Ever wanted to go caving, without the danger? After I read about Annette’s caving/tubing in Belize, I have wanted to try something similar… During my time in Thailand, we were recommended by my uncle and some other ex-pats that we should try the John Gray’s Sea Canoe trip. This was the one trip that everyone agreed should be on your ‘Must Do Thailand Bucket List’. The overnight trip was recommended as the best one to do, but alas; we were nearing the end of our holiday in Thailand and didn’t have the time to do this. We settled for the ‘Hong by Starlight Day Trip‘.
This trip was to visit the caves and ‘hongs’. A hong is a chamber in a karst island’s interior, cave-like but roofless, round in shape, with high vertical walls. The dense vegetation paints every surface green. Trees sprout from the cliffs, their roots looking like they might tire of gripping the rock at any moment.
John Gray’s website says:
“Hong By Starlight” is run away from the day trip hordes and visit Phang Nga Bay’s caves and hongs in tranquility – as it should be. We leave at mid-day to enjoy a quiet afternoon, and then stay after dark to do a night paddle back into one Hong only. Many tour counters tell you we only run this remarkable trip on Full Moon nights, or No Moon nights, but in fact it’s 365 days a year, rain or shine.
This excursion was a major highlight of our time in Phuket. We were collected from our hotel by minibus and taken to the Ao Por, where we were transferred by motor boat (note, not a gas guzzling, nature wrecking speedboat) to Panak Island and Hong Island… During the hour trip there; we were given a fantastic lunch and a talk about the upcoming experience and nature we would experience. They asked us to be quiet to respect the wildlife and educated us about the formation of Hongs, some of which were only accessible at low tide. They explained that at high tide-these caves that access the hongs are fully submerged!
Once we were there, they inflated the kayaks, which were large enough to take the guide, my partner and I and our daughter comfortably. Our guide then paddled us through the cave system and out into the hong. It was very fun, and I felt very adventurous as we had to lay down in order to fit into the first cave. once out into the hong, we were able to sit up and take in the breath taking spectacle of the hong which was densely covered in vegetation and had mangroves growing from the water, monkeys running and swinging through the trees high up. These were long-tailed macaques (on the first island), which are very intelligent, like the ones we saw at The Big Buddha in Phuket, and live on a diet consisting mainly of sea food.
I was impressed by the embedded ethics and conservational morals of the John Grays Sea Canoe Brand… Other copy-cat companies were there in blue boats (JG use yellow and red ones) and their tour guides were feeding the monkeys and interfering with the wild life system, also littering the water; but John Gray’s tour guides are very diligent in their practice of educating locals and tourists into respecting nature and not upsetting the balance of the ecosystem or natural behaviours of the wildlife they allowed us to observe.
One thing that struck me on other tourist trips and excursions in Phuket, is how little the wildlife is respected. Tourists are allowed to feed the monkeys chocolate and we even saw one monkey drinking a can of coke on the way to Phi Phi, and a man who had three very young baby monkeys (wearing nappies/diapers) who were being passed around to have tourist pictures taken with them on one nasty little tourist trap of an island on the same Phi Phi speedboat trip for money… Whilst his might seem funny, these monkeys have become so tame and expectant of tourists to provide them with food, that they can become very savage and aggressive if you don’t feed them, especially larger males. Some will scratch or bite you for food if you don’t give them what they want, and it is common for them to attack young children.
A monkey bite, no matter how trivial, can quickly turn dangerous. Monkeys are regular carriers of rabies; even the ones not rabid can create dangerous infections and fevers thanks to the high level of bacteria in their mouths. Macaque monkey bites have been known to cause infections such as Bacteroides, Fusobacterium, Streptococci, Enterococci and Eikenella Corrodens – all are as unpleasant as they sound. (Every bite must be checked by a local doctor who will probably recommend getting a tract of painful and expensive rabies vaccinations. You have little choice, rabies has no early symptoms and is fatal if not treated immediately). Monkey bites can be vicious and many other infections, besides rabies, are likely as their teeth are coated with bacteria. Many diseases/infections can be passed through the saliva or through contact including Herpes B Virus, which in 70% of human cases can also be fatal.
At the second island, we were able to watch the long-tailed macaques hunting for food, they were not exposed to ignorant tourists feeding them… It was amazing to watch these monkeys on the beach just a few feet from us playing, and exhibiting lots of natural behaviours (including mating, much to our amusement). The monkeys were inquisitive and sweet, but we stayed a safe distance away from the beach and remained in the kayaks… The monkeys cannot swim, so it was lovely, and safe, to observe them this way. They more or less ignored us in our yellow kayaks, but interestingly were intelligent enough to have learned the difference between the JG kayaks and the competitor company with the blue kayaks, which take bananas to feed them with.
We were then paddled through a very high cave for 300m which had hundreds of bats nesting inside, we were told to keep our mouths shut (in case of bad droppings falling onto us-euw), but thankfully, were spared this experience.
We popped out into a massive hong where we were able to see a mud-skipper fish hop onto our paddle. This weird little amphibious aquatic oddity is half fish-half frog and looks a bit like a lizard with a fish’s head that has bulbous eyes. My partner had me in fits of giggles as he recounted on camera that he used to have a friend that looked just like one (as you will hear at the end of my video)!
We were taken to an island where there were many free-standing pillars of rock that make Thailand’s islands so famous. The really famous one is Phang Nga Bay near Khao Phing Kan Island, which was featured in James Bond film ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’… It’s now nicknamed ‘James Bond Island’. This one was too far away for the day trip, but we saw one that looked similar, but upside down. Our daughter sweetly commented that it looked ‘like a russian doll’.
We were able to observe some strange clam like creatures, crabs, oysters and sea sponges, and once outside the island waters, were allowed to swim in the warm sea.
After this, we returned to the boat to make ‘Loi Kratong’, which translates to ‘floating decoration’. These are ‘offerings’ A krathong is decorated with elaborately-folded banana leaves, incense sticks, and a candle. A small coin is sometimes included as an offering to the river spirits. On the night of the full moon, on the 12th month in the traditional Thai lunar calendar (in the western calendar this usually falls in November); Thais launch their krathong on a river, canal or a pond, making a wish as they do so. The festival may originate from an ancient ritual paying respect to the water spirits. Our guide helped us to make our Kratong, and we were able to decorate it with fresh flowers.
After making ours, we were treated to Thai Seafood buffet dinner during a spectacular Sunset, and once daylight totally disappeared, we were paddled out to a nearby bay to launch our Kratong. The guide showed us the how the seawater phosphoresced (lit up) caused by the presence of blooming phytoplankton. Afterwards, when we were back aboard the boat, I saw one of the guides collecting the floating decorations back up… All part of their ‘non-littering’ policy. Apparently John Gray, clearly a keen eco-warrior, goes out to collect litter collecting several times per week, usually to clear up the mess left by other tour operators copying his tours as he feels a sense of responsibility for their being there.
Afterwards, we were supposed to return to Ao Por whilst star gazing, but unfortunately, it rained that night, so we all stayed undercover instead. It was still absolutely magical, and I sat in awe as I reflected on the amazing experience we had shared as a family that day.
So, would I recommend the excursion? Unlike the monkey school and the elephant ride, and the Phi Phi by speedboat trips: Absolutely yes! Whole-heartedly! I can say that this was without a doubt, my favourite tourist excursion from our time in Thailand. It was expensive, but SO worth it. Also, if you ever plan to do this; it’s worth making sure that you do this with ‘John Grays’, and not one of the less ethical copy-cat tour guides.
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