You must see the Phang Nga Bay, once home to the saltwater crocodiles. Coveted for their skins, for the huge bag and belt market of Bangkok, due to excessive poaching over the years the crocodiles became extinct. But their disappearance from the bay, created a huge opening for the mangrove tours now housing only dolphins and turtles., and we had chosen the best.
The limestone islands, where karsts that dramatically jut out of the emerald green waters of the Andaman are a visual delight. I was so excited when we got ourselves booked for the John Gray Seacanoe tours. It was a scene out of the movies, getting onto a trawler that took us into the open sea, then getting into the kayaks and heading into the hongs. Hongs are chambers inside the caves, unseen to the outside world, approachable only through the kayaks. I felt like a little girl in fantasyland, totally mesmerized and enchanted by the untouched nature’s treasures.
The trawler had lowered its anchor and we were given a guide for each kayak. A flat inflatable boat wherein we had to sit, our legs outstretched in front, making sure that if need be we could flatten ourselves when we entered the low roofed caves. We weren’t sure what to expect, but what we saw overwhelmed us completely. The hanging stalactites were so daunting that we were worried as to whether we’d be able to maneuver through them. But our navigator was an expert and the choppy waters helped him to make the experience a thrill for us. In the darkness of the cave, he used the light of his mobile to show us a spectacular sight. The white limestone stalactites had gradually reached down to meet the rising stalagmites and their crystal formations shone like sparkling diamonds. This was aptly called the “Diamond cave”.We could hear the “oooh’s” and “aahhha’s” all around us as the 6 kayaks followed one another through another crevice that opened to the most beautiful but secluded lagoon. The creepers and mangroves had grown overtly, converting this into a scene out of “Tarzan” or like my faint hearted friend put it, “Änaconda”. The green murky waters could have actually hidden anything. The creepers winding up and roots of the mangroves rising dramatically out of the water loomed above us dauntingly, almost looking down at our presence. So silent was it that we could hear ourselves breathe, hear the insects call. The fragmented bubbles that rose from the water almost caused us to jump out of our skins, imagining the worst. However, these were Mudskippers (the walking fish), which even climbed the roots of the mangroves to catch their insect prey. Just about a foot long you do wonder at the marvel of nature. I wished I had brought my camera along to catch moments of this seemingly unreal world.
Back in the trawler, as we travelled to the next island to explore some more Hongs, John explained the folklore behind what we were about to do. Every November on a full moon night, the locals pray and set a painstakingly made Krathong to sail on the sea. It is to seek forgiveness and show gratitude to seaspirits for using his kingdom. It is made with elaborately folded banana leaves, orchid flowers, some traditional thai dessert all decorated on a trunk of a banana tree or spider lily plant trunk (chosen because they float). Incense sticks and a candle are lit before they are let into the water with a prayer. Ecologically conscious, all these items are either eaten by the fish or are biodegradable and disintegrate into the water. He showed us some pictures of the festive night before we began making our individual krathongs…it reminded me of the karvachauth diyas set afloat.
Once that was done, an elaborate lunch was laid out, seafood, chicken and vegetable dishes, salads and soup and lastly a variety of exotic fruit. I couldn’t have ever imagined eaten a meal like this on a trawler. It was finger-licking good. I had eaten so much that I was thankful that the next Hong was at a distance and the food would settle in before we sat on the kayak again. Meanwhile we all sat with John, who enthralled us with his stories of how he first started these tours.
The Hongs, each of these secluded chambers within the mountain crevices have a story to tell. The tropical flora and fauna are completely different from what you would see anywhere else. The animal kingdom too has adapted itself, be it the crab eating Macaques or the fruit eating bats…they are nature’s survivors.
There is a cave that is known as the Bat Cave, the ceiling is a blanket of bats in slumber. We were ofcourse, taken there before night fall, so we could see them enjoy their siesta, pre-warned however to remain silent. Going further down this cave into complete darkness we saw the water light up in sprinkles as the oars of the kayak gently splashed the water. These are self-illuminating plankton, known as the Dino Faigla. We couldn’t help but gasp at its beauty….it was almost like a hundred sparklers had been lit beneath the water.
We were still in taking our surroundings in silent awe when the around the corner light seeped in through a crevice. We were still in disbelief when our guide said we would be going through it. “Lie as flat as you can and pull in your shoulders, one big shove and we will be through.” He said. We almost had our heart in our mouth as we geared up but we were on the other side within 10seconds. It was almost as if we had entered the belly of a dead volcano, the mountain walls rose up on all the sides to a conical opening into the sky. It was true, the islands there were all the formation of lava spewed centuries ago, the astounding formations of Mother Nature. The green languid waters, mysterious, murky, seemed to house myriad unknown creatures….my eyes darted from one end to the other thinking, “What if just one croc egg had survived and…”. I admonished myself silently, I had been watching too many movies.
The evening light was fast beginning to give way to darkness and the guide now told us to hold our Krathongs close and make a wish.
After which we lit up the candles and incense sticks and let the Krathong into the water. What a beautiful sight it was !! We could almost feel the magical peace envelope our hearts as all the Krathongs lit the Hong in the darkness. We sat in silence all the way back, holding close the beautiful sight, prayers for our loved ones and blessings that we felt in the gentle hush of the breeze.
The way back was through another opening as going back through the bat cave wouldn’t have been a wise move at all, our guide smiled as he told us. We had been out on sea for almost 6 hours now but time had just flown by. As we sat in the trawler, heading back home we took with us the experience of each Hong, captivating unusual memories that only a few can see.