A savvy traveller knows that to see a sight in its full glory, it’s better to chart your own path. And in Phang Nga Bay this is easily achieved. You could charter a luxury yacht and explore in sumptuous style and comfort, but for those lacking the budget or looking for a more traditional way to venture into the bay, there’s the mighty long-tail boat.
The long-tail boat is a true symbol of coastal Thailand. Every travel book, article and video about Thailand’s beaches and islands will include images of this colourful vessel. These hand-crafted boats travel along smoothly, albeit loudly, most adorned with garlands and scarves around the curved bow as an offering to the sea spirits for protection. Its swiveling rear engine with a propeller at the end of a long shaft is the ‘tail’ that gives the boat its name. Long-tails are generally owned or operated by local men who are also fishermen or otherwise well-versed in the sea and sights in the area.
You can catch a long-tail boat from several departure points in Phang Nga province, just over the bridge from Phuket. There are several signs along the road for ‘James Bond Island’ tours, but probably the best touring boats are found at Surakul Pier in Takua Thung about 12 kilometres west of Phang Nga Town. They’re large, well maintained and have a canopy roof for shade. Plus there’s attention to safety with all passengers given life jackets before they board the boat, including child-sized jackets for children.
The price is 2,500 baht for the boat for the day, which could seat a dozen passengers comfortably. They will depart as soon as your group is ready, ideal if you wish to avoid the crowds and go in the early morning hours or afternoon.
The first part of the journey is more like a jungle tour as the boat glides through an inlet flanked by mangrove forest. After about 20 minutes the water opens up to the sea and – behold! – you’re treated to your first sight of the bay’s famed karsts.
From here there are several places to explore, but the following describes a typical journey.
The Hongs. A hong, or room, is a cave found inside some of the karsts, formed when the middle of the peak collapses into the sea. Though these little oases have become a popular and sometimes crowded sight, it’s still worth venturing in to see these true wonders of nature up close. Narrow access means that the only way in is by sea kayak, which can be hired at one of the floating barges just outside the hong entrance. The caves are a challenge to navigate, meaning that your kayak will be paddled by a guide, and there’s an extra cost for this at 400 baht per person.
The guide takes you through a series of caves, some with only a sliver of space between the water and cave walls, meaning you have to get cosy with your boat-mates and lie back flat on the kayak to get through. As you squeeze through, be sure to look up at the cave walls around you to catch a sight of the sparkling stalactites: nature’s bling. If you’re keen to do more ‘honging around’, try booking a separate trip with John Gray’s Sea Canoe, eco-conscious kayak experts who will take you to lesser-known, less crowded caves.
Bond, James Bond. Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that Koh Khao Phing Kan – better known as James Bond Island – has some of the most beautiful topographical features in the world. A popular destination since it was made famous as the island hideaway of the criminal Scaramanga in the 1974 film The Man With the Golden Gun, it’s now often decried as a tourist trap. But arriving here via your own chartered boat gives you the chance to visit during the island’s quieter hours and explore without any time pressure. The small island with tall cliffs rising straight up from the sea has a perfect little beach that offers a view of Koh Tapu, or Nail Island: yes, that’s the one in all the postcards. But the fact that millions of people have seen it makes it no less stunning.
Koh Panyee. To see the best of Koh Panyee, this Muslim floating village attached to the base of a towering karst island, be sure to get there either early in the morning or in the late afternoon outside of the tour group hours. The front of the village is lined with scenic yet unremarkable restaurants and many souvenir stalls. Sneak down the narrow walkways to the other side where the village’s community life is better revealed. Here’s where you’ll see the local villagers simply leading their lives: washing clothes, preparing meals, praying, seemingly oblivious to the spectacular Andaman scenery around them.
Take a look at the village football pitch and you’ll soon understand why this tiny town is home to some regional champion teams. The pitch is built on a floating raft with all four sides open to the water. Having good ball control means avoiding a splashy fall into the sea.
From here, it’s a just short return trip through the mangroves and back to the pier. All in all, this do-it-yourself long-tail tour offers a low-key yet fun way to putter around Phang Nga Bay and take in its magnificent sights at your own pace.