author: Pat Reilly
date: December 2003
‘So this is it’, I thought, paddling around the last obstruction of rocky island hiding the tiny islet known as ‘James Bond Island’. It’s pretty, yes. And one of the most top-heavy sea stacks in PangNga Bay. Sort of like a big mushroom. Still, why all the fuss? PangNga Bay has many sea stacks. Most are bigger, a few much bigger, and all are surrounded by the gorgeous scenery of the bay. Yet this one little island gets all the attention. You could say it stems from the island’s appearance in ‘The Man With the Golden Gun’. But that was back in the 70s. Ancient history. I believe that once a tourist base was established, the island continued to be promoted as the place to visit in the bay simply because the infrastructure was in place. Once you got a good thing going, keep ‘em coming. And come they did. I had arrived during the morning’s peace. But as I hung out, wave after wave of tourists would come in a constant stream of big boats, spend 15 minutes taking photos and being hounded by the souvenir vendors and leave to make room for the next group.
Hanging out at the biggest (heck, the only) tourist trap in beautiful PangNga Bay, Thailand wasn’t exactly what I had in mind when I set out on a 4-day solo kayak trip. It was my third paddling trip to the bay and I had finally located an outfitter that rented real touring boats, not sit on top rec boats. Since I had never seen James Bond Island or the scenery up that far north I decided to give it a look. One would be hard pressed to find a better place for sea kayaking than this area of the world. PhangNga Bay, near the popular resort island of Phuket, features some of the most exotic marine geology found anywhere on earth. Within the bay lie hundreds of limestone islands of widely varying sizes. Most rise abruptly from the water with sheer cliffs reaching as high as 1000 feet. Wave action causes erosion of the soft limestone forming undercuts and caves. In the more extreme cases, the interior of the islands implode, creating hidden lagoons, which can only be accessed through caves by paddle craft.
A few larger islands have rubber plantations and resort bungalows but most are uninhabited. Fishermen abound, but the majority of the bay is quite peaceful and teeming with wildlife. Only in the area near James Bond Island are things getting out of hand with large numbers of big tour boats bringing hundreds of travelers to visit the hidden lagoons or 'hongs' as the Thais call them. Every afternoon outfitters jockey for position outside the cave entrances leading to the hongs. Customers must often sit in (actually on) their boats and wait for another group to leave before they can enter a hong.
After a 7-mile predawn crossing from my camp island, the first hours of the day were spent exploring this popular sea-cave area long before the tour boats arrived. I recognized a hong entrance that I had been led into on a previous guided trip. I slipped through the short cave into the island’s sheltered interior. It was magic! Monkey ladder vines dangled from high on the cliffs that encircled the hong. Little tree climbing fish, mudskippers, darted about on mangrove roots. Two large hornbills fought noisily about something or other directly overhead. They were so close I didn’t need the field glasses but went for the camera instead. No one else was present to disturb the morning. Ah’, the satisfaction of doing it yourself!
With no time to plan, I had begun this quick trip without packing food. At this point my last real meal was a boxed lunch of fried rice made the previous morning and eaten at last night’s campsite. After exploring the hongs I found a fisherman willing to sell me some fresh caught prawns that he cooked on the beach. Now I was hungry again and down to 1 liter of drip water collected from a cave. Re-supply was the main reason to head up to James Bond Island.
As I pulled my boat up on the little crescent beach overlooking the famous islet, I was immediately set upon by a number of young men in blue ‘PangNga National Park staff’ t-shirts. They informed me of the 200 baht ($5) visitors fee. 'Ah yes, I paid 2 days ago over at Koh Hong Island.' I emptied out my dry bag to find the fee stub in front of the curious group, handing my Leatherman knife and field glasses to 2 staffers that were eager to check them out. Others were interested in my charts. The questions started in earnest. ‘Where had I been?’ ‘How long was I out?’ ‘Who was I with?’ ‘Where was my big boat?’ They were taken back a bit by the answers. The only paddlers they normally encounter arrive en masse on big support boats.
They took my word that I had already paid, the stub couldn’t be located amongst all the junk. I asked about water and food. They led me to the cold beverages but sadly informed me that there was no food to be bought. ‘Mai me’ (no have). They watched and commented to one another as I loaded up 6 liter bottles of water and 4 cans of beer (a paddler needs carbohydrates too). The Thais marveled at the gear hatches and the spray skirt. Apparently they were only used to seeing the sit-on-top or inflatable kayaks preferred by the sea-cave outfitters. All too soon the Thais had to get to work as the tourists started pouring in and our lively exchange broke up.
I was sitting in the shade checking out the crowd and growing hungrier by the minute when one of the blue shirted staffers returned and excitedly proclaimed ‘kin khoa’ (eat dinner). He led me back through the mass of vendors to a little tin-roofed building. Inside a gentleman told me to sit on a table (there were no chairs) and proudly introduced himself as the ‘head ranger’. He asked if I liked spicy food. I gave my standard Thai answer, ‘Ta mai phet, mai a-roy’ (if it’s not hot, it’s not good). This reply brought broad smiles as the staff could serve what they had been eating. They presented a whole small fish in an absolutely delicious spicy curry. A second dish had chicken curry with plantains, again just superb. Steamed rice, fresh vegetables, a coconut/banana desert and some fruit to take with me rounded out my meal. Wow!
The head ranger stood by as I ate. He was small, even for a Thai man, and looked young. He wore a neat black shirt with a park logo but had no real uniform. He was quite cordial and eager to talk, but yet managed, with noticeable effort, to maintain the dignified air of the head official at James Bond Island. I liked him at once (even ignoring the fact that he was feeding me) and made every effort to pay him due respect. His English was on a par with my Thai, which is to say poor, at best. But that was fine as it put us on an equal footing, conversation-wise. We talked about the food, the beautiful surroundings, the stream of tourists outside his office, my trip, the weather and the World Trade Center attack (it was then November 2001). All the while he stood straight, soldier-like and tried not to show too much emotion. When I finished eating, I fumbled over the Thai words to tell him that Thai people made me feel good inside. Then I rattled off something straight from the 'Learn Thai' tape. A phrase in which I don’t know the meaning of all the individual words but is supposed to say, ‘I wish the best of luck to you and all your family’. Smiles and wais (the Thai prayer-like greeting/respect gesture) all around and I left the staff to get back to their duties.
There are many great memories of that short trip - the cliffs and hongs, a huge monitor lizard, hundreds of large fruit bats flying overhead, kingfishers and hornbills, herons and sea eagles, spooky bioluminescent plankton lighting up my paddle tips on a night crossing. But it’s funny, the memory that keeps coming back more than the others is the head ranger and his delicious meal. You may travel to exotic locales for the scenery and adventure, but many times it’s the people that please you the most.
NOTE: For more Thailand paddling tales, including details or a 7-day trip just completed this fall, and a slide show, attend January’s program.
Copyright © 2003 Pat Reilly. All rights reserved.