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Ao Phang Nga National Marine Park

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In a nutshell

A kingfisher stretches its wings in the day's first light. Mangroves caress the narrow longtail as it hums over mirror-like water. Towering karst cathedrals and sea caves emerge in Ao Phang Nga, one of Asia's natural wonders.

Dreamy Ao Phang Nga National Park covers 400 square km and contains over 40 islands amid dramatic limestone cliffs that soar out of year-round calm green water. For good reason, it's one of the most popular boat trip destinations in Thailand.

Evidence of prehistoric humans has been traced back in the park to over 10,000 years ago as evidenced by some of their cave painting, tools and other knick knacks that archaeologists have found scattered throughout the area. One assumes it cannot have been too bad a place to live back then. Now the increasingly common human life seen in these parts are the boatloads of tourists and the occasional Thai fisherman.

Millions of years ago, the whole region was an immense barrier reef that extended for thousands of kilometres. However natural forces came into play and the earth's movements created the irregular formations, with erosion smoothing the edges, leaving the geography reminiscent of Vietnam's Ha Long Bay or Yunnan in China (but with the water).

The common tourist destinations include Ko Kan (James Bond Island), which features a unique and oft-photographed karst tower that served as James Bond's hide out in the 1974 film, The Man with the Golden Gun, and Ko Panyi, a Muslim sea gypsy village on stilts over the sea, which has become something of a cramped tourist trap but is still worth a peek.

Ko Phanak and Ko Hong are stunning hongs (or collapsed cave systems), and the latter is so cavernous that it feels like being in a a large auditorium. Caves on the mainland worth exploring include Lod Yai and Lod Lek. Back in the bay, the cave passages on Ko Talu are full of stalactites — unchanged since Roger Moore ran through there, although the squillions of vendors are a more recent addition.

Beautiful also in their own way are the mangrove forests that penetrate through the myriad of established canals en route to the bay. Come in the early morning for the best light and most abundant bird life, including hornbills, kingfishers and blue winged leafbirds.

The Ao Phang Nga National Park visitor centre and nearby piers are about seven km south of Phang Nga town. Most who come do so by the tours that are advertised by practically every guesthouse within a 200 km radius, though it is possible to hire a boat independently at the pier.

Private boats can also be accessed via Surakul Pier in Takua Thung, located some 12 km west of Phang Nga town, which is a more convenient choice if coming from Phuket. A private boat for a full day runs between 2,000 and 2,500 baht. For an extra 400 baht, you can hop in a kayak and explore some of the sea caves up close.

For tours, we recommend M.T. Tour at Muang Thong Hotel in Phang Nga town, but there are also several tour companies operating near the bus station. Mr. Hassim of M.T. Tour has been leading tours in the area for 30 years, is very knowledgeable about the area, and has gotten consistently good reviews. His phone number is (089) 289 2566. If you're interested in a more involved sea kayaking experience, check out John Gray's Sea Canoe.

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Our recommendations

The best time to explore the bay is at sunrise, when cool, misty air shrouds the mangroves until the sun comes up to bathe the karst rock formations in natural light. The earlier you go, the better, as James Bond Island and the rest of the bay get packed with tourists by late morning. Late afternoon is also a picturesque time, though you'll have to contend with more visitors than in the early morning.

Different tour operators offer a range of programs for exploring the bay, from two-hour spins with a compulsory James Bond Island stop to full-day kayaking excursions -- it's wise to shop around a bit until you find exactly what you're looking for. While Ko Panyi feels quite touristy during much of the day, it retains a certain charm and is worth a visit. If you feel like hanging around, perhaps having a run on Ko Panyi's signature floating football pitch and sharing in the day's catch with the locals, a couple of modest homestays are available.

Trying to decide between Ha Long Bay and Phang Nga Bay? Check out our comparison of these two karst bay heavyweights.

Text and/or map last updated on 25th October, 2013.

Last reviewed by:
Usually found exploring Bangkok's side streets or south Thailand's islands, David Luekens is an American freelance writer & photographer who finds everyday life in Asia to be extraordinary. You can follow his travails here.

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Best seascape in Thailand
By tezza, 11 January 2011
4.0  stars

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