Travel ?

Scotland, Eurepe, the world

Seated Buddha, Ayutthaya

Two faces of Thailand

Off the beach and into the sea. Words: Ben Atherton Pictures: Richard Rees

t's 2am on a stormy night just off the coast

of a tiny island in the (iulf of Thailand. I'm

one of 30 people crammed into an overcrowded longtail boat with an overworked outboard motor pushing tis towards the shore. L'p ahead. fireworks and makeshift lights illuminate a scene that could have come straight from the pages of The Beach. .-\nd if Leonardo himself isn’t waiting for us. there are at least a couple of hundred wannabes among the thousands of party people currently dancing under the palms and in the surf.

This is the infamous liull .\Ioon Party on the tiny Thai island of Koh l’ha—Xgan. .-\ monthly celebration of hedonism. loud music and escape from the nine—to—live. the free event has become an institution for backpackers passing through South liast :\.\itt. But is the party a glimpse of tropical paradise or tropical hell'.’ ('ome the morning. the llaad Rin shoreline will be choked by a slick of plastic bottles. food. clothing. spent fireworks and vomit. Like the warehouse raves in Britain in the late 80s. there are signs that the l'ull .\loon could be too popular for its own good.

\Vith lis. hash. potent local magic mushroom tea. and over-the—counter amphetamine diet pills easily available. it seems that few here are troubled by those .lly Bangkok Prison l/('// confessionals cluttering 'l‘hailand‘s paperback stands. despite the very real chance of a long prison sentence if you're

arrested. Which is cool for the gap year crowd and clubbers looking fora cheap. exotic

alternative to Ibiza. But if you like your

tropical beaches fringed with virgin coral. not litter and drug casualties. then you need to be somewhere else. You need to be on Koh Tao Turtle Island.

A boat trip north of Koh Pha—Ngan. the

Turtle is a mere 21 square kilometres of jungle-clad hillside rising out of the (lulf of

Thailand. The deep blue water surrounding

Koh Tao has turned the island into one of

South liast Asia‘s most popular diving centres.

Could the party he a glimpse

of tropical paradise or tropical hell?

lirom giant whale sharks to yellow and bltte stingrays and tiny. brightly coloured clown fish. the (iulf shelters some of the world‘s most spectacular marine life. l)ive boats will take you to swim with giant barracuda in 40 metres of water or explore caves and tunnels formed by living coral closer to shore. But first. you‘re going to have to go back to school.

The first step towards becoming a fully fledged scuba diver is getting your l’.-\l)l Open Water certificate. The four—day course will teach you the basics and get you diving

without being a danger to yourself and others. That first time underwater tnust rank as one of life‘s most disorientating experiences. But after the first couple of dives the initial awkwardness is replaced by an eerie feeling of calm. Hovering weightless amid hundreds of fish in a coral garden. you discover how to glide effortlessly with a single fin kick and change depth by simply breathing in and out. Suddenly. you’re flying underwater.

And diving off Koh Tao is incredibly addictive. A l’;\l)l Advanced course will let you dive deeper - to an eerie. mud yellow world 30 metres down where the build tip of nitrogen in your bloodstream gives a euphoric. light headed buzz; and at night the noctttrnal sting rays explode otit of the sand below you as your torch beam probes the darkness. But the coveted lloly (il'itll for most Koh Tao divers is the chance to swim with the giant whale sharks. These plankton-eating monsters are everywhere on the Turtle. You'll see them on T—shirts. dive shop signs. souvenir keyrings - everywhere. during my trip. apart from in the water. .\'otoi'iotisly eltisive. the sharks swim to their own unfathomable timetable. frequenting offshore spots for weeks on end before fading away into the big blue for the rest of the year. Oh well -- maybe next time.

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