It was the day after my 25th birthday. I was in Thailand, on a scuba diving trip out of Koh Samui. A raggle taggle group of Europeans on a converted wooden fishing boat made the 2 hour crossing to Koh Tao.
Koh Tao is a small island northwest of Koh Phangan, Samui's northern cousin where people went to smoke weed and drop out for a few weeks. Full-moon parties had yet to be invented. Koh Tao wasn't on the tourist radar, although it had a handful of small family run bungalow operations scattered around the island. The afternoon ferry from Samui would dock and the bungalow owners would vie for the trickle of customers, load them in their runabouts and motor off to hidden bays.
We were staying in town, which was really just a dusty track with the ferry jetty, a cafe, a restaurant overlooking the water and a few houses. We stayed in a large wooden shed, made up of multiple bunk beds surrounding a central area of tables and benches. An outhouse had a squat toilet and a large water container for showering. Huge rats roamed the rafters and the calls of a thousand geckos lining the walls were deafening.
The shed was our home for 2 nights, our days being spent diving the reefs around Koh Tao. The whole dive operation was run by an older Austrian man and his much younger English girlfriend. The shed was under the care of a rather handsome young Englishman, who was painting it in exchange for free accommodation and dive master qualifications.
Over the 3 days we enjoyed some wonderful diving on pristine reefs, with lots of fish. There was no other dive operation in business on the island, although some of the bungalow owners would take their guests snorkelling on the more shallow reefs. With our boat we were able to take advantage of some of the deeper terrain, and also to do some night dives - one aspect of scuba diving I really enjoy.
Said Englishman would sit on the roof of the boat between dives, and I too would climb up the side of the boat to talk with him and adoringly appraise his good looks. I'm pretty bad at picking up guys, but it's not from want of trying! This wish to spend time in his company was my undoing.....
Returning from the night dive on the second evening, the ocean was quite choppy and it was a dark night. After storing my gear I went to join my friend on the roof. Instead of clambering up the side of the boat as usual, I decided to use the ladder. I mean it was there, why not use it?
Unbeknownst to me the ladder was simply hanging on the side wall, it wasn't secured to anything, and as I climbed it in the rolling seas it simply dislodged itself from the roof and fell. The deck was only a couple of feet wide, so in a quick thinking feat of survival instinct I twisted around as I fell, somehow landing on the deck rather than in the water. I hit my head and was momentarily knocked out.
I didn't lose consciousness for long, probably only a few seconds, but it would have been enough had my fall been into the watery abyss. Having survived that I looked to see what injuries I had sustained. At first I thought I'd broken my leg, but the gash down my thigh and the huge swelling underlying turned out only to be bruising. My face, however was another story. Something solid had smashed up under my chin, causing a large laceration and a few broken teeth, but luckily again, my jaw was intact.
I was taken, limping and bleeding, to the local hospital on the island. It wasn't really a hospital, just a one room clinic, and since it was night and there was no generator running, I was stitched up by torchlight, using a needle and thread dipped in alcohol. There was no anaesthetic. I returned to my rat infested bunk feeling very sore and sorry for myself. But thankfully alive.
It brings a shiver to my spine even now, to think how close I was to not living past 25. But it didn't stop me travelling. The injury caused me to extend my stay in Thailand and return to Koh Tao for a week of recuperation. That week I spent back on the island hanging out with the cute Englishman and a Scottish lass, eating with the locals, strolling along the beaches, and smoking a lot of weed, was probably one of the most enjoyable weeks of my life.
It's a reason I will never go back to Koh Tao, now that it's a crazy dive mecca full of backpackers and noisy long tail boats, because it holds such a special place in my heart. And although it was one of the worst experiences of my life, it also ended up being one of the best. I don't want to ruin that.