For the past few days, I have been comparing brochures and websites for the many tour operators that run boat tours to the smaller islands that surround Phuket. After much research, I decided to avoid the scheduled ‘join-in’ tours and, instead, decided to take a more independent approach that would allow me to see the places that I wanted to visit, without having to spend time in places I wasn’t interested in.
I had decided that I wanted to visit a couple of the islands in the Phang Nga National Park – specifically Koh Hong and Koh Panak – and that I would rent a private longtail boat and driver to do so. That meant making my way to the boat jetties near to Phang Nga Town. I have a rental motorcycle, so riding up there would be the most economical and enjoyable option.
I set out on the bike and initially rode up the western coast road (4030) towards the airport, and then followed the signs to Phang Nga which took me onto a wider (two-lane) highway. At the northern end of Phuket, I crossed over the Sarasin Bridge and off Phuket Island. Once over the bridge I continued to follow the signs for Phang Nga (about a further 45km) on good quality highway. Once I had got onto the decent highway beyond road 4030, I was able to make good progress. For several long stretches, I had the throttle pegged wide open with the bike running at 100kph. It was an enjoyable ride. A few km before the town of Phang Nga, I took a right turn that is sign-posted for Phang Nga Bay and Phang Nga Bay Resort. About 4km along that road, I stopped at the Phang Nga National Park Visitor Centre and parked my bike there. The ride took me one hour and 45 minutes.
I checked at the Visitor Centre and confirmed that the National Park’s approved tour rate for longtail boats was 1,500 Baht for a 3-hour tour. But I was also aware that the standard tour doesn’t go as far south as Koh Hong and Koh Panak, because of the distance. It takes longer to get there and burns more fuel. The staff in the Visitor Centre told me that it takes two hours to get to Koh Panak – one way. That turned out to be incorrect as it doesn’t take that long. The staff weren’t of much help, but they did provide me with a brochure and pointed me to the man who coordinates the longtail boats from the jetty across the road.
The boat guy told me that a tour that included Koh Hong and Koh Panak would take 4-5 hours and the rate would be 2,500 Baht ($70) for the boat. I agreed to the price and headed over to the jetty to meet my driver. I wanted to buy some food before we set off, but there wasn’t much available nearby. The driver suggested that I get food at Panyee Village along the way. So, I hopped into the longtail boat around 12 noon and we set off on my private tour.
We motored along a narrow waterway for a while and then Koh Panyee and the adjacent Panyee Village came into view. It was once a fishing village but now it derives most of its income from tourism. In fact, it has become a tourist-trap with numerous restaurants and souvenir vendors. It was somewhere that I wanted to avoid, but I needed to get some lunch.
We docked in front of one of the restaurants and I told my driver that I just wanted to get some take-away food that I could eat on the boat as we continued the journey. As I ordered some food, my driver said he’d be back soon and walked off into the village. By the time he returned, I’d already eaten my take-away food, visited the toilet and then eaten an ice-cream. I was not impressed with the driver – not a promising start! By the time we left the village, it was almost 1.00pm and several tour boats were disgorging their hordes for pre-arranged group lunches. It seems that one hour of many of the boat tours is spent at this village. I just wanted to get away as soon as possible.
We motored along for a while until we came to an island that was set up for renting out canoes. I believe that it was Koh Talu Nok (shown as Koh Ta Lu on the above map). There were two floating facilities renting out the canoes and my driver asked if I wanted to canoe. I could see that the canoeists were just paddling around the island and through a short tunnel. Had the island included an enclosed lagoon, I would have rented a canoe for a while. It didn’t, so I declined the offer and we motored on.
We then cruised past the so-called ‘James Bond Island’, made famous after being used in the James Bond movie The Man with a Golden Gun. This island has been hyped to the extreme with several tour companies promoting James Bond Island tours. The beach next to this tall and narrow rock has been taken over by souvenir vendors, so it has become a real tourist trap. But the island itself is very underwhelming.
The first of my primary destinations was Koh Hong, an island that has a large collapsed cave (hong) in the centre that has become a lagoon. There is a small cave or tunnel through which canoes can fit to access the interior lagoon. There is also a ‘dry’ tunnel higher on the rock, from an earlier period in history when the water levels were higher. The higher tunnel allows access on foot to view the lagoon.
Our next visit was to Koh Panak, the second island on my wish-list. This large island also has a lagoon inside.
There is a ‘drive-up beach’ on the island that provides access to a cave. A tour boat had just pulled up on the beach as we arrived and was unloading its passengers. As the tour group was handing out protective helmets, I scooted past them and into the cave ahead of them, so that I had the cave to myself. My boat driver had given me a flashlight so that I could see inside the otherwise dark cave.
The tour group had followed me into the cave but they didn’t make it to the end to enjoy the view. It seems that the tour guides stopped them at the wall of stalagtites and turned them back to the entrance.
With the two main objectives of the tour achieved, we began heading back north.
The boat driver offered to put me ashore at James Bond Island but I declined. I was satisfied with taking photos as we passed.
We then approached the Panyee Village again and the driver asked if I wanted to spend time looking around. Again, I declined. He then explained that he only had 30-minutes worth of fuel left. The tours are obviously designed to include several stops, such as James Bond Island and Panyee Village, which pads out the allotted time for the tour. I wasn’t interested in the tourist traps, so we had almost used up the fuel for motoring around with 90 minutes of tour time still available. I told the driver that he could just return me to the jetty.
We got back to the jetty around 3.30pm, so a projected 4-5 hour tour was completed in 3.5 hours. The tour would have filled the projected time had I accepted stops at James Bond Island and Panyee Village, but I was happy to have seen the islands that were on my list and an early completion time allowed me to get back to Patong before nightfall. Another brisk ride on the bike got me back to Patong about 5.15pm.
I don’t think my independent approach to visiting Phang Nga Bay saved me any money. The organised boat tours that I researched cost between 2,000 and 5,900 Baht per person and included transport from the guest’s hotel and lunch, so I could have done a tour for a little less money (or for more than twice as much). But the tours wouldn’t necessarily have taken me to the two islands that I wanted to visit and I’m pretty sure that they would have required me to visit places that I wasn’t really interested in. And, with group tours, you have no control over who will share the boat and the tour with you. If a group of two or more persons were to use the same approach as me, the cost of the longtail boat would be split between them, so would become much more economical. When all is said and done, I was happy with my self-drive tour.
That was my last day on Phuket. The next stop will be Bangkok for a few days before heading home. A long trip is finally nearing its end.