Inner Space Thailand: Part 1 – The LOS Factor
Thailand, Siam, or, as it’s become known more recently, the ‘Land of Smiles’, is one of the world’s most popular vacation destinations. It’s an exotic, tropical land known for the friendliness and generosity of its people. Right, all stop. That type of sugary advertising spiel might be swallowed by your average naïve tourist but for most of us, who’ve been here for a while; it’s not quite the real picture. Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh on the locals and there are still pockets of friendliness and generosity to be found. Overall though I would suggest that those levels of friendliness and generosity, that we took for granted ten to fifteen years ago, are now much harder to find. My point is that advertising, by and large, doesn’t really relate to the true aspects of any particular given human experience or endeavor. It’s always a wonderful best case scenario of what is actually encountered. Public knowledge of the screw ups and failings of mankind are not very good for the profit margin. Human nature, being what it is, will always have us fronting up on our best behavior while the reality of our mistakes are, as much as possible, kept hidden from the scrutiny of our peers. There are those embarrassing moments which perhaps, through no fault of our own, test to the limit the codes of practice of the organization you work for. Moments that you’d prefer to file away in the scrap book of entertaining but not to be publicized anecdotes. Large, profitable organizations, such as those that are heavily involved with the tourist industry in Thailand, are not overly impressed with the idea of having their codes of practice tested to the limit; it’s not very good for the overall image or the bottom line. The problem is of course that, in Thailand, shit does happen. The LOS factor will ensure that the human experience is affected by the vagaries of living in a place which is, more often than not, just a continuous Saturday night. People will and do get shit faced, suffer from hangovers, have motorbike accidents, forget shit, turn up late, fail to turn up, get robbed, lied to, mugged, scammed, cheated, and fall in lust. This is a reflective account of my involvement in Thailand’s scuba industry where the LOS factor ensured that shit did happen on a regular basis.
I first turned up in Thailand in 1993. I had a month's break between work contracts and landed in Phuket looking to do a scuba safari to the Similan Islands. Unfortunately it was the beginning of the monsoon season so I had to cool my heels for a few months before getting out to those fabled dive sites. This wasn’t a problem though as most scuba divers are a fairly resourceful lot due to the need to consider all eventualities prior to making a dive. No sea too rough, no muff too tough was the diver’s code I adhered to. I decided to look around Patong and find a dive shop which could get me out on some single day dive trips to the local sites. The shop I settled on wasn’t particularly striking. In fact, it was a ramshackle, shoestring operation on the northern end of Patong Beach road. The owner, a friendly American, was an all teeth and elbows sort fellow who, if he wasn’t wheeling and dealing in his own little scuba operation in Patong, would be perfectly at ease selling used cars back in California. That said, I liked the casual mood of the place so I booked a couple of day trips. In the ensuing months I ended up working there as a dive instructor.
The beauty of the Similan Islands, 1993.
Most of the diving we did was locally based and a long tail ride out to Diamond Reef, at the Southern head of Patong Bay, would see us back in time for sundowners on the shops’ veranda each afternoon. In terms of location, for attracting business, the dive shop was certainly at a disadvantage when compared with many of the other operators closer to Patong’s center. The only real redeeming feature about the place was that it looked out across the road to the beach, and ocean beyond, and provided front row viewing of the carnage that regularly occurred on the road corner the shop was positioned on. The odds of an accident occurring, during the late afternoon peak hour traffic, were normally two days out of seven. This was significantly increased when the road became greasy after a bit of light rainfall. Most of the accidents were motorbike related and normally weren’t that serious; a few scrapes and bruises later and the afflicted were back on their battered Honda and off again. One afternoon, while we were sitting there enjoying our cold Heinekens, a young lady clattered into the corner metal barrier at high speed. The crumpled bike lay in front of her prone, unmoving body; a pool of blood seeping out from under the helmetless head. From my newly arrived and naïve point of view, I viewed my concerns to Teeth and Elbows.
“Shouldn’t we be doing something?” I said taking a long gulp of my Heineken and thinking that I should be putting my freshly acquired first aid skills into practice.
“Best not to get involved; always remember the LOS factor” said Teeth and Elbows.
“The LOS factor, what’s that?” I said.
“It’s The Land of Smiles factor; the factor that makes you realize that, in Thailand, nothing is ever as it appears. Good Samaritans can be taken advantage of and good deeds are often punished. Your willingness to help may see you getting blamed for her death if you can’t revive her. If that happens you’ll either end up in the ‘Monkey House’ or you’ll get scammed for compensation by the cops and the family” said Teeth and Elbows smugly.
“That’s a bit bloody cynical” I said indignantly.
“No doubt but not getting involved is the safest option. The other thing to consider is the potential for HIV infection from the blood” said Teeth and Elbows again with that smug confidence.
“Yes, well that’s something to consider I suppose” I said taking another gulp of my Heineken and feeling a little more neutral about the situation unfolding in front of us.
“Yep, she might be a bargirl that’s infected” said Teeth and Elbows with an air of absolute certainty again.
I took another gulp of my beer and watched as the crowd gathered to look at the spectacle. No one seemed to be doing much to assist the injured victim, apart from argue over who was at fault. Everyone seemed oblivious to the fact that the traffic was backed up all the way down Beach Road and was moving at crawling speed, going through the intersection, as the drivers slowed to take in what was happening. There didn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to what was taking place, just chaos and disorganization. Eventually, after weaving their way through the congested mass, a couple of boys in brown arrived to take charge of the situation. A semblance of order was established and a path cleared as a couple of onlookers were drafted in to haul the limp body off the road. Over the coming months and years I would come to realize that, as much as didn’t want to admit it, Teeth and Elbows’ had a point; the LOS factor was something that would ensure that things were never quite as they seem; that simple things could often become complex; that people often did exactly the opposite to that which you expected; that no could mean yes and yes could mean no; and that seemingly sane, and intelligent, foreigners quite often deposited their grey matter at the airport, on arrival, before losing the plot completely in this land of layered realities.
Most of the business that came into the dive shop was from the hotels that were strung along the road between the northern end of Patong Beach and Kalim; the mainstay of the business being one day dive tours and beginners courses. Another benefit of the shop's close proximity to the ocean was that, during the high season, we were able to do all the basic training skills in a flat calm sea instead of going to a swimming pool. It was simply a matter of donning the kit, on the shops’ veranda, crossing the road, walking down the beach, and wading out into waist deep water. The training was conducted in an area cordoned off from the jet skis and I’d begin in a depth of water which barely covered the top of the head whilst kneeling on the bottom. As the students gained confidence we’d move out into deeper water and, if the tide was up, we’d be in a good five meters of depth by the time we reached the outer perimeter rope. With an offshore breeze the conditions were usually ideal with visibility always good enough to be able to see the surface from a kneeling position five meters below.
The view along Patong Beach, 1993.
One day, after swimming to the outer perimeter rope, we’d just settled on the bottom, to do a few drills, when one of the female students started pointing to the surface. I had my back turned so I couldn’t immediately see what she was pointing to. I maneuvered around and looked up to see some bloke, on the perimeter rope, furiously jacking off? I found myself considering if this was the LOS factor at work again. Why would a bloke swim two hundred meters out to a rope, in the middle the ocean, to jack off when, less than one kilometer away there were a myriad of bars, with any number of ladies, who could provide the same kind of service, and more, for a mere five hundred baht.
The high season was obviously much better than the monsoon season, in terms of sea state, for training purposes. The monsoon brought wind, rain and swells which meant that we had to move our basic skills sessions back to a swimming pool. We had an agreement with a hotel, situated not too far up the road to Kalim, which enabled us to make a smooth transition when the monsoon arrived. The positive was that the pool training attracted a few enquiries from within the hotel itself and I often found myself questioning Teeth and Elbows business acumen in this regard; why not conduct the first stages of the basic skills session at the hotel, in the high season as well, when there were a lot more punters around?
The low season, being as it was, meant fewer punters. Fewer punters meant less work and less work meant reduced incomes. For this reason, and this alone, we had to be more patient and put up with a lot more customer stupidity than we normally would in the high season. I’d lined up a beginners course with a couple of young Swedish guys who were staying at the hotel we used for training purposes. I arrived at their room, at the allotted appointment time, to find one of them still in bed with his bar fine and the other cracking his first beer for the day. After assuring me that they were still up for the training session, I said I’d get all the dive kit down to the poolside and see them there in thirty minutes.
An hour, or so, later they turned up with a small esky (ice box) in hand. I mentioned that beer and dive training didn’t really go together and that it would probably be a better idea to give the beers a miss for a couple of hours. They agreed but not before telling me that they were Swedish, that they were on vacation and that they liked a beer. We eventually got into the pool and started the training session. Things were going okay and after about thirty minutes they surfaced and started taking off the kit.
“What’s the problem?” I said.
“Oh nothing, we need a break and we want a beer” they said as they moved towards the esky.
“It would be a lot better if you could wait until the completion of this session before cracking one” I said trying to hide my growing impatience.
“Well you know, we’re Swedish and we like a beer” they replied.
Fifteen minutes later we were back into it and they were looking decidedly less than switched on. I gave up on mask clearing drills and just let them swim around and work on their buoyancy control. Twenty minutes later they were taking off their kit and moving towards the esky again. They looked at me and were about to say something when I just said “I know, you’re from Sweden and you like a beer”
“Would you like a beer?” they both responded.
“I may as well” I replied resigning myself to the idea that I wasn’t going to achieve much more for the day.
“Cheers” I said as we sat back in the pool and took a long gulp of cold Carlsberg. I just figured it was the LOS factor at work again. Blokes, who were probably sane and reasonable back in their home countries, were, for no definitive reason, going troppo here in the LOS. I eventually finished the course with them but not before we’d had a few more beer interrupted training sessions.
Another benefit of the slowdown in business during monsoon season was that it afforded the opportunity for a bit more time off. It was something one was rarely able to do during the ongoing daily grind of scuba instruction encountered in the high season. I was able to take a few days off at a time and enjoy the more laid back mood that Patong offered at that time of year. The strong onshore winds, which came with the South West Monsoons, often brought up the sea swell to a surfable size and, if there was nothing happening diving wise, I’d grab one of the surfboards, that we had in the dive shop, and head out into the surf for a couple of hours. If you’ve grown up in a country which has decent surf, such as Australia or New Zealand, the one to two meter wind swell, encountered at Patong, was nothing to cause you much concern. If you were from somewhere which had very little surf to speak of, such as Northern Europe, then it could be an entirely different matter; particularly at low tide when the waves were slamming in harder and there were rips and currents running. I arrived back at the dive shop one afternoon to be told that Teeth and Elbows, and a couple of students doing the dive master course, had pulled a drunken, unconscious, overweight German out of the heavy, low tide surf pounding the beach directly in front of the shop. They’d revived him through a combination of CPR, and the shop’s emergency oxygen kit, and then sent him off, in the back of a Tuk-Tuk, to a hospital in Phuket town. A job well done or so they thought.
My fears were confirmed two days later when the rest of the family came by the dive shop to thank the boys for their efforts. Sadly, the poor bugger died a few hours after arriving at the hospital. It seems as though none of the staff, including the doctors, had any prior experience with patients at risk of secondary drowning. He was probably left in a ward on his own and died from the fluid seepage from the damaged alveoli in his lungs. The LOS factor, once again, had a hand in the victim's demise. The family was at a loss to explain why he swam out into the pounding surf, in a drunken state, and no explanations were forthcoming from the hospital regarding the circumstances of his death. The epitaph would simply be, like so many I would see in the coming years; another farang had died in Thailand from misadventure. I was to later learn that the average rate for drowning deaths, on Phuket Beaches during the monsoon season, was around three a month.
Looking down on Karon Beach, early 90’s
In the early nineties it was all still a bit of an adventure and Phuket was far less developed than it is now. The Western Coastal strip which encompassed Patong, Karon and Kata was characterized by its narrow roads and encroaching jungle. The area beyond second road (Song Roi Pee) in Patong was largely khlongs, swamps and roaming buffalos. A couple of months after settling in at Patong, I tried riding my motorbike over the hill to Kamala. The new dual lane coastal road linking the two beachside areas was still in the planning stage. I made it as far as the top of the first hill and gave up on the idea. The road was a pot-holed, rubble strewn, bone jarring mess which, no doubt, shortened the life expectancy of the bike I was riding. The complaints from the large breasted Isaan girl I had sitting behind me probably had more to do with cutting short my attempted ride over the hill to Kamala than the condition of the road. Every time I hit a rut, or applied the brakes, a set of mammaries would be cannoned into my back. It was like having two round soft cushions pushing into your back with increasing pressure. I think she finally realized, after a while, that I wasn’t doing much to avoid the potholes.
One of the things I found interesting about being a scuba instructor was observing the way in which people from different parts of the world would react to situations under water. Scuba diving is a fairly safe activity if you obey the laws of physics and follow the prescribed diving procedures. The only real unknown quantity is the marine environment itself. Most newcomers, or those undertaking scuba training for the first time, would always eventually get onto the subject of sharks. The fact is that in all my years spent diving around Thailand I never actually came across what you would consider a dangerous shark. Most of what I saw was of the docile nature; Leopard Sharks, Whale Sharks and reef Sharks. Divers from Australia would go out hoping to see sharks where as those from Europe, particularly beginners, would be a bit more reticent if I mentioned that we might see sharks on the dive.
The reality was that other marine creatures, rather than sharks, posed more of a threat to divers. At certain times of the year the biggest nemesis to divers underwater, in the Phuket region, had to be the Titan Trigger fish. A colorfully patterned and large bodied reef dweller, with massive coral munching teeth, it would come flying in and chomp any diver that came anywhere near its nesting area. Most divers, under attack and unaware of its defensive habits, would panic and head towards the surface. This would only infuriate the thing to attack even more as the divers, thinking they were getting clear of the rabid fish, would still be in the vertical space above its’ nesting zone. The best method of defense was to stay on the bottom, turn your fins towards the attacking fish and move out of the area. One popular dive spot, about an hour and a half from Phuket, became the Titan Trigger Fish war zone for a while and any divers venturing out there were well advised to wear a full length wetsuit. I even resorted to using a hood after another instructor I knew had a lump taken out of his scalp. Eventually it became a bit of a laugh, and even good entertainment for the punters, as we’d get into a duel, using our diving knives, with the aggressive little buggers. I’m sure this only served to antagonize them but the punters always said they thoroughly enjoyed the sight of me using my diving knife to parry the repeated attacks of khun Titan Trigger fish.
Titan Trigger fish
Another tense situation happened when I, and a couple of students doing a compass navigation drill, was challenged by a large, rogue Barracuda in shallow water just off one of Phuket's local beaches. We were kneeling on the bottom, while the female student made an adjustment to the compass, when I picked up movement in the corner of my eye. I looked up to see ‘Barry the Barracuda’ eying us up as he circled. Barry was the large (about a meter and a half in length) lone Barracuda that had been spotted a number of times at this particular location. You always hear stories about Barracuda attacks on people and, although I’ve never actually seen it happen, I wasn’t taking any chances; I pulled out my dive knife as we huddled together and watched it continue to circle us. After about two minutes of this underwater ‘Mexican standoff’ the female student decided she’d had enough and bolted to the surface – about five meters above us – in panic. Because of the risk of lung expansion injury I grabbed her leg in an effort to slow her down. Once at the surface though, there was no stopping her. With her fins pushing her as fast as she could go, she took off like a rocket to the safety of the beach two hundred meters away. I dropped back down to find that Barry had gone; the sudden movement of the student, bolting to the surface, may have been enough to scare him off. The male student went on to finish the remainder of the course and his girlfriend never went back into the water again.
My point is that marine creatures, particularly when on the defensive, can become unpredictable and, given the right amount of stupidity from divers, even dangerous. A diver being stung by a Lion or Stone Fish wasn’t that surprising when considering the way in which some people would blunder around on the bottom. Occasionally, you would hear a report of something which would have you shaking your head in disbelief at the stupidity of it. If it was an incident/accident caused by the actions of a diver, inexperienced with this part of the world, then you could understand it but if it was an incident/accident, caused by the actions of the people running the dive tour; the instructors and dive masters, then it was a very difficult thing to understand. One of the worst marine life injuries, sustained by a diver during my time in Phuket, was a puncture wound from a swordfish in a feeding frenzy. During an extended trip to the outer islands a decision was made to stop the vessel, which the said victim was on, in the open ocean and have the divers jump in, using snorkeling gear, to watch swordfish rounding up baitfish. The report I got was only second hand but it appears that the victim, a female, got herself between a swordfish and its intended prey and copped a nose spear through the gut.
Over the years that I was in Phuket there were a number of diving accidents which resulted in serious injury/ fatalities that were the direct result of incompetence by dive shop employees. One of the things that continually amused me was the way in which the international controlling body, of which the majority of instructors on the island belonged to, was always blowing its trumpet about the incomparably high competency standards of its training system and instructors. The reality, of course, was something completely different to the spin of the marketing department. <This sounds just like the English teaching industry in Thailand where foreign teachers are made out to be Gods of knowledge when the compete opposite is much closer to the truth – Stick> What follows is an account of three fatalities that occurred during my time in Phuket. These were fatalities that were, for the most part, the result of incompetence, stupidity, greed and lack of proper leadership. Fatalities which, had they occurred in parts of the world where proper regulatory bodies are established, would have seen the instructors jailed and the operators out of business. Sadly, because of the LOS factor, these fatalities were swept under the carpet with little recourse for the families of the victims.
1. A diving instructor, whilst in the employ of one of Phuket’s more high profile live aboard operators, lost a student in an underwater cave, on Phi Phi Don Island, during an Advanced Open Water Course night dive:
I read the report of the accident a few days later and the instructor actually stated, in his pre dive brief, that, “if the conditions were okay, we’d go into a cave”. I found this to be a rather astounding admission by the instructor because the training standards, of the training agency, clearly state, in unequivocal terms, that no training dives, on this particular course, are to be done in overhead environments. The instructor was either unaware of this or acted in complete disregard of the course standards. The cave entrance was at the bottom of a wall; depth approximately fifteen meters. Having been into the said cave myself I was well acquainted with the hazards it presents, particularly to an inexperienced diver. The entrance has a low roof, less than a half meter in height, so it’s a given that silting will occur when divers enter. To enter, without a guideline back to open water, is asking for trouble. For an instructor to do so, with a trainee under his supervision, is the epitome of negligence. It’s at this point where the instructor’s statement became vague; no doubt he was trying to cover his arse. I can only surmise that they both entered the small cave but, in doing so, created a silt out. The instructor, realizing he’d made a right royal fuck up, probably indicated to the student he was aborting the dive and through good luck, rather than good management, was able to find his way out first. The problem was that he would have stirred up more silt at the low entrance and, in doing so, made it even more difficult for the student to find his way out. In his statement, the instructor gave a different interpretation of events. According to him they (instructor and student) were on a night dive with a larger group. When the group arrived at the entrance the instructor decided, due to there being lots of stirred up silt and a narrow entry point, to abandon the idea of entering the cave. He went on to say that it seems the student wasn’t fully aware of this decision and as the group, and the instructor, moved off along the wall, the student entered the cave where he became disoriented and panicked. A few minutes later the instructor realized that his student was missing and began an unsuccessful search in the area they were diving. The following day the body was recovered from the narrow, blind cave by some local Thai dive masters. Apparently, there was still plenty of air in the students’ cylinder. The instructor, in question, continued working for the same dive operator for some time after this accident/fatality occurred.
2. During a daytrip, with another of Phuket’s most established dive operators, a diver, who was feeling the effects of sea sickness during a descent, was sent back to the dive vessel on his own and went missing.
Apparently he was a reasonably experienced diver but was feeling the effects of sea sickness due to the choppy, monsoonal seas and, during the descent down the anchor line, indicated to the dive master he wanted to abort. The dive master made the decision to send him back to the boat alone. After that the story becomes sketchy but it appears, from conversations I had with a couple of Thai boat boys, in the days following the fatality, the diver, exhausted and weak, drifted under the entry/exit platform at the stern of the vessel. With the rising and dropping of the swell he was probably knocked unconscious and drifted to the sea bed. Later, when it was realized that the diver was missing, a search was conducted without success. The following day, one of the owners of this dive operation organized a search of the dive site and the body was eventually recovered from the bottom. As far as I know, the dive master/instructor, who was in charge of the dive at the time of the fatality, continued working for the same operator for a number of years afterward.
What actually happened never really became clear and if the boat boys had any knowledge of such, then they weren’t making it public. The information I got was via the boat boy chatter around Chalong Harbor. One thing is certain though, the loss of face scenario ensured that nothing was mentioned that would put the reactions, or lack thereof, of the boat boys under the microscope. The dive master's excuse for not accompanying the stricken diver back to the vessel was, more than likely, that it wasn’t very far to the surface and that the boat boys should’ve been able to get him back onboard. The problem with this is that you’re allowing the uncertainty of the Thai element of the LOS factor to enter the equation. One of the things I always told my farang employees, in later years, was never let the uncertainty of the Thai element of the LOS factor intervene in whatever you are doing. Cover your bases, cover your arse, and follow things through one hundred percent because you can guarantee that as soon as you let your guard down, there will be a problem. There’s no point whining about the situation after things have gone pear shaped; you know, the usual shit you hear from farangs – a lot of Thais are unreliable and never admit their errors. If you live here then know it, understand it, deal with it, and work around it because that’s the way it is. It only took one expensive lesson for me to come to grips with this situation and when you have someone tell you, without batting an eyelid, that they didn’t do anything wrong – when you know full well that it could only be that person – what do you do? You step back and analyse the situation and look at the chain of events to see where things broke down and, if you’re honest with yourself, as I eventually was, you will see that the mistake, made by the Thai employee had a lot to do with a lack of knowledge, a lack of training or simply poor communication. After spending sixty thousand baht to repair my two breathing air, high pressure compressors, I showed my Thai employee where the maximum oil fill level mark was on the dipstick.
3. An inexperienced diver suffered a heart attack during a dive on one of Phuket’s popular day trip dive sites.
I have firsthand knowledge of this because the victim was a previous student of mine. At the time the accident/fatality occurred I was running my own business in Patong and was sitting in my dive shop when a Phuket Police Lieutenant came to see me about my ex student's death. Apparently he (the ex student) had suffered a heart attack whilst on a dive with the same company that he’d completed the open water course with some nine months earlier. He was in his mid forties and, since then, he’d done no diving. It appears that the heart attack had been induced through over exertion caused by diving out of a long tail boat.
I explained to the Police Officer that, even though the victim had completed his training with me, I had no involvement with his death. The dive operation in question was one of the more notorious on Phuket, at the time, and was well known for the dubious practices of its owner. To me, it appeared that it was purely an exercise in deflecting responsibility for what had occurred. The bottom line was that an open water diver who hadn’t dived for nine months, and who was in an age risk category, should not have been diving out of a long tail boat in the first place.
In all of these situations negligence, to some degree, was involved:
· The incompetent instructor who blatantly disregarded course training standards
· The lazy dive master who failed to assist an incapacitated diver safely back to the dive boat.
· The greedy dive operator who decided to send a novice diver, with an age risk, on a physically demanding dive trip.
Furthermore there was a blatant disregard for safety procedures and an ambivalent attitude regarding duty of care to clientele. As I stated earlier, in countries where the threat of penalties and/or compensation for proven negligence, are in force, individuals and companies are held to higher standards of compliance and accountability.
The diving industry, much the same as the way of life in those days, was still a bit of an adventure as well. There were fewer dive shops and, therefore, fewer dive boats visiting the local dive sites. Fewer dive boats, of course, meant fewer divers and this had a direct correlation to the condition of the underwater environment. The reefs seemed to be more pristine with a greater abundance of marine life about. I still remember my first daytrip out to the local dive sites with one of Patong’s longest established dive shops. I tried taking out the spear gun that I’d brought from Australia. For some reason the locals at Chalong didn’t like that idea and I was told that I’d have to leave it in the vehicle. I was severely pissed off when we made our second dive at Koh Dok Mai; the site was teeming with Potato Cod. I borrowed a small spear gun, from one of the Thai boat boys, but it was completely under powered and useless. Potato Cod have a fairly tough hide and it was like trying to shoot one with a pop gun. Even if I was positioned within a foot of the intended targets body, when I pulled the trigger, the spear just bounced off.
Daytrip dive tour at Koh Dok Mai, 1993
I consider myself to be a bit of a connoisseur of ‘Tom Yum’ and I can tell you categorically that no ‘Tom Yum’ tastes better than one made with freshly caught Potato Cod. It’s a fine grained oily fish which truly enhances the flavor of the ‘Tom Yum’. A few months ago I was down at Koh Chang with the girlfriend and we ended up in one of those live seafood restaurants at Bang Bao. The fish tanks were full of Potato Cod so I selected one and told the chef I wanted it made into my favorite dish. The chef didn’t think that was a very good idea and tried to convince me to have it steamed. Even the girlfriend got in on the act and started getting her hackles up when I wouldn’t change my mind.
“Farang baa, no one have Tom Yum from big fish like that” said the teeruk starting to dig her heels in.
“Don’t tell me what to do. I know my Tom Yums’. Tell that cook I want soup not steamed fish” I said just as determinedly.
It was a Mexican stand-off; a battle of wills over Potato Cod Tom Yum and, as we stood there looking at each other, there could only be one outcome.
“I’m paying so I want a Tom Yum” I said as I walked off towards a table.
The average Thai has probably never eaten a Tom Yum made from Potato Cod but I can tell you the staff was salivating when they bought the large bowl over to the table. The girlfriend started tucking in earnestly and the prickly moment we had earlier on was soon forgotten about.
“Aroy mak maak, farang chalaat” she said as she polished off the last of the Potato Cod and sat there contentedly.
Besides large lumps of gold, nothing satisfies an Isaan working girl (or ex working girl) more than a belly full of spicy seafood. I knew from the contented smile on her face that I was probably in for a nice blow job when I got back to the hotel.
Back to the original storyline:
As the months rolled by I became increasingly frustrated with Teeth and Elbows’ business ethics. He was the sort of fellow that just couldn’t help himself. If there was an opportunity to bullshit someone, he’d take it. If there was an opportunity to scam someone, he’d take it. The crazy thing was though, he didn’t need to. He’d moved the operation to a location closer the center of Patong and the business was doing well. I started to realize that his entire approach to doing business could be explained by one overriding influence; the LOS factor. The factor that had foreigners thinking they could conduct business, in Thailand, using practices which would be completely unacceptable back in their countries of origin. It was almost as though the decadent and hedonistic lifestyle, that so many indulged in, influenced their approach to business, and work, to a degree of recklessness that had them convinced that scamming was a normal state of affairs; that lying and cheating could be carried out with impunity because, due to language difficulties, most clientele were hesitant, or fearful, about dealing with Thailand’s law agencies.
Diving out of a Long tail boat. Phi Phi Islands, 1994.
We had no dedicated dive vessel so most of the daytrips we did were out to the Phi Phi Islands. We’d travel out on the King Cruiser ferry then transfer the dive gear, and divers, into long tails. Phi Phi Islands became our main daytrip destination and, after we’d become more familiar with surrounding environs, we started to explore reefs that were further to the south. I came up with the idea of hiring a small dive boat to reconnoiter an island group, three to four hours south of Phi Phi, for the potential of doing overnight trips. Teeth and Elbows thought there could be merit in the idea so he agreed to pay for the hire of the vessel and send myself, and two dive master trainees, to check things out. A few hours after agreeing on the idea I was sitting in a bar, enjoying a few beers, when Teeth and Elbows dropped by to tell me that he’d sold the exploratory trip to five Chinese divers and that they’d be joining us as well. I told him I didn’t think it was a very good idea because it was basically a ‘roughing it out’ type of trip and nothing was properly organized. The vessel had an inadequate number of bunks and there was no proper bathroom. I also mentioned that the cooking and storing of food would be an issue. He said he’d provide imperishable food, whatever that meant, but I’d need to spear a few fish to make up the shortfall. I found out later that part of his sales pitch, to the group, was that I’d be providing fresh fish for them.
No matter how you looked at the situation it was nothing more than another one of Teeth and Elbows’ ill conceived and short sighted grabs for cash. I was nearing the point where I’d just about had enough of his alternative take on business ethics. A few weeks earlier a vehicle, he’d bought to transport dive gear and clientele, rolled on its way to Phuket’s deep water port. It was one of those small wooden songthaews – the type which the Thais use as a school bus – and was, due to its cramped passenger compartment, completely unsuitable for the purpose it was being put to. The driver, running late for the ferry to Phi Phi, was going too fast as he rounded a corner. The songthaew ran off the road, at high speed, with two Japanese customers and a load of diving cylinders being thrown about inside. The driver did a runner and the injured Japanese, after an inexcusable delay, were eventually taken to a local hospital. After a cursory visit, to check on their condition, Teeth and Elbows then did a disappearing act until the Japanese left Thailand a few days later. The reaction of the Thai driver, while being inexcusable, was not unexpected but what of the farang? Why would someone, from what is considered to be one of the world’s most socially responsible countries, have such an ambivalent attitude to the well being of people he had a moral duty of care for? It could only be the LOS factor.
The exploratory trip turned out to be success in terms of the diving but a nightmare in terms of logistics. We arrived at our intended destination, after a six hour crossing from Phuket, and were in the water for our first dive by mid afternoon. The Chinese group, against my better judgment, decided they wanted to make another dive in the late afternoon. When I surfaced with the group it was dusk. The dive boat was about one hundred and fifty meters away from us so I pulled out my surface marker buoy and inflated it. One of the boat boys climbed up on the bridge and began shouting and waving for us to swim to them. Obviously there was something wrong with the dive boat.
We finned across to the boat without much difficulty and when I finally got onboard I was told by the skipper that we had a bent propeller, due to hitting a rock, and wouldn’t be moving anywhere until it was changed out. It was now getting dark so I asked if we could wait it out, on the anchor, and do the job in the morning. The skipper informed me that there was weather coming and if we didn’t move away from our present location we’d get blown onto the cliffs of the island we were anchored near. To make matters worse, the Chinese group had already devoured all the imperishable food and they were now asking about the fish I was supposed to be spearing.
It was dark by the time I changed out to a fresh cylinder and jumped back into the water to begin the prop change. It wasn’t really a difficult task, just time consuming, and it took me about an hour to finish the job with the assistance of my Thai dive master. We then changed out to fresh cylinders again and jumped back in to go spear fishing. One of the problems of spear fishing at night is that you’ve got to carry a torch to see the prey. Another problem is the increased level of anxiety caused by the nagging fear that a tiger shark may swim up out of the depths, at any moment, to check the source of the blood in the water. I guess we just got lucky because the conditions were just about as perfect as they get for spear fishing at night. The tide was up, the visibility was excellent and there was no current. The sharks must have been preoccupied because we didn’t get the remotest glimpse of one in the ninety minutes that it took us till fill the catch bag. We surfaced to feel the first puffs of the approaching weather front. As soon as we were back onboard the dive boat the skipper took off to the safety of the Leeward side of the largest island in the group.
The storm struck just as the Chinese group was finishing off the last morsels of the fish I’d speared. It was the last days of the South West monsoon and the rain came driving in with venom; it came down in bucket loads. The youngest member of the Chinese group had missed out on a bunk so he sat with the rest of us under the flimsy awning, on the stern of the dive boat, wet and shivering until the storm blew over. A fitful night’s sleep, for those of us consigned to the hard boards and lack of cover on the back deck, was numbed by the bottle of Mekong I’d brought with me.
We made two more dives the following morning and then limped back to Chalong harbor, a tired and disheveled lot. The Chinese group, although reasonably satisfied with the diving, were far from happy with the shortage of food and the inadequate facilities on the vessel. It seems as though Teeth and Elbows hadn’t provided the full picture when selling them the trip. In their eye’s they’d been overcharged and told Teeth and Elbows’ as much when they fronted up to the dive shop the following day. Somehow, Teeth and Elbows’ decided that the failings of the outing were my fault and, after a heated verbal exchange, I decided I’d had enough of his disorganized, shoestring management style and left to seek greener pastures.
It was the beginning of my second high season in Phuket and I’d been on the island for about fifteen months. I wasn’t too concerned about employment prospects as I was still reasonably financial after my previous years of working in the oil and gas industry. I’d gotten to know a few dive center owners so I was fairly sure I’d be able to pick up some freelance work when things got busy. I was going to chill out for a few days and, as luck would have it, a mate of mine was in town who shared my enthusiasm for a bit of adventure and a few cold beers.
Pete, who’d recently signed off from twelve years of service with the AIF, was back in Phuket to do some dive courses and sample some more Thai female hospitality. At the end of the previous high season we’d started to explore some of the subsea caves on Phi Phi and were keen to get back out there to see what else we could find. After a few days spent checking out the night time action at Rock Hard Ago-go, the Banana Disco and the Kangaroo Bar we got ourselves organized for the trip over to Phi Phi. Pete was especially keen to get going after the hot dancer that he’d picked up at a small go-go bar, half-way down Bangla, had turned out to be a complete psycho and totally trashed his bungalow. He wanted to get out of Patong for a while and Phi Phi was the ideal place to chill out.
I’d been back to Australia, during the low season, to do a basic cave diving course; the intention being that I’d get a better understanding of the techniques and equipment that would be required to make our cave dives a safe undertaking. The fact was that the subsea caves at Phi Phi, when compared to most freshwater systems, are not very extensive. The longest horizontal penetration, as we were to discover, was just on one hundred meters. Still, the basic rudiments of cave diving were to be observed; a continuous line back to the entrance, extra torches and back-up air supplies.
To be continued…..
Very, very nice indeed.
The diving industry in Thailand shares many parallels with the teaching industry and I could not agree more with the concept of the LOS factor.