The huge dark shape began to emerge from the gloom as we descended. As we swam closer the immense outline of the sunken ship grew sharper and the scale of the wreck became clearer. The 100 metre long HTMS Chang was formerly a US warship known as the USS Lincoln County and was built during World War II. After serving it’s time with the US Navy, it was gifted to the Thai navy and served for 50 years. Diving is a huge industry in Thailand and artificial reefs have been created to increase diving opportunities as well as to help protect the natural reefs. This colossal warship was sunk off the coast of Koh Chang in 2012 to become an artificial reef. It is now teeming with incredibly diverse marine life in all shapes and sizes. As instructor Paul from Scubadawgs and I neared the deck of the battleship I could see almost every inch was covered. Schools of fish gathered along the edge nibbling on the algae, some giving us nervous glances as we drifted by.
At almost 30m depth the light changes and sound is muffled. We explored inside the first deck. The darkness was penetrated ahead of us by the sun shining through the openings above and we disturbed sleepy batfish on our way. Winding our way through the narrow spaces near the tower in a mild current was a test of my skills, especially when distracted by a grumpy-looking eel peering down and schools of large yellowfin barracudas. Along with light and sound, time seems to change underwater. All too soon it was time for our slow ascent around the tower, the ghostly flag flapped eerily in the current as a reminder of the busy life the ship must’ve had above the surface.
My first wreck dive and I think I’m hooked. Combine the spooky wreck with tropical marine life, warm waters and an excellent dive centre and you have no excuses not to visit Koh Chang. The island is just 5 hours drive from Bangkok and has beautiful beaches, forest and waterfalls as well as accommodation for every budget. Scubadawgs will pick you up and bring you to the dive shop at Bang Bao where you’ll kit up (excellent quality rental equipment) and board one of their dive boats. I can’t thank Paul and the team enough for my day. (And it was great to talk about our alternate musical lives!). After wreck diving and snacking we dived two more local reefs with mostly great visibility and astounding amounts of marine life. Honestly, it was so busy down there! Schools of fish would cross each other in front of us leaving just a wall of shiny scales ahead. Thailand is famed for some of the cheapest diving in the world which makes it a great place to get certified too. Try diving with Scubadawgs and they’ll let you upgrade to Open Water training using the dives you’ve already completed. Not into diving? Then you can snorkel all the same dive sites - the visibility makes it well worth it.
Enjoy your trip to Koh Chang and tell Scubadawgs I sent you! Celebrate your diving achievements by partying at Lonely Beach and don’t forget to get a new tattoo while you’re there... ;)
Arriving in Kratie, a town in the north east of Cambodia, shortly before sunset, my friends and I dumped our bags at Silver Dolphin Hostel, grabbed some beers and sat on the river wall to watch the sunset over the Mekong river. The life-source of this region, this enormous river provides livelihoods to the people living along its banks. It also provides a home to various pods of Irrawaddy river dolphins.
The Khmer Rogue were responsible for such widespread destruction. They not only destroyed temples and homes and killed millions of people, but they were directly or indirectly involved in decimating natural resources and environments. The Irrawaddy river dolphins were captured and killed for the oils and fats in the skin and were victim to the aggressive fishing techniques used in desperation by locals who couldn’t access food during war time.
When tourism first began to reach this area, there were only around 70 dolphins in this stretch of the river, with family pods living in distinct areas. When I visited, this has now risen to around 100. Whilst fishing is still an important income for many in this area, the impact of tourism is becoming an ever increasing revenue. Like me, tourists visit this area with a hope of seeing these rare creatures, encouraging rules to be put in place for the protection of the dolphins.
To get up close to these beautiful creatures I took a guided kayaking trip with Silver Dolphin hostel. We were driven upriver before launching our kayaks to cross the mighty Mekong. We then headed downstream, weaving our way through flooded jungle (the river changes depth dramatically between the wet and dry season, meaning trees and plants are partially or fully submerged), stopping off on a sandy island before continuing to the protected area. This is a 4km stretch of river where fishing isn’t allowed and boat traffic is monitored. There we drifted and paddled hoping to get an up close view of the 30 or so river dolphins in this pod. The sound of them blowing water from their blow holes caused us to turn quickly enough to see the sleek body curve out of the water. Waiting a few minutes we would see the same animal resurface a few metres further off.
Happiness to me is sitting in a kayak, whether in drizzly Norfolk or in the beating sun of Cambodia. Add in seeing rare wildlife and a smug feeling of doing good by spending my tourist dollars on this worthwhile activity and I couldn’t be more pleased.
Silver dolphin offers basic accommodation as well as tours and ticket booking and you can find them on booking.com
There are certain concessions that have to be made when staying in a tropical paradise. Being gracelessly pulled up from the boat to the temporary wooden pier. My friend having to attempt to drag her trolley bag across the beach (no roads or pavements here!). Being constantly covered in sand. But if you can put up with these inconveniences then you’re in for a truly special experience.
The island of Koh Rong Sanloem (KRS) is accessed by speed ferry from Sihanoukville on the coast of Cambodia. Those who require a constant supply of electricity and luxuries like air conditioning and pub crawls go to the bigger brother island of Koh Rong where pizza restaurants sit next to wooden beach huts. KRS has three or four bays where small resorts overlook the white sand and clear water. A lengthy jungle trek or a boat taxi can take you between the bays. I stayed in the minute village of M’Pai Bay. The handful of restaurants and sleeping places are run by a mixture of locals and expats, like Tom Mellon originally from Ireland.
Tom runs Ecoseadive, one of several dive shops on the island. He came to the island 7 years ago, working for different centres before branching out less than a year ago. KRS is diving heaven. There’s a shallow reef practically outside the dive shop where those gaining their certification practice safety procedures in the company of seahorses.
I was taking my navigation exam for the Advanced certificate in the company of another newby diver - Natalie. We were sharing our dive boat (wooden long boat with outboard motor) with a team of pro divers off to work on a film set. The scene was being shot from a boat off Sunset Beach and the divers were there to ensure the safety of the stuntman being pushed in.
My first dive involved counting fin-kicks and compass navigation (passed with flying colours in case you were wondering) while being distracted my some little rays, before our second dive visiting a buzzing and colourful reef. There were parrot fish, nudibranches, pufferfish, sea urchins, more rays and a big school of whitebait. The colours and variety was the best I’ve seen in my short diving career. The water was warm and visibility good and Tom could point out all the coolest things.
After checking in with the film crew and a lovely lunch at a little resort on Sunset Beach we found we had enough time (and more importantly air) to fit in a third dive! As I admired the bright blue and red corals I felt incredibly lucky to be there.
As we cut through the waves on our return to the village we talked dive careers, island life and filming movies before a cold beer or two.
Thanks Tom. I left KRS one step closer to my Advanced and inspired by the underwater world to continue my dive education. I can not recommend this island paradise enough, and Tom and Ecoseadive in particular. Oh and don’t miss eating at Erin’s kitchen: comfy seats, plenty of veggie options (try the creamy amok curry) and the freshest fruits. Save me a seat because I’ll be back.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.