sign in a cave in Laos

8 June 2008

Phang Nga Bay canoeing - BT 2007

Kayak your way through Thailand's island delights

Liz Price


HAVE you ever tried to take a photo of a moving bird while bobbing up and down in a canoe? It's not easy. The sea was a bit choppy, and as I paddled out of the cave, an egret was wading in the shallows of the cave entrance, looking for its lunch. It was a good opportunity to take a shot of a bird at such close quarters.

The views of the nearby limestone islands were stunning. The karst towers rose from the Andaman Sea like stately sentinels, and the reds and browns of the rocks were quite a contrast against the blue sky and green sea. It was a picture postcard scene.

The National Marine Park of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is full of magnificent limestone islands. I had a window seat as the plane flew over this amazing bay on its approach to Phuket's International airport, and I saw dozens of islands dotted around, large and small, surrounded by water of different shades of blue and green.

Numerous boats take tourists daily to this area, in particular to James Bond Island, Ko Phing Kan, which was made famous when used for filming The Man with the Golden Gun.

I booked to do a sea canoe trip to the cave hongs, which is the Thai word for room. These hongs are inland open-air tidal lagoons, surrounded by sheer limestone cliffs. The only way in and out is through the caves. If the cave is quite low, the route through may only be open for about 20 minutes a day during low tide. Once the tide is high, the cave, or certainly the entrance will be underwater.

I was picked up early morning from my hotel and taken to Por Pier on the eastern side of Phuket. Here I joined the other paddlers and we were given a brief introduction before joining the boat.

During the hour's journey to our first destination, we had coffee, fresh fruit and an explanation of the things we would see during the day. The guide was very knowledgeable and showered us with lots of details, and there was a large file of information and photos we could browse through at our leisure.

It was surprisingly chilly as the boat sped along and I was a bit dubious about having to get into the water. I needn't have worried as when we arrived at Hong Island, the sun was shining to welcome us and the beauty of the place kept me busy with the camera. As the guides launched the yellow kayaks into the sea, they looked like bananas which had broken loose from the bunch. My guide manoeuvred the kayak to the steps of the boat so I could get in, and then we were speedily paddling to the cave entrance.

After the initial low entrance, the cave roof rose high above our heads. The water lapped against the cave walls, causing an eerie sound in places, and I could see why legends tell of cave monsters.

My torchlight picked out some stalagmites and stalactites. Ahead of us the roof suddenly lowered and the walls closed in leaving a gap not much larger than the kayak. I had to lie flat on my back to avoid scraping my nose on the roof.

We popped out in to a wang and gasped in wonder. It was beautiful. We were surrounded by sheer limestone walls that rose 100m above our heads, capped by green vegetation. It was like a secret garden, except the floor was covered by sea. Plants clung to the precipitous walls. A few bird called, but otherwise it was silent. A lost world. We paddled around the hong, admiring its beauty, before returning to the pitch black of the cave.

The next hong we visited was possibly more beautiful as there were mangrove trees inside. It was fun paddling around the mangroves with their serpent-like roots. We saw a young monitor lizard basking on a rock. It was obviously used to seeing humans paddling around its terrain and took no notice.

The third cave contained some beautiful stalactites, and a glistening white cascade of calcite crystals resembling a frozen waterfall. In the secret lagoon we spotted a troop of young macaques. They were playing in the branches just a few metres above the water so we were able to paddle right underneath them. This was a mistake as the monkeys let loose a golden shower. I could imagine them laughing to themselves and wondered if they did this to all the visitors. There was no sign of the adults, maybe they were watching from some higher vantage point.

We returned to the boat and had a scrumptious lunch of fresh fish, chicken curry, Thai soup and tempura. I was afraid to over-eat in case I sank when I went swimming. We were not the only ones to enjoy the meal, as the cook threw scraps of chicken overboard and suddenly the sky was full of Brahminy kites.

They appeared from nowhere and soon there was a dozen or more swooping down and plucking scraps of meat from the water. It was an amazing sight to see so many of these birds at such close quarters.

Our next cave was appropriately called Bat Cave as deep inside were a few colonies of bats. They seemed oblivious to our presence, which is a good sign as it means that human visitors don't disturb them.

There are several tour companies running these kayak trips daily, but they all take note of the ecotourism rules and do their best not to damage the environment.

This not only makes for an exciting experience but a satisfactory one, too.

The Brunei Times

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