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Sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay’s hidden lagoons

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Sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay’s hidden lagoons

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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.

Many sea caves we enter on our sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay tour are much smaller than this cave.
Many sea caves we enter are much smaller than this cave

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.

We’re sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay on a tour with John Gray’s Sea Canoe, which pioneered sea canoeing and sea kayaking in Thailand.

And this Phuket day trip is one of the best things to do in Phuket!

Sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay is one of the best things to do in Phuket.
Sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay makes for a great day trip from Phuket

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.

Thailand's Phang Nga Bay is renowned for its other-worldly beauty
Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay is renowned for its other-worldly beauty

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.

Phang Nga Bay is sprinkled with tall limestone karsts.
Phang Nga Bay is sprinkled with tall limestone karsts

The most iconic karst is James Bond Island (Ko Tapu).

This 66-foot-tall, needle-shaped karst islet featured in the 1974 movie.

James Bond Island rises up dramatically 66 feet out of the water.
James Bond Island rises up dramatically 66 feet out of the water

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.

In Phang Nga Bay, Thailand, it's fun to paddle around (and through) weird and wonderful limestone karst islets.
It’s fun to paddle around (and through) weird and wonderful limestone karst islets like this

Support boat:

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.

The support boat is geared up and ready to go for a great day in Phang Nga Bay

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. And 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!

Tight squeeze! Can he make it?

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.

Sea canoeing inside one hong, we popped out into an inner lagoon filled with mangroves
Sea canoeing inside one hong, we popped out into an inner lagoon filled with mangroves

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.

Wow! See weird and wonderful stalactites inside this hong when sea canoeing Phang Nga Bay.
Wow! See fantastic stalactites inside this hong
You lie down on your back in the kayak; your guide maneuvers you through tunnels and sea caves.
You lie down on your back in the kayak; your guide maneuvers you through tunnels and sea caves

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…

A quiet moment sea kayaking in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
A quiet moment in Phang Nga Bay

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.

Other support boats with paddlers in Phang Nga Bay
Other support boats with paddlers in Phang Nga Bay

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.

Sea kayaking in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand
Another sea kayak group exits out of a sea cave

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. Pre-book this sea canoe tour here.

Multi-day kayak trips are also offered.

John Gray and guides clean up garbage and abandoned fishing nets in Phang Nga Bay.
John Gray and guides clean up garbage and abandoned fishing nets in Phang Nga Bay

Paddle Asia:

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 tours to see James Bond Island are popular.
Phang Nga Bay tours to see James Bond Island are popular

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.

What to pack for sea kayaking in Thailand

1) Sun hat – This casual UV protection sun hat for ladies is cool, cute and sensible. It comes in light grey, dark grey, red and green.

2) Water sandals – These Teva sandals for women come in a host of colors. Or you might like these more feminine-looking Viakix hiking-and-water sandals.

3) Swimsuit – We love the quality-made Miraclesuit brand, which makes you look 10 lbs lighter. This one may be too nice for sea kayaking (perfect for lazing by the pool or beach though). This sporty-looking swimsuit is perfectly suited for water activities.

4) Snorkel skin – The sun is hot in Thailand. Protect your skin when snorkeling, swimming and kayaking with a full-body skin, which you wear over your swimsuit. It’s thin, breathable and fast-drying. Ladies – check out this sassy sport skin which has a bit of pizzazz.

5) Good camera – You won’t want to miss those great shots of your Thailand holiday. We love our Sony A600 mirrorless camera – it’s small enough to throw in your purse or backpack, but it takes awesome photos!

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Thailand Travel Guide

Where else must you go in Thailand? Other cool things to do?

Check out our mammoth guide to Bucket List Places to Visit in Thailand for luxury lovers – packed with things to experience and top hotel recommendations.

More paddling inspiration!

If you love canoeing and kayaking – and you visit Whistler, Canada – be sure to paddle the River of Golden Dreams.


Photo credits: 3, 7, 10, 11 and 13 to 15 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | 1, 8, 9, 12 and 16 John Gray’s Sea Canoe


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Agness

Tuesday 6th of May 2014

I'm a huge fan of canoeing and exploring caves. I've done it in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, but never here. The landscape is wonderful. Great adventure, indeed!

John

Thursday 27th of November 2014

Have done both here and in Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. Both very different and both beautiful. A must on these trips is your camera with a long focus lens. Get out, explore, enjoy. :)

Charu

Monday 5th of May 2014

What a lovely experience and even better writing. "Inner sanctum" indeed!

Becky Padmore

Friday 2nd of May 2014

Oh beautiful, I wish I did something like this when I was there! Oh well a good excuse to go back!

[email protected]

Tuesday 22nd of April 2014

Hi Janice, I haven't done any sea canoeing in Thailand. Looks like a lot of fun. Definitely something to consider on a return trip. The sea scape looks so rugged and amazing. It sounds so delightful that you saw a lot of wildlife. Paddling through the long dark tunnel certainly sounds so adventurous. Thanks for this trip idea. Will definitely keep it in mind

Leigh

Tuesday 22nd of April 2014

Would love to do this outing should I make it to Phang Nga Bay. Your photos are brilliant.

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