So, you've finally booked that exotic holiday to Thailand and now you're thinking about doing something really different? Why not get your PADI Open Water certification? It takes just a few days and will open up a whole new underwater world to you.
You'll find PADI is the most widely available certification with just a handful of shops offering NAUI and SSI certificates. There are dive shops all over Thailand, in places like Phuket, Khao Lak, Chumpon, Hua Hin, Koh Tao, Koh Samui, Koh Phangnan, Koh Chang, Koh Samet, Pattaya, Phi Phi, Krabi and more.
Some dive shops are tied to resorts while many are their own businesses. You can do your PADI Open Water paperwork in your home country before you arrive and do your checkout dives in Thailand, or do the whole course in Thailand. You also have the choice of doing your checkout dives by daytrip or from a liveaboard vessel.
Where you go to take your course depends on what your preferences are. Each location has its own attractions and if you plan to spend more time above the water than below it, you might want to choose your destination for its other offerings. Likewise, not all dive shops or instructors are of the same quality.
You'll want to visit several dive shops where you are staying and meeting the instructor that you would have if you did your Open Water course there. If English is not your native language, you may find a dive shop with an instructor speaking Dutch, French, Italian, etc. Dive shops in the more popular diving areas provide instruction and exams in several languages.
Equipment standards vary between shops as well. You'll want to make sure that the equipment is not too old and that it has been well maintained and stored, as well as properly cleaned. For instance, regulators go in your mouth and they should be well cleaned between users. Additionally, most people urinate in their wetsuits and these should be cleaned after each dive. All equipment must be cleaned of salt water or the crystallization can damage it.
Poorly maintained regulator, BCDs and dive computers can malfunction and cause a serious accident that may even lead to your death. Likewise, a poorly trained dive instructor or one who does not take his or her job seriously can get you killed too.
One of the most popular places to take PADI courses in Thailand is Koh Tao, known for its cheap diving and abundance of dive shops, and within easy reach of Samui. You'll have plenty of choices here and would be wise to take your time and visit as many shops as possible. Koh Tao is a good place to learn how to move and to proceed through, Rescue Diver, Divemaster / Master Scuba Diver, and Instructor courses.
However, this island is not recommended for fun, recreational dives as the visibility and quality of the reefs is relatively poor. Koh Tao is most popular with young backpackers, although there are a few resorts for those who do not enjoy this scene. Phi Phi offers a similar scene on a smaller scale with better diving.
For quality diving, it's best to go to Phuket or Khao Lak, where you have easy access to the Similan Islands. These nine islands are part of Phang Nga province and located within a marine national park. They are pristine and rich with wildlife above and below the water. The beaches here are some of the most beautiful in the world and the dive spots are some of the best in the world. Colorful reefs and boulder formations are a plus, with a variety of coral and marine life. Visibility is also good, varying from 30 to 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, usually with diving courses on Phuket. Note that in mind that the Similans are closed during the low season due to unfavurable boating and diving conditions. Additionally, sites have depths well past the recreational limit of 40m and some may have currents. It's advisable that you take courses past Open Water to become a stronger diver and be allowed to move to the limit.
There are diving courses on Samui as well, and plenty of dive operators offering all levels of diving courses on Phuket, even a few in Krabi. In fact you'll find scuba courses in Pattaya, Koh Chang and other places, but with less choice of date flexibility.