If limestone karst-filled bays were boxers, north Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay would be the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world. As Vietnam’s top travel destination and a UNESCO world heritage site, Ha Long has a reputation that precedes itself. Southwest Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, on the other hand, would be a popular but far lesser known underdog. To its credit, Phang Nga Bay is a protected national park that attracts a steady stream of travellers each year, but it doesn’t enjoy anywhere near the global status or annual visitors of Ha Long.
Putting popularity levels aside, I recently set out on a boat trip through Phang Nga Bay to find out how it stacks up to Ha Long, which I hit in a previous trip. Is Phang Nga a laughable blip of a destination in comparison, or does it give mighty Ha Long a fight into the late rounds or even claim the title of Southeast Asia’s best bay for itself? Let’s find out.
First off, the facts: in terms of size and general impressiveness, Ha Long Bay truly is a heavyweight. It includes some 2,000 individual islets along with two major inhabited islands over an area of some 1,550 square km. While not exactly small, Phang Nga Bay spans a far smaller area of 400 square km with fewer than 50 islands, and though it’s home to a small local Muslim community at Ko Panyee and some picturesque beaches on a few of the islets, there are no islands in Phang Nga that could really be considered travel destinations in their own right.
As for scenery, the limestone cliffs in each bay are similarly magnificent, and one could easily mistake images of Phang Nga Bay for Ha Long Bay. While Ha Long does have larger and more impressive caves — like Thien Cung — both bays are filled with natural archways, caves and impressive rock formations. The cliffs of both reach a maximum height of around 100 metres, although Ha Long’s are arguably more stunning. One unique feature of Phang Nga are its mangrove lined rivers leading into the bay, which offer a particularly tranquil setting not found at Ha Long. Some excellent kayak trips may be arranged in both.
On islands and local culture, Ha Long is home to two large inhabited islands — Tuan Cha and Cat Ba — each of which offer a range of accommodation, activities, beaches and local fishing communities. A host of floating fishing villages make for some great photos throughout Ha Long Bay. While not totally uninhabited, Phang Nga Bay’s Ko Panyee is a cramped, somewhat tacky tourist attraction in comparison to Ha Long’s charming villages. Some quality shots may also be taken at Ko Panyee, but overall Ha Long scores a big knock down in the inhabited island category.
So far, Ha Long Bay has kept Phang Nga Bay on the ropes, but what about the overall travel experience? Indeed, the sheer numbers of tourists visiting Ha Long Bay each year can make it a rather tense experience. The pier in Ha Long city is far too small for the number of boats and people, and during my visit I watched as one large junk crashed into another, smashing windows on both ships and provoking a shouting match between crews. Once you’re safely aboard a junk and cruising the bay itself, Ha Long is generally quiet and peaceful, but some of the sights within the bay can feel like being part of a cattle line.
In comparison, the experience of Phang Nga Bay is rather painless. Instead of waiting in line and possibly stepping across a narrow plank to board your boat, which is often the case at Ha Long, embarking on Phang Nga Bay is a simple matter of hopping on a longtail boat at a sleepy little pier. While the main sights — like the island that gained fame as James Bond’s secret lair in “The Man With the Golden Gun” — receive their fair share of visitors, on the whole the Phang Nga experience is far more relaxed in comparison. On the other hand, only at Ha Long can you spend up to two weeks exploring the bay on a comfortable live aboard ship.
In the end, I reckon Ha Long Bay does retain its heavyweight champion status and is most definitely one of Southeast Asia’s top destinations. Its spectacular scenery and charming island culture are well worth the effort despite the hordes of tourists. However, Phang Nga Bay doesn’t go down without a fight. It boasts some splendid scenery in its own right, and while it shouldn’t be thought of as a suitable replacement for Ha Long it is a solid alternative if Vietnam is not in your travel plans. In either case, sit back and enjoy the fight, I mean, cruise.
By David Luekens
Last updated on 16th April, 2015.