With resorts like Holiday Inn Resort Mai Khao Beach and Holiday Inn Resort Phuket, we found no excuse to venture out during our Phuket vacation. In fact, this trip probably marked the first time during our vacations that sightseeing featured low on our to-do list, thanks to the numerous fun activities that kept the monkies duly entertained in the Holiday Inn Resorts.
But after 4 days of holing up within resorts, it was time to step out and explore the beautiful sights that Phuket has to offer. And nothing is more beautiful - and spectacular - than this.
If you are looking for that one unique experience to enjoy with the family, exploring the lost worlds of Phang Nga will be it. Phang Nga is not just known for its pristine white beaches but also for its unique topography. The area is littered with a display of uniquely-formed limestone islands, and some hide a breathtaking secret - 'hong'.
Hong, or 'rooms', are collapsed cave systems open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls and are considered as one of Phang Nga’s most appealing and captivating attractions.
And the moment I learnt about them, I knew I had to bring the monkies along to see it for ourselves. And to see it in its spectacular glory, we went along with the best in the sea cave exploring business - John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight tour.
Why John Gray Sea Canoe? For starters, the founder of the company, John Gray is considered to be the godfather of sea kayaking in Thailand and he was the first to discover lagoons, caves and tunnels in Phang Nga which were then unknown even to locals. Many other operators have since sprouted up and conduct kayak tours of Phang Nga, but nothing beats going with the original operator that started it all.
And the experience clearly shows. While other operators typically start their tours early in the morning, John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight begins at noon which means the Phang Nga area will be free of the crowds by then.
Our 10-hour tour - yes, it stretches all the way to nightfall which is another wonderful experience in itself but more on that later - began with a pick-up from our hotel and we found ourselves at Ao Po pier ready to board the boat.
Once onboard, a light lunch consisting noodles, spring rolls, salad and fruit were served on the centre table.
When everyone had filled their tummies, the real fun began in earnest. Our main guide went through the various do's and don'ts while in the hongs - keep really quiet, do not remove anything, respect nature, take loads of photos and just have fun. But instead of just preaching, he used a series of illustrations to drive home the messages which I thought was a pretty nice touch as it made the little ones onboard listen as well.
And as if everything was perfectly timed, we arrived at our first island.
There was time for us to get into the sea and do some kayaking of our own, and it was an offer I could not refuse.
The sea that we kayaked in was partially shielded by the island so no worries about the sea being too choppy or rough. In fact, the scenery around us was so breathtaking that I kayaked all the way to the beach!
Yes, that was our boat in the background in the above photo. And since the water was so inviting as well, Ayd could not resist taking a prolonged dip!
He even requested to take over the rowing work... which I acceded to with glee.
After all the fun, it then time to visit the highlight of the tour - kayaking into a hong!
As I mentioned earlier, a hong is surrounded by towering limestone walls. Think a doughnut in water. In order to get to the centre of the doughnut we have to weave ourselves through sea caves. But the doors to the sea caves are not always open to visitors.
The caves are completely filled with sea water during high tides so they are only accessible during low tides. But too low a tide and there will be less sea water, exposing sharp rocks which will then be dangerous for the inflatable sea kayaks. Or imagine getting into the hong but being unable to get out in time because water level rises after that? So that is why it is important to go with an experienced operator, where the expertise of the guides are paramount.
At John Gray Sea Canoe, each pair of customers has their own guide to paddle their sit-on-top custom-designed kayaks which were hand-made in Oregon by SOTAR, the World’s premier white water raft manufacturer. I was told that John Gray Sea Canoe's kayaks have never capsized, been punctured or had an accident. Which really was reassuring to know... since we were about to enter our first sea cave!
And to enter the cave, we had to literally lie flat on our kayak as the space between the rock ceiling and water can get a little cosy.
See what I mean?
The experience is almost claustrophobic but yet, hauntingly beautiful at the same time. Along the way, we witnessed rock formations, some of which glittered and stalactites enough to make Ayd let out a soft 'Wow'.
The spectacle lasted for about a minute, and we were out of the cave.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, can take away the brilliance of emerging from a cave to see a hidden lagoon so rich with flora and fauna that the only sounds we heard were the echoes of the birds and monkeys within the secret sanctuary.
Frankly, I was in awe of the visual masterpiece when I first set my sight on it and all I have to say is you really have to be here.
As the hong is cut off from the sea, the water is totally calm with mangroves dotting the entire lagoon... and with the occasional mudskipper stopping to say hello too.
In fact, the water was so calm and shallow in some parts that the monkies could not resist getting off the kayaks and enjoying a dip in the water!
For our trip, we also had the unexpected pleasure of the founder himself, John Gray coming along! He is the Santa Claus lookalike, in case you are wondering.
I had a chat with him on the boat and was left impressed by what an active environmentalist he is. He is fiercely protective of the Phang Nga area and sees it as his responsibility to educate guides to be more green-conscious and encourage them to collect floating rubbish even when conducting tours.
There was no letting up on the action as we exited our first hong - we immediately zoomed in on our second hong of the day.
A beautiful hong filled lush mangroves and even though this was the second hong, the sight was still completely unexpected in the most delightful way.
Everything was just so peaceful and serene, that there was nothing left to do but to just sit back and soak in the calmness all around.
We were then back on the boat for a quick tea break, with banana muffins, coffee and tea on the menu. The thing about the tour is we were all fed really well. From lunch to tea, to dinner as you will see later, there was no lack of food and the dishes were really yummy too!
The clock neared 4pm as we chomped on our muffins, while we sailed away to our next hong.
And just like that, we arrived... with our kayak taxis waiting for us.
Ok, so the sea caves at the third hong were the most squeezy of the lot. There were times when I had to constantly shift my body around so as to pass through the narrow passageways or when a particular rock came disturbingly close to the tip of my nose. But hey, if a body size like mine can make it through the caves unscathed, anyone can too.
But trust me, the end result will be well worth the trouble.
Absolute calmness; that is the beauty of kayaking in the hongs if you ask me.
We even caught a glimpse of a piranha-shaped cliff. Can you make out the face?
With the sun setting, it then time to head back to the boat.
But if the monkies thought that was the end of the fun, they were utterly wrong. We ended the day with what can only be described as the perfect conclusion to the perfect day.
The other highlight of the Hong by Starlight tour was the creation of our very own Krathong - a floating decoration which are set adrift on water as a sign of new beginnings and for good luck.
Our personal guide took us through the process of making our krathongs from scratch, explaining each element as it is pinned to the banana stalk base.
The banana leaves are for decoration, marigolds for prosperity, one incense stick each for Buddha, monks, and the Buddhist scriptures, and candles for health and happiness. And with that, we were done!
The skies then started to open up with light rainfall, which I thought was going to be bummer since we would be launching our krathongs in the sea come nightfall. But as with almost everything else, it came with an unexpected surprise.
A double rainbow!!! My first time seeing one, and out at the open sea at that. To the monkies, it was almost surreal having the chance to see two rainbows at such a close distance. So needless to say, plenty of photo opportunities ensued.
And while we were waiting for the sun to set, there was still the small matter of filling our bellies (again!) with a sumptuous spread of Thai dinner!
Then it was time.
Fortunately, the rain slowed to a light drizzle and our guides paddled us into one of the dark caverns of a nearby island. We lit the candles of our Krathongs, and released them to bob about in a starlit cave.
Frankly, there is nothing quite like being in a cave lit up by so many krathongs, and making one's wish under brilliant stars carpeting the sky. And the monkies clearly enjoyed every minute of it.
Another unique experience that the monkies loved was the sight of the bioluminescent plankton which can only viewed when it is dark at night. These tiny organisms glow similarly to fireflies and tend to emit light when agitated, such as when the water crashes onto the shore, or a paddle hits the water. The monkies had a field time splashing the sea water with their hands and seeing the water shimmer with dots of light in the process. A truly magical experience, and certainly not one that can be learned from the school textbooks.
And in case you are wondering, the krathongs we released were rounded up and collected before we returned to the boat... which marked the end of a fascinating day as we headed back to the pier.
Simply put, the Hong by Starlight tour by John Gray Sea Canoe was unlike anything that we have ever experienced and even til today, both Ash and Ayd cannot stop talking about it.
Granted that the prices for the tour are not exactly cheap but every baht will be worth it. The guides were incredibly knowledgeable and the kayaking sessions did not make us feel we were just simply shepherded along but instead, made to feel a part of the environment we were in. Having the tour start in the afternoon as opposed to morning sessions by other operators is also for the exact same reason - to get away from the crowd and connect with the nature.
The John Gray Sea Canoe's Hong by Starlight tour provides the perfect opportunity to view Phang Nga by day and night. And if you do one tour in Phuket, make sure it is this one.
John Gray Sea Canoe - Hong by Starlight
Adult: THB3,950 | Child (7 -12) THB 1,975 | FREE for children aged 6 & under