Koh Tao is an island in Thailand, and it is one of the most popular places in the world to get SCUBA certified. There’s good reason for this. Prices are much cheaper here compared to most other places on the planet, the underwater dive sites are beautiful, and the island itself is full of immense natural beauty. That’s why thousands of people flock to Koh Tao every year. So, if you happen to be in Thailand and want to get your SCUBA certification, then this is the place to be.
You’ll want to register for an Open Water Certification class. The classes are 3 days, but you should plan to stay on Koh Tao for longer than that because it will feel extremely rushed otherwise. Additionally, the island itself is insanely beautiful, and you should set aside a few days before or after the SCUBA class to explore the island or maybe move to one of the neighboring islands (like Koh Samui). Also, please keep in mind that you should wait 18 hours after SCUBA diving before flying on an airplane.
Registering for a Class
I highly recommend finding a dive school and reserving your spot ahead of time. My friend recommended OceanSound Koh Tao (PADI), which is run by a very nice and accommodating Canadian gentleman named Will. I highly recommend OceanSound as well, as they keep classes small (4 people max) and the instructors are amazing. It’s on the south side of the island near Freedom Beach, which is significantly quieter (less parties) than the west side of the island. This may be a plus or minus for you, but I personally did not want to mix being hungover and diving. There are MANY dive schools on Koh Tao, so you may want to do your research in this regard.
As to whether you should get a PADI or SSI diving certification, the short answer is that it really doesn’t matter.
Getting to Koh Tao from Bangkok
The best way (combination of time, money, and comfort) to get to Koh Tao from Bangkok is via an overnight train, and the entire trip takes about 12-14 hours. The total cost is 1200-1400 baht for a combined Train+Bus+Catamaran ticket, depending on what kind of seat/bed you get. The trip goes something like this:
Start: Hualumphong Train Station
Step 1: Overnight train (leave in the evening)
Step 2: Bus
Step 3: Catamaran
Arrive: Catamaran drops you off at the Koh Tao pier before noon
Fortunately, you can book all three (train/bus/catamaran) together very easily at Hualumphong, but I recommend booking through your hostel or hotel a few days in advance as the train may be sold out if you’re going on a busy day of the week. I went on a Monday and I was able to purchase my combined train/bus/catamaran ticket at the station a few hours beforehand.
I highly recommend spending the extra few baht on an air conditioned train. Even when I was traveling in late November, I could barely stand the heat in the non-AC trains. It really is a night-and-day difference. Another thing I recommend is spending the extra few baht on the lower bunk if you decide that you’ll be doing some work on your laptop. I was on the top bunk and my Macbook Pro (13″ retina, no case/cover) slipped off of my lap during a jarring lurch that the train took and fell about 6 feet onto the hard floor. Miraculously, it survived with literally not a single scratch, but it’s not a risk I’d like to ever take again.
When you get on the train and notice that the bed that you purchased is just a seat, don’t worry, everything converts into beds. You’ll see.
Diving: What to Expect
The open water dive course at Oceansound was three and a half days, which went like this:
Day 1: Starts around 5pm; half of the PADI Open Water diver movie
Day 2: Second half of the movie, swimming pool diving
Day 3: Open water dives 1 & 2
Day 4: Open water dives 3 & 4, finish around noon
It is entirely possible to party at night between dive days (one of the people in my group did), however, you will only get 3-4 hours of sleep. I wanted to be as alert as possible for diving, so I decided against doing so.
The hotel provided is extremely basic, but you do get your own room. There is no air conditioning, and the toilet is of the non-flushing variety (you pour buckets of water in to flush it), which is pretty standard on the island. There are some mosquitoes on the island at all times of the year so bring bug spray.
Getting back to Bangkok from Koh Tao
If you’ve decided not to check out some of the other islands (such as Koh Samui) while you’re in the area, which was one regret of mine since I didn’t have enough time), then you’ll want to get back to Bangkok. I highly recommend you book your train tickets out of Koh Tao at the hotel as soon as you can, as the trains do fill up, and it usually takes about a day for the ticket to arrive. The trip is pretty much the same, but reversed, and takes around the same amount of time as well. The Catamaran leaves from the island at 2pm, and you’ll arrive back in Bangkok around 6am the next day.