The pitch-black cave tunnel through the limestone islet gets smaller and smaller.
Lying flat on our backs in a yellow inflatable sea canoe, we will ourselves not to move as we glide through.
Shining our flashlights, we can see the craggy roof bearing down to barely an inch above our noses.
But before the roof touches us and claustrophobia takes hold, we suddenly pop out of the tunnel into a light-filled hong – an open-to-the-sky lagoon inside the doughnut-shaped islet.
Sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay, Thailand:
Perhaps you remember the James Bond flick, “The Man with a Golden Gun”?
Parts were filmed at Phang Nga Bay.
Phang Nga Bay lies between Phuket and Krabi on Thailand’s mainland.
And it’s famous for its jagged rocky outcroppings and towering limestone cylinders (called “karsts”) jutting abruptly out of the pea green water.
The most iconic karst is James Bond Island (Ko Tapu).
This 66-foot-tall, needle-shaped karst islet featured in the 1974 movie.
Here in these other-worldly waters, John “Caveman” Gray (an Emmy-winning Californian) began taking out visitors on kayaking trips in the early 1990s.
He and his wife discovered that many of the karsts have chambers or hongs in the middle, and that when sea tides are right, you can paddle through tunnels to these inside “rooms.”
More than 25 years later, several other sea canoe operators have gotten into the game.
But Gray’s eco-responsible company is legendary.
You first motor out from Phuket on a large wooden support boat.
Equipped with toilets, it has a pleasant galley for eating and offers good protection from the sun and rain.
The group size is never larger than 36.
Sea kayaking in Phang Nga Bay:
Hopefully you’re not confused by the interchangeable terms of “canoeing” and “kayaking” here?
Though the company is called “John Gray’s Sea Canoe” and “sea canoeing” is often used to describe the experience, the adventure operator uses custom-designed kayaks, hand-made in Oregon.
The paddles are kayak (not canoe) paddles.
Each inflatable kayak accommodates two adults plus a guide who sits at the back and does the actual paddling.
And there’s a reason you don’t paddle.
The guides know how to maneuver through the tight tunnels without scraping you and judge the right time for gliding out of a hong.
You don’t want to be trapped inside by a rising tide!
Phang Nga Bay caves:
Different hongs deliver up different scenes.
In one inner sanctum, we gawked at mangroves sprouting all around us, reaching for the sky, and wondered at nature’s tenacity as shrubs and trees struggled to grow up rock crevasses.
We were told that snakes can sometimes be seen, but try as we would, we didn’t spot any.
Another larger, more beautiful cave tunnel was draped with glistening rose-colored stalactites, shaped like scallop shells and fans.
But it’s not just stalactite-filled caves that you encounter.
The whole day trip is an explosion of National Geographic moments.
As the air shimmered with heat and humidity above the water’s surface, our guide/paddler also took us past several islets, their bases eaten into by the tide.
Along the way, we spied monitor lizards (more than three feet long) flicking out their blue tongues to eat crabs.
Outside one cave, agile local villagers climbed up rickety bamboo ladders to gather swallows’ nests from cliffs for bird’s nest soup, a prized delicacy.
There was more too. Monkeys swinging in tree tops. Sandy coves beckoning. And other caves waiting to be explored…
Not a secret anymore
We’ve gone sea kayaking twice now on two separate visits to Phuket.
Certainly Phuket is much more developed than it was, almost the Thailand equivalent of Maui or even Oahu (in Hawaii).
And, as mentioned, sea kayaking Phang Nga Bay has become so popular that many other tour operators also paddle visitors through the hongs.
So don’t expect “un-discovered” – you will meet paddlers from other tour groups.
But the experience still reveals a unique and special side of Thailand – and one not to be missed if visiting Phuket.
Tours of Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
John Gray’s Sea Canoe:
The highly-rated, eco-responsible outfitter is known for their “Hong by Starlight” trip.
To avoid the crowds, the 10-hour trip starts mid-day and includes lunch, afternoon paddling, a seafood buffet dinner and Phuket hotel transportation.
Multi-day kayak trips are also offered.
Also check out Paddle Asia, where you paddle your own kayaks.
Other Phang Nga Bay tours:
A whole swack of tours operate in the bay.
You can find tours on high-speed boats, junks, slow boats and longtail boats. Most include stops at different islands to swim or snorkel.
Zipping out to see Ko Tapu on a James Bond Island tour is very popular.
In an effort to help prevent the karst islet from eroding, boats are forbidden, however, to get too close to it.
Phang Nga Bay is a Thai national park (Ao Phang Nga National Park), so motor boats aren’t allowed inside the hongs.
John Gray’s Sea Canoe doesn’t take visitors to James Bond Island.
Photo credits: 6, 8, 11 to 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 2, 7, 9, 10, 16 John Gray’s Sea Canoe