Life on Koh Tao

Definitely not our dog… or our bike!

“Sanity and happiness are an impossible combination.”  -Mark Twain

Trying to decide what to name this post, it occured to me that we’ve been here for four months!  What a ride it’s been (or lack thereof concerning the bicycles).  I rode my bike once on the island which amounted to pushing up ridiculously steep paths and carrying the bike up the hill.  At the top, I blew out a sidewall on my tire and pushed back home.  Lauren was kind enough to send me this meme to cheer me up. Other than that it has been scooters that get us around the island.  Sometimes we even get a random island dog who wants to hitch a ride.  

Where to begin?  Reading the last post from February just now was strange.  It feels almost like we were different people then.  I’m looking at the pictures, and half the people in them have left the island.  We’ve since been to Malaysia, may or may not have 2 brand new tattoos and made some amazing new friends as well as continued the metamorphisis into the people we really are meant to be. 

At the beginning of February, we had the most amazing day and night of our lives!  It was Goodtime’s 10 year anniversery extravaganza and what a party it was.  It started with climbing and abseiling on the mountain.  Lauren was on duty showing the guests her stuff while I was dangling 20 meters up hanging from a rope and looking out at the most spectacular view of Sairee beach.  Next was rock climbing.  I got to see what Lauren does everyday and was humbled and impressed even on the “beginner wall.”  The afternoon moved down the hill to the full size flying trapeze setup.  We both climbed up the platform (Lauren for the second time) and wow, what a rush!  The very first swing, you are upside down hanging from your knees with no hands 30 feet in the air and backflipping to dismount.  It was a blast and the instructor Jemma was phenomenal.  The daytime activities were only the beginning though.  When the sun went down, the party started.  There was awesome live music all night and we nearly collapsed the deck at the bar due to the jumping and dancing.  There were goodtime tattoos for 500 Baht in the bar…  Who were we to pass up a deal like that?  

The official party ended, but we were on a roll so we kept it going.  There was more dancing and late night swimming in the ocean.  We went to bed with the sun and walked away with some of the best friends anyone could ever ask for.  Our place on this island was solidified and we decided that we are staying here.  You can call it a home if you like, but we are thinking of it more as a base…  A jumping off point for future travels and a place to store scuba and climbing gear.  

Living on Koh Tao is wonderful, but one unavoidable aspect of life here is the visa situation, which took us to yet another country.  If our trip to Myanmar for visas was interesting, the most recent trip to Panang Malaysia was eye opening to say the least.  Without getting into too many details, we need to leave Thailand periodically in order to renew our visas due to weird government tourism policies.  The reason we went to Panang this time was because there is a proper Thai embassy and you can get a 2 month extension instead of 30 days.  In true Orlosky fashion, we waited until the last minute and rushed to get a joint boat/bus ticket since the train we wanted to take was out of service.  The trip began on another night boat and in the morning, we arrived in Surat Thani, Thailand and were shuffled about onto a “Mini Bus” which is basically the Asian equivalent to a church van.  Thus began the all day trip through the South of Thailand into Malaysia.  

At one point we were told to get out of the van in a city called Hat Yai in Southern Thailand and we waited in an open air room for 2 hours.  No one told us what was going on, but we deduced that we were switching vans for the next leg.  We wandered around a bit and had some great Thai food for lunch.  We didn’t eat anything too adventurous since we still had hours in a van with no idea when the next stop would be.  The border crossing into Malaysia was pretty benign and we learned that US citizens get an automatic 90 day visa for free which is good to know for future travels.  The difference between Thailand and Malaysia was a lot bigger than we expected.  Everything felt a lot more Western except for the calls to prayer on the loud speakers.  The cars and the clothes were more familiar and the road signs were in English as well as Malay which uses latin characters.  

As we rolled into Panang we laughed at how excited everyone was to see a Pizza Hut.  Living on a 21 km sq (13 mile) island makes you forget about a lot of “normal” things.  We were told to get out on some street in Panang and pointed towards Jim’s which was our travel agency.  It amounted to two guys, a computer and a couch, but they knew their stuff.  We had little more than our passports in hand and Jim took care of all the rest.  We stayed at a recommended place called Chulia Mansion which was a bit pricey at about 45 USD per night, but there was a rooftop wine bar with a free happy hour every night.

We met some interesting folks on the roof.  There was Paul, from the UK who volunteered at the animal shelter on Phuket, and also Peter.  He was in his 70’s and expatriated from the US to retire in Chang Mai.  He had an amazingly interesting life, serving in Vietnam, driving long haul trucks across the US, and traveling the world.  We learned a lot from one another, for some reason our tendency to gravitate towards older folks continues.  Maybe it’s their wisdom, or perspective, or maybe it’s ours.  

We spent time in Panang doing the requisite dumb tourist stuff like taking an elevator to the lookout on the tallest building which turned out to be hilarious.  We were shuffled around and made to stand in queues even though we were the only ones there.  At the top, after looking at the view, we decied to have a drink.  The bar was very swanky and I hadn’t had a proper martini in ages so I ordered one since it was on the menu.  After watching a conference of four employees and a manager trying to make the drink I realized I should have ordered a beer.  What they presented was brilliant.  It amounted to a glass of spoiled vermouth, a splash of gin, and a handful of black olives and a lemon twist!  Lauren and I split her beer and thanked them with a smile.

The rest of the trip was a lot of fun.  We went to a mall to get Lauren some climbing clothes and a few other little things and boy were we ever lucky.  There was a giant video arcade on the top floor.  We raced motorcycles, shot zombies, played drums, danced and flew fighter jets all afternoon.  It was good clean family fun!  

We ate amazing food the entire trip.  From schwarma to Indian to traditional Malay cuisine,  it was all so full of flavor.  We had such a good time that we stayed an extra day and can’t wait to go back. Duty was calling back on Koh Tao though.

After returning to Thailand via van we had a nice dinner at the pier market in Surat Thani.  Next we boarded the boat which had side by side mattresses covering the entire floor with no aisles.  It was not what I would call a modern vessel.  The constant creaking and groaning of the hull made for less than stellar sleep.  In order to use the bathroom at night you had to step over sleeping people in the aisles.  Oh well, just another night in Thailand.  We made it though and were welcomed back to the island by our amazing friends!  

The next few weeks were the definition of amazing and we’ve been the happiest we’ve ever been in our lives.  There is something special about this island. It is not the beautiful beaches and mountains, although they are gorgeous.  It is something deeper than that.  It’s in the people, it’s an attitude that nearly everyone shares.  The people who don’t share it don’t stay more than a day or two.  No one here seems to care about trivial stuff.  Of course there is some gossip and occasional drama.  We’ve been robbed while swimming late night, but the thief left our phones, wallets and bank cards.  It might sound weird but I wasn’t even mad.  

My arthritis has even improved here.  It may be the climate or my diet, but I can’t help but think the lack of stress in my life has helped immensly.  Not every day is perfect, and we still have problems, but by and large, life is the best it’s ever been.  Also, I just finished my training to be a divemaster.

Happy birthday Nate!

In a flying squadron in the Air Force, there is a right of passage known as the 
“naming”.  Once you achieve a certain level of experience and acceptedness, the boys deem you worthy and are given a callsign. (ie. Maverick/Goose) You spend some time in front of the crowd whilst being berated and demeaned for all the stupid things you’ve done since being in the squadron.  At the end, you drink a shot in some ludicrous way and are given your callsign.  Needless to say, the night involves heavy drinking and no one I know remembers much from their naming.  Little did I know when starting this new venture that the diving community has a similar tradition.

The dreaded snorkel test is not meant for the pleasure of the person experiencing it.  It is purely for the entertainment of everyone else.  My test was at Goodtime’s bar with a select group of dive pros and some local friends.  It started with myself and my fellow DMT (Dive master trainee) Polina, being dressed in ridiculous outfits and paraded in front of everyone while they cheered.  Next, we were subjected to dive trivia like converting metric depths to standard while drinking and other questions we clearly would not know.  Things are a bit foggy in my memory, but there were charades to act out different fish, being dunked in a bucket of ice water with a scuba regulator in and having to fill up a mask and clear it.  There was also a scuba strip tease  for our lovely spouses.  All the while, our performance was being evaluated and a concoction of booze and disgusting mixers were being poured into buckets conveniently placed behind us.  

The coup de gras was the actual snorkel test.  I was given a specially modified mask and snorkel with a giant funnel atached to the top and just for fun the mask had prescription glass suited for someone with 20/500 vision so I could not see anything.  There was a countdown, then the bucket was poured into my funnel and I had to chug it as fast as possible before drowning in booze!  I remember thinking, “I’m 32 years old, what the hell am I doing?”  The Blue Curacao, gin, vodka, and tequila were not the problem.  It was the Baily’s Irish Cream mixed with lime juice!  For all of you scientists out there, dairy curdles when mixed with citrus…  Surprisingly I got the whole thing down, I didn’t realize this at the time becuase once I finished it, they poured the remainder of my partner’s bucket in mine which included among other yummy treats,  spicy Thai rice soup from a styrofoam carton, M150 which is Thai Redbull on steroids and more lime juice.  Once that hit my throat my literal gut reaction was instantanious and I gagged and spit up all over my wetsuit…  Which by the way had the sleeves and pantlegs taped shut.  During this whole ordeal, I also had a giant bucket of ice water dumped down into the wetsuit which was now completely sealed.  Thinking I failed miserably, I took my mask off and was greeted with two dozen cheering laughing faces!  I was presented with my professional diver certification and could not have been happier.  Somehow I managed to continue the night and though the details are hazy, I’m pretty sure I had a great time!

Lauren is about to finish her rock master course also and our next adventure is starting soon.  What started as a two week break from cycling on has turned into an incredible life changing experience.  We’ve got amazing new friends, a new place to call home, new careers suitable to traveling and genuine happiness.

* Thanks to Charly for the awesome snorkel party photos!

So, I guess we kinda live here now.

“Some people never find it. Some only pretend. But I just want to live happily ever after, now and then.” – Jimmy Buffett

The plan was to stop on Koh Tao (a very small island in the Gulf of Thailand) for a week or two. We were going to try scuba diving, enjoy the beach, then get back on the road heading North for Chiang Mai. That did not happen.

Instead, our week or two is now at about six and we don’t have any plans for leaving any time soon. When we started the trip we always talked about scouting out places we really liked for when we wanted to take a break from traveling for a few months. We didn’t think we would end up staying on an island and training for new careers… sort of.

The first two weeks here were great. The weather was beautiful and the beach was fantastic. We swam and enjoyed all the Western and Thai food on the island. I got my open water scuba certification and we were just hanging out with no cares. We stayed up late, woke up whenever we wanted and generally relaxed. Lauren got food poisoning which was not fun at all, and the weather turned bad for about 5 days due to the remnants of a typhoon, but we were really enjoying it here. Our Visas were going to expire and we debated on what to do.

We considered a standard boat/van visa run to leave the country then come right back or maybe taking a boat to the mainland and riding the bikes to Burma and back. We thought about riding to Burma then just continuing up the Eastern coast. Finally we thought about just heading up to Cambodia. We debated for days and ultimately decided to just do a visa run and stay on the island.

We had an interesting mini-adventure for the visa run. We took the night ferry from Koh Tao to Chumpon and slept in bunks on the boat.

We arrived bright and early on a seemingly abandoned port at 5:30 AM and looked around confused. We waited with the other westerners and eventually a guy in a van showed up and started coralling us around. We ended up in a van, then switched to another van, then finally got on the road. What a road it was! The drive took us up and over the mountains toward Ranong. It was the same highway we had so desparately avoided on the bikes on the way down. Being in a car in and of itself was novel and the driver was downright insane. The road was a series of windy blind curves for miles. We spent at least 30% of the time on the wrong side of the road. Basically, there are lines painted on the road in Thailand, but they are purely for decoration. The other side of the road and both shoulders are all fair game. Passing on a blind curve just requires a simple toot of the horn and off you go.

It was about a two or three hour trip before we arrived at Ranong. We were shuffled to a place that copied our passports then stood in line to get exit stamps. We jumped on a boat that could only be boarded with crisp new ten dollar bills from the US for some reason.

The boat was a traditional longtail and we thought we had made it to Burma after a short trip. It turned out, this was the immigration checkpoint #1 of 3. The next thing we knew they were handing us life jackets as we laughed until we realized why. We had to cross a big gap of no-shit ocean to get to Burma. The boat was maybe 25 feet long and the waves were not small. We were splashed and rocked around for 40 minutes as we crossed the sea to Burma. “You may know it as Myanmar, but it will always be Burma to me.”

We spent a grand total of 20 minutes getting our passports stamped, then immediately left to come back to Thailand. The return journey was just as fun and re-entering was pretty easy. One gal in our group had a bit of trouble, she had done this several times before and the immigration officials basically told her she couldn’t come back into Thailand. Our guide stepped up and had some words with them and somehow it was magically resolved in ten minutes. +1 for booking through an agency and not trying to do it yourself. On the ride back, we got to know Cecilia from Argentina and had wonderful conversation about the island, diving, travelling and life in general. After the van ride for some reason we stopped to swap vehicles again and another gal in our group became beligerant. “If she missed the ferry, she was going to flip her shit!” she informed everyone over and over. We, along with Cecilia thought it was amusing and were glad that “shit flipper” ended up in a different van for the remainder of the trip. During the last leg which was a high speed chase to catch the ferry that involved dropping off a random Thai lady at a restaurant we chatted about how nice it feels to leave emotions like that behind. I proclaimed that if we missed the ferry the first round was on me and I knew a great seafood place at the pier. We laughed and decided we didn’t really care if we made it or not.

As luck would have it we showed up a few minutes late and they hadn’t even started boarding. That didn’t stop old shit flipper from cutting the line and ensuring she was among the first to be on the ferry so she could wait 30 minutes for everyone else to board. The whole thing was a great lesson in how far attitude can get you in life. Here is one person who is worried so much about something she has absolutely no control over. Additionally, the worst case scenario was that we miss a boat and take the next one. She was worried sick, embarassing herselft as she acted like an asshole. She was verbally abusive to the driver who was just doing his job and stressing out about missing a fricken boat! So much for the island attitude! On the other hand, Cecilia, Lauren, and I, took the oportunity to make new friends. We shared stories about how we might have reacted similarly in our previous lives, but have since learned that most of the time, it’s not worth it to get upset. The whole experience was a great reinforcement of all the decisions we made that brought us to that point.

When we got back we tried a new scuba shop called Goodtime Adventures, they also do rock climbing and flying trapeeze. The vibe at this place was exactly what we were looking for: stress free, laid back and focused on fun. I decided to keep pushing further with scuba and started my training to become a professional divemaster. I’d always thought scuba diving would be a great second career (if you can call it that) and Koh Tao is known for being one of the most beautiful (and cheapest) scuba destinations in the world. Lauren gave scuba a few more tries and decided it really wasn’t her thing so she started a climbing course to become a rockmaster. Like me with scuba, it is something she has always wanted to learn. She has fallen in love with climbing and comes back every day covered in bruises, calluses and smiles.

We’ve made such great new friends on the island, and it’s starting to feel like home. It feels good to have a purpose for awhile. We are absolutely going to get on the road again at some point, but for now we are living cheap and doing what we love on a tropical island… Why would we leave?

The last few weeks have been interesting. We’ve settled into a bit of a routine and our training kinda feels like work… But in a good way. Lauren is already guiding beginner climbers and I’m close to finishing up my divemaster training. She’s seen some amazing views from atop the island and I’ve dove with whale sharks twice! The bonus is once we complete our training we might even be able to make some extra money doing something we and a lot of other people are paying to do for fun.

I’ve fallen in love with the underwater world in the same way I love flying. The silence and serenity are unexplainable unless you’ve done it. I’ve blown a fair amount of money on scuba gear and training, but somehow justified it by the fact that I will be able to work anywhere in the tropics forever if I so choose. The long hair, no shirt and wearing flip flops to work style is fitting me a little better than a buzzcut and a prompt military schedule. The best part is that Lauren is climbing out of the same shop I’m diving at. We share lunch most days and go out to dinner every evening. It’s been busy, but once we finish the training we plan on settling into a part time work schedule and slowing down again.

I think we’re “supposed” to be on a bicycle trip, but I guess this chapter is a little more spontaneous and a little less spinning. In the meantime, we’ve got the two most expensive clothes hangers in all of Asia!

*Underwater photos courtesy of Logan Brown.

*Whale shark videos courtesy of some girl with a go pro who was on the same boat as me.