Phang Nga Bay in Thailand: touring islands by canoe
Rock towers in the sea, cheeky monkeys and a James Bond island are all part of a day out
James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay. Photograph: Raimund Franken/ullstein bild via Getty Images
A fishing village in Phuket, Thailand
Wat Thamsuwankhuha Buddhist cave, in Phang Nga Bay
I’m in a rainbow-coloured longboat in Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, delicately threading through a mangrove maze towards the horizon. In the distance, the jagged outlines of limestone islands form fanciful shapes, jutting like broken glass from bottle-green waters.
“Chicken rock,” says Joom Bourbeit, a guide from The Sarojin resort, which arranged our daylong tour, as she nods towards a distinctive outcropping just ahead. It is indeed an uncanny likeness of a roosting hen, an impression which may, I admit, be enhanced by the sweating can of Thai Singha beer which I cracked open at 10am, rationalising that it was cocktail hour somewhere in the world.
To experience one of these isles more intimately, we transfer to a red rubber canoe paddled by a local guide named Pond. He steers us through a low-hanging archway of rock that serves as an “entrance” to Talu Nok Island, introducing us to a labyrinthine world of shallow lagoons populated by fish that can walk on land, strange rocks that seem to melt like candle wax, and claustrophobic tunnels that enclose us like a coffin before opening into soaring cathedrals topped by a robin’s-egg blue sky.
It’s a stark contrast to our next stop, the unabashedly touristy “James Bond Island”. The isle’s true name is Khao Phing Kan, but ever since it featured as the lair of the villainous Francisco Scaramanga in the 007 flick The Man with the Golden Gun, it’s been associated with the sexy cinematic super-spy.
A mountain cleaves open to reveal a giant cave, where couples lean against a slanting stone to engage in steamy embraces. Babes in bikinis pose on the beach, positioning themselves before cameras to appear as though they’re holding up a rugged cylinder of rock in the bay. Others scramble along a trail leading to yet another beach that stretches beneath a cave carved by wind and waves.
Far more fascinating to me is Koh Panyee island, populated by around 1,500 villagers. It is the Venice of Thailand – a rickety collection of over-water huts and alarmingly fragile platforms that fan out from a steep limestone monolith. The economy is largely based on tourism, with an open-air mall overflowing with everything from dried fish to bright sarongs and seashells.
The wares are laid out on tables in front of modest homes, which are thrown open to catch the breezes, allowing a voyeuristic look into the residents’ lives – although most seem to spend their entire day outside.
An old woman examines a fisherman’s catch spilled on a concrete sidewalk. Women coo over a newborn baby, laid out in the cool of the shade. A lipsticked-Lady Boy, as transvestites are known in Thailand, wanders by and asks if we would like to pet her monkey – actually a long-limbed gibbon, which clings to her like its mother. We demur.
Afterwards, we settle back in the longboat to return to the mainland. From there, we transfer to the Buddhist temple of Wat Thamsuwankuha in an SUV chauffeured by Keam (Thai for “crocodile”) Kaewmoosik, who never explains how he got his nickname, although perhaps its due to his wide, toothy grin.
Outside the temple, which is inside a cave, hundreds of macaques scamper over rocks, clamber up trees, and swing from bicycle tyres placed there for their amusement. Regarding us with milk-chocolate eyes set within wizened faces, they wait to see who’ll be the first to proffer a coconut or a wedge of fruit.
A few bolder critters have even invaded the temple, climbing atop elaborately carved shrines. Further inside the vast cavern, a huge reclining gold Buddha and other intricately rendered statues hold court. Entering the “Dark Cave” beyond, we’re thrust into an otherworldly landscape of stalactites and stalagmites.
“Did you enjoy?” Bourbeit asks, wrenching open a bottle of sparkling wine as we ride back to our resort. We tell her it’s been a spectacular experience, but our tour isn’t over yet.
Simply navigating the highway is an education. Although Thais drive on the left, this is a loosely enforced rule, as people are constantly passing across even double yellow lines, causing us to stifle silent screams as cars speed towards us head-on in our lane. Traffic is further complicated by “family bikes”– motorbikes that have been modified with sidecars of varying sizes and sturdiness, carrying everything from multiple monks in their flowing robes to mobile kitchens. We pass one bike with a tethered monkey riding in front of the handlebars in a basket.
When we spy a man on the side of the road, coaxing ants out of a nest with a stick, Bourbeit explains that they’re probably his dinner. She rarely got to eat meat as a child and grew up snacking on insects. “Tarantulas and scorpions taste like prawns,” our guide insists, and silk worms, she notes, are very high in protein.
The mood turns more sombre as we near Khao Lak, one of the areas hit hardest by the December 26th, 2004 tsunami. Reminders of that lethal wave still remain. The most moving, perhaps, is a police boat that sits where the receding water left it, more than 1km inland, to serve as a memorial to those who died. Bourbeit lost a friend on a coastal island, she tells us softly, and Keam, his crocodile-smile fading for the first time today, recalls how he frantically ushered guests upstairs to safety at the resort where he worked at the time, returning twice to the lobby before being forced to swim for his life.
That night, as we dine beside the Andaman Sea, we reflect on this land of contrasts. Extreme poverty versus the luxury of a five-star resort. A nurturing Mother Nature versus a punishing force. Chicken satay versus scorpion surprise. We gratefully toast what has proven to be the perfect Thai day, which we now know better than to take for granted.
STAY THERE The Sarojin, Phang Nga (sarojin.com) Accommodation from 14625 Thai baht (about €376 ). About 90 minutes north of Phuket, the Sarojin is the place to come for peace and relaxation, with 56 accommodations scattered across 10 luxuriously landscaped acres. Some include their own pool, but many guests prefer to stroll through the bar to the 11km white-sand beach beyond or laze in one of the curtained pavilions that seem to float atop the swimming pool. A variety of excursions can be arranged through the hotel.
Anantara Phuket, Phuket (phuket.anantara.com) Accommodation from €336. Situated further to the south than The Sarojin, each of this resort’s 91 villas features its own spacious pool, surrounded by tall walls that ensure plenty of privacy, making guests feel like honeymooners whether they’ve been married for two days or two decades.
At night, unwind in the Tree House bar and watch the sunset while sipping a lemongrass martini.