Close to the craggy cliffs of Koh Phanak, in the Phang Nga area of Phuket, we disturbed half a dozen gun metal grey herons, feeding in the shallow water at the entrance to a hong. Startled, they flew out into the bright sunshine as we drew near.
A heron flies out of the cave mouth
Craggy cliffs on Koh Phanak
Glorious Phang Nga Bay
Minutes earlier we had seen a pair of kingfishers flashing red and azure as they helter sheltered past us. Who would know that the close-by island of Phuket was heaving with tourists- it seemed to us many more than were there the previous year – and yet here we were enjoying peace and solitude only a short boat ride away from the throngs of tourists.
Tourist boats in front of a cave on Koh Phanak
Koh Phanak does get busy to be sure but if you time it right you can explore the hongs (literally “rooms” – caves open to the skies, often with hidden entrances) undisturbed by other people.
Perfect! we thought, no tourists!
We thought we had timed it perfectly when we took our dinghy through the threshold of the cave system that, it is purported, stretches right through the island.
Into the cave we go
With me on the flashlight and Capt’n Birdseye on the oars we slowly made our way through the maze – marveling at the stalactites and stalagmites and other amazing rock formations. Sometimes we came to a dead end and had to backtrack and try a new route. After about twenty minutes we reached a point that we could have just about squeezed through if we crouched down in the dinghy but we were concerned that the tide could still be rising and we might get trapped.
Inside the cave
As we were contemplating whether to press on or go back we heard this strange rumble. It seemed to come from far away but then became louder and louder. We quickly realized that the noise was actually the sound of excited human voices and it was getting louder and louder.
Deciding to turn back, we slowly made our way through the tunnels while the ever increasing cacophony of voices grew ever more strident.
About ten minutes from the entrance we found out why the noise seemed so extreme – we encountered a veritable flotilla of kayaks – literally about thirty of them, each with a guide and carrying two or three passengers. There must have been well over fifty over-excited tourists all yelling at the top of their voices (some screaming with fear!).
As we edged our way through the throng (no road rules applied here – the kayakers just kept on going!) we promised ourselves to only go exploring in the early morning or late evening and not to assume that just because all the tourist boats had disappeared, and it was after 4 pm, that we would have the place to ourselves.
A small gap reveals a beautiful Hong inside
We finally reached the cave entrance and decided to motor round to the other side of the island to see if we could find the other entrance to the cave system we had just been in.
On our way round we marvelled at the dramatic overhanging stalactites and the small gaps in the rock walls through which we could see enticing hidden lakes.
Dramatic overhanging stalactites
Our attention was caught by a small beach and what looked like a staircase built into the cliff face in one corner of the cove.
This small beach caught our attention as we motored by
We couldn’t resist the invitation “climb me” that the rickety stairs seemed to be making so we drove the dinghy into the beach and with some trepidation started to climb up.
We just had to see where these steps led
Inside the cave there were some amazing rock formations
We took a few paces in the cave and waited for our eyes to adjust. It was pitch black and we could see nothing at first but gradually we were able to see that we had entered a large cavern. Fortunately we had a flashlight but once switched on we could still only see just a small radius around us.
Thank goodness for the flashlight!
We pressed forward slowly and as we made our way deeper into the cave system were amazed at some of the rock formations that we could make out with the help of our flash light – columns, falls, ghostly figures looming at us in the dark, dank atmosphere.
Ghostly figures loomed out of the dark
Suddenly a chink of light appeared and as we approached it we could see something glimmering on the other side of the opening – a hidden lake in a fully enclosed hong! Such a stunning sight and the bright light reflecting on the water was a massive contrast to the stark interior of the cave.
A chink of light appeared
A stunning sight was revealed
The sun was getting low in the sky so we didn’t linger for long in the cave. It was good to get back into the fresh air just in time to take the dinghy to Bali Hai for a drink at sun down.
The sun is beginning to set. Time to go back to the boat for sundowners