fast or banging into the back of you, it’s an Open Water diver. By completing the Advanced certification you’ll be separated from these (often) fresh new divers, and put with others with similar abilities and control of buoyancy – hello one hour dives, and goodbye surfacing with half your tank left over!



You can book your SSI or PADI Advanced courses with us every day, face to face or on the internet machine.


Ever thought of starting your own dive centre?



At some point, all divers have dreamt about owning their own dive centre on some beautiful tropical island somewhere – after all it will give you the opportunity to both have your own business and be able to dive every day, right?

The fantasy, unfortunately, is nothing like the real thing – usually you’ll be so busy with the general running of the place that diving takes a back seat at first, and before you know it you haven’t dived in an age and are not likely to anytime soon!

So what should we consider before taking the plunge and investing in your own scuba business?



Great divers do not always make great dive centre owners

 It’s very common for someone with a lot of experience as a dive instructor to think the next logical step for them is their own place somewhere, changing the lives of new divers every day. In reality, while the customer service skills learnt and honed whilst working as an instructor is certainly beneficial in owning a business, being a business owner requires an entirely different set of skills – so make an effort to take courses on technical and mechanical subjects, they will come in very handy and for easy repairs and maintenance you can rely less others, thus keeping costs down.


Get help from the right people

It’s a good idea to visit every dive expo you can to talk to business owners, attend as many relevant seminars on the subject as is humanly possible, then of course speak to your accountant, bank manager and lawyer to ensure that all legalities are taken care of before it’s too late.



Make a detailed business plan

If you are not familiar with a business plan, then find a course that’ll teach you.  A bad business plan can easily cause the failure of the new business, so make sure it includes:

 - Your chosen facilities

 - Professional instruction and teaching operations

 - Advertising, marketing and public relations for your business

 - Local demographics

 - Initial investment outlay and projections for future income

If you’re new to this, then any portion of the plan that you do not fully understand is an area you need additional training before starting to develop your business - if you do not understand the marketing functions, then you need a marketing course for example. Expect to spend at least a few months putting together your business plan.

The advantages of a new dive shop vs. buying an existing business

Are you planning on starting afresh or will you buy an existing dive centre? Purchasing an existing Dive Business generally means the initial risks are less and the start-up time is nearly eliminated, as you can usually retain the dive shop’s customers, suppliers and volume of sales. However one of the main disadvantages of buying an existing business can be that you inherit the reputation the original business had with its customers and also suppliers.



Choose your business name carefully

Firstly, and before you get all those fancy t-shirts printed, verify the right to use the name and register it! If your choice of name and location may cause confusion with an existing dive operation, it could land you in a trouble so take the time to do some research first - take note all the dive operations around the world that stole the ‘Big Blue Diving’ name! Try to be unique, after all you don’t want to be confused with a lesser dive outfit with a similar name…

Be aware of the amount of time it takes to start a dive centre

It of course depends on your schedule, energy and resources, but expect to be able to open between nine months and a year after deciding to start if you’re lucky, and don’t forget to figure in the amount of time you’ll be working without an income whilst getting everything started.

The Importance of a great website.

A professional and informative scuba diving website can be an extremely affordable way to attract new customers online.

Website sales and enquiries in general are a low cost method to find new customers, and they’re ‘open’ 24 hours a day, all year round. Much thought needs to be put into its provision and design, and how easy it is to navigate for those with no previous diving experience at all – I know from personal experience that a bad website can easily put someone off diving with you. Also make sure the spelling and grammar is correct for those pedants that are so common in the dive industry!




How much money will I need?

Dive centres require a lot of capital to start up, and it’s vital to consider how many divers you feel you will want as customers a day, and the costs that will be incurred to service them. For example, how will the divers get to the dive sites? Will you buy your own boat, or rent space on someone else’s? How about tanks and a means to refill them? Fins, BCDs and wetsuits come in different sizes so you will need an assortment too – expect to be paying around $1000 per person for the necessary equipment they’ll be wearing, and then there are maintenance costs to take into consideration.

Your training organization can help get good rates for dive liability insurance, but it is always an upfront premium payment. Do not forget your general business insurance and business permits too!

What about the competition?

You will always find that where there’s good diving, there are dive centres. It’s vital to take a look at what the dive centres close to your project are offering, what is successful and what they appear to be doing wrong. The best laid plans can sometimes be thrown up in the air by simple problems that were overlooked, so by having an in-depth look at how the competition operate will hopefully give you a few ideas on how to be a success from the very first day.



So, your dream job will certainly be exciting and incredibly challenging, and to be a success with your own dive centre depends on many factors. You’ll need a lot of luck, but with some appropriate and intensive research, forward planning and sensible business skills, the realistic chances of rising above your rivals and the competition can become a reality.

Just don’t start one right next door to us, okay?


What is Nitrogen Narcosis?

Legendary French undersea explorer (and inventor of scuba-diving) Jacques Cousteau has a book named ‘The Silent World’, written in the late 1940's.  There is a chapter entitled ‘Rapture of the Deep’ which tells the story of Cousteau’s good friend Frederic ‘Didi’ Dumas, who was trying to deep dive in the Mediterranean Sea. They were in about 70 metres of water, and Didi was to descend on a line to the greatest depth he could reach and then release his weight belt and tie it on the line from the ship to the ocean floor. Didi describes the dive like so:

     "'The light does not change color as it usually does underneath a turbid surface. I cannot see clearly. Either the sun is going down quickly or my eyes are weak. I reached the hundred foot knot. My body doesn't feel weak by I keep panting. The damn rope doesn't hang straight. It slants off into yellow soup. It slants more and more. I'm anxious about that line, but I really feel wonderful. I have a queer feeling of the beatitude. I am drunk and carefree. My ears buzz and my mouth tastes bitter. The current staggers me as though I had too many drinks. "I forgotten Jacques and the people in the boats. My eyes are tired. I lower on down, trying to think about the bottom, but I can't. I'm going to sleep, but I can't fall asleep in such dizziness. There's a little light around me. I reach for the next knot and miss it. I reach again and tie my belt on it. Coming up is merry as a bubble. Liberated from weights I pull of the rope and bound. The drunken sensation vanishes. I'm sober and infuriated to have missed my goal. I pass Jacques and hurry on up. I am told I was down seven minutes.'

Didi's belt was tied 64 metres down. No independent diver had been deeper, yet Dumas' impression was that he had been slightly under 30 metres - insert your own Dumas/Dumb-ass joke here.

 This was the first widely read description of the affect nitrogen has under pressure. The wonderfully evocative name Cousteau gave it, ‘Rapture of the Deep’, is now more commonly known as ‘Nitrogen Narcosis’, or ‘Inert Gas Narcosis’ to diving nerds.

jacques cousteau 1426379c

So what is it?

Nitrogen Narcosis is a phenomenon linked to increased pressure. It is defined as "a reversible alteration of the state of consciousness of an individual in deep diving with compressed air". I’ve read this description 3 times now, and am still not quite sure what it’s going on about, so here we will try to look at it in terms a normal person will understand.

Simply, lots of gases are intoxicating when mixed with 21% oxygen – the amount we’re breathing right now (I hope). It depends on the pressure, and also how easily the gas dissolves in fat. Most of what we’re breathing is nitrogen, and the most accepted theory is that when we’re diving communication between the neurons in our brain, which is based on nitrogen bridges, is disturbed. As you know, while diving we accumulate nitrogen in our body, and one of the places where nitrogen tends to gather are these bridges, which increases the distance between the neurons. The longer the distance, the more time they need to communicate – leading to the feeling of being drunk and confused, kind of like a normal night at the Koh Tao Ladyboy Cabaret but with less stubble.

  If you dive deep you will get ‘narced’ because of this nitrogen narcosis. What happens to you depends on several factors, just like with alcohol – some people will feel it at relatively shallow depths, some can handle it much better. The reaction is said to be due to personality, body size, fat content, and mood - if you go looking to feel narcosis, then chances are you will!  It’s also very common with divers to feel the narcotic affect may be stronger from one day to the next keeping all the variables the same, which appears to suggest that the more a diver encounters nitrogen narcosis the better it is tolerated. 

So what does it feel like?

It’s bloody great! It all starts with a small tingling sensation in the stomach, which then begins to feel like a little euphoria. It’s almost unnoticeable at first, but slowly that euphoria moves from the stomach to the brain and then suddenly everything becomes amazing! The sandy bottom, the boring little brown fish you’ve never looked at before, the sun shining down from the surface…it's the best dive you've ever dived! There are many stories of divers removing their clothing to be more ‘free’, trying to get the fish to use their regulator to breathe from, refusing to acknowledge attempts to get them to shallow up, forgetting basic hand signals they’ve time and again in the past – personally on my deepest dive of around 50 metres I forgot how to work my dive computer, (which I’ve used on thousands of dives before) and spent what a good few minutes just staring at it, laughing at my stupidity whilst sitting down on the ocean floor, happy as a clam.


How should I deal with it?

Everyone gets ‘narced’. It’s a fact that if you dive deep, then your body will be affected by it, be it a small amount of reg-out-pants-down-craziness. Your only options is either to ascend to shallower waters to make it disappear, or you learn to deal with the narcosis. To become a better deep diver, consider the following:

-Get more experience: Experience works well as advice for everything related to scuba diving. Remember this: the more you dive, the better you will deal with any problem or other occurrence underwater, and as we just learnt the more deep dives you do (exposing you to the effects of the nitrogen narcosis) the more you’ll be able to handle it when it does inevitably kick in.

-Practice skills you may have forgotten: There are some very important skills (such as out of air scenarios) that you may have forgotten over time. Usually, the longer it was since you completed your Open Water certification, the less you’ll remember if the time ever comes when you need to use this. It’s a great idea to practice them in shallow water repeatedly until they become instinctive, so if there’s ever an emergency situation whilst at the same time being narced, you will be able to deal with it without thinking.

-Improve your buoyancy:  It is important that you are able to breathe and move slowly whilst diving. The key word here is be calm. If you are calm, everything will be less stressful and you will take better decisions when narced. You will never manage this if your buoyancy is poor, with lots of erratic movements. The SSI/PADI Perfect Buoyancy specialty will certainly help any diver who feels like they need to improve this aspect of their diving.

-Get further training: Take the PADI or SSI Advanced Course or the Deep Diver specialty, where you’ll be partnered with a professional who is used to dealing with nitrogen narcosis. Enjoy your narcosis and let your instructor keep an eye on you!


Lastly, no matter what your experience level is the trick is not to be afraid of narcosis, and try to embrace it as the fun that it is – you’ve probably noticed that experienced divers LOVE to go deep, so why not join the gang and give it a go yourself!

You can sign up for your PADI and SSI Advanced or Deep course in person or online, with courses starting every day here at Big Blue.


What is a Scuba Refresher?

"So what exactly is a refresher?"


This is one of the questions we’re asked here at Big Blue on a regular basis from our certified divers, as for those who haven’t dived in a while or are feeling a bit rusty will need do the refresher dive - also known as a ‘scuba tune-up’, ‘skills refresh dive’ or ‘scuba review’. It is essential for a number or reasons, which we’ll look at in this blog.

Scuba diving is one of those unique activities that safety issues arise not so much from a diver’s lack of ability or knowledge but what is going on inside their head. A small problem can easily be blown out of proportion in the mind of an out-of –practice diver, and lead to a full-blown panic situation. A panicked diver is not only a danger to themselves but also to their buddy, the divemaster or instructor, and the triggers for panic can often be something as small and simple as badly-fitting equipment or a bit of water in their mask. 

It’s because of this that both PADI and SSI actually suggest that divers who did not dive in the last six months should take do a refresher dive, as during it you will (re)learn the essential skills you may have forgotten during the period you didn't dive, as well as a review of:

  • Your underwater buoyancy skills
  • Your general knowledge about safety and underwater communication
  • How to retrieve your second stage and mask clearing
  • How to get in the water safely

Obviously, to say that everyone who hasn’t dived in more than 6 months is quite a broad assumption - experienced divers who have not been diving in over six months are usually their own best judge if they need a formal course to regain their scuba skills, however every diver who had not dived in a year should seriously consider the course. 




So…do I need to do a refresher?

As you no doubt know, when you received your original certification card you were given a diving license for the rest of your life. There is nothing stopping you from renting or filling a dive tank and doing a dive on your own, but the fact is it might be the last thing you ever do! If you have been away from diving too long, your skills will definitely diminish and the refresher dive will give a nice, slow and shallow introduction back into the wonderful world of scuba diving safely and competently.

As well as being essential for you, the diver, to enjoy your dives with us safely and without incident, it also ensures that the rest of your diving group is diving with someone who knows exactly what to do if a situation arises out of the ordinary, and has a good grasp on the techniques required to dive properly without ruining the dive for everyone else – none of us like to be stuck in the group with the diver running into the back of us, kicking up the sand, panicking and running out of air well before the rest of us!







What exactly do we have to do then?

The first part of the refresher is always the quick checklist of theory questions, which talk about what to do if you get separated from your group, what to do if you get too cold, and a few decompression-related situations. Usually the Divemasters will use these questions to get a general idea of what your performance will be like underwater – the questions are very simple and usually just require a little common-sense to get the correct answer, so if you got lots of them incorrect we know we’re going to be in for an ‘interesting’ time…

The next step is to practice again how to put together your equipment, do the necessary personal checks on it, and then you’ll have your dive briefing where your dive leader will go through all the different signs you’ll be using during the dive, and also talk about the natural features of the dive site and what we’re likely to encounter.

After the brief we then kit-up, and do the buddy check on your dive partners equipment – a very important part of any divers preparations before the dive, regardless of experience. Incidentally, when diving on holiday I always judge my dive centre of choice on whether they insist on the buddy check or not – if they don’t, then it shows that they’re not taking safety seriously and I’ll move to a different dive operation.

Next up is the exciting, in-water part – we start by demonstrating how to enter the water safely using the ‘giant stride’ technique, and like with all the skills you’ll be practicing your dive professional will do it first, then you have a go. When we’ve all safely entered the water we will swim to a shallow part of the chosen divesite, and descend onto the sandy bottom – usually you’ll be at a depth of around 2 metres for this part, and we spend about 20 minutes going through essential skills with the mask and regulator. This is then followed by the best part of the whole refresh, the diving part! When the skills are completed, we slowly start to creep deeper, usually reaching depths of around 10 metres, and reacquaint ourselves with the buoyancy control needed to dive properly– in particular the use of our breathing to move us up and down in the water, and how to control our movements in the water without damaging ourselves or the coral. It’s usually another 30 minutes or so of diving if you’re breathing slowly, making the refresher about one hour underwater – plenty of time to become used to the equipment again on a shallow, easy site free of current, but still with the beautiful marine life and corals that Koh Tao is famous for!

As the air in the tank is beginning to get low (and after your dive leader has sent up their surface marker to warn boats of our ascent) you will then finish off the refresher by correctly and slowly ascending back to the surface. Once back on the boat we will then discuss any problems that arose, what we could maybe do differently the next time we dive, and then it’s back to land to clean the equipment and celebrate the successful completion of your refresher, and subsequent re-entry into the world of scuba diving!





We do the refresher dives every day here, starting at 11.30 am. You can book them in person, or online at www.bigbluediving.com


Things to do on Koh Tao (other than diving)

Every so often here on our beautiful little island we get visitors who, for some reason, don’t dive. Such a life-decision is unimaginable to us here at Big Blue, but to pander to the needs of these surface-dwellers we’ve come up with this handy list of our favourite to do on the island when going underwater is not an option:

Explore the Island’s Beaches

If you’re planning a trip to Koh Tao, you’ll definitely want to know more about the island’s beaches. If you want to kayak, paddleboard, kite-surf, meet fellow Thailand backpackers or check out some of the daytime beach clubs then Sairee Beach is the one for you. The largest on Koh Tao and also the busiest, it offers stunning sunsets over a palm-lined beach every day of the year it seems, and usually attracts a younger crowd then the others on the island.

For snorkeling directly from the beach, Tanote Bay, Aow Leuk and Shark bay are all within a 20 minute drive of the pier, and give the chance to see turtles, reef sharks, squid and all sorts of beautiful corals and typical Koh Tao marine life.

More tranquil beaches that we enjoy include the secluded and cosy Sai Daeng Beach (pictured below) in the south of the island  - the drive down to it has incredible views, and we're also big fans of the sunset-facing Sai Nuan beaches for some good old hammock time with a nice cold beer.



Take a Cooking Class

Take your taste buds on an exciting journey through the fantastic flavours and experiences of Thailand! This wonderful country is famous for its deliciously spicy cuisine, comprising of ingredients that can now easily be found in supermarkets around the world meaning it's well worth taking the opportunity to learn how to cook Thai the real way.Great for singles (to impress future partners!) and couples alike, learning how to cook Thai food is a brilliant idea here on Koh Tao, as we have a number of top-class cooks offering their services for very reasonable prices too – expect to pay around 1500 baht per person to learn 3 or 4 dishes. Our favourites are ‘Idjang Kitchen’ and ‘Thai Cooking With Joy’, both located just minutes from Sairee Beach.



The major party places on Koh Tao are all on Sairee Beach, the island’s busiest and most popular stretch of sand. Head either to BND for the most up-to-date tunes, Fishbowl Bar for cheesy party music and beer-pong, or Lotus Bar for similar cheese, but this time dancing right on the beach underneath Sairee’s famous overhanging palm tree. 

For a more chilled, slightly older crowd Fizz on Sairee beach is also worth a look, and also gives the opportunity to rest those weary bones in an oversized beanbag as the sun goes down. After you're regained a little energy it's essential to go visit the Ladyboy Cabaret on Sairee, which may offer up a few surprises!

Young, solo traveler with no-one to party with yet? Then you need to visit the…

Koh Tao Pub Crawl

Everywhere you turn when backpacking Thailand and the rest of South-East Asia there are people wearing a Koh Tao Pub Crawl tank top.  It’s a really popular activity in Koh Tao, especially since the island is small, and all the nightlife happens around the same areas.  It’s fairly inexpensive, and you get a free bucket and tank top.  They start at the legendary Choppers Bar, then off to Lotus Bar Pool, take you to the Ladyboy Cabaret and finish off with live music back at Choppers. It’s almost impossible to leave it without a whole bunch of new mates, and they get everyone to write their name on their arms in permanent marker pen so you know who you’ve woken up with the next morning.

It runs every Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday, and is not for the faint-hearted.

Hiking & Viewpoints

A great activity to have on your list of things to do on Koh Tao is hiking. Koh Tao has some amazing hikes to viewpoints with panoramic views, most of which are within an hour or so of your starting point – the beauty of being on such a small island!

As not many people decide to check out our hiking trails and viewpoints, more often than not you’ll have them all to yourself – our favourites are the walk to ‘John Suwan’ viewpoint (which offers a perfect panoramic view of the whole of Chalok Baan Kao and Shark Bay at the same time) and the ‘Two View’ viewpoint, Koh Tao’s highest peak which can be reached from Tanote Bay in under an hour.  We also love the 90 minute trek from Sairee Beach to the abandoned resort at Laem Thian, which has excellent snorkeling and is usually completely deserted if you head there in the morning before the sun gets too high in the sky!


 john suwan

Koh Nang Yuan

Located just 20 minutes by boat from Koh Tao is Koh Nang Yuan, three islands connected by a sand bar – said to be the only one of its kind in the world! Usually featured in all of your guidebooks and a must-see for all visitors to Koh Tao, it’s surrounded by shallow aquamarine waters, white sand, lovely snorkelling and the world class viewpoint - this place will set you up for a perfect day of relaxing and enjoying all the natural beauty that Thailand has in abundance.

Best visited in the early morning before the lazy, or after 2pm when the crowds of visitors from Koh Samui and Koh Phangan start to disperse, a 300 baht boat ride will show you exactly why Nang Yuan continues to be rated as one of the essential trips to take whilst holidaying here on Koh Tao – the viewpoint alone is worth the cost of getting there.

koh nang yuan 0

However you choose to spend your time here on Koh Tao, you can be sure that you're going to have the time of your life and make memories to last a lifetime - just remember to bring your camera and expect to stay here a little longer than planned!


How to Get to Koh Tao from Bangkok


Decided to come visit our little piece of paradise? Here we’ll talk a little about the 3 different ways you can get to Koh Tao from Bangkok!


The Fastest/Most Expensive Way – Fly and Ferry

By far the shortest and easiest way to get here if your budget allows it is to take a flight and ferry combo. From Bangkok you can catch a flight to Koh Samui - there are two airlines offering services, Bangkok Airways and Thai Airways. Bangkok Air have more flights from Bangkok-Koh Samui making it very convenient for connecting to your ferry. Flights depart every half an hour from 6am to 10pm, and take about an hour to reach Samui - just be sure to check the boat timetables to Koh Tao before you book your flight to be sure of the connections!

Usually a slightly cheaper flight is to go from Bangkok to one of the nearby towns on the mainland, Chumphon or Suratthani. There are two budget airlines offering the combined tickets of flight, coach and boat - Nok Air and Air Asia. Nok Air connects with our favourite ferry (it’s faster and a lot more reliable than the others) the Lomprayah at Chumphon or Suratthani, while Air Asia connects with the slower, less comfortable Seatran ferry at Suratthani.




The Cheapest/Most Uncomfortable Way – Bus and Ferry


By far the most popular and social way to get to Koh Tao (especially with all our Thailand backpackers) is to take the bus from Bangkok, and then connect to a ferry from the mainland town of Chumphon.
There are two companies who offer this service; Lomprayah and Songserm. Their (so-called) VIP air-conditioned buses depart Bangkok at around 8pm from Khao San Road, and arrive at the relevant pier at Chumphon around 7 hours later, depending on traffic and the enthusiasm of the driver! The bus will usually stop once around half way for about 20 minutes only, and give you a chance to grab something to eat and a quick toilet stop – the toilets on the buses are tiny and usually absolutely stinking!
The boat journey to Koh Tao is between 2 hours (Lomprayah) and 3 hours (Songserm) depending on the company you choose to go through.
We always recommend using the slightly more expensive Lomprayah over the Songserm if you are going to take the bus down to Chumphon, quite simply because it’s quicker, the buses are usually more comfortable and every so often we hear stories of people’s bags having things stolen from them on the Songserm bus – something that we’ve never heard from our Lomprayah travellers!




The Coolest Way - Sleeper Train and Ferry

Travelling on the sleeper train is, to be perfectly honest, absolutely great! It’s always a lot more comfortable than the bus as you can walk around to stretch your legs, have a cheeky cigarette, there’s a restaurant car to fill up on cheap Thai food and the staff on there can often provide a sneaky beer or two for you if you’re willing to pay a little over the odds for them! First Class (AC) and Second class (fan) sleeper come with a real (surprisingly comfortable) bed so you can sleep during the journey, plus there’s also the option of paying a bit extra for a ‘private’ 2 person cabin if your budget allows it!

Third class however does not come recommended by yours truly, as it’s just a seat rather than a bed and they’re not the most comfortable seats you’ll ever sit on.If you do decide to go for the AC carriage be aware like most air-conditioned places in Thailand it can get rather cold, so pack a pair of jeans and a jacket near the top of your backpack just in case!

From Bangkok, you’ll leave from Hua Lamphong Station at around 7pm, and the train gets to Chumphon station usually around 5am. The boat companies provide free transfers between their pier and the train station, and the first boats depart to Koh Tao at 7am – as always we recommend the Lomprayah over the other ferries if it’s available.


As with all trains, delays are possible so you may have to get an afternoon ferry to Koh Tao if you don’t make it in time for the early boat – in this case there’s a great travel agent just 5 minutes from the station called ‘Fame Tours’ where you can leave your belongings, have a wash and a bite to eat and book your tickets for the ferry of your choice. 

Be aware that buying your train tickets online will usually cost a few hundred baht more than buying them in person, and as a general guide for the Bangkok to Chumphon route you can normally buy 2nd and 3rd Class Fan Seats on the day of travel but not 1st and 2nd Class Sleeper seats and 2nd Class AC Seats, so it needs a little forward planning.

Finally at busy times of the year (including the week before and after Koh Phangan’s monthly Full Moon Party) sleeper beds are usually fully booked up to a week in advance.




Whichever way you decide to come and visit us here on Koh Tao, be sure to keep a close eye on your belongings, and also keep an open mind on the possible delays and waiting around time that Thailand is famous for…

Bon voyage!


The Top 3 Underrated Koh Tao Diving Encounters

For a small island, Koh Tao is blessed with a lot of dive sites; we have around twenty-five beautiful sites within an hour by boat, with a wonderful mix of easy, shallow sites for beginners and deeper, more difficult locations for those wishing to challenge themselves more underwater. No matter what your experience level is, all of us diving on Koh Tao are after one thing in particular - to share our dives with incredible marine life!

Here, in no particular order, are my top unusual things to encounter whilst beneath Koh Tao:

Bigfin Reef Squid

Now not everyone will agree with me here, but i'm quite the fan of these delicious little buggers with their spectacularly hypnotic appearance. Often seen hanging around close to the buoylines or very close to the surface at Chumphon, Hin Wong and South West Pinnacle, if you happen to bump into them it's well worth keeping a very close eye on them in case they start showing their amazing capacity to change colour in a blink of an eye!

Bigfin reef squid, which in general have a lifespan of about a year, are very skilled in this art of colour change and use it mainly for camouflage or to startle and warn potential predators. It's produced by changing the way light bounces off their bodies by altering the patterns of pigment in their skin, which mimics sunlight dancing in the water in such a way that they become essentially invisible. The effect is absolutely mesmerizing and also quite hypnotic, with streaks and waves of colour flickering across their skin until they speed off into the distance, often leaving the lucky viewer in disbelief at what they just witnessed.

How to see them? -  If you sit at the back of the boat at night with a bright light shining into the water, the bigfin reef squid hang out in the shadows and wait for small fish to come towards the light. When they see their prey they dart in and grab the fish and disappear back into the shadows again - easy!

Weird Fact - All types of squid have three hearts, but will never send a Valentine's Card.




A phenomenal creature that only the best of Divemasters can locate, these slime-oozing creatures with a boneless body feature brilliant colors and eye-catching patterns on their skin, and is often considered one of the most beautiful animals in the world - often referred to as 'Mother Nature's Greatest Work of Art' by divers, there's certainly there's no other creature on the planet that has colour patterns as spectacular as a sea slug! Hermaphrodites, their size ranges from just a few millimetres to around 30 cm and there are more than 3000 known species of nudibranch, with new ones being identified almost daily. They are carnivorous, so their prey includes sponges, coral, anemones, hydroids, barnacles and other nudibranch - it's nice to see cannibalism is finally making a comeback! They are actually very picky eaters, and individual species or families of nudibranchs may eat only one kind of prey, so as all good DMs know when you find their favourite food there's a good chance there'll be a nudibranch hanging around close by waiting for their next meal.

Weird Fact - Some nudibranchs are actually solar-powered! They create their own food by harvesting coral with algae, and house this algae inside their bodies. This algae derives its energy from light via photosynthesis, which is then used by the nudibranch to provide nutrients to sustain it for months- the human equivalent would be sticking a plant on your back and never having to eat again!

Weirder Fact - Some humans actually eat nudibranchs. Chileans and some islanders in Russia and Alaska roast or boil sea slugs and sometimes eat them raw...it has been described as “chewing an eraser", and is not recommended by Big Blue.





Saddleback Clownfish Protecting its Eggs

Named due to their wide white head band and a wide white middle band that looks like it forms a 'saddle', these aggressive little fish are always one of the most popular things to see with our first time divers, but for the more experienced diver amongst us it's well worth taking a closer look around their home anemone to see if any eggs are present, in my opinion one of the most interesting things about the clownfish species.

Clownfish are always very dependent on their host anemone and stay very close to it. They do not migrate to other anemones to start new families, but stay in their host for their entire life time unless the anemone dies. It's only when protecting eggs that will they will stray from their anemone, and it is common to see them swimming a fair distance to warn off anything they believe may be showing too much of an interest in their young. The female will lay her eggs upon a flat surface just to the side of their host anemone, in the area that the happy couple cleared of debris earlier.  Such items as shells, coconut shells or litter such as tin cans or plastic are often seen housing the eggs here around Koh Tao!

The male is the one whose main task is caring for the eggs, and he quickly attacks any approaching predators, preferring to rely on an excellent offense as his best defense - attacking and biting the intruder. When no threat is present, he fans the eggs with his tail both to aerate them as well as to remove any debris that may have settled onto them. In addition to fanning the eggs, the male removes any unfertilized or infected eggs by eating them!

 In general, the eggs are pink to orange in colour as they are laid and remain so for a couple days. As they age, their pink to orange will gradually fade to a dull grey or brown. Finally, as the hatching nears (usually around 1 week after laying), they become shiny silver with the fry's developed eyeballs clearly visible. This in particular makes for an excellent photo, as you can see in the example below – just watch out for angry Dad!

Weird Fact -  If the large breeding female is removed, her male mate changes sex to female and the next largest fish in the group rapidly increases in size and takes over the role as the sexually mature male. 






Choosing your Dive Centre on Koh Tao

With over 85 dive centres now on Koh Tao, choosing which one to do your PADI/SSI Open Water course with has never been harder. Talking to the dive centre in person is something we highly recommend, but with each of them doing their utmost to sell you on their own particular store it's good to go with some ideas on what you're looking for before booking your scuba license.

So what facts should we take into consideration when deciding who to grace with your presence and go scuba diving with? Here we're going to talk about a few things to have a think about before making that decision:

Large or Small?
Each has their pros and cons, and it really depends on what you want from your new dive centre - do you want one-on-one with the instructor and diving from a small boat, or do you prefer to have a few others also learning with you and a larger boat? Diving is a very social experience, so personally I like to have a few others around so I have the chance to make friends with a bunch of people, and the large boats are a lot more comfortable in waves due to their increased weight - take note those of you who can get seasick!



Pool Training or Immediately in the Ocean?
For a nervous diver, the choice is very simple - find a dive centre that uses a pool to learn to dive. To immediately be jumping into the ocean with around 15-20 kg of equipment many people have never seen in their lives can be very intimidating, and here on Koh Tao you've then got a 20-30 minutes swim to get to the beach area to practise for the first time, with snorkellers, swimmers, kayaks, current and visibility to think about as well as all the new skills you need to learn. To learn all the new techniques in a pool before getting into the sea is a lot less nerve-wracking - after all you're just stepping into a shallow pool - and there are never snorkellers, kayaks, currents etc.. Another negative point about immediately learning in the sea is that you now have a time limit to get through all the things you need to successfully complete before being allowed to go on to the next part of the course (as the boat needs to get back before the sun goes down) whereas the pool doesn't go anywhere, giving the instructor the whole day to ensure that the student is totally comfortable and safe with this equipment before even considering getting into the sea.

We believe here at Big Blue that letting our students spend all that time in the pool is the safest way to teach them how to dive, so then when they're ready to ocean dive for the first time they're not terrified of the prospect but excited and raring to go!

With so many dive centres on this small island there's not enough space on the beach for them all to have that ideal location right on the shore, so you'll find that most of the cheaper ones are located on the streets around Sairee, Mae Haad and Chalok - of course you will have a much better experience if your dive centre is situated right on the beach, as the natural beauty of our beaches can't help but inspire a student compared to those on a dusty street. So how do we choose which of these beaches is best?

For those who want to be close to all the action there's no better choice than Sairee Beach. With the best restaurants, bars and clubs on the island located around there and easily the best spot to view the islands incredible sunsets, Sairee is THE place to be if you want to be within walking distance of all the island's hottest spots, plus by simply heading to the north of Sairee you also get the peace and tranquility Thailand is famous for - but still just a five minute stroll down the beach to the busier parts!

For those who prefer more built up areas, or want to stay close to the piers for laziness reasons then Mae Haad is the place for you. With a few good places to eat, slightly more relaxed bars and no real clubs at all, it tends to attract the slightly older visitors to the island. The beach isn't as nice or clean as in Chalok and Sairee (due to the amount of traffic coming in and out of the port) but it's still a great place to relax and enjoy the sunsets of Koh Tao without as many backpackers around you.

Incredibly popular with the islands French and Spanish speaking contingent, south-facing Chalok Baan Khao is a smaller beach than Sairee and has a lot less people staying around it. One of the islands cheaper places to stay, it has a fair few budget Thai places to eat, and a handful of decent bars to enjoy afterwards. Those wishing to party may find it a little too relaxed, and the beach often suffers from the 'Low-Tide Blues' making it difficult to swim from there, but nevertheless it reamins a popular spot for those wanting peace and quiet above everything else.




When scuba-diving 18 metres underwater on the deepest part of the SSI or PADI Open Water license, the last thing you want to be worried about is the equipment that's keeping you alive down there - and here lies the most important thing of all when choosing a dive centre - the quality, safety and reputation of the business. The safety of the diver must be the priority every day on every single dive, and this is where we can start using tools like Lonely Planet, Trip Advisor and Facebook to filter out those dive centres that appear good on paper, but in reality fail to impress. We always recommend a dive centre that had been diving these particular waters for a while, as then you know that they've worked out precisely where to send their students for the best possible Open Water experience, and it's worth going for the bigger dive centres over the small if you're worried about your safety - the larger dive schools have bigger budgets, so can spend a lot more on essential safety items. From well-stocked first aid kits to tanks of pure oxygen on every boat, you can tell a lot about a dive centre and how seriously they take their divers safety from the contents of their first aid kits - so sneak a peak!




The final factor to consider when choosing your dive centre for that elusive SSI/ PADI Open Water is of course how you fit in with the people working there! The atmosphere generated at the dive centre is essential to cultivate the type of learning environment that inspires the students and makes them want to come back for more, and give their very best in all parts of the course. If you're surrounded by people you don't understand or get on with then immediately you're fighting a battle not only to complete the diving license but also to become a part of the group around you, which inevitably leads to frustrations. To find out if you are the right sort of person for the dive centre there's really no better way than to talk to them in person, and get a feel for the place before making that decision. If it's not possible to do this, then try shooting them a few messages on their Facebook page to see how they respond - you can tell a lot about the people from how enthusiastic or disinterested their replies are to you. Trip Advisor reviews will also tell you a lot about the atmosphere at the dive school from an unbiased source, so it's well worth trawling through a few to get an idea of what the place is like from the students themselves.


See you underwater!