Hot! Ao Phai Bay, Ko Samet

Koh Samet

Koh Samet

The author, a Bangkok expat, goes night diving in Ko Phai Bay, Ko Samet. In this article, he describes his experience night diving, as well as his general impressions of Ko Samet.

One of our dogs, Moo, is dying. We have four dogs in our yard, and Moo is the oldest, a kind of gentle patriarch of the clan. He is half Labrador and half Thai dog, which means he has short bristly black fur and a bony head. But Moo is not dying of old age, however, he is dying from heart worms, that are slowly cutting off his blood supply. In the past week, I have seen him go from a muscular healthy animal to a walking skeleton.

My brother in law, Bu, takes care of the dogs and he doesn’t want to take Moo to the veterinarian, because he believes that the vet will not cure him but only make him suffer more in his last few days. We already went through this when Moo’s father Mork died of the same thing a few years ago.

It was Saturday morning and I could have stayed in Bangkok, and caught up with some paperwork, but I felt I had to escape. The gray concrete and diesel fumes of Bangkok reflected the bleakness of my mood.

I hadn’t been to Ko Samet for many years. I could of course go to Pattaya, which was closer, but I wanted a more natural setting. Pattaya was a place that fueled your passions and I wanted the opposite, a place to subdue my passions, and gain peace of mind. Ko Phangan or Ko Tao were options, but they were too far and too expensive for a 2-day weekend. I surveyed the diving equipment that I bought last year. Finally, I would put the equipment to good use…

In my previous life, before Thailand, I lived in Hawaii, on the island of Oahu, and was an avid free-diver. I used to go out mainly at night, and I used to catch live exotic fish and sell them to the wholesaler, who would in turn export them throughout the world.

I did it for a few years and learned to make and modify my own equipment and nets and I learned the habits of various fish and how to identify valuable breeds. Although I made money doing this, I never made enough to pay my expenses, both in terms of my equipment and the massive expense of energy that was involved.

Most of the fish I caught probably wouldn’t even last more than a year in captivity. Marine aquarium fish, unlike fresh water aquarium fish, are very difficult to raise and nearly impossible to breed. Some would die in transport. Others would make it to the retail store and be sold to an aquarium owner, but many of the aquarium owners wouldn’t be able to sustain the proper salt water environment that would allow the fish to live and thrive.

I sometimes wondered what type of karmic debt I had incurred by stealing so many fish away from their environment and indirectly leading thousands to their deaths. I hadn’t done a night dive in years, but I would start again in Ko Samet. This time, however, I wouldn’t catch any fish, I would just visit them and say hello.

I had been to Ko Samet before, but got turned off by the island because of the distance and the long travel time. When I went a few years ago, I clocked it at about 5 and 1/2 hours from Bangkok each way. This was just not worth it for one weekend. However, as is often the case, there was an easier way that I didn’t know about back then.

What I was doing wrong was taking the slow ferry from Ban Phe to the main port of Samet and then taking a songthaew (taxi) to the beach. The new method I would try this trip was to take a speedboat from Ban Phe that dropped me directly off at the beach. I could cut an hour and a half off the traveling time. The speed boat costs about 1,000 to 1,5000 baht each way (Maybe you can work out a better deal than I did). You also avoid all the ugliness that surrounds the main Ko Samet port, and we’re talking packs of mangy dogs, litter and dilapidated buildings.

I went to Ao Pai beach, mainly for convenience. It has a lot of activities, restaurants and bungalows. There were other beaches that, if I was with my wife, I would have preferred. Two beaches down is Ao Nuang, which is reachable only by foot; it is secluded and full of natural beauty. I will save that beach for the next time.

Ko Samet has beautiful beaches, and the feeling is something in between a Thai resort town in Cha-Am and a foreign oriented resort like those in Ko Samui. There are a lot of families, Thai and foreign, and a lot of young Thais and foreigners spending the weekend. There are no big resorts or hotels, only small home-spun affairs. The island is technically a national park, so perhaps that is what is keeping development down.

The reason I prefer diving at night to diving during the day is that at night, the feeling is more mysterious, dangerous; it is like entering another world.

The ideal time for a night dive is the middle of the night. If you go too soon after it gets dark, you arrive in a transition period, the day-time fish are already hibernating and the nocturnal fish haven’t woken yet. You want to go when the night-time fish are out and active, which is deep into the night.

For this dive, however, I was just experimenting, so I planned the dive for 8.00 pm and I had the afternoon to kill. I got a massage on the beach and took in the scenery. The topography of Ko Samet is different from that of the Southern islands, such as Samui. The forest area is more woodsy and there are few if any palm trees. This doesn’t detract, however, from the beauty of the white sandy beach. The beach itself is rocky, with smooth, lava like rocks creating a smooth shore line, which is different from the protruding cliffs in the South.

The people working on Samet seem to be mainly local island people; Thais from Bangkok and the Central region, and as everywhere else, there were also migrants form the Northeast. Unlike the Southern Thais, most people here spoke Central Thai, same as they do in Bangkok. Things seemed a little more genuine and friendly and less commercial than Ko Samui.

I rested before diving and then proceeded out to the beach a couple of hours after it became dark. My equipment, snorkel and mask, flippers, night light – I kept in a canvas back str I had to walk through some beach-front restaurants to reach the shoreline. People were dining on seafood under candlelight and the beach was decorated with lanterns and sand sculptures.

Walking between the restaurant tables in only my shorts and my satchel of diving equipment, the kid in me felt like an Apache Indian carrying a bow and tether of arrows, going to battle. I sucked in my stomach and checked if anyone was checking me out. No one was. Perhaps I looked too much like a psycho and people were avoiding eye contact. After all, if I were sane, I would be taking it easy and enjoying a good meal like everyone else.

In Hawaii I had developed a sort of ritual before I would go into the water. I surveyed the sky and the ocean and considered its vastness, its timelessness. I then considered the cycle of birth and death and how transient and insignificant all living beings, including myself, were. Going alone, into the ocean at night, was a little risky. It was dark and I was alone. There are things that bite and sting in the ocean and currents can be unpredictable. But it is that very fear and risk that made the whole endeavor worthwhile. Feeling the possibility of death had a way of cutting through all the petty crap that polluted my thoughts and put things back in perspective.

The reef on Ao Phai Bay is fairly shallow and similar to reefs in Hawaii. On the right side, swimming out, there is a cliff that separates Ao Phutsa beach from Ao Phai beach. Around this bend, there are a number of cliffs and rocks that have, I discovered, abundant fish life. Unfortunately, the middle of Ao Phai bay is to be avoided as it is filled with litter such as bottles, old tires and plastic bags.

I didn’t know what to expect, if there would be any fish at all. So I was surprised to see a small healthy looking porcupine puffer fish a few meters out. This kind of puffer is my favorite because it resembles a small mammal. Most people are familiar with this fish when it is blown up in a ball and has protruding spikes like a porcupine. Sometimes morbid shellacked corpses of this fish are sold in souvenir shops.

However, when they are not in a state of panic, these fish have an oblong stout body and spots like a leopard. The spikes flush against the skin and resemble fur. Further adding to the mammalian appearance are the huge soulful eyes.

When you night dive, the farther you go out onto the reef and into the open ocean the better the scenery gets. Further on, I discovered two giant porcupine puffers, each over 20 kilos. In the underground caves beneath the cliff separating Ao Phutsa and Ao Phai, there were a number of moray eels. Additionally, there were quite a number of tangs with mottled brown and white skin; Something I hadn’t seen in Hawaii.

The best sighting of the night was some sort of manta ray. I had encountered a number of stingrays in Hawaii, but this was different. In Hawaii, what I saw were black and had the body shape of a stealth fighter airplane. This one had the same shape but was fluorescent green and more beautiful. It glided between the rocks like a hover craft. Its ominous shape made me wonder if it would turn back on me and attack. But like the puffer fish, it apparently considered me rather benign and let me gaze at it.

If I had brought my nets, I probably could have hauled in about 100 dollars worth of fish during this dive. However, I was happy not to be catching any fish. After all, these fish never harmed me. In fact they made me happy. So why not let them be free and happy?

Arriving back to shore and I walked again, dripping wet, through the restaurants. Business in Samet was obviously good. Each restaurant was packed to capacity. Another difference between other resorts and Ko Samet is that you don’t have many indoor restaurants – no Italian restaurants or fancy sit-down places. Everything is bamboo and beach style. So, the best meal of the day is when the beachside seafood barbecues open at night. Lanterns and sand sculptures are displayed in creative designs all over the beach, creating a setting that is both festive and romantic.

I was staying at Ao Phai huts, which has fairly rustic wooden bungalows set up on the hill overlooking the beach. As night lingered on, I listened to the birds and crickets and other animals making love calls, protesting, fighting. It was like a symphony of clicks, whistles and coos. As I drifted into a deep slumber, I wondered whether Moo, our sick dog, would still be alive when I returned home the next day.