Sunday, May 28, 2017

Phuket With Kids: Sea Kayaking in Phang Nga Bay, Phuket

Sea Kayaking at Phang Nga Bay, Phuket by John Gray's Sea Canoe - Hong By Starlight - 23 May 2017


I must say this is the highlight of my most recent Phuket trip!
Such a wonderful experience doing sea kayaking amongst the limestone islands at Phang Nga Bay.

We made quite a last minute decision to join my parents to their Phuket Trip last week, and we had an enjoyable 8 days 7 nights stay at Marriott's Phuket Beach Club.
Yes, we went back there after only a mere 3 months! :)

But this time with my parents and yee-pho there, we decided to go sea kayaking as they could help us look after Yiu-Vern, who is a little too young for that.
Without my parents, we couldn't go for these trips. So thanks to them for taking care of baby Vern.

And so after researching online, I decided to join the legendary and reputable John Gray's Sea Canoe and took their most famous day tour Hong By Starlight.

It is more expensive when compared to other "copycat" day tours. But we decided on it because, firstly, they are the pioneer, the "original" in sea kayaking in that area. And also they emphasize on safety which is important as we were bringing our kids with us.

With their well trained guides/paddlers to their SOTAR double tubed kayaks that are world premium that is extremely reliable, durable and stable, it gives us a peace of mind to go with them.
I read somewhere that since they started this in the 80s, not one of their SOTAR kayaks ever got capsized, punctured or had an accident! So much more reassuring to know this!

We decided to bring Shern and Khye with us, and leave baby to my parents and ah yee as baby below 2yo is not recommended as it is a 10 hour day trip.




HONG BY STARLIGHT - DAY TRIP


The name of this day trip that we booked is called "Hong By Starlight".

"Hong" meaning room in Thai, refers to an open air sea cave surrounded by limestone walls, in which you need to expertly navigate your way through it.
And "Starlight" I guess refers to the night ritual at the end of the day in the dark caves of the bay.

These sea caves are completely filled with sea water (underwater) during high tides so they are only accessible during low tides.
But if the tide is too low, the sea caves are also not accessible as the sharp rocks will be exposed and dangerous for an inflatable sea kayak to go through.

So it is really important to go with an experienced operator where the guides must be expert in handling all these.
I don't want to be stuck into a Hong and then unable to get out in time because of fast high tide!
(Yes, I thought of all these scenarios beforehand! lol)



1. PICKUP AND ARRIVAL AT AO PO PIER

The minivan picked us up promptly at 11.50am at our hotel, which gave us a good impression already on its punctuality. It took about 1/2 hour to reach the Ao Po pier.

At the pier, there were a few stalls selling everything from drinks to hats to toys to swim gears.
We were told that food and drinking water would be provided on board. But anything else like beers and stuff ccould be bought at these stalls.
Many ang mohs bought beers and snacks there. We didn't coz hubby doesn't drink. :)

At 1pm, we were divided into 2 groups to board 2 John Gray's big boats.



We headed into the other side of Andaman Sea which is much calmer as it is shielded by Phuket Island itself. For someone sea sick like me, I didn't even needed sea sick pills. It was a smooth ride. 


There were about 35 ppl on our boat. And it was a camaraderie atmosphere on the boat. People mixed around easily.
 



2. LUNCH AND PREPARATION FOR SEA KAYAK

On the 1 hour ride from Ao Po pier to the Phang Nga bay, we were served lunch on board the big boat.
Lunch was a simple Thai affair (non-spicy version) of some fried noodles, poh piahs, salad, sweet Bali pineapples and fruits.
Lunch was seafood and nut-free and the guides were asking the people on the boat if anyone had any seafood or nuts allergy because our dinner on board would have seafood and nuts.

Food was delicious although simple. My picky eater Shern gave it thumbs up for the food. He didn't touch any of the fruits n salad there though as expected, haha.
  
  


As the boat got nearer to the bay, we could see the beautiful unique limestone karsts standing tall in front of us.
Phang Nga Bay is a National Marine Park and is famous for its emerald waters, and its limestone karsts.
It was a beautiful sight indeed.


A selfie of me and the limestone karsts jutting out vertically out of the emerald green waters! :)

We were given life jackets and there were also various kid sized life jackets. The guides got us one that fitted Shern and the other that fitted Khye. 
And a water proof bag (the yellow bag) for each kayak. 
One kayak seats two people, and so each of us would be taking a kid with us. ;)


A photo of the 4 of us with some of the paddlers. They were all very friendly and very good with kids. Friendly and gentle. 


We were also introduced to our paddlers. 
Hubby was with Khye and their paddler's name was Em, a young chap who spoke only little English.
And Shern with me and our paddler's name was Cham, an older man in his 50s who spoke quite good English. 

My boys all ready for some sea kayaking. 
We wore sunglasses and swim hats and applied lots of sunscreen to prepare for the harsh sun. 
But to our surprise, the place we got down was shielded from the sun and was not hot at all. 
So they promptly removed their hat and all after that. 
 


On the boat, the guides that spoke in perfect English (another spoke in Thai and even in Mandarin) told us a little bit about the etiquette in going into a Hong. 

He also explained to us in a layman term that a Hong in the cave was like going into a donut. This was a good explanation so that my kids could understand. He even threw in a few jokes in between, like asking us to close our mouths in the dark caves in case there was bat shit. lol.

One of the etiquette was to keep quiet while we kayak into the Hong. This was to respect and treasure the many wild species that live in the Hong.  
And he told us not to touch anything in the Hong and bring back nothing. "Go and experience with your eyes and hearts. Take lots of photos but bring back nothing. Not a seashell, not a rock. This is to preserve the place as it is for future generation."
The only thing we can bring back is if we spot any rubbish! 

Love how eco-conscious they are, and to spread and educate this effort to all people on the boat. 
And guess what? My boy tried spotting rubbish to bring back while kayaking but we found none. "_"



3. GUIDED SEA KAYAKING INTO THE HONGS


The first one we went into I think was called the Hong Island.

Our SOTAR kayaks!
The mighty indestructible kayaks! 

It was quite windy then and I saw the narrow kayaks bobbing up and down in the waters and I got a little worried. I quickly kept my camera into the waterproof bag (I initially wanted to hold on with one hand) as I felt I needed both hands to jump onto my kayak. 

But then once in the water, it was ok once our paddler started to paddle. The wind died down and all was smooth and good. 

Hubby and Khye got into their kayak with Em and paddled away into the openings of the caves. And Shern and me with Cham followed suit.
The first Hong that we entered, the tide was not very high and so we just paddled into the caves without us needing to lie down flat on our kayaks. 

As we entered the caves, the water was really calm and still, just like paddling in a pond. 


The caves and rock formation due to sea erosion were really beautiful.





Looking up, this was how inside the Hong looked like, surrounded by trees looking up into the sky.


Shern and Me with our paddler Cham. 
He was really good and explained a lot to us about the surroundings and history. 

Hubby and Khye with Em.
Both our paddlers stayed together, so we could take photos for each other and to communicate. 


Exploring the Hong Island.
It was low tide and we could see some species of small fishes with "walking legs" which the guide told us is called mudskippers.
They kinda jumped about which made them seemed to be "walking".


And as we paddled on, we saw the unique standing limestone rock that looked similar to James Bond Island. It was really beautiful.
*pls note that this is NOT the James Bond island, just a look-alike!


Took a photo with the James Bond-look alike rock as our background. 




As we spotted the legendary Mr John Gray himself also out paddling with us, we paddled near to him to hear some great stories from him and to take a photo with him.
Mr John Gray is known as "Ling Yai" to the locals which means Big Monkey in Thai. He was the first one to explore these Phang Nga sea caves and bring sea kayaks into the hongs.
Our paddler talked about him affectionately and told us he is a good boss, not only to them but to the environment. :)



I love our paddler, Cham. He liked to be the last paddler, and so that gave us an opportunity to be away from the other kayaks and to take some beautiful photos of us and the surroundings.

He also pointed out many things to us, like the mudskippers, and we also spotted crabs and a few Hornbill birds perched on some branches on the rocks.



Shern really knows how to relax and have a good time.
Look at him lying down relaxing on the kayak.


On our way in, it was low tide where we saw the mudskippers. But on our way back, the tide got higher in such a short period, so no more muddy grounds and no more mudskippers on the way back.
We experienced how fast the tide could rise, and I was glad we were in good hands.

We weaved back through the same sea cave and lastly paddled back into the open waters.

There, we had some free time to do some own paddling if we wanted to, or  we could even have a dip into the waters.
Shern excitedly took hold of the paddle and tried paddling. He found that it was not as easy as it looked. 

Our guides told us to go all 4 of us into one kayak and then to try to paddle by ourselves to the big boat.
We took hold of both paddles, me and hubby holding on to them as we paddled about 100-200m to our boat waiting for us.


Our guide on the other kayak used only their hands to paddle to the boat as he assured us they will be ok as the tide was leading them to the boat.

I was sure they would be ok. But I wasn't sure we would be ok! lol.
It was not easy to paddle the kayak to the direction we wanted. But after a few tried we got the hang of it. Haha.
It was a wonderful experience as not every day you get to paddle on a kayak on the Andaman Sea!

And Shern couldn't resist jumping into the sea as we neared the boat.
I did not stop him as how often does he get to jump into the Andaman Sea? haha. And he has got a life jacket with him as well and our guides are nearby too.
Look at his face smiling gleefully as he jumped into the water.
I asked Khye if he wanted to do the same and he said "No, thank you!"


Up on the boat, Shern was given a hose with fresh water for a quick rinse.
Then we were served banana cakes and fresh watermelons, and also hot coffee and tea.
Shern surprisingly ate the banana bread, and Khye didn't want any bread but just the watermelon. 

And then we were being guided by our paddlers to learn how to make and decorate a Kratong, which is something Thais make for the Loy Kratong Festival every year.
In Thai, Loy means "to float" and Kratong means a circular floating object with decoration of banana leaves, flowers, a candle and incense sticks.

This Loy Kratong Festival is celebrated in Thailand on the full moon night of the twelfth lunar month.
But on John Gray's boat, this happens every single day! :) 

Our guides each brought out a chunk of the banana trunk as a base, some banana leaves, orchids, candles, 3 incense sticks and some nails. 
And then he taught the kids and us how to decorate a Kratong. 
 

Cham also made us a pair of kissing birds using the orchids. He also made baby birds from the orchid buds. He initially made 2 baby birds, then Shern told him we have another baby at home and he proceeded to make 3 birds to complete our family. How nice! 
 




Next, back to our kayaks and this time to Panak Island, to explore the Bat Cave and Oyster Cave.

This is the cave opening we are entering.

Going into the cave. 

It was pitch black as we got inside and so our guide needed to use their headlamp.

Lotsa bats, hence the name Bat Cave. The guide told us these are insect bats so they are very small and also sleeping during the day. 
And yes, I kept my mouth closed as I looked up at the bats. I didn't want to know how bat shit tasted like. lol.

As entered into the Hong, we needed to lie down to navigate through it.
 
 


Very peaceful surrounding greeted us!



My daredevil child, Shern standing on the kayak on the calm waters.
 
 




A photo with the fallen tall mangrove tree when there was strong winds not long ago.


As we headed out of the Bat Cave, our paddler needed to paddle for 15-20 minutes to the next cave called Oyster cave.
 



And so our guides paddled us into the open sea for about 15-20 minutes.
I told him if I were to paddle this far, it would take me a whole day and still I'm not sure if I would reach. He seemed to agree with me after seeing how we paddled earlier. "_"

So relaxing to be paddled and to enjoy the beautiful view with the many limestone islands in front of us, while listening to the sound of the waves.
 
 

We paddled near some limestone islands with stalactites hanging low. 

 

We could see our boats waiting for us at last, which means the Oyster Cave should be near. 


As we entered this Oyster Cave, the tides were rising a little and so the guide told us that we would need to lie down as he navigated us into the narrow cave.
So both of us laid down flat on our backs, trusting our guide Cham to bring us in safely.


Watch the short video clip of us going through the Osyter Cave to get into the Hong.
It was a little claustrophobic but yet very exciting at the same time.

See what I mean?
Fun, right?

As we entered into the Hong, we took a photo of the opening of the Hong behind Shern. 


As we got out of this Hong, we could see the sky almost setting by then. 


I got a few photos of hubby with Khye as they were the last to board the big boat. 



A photo on the boat (someone photobombed us) while waiting for dinner to be served.
It was a really, really relaxing trip indeed, cruising on the boat while waiting to be served. :)


Dinner was much more elaborate compared to lunch and it tasted delicious.
There were grilled fish, prawns, chicken, vege, curry and also a coconut tom yam soup as appetizer. And oh, they cooked fried brown rice, and surprisingly the brown rice tasted nice.

 
 
 
 




4. LOY KRATONG RITUAL /  DINOFLAGELLATES (BIOLUMINESCENT PLANKTON)


And then it was time to display all the Kratongs that we made earlier.
The Ritual Loy Kratong is celebrated and released into the waters as an offering to the Goddess of Water, to give thanks for having plentiful of water, as water means life, also to ask for forgiveness on the pollution of the waters made by man.
The Loy Kratongs are also said to send all the bad things off your way. 


Look at all of them in two rows on the table. Really nice to see all of them. All same same but yet different. 

Both of ours are amongst them. 
 


It was really heart warming to see my kids talking and spending time with our paddler Em, who although spoke little English but was really spending time with my kids. 

I must say both my boys had a great time mixing around the different people on the boat. 
Shern was also talking to another couple from Spain and he even learnt how to say Happy Birthday in Spanish. Let's see if he still remembers now.  

And Khye also charmed an elder lady from Australia on the boat. He was talking to her the whole time and even requested to take a photo with her. Hope to see you again one day. ;) 

As our boat continued on, we could see the sky turning dark and still as beautiful as the limestone karsts formed the skyline far away.
Love, love, love this view.

And we all watched the beautiful sunset from our boat as Khye said "my favourite pink colour in the sky".



And then as the boat stopped, the paddlers all got into the kayaks while waiting for us to board our kayaks for one last time into the cave at night.



As our guide paddled into the cave, he helped us lit our Kratongs. 


 

We then released our Kratongs into the waters, with us making a silent wish each.


As our Kratongs floated away, the guide showed us as we watched in awe the dinoflagellates (bioluminescent plankton) lit up the sea as we ran our fingers through the waters. 
Shern kept on splashing the waves to see the magic sparkles of the bioluminescent plankton. It must seem like fireflies in the water to my kids. 
It is only visible to the naked eye so no photos here. 

The slap of the paddle by our guides also created these sparkling glitters on the water. It was indeed such a wonderful ending to a perfect day on Phang Nga bay. 

We were so appreciated of both our guides that we gave them a tip each (not compulsary) to thank them for a wonderful day spent with them. 
Thank you again Em and Cham for your guidance, and also to John Gray's Sea Canoe for such a wonderful day!

Although it was a long day and we reached the pier around 9pm, with another 1/2 hour ride back to our hotel, I must say that we were not exhausted. It was a leisurely day trip and we reached home happy and contented. 

I totally recommend anyone going to Phuket to go Sea Kayaking day tour with John Gray's Sea Canoe. It is one of our best experience ever, and you won't regret it!



John Gray's Sea Canoe.
THB 3950 /adult
THB 1975 / kid (age 6 and under is free)



*Our guides pick up all the kratongs on the way back to the boat. They did explained this to us on the boat that they needed to pick them up for the environment since they do this every day. The next batch of people would not want to see a bunch of floating kratongs as they entered the sea caves. 





***Please take note that this post is NOT sponsored. I booked the day tour myself and paid with my own money. All text and opinions are of my own and represents my honest opinion of the product(s)/service(s).

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