Feb 11 2013
Phang Nga Bay is a calm, sheltered bay that stretches from the east coast of Phuket up to the southeast coastline of Phang Nga province. This ‘jewel of the Andaman’, as it’s often called, is compared to Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay because of its dramatic scenery of steep limestone karsts.
The 400-square-kilometre bay has become a favourite for mass tour trips, where large boatloads of day-trippers are dumped into the bay and its various islands and beaches, all at the same time, for some frantic picture-taking sessions. The worst example of this is so-called James Bond Island, which would be a spectacular place if it weren’t for all the pushy tourists and grouchy trinket-sellers covering nearly every inch of its tiny beaches.
So if you’re going to Phang Nga Bay, expect to find it full of tourists. An undiscovered paradise it is not. But is it still worth visiting?
There are two keys to enjoying Phang Nga Bay. First, let go of any expectation that a place designated as a national park is necessarily some kind of pristine wilderness, free of commercial activity. In Thailand, this is simply not the case. Remember that the Ko Phi Phi islands are also a national park. Second, you can avoid the bulk of the crowds by organising your own trip. Chartering a yacht is an awesome way to explore the bay, but since this is well beyond the average backpacker budget the next best way is to hire a longtail boat.
We hired a boat from Surakul Pier in Takua Thung, which is in Phang Nga province 12 kilometres west of Phang Nga Town, and about an hour’s drive (75 kilometres) from Phuket Town. The boat has a tarp cover for shade and rows of benches that could comfortably fit a group of 12 or so. Lifejackets are provided for all. The price was 2,500 baht for the boat for the day. We departed shortly after 12:00 and returned about 18:00. We took this trip during the height of the region’s peak tourist season, in the week between Christmas and New Year, so reduced rates could likely be negotiated in low-season months.
Setting off, we weaved our way down an inlet lined with thick mangroves for about 20 minutes until the water opened up and the karsts came into view. Our first stop was at a sea kayak station with a few floating barges where you can book a sea kayak trip through the karst caves, known as hongs or ‘rooms’ in Thai. At an extra 400 baht per person, we were at first reluctant to do it, but decided to give it a try.
We each climbed onto a sit-on-top kayak with a guide who did all the paddling. We entered a series of caves, some of which had entrances so tight we had to lay on our back to get inside to avoid whacking our head on the cave ceiling dripping with glittering stalactites. There are loads of other kayaks doing this, too, but the atmosphere is jovial and our guides were quite skilled in getting us around. The kids loved it. If you’re looking to do an extended paddle with more eco-aware guidance, check out John Gray’s Sea Canoe.
Our next stop on the longtail was Ko Khao Phing Kan, which became one of Thailand’s most recognisable attractions after it played a role as evil Scaramanga’s island hideaway in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun. The small island takes just a few minutes to explore on foot, and its topography is stunning: steep rocky cliffs with caves surrounded by sandy beaches, and the cute ‘nail’ island, Ko Tapu, which sits in the middle of one of the small bays. Having our own boat meant that we could wander around at a leisurely pace, unlike most of the other tourists who were being hustled through by their guides. Foreign visitors must pay an entry fee of 100 baht, which hopefully goes towards keeping the island clean.
Last stop was Ko Panyee, a floating Muslim village that for much of the day is packed with tourists, especially at lunchtime. But by the time we arrived the last of the daytrippers were departing and we could enjoy a snack and (non-alcoholic) drink in the empty restaurant in peace before meandering through the elevated walkways. Having seen this rather inspiring video about the Ko Panyee Football Club, we were keen to see the floating pitch, which is found at the back of the village.
The villagers, though their fates are now tied to Phang Nga Bay’s growing tourism, remain remarkably indifferent to visitors and seem to have retained a traditional lifestyle in spite of it all. There’s a big building under construction at the base of the island’s tall karst: a new mosque.
Exploring Phang Nga Bay on a longtail boat is by no means an adventurous trip, but it’s a scenic and relaxing day out, and good value for a family or a group.
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