The sun was shimmering and the day was bright. It was my second day in Phuket, at the Westin Siray Bay and Resort, and the itinerary read–12:00 - 20:30 - Explore Phang Nga Bay by starlight...kayak through the magnificent limestone caves and experience Hong Island like no other...
I packed my sense of adventure and set off on a spellbinding day trip to explore the many wonders of Phang Nga Bay. The tour started at mid-day, with a peaceful excursion around the islands and its sea caves. The trip was organised by John Gray, who researched and discovered some of nature’s most intricate secrets, of which the most popular and accessible is the Hong by Starlight tour. We were on his two-storey boat, already loaded with kayaks on the bottom floor, enjoying stories regaled by the tall and bulky 69-year-old nature enthusiast. He launched Sea Canoe in Phuket in 1989 after exploring Phang Nga’s limestone islands in January of the same year. It was the first local venture focusing on alternative tourism. “I shared my discoveries with Phuket’s locals; created an experimental eco-tourism laboratory called Sea Canoe and Phuket’s ‘Low Volume, High Quality’ legend was born,” says John.
Bats on board
Entering the hong. Image: John Gray
As we set out to Hong Island, we were served lunch on the boat. The ride to the island was carefully timed to reach when the other boats were heading back to Phuket; allowing us to enjoy the uncrowded bay. The closer we drew to the island, the more intimate I felt with nature—what with its green feast and aquamarine sparkle, a sight of luxury for a city slicker.
The Phang Nga Bay islands are stacks that reach up to 300 m above the sea. Our boat was stationed close to the caves and we were transferred into sea canoes, in pairs, to explore the honeycomb of tunnels and grottoes crisscross ing the marine park, discover the hidden lagoons known as ‘hongs’, and admire the stalactites in its corridors and caverns. We didn’t actually get to paddle ourselves but our paddler was great despite the language barrier. While the hong looks stunning from outside, the best way to really enjoy it is by slowly gliding your way in, on a sea canoe; lie flat on the kayak as your nose is just a few mm away from the edge of the stalactites near the cave’s entrance.
Bat Cave. Image: Katherine Belarmino
Our first stop was—the Bat Cave! “Am I going to see Batman?” joked someone from the group.The sheer size makes the bat cave hong majestic. With walls 400 m high or more, it’s a double hong, split by a fallen sea arch. When the hong is free of mass tourism, there’s plenty of wildlife, “Some of our best monkey and hornbill sightings are in the Bat Cave Hong,” said our paddler. In the pitch dark, a gleam of the torch revealed thousands of bats hanging from the ceiling; in some spots the stalactites hung low and our guide made it a point to get really close
Lizards and limestone
Open lagoon on Hong island. Image: Rama Sreekant
Soon we found ourselves inside a cone shaped space, which was a multicolour delight for the eyes. Vivid cliffs and surrounding green walls made for a gorgeous background to a tranquil canoe ride. As we glided silently across the water, we saw a monitor lizard paddling the azure waters, a monkey feeding on shellfish and majestic sea hawks swooping down into the water to catch their prey.
As I immersed myself in the serenity of Phang Nga Bay, we rowed into the limestone cave. “Imagine,” explains John, “huge limestone blocks floating on the earth’s crust like cubes of ice floating in a glass of water. When continental plates drift, the limestone spins and bobs up and down, just like ice does. This movement causes cracks in the limestone and caves are formed when water drips down cracks in the limestone.” The cave wasn’t too big, so we exited quickly and paddled along the coastline of the stacked island. As we moved around this natural paradise, I surrendered myself to the orchestra of birds and insects.
The sound of silence
Krathongs light up the sea. Image: John Gray
As the crimson sun set over the island, not a whisper could be heard but for the lashing rains. Blending nature’s amazing offerings, in groups of three and four we made a krathong–a Thai floating decoration with coconut, flowers, incense and candles. Cloaked in darkness, we set out on our kayaks again into a cave, released the krathongs on calm waters and watched them float away. The stars and candles surrounded us in majestic silence. This was the culminant point of my stay in Phuket. After this magical moment, we went back to the boat to the moonlit deck and marvelled at the constellations and fluffy clouds far away from humanity. Time stopped, and my mind was at peace. Much after the trip, this surreal encounter with nature continues to linger in my memory.
Katherine Belarmino is the author of Travel the World (www.katherinebelarmino.com), a travel blog showcasing her travels around the world including tourist sites, local foods, and one-of-a-kind experiences. Travel the World is a travel blog providing travel tips for people who have everyday responsibilities but still want to take time to travel the world.