Three Chinese Junks cruise in parallel through the Phang Nga Bay, each showing off distinctive sails and each pulling an empty dingy that chases behind like a tagalong sibling.
These boats are solid; no stomach churning motions, just a smooth push to the northernmost reaches of Thailand’s aquatic mangrove-and-limestone-cliff playground.
I’ve been here often – and by varied means of transportation (loved the speedboat’s expeditiousness and the quite serenity of a kayak powered by someone else) – but the area hasn’t lost a single rice-grain of charm. The imagination tickling qualities of Phang Nga are substantial, and today they’re even better: I’m onboard a Chinese Junk – the ‘June Bahtra I’.
The low-to-nonexistent railing and footprint shape of the deck give the feeling of cruising on a slipper, a floating wooden clog. It’s nine in the morning and the low rumble of the engine drones from somewhere below, propelling us on at an astonishingly brisk clip. Most of the boat under shade, and the breeze is much cooler than expected. But not to worry, mats and pillows wait in the ships sunned bow – it’s a perfect place to stretch out and relax, drinking in the fresh sea air.
This trip isn’t packed with action or people, and for my lazy inner child, it’s ideal. Guests chat a bit – to each other and our guide – while friendly staff serves coffee, tea, and fruit (beer and wine are available for purchase). The scenery is spectacular as always – dramatic hulks of limestone spot the bay and stack up on the horizon. We pass remote beaches, most empty and untouched; evidence of the goodness that is raw, unspoiled nature. Another random beach on another random island, this one with a hut the national park employees call their office. “We saw a large fish, it looked like a shark,” someone said. It wasn’t. Rather, a dolphin was playing in our wake, frustrating the newfound aspiration of photographing a finned mammal with unpredictable peek-a-boo appearances above the surface.
For two hours this continues, and I’m perfectly contented sitting right here and doing nothing. It’s not meant to be; we have things to see. Lifejackets are distributed as a longtail boat ties up alongside. We hop down to the smaller boat, and it becomes instantly apparent this isn’t the standard sea taxi.
It’s lower, narrower, faster. And yellow. The driver is keenly aware of the traveller’s need to document everything with pictures, and pauses to allow the snap-happy a moment to record the boat we just left – with sails stretched taught, revealing their full splendour – from the new vantage point.
Ten, maybe fifteen minutes later we’re standing on the pier at Koh Pan Yee, a Thai Muslim fishing village suspended over the sea on concrete stilts. Our guide leads us through a narrow maze, past birds prized for their singing skills and house-front shops selling snacks, seashells, jewellery, and an assortment of touristy trinkets. The village is rich in contrasts – bright colours adorn dull, makeshift dwellings; wrinkled senior citizens tend to small babies. It’s a cultural experience goldmine, if you’re able to avoid feeling like an intruder.
I can’t, at least not until I speak to a member of the staff later. “They love the tourists,” he said. The residents of the village appreciate the reliable income and opportunity to share their lifestyle – so please have fun completely guilt-free.
A few minutes later we storm the beach at James Bond Island. A football field worth of sand separates two rock walls and acts as the stage for the hundreds of bartering scenes that are acted out daily. Tourists arrive and depart in waves (no pun intended), and the ladies in the stalls do their best to send travellers home with a string of pearls. Were I the only person here, I could stay forever. Things being what they are, at least I can say I’ve been there. Our guide has us back on the June Bahtra in twenty minutes. Lunch is ready for us, and we are ready for it.
It’s been a tough day, in the satisfying way that a day of sea and sun are tough. We scarf down our fresh fish, roasted chicken, salad, and rice, enjoying the snails pace movement of the boat. In a couple hours, we’ll stop to swim from the boat before parking this majestic piece of floating nostalgia among the marina’s futuristic super yachts. Along the way, jellyfish will be spotted. Naps will be taken. And everyone will be pleased with their trip on the ‘June Bahtra’.