Where we’re at: I’m time-traveling back to finally recap 2020, including this Wander Women Retreat in Koh Tao in March. This post is Part II of III. Find Part I here!
We’re re-launching this retreat in 2023 as a Learn To Dive Retreat! Learn more here. (While originally scheduled for 2022, the omicron outbreak forced us to postpone until next year — and we know it will be worth the wait!)
So, where were we?
Ah, yes. The world seemed to be collapsing in on itself everywhere but Koh Tao, where I was in the midst of running my final Wander Women BC retreat — before COVID consumed all of our lives. Like characters from some kind of reverse Lost, we seemed, at least for the briefest blip of time, to be living in a magical place that the smoke monster couldn’t get to.
(I think my blog is going to be like, 27% TV metaphors from here on out. Hope everyone is okay with that.)
The third day of our retreat began with another beautiful breakfast in the garden of our villa, followed by a morning dive boat. One of my favorite things about running my own retreats is I can largely set the rules. That means, wherever I can help it, 6AM launches? No thanks! (No tanks, even! Ha! No?! Mkay.)
Instead, we leave at — at least what I consider to be — civilized hours.
I can generally have quite a bit of input on our dive boat departure times. What I can’t control? The dive conditions.
Which is why I was out of my mind with joy when we descended underwater for our first dive of the day and found this.
We were at Chumphon, one of the most famous dive sites around Koh Tao, and for good reason. I can tell you, looking back on these amazing photos, this was amongst the most beautiful I’d ever seen it. The crystal visibility, the schooling fish, the bright coral — this is what people come from all over the world to dive in Thailand for.
Plus, we had us.
And as you can see from these big underwater smiles… our girls were pretty pleased too.
I’m not even going to apologize for the over-documentation of this particular dive. It was just that good — and is there a more soothing scroll than this one?
The next dive at Red Rock was equally as stunning. We were just hitting a dive jackpot day.
On retreats, unless there’s a guest that I buddy up with for a particular reason, I tend to float between the groups we make based on experience level and interest (for example, we put photographers together, because they tend to dive slow!) On this day, every group I found was giving me infinite shakas — underwater hand signaling for, this is insanely cool!
And then, before we knew it, we were back at the surface, buzzing from the energy of a great dive morning.
I was also beyond excited for lunch — perhaps disproportionately so, ha. But I can’t help it. No one does masaman curry, one of my favorite Thai dishes, like Blue Chair Restaurant. And it’s just one of those little gems that you might walk right by without knowing that you’re about to miss the best curry on planet earth.
If you don’t mind me just casually gushing over my business for a quick moment, I think this is what makes Wander Women Koh Tao so special. You’re truly taking a combined twelve years of Shannon and my experience living on this tiny little rock, and getting to drop in for a week of the best of it.
And while everyone was like, totally welcome to order whatever they liked, I may or may not have intoned that if they didn’t get a curry and a fresh coconut, they were making the worst mistake of their lives.
After some free time to hit Sairee’s cute boutiques, lounge by our private pools, or take a quick snooze, we were back on the yoga deck for another class. This time, with our friend Ariel, the arm balance queen! I love highlighting local teachers and friends on this retreat.
Plus, it’s always a treat for me to slip out of teacher and back into student mode, and practice alongside my guests. There’s something really intimate about the shared energy of these daily yoga classes on a retreat. It’s a little addictive! (Probably a big part of why I can’t stop putting new trips on my calendar — a preview of which for 2022 is coming out this week!)
Post-savasana, it was time for our intrepid night divers to head out. While night diving isn’t for everyone, I always like to incorporate it as an optional extra to a trip where and when I can. Especially, like on our Koh Tao and Red Sea Retreat, where we can offer the wildly unique option of a UV night dive.
Truly, is really is so cool! Instead of a regular torch, you bring an ultraviolet one and put a special filter over your mask that allows you to see what and who underwater fluoresces. While Shannon and Hannah led the neon chasers, the rest of the crew took the night to either venture off for their own dinner, or, as most of the group opted for — order in pizza for a slumber party at the villa.
Hey, it was halfway through a big week!
Which brought us to the fourth day of the retreat, and one perhaps the nearest to my heart — conservation day. After having an eco-focused PADI Dive Against Debris course as one of the “Choose Your Own Adventure” options for our first retreat in 2018, I felt strongly that it was an experience all our guests needed to have.
And so, we built a whole day around honoring the beautiful island hosting us! Starting with a morning rooftop nature-inspired flow and metta-meditation led by me. When one of the guests came up to me after and told me it was the best class of her life, my heart just about burst.
Next, we grabbed some bags for a beach cleanup! You know how sometimes, despite your very best intentions, you end up with a plastic bag or two? Your laundry that you dropped off in a reusable bag gets returned in one, your delivery you requested plastic-free gets handed to you in one, etc. Well, I keep those — and use them for cleanups like these!
We walked (no carbon emissions!) all the way from the villa to our lunch spot of choice, Vegetabowl (a plant-powered, female-owned favorite!) and then sorted out all the recycling from the trash we’d collected on our walk (and washed our hands after, le duh!) I can’t be certain, but I’m pretty sure that somewhere in the world, Greta Thunberg was smiling.
And then we were off for our conservation scuba dives. We were so lucky this year to have Leslie, who worked with the World Wildlife Fund Thailand, lead us in a day of eco-minded diving at Japanese Gardens and Junkyard.
We kicked things off with a PADI Project Aware underwater cleanup and water quality survey, followed by a tour of the artificial reefs that many dive schools on Koh Tao have combined forces to study and learn from.
As you can see, we quickly learned science doesn’t have to be all serious.
After our 2018 retreat, I was amazed how much everyone gushed on Junkyard! Give the people what they want, right? So I made sure to include it in this trip.
And once again, it brought delight — and facilitated some great conversations on artificial reefs and why they’re an important part of relieving pressure on natural reefs and creating underwater research labs for finding even more long-term ocean impact solutions.
You didn’t think our theme day was over when we surfaced, right? Phew, that would have been embarrassing!
Nope, we all went and got gussied up and reconvened on the roof for a happy hour with Thai wine (yes, it exists!), vegan cheese, and some epic guest speakers.
We’d invited Leslie to give a talk on her work with World Wildlife Fund, which she rocked. But after several of our guests in nursing (fun fact alert: the medical field is the most common for Wander Women attendees to work in) showed interest in learning more about what it’s like to be a dive medic, I called in my friend Chris, Koh Tao’s premiere dive doc, in to give a talk too. I love when we can pull strings and make spontaneous special moments like this happen for our guests. Our ears are always open looking for the opportunity!
And we closed our Earth-friendly day with dinner at Vegan Island, sadly a casualty of the pandemic, but in that moment, the perfect place for our big family dinner.
Before we knew it it was day five of the retreat, also known as when “wait a minute, where is the time going?!” generally becomes every other sentence that comes out of my mouth.
And what do ya know — it was another theme day. This time, our signature Choose Your Own Adventure day! For this one, retreaters choose between one day PADI continuing education courses in Freediving, Nitrox, or Underwater Photography.
It’s a really fun day for me because I get to see everyone, who’s been gaining confidence and comfort underwater with every dive, get to start to chase a passion or just push themselves to try something new — two gifts diving has given me over and over again.
After a morning spent at the best classrooms in the world — a beachfront one — we took our private dive boat out for an afternoon of fun starting at the HTMS Sattukut.
This is Koh Tao’s most famous recreational wreck dive, and I joined the nitrox crew — a course I feel all serious divers need to consider — and one that I myself too completed right here on Koh Tao.
I have to admit though, on this particular day, I envied the freedivers! PADI Freediving is a course that I cannot wait to finally officially tackle after lots of dabbling. Wander Women Freediving — it’s coming to a sales page near you, someday!
I mean… just look at these absolute mermaids! Who wouldn’t want to be this free, under the sea.
It was another beautiful day out on the water. And, as I couldn’t stop marveling at, the next day would be our final diving one. Wait a minute, where did the time go?!”
We ended a busy day in a deliciously low-key way. At a beautiful yoga shala in Chalok Bay, overlooking the sunset, Shannon led us through a melt-worthy yin yoga practice.
After, we floated into Koh Tao Cinema, where we’d reserved the cute tropical dinner theater for a private showing. We took an eyes-closed vote, and I am extremely pleased to reveal that Splash was the big winner. Could there be a more appropriate end to the day?
I must admit, writing these recaps has me aching beyond belief for this trip, for this place, for these memories. It’s true that each day, the sense that our bubble was going to eventually burst and our acceptance grew that there was nowhere in this world to hide from the changes heading to our shores as COVID swept the globe. Behind the scenes, each night brought a new wave of questions as to what was going to happen as we hugged our guests goodbye. We were managing a lot of uncertainty, and a lot of emotions.
But at least some of them were bliss — and even, despite the worst case scenarios that tended to creep in in the dark of the night — I still look back on it as somewhat of a time of innocence.
Thanks for revisiting it with me.
One more recap coming your way soon… <3