We’re not beach people so we’d never bothered with Phuket before, but it seemed like an easy trip to throw together since I needed to use up a little leave, and its low season flight and accommodation prices were very appealing. As it turns out we had a great time, which was a nice reminder for us that sometimes the road most travelled is still good fun, and not every holiday needs to be about Meaningful Cultural Experiences.
On our first day there we booked ourselves on the Hong By Starlight sea-kayaking day tour, which is pricy but so universally raved about by every source of travel information known to man that we thought we should give it a shot. Also the tour doesn’t start till noon, which makes it totally my kind of tour.
We were picked up at our hotel in a minibus and driven to the east side of the island where we boarded the boat that would take us out to the sea caves and had a simple but extraordinarily tasty lunch of fried kuay teow, spring rolls and fresh fruit.
Soon after lunch, it was time to hit the water. The tour’s focus is on the sea caves east of Phuket. These are created by the percolation of rainwater through limestone karsts, which results in the formation of “secret” lagoons enclosed by rock on all sides but open to the sky. There’s a good diagram here which explains things better.
Many of these caves can only be accessed by paddling through tunnels when tidal conditions are right, but even then, sections of the tunnels are still pitch dark, and sometimes so low and narrow that everyone has to lie prone in the kayak in order to get through without cutting themselves to ribbons on cave walls studded with razor-sharp oyster shells.
I read that previous sentence over after writing it and thought I was maybe exaggerating a little too much, but then I read this article by John Gray, the founder of the tour company we used, and realized I wasn’t. Still, it’s a credit to the skill of our guide, Kop, that I honestly never felt in a moment’s danger.
We emerged from the tunnel into the hong, as it’s called in Thailand (in Thai hong means “room” or “chamber”), which totally felt all magical and tranquil and shit.
The walls of the lagoon are pretty high (that little thing in the bottom left is a kayak) and covered in lush vegetation. I like this picture but it still doesn’t quite capture the atmosphere of paddling amongst mangrove trees through the calm waters of the hong’s lagoon, surrounded on all sides by craggy, dramatic rock-faces giving way eventually to sky.
We visited two more hongs over the course of the afternoon, each with its own particular characteristics. Sometimes the cavity in the karst would house two or more lagoons connected by a narrow channel little wider than a kayak.
I like caves, can you tell?
Before dinner, each guide helped their kayak pair to make a krathong. Each krathong‘s design depends on the idiosyncrasies of its guide – Kop’s featured carrot slices and flower buds which he artfully snipped to look like birds in flight. The last activity of the day would be returning to one of the hongs we’d visited earlier to release our krathongs – or at least, let them float for a while, and then take them back rather than litter the landscape with them. The hong was pitch dark by night, except for flickering light from the candles on the krathongs and the occasional iridescence of the bioluminescent plankton in the water (which sparkles when agitated).
On the way back to the mainland, the guides initiated a series of the sort of silly but fun puzzle games that rally groups of strangers round a table. I’ve always found boat rides at night a bit depressing, something about the fluorescent light and the tiredness of the body after an active day out, and this made things better. In general, this tour is highly regarded for good reason. It is professionally and efficiently run without being impersonal – while there are quite a number of people on the boat, you get the same guide assigned to your kayak the whole day, and the guides are a really likable, jovial bunch who try to make sure everyone has a good time. The strong emphasis on safety and environmental consciousness is heartening, as is the decent food. I’d describe myself as a mid-range traveller at most and this tour is a bit of a splurge at 3950 baht per person, but I also like to reward businesses in the tourism industry who do things with a sense of responsibility to the place they are trying to showcase. So to the good people at John Gray’s Sea Canoe company, this krathong’s for you.