sign in a cave in Laos

18 July 2008

Phang Nga Bay canoeing - WildAsia

Phang Na Bay: Thailand's Secret Garden on The Sea

The National Marine Park of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is a natural art gallery, LIZ PRICE discovers dozens of islands and treks by canoe to tidal lagoons surrounded by limestone cliffs.

[published on WildAsia 27 Nov 2004]

Have you ever tried taking a photo of a moving bird whilst bobbing up and down in a canoe? I can assure you, it's not easy.

The sea was a bit choppy. As I paddled out of the cave, a Pacific reef egret was wading in the shallows of the cave entrance, looking for lunch. I am not a birder, but it was a good opportunity to take a shot of the bird at such close quarters.

Framing my avian subject would be the stunning views of the nearby limestone islands. 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 certainly a picture postcard scene.

Nature's art gallery

The National Marine Park of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand is a natural art gallery, full of magnificent limestone islands. I was lucky enough to have a window seat as the plane flew over this amazing bay on its approach to Phuket's international airport.

There were dozens of islands dotted around - some large and some small - and all surrounded by water the shade of blues and greens.

Dozens of boats take tourists each day to this area. James Bond Island, or Ko Phing Kan was made famous when the area was used for filming The Man with the Golden Gun. I decided to be a bit different and do a sea canoe trip to the cave hongs.

Hong is the Thai word for room. Basically 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 in Phuket town and taken by car to Por Pier on the eastern side of the island. Here, I joined the other paddlers and we were given a brief introduction before being taken out to the pier.

During the hour's journey to our first destination, we had coffee and lots of fresh fruit whilst being briefed. The guide was very knowledgeable and showered us with lots of information.

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 because by the time we arrived at Hong Island, the sun was shining.

Cave monster legends

The beauty of the place kept me busy with the camera. As the guides launched all the yellow kayaks into the sea, they looked like bananas which had broken loose from the bunch. My guide Rambo manoeuvred up to the steps of the boat so I could get into the kayak, and then we were speedily paddling to the cave entrance.

After the initial low entrance, the cave roof rose and was high above our heads. The water lapping against the cave walls made an eerie sound. I could see why legends tell of cave monsters and mysterious beings lurking in the caves.

My torch 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 in the kayak to avoid scraping my nose on the roof. I was glad I didn't have to paddle through this section.

We popped out into a hong and gasped in wonder. It was beautiful.

We were surrounded by sheer limestone walls that rose about 100m above our heads, capped by green vegetation. It was like a secret garden, except the floor was sea.

The grey and white cliff faces were streaked with red, orange and black striations. Green pandanus and other palms and shrubs clung to the precipitous walls. A few birds 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.

Like a frozen waterfall

The next hong we visited was equally beautiful; in fact maybe more so as there were mangrove trees. It was fun paddling around the mangroves with their serpentine roots.

The guide spotted a young monitor lizard basking on a rock. It was obviously used to seeing humans for it took no notice.

The third cave of the day contained some beautiful stalactites, and a glistening white cascade of calcite crystals resembling a frozen waterfall. And 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 silly move as the monkeys suddenly decided to 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.

Swooping kites

We returned to the boat and had a scrumptious lunch of fresh fish, chicken curry, tempura and Thai-style soup. I was afraid to overeat in case I sank when I went swimming, but the food was so delicious that I had to have a second helping. We were not the only ones to enjoy the meal - the cook threw scraps of chicken overboard and suddenly the sky was full of Brahminy kites.

These scavengers appeared from nowhere and soon there was a dozen or more, mewing and eyeing up the feast. They began swooping down and plucking scraps of meat from the water. I tried many times to get a photo of them but every time the shutter clicked, the bird had already flown and all I had was a picture of the empty sea or sky. But it was an amazing sight to see so many of these birds so close up.

Colonies of bats

Our next cave was appropriately called Bat Cave. Deep inside were a few colonies of insect-eating bats. They seemed oblivious of our presence, which was a good sign as it meant that the daily visits by the kayaks don't appear to disturb them. There are several tour companies running these kayak trips daily, but luckily they all take note of the eco-tourism rules and do their best not to damage the environment.

We then had some free time for swimming and kayaking. However, most lazed on the boat, still full from the huge lunch. I tried swimming but the current was very strong where we were moored. It was fun being swept along with the flow but hard work swimming back to the boat.

When we got back to Por Pier the tide was right out, so we had to walk the last 100m through gooey mangrove mud to reach the jetty. Luckily, there was fresh water to rinse our feet and legs before boarding the transport back to our hotels.

It had been a great day and a fascinating experience.

© Liz Price - article may only be republished with the author's permission.

There are several tour operators running these and other kayak tours around the Phuket and Phang Nga Bay areas. The writer opted to go with John Gray's Sea Canoe as she had done a tour with them some time ago.

They are the original company and have been operating since 1983. The guides are all trained in cave kayaking, lifesaving, and speak good English.

John Gray's Sea Canoe
124, Soi 1 Yaowarad Road
Muang, Phuket
Tel : (6676) 254505-7
Fax : (6676) 226077

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