Reading about southern Thailand, we thought a tour through Ao Phang Nga National Park sounded interesting. Its boundaries protect 400 sq kms of mangrove forests punctuated by limestone karsts and islands. It is probably best known for Ko Tapu, or James Bond Island, where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed.

Day trips from Hat Rai Leh are abundant but expensive at 3600 baht (US$104) per person, so we made our way to the Phang Nga bus station where a few local operators exist. From Krabi, Phang Nga is a 2-hour, 60 baht ride. At the bus station, we booked an overnight stay on Koh Panyee (Muslim fishing village) and a full-day tour of Ao Phang Nga Park for 1300 baht each. Quite the savings when compared to the Hat Rai Leh quote.

Once booked, we went through a series of silent transitions where everyone seemed to know their part. The friendly staff at Sayan Tours shuttled us off to the pier in what appeared to be the family car. With two kids still dressed in their blue and white school uniforms playing in the front seat, we made our way to the pier. Greeting us with a wave to follow him, the boat captain ushered us to his longtail boat without saying a word. Motoring through alleys of mangrove forest, we made our way to Koh Panyee. Once again, we were silently handed off to our waiting guest-house hosts. A young boy walked us through the family’s restaurant and passed us off to our final handler who took us up to our room. Showing us our room, she uttered the only words we heard during the entire exchange, “dinner at 7:30″.

With a few hours before dinner, we wandered empty corridors of the fishing village. Normally crowded with tourists and locals selling their wares, the streets were quiet and peaceful with the villagers going about their day. They paid no attention to us while they chatted with friends and prepared dinner. We roamed the quiet streets, stopping to watch kids play soccer next to the mosque and old graveyard. We sat alone at the end of a deserted dock while watching the sunset. And, we enjoyed the enchanting call to prayer before heading back for dinner.

A feast awaited us on our return. Heaping portions of fish ball soup loaded with kale and vegetables, chicken curry, stir-fried vegetables, scrambled egg, and spicy, chili chicken lined the table. Not being sure of the proper etiquette, we served ourselves the soup first. I chose to eat my soup without the fish balls. But, Chris notices this and tells me they aren’t so bad and goads me into trying one. Chris is a master of trickery. For instance, on our bus trip we were served vegetable juice. I was weary of trying it, thinking it would taste like v8. Chris claimed it was really good, his Cheshire grin beaming across his face. He was right; it was great. With a blend of carrot, orange, and apple, it was sweet. The same Cheshire grin appears when telling me the fish balls are not TOO fishy. As I bite down on the fish laden ball, his childish grin widens and I know he has tricked me. My contorted face tells all as I try to choke down the last remnants. Chris, of course, finds this whole spectacle quite amusing.

Without the balls, however, the soup was amazingly good. It all was amazingly good. Our meal made us want to search out the little known but great restaurants of Thailand rather than the ones with English subtitles.

Awakening in the morning to coffee with sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves and fried dough, we felt well-rested and well-fed. Our tour began with a ride back to the main pier to pick up the rest of the tour group. We spent the rest of the day touring Ao Phang Nga National Park. Its limestone karsts jutting out of emerald waters reminded us of Ha Long Bay in Vietnam. We visited James Bond Island and made note to watch “The Man with the Golden Gun,” the movie which made this island a bit of a tourist trap. Canoeing through tunnels and lagoons, our guide signaled us to lie down. Our noses often came close to skimming the tunnel ceiling. I paid no matter to that, of course. No, I was much more concerned about whether bats lived in these tunnels.

With a full-day of limestone outcroppings under our belt, the tour headed to the Muslim village. The scene the night before was all but wiped away. The quiet streets were now lined with shop after shop selling (for lack of a better word) tourist-junk. At one point, a woman grabbed Chris and forced her monkey on him in the hopes we would pay for for a picture. Grateful we saw a quieter side to the fishing village, we wondered whether the night before was what it use to be like before the tourism began.

One Response to “The mangroves and karsts of Ao Phang Nga Bay”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Sounds lovely and peaceful!