I canoe, can you?

It’s not often you call up a tour company, which you’d located 5 minutes before on TripAdvisor, and get to talk to the person who started the industry in Thailand; better yet, he decides that he needs to get out of the office and he’ll come on your trip himself. Such was the case with John Gray Sea Canoe in Phuket- John “Caveman” Gray, so nicknamed because he has relentlessly explored many of the sea caves found in the islands of Phang Nga Bay and started the first kayaking ecotour group here, agreed to take me out on an overnight kayaking trip! John is a big guy with a ponytail and a white Santa beard, age 68 with arthritis in his thumbs from paddling and picking up ~9000 trash bags of floating litter, and knees suffering from a life time of rugby enthusiasm, but that doesn’t stop him for an instant.

We started on the Hong Starlight trip out of Phuket, on a large boat stocked with inflatable kayaks shared between 2 tourists and 1 paddling guide; John and I were ferried by Tiger into the hongs. A hong is the name for a hollowed out limestone island only accessible by a sea cave. Yup, Phang Nga Bay has some pretty amazing geology.
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The islands that scatter the bay were once limestone ridge lines, up thrust by tectonic movement. Rain gradually eroded these giants from the top down- pools of slightly acidic rain water dissolved the limestone, slowly hollowing out the hongs and separating the ridge into island chains.
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The ocean simultaneously helped to carve sea caves, and on numerous islands, these provide a passage inside.
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The guides have to be on top of things timing-wise to access the sea caves- too high a tide means the cave is blocked, while too low can mean not enough water to paddle through.

We visited Diamond hong first, named for a stalactite structure inside that sparkled with calcite crystals. We had to lay down on the kayak floor to get under the cave roof, but the cave then opens to an amazing, isolated pool surrounded by great limestone cliffs. Jungle grows up the 500 ft walls of the hong, and mangroves with great aerial roots scatter the lagoon. A family of crab-eating macaques (monkeys) was perched in the trees, watching the visitors. While this species can swim, there are likely species that were isolated here by rising oceans, creating a lost world. But instead of dinosaurs, you see monitor lizards – close enough! We also saw egrets, Brahminy kites, and mud skippers (crazy fish with lungs that live in shallow mangrove swamps).
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Brahminy kite

The tour took us to two other hong systems that night, and fed us a wonderful Thai dinner. We learned a bit about Thai culture, making our own krathongs- beautiful Buddist traditional offerings made from banana tree trunk slices decorated with palm leaves, flowers, candles and incense.
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After an incredible sunset, we floated into Bat Cave hong (yes, there were bats all over the high cave ceilings!), lit our krathongs and set them afloat in the lagoon, with wishes for health and happiness. We paddled back through the cave accompanied only by the light of blue bioluminescent dinoflagellates (algae!)- a pretty magnificent sight!
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Sunset outside the Bat Cave hong

Since I would be staying to paddle with John and the guides the next day too, we were dropped off on a beach on one of the islands, where nice big REI tents and a campfire awaited us. I got to chat with John late into the night, hearing some of his life adventures (boogie boarding at Black’s beach in San Diego and almost getting hit by a tire someone rolled off the cliffs above; planning ecotourism throughout Hawaii and Southeast Asia, winning the Smithsonian Environmental Award for his work; showing the princess of Thailand some of the beauty of the bay, and her subsequent action to prevent the building of an oil refinery in it). John told me that when he started kayaking into hongs, he was asked WHY he wanted to go paddle around these islands and explore the caves, no one knows what’s in there. John said, “Exactly.”
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Round these parts, he’s known as Ling Yai, Thai for Big Monkey

John took me to two of his favorite hongs the next day: Talin and Hong Yai. We had to take a fast longtail boat to get to these, but there was not another soul around. I led the way into the cave marking the Hong Yai entrance, and grinned for the rest of the trip!
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Entrance to Hong Yai, before we even see the cave

What a place! This hong extends through the heart of the island for about 2km of purely still, lush jungle solitude- broken only by three bright yellow kayaks and the soft splash of paddles. We snuck up on a family of dusky langurs (more monkeys!) – the best sighting John has had of these, they just sat in the trees and watched us float below. I really hope some of my pics come out, I just can’t do it justice.

And Talin was its equal. This klong (not a hong, because it wasn’t separated by a cave; more of a canal) wove deep into the cliffs, each turn hiding a new secluded pool…I was just blown away.

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Longtail boat with Talin limestone island in the background

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We returned to Phuket late that afternoon, exhausted and sunburnt and exhilarated.

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I sunburnt my lips- not so good when all the food is spicy!

To have had the original explorer of some of these places as my own personal guide, and to get to see areas most tourists (heck, most Thais!) don’t know exist was just thrilling! I haven’t written this post before now because I couldn’t get it into words. But I hope you get a small sense of Phang Nga Bay from these pics, and should you ever get the chance to paddle with Ling Yai- don’t miss it!

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