Updated: Jul 7, 2022
Diving in Maya Bay near Phi Phi Island had reignited my love for scuba diving, so I decided my next adventure after leaving Phuket would be a 4-night trip on a liveaboard dive boat. Lisa Walsh at Andy's Scuba Diving in Raiwai arranged for the trip on the Pawara with West Coast Divers. A liveaboard is a scuba vessel with sleeping quarters, a place to eat, a briefing area and of course a diving deck to prepare equipment. It it the best way to experience the remote dive sites in the Similan Islands.
The Similan Islands are a group of 11 islands off the coast of Southern Thailand in the Andaman Sea. They were designated as a National Marine Park in Thailand in 1982 and are only accessible by boat. The park is open mid-October to mid-May and closed for the rainy season the rest of the year. Some of the best dive sites in Thailand are located in the Similans including Richelieu Rock made famous by Jacques Cousteau. The Surin Islands are close neighbors to the north.
In late November 2021, I took a bus from Nai Harn to Khao Lak and boarded the MV Pawara. The Pawara is a custom built liveaboard dive boat that is 35 meters long and features 12 cabins. I had booked the budget cabin with a shared bathroom, but the boat was not full due to COVID, and so I was upgraded to a luxurious cabin with its own bathroom. After receiving a negative COVID test on the pier, I was escorted with 9 other guests and 4 dive instructors aboard the Pawara. Of course, I injured myself getting on the boat when I fell into a hook that left me with a big strawberry on my right butt cheek. We set sail that night.
Life on the Pawara was incredible! I woke up the first morning, walked up the steps from my cabin and was in awe of the turquoise ocean and surrounding islands. The staff was so friendly and inviting; including the cook, Ta, who provided 3 delicious meals and 3 snacks a day.
The daily schedule was as follows:
6am- Dive Instructor Eric rings the wake up bell
6:30am- light snacks
6:45am- safety briefing before the first dive
7:30am- Dive number 1
10:30am- Dive number 2
1:30pm- Dive number 3
2:30pm- "tea break" (ice cream)
5:30pm- Dive number 4 (followed by warm hot cocoa and hot towel right after the dive)
Pretty much sleep, eat, dive, repeat, for 4 days.
The people on the boat were awesome and we all got along really well! There was my dive partner, Theo from the Philippines, Alicia and Dillion from the US, Ralf the firefighter from Germany, JS and Aron from Malaysia, Robert and Ana from Sweden and Hadrian who is a physician from Switzerland, and kindly looked at my injured butt cheek to make sure it wasn't getting infected. Several people were getting their advanced dive certification and Theo was getting a nitrox cert. I'm pretty sure I was the only one who only had an open water certification and was shocked to learn the oldest diver on the boat at age 49! I found out later the captain was 53 so I guess not quite the oldest on the entire boat.
The dive staff were all topnotch; concerned with safety, but also a lot of fun. My dive instructor, Eric, was from France and quite the character. He was married to a Thai woman had this big D energy and was hilarious! Steve was a bit younger, tall and extremely good looking. He was Mr. Safety and a by the book kind of instructor, but so sweet. I crushed on him a bit. Phon was a Thai woman from Koh Lipe and just so funny and kind. I got to know her well when drinking beers after the last dive on the final day. There was also another French instructor who was moonlighting instructing the couple from Malaysia to their advanced certification.
The diving itself was a mixed experience for me. I had gotten my open water certification at age 21 as a PE credit my senior year in college, and had taken about 15 years off from diving prior to last May. I was renting all my equipment and struggled with mask fog and blisters on my toes from the fins. Dives on Day 1 included Hideaway right smack in the middle of islands 4 and 5, Deep Six AKA "The Living Room" with a swim through to boulders that formed a large circle, West of Eden and finally, Monument Bay for the evening dive. I had never gone diving in the dark or used a torch and it was really awesome surfacing as the sun set.
Day 2 started off at Elephant Head Rock where I saw a shark. We then took a break and went on a dingy to the shore and explored the most beautiful area on Ao Kuerk Bucht (Donald Duck Bay) beach. The water was the most stunning color of turquoise I had only ever seen in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, there was a lot of trash on the beach. Hadrien and I spent a while picking up lots of cans, plastic and even a toothbrush! How the stuff got there hurts my heart as the island was pretty abandoned with only a small resort that was closed due to COVID.
The group decided to take the hike to Sail Rock on the island. It was about a 10-minute steep walk through the jungle to a viewpoint. Words can't describe how spectacular the view was. The sea was the most amazing hues of blue and green. We boarded the dingy back to the Pawara with full hearts.
Dives 2 and 3 that day were not as relaxing. Dive 2 was Christmas Point, and the current was strong. Visibility was poor and getting on and off the boat was terrifying with huge waves crashing over the deck, and tanks and gear flying around. I was second guessing if I should do Dive 3, which was a site nearby called Breakfast Blend. I sucked it up and was equally as terrified as I had been on Dive 2. The seas were incredibly rough, and visibility was terrible with my mask fogging. I was exhausted after that dive and almost skipped Dive 4, but I knew I didn't come to quit, so forced myself to go despite my fear. The last dive of the day was an amazing sunset dive at Koh Bon. The coral was spectacular, and I saw a lobster.
We sailed overnight to the Surin Islands and awoke to the first dive of the day at Ao Pak. The current was calm, and the coral was beautiful. Dive 2 that day was the famous Richelieu Rock and wow. Just wow. Unfortunately, the visibility was not great but with my torch I was able to experience an underwater paradise. The macro marine life at this site was breath taking. Dives 3 and 4 were at Tachi Pinnacle which is a dive masters choice.
The weather in the Surin's had turned really rough with rains and high wind. Remarkably, the current was much calmer in this area. The last day we dove Tachi Pinnacle again in the morning, and then headed south for the last dive at Koh Bon. The seas were crazy huge, and I was sure we were going to capsize several times. Lunch was delayed for a few hours and I was thrown from a seat in the dining area from the waves. Another dive boat bite! We pulled in to Khao Lak later that evening and said our see you next times.
Before my voyage, I was told that a liveaboard experience in the Similans is life changing. It took me about 14 dives to completely shut down my monkey mind and just be. Diving is a lot like life and I started to see it from a Buddhist perspective. There will be ups and downs and suffering comes from attachment. We often compare the present moment to one in the past (my dives last May in Roatan), have restlessness worrying about the future (what's the next dive going to be like and is my mask going to fog), or get too attached to something amazing and lose the moment (wow this sandy beach is amazing and I wish I could stay here all day). There is also dukkha or doubt that presents as imposter syndrome (I really suck as scuba and I have no business being an almost 50 year old woman having this amazing experience). And all of these are just thoughts and feelings, and come and go like waves crashing on a beach or the ocean current. When I could finally shut my mind off and just observed these thoughts and feelings, I realized they are temporary and always changing. The only constant in life is change and one can run to the other side of the world to try and escape it, but it's really all we have. I thoroughly enjoyed my time on the Pawara, but it was time to move on to Railay.