After Siem Reap, we boomeranged back to Thailand and went to Koh Tao with one main objective: to finish our scuba diving certification. It was a long trip from Siem Reap: we flew into Bangkok, rode a cramped bus through the night to the southern tip of Thailand and then boarded a nauseating high-speed catamaran for over an hour to reach the island. But we heard that Koh Tao is one of the best (and cheapest) places to learn diving so we thought the taxing journey was well worth it.
Well…things didn’t go quite as planned. We didn’t end up earning our diving certifications but instead gained a memorable (and at some points, scary) experience.
So what happened?
To sum it up in one word: flooding. Flooding. If you want to hear about it summed up in many words, then keep reading! If not, I’ll leave you with this photo:
We ended up getting caught in a crazy monsoon and the worst flooding the island had not seen in over a decade.
As our catamaran pulled into jerked into the dock that morning, it was raining hard. Our original plan was to start diving that day but given the heavy rain and exhaustion from our long journey, we decided to start the following morning instead.
The rain for the rest of the day was pretty sporadic- it would rain, stop and restart a few times but by no means was IT raining so hard to cause any kind of worry. That night, the rain picked up and it started to storm. I hazily remember hearing heavy rain pattering and thunder during my sleep.
Given that it was still storming when we woke the next day, I assumed that our diving training would be cancelled…nope. Like the mailman, divers go rain or shine. So we boarded our boats in the heavy rain, set up our gear and soon we were headed down for our dives. Overall, our dives went pretty well. There was a bit of a scare during our dive, which is another story for another time.
The rain continued to come down during both of our dives but we did not think much of it until we arrived back on shore. Over 10 of us climbed onto the back of the truck to drive from the dock back into town and as we progressed in the journey, we started to worry.
You see, much of the development in Koh Tao has been built where natural rivers would occur from the bottom of the mountain. During normal periods of rain, it would be fine because there would be enough dry time for the rain to get soaked up. But since it was basically raining non-stop for days, things were less than fine. Some streets were starting to look like rivers that just happened to have a ton of restaurants and stores on its sides.
We found ourselves riding through streets filled with rushing water. At this point, the water was up to the knees and we were amazed to see that motorcyclists were still trying to push through!
Our heavy truck (filled with dive gear and many divers) had a hard time navigating the flooded streets so we eventually had to get out and walk…barefoot. Which would was fine until we were told to watch out for broken glass from beer bottles.
The rain continued on through the night and water was rising at a rapid rate. What we woke up to was alarming.
The water level in the middle of town had gotten to be CHEST-DEEP. The run-off was also damaging a ton of buildings, including the bungalows that we were staying at.
We didn’t take a ton of photos and videos (no GoPro) but we did find a video that can give a better picture of what we experienced.
Here’s the video along with some time markers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tfOwHbHPMrg
- 1:33 – 1:44 – beach right in front of our bungalows. The first day we were there, the water was about 30 feet lower and turquoise green.
- 1:45 – 1:47 – this was a pool bar about 200 feet down the beach from us. Completely wiped away
- 1:52 – 1:54 – big crossroad in town with 7-11. Water was chest deep at highest level. The day we went scuba diving, we came back and the truck couldn’t pass this point.
Good news: scary as it was, Matt and I survived the flood but we were moved out of our bungalow into a “safer” bungalow since the ones directly across from us had its staircase ripped down.
Luckily, we had a suspicion that we may need to evacuate and had already packed and “rain-proofed” (AKA wrapped all our things in plastic bags) our packs that morning. Later on we had heard that a couple had been awoken in the middle of the night to evacuate and in haste to leave, left their luggage inside their bungalow…the same bungalow which had the staircase torn off later on.
Given all the crazy flooding, it was barely safe to walk around rushing water, let along drive down to the docks so the rest of our diving was cancelled. Which meant that we couldn’t complete our training for certification (but we only had two more training dives left!!) Even though that’s a bummer, we still had an unforgettable experience. Plus, we’ll finish our diving training soon in Africa. We might be the first people that will require continents to get certified since started in Seattle!
Our last worry was getting off the island, as many ferries were getting cancelled. When this level of flooding had happened over a decade ago, folks were stuck on the island for weeks until the Thai navy had to bring in a large vessel to take people off the island. On the morning of our planned departure, the ferry did end up getting cancelled but we were put onto the afternoon ferry (which meant we were chilling at the dock for over 5 hours) and pulled into Bangkok around 2:30 AM the next day. So we were able to get off Koh Tao island- but sans diving certifications!
*OK- I was probably being dramatic with the title of “almost getting stranded on an island.” But I couldn’t resist and I did say almost.