Saturday, March 31, 2018

Thailand Travel Series: Ao Phrang Nga Bay and "James Bond" Island

Ao Phrang Nga Bay

This is Part 5 of the Thailand and Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.

WHEN FLIPPING THROUGH GUIDE BOOKS, Ao Phrang Nga Bay will immediately catch your eye. The unique limestone cliffs look like puzzle pieces jutting out of the ocean, eroded away by time into unforgettable formations. We booked a tour in Phuket to visit. There will always be many tour package shops nearby hotels to purchase travel for the day. We signed up for a half day trip to Ao Phrang Nga Bay which would take us by a monkey cave, sea kayaking, visiting Ko Khao Phing Kan (referred to frequently in English as “James Bond” island from scenes that took place there from Man with the Golden Gun, and we would finish with a lunch at a Muslim village on stilts, Ko Panyi.

We were picked up from our hotel in a van that took us on a 1.5 hour bus ride from Phuket up north and then curving along the Gulf of Thailand to Ao Nang Province. Along the way we stopped at a monkey cave. Upon our arrival, monkeys descended in a swarm down the lips of the cave hooting and chattering. We visited the shrine inside and marveled at the giant stalagmites jutting up from the cave floor like teeth.

We disembarked in a small village where we were herded into a larger exodus threading our way toward a longboat fleet. In a buzz of noise and smoke choking the water with pollution, our longboats set sail to navigate the wondrous jungle inlets. The boats were so loud that talking was impossible. Instead, we sat on benched and watched the muddy rivers and mangrove swamps flow into a teal ocean. Islands began to appear one after another out on the blue depths, some that looked like anamorphic shapes, others shaped like chicken legs, still others resembling hooks as they defied gravity to pull them back into the sea. Ao Phrang Nga Bay is truly unique, a dense maze of interweaving limestone peculiarities that capture the imagination.

At last we arrived at a sea cave where we boarded a floating pier boat and were given directions on how the sea kayak operation would work. In pairs, we were sorted into different kayaks with a local guide. The guide did their best to sweet talk us into giving over our biggest tip while paddling us through remarkable limestone features including stalactites and cascading foliage that carpeted the sides of the cavern like an emerald curtain. Unfortunately, the magic of this moment was severely dampened due to the large flood of people also paddling along side you, and it was disappointing that we couldn’t paddle the sea kayak ourselves! Our guide did let us take a couple paddles before he took over steering, but that left us for the most part to sit there, awkwardly, while trying to make small talk in our respective languages where it became very clear that he expected a big tip after.

Feeling a bit like cattle, we were herded back board our longboats 30 minutes after on the dot and jetted out to “James Bond” Island. Upon landing at the small beach overrun by people, we held onto the roof of our long tail and then balanced carefully on the side, inching along sideways, before we touched down the on the beach. That was actually one of the most fun parts. Once on the island, we were beset by vendors eager to sell. A small pavilion overlooked the slender sea pillar where James Bond fought his nemesis. We did a quick hike around the island. There was an impressive limestone slab arched at an angle, like a cathedral, that was neat to explore. However, there were so many people, that it took away from much enjoyment. There is a pit toilet on the island as well.

The last part of the tour was actually the one I knew the least about but enjoyed the most! When we’d disembarked from the harbor, I’d caught a glimpse of a mysterious village on stilts nested on one of the islands. Now we navigated the labyrinthine channels back to that very village, Ko Panyi, where we had lunch.

Ko Panyi is a Muslim village built by Indonesian fishermen. It had a mosque with a golden dome towering in the heart of the village, visible to passing fishing boats. We disembarked on a creaky pier and walked up the ramps toward a shaded around for lunch. I saw fish traps in the water with a variety of catches in the mud-colored water, including some crabs.

I really wish I’d had more time to spend there. Finishing lunch early, we ventured out of our restaurant into the town, and it was like descending into a world cut off from the sky above, rocked by the river below. The village was an infinite maze of street stalls and hovels. Some passages took you down to the mud banks where you could see the stilts. We got lost in seconds. There were less people here, too, occasionally shopkeepers would appear out of nowhere like ghosts asking us to buy from their shop, but the village as a whole was quite silent. Drapery and tin hid the sky so we had no way of telling where we were, or if it were day or night. It felt like we’d traveled through a wormhole where time didn’t exist. We’d wanted to find our way to the mosque, but the shop stalls spread in so many countless directions we couldn’t find our way. We also didn’t much time. Eventually I spotted a dress I recognized hanging in a merchant’s stall, and we turned back that way. Then one of the guides found us and directed us back to our longtail.

Overall, would I recommend touring James Bond Island? You can find many tours to it for cheap, but unfortunately, it is over-hyped. I would seek out a more private experience for Ao Phrang Nga Bay, as the scenery is quite breathtaking. Unfortunately, the bay’s water was heavily polluted by all of the constant boat traffic, which also made me feel unsettled for contributing toward it. If you do the tour, I’d say to try to find one that gives you a couple hours on Ko Panyi, which was as remarkably unique as the island maze surrounding it.

Upcoming Blog Post: Phuket: Deep Sea Fishing

Disclaimer: This blog post is depicted as fiction, not fact.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Thailand Travel Series: Kamala Beach, Phuket

Kamala Beach, Phuket 

Glowing lantern flies
Over sea velvet as night
Port of luxury

This is Part 4 of the Thailand and Cambodia Travel Series. Read Part 1 Here.

YOU HAVE NOT SEEN CHAOS until you touch down in Phuket International Airport on the lush tropical island of Phuket that is located on the southwest coast of Thailand, bordered by the Andaman and Gulf of Thailand. A mini version of the sleek Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, the peaceful upper levels of Phuket Airport have plenty of dining and shopping options available. However, when you descend to the pick-up curb, be prepared for a firestorm of honking buses, swerving cars, and on top of that, a mob of chauffeurs vying to pounce on the recently arrived.

We decided to splurge a bit for this part of our trip and were staying at Novotel on Kamala Beach. The Novotel is a chain hotel that you can find in many parts of Thailand but each hotel is very unique and has its own vibe to match the community. The Novotel near Suvarnabhumi Airport is designed to cater to travelers and is very sleek, modern, efficient style. The Novotel in Kamala Beach is more laid-back, built directly off a cliff with a windy road to get down to it, and has a luxurious, relaxation feel. We spotted another Novotel further down Phuket as well that was built for those craving more of the mountain terrain experience rather than the beach. It is a fabulous chain with top-notch customer service and we loved our stay there. We had inquired ahead about their shuttle prices and it wasn’t a good deal (Upper 1500 Baht), so we decided to find a taxi at the airport to drive us.

There were no shortage of those! The airport had great signs to point you to exit, where we were lined on either side by taxi, limousine, bus and other transportation options. Vendors advanced on all sides shouting, waving, encouraging us to go with them, and it was so overwhelming that we walked, stone-faced, all the way to the end of the curb and sat down on the benches there, as if we had already made reservations ahead of time. That proved to be the best move, because then the vendors turned their attention on everyone else embarking from the exit. We could then wander our way back from behind, look at the prices, and get a good idea of who we wanted to approach.

We had done some research ahead of time as to how much we could expect a ride from the airport to Kamala Beach to be, so we approached one taxi company rep and asked how much. He gave a number, and we countered with 750 Baht, which he said was ok, and then brought us over to the taxi stand to have a gruff-faced woman take down our information. I’ve heard you could probably get it down to 600 Baht for other areas in the northern part of the island. Expect to pay more to go further south or check into bus rates especially if you’re going to Phuket Town where the cheap airport bus services run ( and check if your hotel offers free airport shuttle pick up. We were then pointed to cross the street and line up with other travelers with their company. We were told the taxi number to watch for. When he pulled up pretty quickly in 10 minutes, we were on our way.

Each area of Phuket is different, depending on what kind of experience you’re looking for:

Snapshots of Phuket Districts:

Kamala Beach or Surin: this is the northern part of the island on the Andaman Sea and is a slower pace, beautiful beaches. Large resorts, more jungle, a bit more secluded. Expect higher prices.

Patang or Karon: this is in the central part of the island on the Andaman Sea, a good launch point if you’re planning to visit multiple parts of the island. This is the main tourist part where the party is – crowds sunbathing, shopping, getting massages, and at night, swarms of promoters for whatever kind of bar you’re looking to find. Drag queen performances, love motels, all sorts of shows and revelry like the notorious ‘ping pong shows’ – you can find it here. Expect cheaper prices.

Karon is a bit less crazy and has a more family-friendly Kata Beach further toward the south.

Nothing really to do with Karon - but check out these power lines! I don't think there's enough!

Phuket Town: This is more central inland and is the old town, more 19th century shop building style. Local feel, slower pace, good launch spot to the harbors for trips to Koh Phi Phi or other tourist excursions in the Gulf of Thailand.

Rawai: Similar to Phuket Town, Rawai is on the southern tip of Phuket and is where the major Rawaii Pier is. If you’re doing any sort of excursion further south, you can expect your bus will drop you off here to board. The other pier on Phuket we saw mentioned was “Chalong Pier” on the northeastern part of the island, but it didn’t seem as busy.

Rawai Pier, Thailand

There are other off-the-beaten track options as well, and if it is more the mountain wilderness experience you are looking for, consider adding on a couple days to visit Khao Lak-Lam Ru National Park in the neighboring northern province that can offer multiple excursions into the jungle where there *could* be a very rare chance of spotting a clouded leopard. Tigers, sadly, are also very rare – I would look into northern province wildlife sanctuaries that might still see them.

After our experience jungle trekking through Angkor Wat in Cambodia, we were ready to relax on the beach! Novotel was a good choice for us. As soon as we checked into our room, we spent the next few hours wandering around in awe of the oceanfront pools and sandy beach with a front-seat view of a tangerine setting sun over the bay. We loved the upscale ship quarters feel of the room, and there was an adorable black cat that dashed over to greet us and chill beside us on our patio lounge chairs. We saw the cat everywhere even in the lobby, and the front desk told us the hotel had adopted this little rascal “Midnight.” The continental breakfast dining room was a fabulous treat as well with a huge spread, Western fare mixed with traditional Thai dishes, and an omelet bar. The dining room also had various “themed” nights like Seafood, Italian, ect, if you joined them for dinner.

There is a rooftop bar that had a wonderful live singer serenading us with old-school hits like Michael Buble while we munched on happy hour priced-meals like  Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soul), flatbread pizzas, and of course, Pad Thai – get it with chicken, shrimp, or without! I loved the Tom Kha Gai, a silky coconut chicken soup that was so flavorful with just a bit of kick. This fried pork and basil dish was also really good – Pad Krapow Moo Saap. And of course, their green curry was super yummy too. There is also this chicken and cashew dish which was spicy but with so much good crunch, loved it - Kai Med Ma Muang.  I swear we didn’t eat all of this one night – but we definitely sampled their menu more than once during our stay! You could order some of these for room service, too, which was quick and efficient. The drinks were great as well, best deal is the Chang, but they had some other happy hour specials too and creamy pina coladas, as well as a Halloween themed zombie drink. 

Sitting around our rooftop table and watching the sun dip below the ocean is pure healing for the soul. You really feel a sense of calm and wonder gazing out upon the jungle bay, and when the first of the stars came out, so did lanterns, floating up from neighboring resorts, to celebrate the upcoming Loy Krathong Festival (we were there late October/early November, but dates change annually since it is based on lunar new year). I think there was recently a Vegetarian Festival in the area around the time we were there, too. ( For many of these festivals, you might want to aim to be in northernmost Chiang Mai, which has whole hosts of parades and goes all out. Here in Kamala Beach on Phuket - if you walked along the beach, vendors would emerge from the shadows and offer to sell you a lantern and help you light it and send it up and over the sea. I think it was around 80 baht? The part of me that is against littering of course had a frantic soul wrestling with all of this, but I can’t deny it was very beautiful to watch.  

The singer launched into a few more dreamy, classical hits, and by this time, since we’d had a couple drinks, we felt brave enough to go up and show off our dance moves to the rooftop crowd. One French couple joined us, and we ended up having a good time chatting with them after. They were going to head out to a party later in Patong and also planned to visit Koh Phi Phi on a group tour during their stay.

 It was a great international mix of nationalities at the hotel. We did spot one group of Americans from Texas hanging out in the pool, but many others were Russian, German, French, Chinese, Korean, and Indian. There were a lot of families staying at the hotel, too, I would say overall the hotel is kid friendly but the pool structure is more designed to attract college-somethings and up – not much room for cannonballs. It did however have a basketball net set up in the pool--as well as a pool bar!

The pool bar was one of our favorite spots. Sitting back in the cool waters and a balmy 80 degree day and sipping from coconuts, we were in full-on bliss mode. There were even “jet” pools (not hot tubs, but tiny pools with jets) that you could sit in just outside the pool for a more secluded experience, each one allowing maybe 2-3 people.

Then a huge thunderstorm rolled in like clockwork as they often did around 4 Pm in the afternoon. Everyone in the pool scattered, except for us and a couple others who savored the dramatic chaos sweeping across the wind-torn bay while purple lightning streaked on the horizon. We were baptized in the warm torrential downpour as the dark clouds enclosed us and the waves picked up on the shore. We heard the Americans cry about the safety of being in water while a lightning storm was going on, but we felt too mesmerized and liberated (tipsy) too care. That was one of my favorite moments of the trip, witnessing the raw, sheer beauty of the lightning storm dancing across the sea.

We did attempt to snorkel at Kamala Beach out around the tip of the bay, but sadly, we saw more plastic than we did fish. The water was calm and easy to swim in, but I’ve heard you do need to watch the currents here. We did see some others surfing as well down the beach – there were stalls to rent surf boards from and places to get a nice relaxing massage on the beach.

We bought the snorkel masks at a local shop in neighboring Kamala Town, just a 15-20 minute walk down the beach from our hotel. We figured we’d use them again so may as well, since we could buy them for cheap. A little bridge will bring you into the town, and there you can find tourist information stalls selling various excursions and transportation services. You can find anything there. I would highly recommend not wasting your time booking events through the resort or paying for supplies at their convenience stores, because you are definitely paying resort prices for that. Kamala Town had banks where we could withdraw funds/get exchange rates and a 7-11, which is the go-to for buying bottled water, sun screen, and cheap beer to keep your room stocked. We found a great information stall we purchased all our travel excursions from. They have brochures with a bunch of different tours available. The lady gave me one price, I told her two people were coming on the trip, and she discounted it even further. After we confirmed, she had us fill out a paper, called and booked it for us, and gave us an envelope complete with the tour company, time we would be picked up from our hotel, and the driver’s phone number.

Great place in Kamala Town to book tours at

So you find good deals there, and you don’t have to book too far ahead of time, maybe 1-2 days at the most given weather can change. Just keep in mind that you do get what you pay for. Sometimes going for the cheapest trip is going to be the worst experience because you will be loaded up with 40 others on a tour that doesn’t even give you down time to go to the bathroom before you’re hustled onto the next spot. So I would recommend forking out a bit extra for smaller groups, longer stays in locations. Make sure to ask how long you can expect to spend at each island or tourist stop. Snorkeling at Koh Phi Phi or visiting Phrang Nga Bay (James Bond Island) were two of the most popular trips. We were planning to visit Koh Phi Phi further in the trip so we chose the Phrang Nga Bay and a deep-sea fishing trip (which we’ll cover in the next blog post!).

There are also plenty of restaurants/food stalls in Kamala Town if your wallet needs a break from eating at the resort. You can find some of the best pad thai at these food stalls for maybe 80 baht.  

Look at that scaffolding!


Research well ahead of time, know what you want to spend each day doing. And do keep in mind that trips could be canceled in case of inclement weather, so don’t book too far ahead of time! These stalls are great to purchase other services, too. We bought our ferry ticket to Railay Beach from here and they lined up the pick up service as well, which would have been double at the resort. If in doubt, just tell them you’re trying to get from Point A to Point B and see what deal they can find for you.  

Overall, we loved our stay at Novotel in Kamala Beach, it was a very good fit for us!

Upcoming Post: Ao Phrang Nga Bay and “James Bond” Island

Disclaimer: the above is depicted as fiction, not fact