Panoramic Pha Nga Bay: Sea Kayaking Thailand's West Coast
"Give me an hour," I said to my friend Det. We had just parked his pickup at Khlong Khian Pier, north of Phuket Island, the launch site for a sea kayak trip around Pha Nga Bay. He simply pulled his plastic kayak off the rack, but I needed to assemble my collapsible kayak.
Imagine a destination where cyan waters meet cerulean skies. Throw in a handful of fluffy white cumulus clouds scudding overhead. Picture dramatic karst limestone outcroppings soaring hundreds of feet vertically from the sea. Add iconic sea gypsies plying the waters in timeless traditional wooden dories and you have arrived in Pha Nga Bay, Thailand.
Pha Nga Bay National Park was created by Royal Decree in 1981. There are no resorts inside the park boundaries and although thousands of tourists flock here daily, they leave at the end of the day. Few witness this dramatic landscape from the cockpit of a sea kayak and it is the perfect backdrop for an expedition. Early mornings and late afternoons find paddlers enjoying scenic solitude
From the pier, it is a short crossing to Koh Phanak, famous for it hongs ? literally, rooms. There are three on this island, each accessed by narrow cave passages that open into large rooms where you are surrounded by cliffs with the sky above. They are highly targeted by tour operators, so it is easy to discover the best times to go in. It is essential to enter and exit at the correct tide levels or risk being trapped inside.
If Phanak is your destination for the day, there is a small beach on the east side of the island is suitable for camping at all but the highest tides. On this day, however, we were surprised to see a few tents in the sand. They were surrounded by crab eating macaques scavenging poorly stored food stocks. So we headed to the park office on adjacent Yai Island.
The park staff were welcoming and happily offered a place to camp, a fresh water shower and, as is Thai custom, food. Over a classic southern-style spicy noodle dish, one ranger told us he had been here over 30 years. Either location is the perfect base for early morning and late afternoon forays to Phanak and Hong Islands.
Next stop: James Bond Island. ?The Man with the Golden Gun? was filmed here in 1974, catapulting it into the limelight. The wind was already strong in the early morning so we crept around the lee side of Hong Island, skirted beneath the limestone overhangs before striking out northward. The combination of headwind and falling tide made it choppy and we slipped behind every possible outcropping for respite. James Bond Island is forever crawling with tourists. It is more interesting to watch the masses clamor about for a photo from the comfort of your kayak then join the fray. As there are plenty more picturesque islands, we carried on.
The northern extremity of the bay is a maze of mangrove canals leading to fishing villages. Enter at flood tide and exit as it ebbs for the best conditions. Tide swings around full and black moons exceed 3.5 meters, creating strong currents. Crossing at slack tide or using the current to your advantage is essential. Understanding tides is critical to avoid long walks across sizable mudflats and ensure that you do not wake up to discover your kayak has floated away.
Eastward, Mak Island lies just outside the park boundary. Three hundred friendly villagers live on the east end of the island and they rarely see tourists. As usually happens, we are invited to camp where we choose. Setting up near the pier, we enjoyed superb southern Kaeng Som (sour curry), the signature southern dish, at a nearby restaurant. Southern Thai cuisine differs from other regions of the country and is particularly noted for being spicy ? very spicy.
The next day, we were blessed with a gentle breeze and slack tide. Following a relaxed crossing to uninhabited Chong Lat Island we paddled south along the cliffs that line the west side of the island. I poked the nose of my kayak into a hole and discover a massive cave system that penetrates deep into the island in complete darkness. We pulled out our flashlights and paddled several hundred meters through a large tunnel before reaching a massive room. Beaching the kayaks, we wandered about the cave and identified another tunnel that continued further toward the center of the island. Wary of the rising tide, we decided to exit. At the southern tip of the island, there is a small beach where we camped for the night. If you have time, it is worth exploring the nooks and crannies of neighboring and Khlui Island.
Crossing eastward, we pointed at a 400 foot high, 1 km wide limestone ridge jutting 8km into the bay. There is nowhere to land except for a crescent shaped beach at the southern tip. You could not dream a more perfect campsite. After a short break we crept through a string of small islands running southward Hong Island, Krabi. The beach here is immaculate white sand. Over lunch, we marveled as hundreds of day trippers stopped just long enough to take the obligatory photo, grab a cold beer and race off to the next attraction. At day's end, the rangers will permit you to camp.
Pha Nga Bay is divided roughly in half by Yao Yai and Yao Noi islands. Both islands have a smattering of resorts and several isolated beaches for camping. Two deep tongues run up either side of these islands. The NE winds from November to May combined with tidal currents can create formidable crossings.
Paddling west to Yao Yai Island, we ran south along the east side, stopping on a quiet beach to camp. A local fisherman invited us to his home to use the shower and join the family for a meal. We readily accepted and savored another southern meal. Thai meals are very different from western meals. Several dishes are placed in the center of the table and you are offered a plate of rice. Taste the rice first and then serve yourself a small portion of each dish individually. Do not load up the plate like a crude westerner; simply enjoy each flavor and enjoy as much as you need to fill yourself. When you eat according to Thai tradition, it quietly acknowledged and very appreciated. Thai people are incredibly welcoming and fishermen, in particular, recognize paddlers as kinfolk.
Next day, we rounded the southern tip and headed up the west side. Past a couple posh resorts near the pier, far beyond our budget, and onward to an empty white sand beach to stretch our legs. Further north, we called in at Boi Yai Island, home to some of the most genial park rangers on the west coast of Thailand. I have been here before and not only do they remember me, but they ask about my other paddling friend. As is custom, they invited us to another sumptuous meal. It would be rude to decline such invitations, so we enjoyed fresh steamed fish, crab, curry and, of course, rice.
The final day, we waited until two hours before high tide to cross the western tongue to Phanak Island, capitalizing on the current and ultimately returning to Khlong Khian Pier.
"Give me an hour," I said to Det, "so I can take my boat apart."
"No worries," he replied, "I am going to enjoy a cold beer and think about that amazing adventure."
Although the paddling is finished, the scenes are burned into our collective memories. Pha Nga perfection.
See more images from Pha Nga Bay in the photo gallery Panoramic Pha Nga Bay.
About The Author
From tall tales to first hand accounts, I have heard plenty of stories in my travels. I have witnessed the weird and the wonderful from urban jungles to tropical rainforests. Spending half of each year abroad for over two decades, I travel at an unhurried pace. This allows for frequent stops to observe local customs and immerse myself in a culture. In recent years, I have taken to the ocean in my sea kayak to discover more places. From Canada to the Philippines and Thailand, my adventures continue. I have photographed these experiences, some of which I hope you enjoy on this website. Available for photographic and writing assignments worldwide.
To view more images of Pha Nga Bay and other sea kayak destinations on Thailand's Andaman Coast, please visit my website: www.timmorch.com.