As a pause in the gripping narration of my travels to Siem Reap, here is a post of my recent activities. I will resume the Angkor Wat story another time.
This past weekend was verrrrry active. I had two goals, and two goals only: to start my scuba certification and to do some birdwatching. Sounds simple, eh? That, my little cherub, is strictly a matter of opinion, as Bugs Bunny would say.*
I decided to get my scuba cert in Pattaya, a seaside city a couple hours south of Bangkok. It is the second largest city in Thailand, a scuba diving hub, and a major couples resort destination and sex tourism centre. Yeah.
So why Pattaya, you say? First, it’s close to Bangkok. Due to the effects of pressure on the body when scuba diving, you have to wait a minimum of 12 hours before flying anywhere safely. That ruled out any other beach in Thailand for a weekend trip.
Second, the first two components of the PADI Open Water certification course are spent in the classroom (or learning on-line) and then in a hotel pool. I plan to visit the stunning white beaches of Thailand later in my trip, and so don’t want to waste any of that time inside or in a swimming pool.
So Pattaya it was. As another traveller explained to me, there is a difference between hardcore sleaze and good-natured sleaze. You can find both in Thailand, and, indeed, many other cities round the world. Pattaya sleaze, I was told, or at least the Pattaya sleaze visible from the street, is the good-natured kind. Sure, it’s in your face, but let’s face it, I’m really not the target audience. Besides, I would be there for the diving.
(And, before going on, let me just say, because I have friends who are rightly concerned about this stuff - as am I - that the dynamics of the sex tourism industry in Thailand seem to vary widely, ranging from apparently mutually beneficial relationships to outright exploitation and abuse, as evidenced by the recent high profile arrests of two Canadian men accused of sex crimes in Thailand. That issue, though, is not the theme of this post. Like I said, I stuck to the streets:)
Somehow I ended up on the wrong bus, “the local” that stopped every 5 minutes. I was scheduled to be at the dive shop at 11 am. At 11:15, with no beach in sight, I called the shop on my mobile, explaining that I had no idea where I was nor when I would arrive. Da from the dive shop asked me to pass the phone to a Thai so she could establish my location. I did, got the phone back, and was told I’d be at least another 45 minutes.
Carrying on, the little boy across the aisle was violently car-sick throughout the rest of the trip. Everyone smiled indulgently at the poor little guy, though my sympathy was nearing its limits as we approached our stop, him standing behind me in the crowded aisle, lurching wildly and clutching a small plastic bag as we rattled over the bumpy road. It was an exercise in seeing how far away I could stand without in fact moving my feet -- a flashback to the school dances of grade seven yesteryear.
I was deposited not at a central bus terminal but on the side of the highway in the bright sun somewhere in dusty, busy Pattaya, the beach still nowhere in sight. However, the ubiquitous moto drivers were. I’d brought a map showing the location of the dive shop, on which a colleague had helpfully written the address in Thai script. I was quoted a special farang price, hopped on the back, and deposited by the side of another road, dive shop nowhere in sight and directions written in Thai script notwithstanding. Resignedly, I adjusted my backpack and started trudging in the direction of the beach.
I found Aquanauts 20 minutes later on a narrow soi just off Beach Road. When it first opened, it apparently shared the soi with a number of small shops. These days it is lost in the clamour of go-go bars which, even at lunch hour, were open for business. Girls scampered about in skimpy dresses or less, smiling and waving at me as I passed, perhaps happy not to be calling out “Hey, sexy man!” for once.
I was the only student booked for the confined water segment, so only the instructors had been kept waiting. After filling in the necessary paperwork (“for the lawyers,” they explained), we drove to a pool at a nearby hotel. For the next four hours, after swimming many lengths of the pool and treading water for 10 minutes (that apparently was the “good news”. The bad news, I was told, was that I had to do it wearing a weight belt. Good thing I called bullshit. Dive instructors, it would seem, have a funny sense of humour.) I learned to assemble and disassemble my gear, communicate underwater, establish neutral buoyancy, clear my mask and snorkel, descend and ascend safely and, most frighteningly, deal with various exercises simulating running out of air. They actually turn your air tank off while you're underwater. Another tricky exercise involved taking my regulator out, depressing the purge button, and breathing the stream of air from the corner of my mouth as it filled with water. You do this if your air tank valves (?) fail and start spewing unregulated air, which would quickly expand and hurt your lungs.
Did I mention that I did all this while underwater?
I passed with flying colours, thanks to great teaching and attention from the instructor and an intern in the instructor program – a 2-to-1 ratio. Paul, the instructor, is from Zimbabwe, having recently returned to scuba after spending many years as a hot air balloon guide in the Serengeti. Intern Greg was from L.A., and is hoping to live in Thailand permanently and make a living as an instructor. I’m seriously starting to reconsider my career choices.
After we returned to the shop, Da arranged for me to be driven to the bus depot – the proper one this time. The driver even walked me up to the right window and told the ticket agent, in Thai, what bus I needed to be on, doing everything but leading me by my elbow. Perhaps they thought I needed a little mollycoddling. I am thankful for the mollycoddling.
I was back in BK and our condo by 10 pm. Which left just enough time for unpacking and repacking my daypack and a few hours’ sleep before getting up to go birdwatching at 3:30 in the rapidly approaching morning… more on that later.
Eh, dat’s de end, folks.