The Sea Caves, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand




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James Bond fans may remember 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore as 007. Not one of the best Bond films, but memorable in part for the spectacular scenery of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand which served as the setting for villain Scaramanga’s hideout.

The movie drew attention to the area and put pressure on Thai authorities to preserve this natural beauty. In 1981, much of the area was designated as Ao Phang Nga National Park, including the many islands in the area. It has become a major eco-tourism destination.

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The archipelago at Phang Nga Bay is breathtaking in its beauty.

On our second day in Phuket we booked an excursion to explore sea caves in the area. We boarded a bus near the pier in Patong Bay for the hour long drive to Laem Sai Pier at the northern end of the island. There we boarded a motor launch for the hour boat cruise to Hong Island and the surrounding area.

A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.
A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.

The scenery was, indeed, like that in the Bond movie. Spectacular islands densely covered in vegetation with deep pitting in the exposed limestone, particularly at sea level.

Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.
Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.

We dropped anchor offshore from one of the islands and a myriad of small three person canoes were launched – two tourists and a guide in each. Janis and I and our guide followed some other craft into a cave and out the other end into a sheltered area surrounded by steep cliffs, limestone rock formations and lush greenery.

We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side.
We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side. Some of the rock formations looked like dollops of melting ice cream.

An island near the end of the channel looked much like the island in the movie that had the solar power unit atop it, though it was not the actual island. One of the other excursions did go to that island, now actually called James Bond Island.

This tall pinnacle is similar to the one in Man With the Golden Gun.

We paddled around, occasionally drifting in to shore to see the rock formations up close and on one occasion, we lay back as our guide paddled us into a deep low-hanging cave and back again.

Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.
Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.

The entire area was spectacular – stunningly beautiful with streaks of red sandstone interspersed with grey and yellow limestones.

Steeaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands' natural beauty.
Streaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands’ natural beauty.

We paddled around taking in the scenery for a good half hour before paddling around an outcrop and back to our ship.

We were allowed to swim in the bay, so I gave Janis the camera and went over the side, swimming behind our kayak to the mother ship. The water was very warm.

Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.
Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.

Once aboard, we tootled off towards another island – destination: the bat cave. Not that batcave! No Batman and Robin in sight. But we once again took to the canoes and went into a much deeper cave system. Here we entered total darkness, only the guides’ flashlights providing illumination. We saw dozens of bats hanging upside from the ceiling as we paddled deeper into the cave, then we turned around and paddled back. Unfortunately it was too dark for my camera to take pictures.

Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn't want to scare the bats.
Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn’t want to scare the bats.

From there we headed off to another island, the crew serving us a very tasty lunch along the way. At Lawi Island we dropped anchor again and were able to go ashore to a nice beach. Janis took a canoe but I just jumped in and swam ashore. We enjoyed a pleasant swim and soaked up the sun for an hour and then back to the boat again.

The beach where we stopped for an hour.
The beach where we stopped for an hour.

Back on Phuket Island we took the long bus ride back to Patong, stopping at a cashew stand that I’m sure must give kick-backs to tour operators because almost every excursion available included a visit to the “cashew factory”. It was not a factory. It was a shop. I don’t know if these additional stops add anything of value to a tour. I could have done without it.  But some people were buying so I guess it pays off for them.

The sea cave adventure was by far our favourite excursion on our cruise – and the most expensive at US$149 a person. Sometimes spending a little more pays off in a big way.

At 5:30 PM the cruise ship weighed anchor and we headed off back to Singapore. All in all, a great end to our voyage. You’ll find additional photos of our sea cave adventure linked below.

I’ll be adding an overview of our cruise as a whole next, with links to all ports of call and our extended visit to Singapore. Stay tuned!

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Photo Gallery: Sea Caves at Phang Nga Bay, Thailand




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Here are some more pictures from our sea cave adventure.

As we left the dock, we passed this vintage ship which looked alot like the one Scaramanga used to escape in The Man With the Golden Gun.
As we left the dock, we passed this vintage ship which looked a lot like the one Scaramanga used to escape in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Most of the islands featured steep tree covered cliffs with eroded limestone near the bottom.
Most of the islands featured steep tree covered cliffs with eroded limestone near the bottom.
Sometimes there were patches of eroded limestone higher up the rock faces.
Sometimes there were patches of eroded limestone higher up the rock faces.
Entering a sea cave.
Entering a sea cave. This one went right through the island to the other side.
Big glops of rock dripping down from the ceiling of the cave.
Big glops of rock dripping down from the ceiling of the cave.
The scene that awaited us after we went through the cave to the other side.
The scene that awaited us after we went through the cave to the other side.
This long boat with tourists disturbed the quiet of the location with its noisy outboard.
This long boat with tourists disturbed the quiet of the location with its noisy outboard.

Steep cliffs streaked with red limestone.
Steep cliffs streaked with red limestone.
Interesting rock formations everywhere.
Interesting rock formations everywhere.
We came across a couple of wild chickens as we explored the archipelago.
We came across a couple of wild chickens as we explored the archipelago.
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Back aboard, we bid adieu to this amazing landscape as we headed for a bat cave.
Entering the bat cave.
Entering the bat cave.
We passed a few fishermen on our trip.
We passed a few fishermen on our trip.
The crew served a delicious lunch along the way.
The crew served a delicious lunch along the way.
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The beach where we stopped for a swim.
Janis and I - happy travellers!
Janis and I – happy travellers!

 




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Phuket, Thailand – Sunshine, Shopping and Sleaze




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Note: some of this travelogue includes discussion of the sex trade in Thailand. If that may offend you, after the picture of the masseuses, skip to three paragraphs past the picture of Patong at night. 

Our fourth port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Phuket, Thailand. Our ship anchored out in Patong Bay for two days giving us ample opportunity to explore on our own and to take an excursion or two if we wanted. We opted to explore on our own the first day and take an excursion the second day. I’ll write about that, a motorboat and canoe adventure in Phang Nga National Park in another post. Today I’ll look at the town of Patong, the largest on Phuket Island.

The Mariner of the Seas at anchor in Patong bay.
The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.

Because we were anchored in the bay, access to the city was by motor launch – a regular ferry service from ship to shore and back that ran every fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the time of day. We stayed on the ship for breakfast and avoided the crush of people leaving the ship by waiting until noon to go.

The beautiful beach at Patong Bay, Phuket, Thailand.
The beautiful beach at Patong Bay,Phuket, Thailand.

The shuttle craft took us to a long pier at one end of the fabulous beach at Patong Bay. We walked up the pier where hawkers were promoting various tours and activities. Moving along the sidewalk, we saw many small mini-cabs and three wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks, sort of a motorized rickshaw.

The busy thoroughfare that parallels the beach. Lots of scooters and motorcycles as well as small open air taxis.
The busy thoroughfare that parallels the beach. Lots of scooters and motorcycles as well as small open air taxis like this yellow one.

Patong Bay was heavily damaged by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Around 250 people were killed on Phuket, including tourists. But today the town of Patong has largely recovered, though we did see some new construction along the busy street that borders the beach.

The beach itself is fabulous. We left the sidewalk for a while, took off our shoes and walked along the beach before heading inland. Along the shore near the pier were many long-tailed boats for hire, as well as a lot jet ski rentals. The long-tailed boat is a common in Southeast Asia. It consists of a wide canoe like body with an upswept bow and powered by an old automobile engine connected to a propeller by a long shaft.

Long-tailed boats for hire wait for customers along the beach at Patong.
Long-tailed boats for hire wait for customers along the beach at Patong.

Patong is a major tourist center and many western fast food brands were apparent including a MacDonald’s and a Burger King along the shore road. Inland a bit we later came across a Hard Rock Cafe as well as  Starbucks.

One of the first things we noticed as we walked was the huge tangle of wires between power poles. Throughout the town – wires, wires, wires. More wires than you could shake a stick at. Some of them were hanging quite low. We wondered if all of them were live, and if so, how the heck would a repair guy find the right one if there were a power problem.

Unfathomable tangles of wires are everywhere in Patong, and indeed throughout Phuket.
Unfathomable tangles of wires are everywhere in Patong, and indeed throughout Phuket. Note the tsunami evacuation route sign. Patong was heavily damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

In any event, we wanted to find a shopping area so we thought we would head towards some tall buildings we saw not far inland. Walking along we came across endless numbers of small shops and a great many massage parlours, the masseuses sitting outside in uniforms that looked much like flight attendant uniforms.

Masseuses in their blue and white uniforms wait for customers outside their business.
Masseuses in their blue and white uniforms wait for customers outside their business.

We had heard about how prevalent prostitution was in Thailand, including child prostitution. We wondered if these massage parlour were all fronts for prostitution. Fortunately none of the ladies sitting curbside looked underage. They all looked to be in their late twenties to mid-thirties.

But the number of massage parlours was astounding. A dozen or more along a single street. There was one huge massage parlour the size of a small mall. It’s called the Christin Massage and is the largest “soapy massage” parlour in Phuket. Not sure what a soapy massage is? Neither was I until I googled it.

The Christin Massage Parlour in Patoing is huge.
The Christin Massage Parlour in Patong (the pink building) is huge. A little research online revealed that this place specializes in “soapy massage” and is the largest in Phuket.

One of the excursions available to us was described as a Sightseeing and Cabaret Extravaganza, which ended a day of sightseeing and shopping with a visit to “Asia’s biggest transvestite cabaret show performed by the famous lady boys of Simon Cabaret”. So we had an opportunity to explore the seamier side of Patong but we opted to stay on the ship in the evening. But we did take in the view of the town at night from the ship and were amazed by a giant LED screen that looked like it may have been the size of some of the signs on Times Square in New York.

Giant LED screen in the Patong night time skyline.
Giant LED screen in the Patong night time skyline.

Our dinner companions and their thirteen year old son did decide to explore the town after dark. They later told us that there were bandits in motorboats who would drive up close to the dock as people were heading to shore and snatch a purse if they could and then speed off. But they were particularly appalled that some of the sidewalk masseuses pawed at and propositioned their son.

The night before we had discussed our upcoming port of call at dinner and one of our companions asked if we had heard about the ping pong shows. We had not, but I remembered a few years ago a couple of strippers in Vancouver calling themselves the Chiclets achieved some notoriety in the press for an indecent show involving ping pong balls. A search online confirmed that the ping pong shows were exactly that. I won’t go into detail but you can follow the link if you must.

Much of this sordidness is officially illegal in Thailand, but the authorities tolerate it. Their relaxed attitude to such things appeals to me politically as a libertarian, but it is decidedly not a place for a family vacation, though there are many private gated resorts that are family friendly in the area.

But back to our daytime exploration. Besides massage parlours, the leading industry seemed to be medicine. Notably dentistry. We saw many many ads for and offices of dentists, way more than a small town could possibly need. We also passed a large office promoting plastic surgery. Medical tourism seems to be big here as well. And there were a fair number of tattoo parlours.

JungCeylon Shopping Mall
JungCeylon Shopping Mall

In any event, we wandered uptown until we came to an ultra-modern shopping mall called JungCeylon. It featured many western shops including The Gap as well as more localized offerings. There were a few booths promoting condo developments. One of them, Citygate, offered condos from US$64,000 which the company will rent out for you when not using it, promising a seven percent return.

Inside the JungCeylon Mall - three floors of shopping.
Inside the JungCeylon Mall – three floors of shopping.

After exploring the mall and savoring a coffee at Starbucks, we headed back down another street and came across a great many sidewalk souvenir shops catering to tourists. And more massage parlours. And a Hard Rock Cafe. After an entertaining day walking around Patong we headed back to the ship for the night.

One of many sidewalk shopping malls in Patong.
One of many sidewalk shopping malls in Patong.

The next day we were set to explore some sea caves by canoe. That would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip and I’ll tell you about that in the next post!

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Photo Gallery: Patong, Thailand

Here are some additional photos taken in Patong, Phuket, Thailand.

Along the Patong Beach. Longboats waiting for customers.
Along the Patong Beach. Longboats waiting for customers. Lots of nice villas abound in the hillsides surrounding the town of Patong.
A Thai long-tailed boat.
A Thai long-tailed boat.

 

Tangles of wire along the busy street.
Tangles of wire along the busy street. Many western restaurants like MacDonald’s are here and many of the signs are in English as well as Thai.
A couple of tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws. These have been adapted as ice cream trucks.
A couple of tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws. These have been adapted as ice cream trucks.
The JungCeylon Mall was decked out for Chinese New Year when we were there.
The JungCeylon Mall was decked out for Chinese New Year when we were there.
A replica of a Chinese junk and a pool and fountain were some of the features in the mall's open air courtyard.
A replica of a Chinese junk and a pool and fountain were some of the features in the mall’s open air courtyard.
Looking back across the plaza at JungCeylon Mall.
Looking back across the plaza at JungCeylon Mall.
Despite its suggestive name, the Sleep With Me Hotel is a legitimate four star hotel, not a rent by the hour joint.
Despite its suggestive name, the Sleep With Me Hotel is a legitimate four star hotel, not a rent by the hour joint.
Sidewalk malls selling tourist souvenirs are common in Patong.
Sidewalk malls selling tourist souvenirs are common in Patong.
You'll find popular western restaurants and hotels like the Hard Rock here as well. I had a burger at the Hard Rock in Singapore and it was one of the best burgers I ever had.
You’ll find popular western restaurants and hotels like the Hard Rock are here as well. I had a burger at the Hard Rock in Singapore and it was one of the best burgers I ever had.
Tangles of wire and masseuses - two common sights in Patong.
Tangles of wire and masseuses – two common sights in Patong.
Christin Massage - the largest massage parlour in Phuket.
Christin Massage – the largest massage parlour in Phuket.
A couple of open air cabs.
A couple of open air cabs.
I thought this broom seller was kind of interesting.
I thought this broom seller was kind of interesting.
Eleven years after the Boxing Day tsynami of 2004, there are still buildings being replaced in Patong.
Eleven years after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, there are still buildings being replaced in Patong.
Once again, the Patong bay Beach with the Mariner of the Seas at anchor in the distance.
Once again, the Patong bay Beach with the Mariner of the Seas at anchor in the distance.