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Which school/island would you all recommend for a first time diver?

Four friends and I will be in the South of Thailand mid to late February. It sounds as though I'm the only one interested in taking the courses. Which schools would be best for a beginner? Which Islands would have the most diverse attractions at a reasonable rate? Would the Andaman Sea or Gulf of Thailand have better diving this time of year? I'm pushing for Ko Tao, but wouldn't mind spending portions of the trip on either side. What's the best way to get from Phuket area to Ko Samui? Worth going overland or best to fly? Others primary interest seem to be...

Beaches - There's a lot of interest in Ko Phi Phi Don to see the island where The Beach was filmed. Though, I'm hesitant to commit as I've read it has been overrun by the likes of us and is quite pricey (600THB for a day trip or 800THB for a shack? I suppose that gives you an idea of our budget) and would commit us to at least a portion of the trip on the Andaman Sea side of the peninsula.

Bars - Sounds like a lot of the dive schools get going pretty early in the morning, but we're all interested in a place to belly up at the end of the day. Preferably, these would be of the dive variety with equal parts local and foreigner as opposed to the tourist trap mai tai type.

Temples/Historical sites - We're coming from sub zero temperatures and need to thaw out on the beach more than anything else, but would like to soak up some culture as well.

I'm open to any other suggestions that would help sell the best dive Islands to my friends. Zip lines, cliff diving, jungle trekking/cycling and bungee jumping would garner the most support.

I've already decided to cut Chiangmai and Northern Thailand from the trip as I want to limit time in transit. The interest we had in Go Go bars and riding elephants has been tempered by a number of bloggers pointing out they contribute to human trafficking and animal abuse. We won't be able to make the full moon festival. Thus we're down to Island Hopping. A rough life to be sure. So what little gems can you suggest? If you were to go again would you focus on the Gulf of Thailand or Andaman Sea? Both? Any good overland adventures between the two or best to fly? Never one for brevity and grateful for your help in advance, JM

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