The ancient 'hongs' of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay have remained hidden from for centuries. Now, a group of intrepid guides are taking small groups into these vast sunken lagoons.
You'd never find the narrow cave entrance between the rising tide and soaring limestone cliff without the help of a guide. It's like a secret door controlled by the tide. Pressing our bodies flat onto the soft cushion of our inflatable sea canoes, arms crossed over our chests like Egyptian mummies, noses almost scraping the sharp oysters that encrust the cave ceiling above, we're led through the darkness into a lost world of gibbons, mangroves and monitor lizards.
We have paddled into the heart of an island, emerging into a primeval lagoon, which opens to the sky above. Towering rock monoliths jut out like crooked skyscrapers. Spiky cycad palms, remnants of the Jurassic age, cling to the sun-dappled cliffs. There's a quiet hush, with only the slippery sounds of water dripping off our canoe blades, and the occasional call of a hornbill, breaking the silence. It's so still, you could hear a leaf fall.
We've entered one of the lost worlds of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay, about 600 kilometres south of Bangkok, where more than 300 spectacular islands rise up from the calm shallow waters to form giant pinnacles, hidden caves and unexplored vaults of biodiversity. The bay's scenic grandeur derives from its towering limestone stacks, many of which contain sea caves leading to collapsed open lagoons, or 'hongs'. The most famous, and now the least interesting due to uncapped tourism, is Ko Khao Phing Kan, dubbed James Bond Island, because it featured in The Man with the Golden Gun.
In another sea cave, 'Bongie', my canoe guide, paddles me past giant overhangs, grottoes and canyons scoured out over the millennia by waves and rain. Hundreds of small bats hang from the stained rock ceiling, waiting for their evening feed of wasps and mosquitoes. Huge stalactites and truck-sized calcite fingers called 'soda straws' reach down towards our small canoe, dripping freshwater onto our heads, purified by natural seepage through a hundred metres of limestone, like an prehistoric baptism by the cave gods. It's like floating inside a Gothic European cathedral.
Late in the afternoon, well after the crowd of noisy tour boats and other bustling canoe operators have left for the day, we paddle into another lagoon called Ko Hong. I'm in awe at these rock formations. When I first saw scenes like this in traditional Chinese paintings, I dismissed them as romantic and exaggerated artistic representations. But they do exist. And the best way to experience them is by quietly paddling around, under and through them on specially designed sea canoes. You can get almost everywhere safely with an experienced guide doing most of the work.
"They're more of an open kayak that canoe," says John Gray, who pioneered this unique form of marine eco-tourism in Phang Nga Bay in the early 1990s. John 'The Caveman' Gray came to Thailand in 1989 with some fellow enthusiasts and an idea to set up a network of locally owned sea canoe operations long before the term eco-tourism become a marketing catch-cry. He came to investigate rumours lost worlds among hidden caves and unexplored sunken lagoons in Phang Nga Bay.
On our second day, we head to the more remote parts of Phang Nga Bay Marine Park in a long-tail wooden boat toward Krabi, which enjoys more coastal protection than the bay's southern region. Jagged islands shimmer through the late monsoon haze. Then we moor our mother boat and slip out stronger plastic open kayaks. Passing through a large twisted cave into a lagoon called Hong Yai, we meander lazily for two kilometers through mangroves in peaceful splendor. Gibbons grunt from the rocky peaks.
Phang Nga Bay Marine National Park was declared a protected Ramsar Site (no. 1185) of international ecological significance on 14 August, 2002. Pang Nga is a shallow bay with 42 islands, comprising shallow marine waters and intertidal forested wetlands, with at least 28 species of mangrove; seagrass beds and coral reefs are also present.
On our final evening, we canoe quietly back through the bat cave into Koh Penak's lagoon to celebrate Loy Krathong and honour the goddess of water. We make small model floats, or krathongs, containing incense, flowers, banana leaves and candles, and set them adrift.
"Krathong" is a raft about a handspan in diameter traditionally made from a section of banana tree trunk (although modern-day versions use specially made bread ‘flowers’ and may use styrofoam), decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, flowers, candles and incense sticks.
Tradition has it when we launch our krathongs, our sins and bad luck are carried away, and we can make a wish. Strangely, the lagoon illuminates with bio-phosphorescence from our paddles, and the hong lights up with dozens of small floats under the glimmer of a full moon.
I make my wish. It's for the government of Thailand to give greater protection for Phang Nga Bay's outstanding natural physical, biological and geological formations, and its habitats of threatened species of animals and plants, for future generations.
Don Alcock is a science and environmental communication consultant based in Brisbane. A former manager with the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, Don researches and writes many articles for many environment, science and travel publications. Contact: www.keytext.com.au