In the middle of our rainy five days in Phuket, we were faced with a big decision: should we risk spending a stormy day at sea in order to visit the famed Phang Nga Bay, or should we continue to hide on our lovely balcony in Cape Panwa?
After some hemming and hawing and a hundred glances at the forecast, we decided to brave the blustery weather in hopes of catching a few glances of blue skies over the bay.
Well, we never got blue skies or the sun. But outside a few sprinkles here and there the rain held off, and so we resigned ourselves to a gray day — and vowed to make the most of it.
The uninhabited Phang Nga National Marine Park is famous for its emerald waters, forty rocky islands, and classic karst vistas. It holds the largest remaining primary mangrove forests in all of Thailand and is home to abundant wildlife including reptiles, amphibians, and over two-hundred species of mammals.
Phang Nga is a hot tourist destination and a popular day trip from Phuket. Obviously, when it was time to plan our trip, I turned to Viator to see what they had on offer. Turns out, Viator offers dozens of tour options for Phang Nga Bay, and I fretted over which to choose. After eliminating all the speed boat varieties (I prefer the bigger, slower moving boats for tours like this), we pretty much chose based on departure time, eventually landing on the Phang Nga Bay Sea Cave Tour from Phuket.
Turns out, the local operator just so happens to be the number one rated boat tour and water sports operator on Tripadvisor in all of Phuket. And, bonus: while getting picked up at 11am meant we were free to sleep in, unbeknownst to us it also meant that we avoided almost all crowds for the day. Win, win and win!
After a comfortable shuttle ride from our hotel to the pier and splitting the group onto two spacious boats, we started making our way towards Phang Nga. Lunch was laid out as we boarded the boat, and the journey went by quickly while we ate and listened to an educational and environmentally focused briefing from the lively crew.
Sidebar to say that I was impressed with the lunch offerings. There was plenty of juicy fruit and colorful veggies, and I loaded up on both as well as some tasty spring rolls and fresh noodles.
Soon, we were pulling up to the first of the sea caves we’d set out to explore. Each guest or couple were partnered with a personal paddle guide for the day — at first I was a bit put off by this, as I love to kayak and always love any excuse for some exercise. But as we pushed off in our inflatable vessel and made our way into the narrow passageway, I could see why a professional was necessary. Our guide hollered out when to lay back and expertly deflated the kayak just enough to let us safely pass through the cave and into the hongs inside.
Hong is Thai for room, and that’s exactly what it feels like you’re paddling into — a beautiful secret paradise of a room. The tour is timed carefully to the tides, as when they come in they flood the caves and seal the lagoon closed until they come out again.
Our hands free from paddles, we were able to take plenty of pictures, and do some pretty quality chilling-in-the-recline-position, too.
cute hair braid courtesy of the masseuse who took advantage of my nap to give me a new ‘do
After a lengthy tour around the hong and the caves, we were back on the big boat and off to the next set of islands. Here, we again paired off with our guides for another look around the bay.
Phang Nga is teaming with wildlife, and we were lucky enough to meet a hefty contingent of it. The monkeys we spotted were generally unimpressed with our presence, while a mysterious amphibian who appeared to have wings eyed us with great suspicion and a crab charged at us when we drifted too near to his home.
While our paddler spoke little English (others seemed to speak significantly more, so it’s kind of just the luck of the draw), but we loved his energy regardless — he enthusiastically pointed out creatures we never would have spotted on our own.
a wildly unflattering group shot
The monkeys, however, were the uncontested stars of the show. I’ve seen hundreds of monkeys in my time in Thailand but I’ve got to admit, they never really get old. We were able to get really up close and personal, too. All the photos in this post were shot with my Canon PowerShot G7X — no zoom lens necessary!
Next up, it was free time. The guides tied up several of the kayaks off the back of the boat to create an impromptu obstacle course. Everyone took turns seeing how far they could run before falling off the sides, and I don’t know who was having more fun — the employees, the under twelve set, or us.
We were also able to use this time to give our arms a little workout and go for the self-guided paddle I’d been craving. While we were warned to stay away from the caves when we were on our own, we found plenty of hidden beaches and bays to explore.
As the daylight started to dim, it was time to return to the big boat. The next phase of the tour was one that could have easily come off as hokey if executed differently, but was just perfect as it was — we learned how to make our own kratongs. Kratongs are typically made in celebration of the Loy Kratong festival, an important date in the Thai calendar. Coinciding with the rainy season, the festival and the offering of the krathongs pay homage to the water goddess Mae Kongkha. The festival typically coincides with Yi Peng. While Yi Peng revelers send floating lanterns into the sky, celebrants of Loy Kratong send floating lanterns into the water.
Loy Kratong translates to “to float a basket” — and what brilliant baskets they are. Woven from bamboo bases, banana leaves, candles, flowers, and whatever colorful natural materials their creators can get their hands on, kratongs are said to carry away bad luck and usher in a fresh start for the person who sets them afloat.
We watched studiously as our guide silently demonstrated the intricate folds required to craft the beauty above. We were so focused on our task that it wasn’t until we were proudly photographing our creation that we noticed everyone elses’. Each one was starkly unique, a testament to the creativity of the various guides.
As a dedicated craft addict, this was so my jam.
After proudly adding our kratong to the boat’s display, it was time to enjoy dinner while we waited for darkness. If I was pretty impressed by lunch, I was literally blown away by dinner. A full seafood BBQ, an amazing massaman chicken curry, a beautiful chicken cashew nut stir fry, and endless plates of hearty vegetables overflowed on the table. We took our plates and snuck away to the front of the boat, and with my feet dangling over the bow, my plate full of delicious Thai food and my eyes soaking up the last light over Phang Nga Bay, I knew we’d made the right choice.
After dark, we boarded our little kayaks again, one final time. This trip, we wouldn’t go far. We made our way to the wide mouth of a nearby cave and there, our guide handed us our sparkling kratong. Lit only by candlelight, we each made a silent wish before setting off our sweet little offering. On the way back to the big boat, we watched in awe as bioluminescent plankton lit up the sea beneath every slap of the paddle.
Note: Out of concern for the environment, the company picks up all the kratongs on the way back to the boat. Knowing how taboo this is in Thai culture — locals are incredibly superstitious and maintain that a kratong floating back to you is the luck equivalent of breaking like, a thousand mirrors — I kind of wish they did it a little more discreetly. But that is a nitpick considering the fact that they are taking the initiative to be eco-friendly.
We might not have lucked into the most postcard perfect day in Phang Nga. But we did have a great time eating delicious food, creating gorgeous kratongs with our own hands, and enjoying the natural wonders of Phang Nga bay.
While our personal guide may not have spoken much English, he was definitely the exception. Kudos to the staff for making it seem like they were having the time of their lives with us and not just working their way through their usual daily script! The many glowing reviews I’ve read of this tour rave about both the food and the guides, so I know I wasn’t alone in tipping my hat to both. We might not have sampled each and every of the dozens of tours available to Phang Nga Bay, but I’d be hard pressed to believe we could have done better.
One more note: This tour does not take you to the iconic James Bond Island. There seemed to be a bit of confusion about that onboard, so just be aware of that ahead of time to avoid disappointment.
Have you ever visited Phang Nga Bay? When you’re on the road and it’s raining, do you head out and try to make the most of it, or hide inside and wait for the sun?
Is this the John Gray tour, but booked through Viator? Looks exactly like the one my dad and I did when he visited me in Thailand a couple of years ago! I’m not usually the most keen for group tours when I’m travelling, but we both loved this one — even though we, too, were initially put off by the being kayaked around as opposed to kayaking ourselves. (We had free time to kayak on our own later in the day.) No obstacle course for us, though! What a shame. Did you see the bioluminescent plankton at night, too?! Happy to hear your outing was worth braving the grey weather for 🙂
Hey Katie, indeed it is! Viator is a distributor for local tours, and they do the hard work of picking out the best ones (and maintaining international, 24/7 customer service for them). In this case I think they nailed it — glad to hear you agree. The plankton was unreal! I’ve seen it before but never like that. What a beautiful day.
Sounds like it was a pretty epic day even without the sun (and probably meant nobody got sunburnt too so win win!). Viator sounds like they have a great selection of things to do/recommend – will definitely have to check them out! xo
They always do. It’s one of the first places I peek when I’m planning a trip!
Oh, my, I’ll be off to the interwebs now to find tutorials on how to make kratong…they are stunning! I’ll just have to find a source for banana leaves here in the great Northeast.
BTW, love your hair braided like that! Mothers everywhere are saying, “Now we can see her pretty face!”
Ha ha, I knew you would comment on my hair 🙂 And yes, I felt my life of crafting was all just a warm up for learning to make kratongs!
Looks great despite the cloudy skies! I’m flying back out to Thailand in 10 days and I cannot wait!
Luckily it’s been nothing but sunshine lately! Hoping the same for you upon arrival!
I absolutely love your hair in these pictures! The weather maybe wasn’t great, but you were shining! 😉
You just put the biggest smile on my face, Jessica! Thank you for that 🙂
Great trip and amazing view! It inspires me alot about the beautiful trip to Phukhet with sunny and delicious seafoods. Thanks for sharing and cheer!
You are so welcome. Glad you enjoyed!
I’m so glad you guys decided to go. It looks amazing regardless of the gray skies! It kind of reminds me of when I visited Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. It was stormy and the visibility was limited but it was stunning nonetheless. And I don’t regret going in the least 🙂 Also, I love the hair braid!
Thanks Justine! Oh man, I’m still aching to get to Ha Long Bay. One of these days!
LOVE the braid!
Bummer about the weather, but looks like a great day nonetheless. And I love your guide’s expression in the unflattering group shot, hahaha.
He was hilarious. You could tell that wasn’t the first selfie he’d posed for 😉
I was about to say, I’m really digging your hairstyle! You should learn to replicate this on your own (or, uh, hire that masseuse are your full-time stylist?). Lovely!
Thank you, what a compliment coming from my current hair crush! Yeah, as my little sister will gleefully confirm I barely even brush my hair so braiding is pretty beyond me. But I DO love this look and all these compliments coming my way just might be enough to prompt a little poke around for tutorials on YouTube…
I loooove Thailand! I’ve never visited Phang Nga Bay or any of the beaches, even though I’ve been to Thailand 3 times now! Ooops!
Anyway, if I’m on the road and it’s raining, I put on my windbreaker, whip out my umbrella (depending where I am of course) and just keep on enjoying what the day has to offer. I’m British you see and I’m used to it!
p.s. That hair style. Send that man over lol!
Ha, I do love the British sensibility about rain. I remember back when I had a Scottish boyfriend and I was fretting over if someone plan was going to be cancelled because it was lightly drizzling outside. “This!” he’d said. “In Scotland, we throw a barbecue when it’s as nice out as this!”
Very good post, very good hair 🙂
I love how much love this braid is getting! I really need to work on it!
Loved this post! It seemed like such a great day! And thanks so much for including that all of the photos were taken with your Canon Powershot. This really spoke to me since I’m always so torn about what camera to take on any activity that might involve water. My nice mirrorless camera or my rugged/waterproof one – a constant struggle. Did you have your waterproof housing on the PowerShot when you were in the kayak?
BTW (if the above isn’t clear): Your photos turned out great!
I know how you feel! I did have my waterproof housing on but I’m pretty sure I slipped it out of the case when I was taking some of the monkey shots and I felt secure and stable. I LOVE my G7X. It’s amazing! Thanks for the kind words!
That braid is adorable!! Also, this looks like an absolute perfect day to me. Even without the sun the views are stunning!
It did have an eerie charm, even through the moody grayness!
My friend and I were so put off by Phuket that we cut our time there short. Wish I had known about this tour because we both would have loved it so much.
Thank you for sharing!
As always, going to take note since I may return one day! 🙂
Indeed, next time 🙂 And consider checking out Cape Panwa — I found it a beautiful and low key place to base myself.
This looks like it was such a fun, well-rounded, well-coordinated tour! I’ll put it on my list for sure. Though I did get goosebumps at the thought of being inside a cave that could fill up and get sealed off, but it looks like you made it out just fine. 😉 (I suppose I sort of know that tide won’t rise super quickly and unexpectedly, but still.)
Oh, and I wonder if the bioluminescence was more glowy than usual because you had an overcast sky? No moonlight or even stars to outshine it! So perhaps another silver-lining to the weather.
That is a good point, I didn’t think of that! A silver lining indeed. And yeah, the caves weren’t very long. I think the worst that could happen is you’d get stuck in the hong for a while — which would be a nice few hours of your own personal version of “The Beach” I suppose 🙂 Although the guides are quick to assure everyone that has never happened!
I’m definitely willing to give Viator another shot – definitely bookmarking this for my trip to Phuket. I had planned on just lounging by the pool/beach the whole time, but that gets old fast!
Did you book this very far in advance?
We booked it maybe ten days before we arrived in Phuket, if memory serves correctly!
Just reserved this tour for my upcoming trip to Phuket…I leave two weeks from tomorrow 🙂 Thanks for the recommendation, it’s good to get “first-hand” advice!
Awesome! Let me know how you like it — can’t wait to hear!
Aahh … I thought this one is the James Bond tour, and didn’t know that there’s another ‘Phang Nga tour’. Phang Nga was actually one my choices for day trip, beside Phi Phi – but I chose Phi Phi.
It seems you had a great time. Would love to take this tour next time during my visit to Phuket 😉
Yeah, Phang Nga Bay is huge! So unless you go by speedboat or leave super early and return super late, your tour might not include it. We weren’t too fussed about missing it considering we had crappy weather anyway. If I had perfect blue skies I might have been a little bummed not to photograph it.
One thing I loved about living in Portland – the rain doesn’t stop anyone from getting outside, unless it’s a torrential downpour. I was even surprised to find that lots of places look MORE beautiful on drizzly days – all the different hues of green just pop against the gray skies.
And I agree with all the others that your hair looks fab! I’ve never come out of a massage looking that good… usually I look a little drunk/dazed and have that weird ring on my face from being pressed into the mat.
You are definitely right, there are some scenarios in which a photographer will actually hope for overcast skies — shooting in forests and jungle is one of them! Direct sunlight creates too many harsh shadows in those environments. I bet Portland has a lot of them 🙂
u and BB look so cute together. nice pictures. i’m sure you get asked this before… but you sure do look like swedish. any ties to an european background?
Yup! I have mixed European heritage, including some Scandinavian roots!
Great photos! Despite a lack of blue skies, it looks like you lucked out on the weather and had a great tour.
We were definitely thankful the rain held off!
Hi! Do you think it’s possible to take my DSRL camera without getting wet (on the kayak)? Or you just can leave it on the boat? Which way it’s better? Thank you
I’d be nervous bringing my dSLR on the kayak without any protection. I preferred having my waterproof point and shoot, and lots of other guests had their iPhones in waterproof bags — they sell them at the loading dock before the tour. Best of luck!
Beautiful post, Thailnd is my next destination in november.
That’s amazing — November is low season here in Koh Tao where I live now but I admit I love it, it’s really quiet and laid back and the storms can be fun to watch.
Thank you so much for writing this. We’re headed to Phuket in a few months, and your thorough – and very real – article helped so very much.
You do great work!
Thanks Michelle! I’m so glad this post was helpful — that’s an amazing compliment for any blogger to receive!
I’m guessing it’s the karst mountains, but I can’t get over how similar it looks to Halong Bay!
Argh, I still need to get there! Halong Bay… I’m coming for ya!
Great Share!!I will be travelling to phuket in the second half of this year..Thanks for the information.
Have fun — I can’t wait to go back and explore more someday.
When traveling for the day such as your tour in these photos, what do you pack? You mentioned not to bring your DSLR.. Also let’s say your going snorkeling and leave your bag on the boat, is it safe??!! I get super nervous about this kind of stuff.
Phuket certainly does know how to rain. I was there for a month. For the first few days, the weather was great, then every day after it rained. I’d never seen anything like it! It was like the book of Genesis!
I’d heard so many good things about Phang Nga, it was a shame I couldn’t get there due to the rain. Maybe next time.
You’re not the first person to tell me this about Phuket since I was there! Sounds like a good place to splurge on a nice hotel room in case you get stuck inside 🙂
Thanks so much for your blog… have loved reading it planning my trip to Thailand. Was wondering how long the transfer from your hotel to the pier was?
Hey Emma! Oh, good question. It’s been ages now but I feel it was quite long, perhaps even an hour! Hope your trip to Thailand is a dream!