Leisurely paddling a kayak around the emerald waters of Phuket and Phang-Nga Bay is surely one of the most pleasurable, memorable and simple back-to-nature activities that you could do on a visit to Phuket. Most people that experience a kayak trip in Thailand come away extremely impressed, and it can certainly make a very rewarding experience either as part of a tour group or even done individually. Many people prefer to join an organised tour, which tend to use inflatable but sturdy sit-on-top paddle canoes, along with an experienced guide who steers the boat and can give insightful information about the local wildlife such as monkeys, bats, sea eagles and other birdlife. The kayak tours to Phang-Nga normally pick up guests from the Ao Po jetty in the northeast part of Phuket and transfer to the bay by ferry, which can take up to an hour.
It’s also possible to rent sea kayaks and all the necessary equipment independently and head into the great unknown complete with maps, food supplies, camping and cooking equipment. This enables you to discover many of the deserted beaches that are gradually becoming harder to find due to the increase in tourism around Phuket, and sleep out under the stars or simple beach huts. Alternatively, kayaks can be rented for just a few hours from some hotels and beachside vendors, to explore the beaches and bays closest to Phuket. However, a proper full day tour is probably the most enjoyable and convenient way to discover the dozens of tropical islands around Phang-Nga Bay and Krabi.
Most kayak tours will also give you the chance to snorkel and visit several secluded beaches between kayaking sessions where you can swim, relax and enjoy a meal. The kayaks are normally loaded onto a main boat to transfer quickly between locations. There are numerous one day tours available, as well as multi-day tours that allow you to explore the more remote and hard to reach areas. The beauty of a sea kayak tour is that it can be enjoyed whatever the weather, in low and high seasons come rain or shine.
The Hongs of Phang-Nga Bay
The most interesting and enjoyable kayak trips include those around the nearby Phang-Nga National Park that include deserted and otherwise inaccessible islands such as Koh Panak and Koh Hong. The islands comprise incredibly steep and ancient limestone cliff formations, with an array of long and narrow cave systems that lead to gorgeous hidden lagoons in the inner sanctum. These are typically known as hongs, which are essentially collapsed caves with an open roof and very steep walls in the centre of an island, that can only be accessed by tunnels from the sea. Intrepid explorers must float through the tunnels lying as flat to the canoe as possible, to avoid the sharp rocks and ceiling above. There’s not quite an experience like it.
Such unique geographical features have been popularised movies like The Beach where the mythical beach was hidden inside an island’s interior. Once inside a hong you’ll discover unique wildlife and beautiful, lush scenery, reminiscent of scenes from a Jules Verne novel, rarely seen by outsiders and still unadulterated with pristine and unspoilt natural beauty. Unfortunately, a few hongs have become so popular with an excess of tour companies, that what was once a very quiet place has gradually become much busier, especially in the high season. The most popular hongs can generate kayak traffic jams with boats queueing up to get inside. Despite this, it’s still possible to visit a few secluded hongs in relative solitude, depending largely on the location and the time of day.
Hidden Caves and Lagoons
Fortunately, many hongs still cloak a hidden world of peace and serenity, mostly uninterrupted by the onslaught of tourists due to their relative inaccessibility. The silence is broken only by the gentle ripple of oars in the water, and the occasional shriek from excitable macaques. Access to the cave entrances is only possible at certain times of day when the tide is low and they are revealed long enough to be able to pass into the central lagoons. At high tide, the caves are totally inaccessible and in very low tide, the lagoons are simply too muddy to reach. The only other way in would be by helicopter! Inside the access tunnels, darkness prevails so flashlights are provided to illuminate the way, but once you have emerged into the other side a unique landscape is revealed in splendid fashion. Watch out for the bats hanging upside down in the tunnels!
Because of the relatively dangerous nature of reaching the hongs, tours usually provide an expert guide that does most of the paddling, as inexperienced tourists can easily run into difficulties when navigating the narrow tunnels. They can contain razor-sharp shells and falling into the water could cause some serious injuries, but the skilful guides know how to navigate with ease. Such trips are usually billed as eco-tours as they aim to minimise their affect on the landscape, and kayaks are certainly an environmentally friendly and fun way to travel.
A particularly well known trip to the hongs is the “Hong By Starlight” tour by John Gray’s Sea Canoe (details at the end of the article), which departs later in the day when there are few other tour groups around, and gives visitors a unique chance to appreciate their natural beauty in a completely surreal and magical atmosphere. This kind of tour comes highly recommended and allows visitors to avoid the more crowded times of day.
James Bond Island
Many kayak tours also take visitors to the well known “James Bond Island” located in the Phang-Nga National Park. This very popular spot includes the main island of Koh Khao Phing Gan (which means the island of hills leaning against each other) and the nearby Nail Island (more correctly named Koh Tapu), a strikingly tall and narrow limestone outcrop which rises abruptly from the water, somewhat resembling a nail.
This impressive gravity-defying island achieved notoriety in the 1974 movie The Man with the Golden Gun, and attracts thousands of tourists each year to admire its beauty. Despite being a spectacular sight this location is somewhat overrun and a victim of its own success, as the hordes of tourists seem to arrive at the same time and are immediately accosted by hawkers. Nevertheless, it’s fun to strike the same James Bond pose as in the movie with Koh Tapu as a backdrop; definitely one for the holiday postcards.
Kayak Tours and Companies
For a fully guided one day kayak tour complete with meals, snacks, all equipment and transfers, you can expect to pay around 3,000 to 4,000 baht depending on the itinerary. There are many tour companies that can take visitors to the hongs, but choose one carefully that emphasises true environmental responsibility and safety, and be aware that the cheapest tours aren’t always the best. Look for tour companies that hold the proper safety certificates and have trained canoe instructors with appropriate qualifications.
Perhaps the best and most well known kayak company in Phuket is John Gray’s Sea Canoe. The expert canoeist and environmentalist John Gray (also affectionately known as Big Monkey, or The Caveman) is widely considered to be the grandfather of kayaking in Phuket and has a very admirable track record and reputation.
The following companies can organise kayak group tours to the hongs in Phang-Nga Bay.
Andaman Sea Kayak
Tel: +66 (0) 76 235 353
John Gray’s Sea Canoe
Tel: +66 (0) 76 254 505-7
Tel: +66 (0) 76 241 519
Sea Canoe Thailand Company
Tel: +66 (0) 76 528 839-40