There’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
There’s a very handy little guide book, written by cruisers who explored Phang Nga bay extensively. Thanks to their work in putting The Hong Book together, we were able to get off the well beaten tourist route and see some spectacular hongs in peace. Mike and Karen detail seventeen different islands in the group, many of which have multiple hongs- at $2.99 on Kindle at this writing, it’s well worth the investment.
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.
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.