Hongs by Starlight in Phang Nga Bay

Experiences in Thailand
By Leslie Welshimer

Two months had passed since I’d been in Phuket when I arrived in Thailand. I’d heard of John Gray’s Sea Canoe the last time I was in Phuket, but thought it may be too pricy. Instead, I signed up for a less-expensive tour from another provider that left me feeling unsatisfied.

Kayaks allow guests to see islands up close, paddling along the stunning edges

When talking with co-workers about possible tours on the water in the Phuket area, they said, “If you’re going to do something like a kayak/boat trip, John Gray is the one to go through.”

John Gray has a reputation for being one of the original pioneers of sea kayaking tours with an environmental conscience. He started sea kayaking tours in Hawaii in 1983, and moved to Phuket six years later. There have been many who’ve tried to imitate, but there is only one John Gray Sea Canoe.

I was won over by reading, review after review, on sites like Trip Advisor that said, “If you do one thing in Thailand, do this.”

The John Gray Web site convinced me in stating, “What’s important is Value. Your vacation time is precious, and you want to pack it with top-notch experiences. The value of a mediocre trip is a lost vacation day. So we provide unsurpassed value at the best possible price.”

Tours inside caves offer a unique viewpoint of awe-inspiring formations.

To celebrate crossing the two-month mark in Thailand, I signed up for the Hongs by Starlight tour on April 4. The tour began at noon, which I immediately liked. Finally, a tour for non-morning people! I was picked up in a comfortable, air-conditioned van. About 45 minutes later, I was dropped off at Ao Por Pier.

Fourteen other guests and I boarded a twin-engine boat. As we made the journey toward Phanak Island, we were served a tasty lunch of fresh fruit, spring rolls, noodles and salad.

The guides were exceptional. While eating, they gave us a friendly welcome and a brief presentation about what to anticipate for the day.

Pink (guide extraordinaire), Brendan (guest from Australia) and Leslie explore a lagoon in Phanak Island.

The scenery along the way was breathtaking. Large islands loomed around us. Phuket seemed a distant memory.

There was one other solo traveler on the trip. Brendan, from Australia, and I were paired for the day. Our guide, Pink, had a calm, warm personality. His English was perfection, but more importantly he was an expert with a kayak.

I thought I’d be disappointed that the guides do the paddling, but I enjoyed being able to relax and take in all the scenery. We were led through caves that seemed to magically appear along the face of the islands. The caves were completely dark. We were given flashlights to see bats and impressive formations.

The caves led to secluded lagoons bursting with light, reminding me of the movie, “The beach.” Inside the first lagoon was a family of monkeys. We paddled just a few feet by these monkeys, who seemed uninterested in us, as they continued going about what they were doing before we appeared.

Our guide Pink, pointed out unique natural wonders, like this island that resembles a bowling pin.

After exploring the caves and lagoons of Phanak, we returned to the boat for fresh fruit, banana muffins, coffee and tea.

On our second journey out, we passed an island that looked like a giant, bowling pin. When we popped out from a cave into a lagoon, there was a rock that one might think was carved into an elephant shape. Nature astounds me.

We paddled along the outer edge of the island beneath rock ledges.

Releasing a few “ooh’s and ah’s” is a natural response when entering an impressive cave.

Once back on the boat after two stunning tours of caves and lagoons, we had about an hour of free time. Guests dove from the boat in the water. Others swam about. Some took the kayaks and tried their hands at paddling.

As I floated on my back in the warm water, gazing up at the amazing cliffs of the island, I felt completely content. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt so completely at peace as I did at that moment.

There was no one around except our group. The scene seemed so undisturbed, as if we were the first ones there.

We re-boarded the main boat again where we feasted on a delicious, seafood-buffet dinner. There was soup, curries, cashew chicken, stir-fried veggies, fish, fried shrimp and pineapple.

Guests return to the twin-engine boat for a delicious dinner.

As sunset arrived, our guides taugh
t us how to make Krathongs. These are made from a section of banana tree trunk. We decorated ours with flowers, folded banana leaves and candles. They explained the traditional ceremony of making an offering.

Once night had fallen, we returned to the sea in our kayaks. We lit the candles on our Krathongs and watched as they floated away. The only sound was the gentle waves.

The boat ride back to the pier was relaxing and social. My boat partner, Brendan, and I chatted the whole way back. He is a fascinating person. Brendan is an Australian living in Mumbai, India, who owns a home in Phuket. He talked of training for triathlons and his goal to climb Mt. Everest at 35.

A couple from Texas is residing in China while doing work for Boeing. They talked about their upcoming 30th wedding anniversary trip to Australia.

Kratongs are released as an offering into the sea on an evening paddle.

Another couple, from Georgia, was thrilled to be on their first trip out of the United States.

Everyone had their own story. I enjoyed hearing them all.

I was dropped back at my guesthouse after 9 p.m. My concern about the price of the tour had disappeared somewhere in the first lagoon.

Several hours of being led through caves and lagoons, swimming in the peace of Phang Nga Bay, two meals and a delicious snack, about two hours of roundtrip transport from my guesthouse, extraordinary professional guides and making new friends from all over the world added up to make me feel like I got a deal.

There isn’t a price on an experience you’ll treasure forever.