Thailand is one of the cheapest and most beautiful places in the world to scuba dive. If you are looking to get certified on your trip to Thailand there are hundreds of dive shops to choose from and all at relatively the same low price since the demand for certifications and number of shops keeps the prices down. The most popular islands to get certified are Koh Tao, on the Gulf of Thailand side, and Koh Phi Phi Don on the Andaman Sea, although it’s slightly more expensive there. We ultimately decided on Koh Tao for our certification and then went back to Koh Phi Phi for two days of fun dives.
As soon as you arrive on Koh Tao, you are surrounded by dive shops and once you settle in on Sairee Beach, finding the shop that’s right for you can feel like a daunting task. We used TripAdvisor reviews to narrow down our search for the most popular shops in Sairee Beach and then went to 4-5 shops to look more specifically at pricing, availability and if it generally felt like a good fit for us.
First we had to consider SSI or PADI for our certification. Honestly, it makes no difference what you choose as they are both recognized globally by all dive shops. SSI tends to be cheaper because they don’t require you to purchase your own, brand new course material which is an additional fee with PADI. If you have an open-water certification in PADI/SSI and are aiming for your advanced, it is okay to switch schools for the second course. The only time you will need to be concerned with the specific company is if you plan to become a dive instructor.
After gathering information from other blogs we decided on a list of questions to inquire about at each shop. It was important for us to go with a smaller school and smaller groups on the boat, because we wanted more flexibility and the opportunity for a lot of 1-on-1 time with our instructor. Most schools have groups no larger than 4 with an instructor and this should be the max. We also asked what dive sites they go to and the time they go out in the morning. Keep in mind that with several dive shops, there are several divers at each site so the earlier the boat leaves, the better chance you have to see fish. A lot of dive shops also advertise free accommodation (typically a dorm bed) if you book with them, so if you are looking to save on cost, this may be a good way to narrow down your search. We asked about discounts (since haggling is necessary in Asia), but the only discounts available are booking multiple courses at once and future fun dives with the school you got certified with. If you plan to stay on the island for more dives, let the school know so they can make you aware of these discounts for advanced bookings and discounted fun dives following your certification. Last, and most important, ask how many dives are included.
In the end we went with Roctopus Dive. They are the #1 rated dive shop on Koh Tao and we had a fantastic experience with them. The owners and instructors have worked all over the world, each having logged thousands of dives. They were incredibly organized, safe and so much fun to dive with. Everyone on board was so personable and great to be around and they planned nights out to celebrate certified divers and get to know the team better. We booked our open-water and advanced courses back to back and they gave us a 10% discount and a free Roctopus t-shirt.
(FYI- If you are concerned about taking photos underwater to document your experience, you cannot take a camera with you during your open-water certification but you are allowed to take photos on the advanced course. The open-water course has a lot of safety training involved and they need your full attention on your first few dives.)
Open-Water Certification (certified to a depth of 18 meters)
The open-water course is 4 days and includes a small amount of course work and a test that you have to pass to be certified as well as 4 dives and a pool session. During the pool session the instructor makes sure you can tread water and swim a few lengths, then they show you the equipment and briefly go over dive skills such as clearing and removing your mask underwater, buddy assist techniques and getting familiar with breathing underwater.
Day 1 and 2: Orientation, coursework, classroom sessions and pool training.
Day 3: Pass your written test and dive 1 and 2 in the water. You will be asked to practice the pool skills you learned, get familiar with the underwater hand signals, and simulate out of air scenarios and emergency ascents.
Day 4: Dives 3 and 4. You will be more familiar with the equipment and you will be tested on how to put your gear together correctly without help from your instructor. In the water, your instructor will make sure that you can successfully demonstrate the skills you were working on, complete buddy checks, and successfully complete your buddy assist and ascent techniques. If you pass these then you will officially be an Open-Water Diver.
Advanced Adventurer Certification (certified to a depth of 30 meters)
The advanced certification is completed over 2 days. There is no coursework to complete and included 5 dives. The 5 dives focus on dive specialties as well as certifying you to a depth of 30 meters. There is a focus on dive equipment as well, including how to use a dive computer and compass. You will be briefed on the dive sites and debriefed following every dive to make sure you can log dives accurately and understand “no decompression limits”. Our dives (as recommended by Roctopus) included navigation, buoyancy, deep dive, night dive and wreck dive. After completing an advanced course, divers can obtain specialty certifications in these areas; the dives get you familiar with various aspects of diving and begin your path to complete these specs, should you choose to do that.
Day 1: 2 dives. Buoyancy and navigation. We highly recommend these dives because they teach you how to navigate underwater using a compass and natural navigation as well as perfect a neutral buoyancy underwater.
Day 2: 3 dives. Deep dive, wreck dive and night dive. The deep dive will go down to 30 meters and test your nitrogen narcosis levels. On the wreck dive you will explore a WWII battleship that has been sunk in the Gulf of Thailand. On the night dive (or low-visibility dive), you will have a torch with you underwater and learn different hand signals. It sounds terrifying but it is the best dive you will do. It was incredible to be in the water at night with so few divers around.
After 6 days in the water, we are officially Advanced Adventurer Divers and we are already planning to do our Divemaster in the Gili Islands this summer. Stay tuned for more posts on our dive master planning and experience!
Koh Phi Phi- Fun Diving
After you’ve completed your open-water certification you can officially participate in fun dives around the world. Fun dives usually involve a half-day on the dive boat, 2 dives, with lunch and dive equipment included in the price. On a fun dive you will typically go out in groups of no more than 4 divers, all with the same general experience and certification level, led by a dive master or instructor who will lead you around the dive sites.
We chose to head back to Koh Phi Phi Don to research dive sites and look around for dive shops we could do fun dives with. The prices for fun dives are set for all dive shops at 2500 baht (approx. $75) so there is no use in looking for discounts- this price includes lunch, equipment and 2 dives. They offer a 500 baht discount if you have your own equipment (BC, regulator, and wet suit). There are several great dive sites to explore and shops will have their daily schedule (morning and afternoon) listed for the week of where they plan to go. You can pay more and head out to other dive sites, including wreck dives, night dives and deep dives but we opted for the more common sites based on our budget.
Every dive shop will be going to Koh Bida Nok and Koh Bida Nai, just south of Koh Phi Phi Lei. These are the most popular dive sites with a diving wall and reefs to explore where you can see black tip reef sharks, giant moray eels, sea snakes, schools of snapper, lionfish and turtles. We dove both sites and saw a ton of beautiful sea life, more than we saw Koh Tao.
The diving itself was great on Phi Phi, but our only critique is with the dive shops. After the incredible experience we had on Koh Tao with our dive shop we had high expectations. We dove twice on Phi Phi with two different companies and left feeling disappointed with both. On Koh Tao we felt like everyone in the dive community was so passionate about diving and wanted to make the customers feel like part of the family. If you have been to Koh Phi Phi before, you know that this is a party island. Our impression upon leaving was that our dive instructors were there to party first, and dive second. They weren’t as engaging and friendly, they didn’t get us excited for the dives or get to know us, and most of the dive masters/instructors were hungover from the night before so interacting with travelers was not their first priority.
For us, the dive shop is nearly as important as the diving. This is an expensive activity and an experience most travelers have once in their life so it needs to be memorable. Unfortunately we left feeling so-so about the diving, but don’t let this discourage you from diving there. It is still a beautiful place to dive, these are just our observations. The marine life is abundant and the diving is relatively cheap, it is still worthwhile if you are making a trip to Koh Phi Phi.