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?