Imagine a destination where cyan waters meet cerulean skies, and throw in a handful of fluffy white cumulus clouds scudding overhead. Picture dramatic karst outcroppings soaring hundreds of metres 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.
"Give me an hour," I said to my friend Detlef Dirksen as we parked at Khlong Khian Pier, north of Phuket Island. He simply pulled his kayak off the rack, tucked his gear inside and wandered off while I assembled my Feathercraft collapsible.
Pha Nga Bay National Park is iconic for the dramatic karst limestone landscape and famous for its "hongs" (rooms), entered via cave passages that open to colossal chambers walled by sheer cliffs open to the sky above. Although full of day-tripping tourists, late afternoons and early mornings are conceded to the few yachties and kayakers.
Phanak Island is our first stop, exploring two of the three surreal hongs yet watching the tide carefully to avoid being trapped inside. As this is Det's first sea kayak trip, I highlight the importance of understanding tides to conserve energy, avert long walks across extensive mudflats and ensure you don't wake up to discover your kayak missing.
Welcoming park staff on nearby Yai Island offer a place to camp, a freshwater shower and, as is Thai custom, food. Over a spicy noodle dish, one ranger said he had been there more than 25 years.
North is James Bond Island where The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed in 1974. Forever crawling with tourists fighting for a selfie, it's best to observe from offshore. After watching the spectacle, we paddle east to Mak Island, outside the park and off the tourist radar. Friendly residents greet us as we set up camp near the pier and head to a nearby restaurant to savour Kaeng Som (curry), the signature southern dish.
Next morning, a gentle breeze and slack tide make for a relaxed crossing to uninhabited Chong Lat Island. Paddling south along the cliffs lining the west side, I poke into a hole and discover an opening. We don headlights and paddle several hundred metres through a large tunnel, reaching a massive underground room. Beaching the kayaks, we wander about and identify another tunnel that continued further. Wary of the rising tide, we exit, finding a secluded beach camp at the southern tip.
Eastward, a 122-m high limestone ridge juts eight kilometres into the bay and we are thrilled to find the perfect crescent-shaped beach at the southern tip for a break. Too early to call it a day, we snake through a string of small islands southward to Hong Island, Krabi.
Famous for its white sand beach and massive hong, we watch hundreds of day trippers stop long enough for selfie, a beer and race off to the next attraction. The rangers allow us to camp and as the sun sets, the only sign of life on the now barren beach was a massive monitor lizard lumbering slowly in the sand.
Pha Nga Bay is divided roughly in half by Yao Yai and Yao Noi islands and the two deepest sections of the Bay extend like tongues along both sides of them. Tide and wind here often create formidable crossings, but a gentle following breeze pushed us to the east side of Yao Yai Island on a slack tide.
Exploring empty beaches, bathing in freshwater streams flowing from the mountains, we select an isolated beach to camp. A local fisherman popped out of the jungle and chatted before inviting us to join the family for a meal. Nothing tops a Thai homecooked meal with its multiple dishes and flavours.
Rounding the southern tip of Yao Yai Island, we run up the west side, stopping at more empty beaches before calling 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 they remember me and ask about my other paddling friend. As often happens, they invite us to a mouth-watering meal of fresh steamed fish, crab, curry and rice.
Waiting for the correct tide, we cross comfortably to the southern end of Koh Phanak and on to the mainland to conclude our circuit.
"Give me an hour," I said to Det, "so I can take my boat apart."
"No worries," he replied, "Gives me time to burn those images into my memory. Pha Nga perfection."
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