Where to Take a Padi Open Water Scuba Diving Course in Thailand

Andy Burrows
Ever wonder what it would be like to jump into the water and look around 40m below the surface? The underwater world is mysterious and yet inviting, the experience of diving it provides and addictive sense of zen. There’s no better place to have your first dive experience than Thailand – with good conditions year round.

Most dive shops in Thailand offer PADI certification but it’s also possible to find a few offering NAUI and SSI certifications. Beginners may be more comfortable diving in the calmer and shallower waters off the east coast of Thailand, with destinations such as Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Pattaya, Koh Samet or Koh Chang being the most popular on that side.

More advanced divers and those beginners who are confident in their abilities will have a better time diving around Phuket and the Similan Islands. Hotspots for diving around here include Phuket, Phi Phi and Khao Lak.

Phuket has the most upscale dive operations but if you are watching your budget, you might be more comfortable taking a course at Phi Phi or Khao Lak. Phi Phi is quite popular among the younger crowd but there are hotels catering to older couples and families, which also offer scuba diving courses. Khao Lak offers an excellent choice of dive shops and also has a good range of accommodation to suit most tastes. It is also the closest jumping off point to the Similan Islands.

The Similan Islands, technically located in Phang Nga province, provide some of the best dive sites in the world. Protected within a marine national park, the nine islands are still pristine and rich with wildlife above and below the water. Most dive operators will take you ashore at one of the islands, where you can enjoy the powder-white beaches and see exotic birds and monkeys.

Under the waves, the colourful reefs and boulder formations are teeming with coral and a variety of marine life. Sometimes whale sharks are even spotted in the waters, as well as rays and other sharks. Visibility is good, varying from 30-50m. The best way to see the Similans is by liveaboard, and most dive operators will allow you to do your Open Water dives from the boat if you’ve completed the paper and pool work ashore beforehand.

Much like Phi Phi, Koh Tao is a fun place for backpackers to learn how to scuba dive. This may well be the most affordable place in Thailand to take a PADI Open Water course and to build up your dive log. Unfortunately it’s not the best diving in Thailand – but it’s not yet the worst either. Koh Tao used to offer frequent whale shark sightings but they are relatively rare these days. It’s also conveniently close (2 hours by speed boat) to Samui. In fact you can do diving courses on Samui too.

The number of dive boats on a site is not restricted, so you may find there is too much company around peak dive times. You may find yourself surrounded by 50 to 100 divers at a time, with most of them being Open Water students or day trippers from Samui.

Needless to say, Koh Tao might be great for learning and for progressing to instructor – but it’s not all that great for just recreational diving. Many people come here specifically to advance through courses and proceed with PADI Advanced, Rescue Diver, Dive Master/Master Scuba Diver and Instructor courses.

There are so many choices on Koh Tao that you should look carefully at each dive shop and make sure they offer you the best value for money.

Not all dive instructors are the same, and some are downright scary. Likewise, equipment standards can vary, and you’ll want to make sure any shop you choose has quality equipment and maintains it properly and hygienically. You should also check into the insurance policy of the dive shop and enquire as to if you should purchase your own dive insurance for the hyperbaric chamber if you have an accident.

Most the dive operations in Thailand are run by foreigners, which is just as well since Thais have a rather different approach to safety and responsibility, but you’ll find yourself diving with plenty of Thai staff who are their usual friendly easy-going selves.

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