The sheer-sided sea mountains that rise vertically out of Phang Nga Bay, squeezed in between Krabi and Phuket province, form some of Thailand’s most spectacular scenery. Images of Phang Nga have travelled the world and shaped perceptions of southern Thailand, and of the boating experiences to be had here. With this in mind, I felt myself lucky to have been invited by a tour agency to take part on one of their most popular tours: Phang Nga Bay by yacht.
On an early January morning I met the crew on the Ao Nang (Krabi) beachfront: 9 staff, all busy to make our trip an unforgettable one. A traditional wooden longtail boat transferred us to the comfortable double-decked yacht. The sea was flat and the sky was brilliant. In the busy Ao Nang bay, several longtail boats drew foamy lines that criss-crossed in the waters, a usual sight during high season: some were leaving for island trips, others to the popular Railay peninsula.
We all boarded and set off. The guides explained the program of the day, then unfolded a couple of nautical maps and showed us our whereabouts, pointing islands and places. The elegant yacht upper-deck served both as a dining area and as a relaxing patio. I laid back on a comfortable deck cushion beneath the sun canopy and let the gentle sea breeze play over my face and body. The scenery around me was entertaining: the amazing palette of colours of the sea served as a frame for the several limestone islands that dot the expanse of the Andaman Sea. We passed the north cape of Koh Yao Island and finally entered the enchanting Phang Nga Bay. The cruise around the area revealed odd-shaped scenic limestone formations jutting out of an azure sea surrounded by a lush, tropical archipelago.
We finally landed on Khao Ping Kan and followed a nature pathway from where a couple of viewpoints offered magnificent views over Khao Tapoo, or what is commonly known as James Bond Island. This famous landmark first found its way onto the international map through its starring role in the 1974 James Bond movie ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’. On the small sandy bay, a few meters away from Khao Tapoo, we marveled at the spectacular area surrounding this island with its signature rocky pinnacle. The shoreless rock has the shape of a nail, flat and wide at the top, and very narrow at waterline, hence its name in Thai, ‘tapoo’, which in fact means nail.
We were quickly reminded that it was high season: along the line of tourist shops, dozens of visitors walked, negotiated with the souvenir vendors on prices of shells engraved with the image of James Bond Island, bought drinks and souvenirs and took pictures of the island. Khao Ping Kan itself is very small and can be walked in a matter of minutes. The name literally means ‘leaning mount’. On the rocky side, a massive slate of limestone at least 50 meters high detaches itself from the island wall, slits down to the grounds and sits leaning on it, creating a tent-like covered space from where to marvel huge grooves that are the rock breaking points. In a plaque on the wall, the King in person has carved His signature. It is a striking sight.
On the bay, longtail boats kept coming and dropping camera-loaded visitors of different nationalities; it was time for us to depart. The group boarded a spacious longtail boat which left the crowd for our trip to Koh Panyee. Longtail boats in Phang Ngan are quite different from the ones used in the Krabi province: they are longer, more colorful and have a more pointed shape. The sea was getting wavy despite the vicinity to the island shores. We made a quick detour inside the mangrove delta; according to our guide, the Phang Nga backwaters host the largest mangrove forest in Thailand. We were given information on this particular type of environment and on how eco-tourism has in recent times helped to reestablish the depleted mangrove forests and to generate income for the local people.
Our next port of call was the picturesque island of Koh Panyee. Otherwise known as Sea Gypsy Village, Koh Panyee is built almost entirely on stilts over water to the south of the sheer limestone cliffs of the island. The people there are muslim fishermen, not sea gypsies as the tourist name suggests; the sea gypsies live further south on Phuket island and on Koh Lanta island. We got to wander around the village; near the pier, houses’ front lines have been converted into restaurants and souvenir shops, but once you pass this area you can dive into a life made of simple people, smiling children, roaming roosters and idle women in house porches. Under the maze of cemented walkways, the constant noise of coming and going sea water. The majority of the population that groups into 120 households earns its living from fishery. The culture of these fishermen, cut off from the mainland and most modern amenities, has existed undisturbed for more than a thousand years. There is a mosque and even a public school where kids cheered at our passage. We observed the local pace of life, with folks going about their daily chores like fishing and cooking. The majority of houses are shanty shacks seriously run down, still the place has a magic aura: it makes you wonder of the hard lives lived by this community that was hard hit by the tsunami disaster years ago.
The longtail boat finally took us back to the yacht, where a sumptuous Thai buffet waited for us in the first deck. We enjoyed food on the set tables in the upper floor, and soon after the boat left for the journey back to Ao Nang. The afternoon was at leisure, lying around under the shades of the canopy, observing the few sailing boats in the area that took advantage of the breeze to gain some speed. The journey back was characterized by some clouds and cold air.
Once back, I was exhausted but quite glad to have discovered the wonders of the lush tropical archipelagoes of the Phang Nga Bay aboard a yacht, looked after by a dedicated team. Seafarers and adventure-seekers will revel on a magical cruise in the Andaman Sea.