A distinctive feature of Phang Nga Bay are the sheer limestone karsts that jut vertically out of the emerald-green water. James Bond Island and Koh Panyee are just two of the more famous spots in this bay. By far the best means of enjoying the spectacular scenery, with only brief encounters with the tourist crowds at James Bond and Koh Panyee, is to take one of the boat trips from the northern end of Phuket.
A leisurely day trip cruising through the dramatic limestone islands, occasionally stopping to enjoy quiet beaches, is far more rewarding than the standard bus-boat tour.
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James Bond Island
This famous landmark, called Koh Ta-pu ('Nail Island'), first found its way onto the international map through its starring role in the James Bond movie 'The Man With the Golden Gun'. And this is where most tours seem to take all of the tourists - all at the same time. The entire area surrounding this island with its signature rocky pinnacle is indeed spectacular, but most of the tours bus visitors up the main highway for an hour on the same well-worn itinerary. An integral part of that tour is lunch at Koh Panyee, a nearby Muslim fishing village.
This is a remarkable village, the whole of it built out over water on stilts and with a giant rock monolith guarding its rear. At lunchtime, many tourists on the James Bond Island tours are brought in to eat and shop for handicrafts.
Koh Panyee is a small island. Most of it is huge, almost vertical, limestone cliffs. The hundreds of huts, shacks, restaurants and houses where the villagers live are built on stilts over the surrounding shallow sea. No one seems quite sure how many wooden and concrete piles hold up this extraordinary community, but it is certainly a fascinating and unique feat of informal engineering. At first, fishing was the sole industry for this Muslim community but nowadays it is No 2. These days, half the locals service the tourism industry and 40% are still fisherman. The village has its own school, a mosque, a health center, lots of small souvenir shops and a handful of large restaurants, all facing the sea, where tourists can enjoy a fresh seafood lunch.
Samet Nangshe Viewpoint
Samet Nangshe Viewpoint has very quickly gone from being practically unheard of to one of the most popular panoramas in Phang Nga. Located on a hilltop just a 30-minute drive from Phuket, it provides stunning views over the limestone islets of Phang Nga Bay and, being far enough away from civilisation to avoid light pollution, the Milky Way is even visible at certain times.
The view is a breathtaking 180-degree panorama facing due east, making it particularly striking at sunrise. You look out at a chain of islands stretching out of sight to both the left and right in the waters of Phang Nga Bay, across about 1.6km of mangroves. The sun rises between the limestone karsts at about 05:30 to 06:00, depending on the time of year. This is often preceded by the awe-inspiring sight of the centre of our own galaxy, clearly visible overhead, though this also depends on the season.
Cruising Phang Nga Bay
Phang Nga Bay is a great place for boating. The interesting limestone cliffs create a picturesque backdrop and there are many safe places to anchor.
The fact that it's protected from both the Northeast and the Southwest monsoon seasons means that its waters remain calm year-round, which adds to the appeal of its scenic wonders and abundant wildlife.
Limestone Cliffs of Phang Nga Bay
Limestone is calcium carbonate, which is generally white. Over millions of years, the skeletons from a constant rain of marine organisms, plus the chemical precipitation of yet more calcium carbonate build thick layers of sediment. Eventually, the heat and pressure of their own weight turn these strata, hundreds of metres thick, to stone.
A variety of geological forces have then fractured the limestone beds and pushed up the 40 steep-sided islands that provide the exotic scenery for which this shallow bay is noted. Mineral oxides from various sources paint the vari-coloured streaks that characterise the cliffs of Phang Nga Bay.
Hongs of Phang Nga
And there are lost worlds awaiting discovery. It wasn't many years ago that aerial surveys first revealed the Hong, or 'rooms', that lie inside some of Phang Nga's islands.
These fabulous microcosms, hidden realms rich in unspoiled flora and fauna, are collapsed cave systems open to the sky and surrounded by towering limestone walls. Try sea-kayaking, where you paddle sturdy plastic boats through caves into the mysterious hearts of islands such as Koh Panak and Koh Hong. (Read more about Sea canoeing in Phang Nga Bay)
Getting to Phang Nga Bay
It's possible to see many of the bay's attractions in a single day. A launch from any point along the east coast of Phuket will take you immediately into Phang Nga Bay.
There are also a number of launching sites on the Phang Nga province mainland, including the Ka Sohm Pier in Takua Thung district just south of Phang Nga Town. Most visit the area by booking a long-tail or speedboat day trip, joining a cruise or canoeing tour, or chartering a yacht.
Other Islands in Phang Nga Bay
Most of the islands are uninhabited. Many of them have spectacular caves which you can only reach by an inflatable kayak.
Koh Hong is one of the most popular of these islands. Khao Khien near Koh Panyee is worth sailing past to see the ancient paintings of boats and animals on the rock walls.
One of the few inhabited islands, Koh Maak, sits near the top of the bay and is home to a small community of fisherfolk who maintain a traditional way of life - it's not part of any tour itinerary and it is recommended to bring your own food and supplies if visiting since there are no facilities for tourists. There are also no places to stay here.