Phang Nga Bay Unbonded

There are over 100,000 photos tagged #jamesbondisland on Instagram. Guys with six-pack abs, women testing the limits of their bikinis, Muslim ladies in swimming hijabs, kids doing the ‘happy beach leap’ – all posing in the same spot with that famous limestone spike behind them. They look happy. It’s all good fun.

What these images don’t capture is the long line of people waiting for their chance to be shot, the mob of insistent souvenir sellers crammed on the narrow isthmus or the jumble of boats waiting to zip the tourists back to Phuket. In the high season, dozens of boats daily make the trip to Thailand’s extraordinary Phang Nga Bay and James Bond Island is a highlight.

  

Thailand will receive 34 million international visitors this year, with approximately 5 million visiting Phuket, the Kingdom’s largest island. In 2016, a major expansion saw Phuket International Airport’s capacity double to 12.5 million passengers a year. Phuket is already a world-famous resort island – in the same league as Bali or Oahu – and it’s only going to get busier. Was it still possible, we wondered, to find empty beaches and unfrequented islets?

When in Phuket, we usually base ourselves in the northwest (Bang Tao and Mai Khao beaches). The area is only 10-20 minutes’ drive from the airport and is less developed than the grungy/glamorous beaches of the southwest. We’re fans of the Anantara hotel chain and their Vacation Club Mai Khao property has spacious 2 bedroom family suites that were perfect for us. The hotel is designed for families. The Turtle Bay shopping center is across the street. And a very long, effectively private beach is just a short walk (or cycle) away.

  

With over 40 islands strewn across 400 sq. km. of the Andaman Sea, Phang Nga Bay is big enough for everyone. But most tourists will visit the same ten islands on US$40-50 tours that vary only on the type of boat and the order in which the islands are visited. We had given the Anantara’s activity manager what I thought might be an unachievable assignment: deliver an adventurous and exclusive-feeling visit to Phang Nga Bay, one of Phuket’s (and indeed Thailand’s) most popular excursions.

Most tours to Phang Nga Bay leave from Ao Po Pier, located on the northeast of Phuket. Our boat was instead departing from Boon Chu Pier in Phanga Nga, the mainland province just across the Sarasin Bridge. I couldn’t locate the place on Google Maps, which I interpreted as a good sign. After forty minutes of country driving, we crossed a small bridge over a muddy river and saw the sign: Boon Chu Pier Long Tail Boat Service.

First impressions weren’t positive. The reception hut was an authentic backwater construction, the kind of place where guys named Duffy hunt gators and drink Bud. There were angry-looking red ants on the wooden walkways and trash stuck in the mudflats below. But this was Thailand and you can’t judge a boat by its pier. And our jovial guide, Mr. Witoon, had been well-briefed by the hotel.

  

“I understand,” he smiled, “that you want to go to different places, right?”

“Yes.”

“You don’t want to be around lots of other boats?”

“Yes! No! I mean, we prefer to be on our own. And we’re happy to hike, climb, swim, whatever.”

“No problem,” he said with confidence.

Our boat was a wider version of the classic Thai long-tail, with a tarp canopy that shaded six rows of bench seating. It could have carried 30 people; instead it was just the six of us, Witoon and the captain. We had a cooler box full of bottled water and some pineapples and watermelon for slicing later.

For an hour, we motored along the curving, vein-like waterways of the estuary. First, along the narrow Klong Tha Yu and then into the main Klong Bang Lam channel. We passed several villages with whole neighborhoods built out over the water, the simple wooden homes raised up on rickety stilts. In each, the tallest (and most colorful) building was the village mosque.

  

As we approached Phang Nga Bay, the horizontal monotony of the calm brown river and the flat-topped mangrove forest was disrupted by towering ridges that thrust straight out of the depths. These jagged karst islands ranged across the water like a naval fleet, imposing grey hulls rising high above the waterline. The island ahead of us was a wall, and we were heading straight for it.

Then I spied it: a keyhole in the rock, white light spilling through from the other side. As we neared the cleft, it expanded to a roughly rectangular passage dripping with contorted stalactites. Just tall and wide enough for our boat to pass through. But then I saw a path leading up from the tunnel.

“Sure! You can walk up there if you want to. There is a very nice cave. But it’s steep so the boys may be too scared,” our guide warned.

A short climb brought us to the mouth of a large, white cavern illuminated by two openings from above. One by one, the boys ascended using fixed ropes and steps cut into the slippery cave wall. We emerged to an incredible sight: a stalactite-framed window on Phang Nga Bay. Far across the water, we could see two large, yellow boats zooming towards the same destination: James Bond Island.

  

“Actually, they have something like 500 boats,” our guide claimed. “All those yellow boats are owned by Chinese through a nominee structure. All the Chinese tour groups use these boats. They pay their Thai guides and captains poorly. I didn’t want to be a part of that. So when my relative decided to start a local tour company, I was very happy.”

Later, we circumnavigated James Bond Island, pausing to take photos from the water. (Apologies to whoever we photo-bombed.) It was certainly an unusual and film-worthy formation – though hardly large enough for a proper evil lair. From this angle, things looked orderly on shore. However, as we continued around the island, the chaos became clear.

Our next destination was a little island with a pretty beach not far from James Bond Island. In general, Phang Nga Bay isn’t a snorkeling spot; the water is turbid and the currents can be surprisingly strong when the tide is running. And while the islands have a million promising cliff-jumping locations, the shallow water and lack of visibility makes it suicidal. While the boys “painted” the side of our boat with wet sand, I followed Witoon to a well incongruously filled with cool, fresh water. I dumped a few bucketfuls over my head and groaned with relief.

Our final planned destination was Hong Island, a very popular stop on the Phang Nga Bay day tours. We expected crowds, and we got them: an unbroken loop of tourists in inflatable kayaks being paddled around by wise-cracking local guides. In Thai, horng mean ‘room’. The island is famous for a hidden lagoon that is only accessible at low tide.

But it wasn’t low tide. We had to lean back like limbo participants to clear the narrow cave opening. Colliding with other kayaks was unavoidable. When we reached the end of the tunnel, I could see a bit of light bouncing off the cave bottom. Our guide started to u-turn.

“Wait a moment! Can we swim under?” I asked in Thai.

“Dai krup,” he replied, “no problem!”

“Boys, stay in the kayaks!” I shouted as I rolled off into the water.

  

I took a deep breath and submerged. Light was streaming into the water just a few meters ahead; it looked easy enough. A few strokes later I surfaced in a truly magical spot: a placid, milky blue pool circumscribed by high, jungle-draped cliffs. I floated on my back and soaked up the tranquility. It seemed impossible to believe that on the other side of that wall, fifty kayaks and a hundred tourists were jostling for photo opportunities.

“Daddy! Daddy!”

So much for tranquility. First Logan, and then the rest of the boys and Nori popped up. Our guide had shown them an easier way in. My initial anger at their not obeying was quickly replaced by pride: what brave little boys!

On way back to Boonchu Pier, Witoon asked me if we’d like to visit another cave. Of course! The captain navigated towards an unremarkable recess in the cliff face. I never would have seen it.

“We just discovered this place a few months ago!” he said. Given the nature of karst formations, there must be hundreds of caves and grottoes in Phang Nga Bay that have never been explored by humans.

  

The first room of the cave had some beautiful flowstone terraces and pools, thick columns and an alcove that looked like an open mouth, complete with dangling epiglottis. We had to turn our headlamps on and crawl through the narrow entrance to the second, larger room, where the boys’ constant chatter reverberated into a kind of parental Hell.

We had a very late lunch at Ruean Phae Che Son (“Jason’s Houseboat”), a floating restaurant on the Klong Bang Lam. While the boys scampered about observing the fish in the holding pools, I finished the last of the tom yum goong and thought about the incredible adventure we’d had. Apart from the James Bond sail-by and the visit to Hong Island, we’d been completely on our own. We had explored two caves, swam on an empty beach and even had a hidden lagoon to ourselves. The islands of Phang Nga Bay are so beautiful that even the most mass-market tour offers fantastic views. But if your family is into adventure, a private boat with a knowledgeable guide is well worth the extra expense.

Located just 400km northeast of Bangkok, Buriram is easily accessed by plane (1 round-trip flight per day from both Nok Air and Thai AirAsia), road (4-5 hours) and train (6-8 hours). The fastest driving route from Bangkok is via Saraburi and Pak Chong. On the way back, we took the slower route via Sa Kaeo Province.

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