Phang Nga Bay
A distinctive feature of Phang Nga Bay are the sheer limestone karsts that jut vertically out of the emerald-green water. James Bond Island and Koh Panyee are just two of the more famous spots in this bay. By far the best means of enjoying the spectacular scenery, with only brief encounters with the tourist crowds at James Bond and Koh Panyee, is to take one of the boat trips from the northern end of Phuket. A leisurely day trip cruising through the dramatic limestone islands, occasionally stopping to enjoy quiet beaches, is far more rewarding than the standard bus-boat tour.
Visiting Koh Panyee – The sky is clear and the breeze is warm. It is a perfect day to go on a boat trip. We are on Phang Nga Bay and heading for the famous Koh Panyee. Koh Panyee is about 20 minutes by long-tail boat from Surakul pier in Phang Nga province. Many people flying into Phuket will have looked down on this village seemingly floating in the magical bay and wondered what it is like to live in the place. Phuket.com went out to Panyee to take a look and discovered the true meaning of the phrase, ‘a simple life’.
There are 1,485 people from 315 families who live permanently on Koh Panyee, the youngest being a baby boy born just a month before our visit. All of them are the descendants, directly or indirectly, of Toh Baboo and his family and friends, who were the first people to settle on Koh Panyee some 200 years ago. Toh Baboo and two other families left their homeland in Indonesia by boat, looking for a new place to live. The three families made a vow to each other that if one of them found a place where there were lots of fish and where everyone could live, that they would signal the others by raising a flag on a mountain as high as possible, so that the others could see it and join them. Toh Baboo discovered the island with its abundance of fish and, true to his promise, raised a flag atop its soaring cliff, That is how the island got its name, Koh Panyee – the Island of the Flag.
Koh Panyee is a small island. Most of it is huge, almost vertical, limestone cliffs. The hundreds of huts, shacks, restaurants and houses where the villagers live are built on stilts over the surrounding shallow sea. No one seems quite sure how many wooden and concrete piles hold up this extraordinary community, but it is certainly a fascinating and unique feat of informal engineering. At first, fishing was the sole industry for this Muslim community but nowadays it is No 2. These days, half the locals service the tourism industry and 40% are still fisherman. The village has its own school, a mosque, a health center, lots of small souvenir shops and a handful of large restaurants, all facing the sea, where tourists can enjoy a fresh seafood lunch. The latest development on Koh Panyee is the construction of bungalows that offer overnight accommodation for as little as 300 baht.
Samet Nangshe Viewpoint
Samet Nangshe Viewpoint has very quickly gone from being practically unheard of to one of the most popular panoramas in Phang Nga. Located on a hilltop just a 30-minute drive from Phuket, it provides stunning views over the limestone islets of Phang Nga Bay and, being far enough away from civilisation to avoid light pollution, the Milky Way is even visible at certain times. The view is a breathtaking 180-degree panorama facing due east, making it particularly striking at sunrise. You look out at a chain of islands stretching out of sight to both the left and right in the waters of Phang Nga Bay, across about 1.6km of mangroves.
Cruising Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay is a great place for boating. The interesting limestone cliffs create a picturesque backdrop and there are many safe places to anchor. The fact that it’s protected from both the Northeast and the Southwest monsoon seasons means that its waters remain calm year-round, which adds to the appeal of its scenic wonders and abundant wildlife.
Limestone Cliffs of Phang Nga Bay
Limestone is calcium carbonate, which is generally white. Over millions of years, the skeletons from a constant rain of marine organisms, plus the chemical precipitation of yet more calcium carbonate build thick layers of sediment. Eventually, the heat and pressure of their own weight turn these strata, hundreds of metres thick, to stone. A variety of geological forces have then fractured the limestone beds and pushed up the 40 steep-sided islands that provide the exotic scenery for which this shallow bay is noted. Mineral oxides from various sources paint the vari-coloured streaks that characterise the cliffs of Phang Nga Bay.
Hongs of Phang Nga
And there are lost worlds awaiting discovery. It wasn’t many years ago that aerial surveys first revealed the Hong, or ‘rooms’, that lie inside some of Phang Nga’s islands. These fabulous microcosms, hidden realms rich in unspoiled flora and fauna, are collapsed cave systems open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls. Try sea-kayaking, where you paddle sturdy plastic boats through caves into the mysterious hearts of islands such as Koh Panak and Koh Hong. (Read more about Sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay)
Other Islands in Phang Nga Bay
Most of the islands are uninhabited. Many of them have spectacular caves which you can only reach by an inflatable kayak. Koh Hong is one of the most popular of these islands. Khao Khien near Koh Panyee is worth sailing past to see the ancient paintings of boats and animals on the rock walls. One of the few inhabited islands, Koh Maak, sits near the top of the bay and is home to a small community of fisherfolk who maintain a traditional way of life – it’s not part of any tour itinerary and it is recommended to bring your own food and supplies if visiting since there are no facilities for tourists. There are also no places to stay here.