Phang Nga Bay is without a doubt Phuket and Thailand most fascinating landscape, an ‘Out of this world’ scenery you must absolutely see with your own eyes if you crossed half the globe just to come to here. The best way to explore it is in a silent kayak slowly gliding among giant cliffs. We have been in Phang Nga a dozen times and still we are still amazed. John Gray Sea Canoe may not be the cheapest company going around Phang Nga but he is the one who discovered it decades ago and made it accessible to everyone. Unfortunately, good ideas are hard to find but easy to copy.
John Gray’s crew cares about you and about nature, they speak a decent to good English and will tell you a lot about what you are about to see and discover. Boats never get crowded and food on board is good. You’ll be asked to respect Nature around you as much as they do, which means no touching, no loud talking and of course no smoking while you are exploring the famous ‘Hongs’ (enclosed lagoons, usually only accessible through a narrow tunnel when tides permit). They also try to avoid crowded places: a Hong with a hundred canoes in it is not exactly a great vision of nature at its best.
They offer several programs by day, but the ‘Hong by Starlight’ offers more than other daytrips: you get to visit several lagoons plus an extra one at night. Being inside an enclosed hong in an almost total darkness creates a very special atmosphere, drifting in candlelight, starlight and bio-luminescent plankton phenomenon.
You’ll be picked up at your hotel and taken to the Ao Por Pier on the east coast where you will board a large wooden boat. Note that Phang Nga is a bay, therefore is quite protected and you will never get seasick. A gentle one hour boat ride takes you to the first island where a light lunch is served on board. They will give short briefing describing the limestone phenomenon, how to enter a Hong through narrow tunnels at specific times. They have to change schedule according to the tides as water in the tunnels giving access to the Hongs raise too close to the ceiling and access becomes impossible.Two persons and one guide board one canoe, but you won’t have to paddle, the guide will do it for you (and you’ll be glad he does). Don’t worry, you will be given some free time in the afternoon to play with the kayaks. Waterproof bags are available for free to protect your camera if you are worried, but it’s really stable in there and you don’t want to miss those pictures.
On the way, you will be amazed to see the size and the amount of these fantastic limestone formations rising straight up from the sea and covered with dense vegetation.While moving from one island to another, the crew will throw some chicken bits in the air and dozens ‘Bramany Kites’ (some kind of Sea Eagles) will flock and dive behind the boat.
Depending on the tides, you will enter some of the tunnels leading to the ‘Hongs’. Some are short with a high ceiling and some are few hundred meters long with a ceiling so low you will be asked to fully lie down face up in your inflatable canoe. Guides will point at interesting things, birds, weird rock formation, vegetation and mangrove. One of the tunnels is called ‘Bat cave’ and you will soon find out why… but nothing to worry about, except a strong bat smell, it’s not disturbing. It’s recommended to keep your mouth shut while you are passing underneath the bats… I wonder why :).
The last tunnel, called diamond cave, was the toughest. It was night time, tide was getting high and our canoe started to get really close to the ceiling to the point that we had to partially deflate it to be able to squeeze in. This is not unusual, but the noise of the rubber scratching hard against the sharp rocks in a very dark flooded narrow funnel tends to stimulate imagination. The passage is not very long on the way in, but definitely feels longer on the way out. Inside this last cave you will be able to release your ‘Kratong’ (see photo), a floating offering made of banana leaves, orchids, incense and candles that are supposed to bring you luck. At the end of the day, going back to the pier around eight o’clock, you’ll know that it was definitely worth the price.
Only soft drinks are available on board… so if you wish to have some beers (reasonably of course) you can buy them at the small restaurant where you meet the crew at the pier. (70 Baht for a Heineken), and oh surprise, there is a SCB ATM just across the road. Staff will keep your beer in the ice … and other customers will look at you with envy!
If you are subject to severe claustrophobia, you might want to try another way to explore Phang Nga Bay as the access to caves can be impressive.