PHANG NGA CANOEING
By David Rutter
I squeezed out of the cave through a gap just large enough for myself and the canoe if I lay flat on my back and turned my head to the side. Out of the darkness I emerged into a hong or lagoon surrounded by steep cliffs. Trees clung to its side, and the sounds of birds, monkeys and other wildlife echoed around the surrounding walls. It seemed almost untouched by humans, despite the many that come in their canoes each day. My fellow travellers floated in their canoes in silence, all trying to take in the amazing scenery.
There were only two other people who chose to paddle by themselves for the day, and we were assigned two guides. For much of the day we were well away from the main group. We spent the morning paddling around a large island before joining the main group for lunch. During this paddle we came up close to the many water birds on the island, a few small crocodiles, monkeys, and even a kingfisher. We touched land briefly to visit the “ice-cream cave”, a small cave filled with stalagmites and stalactites that, as the name suggests, looked uncannily like ice-cream. The floor was thick with mud from the many feet that trample through the cave each day. Our guide joked that while much of the cave’s stalagmites did look like ice cream, the mud at our feet was chocolate.
After lunch and “free time” afterwards, we paddled around to the entrance of the cave, and some time spent waiting until the water level dropped enough for us to exit the cave into the hong. It really is a tight squeeze getting through the small gap between the cave roof and the water.
Phang Nga Bay in Phuket, Thailand is a bay of limestone islands with sheer cliffs rising out of the water. Apart from being a beautiful place, it is famous for hongs which are only accessible by paddling through caves in the islands at low tide.
I chose my tour operator for the day trip to Phang Nga Bay based solely on the option of paddling yourself around islands. I simply couldn’t bring myself to have someone else do the hard work. My canoe was a one person Hobie, a hard plastic shell sit-in canoe. It responded quickly to my movements – both good and bad.
The boat trip out to the bay was pleasant enough – the boat was well stocked with drinks of all sorts. At lunchtime they served an awesome lunch of seafood, salads and fruit. There was also “free time” after lunch where you could do some swimming, or even more paddling.
There are two options for the trip – be paddled by a guide, or paddle yourself. If you paddle yourself you are accompanied by a guide, paddling in another canoe. The guides are friendly, and knowledgeable, and they seem to have an uncanny ability to spot wildlife that you, the tourist, have trouble seeing. If you choose to be paddled by a guide there are three of you in a two person Sevylor inflatable kayak.
There were only two other people out of about 30 on the tour that chose to paddle themselves. They were Japanese, and had a Japanese-speaking guide, and I was assigned my own guide – 2 guides for three people is not a bad ratio!
The tour operator for this trip was SeaCanoe. The company itself is a model of success, blending sustainable business practices with local knowledge.
The company was started by John Gray, a former professor at the University of Hawai’i. His vision was to create a marine adventure travel business based on the ‘systems’ theory. Using this theory, Gray saw a link between the experience of the customer, the environment in which the tours are run, the quality of the tour, the management of the business, and the working conditions for staff.
SeaCanoe is 83% owned by Thais and 99% of those shares are owned by those working in the company, thus the shareholders have a direct influence in the success of the company. Staff are encouraged to study, and are given time off with full pay to study within working hours. The company uses the services of the American Canoe Association to train and certify the guide staff. Staff are encouraged to learn another language other than English.
Training on the local environment is also carried out, and guide staff are knowledgeable about the geology, fauna and flora of the area in which they are guiding. Obviously, this greatly adds to the experience for the customers – there is nothing like paying lots of money for guides with a very limited knowledge of the area! The guides are also aware of the impact the tours have on the bay – so no rubbish tossed overboard, a no-speaking rule is encouraged within the hong, no-one steps ashore anywhere except for designated locations.