Travel Destinations

Monday, August 26, 2013

Kayaking Phang Nga Bay’s Karsts and Hongs

One-Handed Monkey, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
My favorite one-handed Thai monkey.
When planning our time in Phuket, I read about exploring Thailand’s karsts in Phang Nga Bay by kayak, which sounded like an adventure right up our alley.  I decided to book with Sea Canoe Thailand, the self-proclaimed original sea kayak tour operator, as recommended by Lonely Planet’s DiscoverThailand. 

Lonely Planet’s Discover Thailand describes Phang Nga Bay as having “[m]ore than 40 humpbacked limestone mountains [that] jut out of this sheltered bay to create a dramatic interplay of land and sea.”  Frommer’s Thailand describes stunning scenery “with limestone karst towers rising from the bay” and says sea kayaks are the perfect way to “explore the many breathtaking caves and chambers that hide beneath the jagged cliffs.” Sea Canoe’s sample itinerary for the Phang Nga Day Trip lists paddling to islands and entering caves and hongs.  That sounded like great fun.  But those descriptions did nothing to prepare me for what we would actually experience.

Chamber at the Base of one of the Karsts, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
I did sort of imagine this was what a chamber hiding beneath a jagged cliff would look like.
I imagined kayaking around karsts similar to the Ko Panyi karst of our rock climbing adventure.  I assumed we would be kayaking around these karsts and entering shallow caves and chambers at their base.  I had no idea what a hong was, and that the hongs would be the main attractions and highlights of our kayaking excursion. 

Karst Cave Entrance, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
I did imagine entering caves such as this, though I didn't expect the water to be so blue.
Our day started by being picked up at our hotel in a minivan.  After a somewhat terrifying drive to Ao Por pier (which was ironic because it was the only stressful driving experience during our travels in Thailand, including our rides in tuk tuks, and also the only time the paperwork given to us by a company asked us to report any unsafe driving), we boarded the escort boat.  While the boat was large, the group was not.   

When we arrived in Phang Nga Bay we were given safety instructions, including directions to lie down completely flat in the kayak when in low caves, and then we set out with our paddle guide, James Bond, to enter the caves and hongs of the first island.  Our tour leader went by the name Tom Cruise.  James Bond paddled us through the blue water of the bay to the looming karst and then we entered our first cave.  We marveled at the dark expanses, stalactite formations, and colonies of bats. 

Inside a Cave of one of the Karsts in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
I did expect to kayak through dark caves.
Bats Inside the Karst's Cave, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
I even hoped to see bats inside the caves.
Then we saw a wide sliver of light gleaming ahead of us.  We laid back to pass under the low hanging rock and then entered the sunny center of the karst, the hong.  A hong, if you are unaware as I was, is a roofless chamber in the interior of a karst.  We silently glided into the hong, a beautiful little world separate from everything else.  The limestone sides climbed high into the air, covered in vegetation, and there was a lone mangrove tree growing in the center.  After exploring the hong thoroughly, we exited and returned to the boat to travel to the second karst.

Cave Entrance Into a Hong
But I didn't expect to exit the caves without making a U-turn.

Inside the Hong of One of Phang Nga Bay's Karsts, Thailand
I never imagined this was what the inside of the limestone karsts would look like.
The second hong was similar to the first, except this one had a tribe of monkeys.  The outside had extreme water erosion which had sculpted deep tunnels along the outside edges.  Inside there were monkeys everywhere, running along an elevated pathway which looked similar to China’s Guoliang Tunnel Road, jumping along rocks, and even diving into the water.  Their pathway fascinated me, as I wondered how many generations of monkeys had worn out the rock to create that path.  It is also fascinating to realize those monkeys have only known that one small karst.

Hong Monkey Run, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
Monkeys hanging out in their monkey run inside the hong.
We returned to the boat for a delicious Thai lunch cooked in the boat’s kitchen.  The meal included deep fried whole fish, chicken with cashew nuts, steamed rice, mixed vegetables, and seasonal fruit.  Everything tasted wonderful, especially after all the hard work of being paddled around!  After lunch food scraps were thrown into the water and a number of sea eagles started swooping down into the water to eat the discarded food. 

Sea Eagle, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
One of the many sea eagles following our boat after lunch.
We traveled to the third hong, which had more monkeys.  We heard a loud knocking sound and found a monkey hitting a shell repeatedly against the rock in order to break it open and eat what was inside.  One monkey really caught my interest because he was missing his right hand.  At first I felt extremely sorry and worried for him.  This changed when a mudskipper skipped on by.  The one-handed monkey chased quickly after it, successfully pulled it out of the water, and ate it as a snack.  I was happy to see that monkey had no problems.  I was lucky enough to capture the chase and conquest on video.

Mudskipper Phang Nga Bay Karsts
Mudskipper, also known as delicious monkey snack.

We moved on and then were given the choice to relax on the boat, swim in the water, or take out a kayak on our own.  We chose to explore the open waters in a kayak, this time self-paddling.  We found a small cave where we could pull up onto the tiny beach and explore the interior on foot. 

Kayaking Phang Nga Bay Thailand
We're not completely lazy.  We did self-paddle a little bit.

Phang Nga Bay Cave, Thailand
We explored this tiny cave with a floor of broken sea shells during our self-paddle.
Sea Canoe (Thailand) Co., Ltd. offers multiple trips from Phuket and Krabi, all described in detail on their website.  We chose the Phang Nga Day Trip, which is also offered as a self-paddle trip.  We chose not to self-paddle because this tour was taken on our third full day in Phuket, after one day of snorkeling and another day of rock climbing.  We were concerned we would be too tired and might enjoy someone else doing the work.  While both choices are excellent, we felt we made the right choice for us because it seemed we were able to spend more time in the karsts we visited as the self-paddlers were dropped off at our first karst and did not return to the boat until lunchtime, while we traveled between karsts by boat rather than kayak.  Sea Canoe also offers overnight trips, which a group on our trip did.  I contacted one of the gentlemen of the group later to exchange pictures, and he said the overnight stay on the island was fabulous.    

Our day of kayaking in Phang Nga Bay was even more beautiful than I had expected.  We were blown away by the beauty and tranquility of the hongs.  We were also very happy with Sea Canoe, as the team was friendly and professional, the food was delicious, and the guests were respectful travelers.  We saw other boats heading out on similar tours that were larger and more crowded.  I found our group to be of a much more comfortable size. 

I used Lonely Planet Discover Thailand to plan our Thailand trip.

Travel the World: A unique experience while traveling to Thailand is kayaking through Phang Nga Bay’s karsts and hongs.

Katherine Belarmino and Romeo Belarmino are the authors of Travel the World, a travel blog for the everyday working stiff. They work full-time in non-travel related jobs, but take every opportunity they can to travel the world during their limited vacation time.