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Photo by Ayesha Cantrell
With mixed feelings and a vicious hangover, we said goodbye to Koh Tao yesterday.

My phone rang a few minutes before the ferry pulled up to the dock to spirit us away to our mainland train to Bangkok: Charlotte from Master Divers telling us to look out for their dive boat--all the divers were standing at the bow waving goodbye to us and hollering.  The other people waiting for the ferry were jealous of our great send-off.

We spent a good five months on 'the rock', much of it underwater. As a fitting farewell, we went for two extra-long dives on our next-to-last day with the Master Divers crew.  Many thanks to Master Divers' great instructors for their help training us to the PADI divemaster level.  Also thanks to the guys at Impian and Garden, Charm Churee Resort and Island Dive Club for the added experience we got diving with them after we finished our training courses.  We will miss all of you!

But, leaving somewhere is only one side of the traveling coin--tomorrow morning we arrive in Laos, a country Dan and I have tried to get to for three years now.  And, in just a few short weeks' time, we'll be rocking up to Portland, Oregon to visit old friends and then, a long-overdue visit with my extended family.

We're on the road again!




 
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Puu doesn't seem to understand why I want to take pictures of her cooking pad thai.

This is the Thai go-to dish, one of the simplest things a Thai can prepare and one of the cheapest a budget traveler can buy.

 But I remember a few months ago a US-based friend of mine had bemoaned her current pad thai recipe and although I've eaten plenty of the stuff, I never really paid attention to how it was different from Chinese-style fried noodles.


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So I follow good-natured Puu over to the alley-side mini-kitchen she opened as a business a few weeks ago and watch her whip up a batch of succulent chicken pad thai as matter-of-factly as if I'd asked one of my US friends to butter a piece of toast.

She does all of the cooking for her food stall, "Food Corner" in a big wok resting on a single propane burner.

First in the wok for pad thai goes a dollop of peanut oil to grease the bottom of the pan. Then, she sprinkles in some thin slices of chicken and agitates it in the heating oil until the meat is white on both sides. Then she breaks an egg into it and using a spatula whisks it around with the chicken.

Next, she adds some water--it looks like about a cup and a half--and throws in a handful of dried rice noodles. She uses the thin, flat ones, but explains that I can use thicker ones or round ones.

The water sizzles in the oil and the white strands of noodle go limp in the middle and change color through the steam.

Now it's time for the flavoring.


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Puu keeps all of her condiments lined up on the counter. First, a second-long dollop of oyster sauce. Then, I'm surprised to see, some ketchup. Next, sweet chilli sauce and a sprinkling of dried chilli. The next label I can't figure out but I recognize the smell from our eating adventures in Vietnam--fish sauce. She sprinkles in a little salt, a little sugar, a spoonful of chicken bullion.

The noodles have all succumbed to the heat and moisture, but still seem springy in the pan.

She turns off the heat and folds in a handful each of bean sprouts and grated carrot.

While the flavors merge, she cuts a slice of lime and a few pieces of cucumber. You can add more vegetables if you want, she says, shrugging.


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"That's pad thai," she tells me, holding up my plate full of steaming noodles and flavor. "Eat."



Go to our Food and Drink pages to see more tantalizing images of pad thai and other Thai foods!

 
Every morning we wake up to the squawking of our landlady's chickens. They live and lay eggs in some hutches behind our bungalow, and the grounds crew disturb them when they walk between the bungalows to hang up laundry or sweep windblown flower petals off of the concrete paths.



Most mornings, we retrieve our dried swimwear off our wooden porch, eat some breakfast prepared from our small refrigerator and get ready for another day of diving.



The dive master course will occupy us here on Koh Tao for a few months. I find that the longer we stay the more we sink into the rhythm of island life. Slower even than the slow travel we have been doing, life on Koh Tao is a readjustment. After months of subsisting out of our backpacks, it's strange to have a cupboard and drawers, but nice to have space in the bathroom and nice not having that last-minute packing adrenaline rush every other day.



The bungalows where we stay are a laid-back collection of wooden-and-concrete one-room houses on stilts. Ours has a TV and a fan, a hot water heater and two mirrors, a small table and a wooden slatted lounge chair. Mosquitoes generally keep their distance from our sprays and burning coils, but color-changing lizards find their way through the cracks in the board walls and visit us at night to snap up any stray skeeters with their long pink tongues.



As we walk down the hill to the waterfront dive center we can look out over the harbor and watch the first dive boats headed to the dive sites clustered around an outlying private island, Koh NangYuan.



After diving we head up the hill to shower and change and then go out again for dinner. We usually eat Thai food: Green curry soup with chicken and rice, spicy beef, green papaya salad, or just plain barbecued chicken. If we're feeling super hungry or are craving a little Western fare we venture a little farther into the touristy section of four-street Mae Haad town and wolf down hamburgers while watching a movie on DVD at Pranee's restaurant or order a pizza to share at Safaris. If we're tired or short on time, we stop at the restaurant closest to our bungalow, Bam Bam's. It's owned by a friendly local lady who works all day every day turning out spicy rice-y dishes for cheap.



About once a week we take a shared taxi (a pickup truck with two benches along the sides of the open bed) over to the tourist center, Sairee village. Sairee has most of the island's restaurants and shops, and is the party 'scene' we take the dive center's customers to if they're looking for a night out. On Wednesdays sometimes we go watch a lesson at the Flying Trapeze Adventures.



The trapeze school is on a small lot near a busy pool-side bar and across from a backpacker hostel. We buy beer at a 7-eleven and then settle on bamboo loveseats to watch our friends Ayesha, Darren or Chris climb the three-story ladder to a small metal platform suspended above a safety net.



Whoever's flying dusts their hands and knee-backs with powdered chalk, grasps the trapeze and waits for the instructor's shout to fall forward into the air.



Over the next hour, the students learn to pull their knees up over the trapeze, back flip before landing on the safety net, and, if they're doing well so far, fly hands outstretched to the waiting arms of a catcher swinging upside down on another trapeze. I love watching it, but Dan and I are resisting pressure to try it for ourselves. We're keeping our Koh Tao experience to one adventure sport at a time; under the sea is enough for us at the moment.



During the soccer World Cup in June and July we went to a busy Aussie-style bar in Sairee to watch a few of the games our friends were supporting. I don't really care for soccer, and need the rules explained again and again, but I do love watching soccer fans. My favorites were the England games, when dozens of drunk guys dressed in red and white miniskirts and painted flags on their bare chests. High entertainment factor at the cost of a couple of beers.



Other evenings, we stay in the bungalow watching DVDs, petting the landlady's cat or admiring her pet monkey.


Island life is good.

 
Dan and I were last into the water, slipping down the buoy line on the Green Rock dive site.


Divemasters often work as dive guides, navigating paying customers around dive sites and pointing out interesting sea life. We'd been learning about this in our course, but this was the first time that Dan and I were going to try it out, on each other.


We went down slowly, feet first, looking down, checking the visibility and feeling our bubbles caress our cheeks.


The line was tied to a big granite boulder, a good reference point for us to find our way back to it. We checked our compasses and started swimming south when suddenly I inhaled so sharply my mouth hurt. I grabbed Dan's arm and, made speechless by equipment, pointed frantically at the rocks beneath us.


Dan turned to face me in alarm. His thumb and forefinger questioned me, looped in the OK sign.


I put my right palm over the back of my left hand and wiggled my thumbs enthusiastically—the dive sign for Koh Tao's namesake animal, the turtle.


This tao sat about 15 feet beneath us on the coral-covered boulders, chewing his lunch and completely unconcerned that we were there. Koh Tao might be named after turtles, but actually seeing one is not very common—I'd seen one the week earlier, and Dan had spotted one while snorkeling in December Each sighting is a cause for a lot of thigh-slapping excitement and jealousy from other divers.


So, all our plans of mentally mapping the dive site disappeared with our bubbles and we hovered closer to the turtle, just watching. Turtles eat coral, and lots of it. They eat in the sea like their landlocked cousins do—messily. For every chomp of its beak, a half-mouthful wafted slowly downward. Cautious parrot-fish darted in to catch the remainders before they settled on the boulders.


The turtle caught sight of me and hesitated a moment, a great yellow eye rolling in the socket. I kept still in the water, inhaling slowly so the bubbles from my exhalation wouldn't worry it. I looked harmless enough, I guess, because it continued eating the leafy soft coral.


After fifteen minutes we decided to swim away and try to circle the dive site, as we'd planned. We spotted nudibranchs, angelfish and anemone fish, but nothing as extraordinary as the turtle. Thirty minutes later we made it back to the buoy line and found it still lunching. We spent another five minutes with the turtle until our air supplies got low, and then we reluctantly headed surface-ward, contemplating the turtles of Koh Tao.