It’s not every week that you get to kayak through a cave into a beautiful hidden world—that is, unless you’re a guide for John Gray’s Sea Canoes. For decades, this company has been taking people on nature tours in Thailand’s gorgeous Phang-Nga Bay and has earned a great reputation. While we were in Phuket, we splurged on one of their kayak tours, and thanks to them we had an extraordinary day.
The Andaman Sea is dotted with islands—not flat sandbars or coral atolls, but mountains covered with lush jungle or limestone crags rising out of the water like stone icebergs. We passed many of those dramatic “rockbergs” while riding ferries between the inhabited islands. One beautiful specimen dominated our daily view (and our pictures) from Koh Ngai, but we never had a chance to see it up close. So the last thing we did before leaving the brilliant blue waters of the Andaman Sea was to take a tour of similar island formations a little farther north, where the sea runs into the large bay of Phang-Nga next to Phuket.
Anywhere there is limestone—from Kentucky to Slovenia—there are caves. When the limestone formation is an island, seawater eats away at the base, creating overhangs all around the edges of the island. At the same time, rainwater seeps down through the rock, forming stalactites that dangle from the overhangs above the water. If the undercutting at the base of the island goes far enough, it can form caves. And if the island has an open area in the middle, those caves can serve as tunnels that lead into an open-air lagoon (known as a hong) surrounded by sheer cliffs that is invisible from the outside of the island and can sometimes be navigated only at low tide.
On the day of our tour, we boarded a large two-deck boat, whose bottom deck was stacked with kayaks and whose upper deck was ringed with seats affording a high, breezy view of the bay. (It was the sort of boat I wish I’d taken earlier when traveling between the Thai islands, instead of much smaller, single-deck speedboats that were piled with luggage and standing-room-only passengers and that bounced along on the waves for a bone-jarring ride.)
For an hour, we motored north in Phang-Nga Bay, passing all sorts of small islands and the northern part of Phuket, which is very hilly and tree covered. Along the way, dozens of Brahminy kites—sea eagles with a white head and chest and a chestnut-brown body and wings—followed our wake, diving for fish (not always very successfully). I’d spotted a few of these beautiful raptors on Koh Lipe and Koh Ngai, but always in ones or twos. To see so many at once, soaring and swooping close by at eye level, was magnificent.
Our kayaks turned out to be long yellow boats that resembled rubber rafts more than hard-sided kayaks; they ride low in the water but are very stable and comfortable. There was plenty of room for three people (us and our guide, Thom), even when we had to lean all the way back to pass under the low ceiling of a cave tunnel. It turned out that the guide did the actual kayaking, which was okay because we could focus on all of the beautiful sights around us.
Thom was a quiet, middle-aged Thai man with very good English skills, who has been paddling on the Andaman Sea for many years. Each time the group boarded the kayaks and took off, he liked to hang back behind the pack so Melissa and I had a chance to see things slowly and without too much other company. When our interest in animals and plants and geology became clear, he shared his own love of bird watching and took care to point out interesting rock formations and animals along the way. We saw a jellyfish float by, a small octopus washed up on a rock, jewel-green crabs climbing on the rock walls covered in red coral, a “mudskipper” (a small amphibious fish that uses its front fins to hop across mudflats when the tide is out), several toucan-like hornbills squawking high in the trees, and a diving kingfisher.
Our closest encounter with wildlife, however, was more dramatic. As we paddled near a tree-lined shore, someone spotted a macaque monkey on a rock, and several of the kayaks steered closer for a good view. As we watched quietly, the macaque suddenly leapt onto the front of one of the kayaks and sat there munching on a long seed pod. It then jumped onto our kayak, walked the length of it, and leapt back onshore. I’m not a fan of monkeys, but being inches away from a wild animal was exciting.
Inside each hong, it really did feel like a hidden world. When we emerged from the dark tunnels into the dazzling sunlight, the wind and waves of the bay were gone. We glided on still, shallow lagoons dotted with mangrove trees at the base of towering cliffs hung with vines and other vegetation. It was like being in your own jungle hideaway—made all the more magical by the knowledge that is was temporary. An hour or two later, the tidal lagoons would be too shallow to paddle, and six hours after that, at high tide, the cave tunnels would be too full of water to fit a kayak. Like Brigadoon, the hongs revealed themselves only at just the right time.
Once we were back on the main boat, our adventures weren’t over. First there was a break period, when people could rest or swim or paddle around on their own. Some of the staff and passengers amused themselves by tying five kayaks end to end and trying to run the length of the bobbing flotilla without falling off. They roped me into giving it a try, but I only made it halfway before hitting the water with a big splash (no photographic record exists, I’m happy to say, because Melissa was out solo kayaking at the time, while I stayed back at the boat to swim).
Next it was time a hands-on lesson in Thai culture: Our guides helped us construct floating decorations like the ones that Thai people make for their annual water festival, Loi Krathong. The decorations (krathongs) are traditionally made from a slice of the trunk of a banana tree (which floats in water) and are decorated with folded banana leaves, flowers, candles, and incense sticks. On the night of the full moon in November, people float the krathongs out onto rivers or lakes, either (depending on the interpretation) as offerings to the life-giving spirits of the water or to float away all of their sins and negative thoughts for a fresh start. Making a krathong reminded us of being back in Bali, where we took a lesson in how to weave palm fronds and banana leaves into offerings. All of the groups’ decorations turned out to be small works of art, each one different in design despite being made from the same materials.
Once the sky darkened, we got back in the kayaks for the last time, holding on carefully to our delicate offerings, while the guides paddled through the darkness to the edge of a nearby island, where the water was calm. There, we lit the candles and incense on our offerings and, making a private wish, gently set them on the surface of the water, to watch their flickering reflections as they floated in the darkness. (Ever the environmentalists, Thom and the other guides made sure to retrieve all of the krathongs after the candles had gone out so the metal tacks we used in making them wouldn’t pollute the sea.)
The light show wasn’t over yet, though. Paddling to the darkest spot, under an overhang next to a rock wall, Thom told us to lean over and swirl our hands around in the water. As we did, whitish blue sparks of light appeared just below the surface wherever we disturbed the water—caused by a multitude of tiny bioluminescent plankton. In delight, we kicked our legs in the water to create glowing patterns of light, like the trails left by sparklers swirled through the night on the 4th of July. Imagine dipping your hand in the ocean and seeing the water that pours off it glow in the dark. Amazing!
As the night grew darker, we climbed back onto the boat for the hour-long trip to the pier, and then the hour-long van ride back to our hotel, sleepy and spent and dazzled from a day full of natural wonders.