• Image about Jellyfish Lake
PADDLE INTO A PARADISIACAL HONG
Where: Phang Nga Bay, Southern Thailand


Exactly how the hongs of Phang Nga Bay were formed is not fully understood — beyond eons of erosion running its wild, wayward course. Here’s what is clear: These mysterious limestone formations hiding off the islet-studded coast of Phuket in Southern Thailand constitute some of the most wondrous cul-de-sacs imaginable.

Picture this: You’re aboard a sea kayak, gliding peacefully through the warm, green-blue waters of Phang Nga Bay, a marine reserve in the Andaman Sea that geologists refer to as a “drowned karstland” — and what the rest of us would call one of the most marvelous tropical waterscapes anywhere. Hundreds of karstic limestone isles of every possible contour loom in all directions like stones cast by some giant deity, all of them honeycombed and ravaged by wind, water, sun and time. Many of these islands are riddled with networks of tidal caves — tunneled waterways hidden by the sea at high tide, briefly appearing (and navigable by sea canoe) at mid-to-low tide.

Picture paddling into one of these temporarily accessible caves in a sea kayak. You’re gliding through the dark, leaning back as blunt swords of hanging calcite waft by. Suddenly, daylight appears ahead. But rather than exiting out the other side of the island into Phang Nga Bay’s open waters, you’re inside the island, in its covert, hollowed-out, open-air center. You’re bobbing in a pristine lagoon interior of this doughnut-shaped limestone isle, encased by a secret garden of 1,000-foot jungled cliffs fringed with palms and flowering vines. Hornbills, kingfishers and macaques call down from above, as if to affirm that you haven’t accidentally stumbled into the after- life; you’ve just found your way into a hong at the perfect tidal opportunity.

“Phang Nga Bay is a colorful, complicated seascape beyond imagination — and passing through these stalactite-filled sea caves into mystical cliff-lined lagoons is like a time machine taking you back to the planet before humans,” says Phuket-based conservationist and ecotourism pioneer John Gray, founder of John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Gray has been guiding people into these inner sanctums for more than 20 years. “Every time I enter a hong — after 3,000-plus trips — I’m in awe,” he says. “The experience is simply overwhelming.”

Mornings and early afternoons are when the bulk of day-trip outfitters are lining their guests up to see them before beelining to neighboring tourist meccas like Ko Tapu (aka James Bond Island — the famous monolithic set piece from The Man with the Golden Gun) and the lunch-stop-friendly fishing village of Ko Panyi. For a more transcendent hong experience, Gray’s signature “Hong by Starlight” tours depart from Phuket at midday for an afternoon of paddling before entering these time capsules when the sun drops and the crowds are gone. Better yet, sign up for an overnight tour in the bay, and the whole hong-filled place will be your own private sanctuary.

For more information: www.johngray-seacanoe.com