Thursday, 21 March 2013

Koh Rong - Liveaboards and Diving

Our home for 4 nights altogether
It was with some regret that we left the peaceful seclusion of Koh Rong Samloen and Robinson Bungalows but we were looking forward with excitement to our Liveaboard trip arranged through The Dive Shop.  Paul was also going to do his PADI Advanced Open Water course during the trip and I was assured there would be plenty to occupy and entertain me as a snorkeller.

For anyone who doesn’t know, and forgive me for stating the obvious, but a Liveaboard diving trip where you live on board a boat for 2 days stopping off along the way at various sites.  The main incentive for shelling out for one of these trips is that you are able reach dive sites and coral reef that you wouldn't be able to on a single day.  You spend a lot of time cruising from one area to another but you get to visit some rarely visited and spectacular spots and when we went we saw no-else but the fish. 

What we were embarking on (excuse the pun) was a 3 day/2 night trip around some of the best diving and snorkelling spots which were some distance from the south coast of Cambodia.  There are many islands off the coast, many are uninhabited (and presumably uninhabitable) and lots of good diving remains undiscovered.

The dining area on board
The guys who run The Dive Shop spend a lot of their time trying to discover new and interesting places to dive and snorkel.  Much of the area remains unexplored which is why Cambodia, as yet, doesn't have a particularly good reputation for diving but from what we saw, this is likely to change in the future.

The plan was to visit coral reef (including some virgin reef) near the uninhabited islands of Koh Tang, Koh Prinz and Koh Pulaweii.  As these dive sites remain relatively unknown and not particularly accessible they are also quiet so fewer people visit and you snorkel and dive in complete privacy.  This is apparently not the case in places like Thailand where the diving is said to be spectacular but we are told it can get a bit busy.

Paul, Pablo and Peter
Pablo, who was Argentinian, was to be our on board cook and Paul had asked if Peter (the Croatian, his original instructor) could accompany us to take him through the Advanced Open Water course.  He knew Peter quite well by this time, felt confident with him and as Peter had never been on a Liveaboard trip he was keen to join us.

Apart from us the two Cambodian boat crew, the only other person on board was Stefan who was also a snorkeller.  When Pablo wasn't cooking or preparing food he was able to join Paul and Peter diving or fit in a bit of snorkelling or just messing about in the sea.  It wasn't a bad job really and we didn't hear him complain once!

The sun deck
The boat was simple but comfortable.  Downstairs was the eating and cooking area (from where Pablo conjured up some culinary delights with minimal facilities), and the shower and toilet were near the front (very basic and obviously one of the first rules explained to you is that it is good manners never to flush when the divers/snorkellers are anywhere near the front of the boat). 

There was further seating behind the cooking area along the side of the boat and beyond that space for the dive gear, the scuba tank compressor (which was incredibly noisy but thankfully rarely used because they came equipped with almost enough tanks with sufficient air for the duration).  At the rear of the boat was a ladder where you could descend into the sea gracefully or you could dive or throw yourself off through a gap on the side for a snorkel or swim whenever the whim took you but obviously it was only sensible to do so when the boat was anchored unless you wanted to be left behind.

Sleeping quarters
Upstairs was divided into a sun deck area, furnished with comfortable wicker sofas and a chair and beyond that were the simple sleeping quarters which were covered on three sides and where Pablo, Peter, Stefan, Paul and I all slept on mattresses under light blankets.  The crew slept in hammocks on the lower deck and to be fair spent a lot of time in them when we were anchored (unless they were fishing). 

We set off in the afternoon and had a delicious dinner on board expertly cooked by Pablo.  After dinner and a few beers, when night had well and truly fallen, we all retired quite early as we had an early start the following morning.  The first night we were just intent on getting to our first destination, Koh Prinz, I think the furthest point from where we would slowly head back stopping along the way at the other dive spots.

First stop, Koh Prinz
We travelled none stop for about 6 hours before the boat anchored at about 1.00am, by which time we had long since gone to sleep.  The boat’s engine wasn’t particularly noisy, particularly on the top deck, and it was really quite soothing to fall asleep while we were still riding the gentle waves.

When we awoke the following morning at about 6.30am after an amazing night’s sleep, Pablo, Peter and Stefan were already up so we quickly headed to the lower deck. 

The plan was to dive straight away and then immediately everyone was safely out of the water and back on board we would head off to the next spot which was coral reef off the coast of larger island, Koh Tang.  This would also take a few hours during which time we would have breakfast and just relax until we anchored again.

Sunset from the boat
On the first morning, once we were all up no time was wasted,  It was a beautiful day and as it was early and we had the benefit of a sea breeze, it didn't seem so hot.  Paul and Peter geared up and off they went.  Stefan and I went off snorkelling although he was clearly much more confident and swam much further afield, right up to the coast of Koh Prinz.  I stayed fairly close to the boat but even without going too far from the boat the snorkelling was just amazing with incredible visibility of about 12 metres.   Although the waters were deep near the boat they were also crystal clear and I could easily scan the sea floor.  This meant that I could see almost as much as the divers just by skimming the surface.  Obviously, when you are diving you can get up close and personal with everything which lingers along the ocean floor trying to hide amongst the rocks and coral, and generally the larger stuff (which most divers like to seek out) loiters further below but for me it was the best snorkelling so far. 

The fish you could see from the boat without
having to get wet
I saw hundreds of species of fish of all shapes, sizes and colours, some swimming on their own coming up to have a look at me, some swimming in small groups or huge schools so that you end up swimming through them.  Lots seem to stop to have a look as they pass by, decide you aren’t really that interesting and carry on.  It really is a different world under the surface and for me, a completely new experience which I simply loved.  I just had to concentrate on building up my confidence, forget about Jaws, and try and venture a little further afield.

When we reached our next stop of Koh Tang it was more of the same.  We anchored for a while, had a bit of lunch, went out again and then headed off somewhere else.  It's hard remember our schedule exactly but it was pretty much an enjoyable mix of swimming, snorkelling, eating, and then in the evening (after the night dives) a few beers before bed.

The second Liveaboard crew
Each night the boys went diving with torches and Stefan and I also ventured into the water with our snorkels and masks to see the phosphorescence.  

I think I managed to stay in the water for about 5 minutes which, believe me, was a major achievement.  In fact, it was a minor miracle that I climbed in the black water at all with my irrational fear that something rather large just beneath the surface is eyeing me up for dinner.  However, snorkelling you couldn’t really see as much as the divers who obviously go deeper to see fish which are still up and about late in the day.

On the second day we headed off for our last destination of Koh Palu Wai.  I continued to see hundreds of fish, different ones every time and found the sheer volume and diversity astonishing.  There are so many of different shape, size, colour and behaviour.  I started to recognise certain species but every time I went out I saw something different.

Eric and Paul entertaining us on my birthday
Paul loved all his dives apart from the last one which was a little disappointing (actually the term he used was simply "crap" because he didn't see much and I think the coral was still recovering from dynamite fishing in the past) but otherwise we were absolutely delighted with our trip.  We were incredibly lucky with the visibility in most places we went to and while diving Paul saw lots of different, larger specimens, and his enthusiasm for his new activity was growing with each dive.

The food on board was fantastic, the company was excellent, and Paul completed his PADI Advanced Open Water course.  However, he did find the trip quite tiring as although you don’t have to complete a written assessment with the Advanced Open Water course, you do have to complete certain specialties (such as drift diving, buoyancy, night diving and a choice of two other skills from a list which I can't remember but one of them is underwater photography).  This means that until you have sufficiently mastered those specialties to the satisfaction of your dive instructor, any remaining time below surface is limited so if you see something interesting you can’t just go off in pursuit of it as you would on a normal fun dive.  Certainly that's what Paul likes to do.  He sees something large out of the corner of his mask and off he goes.

The last spot before heading back to shore
It was for this reason that when we our Liveaboard trip ended, after a short discussion which lasted about 1 minute (maybe 2 minutes in order to justify to each other the cost) we decided that if The Dive Shop was organising another trip in the next couple of days, we would sign up for it and go along again.  We really loved it that much.  The route would be the same but that didn’t matter.  You always see something different under the surface and it was really good diving and snorkelling so unlikely to disappoint.  We doubted we would be in this part of the world again and we just felt that 2 nights wasn’t long enough! 

So after our first Liveaboard we booked into the Beach Road Hotel opposite The Dive Shop, spent a couple of days lazing by the hotel pool, enjoying being away from the madding drunken crowds at Serendipity Beach, until it was time for us to join a second Liveaboard trip, this time with Eric from The Dive Shop (a German) who was to be our cook on this occasion, and Peter accompanied us again as the dive master.

This time we were also joined by an English girl, Sarah and another German (who name escapes me) who were both divers.

The divers messing about in the water
The first night of the second Liveaboard was also my birthday (another justification for the expense) and Paul had managed to procure some champagne without my knowledge which he produced at dinner the first night on board.  We had quite a little party and Eric and Paul entertained us with some dancing.  It was a birthday I won’t forget in a hurry (although I am trying to forget that I am now 48 years old!).

The second trip was just as enjoyable as the first.  Paul enjoyed it more because all his dives were for fun and he was able to explore a little more without having to concentrate on specific skills.  I was the only snorkeller but everyone had a go from time to time, and my confidence was growing in the water.

The marine life entertained as much, we still saw more varieties of fish that we hadn’t seen before, Paul saw the larger inhabitants such as barracuda (which frankly look a bit fierce to me and my memory serves me correctly, they were the bad guys in Finding Nemo) but certainly we can both understand how this turns into an obsession.  The life below the waves is so different, so diverse and colourful, there always seems to be more to discover, and exchanging stories with other divers just makes Paul want to witness all the amazing things that they have.  Divers all have their own stories of swimming with sharks (the non-human-eating variety allegedly), dolphins, massive manta rays, turtles;  the list just goes on and on.

Another spectacular sunset
Although fairly expensive, we didn’t regret the two trips for a second.  We couldn’t recommend The Dive Shop highly enough and the Liveaboard trips were an adventure, the company was great, the food amazing considering the rudimentary facilities available and although it is not a trip for everyone (facilities are fairly basic) it was an experience we definitely want to repeat.  The weather was amazing and the sea breeze cooled you down when you were moving, or when you were anchored you simply launched yourself in to cool off.  And the sunrises and sunsets were beautiful out at sea.  It was a fantastic way to spend a few days.

We were about to leave Cambodia for Bangkok to try to obtain 60 visas for Indonesia.  Much of the rest of our trip was to be spent in and around the sea and we were excited about visiting some less well known and hard to reach spots in Indonesia where Paul could continue with his new obsession and I could build up my confidence in the water.


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