Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Phang Nga Bay

One of Thailand's best known seascapes - Khao Tupu karst stack taken from James Bond Island (Khao Ping Kan).

Phang Nga Bay includes the area between northern Phuket and the Krabi coast plus a northern extension where the bay takes a decent bite into Phang Nga province . It contains some of the most spectacular landscape-seascapes in Thailand. As a matter of fact I think it is #1 - beats Phi Phi Lae and the Railay area hands down.
Most people only visit one section of the bay, but the popular tourist areas are in 3 zones:

The Bay's attractions fall into 3 zones - the Central, Western and Eastern Bay. Well that's how the experts split them - I'd go for NORTHERN instead of CENTRAL (image - modified Google Earth).

THE CENTRAL BAY - this is the most heavily visited, with trips out of Phang Nga town concentrating on this area. A lot of daytrips out of Phuket bus people to the piers near Phang Nga town as do Krabi tour operators (although the Eastern Bay is more popular from Krabi).
Here we have Ko Panyee/Panyi - the famous Muslim fishing village on piers, the even better known James Bond island, plus some wonderful mangrove landscape.
The kayakers' favourite, Ko Hong (the more western one) kinda overlaps the CENTRAL and WESTERN BAY areas.

THE WESTERN BAY - tours out of Ko Yao Noi and the Phuket piers concentrate on this area although they often go further, into the Central bay - likewise CENTRAL BAY tours often push into the Western Bay.
Besides the Ko Hong mentioned above this area contains Ko Panak which has an okay beach and some hongs which are said to be even more impressive than at the two Ko Hongs. And a bunch of other spectacularly soaring karst islands.

THE EASTERN BAY - this area between Ko Yao Noi and the west Krabi coast around A0 Muang/Tubkaak is most visited by tours out of those locations. Best known features here are the eastern Ko Hong which is not a true hong (a hong is where sea action has eroded a tunnel thru a karst stack and rain/gravity has caused the top to collapse creating an inner sun-bathed hidden lagoon whose walls are often lined with a mini-rainforest) being open to the sea, but which has clearer water, nicer beach and some coral compared to central and western areas - and Pak Bhia, noted for nice beaches.
Further north the mainland coast around Ao Leuk and Ao Thalen has very good mangroves which are popular with kayaking and canoe tours out of those towns and Krabi.

MAP - a detailed map of the Bay can be found here.

I've done 2 daytours of the area - both of which took in the CENTRAL and parts of the WESTERN bays. The first was out of Phuket last century. The second was in December 2010 out of Phang Nga town with Mr Kean Tour based in the bus-station there. I extended this tour with an overnight stay in the pier village at Ko Panyee - there is a report and pix here.

Mr Kean's full-day tour starts at the Tha Dan pier near Phang Nga town and takes in the attractions of the CENTRAL BAY plus some of the WESTERN BAY. His half-day tours miss the southern most Ko Panak's beach/lunch stop and the nearby Tham Keaw Cave. 800 and 500 baht resp 12/2010, including National Park fee - you can add a night on Ko Panyee for another 250. Most tour operations out of the Phang Nga coast follow the above pattern (modified Google Earth image).

The first part of the trip is spent cruising the wonderful mangrove channels of the Phang Nga coast. As a frequent visitor to north Queensland this strikes me as classic crocodile country - there must have been thousands of muggers back in the day. Hunted to extinction.

THAM LOD CAVE is a highlight of the mangrove section - the boat actually goes right thru the cave. Note that some of the bigger cruise boats can't do this.

Shortly after leaving the mangroves the trip cruises past the Muslim fishing village on piers - KO PANYEE/PANYI. Mr Kean's tour calls in here on the way back to Tha Dan. Roughly 45 minutes are given to check the place.

Many tours stop in here for a wonderful buffet luncheon in one of the big seafront restaurants. My daytrip out of Phuket back in the 90s did this - I thought it was great. I learned then it was possible to stay overnight in the village, so I did this in Dec 2010 as an extension to Mr Kean's tour - the best 250 baht I've spent in Thailand. I have a report and pix here.

Further into the bay kayaking operator SEA CANOE had a number of vessels moored in a sheltered channel between two big karst islands - no doubt as day-bases for its operation. This area is fairly close to the western Ko Hong, Ko Thalu and a number of other attractions. Mr Kean offers an hour of kayaking as an extension to his tours for 350.
Paddle Asia is another company offering similar services.

Shortly after passing the above area we checked out THALU CAVE which is very similar in appearance to the Tham Lod Cave pictured up page, except it has ocean each side instead of mangrove lagoons.

Next a visit to JAMES BOND ISLAND (Khao Ping Kan) - relatively uncrowded this early in the day. The boat moored on a small back beach and we took a short cliff path over to the main beach/trinket selling area. Shot top of page was also taken from this path.

I wasn't too whelmed with this place on my 90s visit - it was much later in the day, very crowded and the trinket sellers were very aggressive. But not so on this latest trip.
Interestingly Google Earth at the time of writing showed quite a lengthy pier on the small back beach - it was gone when I visited in early Dec 2010. Boats simply nosed into the beach. This may be more difficult with some of the bigger craft.
I was amazed at the number of tourist boats on the bay this latest visit - ranging from small longtails like ours, thru bigger fast longtails like I took on my 90s trip, lots of speedboats, sail boats to some quite sizeable ferries and cruise boats. There is even a traditionally rigged junk - Google June Bahtra - but be prepared to sell the house.
I think many more boats, particularly the bigger ones, originate at Phuket piers these days.

A feature of Mr Kean is that his full day trip takes its time - between locations we idled along which gives more time to drink in the views and keeps things much drier if there is any wind-chop on the water. My 90s boat fanged, although I still had time to be amazed by the passing landscape. But this was really a half day on the Bay after coming up from Phuket and visiting a rubber plantation and the Monkey Cave Temple near Phang Nga town.

Not too far WSW of James Bond Is is KO HONG (the western one) - note the small dot of daylight in this high-tide shot. I'm not sure if that is the other side of the island or the inner lagoon. Even at low tide the cave with its inner lagoon is apparently only accessible by kayak or canoe.

Ko Hong (west one) is fringe CENTRAL/WESTERN BAY. After this we pushed further south into true Western Bay territory.

Next stop was THAM KEAW cave. We climbed up from this small beach - the tunnel went maybe 150m to a similar elevated opening looking out over a nice lagoon. Mr Kean supplied headband flashlights - some limestone formations inside the cave but nothing to get excited about. This area was not visited on my 90s trip.

Neither was the following stop - a small beach on KO PANAK for a picnic-box luncheon, a beach walk and a dip in the ocean. I swam out maybe 300m - it was kinda nice floating around out there surrounded by awesome karst islands in an area few people get to splash in, but I wouldn't say the water is particularly clear. Too many streams flow into the northern and western bay.

For some reason I didn't take any pix at Panak - I Googled images for the island - quite a few beaches shown, all of which had nothing to do with the beach I visited. I recognised shots of Krabi and Lipe beaches - hell, there was even a pic of the bridge on the River Kwai! Go ask.
But Google did come up with the following valuable shot:

I didn't know at the time, but it seems Ko Panak out-caves, out-hongs all other places on the bay. But it's one of these locations you need a canoe or kayak. The beach is out of frame from the bottom corner (image Sea Canoe)

Ko Panak was as far south as we got - turning around this is the panorama which greeted us. The Phang Nga coast is over the horizon.

Closer in - if you click to expand you will better see the yacht moored alongside the island. On my flight into Phuket I was sitting next to a girl who was heading to Phi Phi to meet up with friends who had sailed a hire-yacht from Langkawi. Their aim was to do Phang Nga Bay before heading to the Trang islands. Maybe she was on this one.

As we got closer to the yacht we could see a line of about a dozen kayaks moving along the island's coast. The Sea Canoe tender boats were moored just around the corner of that towering stack.

From the above point it took maybe 15 minutes to get back to Ko Panyee. I bailed out to do my overnight there and the other guys did a 45 minute tour. Time was maybe 1500 so all the bustling luncheon crowds were gone.
From Panyee, Mr Kean's tour stops by the nearby Khao Khien cave paintings viewable from the boat, and cruises past Khao Marju/Pekinese Rock, another bizarrely shaped towering stack.

One of the best ways to keep costs down for a bay trip is to base yourself in Phang Nga town.
This is a bustling place maybe half way between Phuket town and Krabi town. The guidebooks call it a small town but it stretches for several kms along at least 2 different road routes - it aint small by Australian small town standards.

Part of Phang Nga town main street from the roof terrace of the Ratanapong Hotel

The Ratangapong is a typical Thai hotel - I got me a clean basic fan room with bathroom for 150. They also have aircon. This joint is about 300m from the bus station - turn right, stay on the same side, go thru traffic light intersection.

That's a 7-11 at the bottom corner, there is a similar place across the road, several nearby restaurants and an internet cafe about 100m further to the left. The markets are down that soi at right - were a bit noisy from 4am, but lots of fresh and cooked stuff to eat for brekkie.
More modern Phang Nga Inn is 30m out of frame to the left and a similar joint is virtually behind the camera.

This is Mr Kean's tame songthaew outside his shop in the Pang Nga town bus station compound. The very similar Sayan Tour is about 2 shops away.

Mr Kean often meets incoming buses - he's a rugged looking old dude and I thought he was a tout trying to drum up business for an out of town guesthouse (which I didn't want) when I arrived at 8pm. I suggested next day he get a small sign MR KEAN TOUR or a printed t-shirt. Most travellers know about Mr Kean (and Sayan) from the guide-books and are less likely to ignore him.
The songthaew picks up at accommodation places around town and takes people down to Tha Dan pier about 9km away for the start of the bay tours. Mr Kean also does a local mainland tour taking in the Monkey Cave Temple, the Heaven and Hell Cave and Sa Nang Manora Forest Park for 450 b including admission fees.
MR KEAN TOUR - 076 - 430-619, 081-871-6092

All buses heading from Phuket and points north to Krabi and other places in the south Andaman and general South call in at the bus station. Many Phuket-Surathani buses stop by as do many Bangkok-Phuket services. Plus there's a bunch of buses from areas near or far terminating in Phang Nga town. I saw several Kuraburi-Phang Nga services - Kuraburi aint exactly a bustling metropolis.
Most travellers' minibuses plying this central section of the Andaman coast will drop you off in town.

Typical bay scenery - a towering karst stack near Ko Hong (west Bay)

STOP PRESS. Frequent contributor to the TRIP REPORTS section boleslav has just sent me a report on a December 2010 trip to Ko Yao Noi. It has details and pix of kayaking trips around the EASTERN BAY - Pak Bhia, Ko Lading etc.

If you tour the bay you may be interested in staying a night at the sea gypsy village on piers at Ko Panyi. My report is on this page.
You might also be interested in the bigger west Phang Nga Bay islands of Ko Yao Noi and Ko Yao Yai. Their pages can be reached via THE INDEX sublink top right of this page.


If you see mistakes or have extra information, please fire them in below. If you have questions, please ask them on THE FORUM which I check most days. I only visit individual island pages occasionally.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Ko kho Khao

Sunset from the pool bar at KOH KHO KHAO BEACH RESORT (THE KIB).

Many people are looking for an island with endless attractive beaches, some nice places to stay and yet few visitors - Ko Kho Khao fits this description. The facts it requires only 10 minutes to reach from the mainland and the departure pier is around 1.5 hours from Phuket airport are bonuses.

KKK is about 30km north of Khao Lak and 12 km south of Takua Pa, both on highway 44. Turn off the highway at Nam Khem village - the Nam Khem pier is another 3km away.

I found this pretty good map at Go! Koh Kho Khao. Note their division of the long eastern beach is different to mine. A bigger version can be seen by clicking the link.

KKK is a mid-sized island with a nice ocean beach running around 20km along the west coast before wrapping another 1km around the north-west corner. Most of the island is made up of sand deposits and so is relatively flat - however there are some hilly areas in the north-west and north-east. The latter even has a small waterfall. Much of the north and east coasts are mangroves with many twisting inlets.
KKK has only a handful of people. Main activities seem to be fruit, rubbber, oil palms and a bit of grazing but it is not an intensively farmed area. Fishing is of course important. Tourism is relatively low key. There are few villages - the main one is the pier village in the south. There are 2 or 3 other small bans which are more strips of a dozen or fewer houses and maybe a store lining the roadways.

Ban Pak Koh, the arrivals-pier town. That's the vehicle ferry at the end of the street, runs roughly hourly during the day depending on load. If you click this image to expand you can more clearly see the longtail shuttles to its left - these run more frequently, you will seldom have to wait for long. 20 baht per person and 20 baht for motorcycles. The gap to the mainland is less than 1km - takes less than 10 minutes by longtail. Few ferries of any type after dark but it is possible to charter a longtail.
The gap between the mainland and KKK is very sheltered and seems to be a parking place for various unused small ships. A couple of older ferries were being refurbished out of frame to the right of shot.

Pak Koh is a good little town for services. A number of restaurants, a couple of bars, a couple of tour operators, 2 small stores and towards the other end of town quite a big general store with prices not too different from mainland 7-11s. There was even an Indian tailor.
A songthaew taxi will take you to your island accommodation - we paid 100 to go to THE KIB less than 3km away, no doubt too much and able to be bargained down. Pleased with the ease of access to the island, I couldn't be bothered to bargain.

The east coast beach can be divided into 3 sections as seen on the map above:


This stretches for about 4km from the southern tip to near an eastwards turn in the beach I call THE CORNER.

There are 4 midrange or better resorts along here - from south to north ANDAMAN PRINCESS, THE TACOLA, KOH KHO KHAO ISLAND BEACH RESORT (THE KIB) and C&N KOHKHAO BEACH RESORT. The area has one budget place PRANEE RESTAURANT AND BUNGALOWS which I would describe as flash-packer standard.

South Beach looking south from opposite C&N resort. This shows about 3km of the beach - behind camera is a similar 1km until the beach starts to narrow the final 1km to THE CORNER. The huts past the sun-cabanas are the dining cabanas of 2 good budget beach restaurants. If you click to expand you can see ANDAMAN PRINCESS's fancy dining rooms ovehanging the beach near the south end.

THE KIB is about 300m closer to the south end than C&N. This is part of the main pool, backed by private pools for the joint's expensive Pool Cabanas. Further from the camera are Garden Cabanas and attractive blocks of more normal rooms.

We stayed in the latter on account of a special internet deal (I had no idea there was budget accommodation on the island) - very comfortable, service from staff excellent. Can't comment on the restaurant - our deal didn't include breakfast so we self catered - and ate most other meals in the excellent budget beach restaurants 150 m north. A real anomaly - the beer and soft-drink prices in the minibar were advertised as the same as the 7-11 type store in town. And they were - a small Chang beer for 25. Crikey!
Some hotel reviews criticised the public pool as disappointing compared to the Pool Cabanas'. Well, the former was not huge, but at around 25X10m, I thought it was adequate.
THE KIB is about 2.5km from town, either by road or along the beach and thru ANDAMAN PRINCESS. We walked both in about 30 minutes - only a few minutes ride on one of the hotel's hire-mopeds.

Midway between THE KIB and C&N are two excellent budget beach restaurants - nice food, very good prices towards what I consider the low end of budget restaurants and very efficient, friendly service. LAZY HOUSE is closest to the camera then COOL HOUSE . Lady Tezza had her best meal of the multi-destination trip at the former, BBQed fresh crab + rice + salad buffet for 120! (40 baht per 100g).
Out of shot to the right is KHO KHAO DIVING.

Pranee Restaurant and Bungalows is about half way between THE KIB and town - it would be about a 1km walk to the pier. The boss-lady told me she had some aircon bungalows for around 1500 front-row, 1200 at back - brekka not included. Concrete construction, looked pretty good. This place is not on the detailed map THE KIB gave me, so must be pretty new.


The section I call THE CORNER actually starts about 1km south of the curve in the beach. This is where the heavy erosion begins. In this zone you have 2 nice midrange joints - KO KHAO RESORT and the adjacent AMANDARA. Once past the corner the beach is probably wider than anywhere on the coast - suggesting the erosive currents run from south to north.

You can see the extent of erosion here very close to the turn in the beach - no beach at high tide and if you click to expand, lots of trees undermined and felled.

The erosion zone extends a good 800m behind the camera in the previous shot to just past this area which is the zone in front of KO KHO KHAO RESORT and (further from camera) AMANDARA. No beach at high tide here although there is a section of sand behind the sea-walls of these very nice resorts.
I'm not sure if this erosion is a wet season/early dry season thing which later disappears as calm weather rebuilds the beach - I have not read hotel-user reports criticising the beach here. But the wall is some years old indicating that temporary or permanent, this erosion has been occuring a period of years. Nice wider beach began behind camera within 200m at time of shot (late November, not that long after wet season when the waves and currents are at their stongest).

Whoa! I found this great short on Google Earth a day after first publishing this page. Wave is smashing against KKK Resort's/Amandara's sea wall - if you click you can see part of the concrete side wall right-background. Wet sand is the stuff BEHIND the sea wall. Despite blue sky this has to be wet season - you do not get waves like this in the Andaman dry season. (image Panoramio - Bonazera)


The section I call North Beach runs 11KM from THE CORNER to the north-west of the island and then another km or so along the north shore facing Ko Phra Tong.

There are 2 midrange joints along here - PARADIS and OCEAN BREEZE 1 (both looked okay, the latter a bit more upmarket) and 2 budget places - HAR PLA and SUNSET SEAFOOD.

NORTH BEACH shot from near THE CORNER. 11km of gently curving, mostly deserted beach.

HA PLA BEACH RESTAURANT is towards the southern end of NORTH BEACH. Tent will cost you 300 - the place had 5 rather nice looking fan bungalows under construction in late November 2010 the owner said would be finished for peak season - 1200baht. This is shot from the restaurant which was a pretty nice place for a lazy beer.

Talking of nice places for a lazy beer, this was shot from SUNSET RESTAURANT less than 500m from the norhtern-most point of the beach. Girl in shot told me she was staying in Takua Pa, had jumped on a moped for a daytrip down here. Sure found a sweet place.

SUNSET RESTAURANT had 3 traditonal thatch fan bungalows with bathroom for 700 and 2 bigger ones with hot water for 900. I reckon this will be the place I head for next trip.
Immediately south, work was going on on some flasher places looked like they were lower midrange- about 50% finished. Not part of SUNSET RESTAURANT.


KAYAKING RESORT - In the far north, not far from SUNSET RESTAURANT is a side road to the left which leads 1km or so to WANG KLONG KAYAKING AND RESORT. This place is spread out beside a mangrove tributary and looked budget/flashpacker to me. There was no-one around except an old geezer sleeping so I didn't get prices.
Shot from the restaurant at WANG KLONG KAYAKING - fish pens, launch area for kayaks and at back-right the start of a short mangrove boardwalk. The tributary goes 1km to the open channel between Ko Kho Khao and Ko Phra Ton.

BAN MUANG MAI PIER - A short distance south of the turnoff to WK KAYAKING is another turn to the left which goes for 6km or so to the northern pier in the north-east of the island. This road is mainly dirt, one of the few I experienced - but not tricky to ride. Ban Muang Mai is simply a collection of maybe 10 houses along the road near the pier.
Apparently there are a 800m mangrove boardwalk and a forest walk up to TONTHONG WATERFALL (90 minutes one-way), both of which start close to the pier but I didn't have time to check them.
The northern pier - click to see more clearly Ko Phra Ton immediately north of KKK. The pier was deserted - I could hear one guy banging away under an upturned boat but that was it. It is about 4 km across to Ko Phra Tong's southern pier, but the gap is less than a km at its narrowest top of shot.


Touring the island by motorcycle is a relaxed way to see the place. This is the main north-south road which starts at the ferry and ends at SUNSET RESTAURANT. It is well paved as were most of the side-roads I took. Apart from one other guy, these were the only tourists I saw away from the village in a good 5 hours of touring. This was shot not too far from the north end of the island. That's a tsunami warning tower - those roadside boards with an excellent island map were distributed pretty widely.

NATURE TOUR - back towards centre island is a bicycle/nature route with a bird-watching tower.

KAYAKING - there are several kayaking piers on inlets in various places suggesting this may be a popular activity with locals from Takua Pa.

ARCHEOLOGY SITE - towards the south not that far from the arrivals pier and the east coast are the ruins of MUEANG THONG ANCIENT VILLAGE - apparently the sheltered waters to the mainland side of KKK were a popular stopping-over site for traders between the middle east and China in the C13th. The last km or so of the route turned sandy so I gave it a miss on my hire-moped.

DAYTRIPS - most of the resorts and travel agents in the village can organise trips to the SIMILAN and SURINS. Both are about 70km from KKK.
KO PA is much closer - a 45 minute run in a longtail leads to a sandy island with fringing reef - the joint is apparently okay for sunbathing, swimming and snorkelling.
KO PHRA TONG immediately north of KKK can be toured on a trip offered by TARO TRAVEL in town. This may be most poeple's only chance to visit this similar but even less developed island. I gave it a miss - at 2400 it seemed a bit dear and I hope to stay a few days there in March 2011.
No doubt most resorts/agents could put on a KKK Island Tour for people not confident on motorcycles.

This is our departing longtail approaching the mainland. Songthaews from the pier depart maybe hourly for Takua Pa. Buses from Takua Pa bus station go to most places south and east of Bangkok. We got one direct to Krabi via shortcut backroads which avoided Khao Lak and places close to Phuket.
You can charter a songthaew from the pier to Takua Pa but the cost is around 400 which is a bit rich for a 12km ride. We got an aircon van from THE KIB to the island pier, their own longtail and another waiting KIB aicon van to Takua Pa for 500 all up - still a bit expensive but removing all waiting and other hassles.
If you see mistakes or have extra information, please fire them in below. If you have questions, please ask them on THE FORUM which I check most days. I only visit individual island pages occasionally.