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This is part 4 of our series on Thailand. Click here for part 1, part 2, and part 3.
Weird thoughts race through your head when you’re 6 feet under…
Under water, that is.
“Why the HELL did I sign up for this?”
“Oh God, is that my life flashing before my eyes?”
“Screw you! I don’t want to die!” while clawing at the instructors face as he’s trying to flood your mask.
I read about all these experiences and more before signing up for the Open Water Diver certification. Apparently, unless you are a strong swimmer (I’m not), most people bail the course during the underwater mask-flooding exercise. Once they panic and shoot to the surface, spluttering and coughing, that’s pretty much it for them. If you can’t pass the test at 6 feet, you sure as hell aren’t going to pass it at 18 meters in the middle of the ocean. That was the biggest thing preventing me from signing up. I hummed and hawed for hours, while my brain continuously taunted me with thoughts like, “hey, you LOVE drowning! Remember that time you almost drowned as a kid? Time to bring back those fond memories!”
But I signed up anyway.
I guess that’s one of the pros/cons of retiring early. You can’t use the old “oh I have to work” or “I’ll do it when I have time” trick. You just have to shut up and do it.
It also helped that the 4-day Scuba course with Easy Divers only cost $324.78CAD/$249.82USD per person, including accommodations! Which makes Koh Tao, Thailand, one of the cheapest places in the world to get certified. So even if I failed, I could do the course again and it will still cost less than certifying in Toronto.
And because I was so nervous about diving without my mask on, we decided to stay in Koh Samui for 3 days before heading to Koh Tao, to check out the beaches and to practice putting my head under water. Even though initially, I was scared and looked like a drowning squirrel, after lots and lots of practice, I was finally able to do it.
So walking into the Easy Divers classroom, I was feeling fairly confident, albeit still nervous.
We started by watching a video, which gave us some background on the Scuba equipment, as well as what positive, negative, and neutral buoyancy meant.
Our instructor, Patrick, told us that over 4 days, our schedule would look like this:
Between course work and 4 open water dives, we would practice scuba skills and be tested on each one.
Even though I had a swim test coming up (you have to be able to swim 200 meters without floatation devices before starting the Open Water dives) and I was panicky about having to swim for 15 meters without my mask, our German instructor, Patrick, had this uncanny way of making us feel relaxed.
Every time he asked a question, he would say something like:
“What do you reckon, Kristy?”
And after I answered, he would follow it up with:
“Good answer!” and give me a spirited high-five as a confidence boost.
It also helped that Easy Divers kept their class size small—4 students to 1 instructor, which meant lots of time to practice one-on-one.
PROTIP: If you end up signing up for the PADI Open Water course, pick the 4 days course instead of the 3 days course. That way you won’t feel rushed trying to learn everything at once. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the 33 tests you need to pass from the “Alas & Boots” blog. I know it sounds overwhelming but when you actually do it, it’s easier than it seems.
I’m pretty relieved that I picked the 4 days course, because instead of jumping into the swim test right away, we just chilled in our hotel room the first day :
The next day, I tried to forget about how far 200 meters was, and instead focus on the perfectly blue sky and soothing waves lapping against our boat as we headed for our first dive spot:
After dropping anchor, we were told to get in the water and swim 3 laps around the boat, which was the equivalent of 200 meters.
I was able to do it, albeit VERY slowly. Everyone else got back to the boat in record time. Turns out I was the weakest swimmer in the whole group. *Gulp*
The voices in my head kept telling me I was destined to fail, but I ignored them, instead focusing on assembling my diving equipment. My hands were shaking so hard I had trouble closing my oxygen tank strap.
Which is probably why, during Patrick’s debriefing, you can see everyone else looking super chill, while I looked like I was praying for death:
But there was no time for panicking. I had to check Wanderer’s equipment and make sure everything was hunky-dory and that we didn’t make any idiotic life-threatening mistakes:
After we did our buddy checks, I walked to the edge of the boat, took a deep shaky breath, squeeze my eyes shut…
I expected to immediate start hyperventilating as soon as I hit the water, but shockingly what didn’t happen. Instead, I felt myself plunging into the deep, then float back up.
I’m not sure what happened. Water, once my biggest arch nemesis, now surrounded me on all sides, but instead of panic and fear, I felt…calm. Blissful even.
Being underwater was like being on a whole new planet. Everything you know fades away and is replaced by things you never see on land, like this:
You feel weightlessness, like you’re flying. And before you know it, all your cares just float away.
And because I was so relaxed, I ended up passing the mask-flooding test AND the swimming without mask tests with no help what-so-ever! Which was good, because Wanderer had to closed his eyes to prevent his contacts from floating away, so he had to rely on my sight to swim the 15 meters.
So as it turns out, not only did I NOT fail the mask test, I actually *gasp* ENJOYED swimming without my mask! In fact I like it so much, I decided I might just swim without my mask, for fun.
From that point on, we passed all our open water dives, and with the exception of one very silly snafu, my incompetence with unscrewing my low pressure inflator, the rest of the course was easy peasy.
And so, on day 4 on Koh Tao, Thailand, I accomplished my dream of becoming a certified diver, thus conquering my fear of water forever.
Now, instead of sitting on the shore, glaring suspiciously at the water while everyone else splashed away happily, I can now be amongst them, exploring new underwater worlds.
So even though I was terrified at the beginning, this whole experience left me with a very important lesson:
Do one thing that scares you. Even if you think you’re going to fail. Because in the end, even if you do fail, the feeling of failure is short-lived whereas the feeling of regret is forever. Conquer your fears and it will change you for the better. Trust me, you won’t regret it.
That’s it! When I started talking about Thailand, I didn’t expect this thing to turn into a entire novel. Which, if I think about it, is kind of like our actual experience with Thailand. We didn’t expect to stay for so long, meet so many amazing people, break so many stereotypes (Thailand is dangerous, a “third-world country”, no one speaks English there, etc), and even conquer my biggest fear. And we definitely didn’t expect Thailand to be our favourite place in the whole world.
I guess that’s the best thing about travel. It opens your eyes up in ways you never thought possible. That’s why, if you’ve never considered traveling to Thailand before, give it a try. You must just end up conquering your biggest fear too.
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33 thoughts on “Let’s Go Exploring! The Land of a Thousand Smiles Part 4 (The last one I promise)”
Beautiful post FireCracker! Diving truly is about the closest we can get to visiting another world!
I *wish* I had the opportunity to get my certification in a nice warm place like Thailand. Instead I learned in the frigid waters off Alaska. That sh*t is really cold.
Surprisingly, I took to it like a fish to water… 🙂
Alaska! Why? I heard somewhere that you’re really hardcore if you can pass the PADI in cold waters. Apparently, when it’s cold your lungs constrict, causing you to panic underwater.
So if you can get through that, hats off to you! Diving in Thailand would be way too easy.
Welcome to the club! I got OW certified in Koh Tao in 2012, got my Advanced certification in 2013 and now every trip we go on centers around scuba diving. I figure it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being an astronaut floating around in space – I love the freedom of 360 movement and all the amazing things you can see under water. Conquering fears is the best. I look forward to seeing more dive stories! If you’re looking for dive destination ideas, check out Amed in Bali – great diving (Japanese war plane wreck diving!) and a nice chill little fishing town.
Ooh! Wreck diving sounds like fun! I’ll put Bali on the list.
I’m also thinking of getting my Advanced cert the next time we’re in Koh Tao. Which 2 specialties did you end up picking? I’m thinking of picking buoyancy and underwater photography…the first time we went diving after getting the cert was in Cambodia and I almost kicked the dive master in the head, so buoyancy is a must.
Very cool. I am by no means a water person. Something about no knowing what’s below kind of freaks me out. That said, the open water diving class looks kind of fun. Scary and exciting at the same time. That is, until a shark comes rolling up.
I wasn’t a water person either. Couldn’t even swim until I was 28. But now I love water.
As for sharks, there are actual dives you can do with whales sharks. Sharks don’t actually scare me as much as squid. Especially the ones with the soccer ball sized eyes. *shudder*. Good thing those are so deep it’s very unlikely I’ll ever run into one.
Nice post. This goes to show that if one try it, there is a chance of success. Even if it ends up in a failure, it is not considered a total “failure”, given the attempt has been made and experience has been gained along the way. If one don’t try at all, it will be a total failure.
Well-said. As J.K.Rowling once said: ““It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”
Fail hard and fail often. That’s how you succeed.
Another great post! Always LOVE your travel articles – it’s almost like traveling without actually having to travel (I’m slowly working up to be a more adventurous person lol).
Thanks! Took me a while to become adventurous. Used to be terrified of everything: water, flying, heights…but over time I’ve learned that things are a lot scarier in your head than in real life.
“Do one thing that scares you. Even if you think you’re going to fail. Because in the end, even if you do fail, the feeling of failure is short-lived whereas the feeling of regret is forever.”
wow, now that is an awesome nugget of life skill/knowledge. so true.
Took a while for that lesson to sink it, but now I apply it to everything and it’s paid off immensely.
Amazing, so proud of you and your honesty and the terror of it makes you so relatable ? I tried this at a resort in Jamaica, and screamed as the instructor pushed my head under water, then he said in a Jamaican accent, “so you’re going to get wet” then it was just funny. Loved the dive after that, and the peace and reverence at 20 feet. It was a beginner dive, I am not certified. Sadly I am prone to ear infections and got one and had to have ears flushed and antibiotics, so not sure I will try again. Some of the more macho dudes taking the training with me could not do the ocean dive, so I was very proud of my pansy self ?
“So you’re going to get wet”. Ha ha. Love it! When I first learned how to swim at the YMCA, I was panicking as I swam into the deep end, and the instructor was like “see? You totally didn’t die that time. And I thought you were a goner.” It helps when other people show us how ridiculous we are being 🙂 Takes the edge off.
Sucks about the ear infections 🙁 We had one guy who had trouble equalizing his ears, so took him a long time to get to the bottom. I can see why that would be challenging.
Good work kicking ass at the ocean dive! No matter how macho you are, you can’t fight drowning with macho-ness.
My “fish fever” (as we call it) just perked up reading this article! I alway have this feeling when I am diving, that I am dreaming. That I am in another world and not logistically supposed to be there. It is so surreal and magical! Time to start planning where to dive next…
“fish fever.” I like that. One of these days I need to muster the courage to swim with whale sharks. Then I’ll be having “shark fever’.
I SOOOO want to do that! Only swam with reef sharks and hammerheads so far. You summon up your inner whale shark strength and we’ll meet to do this together!
It’s so amazing that you did this! You mentioned that you were going to learn how to dive and that it would be huge for you because you are terrified of water.
Like you, I am also terrified of water especially after having a near drowning experience in the ocean when I was 11 years old. I recently started getting interesting in sailing and exploring living on a sail boat during post FI life. But my fear of water could seriously hinder that interest. So, I started taking swimming lessons in preparation. I also plan on becoming PADI certified since I see so many people enjoy diving as part of travel.
It’s pretty cool to see you go from being terrified of water to being PADI certified. It’s like you’re helping me prep for my future. Thanks so much for sharing and see you at Chautauqua in the UK!
I feel ya, Brandon. My fear from water also came from a near-drowning when I was a kid. So I can understand your apprehension. That said, I’m very happy that you started taking swimming lessons. That was the point where I decided to stop hating water and push past the fear.
I hope you do eventually go for your PADI. It’s an amazing feeling! And once you do it, you won’t ever be afraid of water again.
Looking forward to meeting you at Chautauqua! It’s going to be a blast 🙂
While it has been decades since my last dive, I still remember every time I rolled off the boat and under the water, my primal brain would start screaming:
“Don’t breathe! It has been millions of years since we left the ocean. We don’t breathe under water anymore. Don’t breathe!!”
And my very newly evolved conscious brain would say, “No, no. It’s OK. See we have this tank and regulator and now we can breathe under water just fine. Inhale…”
PB: “No bloody way! we have lungs now not gills. Don’t breathe or we’ll DIE!”
CB: “No really. With this equipment…”
PB: “Ha. What do you know? You just evolved. I’ve been here since the beginning.”
And on until I forced myself to take that first inhalation….
PB: “Hmmm. Well maybe. Just this once….”
That was my PB too, but my thrifty brain kept screaming “we paid for this air dammit! Use it or lose it!”
I breathed the HELL out of that compressed air. *pats self on back*
I LOVE diving! It’s like being in a totally different world and is a completely different experience than swimming or snorkeling.
Awesome to see you overcome the fears to go through with it!
Thanks! And yeah, nothing beats the experience of diving. Snorkelling doesn’t even come close.
Money: It’s good to have, but you better stay humble when the $ gUaP $ starts coming in. You can’t take it with you to the grave. Chips stacked today can be a can of beans tomorrow and YOU replaced by someone else. Give back and help others when your cash flow starts getting nice. That’s true transformation of the heart.
What a great story. And all the comments have encouraged me to go take swimming lessons. I can swim, but am not all that comfortable in water, so need lots more time in it. I’ve done lots of big white water rafting, no problem, but even snorkeling can sometimes push me. Still I feel so called to water that I often dream of it, of being pulled to it in all forms, so I’m encouraged to take on that fear.
I always enjoy your writing- thanks!
Yes, take on that fear! The more comfortable with water you get the more adventures you will have. You won’t regret it 🙂
Ah, thank you for this… you totally brought me back. I did my rescue diver certification on Koh Tao in the late 1990s (after doing my Open and Advanced in Northern Ontario – what a change!!!). One of the tests was to jump from the boat to rescue another diver that had sunk to the bottom… I was in the middle of lunch when I was told I had to go so I went… only to realize that I had forgotten my weight belt. It took every muscle in me to swim to the bottom, retrieve the other diver and return to the surface in control. Luckily, no one noticed I was beltless!
Wow. That is pretty bad-ass, I gotta say. No way I would’ve been able to do that.
I’m guessing that after you do your certs in Northern Ontario, diving the warm waters of Thailand must be a piece of cake! One of my friends did her Open Water in Toronto, and when they pulled her out, her lips were blue. Yikes!
LOL, yes, your lips get blue most of the time when diving in Ontario. And in most Ontario lakes, you have to keep your arm extended in front of you in case you hit something (generally a tire), as visibility sucks! That’s why it’s best to start with diving here, before going tropical, otherwise, you’ll never get to experience the thermocline… hey, another one for your bucket list??? 😉
P.S. In Lake Ramsey (Sudbury), you can take part in an underwater pumpkin carving context in late October. Hypothermia included!
Ooh! Hypothermia included? How can I possible say no to that? 😉
Seems strange to hear this perspective. Being Australian its nice and close so have been about 4 times now and has always been popular for Australians. Suppose it would be a bit different living further away.