August 6, 2014
This year we planned a diving holiday and the first question we had to solve was finding a good diving shop on the island we were staying on. Thailand was our holiday destination and we decided to go to Koh Tao island because we were going during the rainy season. Many of the islands on the West Coast of South Thailand have bad diving conditions in the rainy season, and often the boats can not go out because of the bad weather. This could also mean you would either not get on your island, or would not get of any more if the weather was too bad to sail. Diving visibility was often very bad on this part of the coast in the rainy season. So no no for Pi Pi island, the Similan islands or Lipe island in the South. This left only the East coast which was more secluded from the West winds, and where October and November were the bad months with constant rain. There was Koh Samui where we had already been twenty years ago, Koh Pangan that was mostly famous for its full moon parties, and Koh Tao: the back packers island, where many of the party goers land after the full moon parties but which is also a divers paradise. No place in the world certifies so many divers as on Koh Tao. This is thanks to the high standards of the dive shops in combination with very low prices. Me and Neil were already certified, but it would be a great opportunity for our children to take an open water course. Prices were around 8000 bath or 200 euro to get an open water certification everything included. There are many big dive shops on Koh Tao like Ban’s, Big blue diving or Easy divers that take really big groups, certifying in an almost industrialized way. I wanted to find a shop which worked with smaller groups especially for the diving itself because it makes learning to dive so much more relaxed and enjoyable. And I would have to find a nice hotel nearby to stay, quite the challenge!
There are several areas on the island, there is Mae Haad where the ferry arrives, and more to the North there is Sairee beach where the majority of the backpackers and party goers stay. We wanted to avoid these crowded places. There are some other areas, some which are very secluded and hard to reach but by 4-wheel drive or motorbike, and where you would be stuck in your resort. That would be too much also! We focused on Baan Chaalok, an area right under Mae Haad, that was not as crowded and still had a small town area where you would find shops, an ATM and several restaurants. I looked for the dive shops first and via internet I found New Heaven dive shop, who also had an Eco-program and courses on marine life. They also rented some bungalows, which were priced very reasonable, but looked a bit worn and outdated. The resorts I liked were quite far away from this dive shop, so it became hard to choose. I e-mailed back and forth with them, but couldn’t decide, especially since I read some reviews saying they used to be very good, but that quality had gone down lately. And the bungalows did not appeal to me. And they seemed just a little too far away from Baan Chaalok centre, since they were located in a small town a bit further named Ao Luek. Via tripadvisor I then found a dive shop, Alvaro, (strange name for a dive shop) sporting only good and excellent reviews, no bad reviews at all! How did they do that? I started reading the reviews and decided to e-mail them. I got very swift replies with all the necessary information and prices, with or without sleeping included. I asked some advice on where to stay apart from their own bungalows, and they also recommended a resort very close to the dive shop I had been looking at myself. I decided based on the great reviews to book the diving with them and made a 2000 bath deposit through PayPal. I had trouble deciding on the sleeping place since the resort I liked the most had very mixed reviews on Tripadvisor. Some were very good, others said the water of the shower was horrible, the walking paths in the resort a safety hazard, the food really not good, …. What to do? The pictures looked lovely, the location close to the dive shop, hmmmmm…….
I e-mailed them for prices and was at first disappointed that prices had gone up considerably due to renovations. The decision became even harder. After some more mails it became clear the price of sea view bungalows had not yet increased, since they would not be renovated yet, meaning there would only be cold water in the shower and no air conditioning. (1500 bath per night per bungalow) In the end we went for two sea view bungalows and hoped the place would look as beautiful as it did in the pictures! (Fingers crossed)
So finally July came and our holiday started with our first week which would be spent on Koh Tao. As said in the Lomprayah post, the ferry ride is a hard apple to bite through. The arrival on Koh Tao is chaotic. But on our arrival a taxi from the resort was waiting for us. And although we had not ordered one, we were glad it was there. The ride to the hotel did not bode so well since the development on Koh Tao happened haphazardly and results in ugly Kao Sarn like areas. But then we arrived in our resort: View Point resort, where, yes renovation was taking place, but the welcome was warm, with a refreshing lemon grass drink to freshen up and our luggage carried for us to our bungalows. When Neil entered our bungalow, he immediately commented : “Vera , you will like this!” And I did. The view from the bungalows’ terrace is simply stunning. The bungalows need some refreshing, but are made of wood and bamboo and therefore age beautifully. The bathroom is modern, and has all you need, towels, free soap and shampoo and more. You get two bottles of water everyday. The resort is just stunning, and you can see it has been designed by an architect. You can walk around naked in your room, with the sea as your only witness. We only ate once at the resorts restaurant, not because it is not enjoyable, it’s setting is one of the best on Koh Tao, but the price is high, and they only serve Western food, a pity in a country with the best local food in the world. We had breakfast here on the first morning, but since they bake the croissants and other breads on site, you have to wait at least 20 minutes before it is ready. And that is not handy if you have an appointment at the dive shop! And the breads were really small, the coffee and juice on the other hand were yummy!
So Alvaro dive shop then: my children went to do the paperwork on the day we arrived, got an handbook each, and watched a two hour explanatory video of ISS on the first evening. We chose ISS over PADI because of the price, the flexibility, and the video of two hours instead of four. You have to (cross) read three chapters in the book on the first evening and find the right answers. The dive shop wanted Neil and me to take a refresh dive since it had been years since our last dive. Maybe strict, but surely safe. The next day we took the general explanation together with the kids for the Open Water course, this would also freshen up our knowledge, and I even learned some new stuff. In de dive shop there is free coffee, tea, water and wifi. There are instructors from different nationalities, so you can choose between languages for instruction.
We took our refresh dive together with the first skill dive and first dive of the kids with their instructor Lio, a super enthusiastic French dive master living on Koh Tao for three years already. You dive from their huge wooden fisherman’s turned into dive boat.
Their boat; The Sea Cutter, is not only very beautiful, but very well equipped. They fill the bottles on board, they bring your equipment for you on board in the morning (so no lifting heavy loads before you dive, great!) There is fruit, coffee, tea, water and bisquits on the boat, ample space to put your stuff, a chill out area, and super friendly staff. They bring you with a smaller boat from the beach to the boat. They have a very strict safety drill before and after every dive, but that just adds to your feeling of well being. Before taking off one of the instructors welcomes everyone on board and sets out some rules on the boat and the planning of the day. Everyone is assigned a bag in which he will find the right size wetsuit, bcd, flippers, you get your weight belt and a mask if needed which your instructor baby shampoos against fogging up. Your instructor informs you of the dive site, what can be expected to see, and repeats the signs (every time, which is really good, impossible to forget!) Everyone prepares his gear, and does a buddy check. And then you get in the water and enjoy your dive! And although the seas in Thailand seem to get poorer in diversity of sealife, there is still plenty to see on Koh Tao. There are many dive sites around the island, so you can dive an new site every day. We paid 8400 bath (200 euro) for the Open Water course with two fun dives extra ( that is 400 bath or 10 euro, for two fun dives!)
Neil and I took a pack of 7 dives and two extra for 800 bath (19 euro) a dive, and paid 1500 bath (35 euro) for the refresh dive. The kids paid 700 bath (16 euro) per dive for the two extra dives as ex- students. Our dives were with different instructors and they were all great, Steve helped me to calm down when I started taking in too much air, Dina made us discover the small animals under water, and Sacha was the sweetest instructor.
I can say nothing but positive things about Alvaro diving, they are great, they are fun, they are serious about their business and about safety. They are helpful, they dive in groups of maximum four divers per leader, they have a wonderful boat, a great location, good managers, great dive instructors, good equipment of which they take good care, and they have a beautiful logo, so you want to buy their t-shirts! There are no negative points, no buts, they deserve the great rating on Tripadvisor.
If I should go back to Koh Tao I will surely dive with them again! And yes Koh Tao is a great place to dive, especially the way we experienced it.