Hidden in plain sight in Phang Nga Bay, and what look like toes sticking out in a bathtub, are small pieces of paradise within limestone karst islands called hongs - which in Thai means ‘room’. These karst islands feature spectacular limestone cliffs, caves and underground streams.
Hongs can only be reached through sea caves and great skill involved in reading the tides and navigating through narrow openings. During high tide the entrance is underwater, even some of the caves are entirely submerged, so access through the sea caves are limited to short periods of around an hour at low tide. There is no way anyone could or should attempt to pass through without guidance from someone who’s done it numerous times before. At some points we had to lay down to fit through the cave with our guide using his hands to navigate us through the tight passageways, making sure not to cut himself (or us for that matter) on barnacles and other crustaceans. This may not be an adventure for the claustrophobic!
There is a huge change in atmosphere as you enter the hong, it feels very surreal, almost like stumbling across a secret garden or Narnia maybe?! I’m going to say it would be one of the most tranquil places I have ever been. With everyone silently taking in the beautiful surrounds, the silence is only broken by the soft chatter of birds and monkeys, and a slight swish of the paddles running through the water. Each hong once had a roof, but after hundreds of millions of years of erosion they are now open to the sky letting in plenty of sunlight allowing trees and other vegetation to flourish.
After a few hours of paddling in and around different hongs and caves we headed back to the boat for absolutely amazing Thai seafood feast. When we were finished eating, we paired back up with our guides and helped them build a “kratong” out of flowers, banana leaves, candles and incense sticks for a pseudo Loi Kratong (Festival of Light) ceremony. Our guide made two little love birds to perch on top of the creation. I found it quite amazing what they can make out of a few banana leaves and flowers. I ended up taking part of mine back to the villa where it stayed alive for the remainder of the stay – it was too beautiful to just let it go to waste.
When the sun went down we climbed back on our canoes to float our creations in the spiritual light show. But before lighting our candles, the guides turned off their headlights (which was spooky floating on water in complete darkness) and told us to run our hands through the water. Slightly sceptical but also curious, I did it – and the water sparkled like little diamonds as my fingers ran through it.
I had heard and seen pictures of Bioluminescent Plankton but never seen them in real life. It is one of the prettiest things I have seen. Something so calming and mesmerising about watching the black water suddenly light up, I could have lay there all night doing it.
After lighting the candles on our decorated kratong and listening to our guide tell us about the meaning behind it all, we collected our vessels (because they aren’t 100% biodegradable) and returned to the boat. During the true Loi Krathong held during full moon in November, the offerings are made with 100% biodegradable materials and left to float away. It's believed the "boat" will carry your bad luck away and enable a better year the following year.
We went back to Phuket, but you can actually stay overnight on a secluded beach at Lawa Island with few of the guides. Given the storm clouds were rolling in, I was glad that we were heading back to the comfort of our villa.
The Hong by Starlight tour starts late lunchtime to avoid the morning crowds, and returns late in the evening. It is a long day, but you are well fed and well hydrated throughout the day. Also the guide does all the paddling so all you really need to do is lay back, relax and take in the sights.
Not a bad way to spend the day if you ask me!