The perfect trip: Thailand’s islands
Covering 150sq miles between the busy tourist island of Phuket and the coastal province of Krabi, Ao Phang-Nga is one of Thailand’s largest marine reserves. Several millennia ago, the bay was a huge open floodplain, but rising sea levels and geological shifts submerged the land and created a network of 40-odd islands, for which the bay is now famous.
Formed of porous limestone formations known as karsts, Phang-Nga’s islands have been sculpted into myriad shapes through the centuries. Many are riddled with deep tunnels and subterranean caverns that plummet deep beneath the ocean’s surface. Others are sealed off by sheer, black 300m-high cliffs. The most beautiful have hongs – hidden lagoons enclosed by rock walls – that are often only accessible for a few hours a day at low tide. With so much geological drama on show, the bay has frequently been used as a cinematic backdrop – most notably in the James Bond movie of 1974 The Man with the Golden Gun, when the rocky pinnacle of Ko Tapu doubled as the site of baddie Scaramanga’s lair.
Ao Phang-Nga can easily be reached on a day-trip from Phuket, but the more secret islands can only be explored by kayak – ideally at dawn or dusk, when the big tourist boats are nowhere to be seen.
Bao Thinkohyao is a local guide who was born on the island of Ko Yao Yai. He knows the bay’s geography like the back of his hand and can navigate his way mangrove swamps without ever needing to refer to a map or compass. ‘I feel at home on these islands,’ he says. ‘I’ve been exploring them since I was a boy. To me, they’re like old friends.’
As his boat drifts through a hidden lagoon on the uninhabited island of Ko Hong, he cocks his head to listen to a family of macaques chattering among the mangroves. From the island’s jungle interior, a fish eagle rises from the canopy, beating its wings a few times before disappearing into a terracotta sky.
Ao Phang-Nga lies just to the north of Ko Yao Noi, and is easily reachable by longtail boat or speedboat. Bao Thinkohyao’s tour of Ao Phang-Nga can be booked in advance via email (from £65 per person; email@example.com).
Where to eat and stay
Ao Phang Nga can be visited on day trips from Phuket and Krabi province, but it’s easier to base yourself on a nearby island. The deluxe Elixir Resort on the little visited island of Ko Yao Yai offers attractive jungle bungalows – from elegant one-room lodges to multi-room villas with their own private pools. The resort also has the island’s best restaurant, where barbecued seafood is a specialty (rooms from £75, meals from £15).
Surin Islands: Best for culture
It’s early morning, and the smell of sea salt and wood smoke hang heavy in the air. Under the jungle canopy, a few men prepare a fresh batch of charcoal for the village over a smouldering pyre. Nearby, women weave strips of dried rattan (a type of palm) into baskets, mats and bracelets, while children chase each other across the sand and turn somersaults in the fizzing surf.
‘Welcome to Ban Moken,’ announces Salaman, a silver-haired Moken elder in baggy Bermuda shorts, whose sprightly demeanour belies his advanced years. ‘It is an honour to have you in our village. We are very happy to have you here.’ His face breaks out into a toothy grin as he strides along the shoreline, passing thatch-topped huts perched on bamboo stilts and wooden boats bobbing in the swell. This village is home to one of the last communities of Moken in Thailand. Known elsewhere as chow lair – or ‘sea gypsies’ – these ancient nomadic people are believed to have been voyaging along the coastline of Southeast Asia for several thousand years.