WHAT’S IT LIKE… instructing scuba diving in Ao Nang, Thailand?
It’s a life lived at a more leisurely pace, working very independently, speaking many languages, taking care of guests from all over the world, and spending most of your time admiring calm blue waters and karst rock formations.
This month ,Christine and I started working in Ao Nang, Thailand! After three years as a Divemaster, I finally became a PADI Scuba Instructor and wanted to get started teaching as soon as possible. The region has a ton of marine life to see including massive schools of fish, sea horses and leopard sharks! We have mainly been working with one of the larger dive companies in the area, and we’re having a great time soaking up the beautiful views and incredibly warm water!
We chose Ao Nang because we had heard about its reputation for wonderful diving and opportunities to find work for only a few months. What we found out is that Ao Nang has much more than we expected including miles of gently sloping beaches for running, overhanging trees filled with singing birds and flowers, awesome people to work with, tons of delicious street food stalls and main-road access to large supermarkets for things we really miss from home–the benefits of island life with mainland facilities. We can only stay until May, which coincides with the end of the dive season here, so the timing worked out perfectly.
Ao Nang is a fairly small town situated around a long stretch of beach, surrounded by limestone headlands with busy tourist areas as well as more secluded golden sand strips. It is a great jumping off point for many types of adventurous activities on your days off such as sailing, Muy Thai training and rock climbing. Many dive professionals that we’ve met have come back for several seasons working in Ao Nang, enjoying the relaxed beach life with low costs and loads of opportunities for fun!
There are two common ways for Dive Instructors and Divemasters to work in diving in Ao Nang: you can either work for one shop exclusively for a full season or you can work as a freelance Instructor, working for several shops for part/all of the dive season. If you choose to show up mid-season, it is possible to get work from several companies as a “freelancer” getting employment for a couple months or more. Either way, work schedules are sporadic based on the amount of customers, often determined and announced as a phone call the night before a charter.
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Unlike some other major dive destinations, many dive shops in Ao Nang do not own their own boats and there is no shore diving. OFTEN dive shops just rent space on a large boat, allowing for more than six companies to be on one charter at a time. We like this because once you are on the boat with your guests or students, you pretty much run your own show! Instructors from different companies come together to tell stories and make jokes, but work completely independently. Your guests are your guests and you are mostly allowed to work with them however you see fit. It is a dream come true for an experienced Instructor who is already accustomed to the way they like to teach. You give your own dive site briefing, set up gear the way you want, and lead the dive in your own way. The only thing you have to worry about is making sure you surface SOMEWHERE in the general area of the dive site within the 60 minute allotted time. Too easy!
Our experience with the dive boats has been very good; boats are crewed by local Thai people, giving them a chance to have jobs on the water and us a chance to get to know the locals and some of their customs first hand. Some of our best days have had less to do with diving and more to do with our new Thai friends met on the boat. Several of the dive companies employ local snorkel guides as well as Deckhands and Captains! Even better, some of the dive shops sponsor locals to help them earn scuba certifications, working their way through Divemaster while learning another language to gain work in tourism.
Courses and groups are commonly on ridiculously convenient ratios. The local industry limit on DSDs is two per instructor, Open Water students are limited to four per instructor and fun divers are also at four per guide maximum. Small groups like these make it much easier to really get to know your divers and show them awesome life underwater!
As a bonus, the diving in Ao Nang is pretty great as well! The boat almost never ties to a mooring, which means navigation is hardly necessary, you are essentially drift diving. You get dropped off with your guests and go on your dive. Keep the reef to whichever side was pre-determined and just enjoy. Do your course, work with your DSDs, or show your fun divers a great time, when you are ready to come up, pop a Surface Marker Buoy, and the boat comes back to get you!! The visibility usually ranges from okay to good (15 feet to 60 feet) and there is some great aquatic life to keep an eye out for. It isn’t strange to see black-tip reef sharks, leopard sharks, nudibranchs, sea horses, a variety of pipefish, and THOUSANDS of colorful fish in one giant school!!! Rumors even go around of good chances to see whale sharks, but I never get my hopes up.
All of that great news does not come without a cost. The biggest negative to the dive industry in Ao Nang is the LONG days of work for just one charter. This is due to the fact that there are nearly zero dive sites near Ao Nang itself, most of the diving takes place around the Phi Phi islands. These two islands can be around a two and a half hour boat ride away!! There are dive shops with faster boats but they are also smaller, louder, and cramped. This long ride to the NEAREST dive site means that most days are about 10 hours long for maybe 2 hours of diving! Not Ideal!
Additionally, busy times throughout the season vary, and as the tourist season ebbs and flows, so does the work load. Full-time employees are clearly called first, then freelancers farther down the list. You may find yourself working 8 days in a row and then waiting by the phone for two weeks straight! It usually isn’t that bad but be warned.
Another more serious word of caution: speed boat drivers around the Phi Phi islands know one speed—full throttle! They cut corners, blow through dive sites, and pay little attention to rules. They are notoriously inexperienced and unqualified, yet are happy to man the helm at 60 knots! There have been a few cases of speed boats running over snorkelers in recent years and an incident with divers at the surface this year. ALWAYS use a surface signal when at the surface or surfacing in areas patrolled by these boats!
HOUSING, TRANSPORTATION, AND MONEY:
Housing is not offered by employers in Ao Nang, but is easy to find. You can show up, get a hotel room and go apartment shopping for monthly agreements. Depending on what you want, a room or apartment can range from $200/month to $450/month. The lower end is often located a few miles from the beach and may not have utilities included. A motorbike is a good idea to get around and make life easier running about $70-$90/month. Average pay for working charters seems pretty set between shops with only marginal differences here and there. On average it is about $25 to $35 a day. It seems low, but so is the cost of living! This will buy all your meals for three or four days if you can avoid the seaside restaurants at night. A typical meal is about $2 or $3 dollars and a big beer is $1.50. Cheap living if you like local restaurants and food.
HOW YOU CAN TEACH DIVING IN AO NANG:
The beginning of the dive season starts around November lasting until May, so showing up near the beginning can help you get full-time employment. Ao Nang has a variety PADI shops, some of which also teach CMAS and SSI. If you are already an Instructor or Divemaster for one of these, come to Ao Nang, walk up and down the main street, and pass out your CV in person. Try to avoid going in at charter start/end times, walking around after 9 am and before 4 p.m. Many of the shops will give you a quick little interview, nothing too formal, and then file your CV to call you if they need help. Work permits are available, so it is important to discuss what is required to get them with your employer. Make sure your CV includes your local Thai number, which languages you can teach in, specialties you can teach and a small photo of you at the top so they can remember who you are! Otherwise, show up, pass out your info, and just wait patiently!
Good luck and have fun diving in Ao Nang!
Disclaimer: All opinions in this article are my own and do not express the opinions of others or my employer. Also, this is an article about my experience working for one employer and will probably vary for others during different times, with different people and with different companies. Use your head.