The sea caves of Phang Nga Bay

Saturday 21 October 2006 – Phang Nga Bay, Thailand

Heading to Phang Nga Bay
Heading to Phang Nga Bay

A civilised after-9am pickup for Andaman Sea Kayak Adventures allowed time for a leisurely breakfast and preparations. The transfer to the pier at Phuket Town (a new solid concret construction allowing the minibus to drive right out to the vessels) took nearly an hour.

The islands make intriguing shapes through the haze
The islands make intriguing shapes through the haze

The boat, with approximately 20 passengers – mostly Australians with a few Brits, a Russian couple and an Israeli couple – was soon underway. The striking outlines of the limestone islands in Phang Nga Bay were soon visible through the haze. Initially an intriguing mass on the horizon, they soon separated into their various forms – some low dense covered on every inch in thick foliage, other steep limestone cliffs. Most had become somewhat undercut at the water line through the action of the tides in shallow, sandy Phang Nga Bay. In some, the action of the water had formed caves, some of which expanded into tunnels to large lagoons otherwise sealed inside the islands. It was through a number of these sea caves we passed in inflatable canoes, two passengers and one guide/paddler in each.

The first tunnel was high enough for us to pass sitting up; herin the presense of about five similar sized boats to ours at the same time required two-way traffic and consequently a deal of ducking as the canoes were forced to the sides of the caves. After about 100m the tunnel opened out into an astounding site – a sheer sided lagoon with sides stretching up around 200 feet.

Sea snake
Sea snake
Sea snake
Sea snake

The lagoon was filled with mangroves and other plants, many growing in the middle of the lagoon. The walls were well covered with vegetation, and tiny fish were swimming in the water. A sea snake had thoughtfully draped itself around a mangrove in a perfect viewing position. Despite there being over 30 canoes in the lagoon, there was an terrific sense of tranquillity. We returned through the tunnel to the boat and our tour leader Franco (a Thai despite the name), after consulting with the leaders of the other boats, decided to vary the program so our next stops would not be so crowded.

After motoring for 10 or 15 minutes we stopped and set off again in our canoes. This cave started bigger, with high galleries thick with insect-eating bats and their odour. Michelle, my ‘boat buddy’, an IT sales rep from London, was perturbed when water from the limestone dropped on her, worried it might be bat piss. The end of the cave was very low and we had to flatten ourselves right hard down onto the kayak to get through into the lagoon, as the gap was only a foot or so higher than the water. The guides have to take care with checking the tides when planning the trips, as there is no other way out (apart from climbing the cliffs) from most of these lagoons, or ‘hongs’.

This hong was bigger, divided into two sections by a narrow channel in the middle. A family of monkeys sat obligingly on rocks or in trees posing for photos. Fortunately they seem to have remained wiled and so weren’t a nuisance like the monkeys in parts of Bali.

Our guide was knowledgeable about the plants and animals, pointing out various species – mangroves, sugar palms, ‘cactus trees’ – an odd adaptation for a wet tropical climate – and many fruit bats hanging from trees at the tops of the cliffs.

Cactus-like plant
Cactus-like plant

Fortunately the tide was running out so squeezing back through the cave was not so exciting as the inward trip. We were also alone, rather than in a procession of canoes, an altogether different experience.

Sea cave on Phang Nga Bay
Sea cave on Phang Nga Bay

The third hong we again entered via a cave, but it opened out into another wider channel to the sea. It had small beaches inside and heaps of limestone formations. A terrific activity.

Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay
Exploring the sea caves of Phang Nga Bay
Exploring the sea caves of Phang Nga Bay
Exploring the sea caves of Phang Nga Bay
Exploring the sea caves of Phang Nga Bay

Back on the boat, lunch was served – a Chinese-Thai buffet of impressive variety, all prepared on board in conditions a Western chef would find impossible. Fried noodles, fried rice, chicken soup, sweet and sour snapper, a port dish and more, plus fruit and soft drinks.

Exploring the sea caves and hongs of Phang Nga Bay
Exploring the sea caves and hongs of Phang Nga Bay

As we motored back to Phuket we could see storm clouds developing to the north and east, punctuated by occasional flashes of lightning, and the air grew hotter and heavier. Our final stop was for swimming at a beach on the eastern side of Ko Nahka, a small island a couple of kilometres off shore from the jetty we’d departed from. A couple of other canoe boats had moored there, but no one else seemed to be around. Apart, that is, from the ubiquitous beach umbrella and lounge chair boys.

The coming storm
The coming storm

The breeze had died completely and the shallow water was warm and cloudy despite the sandy bottom. The shallow bay doesn’t seem to have much in the way of current to keep the water moving. So with the prospect of a swim seeming less than refreshing, I went for a walk and watched as the clouds continued to build and the lightening grew both more frequent and nearer. After a little less than the promised hour at the beach, almost by spontaneous agreement and action, we headed back t the boat, just in time to lower the protective screens ahead of the deluge. Goodness, how it rained. I’m not sure how the crew navigated back to the pier – visibility was down to practically zero. Once docked, all we could do was wait it out, until our busses arrived and the downpour eased sufficiently to clamber ashore and run to them.

Flash flooding on the streets of Patong
Flash flooding on the streets of Patong

The rain was widespread and the trip back to Patong slow due to various accidents on the roads and flash flooding. Patong’s major road, including the intersection on Bangla Road near my hotel was under about 30cm of water for most of its length. Gradually the rain eased. By the time I’d collected my laundry, gone back to the hotel, cleaned myself up and downed a Singha it was possible to consider heading out to dinner (I’d originally contemplated calling room service to stay dry!)

Local fishermen on Phang Nga Bay
Local fishermen on Phang Nga Bay

I returned to a stall a couple along from last night; scene of success and struck gold again. The family running the restaurant relied on its English-speaking daughter to deal with the farangs, while mum and big sister cooked. The lass was friendly and talkative, but not at all pushy, and spoke about the food, even offering suggestions, which I accepted. A curried pork stirfry was excellent and the papaya salad (which she’d not suggested, saying everyone had it, but which I insisted upon, not having had one yet this trip) was spicy and refreshing.

The damp weather kept the tourists off the streets, and even the hawkers seemed half-hearted in their entreaties.

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