Saturday, March 31, 2018

Thailand Travel Series: Ao Phrang Nga Bay and "James Bond" Island

Ao Phrang Nga Bay

This is Part 5 of the Thailand and Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.

WHEN FLIPPING THROUGH GUIDE BOOKS, Ao Phrang Nga Bay will immediately catch your eye. The unique limestone cliffs look like puzzle pieces jutting out of the ocean, eroded away by time into unforgettable formations. We booked a tour in Phuket to visit. There will always be many tour package shops nearby hotels to purchase travel for the day. We signed up for a half day trip to Ao Phrang Nga Bay which would take us by a monkey cave, sea kayaking, visiting Ko Khao Phing Kan (referred to frequently in English as “James Bond” island from scenes that took place there from Man with the Golden Gun, and we would finish with a lunch at a Muslim village on stilts, Ko Panyi.

We were picked up from our hotel in a van that took us on a 1.5 hour bus ride from Phuket up north and then curving along the Gulf of Thailand to Ao Nang Province. Along the way we stopped at a monkey cave. Upon our arrival, monkeys descended in a swarm down the lips of the cave hooting and chattering. We visited the shrine inside and marveled at the giant stalagmites jutting up from the cave floor like teeth.

We disembarked in a small village where we were herded into a larger exodus threading our way toward a longboat fleet. In a buzz of noise and smoke choking the water with pollution, our longboats set sail to navigate the wondrous jungle inlets. The boats were so loud that talking was impossible. Instead, we sat on benched and watched the muddy rivers and mangrove swamps flow into a teal ocean. Islands began to appear one after another out on the blue depths, some that looked like anamorphic shapes, others shaped like chicken legs, still others resembling hooks as they defied gravity to pull them back into the sea. Ao Phrang Nga Bay is truly unique, a dense maze of interweaving limestone peculiarities that capture the imagination.

At last we arrived at a sea cave where we boarded a floating pier boat and were given directions on how the sea kayak operation would work. In pairs, we were sorted into different kayaks with a local guide. The guide did their best to sweet talk us into giving over our biggest tip while paddling us through remarkable limestone features including stalactites and cascading foliage that carpeted the sides of the cavern like an emerald curtain. Unfortunately, the magic of this moment was severely dampened due to the large flood of people also paddling along side you, and it was disappointing that we couldn’t paddle the sea kayak ourselves! Our guide did let us take a couple paddles before he took over steering, but that left us for the most part to sit there, awkwardly, while trying to make small talk in our respective languages where it became very clear that he expected a big tip after.

Feeling a bit like cattle, we were herded back board our longboats 30 minutes after on the dot and jetted out to “James Bond” Island. Upon landing at the small beach overrun by people, we held onto the roof of our long tail and then balanced carefully on the side, inching along sideways, before we touched down the on the beach. That was actually one of the most fun parts. Once on the island, we were beset by vendors eager to sell. A small pavilion overlooked the slender sea pillar where James Bond fought his nemesis. We did a quick hike around the island. There was an impressive limestone slab arched at an angle, like a cathedral, that was neat to explore. However, there were so many people, that it took away from much enjoyment. There is a pit toilet on the island as well.

The last part of the tour was actually the one I knew the least about but enjoyed the most! When we’d disembarked from the harbor, I’d caught a glimpse of a mysterious village on stilts nested on one of the islands. Now we navigated the labyrinthine channels back to that very village, Ko Panyi, where we had lunch.

Ko Panyi is a Muslim village built by Indonesian fishermen. It had a mosque with a golden dome towering in the heart of the village, visible to passing fishing boats. We disembarked on a creaky pier and walked up the ramps toward a shaded around for lunch. I saw fish traps in the water with a variety of catches in the mud-colored water, including some crabs.

I really wish I’d had more time to spend there. Finishing lunch early, we ventured out of our restaurant into the town, and it was like descending into a world cut off from the sky above, rocked by the river below. The village was an infinite maze of street stalls and hovels. Some passages took you down to the mud banks where you could see the stilts. We got lost in seconds. There were less people here, too, occasionally shopkeepers would appear out of nowhere like ghosts asking us to buy from their shop, but the village as a whole was quite silent. Drapery and tin hid the sky so we had no way of telling where we were, or if it were day or night. It felt like we’d traveled through a wormhole where time didn’t exist. We’d wanted to find our way to the mosque, but the shop stalls spread in so many countless directions we couldn’t find our way. We also didn’t much time. Eventually I spotted a dress I recognized hanging in a merchant’s stall, and we turned back that way. Then one of the guides found us and directed us back to our longtail.

Overall, would I recommend touring James Bond Island? You can find many tours to it for cheap, but unfortunately, it is over-hyped. I would seek out a more private experience for Ao Phrang Nga Bay, as the scenery is quite breathtaking. Unfortunately, the bay’s water was heavily polluted by all of the constant boat traffic, which also made me feel unsettled for contributing toward it. If you do the tour, I’d say to try to find one that gives you a couple hours on Ko Panyi, which was as remarkably unique as the island maze surrounding it.

Upcoming Blog Post: Phuket: Deep Sea Fishing

Disclaimer: This blog post is depicted as fiction, not fact.

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