Pattaya's Dive Sites, The Eastern Seaboard
Pattaya, Thailand's first resort built for foreign tourists, became infamous as a Rest and Recuperation destination for American soldiers during the American-Vietnamese war. The first dive shop opened for business during this time and here, many servicemen and their visiting families became some of the first foreigners to scuba dive recreationally in Thailand. Of course, many single men came looking for more numbing ways to forget the horrors of war, so vast numbers of bars, discotheques, and other types of watering-holes opened as well. Today, huge high-rise hotels follow the curve of the bay and Pattaya, while still popular with international visitors, has become more attractive as a weekend getaway for residents of Bangkok.
Just About Everything
Although Pattaya is far more densely populated than other tourist areas in Thailand-its appearance is more similar to Australia's Gold Coast or Hawaii's Waikiki rather than Phuket or Ko Samui-Pattaya remains popular as this city beside the sea is bustling and energetic. Even though Pattaya has received considerable negative press over the past few years-a great deal of it undeserved-it has a certain character that people return for. Its beaches may not be the finest in the Gulf, its diving may not be the most extraordinary in Thailand, and its hustle may not make it the most tranquil and sedate environment in Southeast Asia. But, with a multitude of sporting activities-including golf, tennis, water fun-parks, sailing, bowling and car racing to name a few-an unimaginably unrestrained night life, notable international and local restaurants, world-class hotels, and diverse and often low-priced shopping, Pattaya has more to offer than any other resort in the region. Pattaya is definitely an active resort and scuba diving enthusiasts will find plenty to keep them busy.
Since Thailand's recreational diving industry was born in Pattaya, dive centers there have set valuable examples to other more recently opened diving businesses in other parts of Southeast Asia. Their main activities are teaching introductory courses and open water certification courses to new divers. In addition, they specialize in advanced training programs for divers, offering scheduling that is specially suited to residents working in Bangkok-both foreign and Thai. All dive centers in Pattaya conduct one day diving trips and some are now starting to delve into the live-aboard scene, offering longer trips to Ko Chang near the Thai-Cambodian border.
One problem that shop-owners have faced and become frustrated with is the lack of clear environmental policy on the part of the local government. This combined with a solid population growth over the past 20 years or so has caused many of the dive sites to deteriorate. Finally, on some islands jet ski operators have made it all but impossible for reputable instructors to offer safe diving conditions. This does not mean that all sites offer poor diving or unsafe conditions; it does mean that the operators have been forced to go further a field to find safe and pleasant diving environments.
Wrecks and More Wrecks
Visitors to the area will be happy to discover that some of the best wreck diving in Thailand is found here. Although there are several wrecks scattered around, the two best sites in the area are the Bremen and the Hardeep.
The Hardeep is considered to the be the best wreck dive and stores offer one-day and two-day trips to the site. Located between Ko Samaesan and Ko Chuang, the Hardeep is a 42 meter-long Indonesian freighter that sank in 1942 and now rests on her side in 21-27 meters of water. As with all wrecks, one of the main reasons people dive on them is because of the eerie emotions they experience when the ship first becomes visible through the gloom. Although I'm a relatively inexperienced wreck diver, when I do have the opportunity to dive on a ship I am always impressed by what I imagine were the massive forces that took them down. And, it is a sobering experience to think about the fate of the crew and the terror they must have felt while watching their vessel sink. This aside, the main reason for diving on sunken ships is that they are a magnet for incredible amounts of marine life.
Today the wreck is still and tranquil-except for the masses of tropical fish who have made this disaster their home. It is also home to colonies of fan corals and large barrel sponges. Although visibility is not dependably clear here-averaging about the same the in rest of the Gulf of Thailand-the prolific marine life and the possibility of making a safe penetration into the wreck makes the dive one of the most inviting around.
The second popular wreck is the Bremen located near the village of Sattahip South of Pattaya city. Although there has less and less profile to this 300 foot steel ship every year due to natural deterioration, the wreck attracts large schools of yellow tail snappers and barracuda especially during slack tide. An excellent deep dive for an advanced course, the wreck rests at about 25 meters and visibility ranges from around seven to ten meters.
Some Pretty Nice Coral Too!
For those divers interested in more than ship wrecks, coral diving in Pattaya can be satisfying as well. Often dive centers will offer a coral dive during their trip to the Hardeep as Ko Chuang and Ko Samaesan have healthy coral down to as deep as 30 meters. Although larger animals such as sharks and rays are occasionally seen, the big attractions here are the abundance of soft and hard corals and beautiful, colorful anemones.
For a gentle coral dive specially suited to beginners, many operators offer a one day excursion to the nearby island of Ko Krok. As it is a private island, no jet-skis are around to bother divers or snorkelers. Shallow drift dives in the coral gardens of this island are quite pleasant and the added advantage of a short boat-ride makes for a popular trip. Interestingly enough, several environmental groups from the Bangkok area have begun a project to encourage coral growth in the area. This project is funded by both the government and private donors and is an encouraging start towards new environmental policy in the Pattaya area.
Further offshore, the island Ko Rin probably offers Pattaya's best diving. The underwater profile is more interesting here compared with other places and water clarity can be excellent, sometimes exceeding 25 meters. Rocky canyons form swim-throughs which are not only wonderful for divers but cause currents to wash around the rocks causing great environmental conditions for the vast array of marine life that live here. Although the day can be long due the distances involved in getting to the different sites in this area, those looking for clearer water will be find the longer traveling times worthwhile.
East to Koh Chang near Cambodia
Recently there has been much discussion of the diving possibilities Southeast of Pattaya in the Ko Chang area. As of this writing, at least three dive centers are speaking seriously about expanding in the area, there are a few dive centers directly on Koh Chang now. This island is getting popular with the European package tourists too, so there are lots of accommodation possibilities. Opinions vary widely on just how good the diving is. Some say it is better than the Similans–which is simply not so-and others say it is terrible–which is also incorrect. The dive sites which are further offshore are the best, as with all places in Thailand, but limited visibility is not going to turn this place into a world-class diving mecca.
The area itself is rich in history and culture as it is located almost right on the border with Cambodia (Kampuchea). With the recent and ongoing political turmoil in Cambodia, very little tourist development has occurred here. The hilly, jungle-covered islands are striking in their beauty and many of the beaches rival those of our Southern islands. The potential for tourist development is good and once things settle down politically, the area will no doubt boom.
What most excites the diving operators who express their opinions about the diving around Ko Chang are the underwater pinnacles that are located offshore of Ko Chang and Ko Raet. As with many of the pinnacles in Thai waters, taking trips here will require operators to have GPS navigation systems on board their boats. Otherwise they will be unable to locate them consistently and dependably.
It's the Pinnacles and the Wrecks, Baby
The best diving spots in both the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand are on pinnacles because of the rich conditions there which create healthy environments for marine life. Not only will the big animals such as sharks and rays be more common, but the corals and fish-life on these pinnacles are far more dense.
A popular activity in the Gulf of Thailand and especially out of Pattaya is technical diving. This allows the trained diver to explore wrecks at depths beyond recreational limits. This has allowed the dive centers to find more interesting dive sites than they were able to do in the past.
When the Ko Chang area is properly explored-with the proper equipment-it will most likely turn into one of the most popular diving areas in the Gulf.
As with the island of Ko Samui to the South, Pattaya is probably not the place for a dedicated diving holiday. But for those divers looking for an active sporting life-or a busy night-life-as well as diving-Pattaya might well be the answer. For the student of scuba, Pattaya offers many opportunities as well. For a week or a weekend, Pattaya has the potential to keep even the most active diver happy.
About the Author
John Williams has written, co-authored, or contributed to four diving guides on Thailand, the Mergui Archipelago, and the Andaman Islands. These are the award-winning Lonely Planet Diving & Snorkeling series, Periplus Editions Diving Southeast Asia, Asian Diver Scuba Guides and Singapore's Times Edition Diving Thailand. He has lived in Phuket and dived in Thailand's waters since 1987.