Hidden Worlds: Sea Kayaking in Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
Updated: Jan 11, 2019
"Can you swim?" the Swiss woman asked me. "Like a fish," I replied, as I stood frozen on the ladder, looking down at the bright yellow sea kayak below. "Then what does it matter if you fall in?” she asked, no doubt keen to keep the line moving so she could take her turn.
It was the kind of brusque encouragement I needed, and I clasped the hand of my guide and stepped from the ladder of our escort boat into the bobbing kayak. Surprisingly, I managed not to tip us both into Phang Nga Bay in the process.
I had taken the ‘Hong by Starlight’ tour out of Patong, on the beautiful island of Phuket. It was my first extended stay in Thailand, and I was on my way to experiencing something truly extraordinary.
Our guides, who worked for adventurer, and sea kayaking legend, John Gray, paddled us out towards the towering limestone hongs that dot the bay.
As we drew close we could see the ominous dark sea caves at their base. You enter the hongs through these labyrinths at low tide. We had to lay on our backs in the kayak to avoid scraping our faces on the roof of the caves. I held my breath, closed my eyes, and pressed my backbone into the soft floor of the canoe. For a few minutes we were in pitch darkness as we glided down the limestone passageway that would take us inside the hong.
Then we were through, emerging into a mysterious world of deep green lagoons, mangroves, lizards, turtles, egrets and monkeys. Sunlight slanted in through the hole in the top of the limestone formation, bathing us in soft gold and green light.
From the bay, the hongs look like solid rock, but not only are they hollow, they have an etherial beauty. Each sheltered paradise is completely hidden from the outside world. It was an eerie feeling, like paddling through the looking glass into another place and time.
We moved from hong to hong, taking it all in, before finally returning to our escort boat in the late afternoon. There, at long wooden tables on the deck, we each made our own krathong under the watchful eye of our guides - this was serious business. I made mine from banana leaves, flowers, incense and candles. Although not perfect, it was beautiful to me. Krathongs are the small floating offerings Thai Buddhists create to show their gratitude to the Goddess of Water.
Eventually we set our finished creations aside and washed up for dinner, which had been barbecuing on the deck, driving us almost mad with hunger. After a wonderful meal accompanied by laughter and song, we watched the sun set over the sea. Then it was time to take to our sea kayaks again and cross the open water in the dark. After handing down our precious offerings, we once again turned to the ladder resting on the side of the boat. Stepping into my kayak was easier this time around because I knew what was waiting for me across the water.
We paddled over to the Diamond Hong, which has a large internal chamber at its heart. Once everyone was safely inside, we each lit our krathong and gently placed it on the water with thoughts of gratitude and a prayer for a good life. I gently pushed it away from the kayak and looked up.
Each krathong was a glowing ring of golden light adrift in the darkness. There was complete silence inside the chamber, everyone spellbound by the sacredness of the moment. We watched the gently bobbing candles for a while, our thoughts on the beauty all around us, and the love in our hearts.
Afterwards we lay on our backs in the kayaks looking up at the moon and a single perfect star. In that moment there was only us, our circles of flickering light, and the beautiful night sky watching over us through the jagged opening in the top of the towering rock.
“The tide’s turning, we need to leave right now”, the senior guide called, before gliding around the chamber quickly gathering up the krathongs and extinguishing the candles.
The roof of the cave felt much closer to my nose this time as we made our exit back into the real world. A world filled with people who had never known the enchantment and wonder of floating inside a starlit cave adrift in the sea.
We paddled back to the boat with full hearts, and in complete darkness, gently carried by the waves.