Family Magazine

Pinch Me, I'm Cruising: Phang Nga Fairyland

By Behan Gifford @sailingtotem
Phang Nga is like fairyland
Beautiful Phang Nga BayThere's something a little surreal about the approach into Thailand's Phang Nga bay, a crowded archipelago of limestone islands tucked up to the northeast of Phuket. Sailing among the sharply peaked rocks is like finding yourself in the middle of the set for an epic high fantasy film. The topography is just a little to fantastic, a little too whimsical to be real.
Dozens of these islands, called hongs (rooms) in Thai, shoot up over 1,000 feet, dotting the milky green water in a shallow bay that's only about 150 square miles total. Even more curious, they're famously riddled with caves. Not just garden variety hole-in-the-mountainside caves, but large caverns that are open to the sky, surrounded by vertical walls, yet entered with relatively small tunnels from the water when the tide is low enough to make the entrance accessible.
Unfortunately, the area has a reputation for brazen theft. When a dinghy leaves the mothership to explore a hong, it's unllikely they'll be back for at least an hour and probably more- a wide window of opportunity. We met a cruising boat in Malaysia that had hoped to skirt this by carefully locking up, but that just left them with more damage to fix since thieves forced their way in regardless. We simply decided not to leave the boat unattended, since a physical presence on board seemed to be the sure deterrent.
Beautiful Phang Nga Bay
Since we can fit up to three people (barely!) in our trusty old kayak, Jamie and I alternated paddling jaunts around the hongs, leaving one of us and a kid or two always behind on the boat keeping watch from the cockpit. Even before getting into the caves, the islands themselves are stunning. Years of water leaching minerals as it runs thorugh the porous limestone leave ribbons of color along many of the cliffs. Others are vibrant hues of ochre and red, with nesting birds tucked into impossibly small nooks on the rock face.
Nests high up in the karst islands
Dinghies are a bad choice, partly because of the razor sharp rocks, partly because of the exhaust inside a hong impacting the fragile bird and plant life, partly because of the disruptive outboard noise.
Cool caves in Phang Nga bay
Not all the caves came equipped with skylights, and I have to admit: I did not get far within the caves that descended into darkness. While rooms farther in may open above, there are tunnels that my personal spelunking chutzpah just isn't quite ready to challenge. Even without going deep in these caves, the forms could be tremendous. Frozen waterfalls of sparkling rock- quartz?- grab the light from within.
Cool caves in Phang Nga bay
It all adds to the sci-fi fantasy film atmosphere: just a little too strange to be real. In some, we inadvertently awaken and disrupt colonies of bats. In others, the open 'ceiling' creates lush green walls as the jungle outside claws a toehold within.
Cool caves in Phang Nga bay
While the girls and I poked around in this cave above, a local boat we'd spotted around the corner zipped around to visit Totem. They're called 'longtails', for the long propeller shafts extending behind the boat.
Longtail at the hongs
Were they looking to see if the boat was unattended? Maybe, but it could be because they hoped someone would be on board. An older couple on board offered these crab and mantis shrimp for sale, sloshing seawater into the bilge to keep the critters somewhat refreshed. Jamie scored dinner, and I felt guilty for wondering if they'd been scoping with more malicious intent.
Crab and mantis shrimp
Thanks to friends on sv Watermusick, we have waypoints to find the hongs that aren't on the tourist route. It's a relief to have options after visiting one heavily trafficked hong: powerboats crammed with day trippers roar up, disgorging tourists on kayaks out the back. A voice on the loudspeaker calls out: "Thirty minutes!" They get thirty minutes, then dash off to the next must-see spot on the itinerary.
Looking out from a hong
Looking out from inside the hong
Apparently not allowed to paddle themselves, each inflatable is manned by a Thai guide who escorts his charges through a lagoon created by a collapsed hong pausing between selfies or gasp at the circling sea eagles.
When tourons attack
With the luxury of time, we wait until the last boats disappear, then return on our own to soak up the view in relative peace.
Peace after the tourists leave
As the sun goes down and the moon rises, we kick back in the cockpit and process the incredible landscape. There are places where I pinch myself: how did I get so lucky, to be here with my family, to explore on our own terms? Some days, the wanderlust wins out over the sailor, and these days are among them.
Reading in the cockpit
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If you're reading this on the Sailfeed website, you're the kind of savvy person who knows The Man With The Golden Gun is obligatory viewing for any visitors to Phang Nga.

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