Most people come to Phang Nga to visit the dramatic limestone cliffs, islands and sparkling waters of Ao Phang Nga National Marine Park. We were no different.
Tour operators swamped us from the moment we got off the bus at Phang Nga bus station to the moment we entered our guest house, some 200 meters away. A note to tour operators: hard sells are irritating; find a new strategy. Our reaction to the hard sell is instant rejection.
After swatting away the touts, we made our own arrangements with an excitable Mr. Hassim at Muang Tong Hotel. His delivery was akin to that of the guy from Federal Express commercial. He could talk a mile a minute about boats and tours. His comprehension of English was limited to “no problem” and “yes” as we found out later when “dry bag for our Nikon D70 when we go kayaking” yielded an unsealable sandwich bag.
We spent the rest of the afternoon watching the locals as we popped in for dim sum, satay, and iced coffees. To catch up on internet research, we dropped in on a gaming center, teeming with 30 kids competing against each other (and maybe you) online. It felt like a moment out of Gulliver’s Travels – even the guy running the place and taking money was no more than 12 and came up to Dan’s hip. Phang Nga is a sleepy little town, but a pleasant one.
The next day we departed for the main attraction – Ao Phang Nga – by longtail boat. We cruised around thick mangrove forests and through overhead caves (stalacmites, not stalactites). Our jaded eyes grew almost weary of the beauty – limestone cliffs jut out of the water at every turn. The dramatic landscape and reminded us of Halong Bay in Vietnam. There were no boats plying us with Oreos though.
The tourist-accustomed Thais, whose athletic and physical abilities belie their small frames, offer a kayaking service that allowed the most sedentary of us to avoid breaking a sweat. We hired a kayak and asked if we could paddle ourselves. The locals were amused by our need for exercise. We opted out of the kayak when our pleas for “must keep camera dry” yielded unsealed sandwich bags just large enough to hold James Bond’s spy camera. After hearing “no problem, no problem” over and over again, we concluded “Yes, problem,” and continued on our way.
The next stop was James Bond Island where scenes from “A Man with a Golden Gun” were filmed. Easily the region’s most marketed site, it too is besieged with tourists. Though still physically beautiful, souvenir stalls hawking seashell mobiles and sundry other sea-reminiscent trucs detract from the ambiance. We took our requisite photos and headed to Ko Panyi, described to us as a Muslim fishing village.
Ko Panyi’s docks had a distinctly Vietnamese tour feel to them when we first arrived – tacky tourist restaurants and souvenir stalls gobbled up every inch of real estate in the first 200 meters of the pier. Fortunately, locals had very little interest in selling and it was easy to get beyond this.
If you penetrate beyond the touristic shell, you are free to explore the village. Life is pleasant – adults were going about their routines – fixing fishing nets, building traps, cooking food. Kids played in the water, babies took baths (sometimes in buckets) and naps. A nice pace of life.
Practical Details – Phang Nga Accommodation and Transport
How to get there: By bus from Krabi, Phuket or Takuapa
Where to stay: We stayed at Phang Nga Guesthouse on the main road. Simple, clean rooms for 250-350 BHT. Tel: 076 411358
Where to eat: Mr. Satay – tasty grilled chicken/pork satay and roti. The “small” order is 16 skewers and is enough to feed a small army. A few doors away, stock up on dim sum for 10 BHT for trays of 3-4 pieces and iced coffee for 12 Baht.
What to do: Boat trip around the mangroves and bay.