The enjoyment starts even before you're on the boat. The pier from where you depart is in the peaceful north east of Phuket is surrounded by green hills and beautiful seascapes. I found myself transfixed by the sea eagles whilst waiting others to arrive at the pier.
I watched them graciously circling on thermals whilst looking for a tasty snack, suddenly diving towards the water every now and then, often rising with a fish in their grasp, I was in awe of their hunt.
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I didn't have much information about the ambitiously named ‘Ideal Cruise’ that I’d agreed to participate in so I sought more information from Khun Tuk Tuk, a sea canoe guide, “The Ideal Tour is popular with older people as it's very relaxing, you see all the beautiful sights in the bay without much effort”. This was music to my ears, beautiful scenery with a large portion of relaxation, perfect.
Many had signed up for the tour on the day so we were switched to a larger, more comfortable for the numbers we had and aesthetically more pleasing vessel. I had a quick glimpse at the boat usually used and it seemed more than satisfactory. The new boat was a Chinese junk Ayodhaya that had just been refitted; the down side was that the junk was a little slower; however that was more than offset by her charm and comfort.
The bay to which Khun Tuk Tuk was referring is Phang Nga Bay, which is mostly a protected marine park. The whole area has the most amazing geology, the limestone islands rise vertically from the water 200 to 300 metres high with foliage growing awkwardly out of what appears to be bare rock. Roots are clearly visible as trees desperately cling on to sheer cliff walls with their trunks growing horizontally instead of the more conventional vertical. Koh Phanak, the first island we passed is a very good example, from afar it looks like the Loch Ness monster with its four camel-like humps. When you get close the uneven erosion, or karstification, of the limestone becomes apparent with beautiful karst rockfaces that overhang the sea by several meters.
In many places what appears to be stalactites dramatically hang from the cliff walls and overhangs, however these aren't stalactites, erosion is the process by which these odd shapes were created. We passed through Koh Hong next, an eerie group of small jungle capped islands that rise high out of the water close together with channel through the middle. As we passed we saw some sea canoeists exploring some interesting looking caves.
James Bond Island
You know when you're approaching James Bond Island (Koh Ping Kan) as the many long tail boats that ferry tourists to and from can be seen congregating whilst waiting for their passengers. Once close our anchor was set and two of the largest longtails that I've ever seen came alongside to take us ashore. 40 foot plus in length with 6 cylinder lorry engines perched on the shafts humming noisily, I counted my blessings that I wasn't the one driving.
The island itself is two individual tall hunks of rock with a sand isthmus bridging the two. Once on the island you're drawn to the visually arresting ancient geology then swiftly whisked back to the present by the souvenir sellers trying to tempt you with their treasures of all shapes and sizes. As you walk onto the very beach where Britt Eckland donned that white bikini, the realisation of exactly where you are hits you. It's surreal, you find yourself awestruck in front of Koh Tapu (Nail Island), the infamous rock that juts up out of the water - defying gravity by not falling over. One after another, the tourists takes each other's photo in front of the towering rock stack. The whole island is spectacularly beautiful with different rock formations everywhere you look.
Moving on in our longtail we make way towards the stilt village at Koh Panyee, en-route our passage was via a tunnel bored through an island by tides thousands of years ago. Next was seemingly endless mangroves, their roots spreading out in all directions, one tree intertwined with the next like a bird's nest. The scenery had a Jurassic feel to it, nothing has changed here for many eons, I felt like I was looking into the past with a time machine.
Once we were clear of the mangroves the golden dome of the mosque on Koh Panyee could be seen glimmering in the sunlight. The village is more of a town, more concrete than wooden, it's surroundings of mangroves are the reason for it's existence. Although tourism now provides a major source of income, traditionally fishing was the only source and mangrove tree roots are a perfect nursery away from predators for fish and prawns to mature. Lunch was served at Panyee Seafood Restaurant, a tasty range of Thai dishes suited to the western palette followed by fresh fruit.
Wandering around the village there are many opportunities to buy souvenirs and some more unusual items such as dried fish and prawns, the smell of which occasionally wafts around. The call to prayer from the mosque could be heard echoing around and once prayers were finished I passed many worshippers making their way back to their work. Many younger children could be seen playing happily; accidentally I stumbled across the school.
Here I briefly watched pupils reciting numbers in Thai with many tourists looking on. Much of the student's work is proudly displayed outside the classrooms for all to see. I was pleased to see the standard of living was higher than I expected and tourism embraced warmly. A surprise was to see a coffee shop and an internet cafe (for local's use).
We were then ferried us back to our mothership by longtail where we promptly set sail for our final destination, Koh Lawa. Conveniently situated half way back to where we started from, most welcomed the cooling off opportunity to swim and explore the sandy beach.
Initially I thought 'Ideal' to be an odd name for this cruise however after leisurely making my way around the sights of Phang Nga Bay I find that ideal is very fitting.