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This “Hong-by-Starlight” canoe tour was one of the best, and also most expensive, item on our entire trip to Phuket. It had raving reviews and we were excited to see what the hype was about.
Basically, John Gray started up this entire business of canoeing in the sea caves at Phang Nga, which are a short drive away from Phuket. It became so popular, that other tour operators began adapting and creating their own tours to canoe through the sea caves. However, John Gray was still the original starter of this business, and his company boasts an excellent track record of making customers happy. Thus, we went along with the old birds. Our experience was fantastic and we were not disappointed at all, considering the amount that we paid for this tour. Read about how we managed to get the elusive discount in my Phuket Travel Guide. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, the man himself might just accompany you for your tour that day!
Transport to the Boat
Wake up at 9am. After eating breakfast nearby, the minivan picked us up from our accommodation. The cool thing was that we were the only 3 in the minivan being chaffeured all the way to the jetty where the day boat was waiting. It was certainly a very personalized experience, one of higher quality than other tours that I had taken.
It takes about 45 minutes to reach the jetty where the day boat would be waiting for you, along with other travellers who will be your fellow boatmates for the day. The other thing is that John Gray has limited slots per day. This results in a vey comfortable number of people on board each time. There was no jostling, everyone had ample space to sit and move about. This was different from the cheaper but overcrowded tours that I had taken to island hop around Thailand.
The boat provides really nice bites and refreshments like bananas, muffins, biscuits, tea and coffee once you get on board. The treatment you get as a paying customer is exceptional.
Tip: Do try to go to the front of the boat to get spectacular views (and photos) of the surrounding landscapes (and yourself :p). You can sit at the platform just in front of the captain’s window, but just make sure not to obstruct his view!
After a short 30 minutes boat ride cruising on the seas, you reach a shallow cove/bay where the instructors will hand out canoes and oars to everyone. This will be the only place that you can canoe unattended. Each canoe can sit 2 passengers and a guide. For the most part of this stop, you canoe gently around the bay. This was so surreal. It was so quiet, I could only hear the rippling of the waters by our paddling, dotted occassionally with distant sounds of wildlife nearby.
Another main point I would like to bring out is that John Gray is a eco-friendly establishment. This means that they practise a variety of eco-friendly measures. These include basic rules like not disposing of trash in the waters, but also that of minimizing sound pollution by instructing all their customers to keep quiet and appreciate nature while they are canoeing/being canoed. This way, they help conserve and minimize disruption to the existing biological state of Phang Nga, which I feel is very important if you want your tourist sites to be sustainable in the long run.
After kayaking ourselves for around 20 minutes, it was time to let the professionals guide us. Every canoe was assigned a personal guide who would paddle and give us more information on the caves that we were about to visit. This was the part that really struck me as service of extremely high quality. Not only did the tour have a really good guide to customer ratio (of 1 to 2), the guides all spoke fluent English. They were also very keen on picking up new words from you to improve their vocabulary.
We passed the paddles to our guides, who started bringing us to our first destination, supposedly the Lion Cave. Along the way, we encountered many unusual rock formations, formed by natural weathering due to the constant tides. It was such a comfortable ride as our guides were really experienced in directing the canoes. We effortlessly cruised along the sides of the rock arches and were constantly amazed by Mother Nature’s works of art.
Soon, we reached the entrance of the first cave. If you notice, the shallow celing of the caves will FILLED with old oyster shells. There were literally thousands of them who used the cave ceiling as grounds for attachment. You should definitely prevent your head from knocking into the ceiling as it was so close to you. (See tip below.) As we paddled deeper into the cave, the celing become higher and we were able to sit in our canoes while marvelling at the majestic caves of Phang Nga.
Tip: What I did was to lie face up in the canoe as we entered the caves. This is highly recommended because the distance between your forehead and the ceiling of the caves were a mere 20-30cm away.
My guide passed me a powerful torchlight which I used to view the formations and structure of the cave. Just a heads up, you might also unfortunately awaken a colony of bats with your lightbeams…
Soon after, we exited the cave through a similarly shallow ceiling (I had to sit in my canoe again). I was greeted with a breathtaking sight of an emerald lagoon with tall limestone formations that surrounded it. It was akin to entering a different world. We even saw eagles gliding in the skies above us. This combination of wildlife and nature was just perfect.
My guide paddled me to different unique natural landmarks that this particular lagoon had. We had fallen trees which branches that acted as dry platforms for mudskippers and particular limestone rocks that had a bunch of monkeys looking curiously at us tourists.
After exiting the Lion Cave, we made our way to the next stop, supposedly now a Piranha Cave. I thought: “What a strange name.” However, as I realized later, it was incredibly apt. After entering the cave into the lagoon, my guide stopped my canoe at a sandy-pebbly area and gestured excitedly for me to follow him. Turns out my friend were already faster than me. I saw them around the corner
of the rock with their guide! As I waved to them, they pointed to the limestone formation just above them. I was shocked. It was literally a piranha-like limestone rock. The similarities were unbelievable. We just had to take a picture with the “piranha”.
Another major commendation that I have for the tour is the willingness of the guides to please you! They were extremely patient with the 3 of us, helping us snap the perfect Instagram shot with the “piranha” , even though we were apparently the last 2 John Gray canoes left in the lagoon. They also made sure to take picures of the 3 of us in our canoes!
Tip: Do not be afraid to hand your camera to your guide. They are very experienced in taking photos of their customers and I trust that they will handle your electronics with utmost care.
You will be greeted with a variety of culinary delights to soothe your palates when you get onto the boat after the first 2 caves. The lunch was so amazing, sadly I did not take any pictures of them. I guess you just have to trust my word when I say that the lunch was fantastic, and something that you definitely will enjoy.
Loi Kratong Making
You will begin making your Kratong in the evening with your paired guide/instructor. A Kratong is basically a floating “basket” in which you put different kinds of ornaments, orchid flowers, seeds and stems being the commonest ones.
I feel that this segment of the trip adds an insightful cultural experience for the customers. After a long day of canoeing through caves and experiencing the wonders of nature, what better than to complete it with a short immersion into Thailand’s culture?
Instructing me with the basics of Kratong was not very easy as I tend to have dyskinesia when it comes to psychomotor skills :’) However, I think I created a reasonably pretty Kratong, of course with much help from my guide 🙂 Furthermore, each guide has a distinct Kratong style or shape that he will use. At the end of the Kratong-making session, everyone will be holding various exquisitely decorated Kratongs, which gives a very fresh view to the experience.
Tip: After a while, your guide will probably be much more proficient than you at making the Kratong. After attempting to procure a few neatly pinned orchid flowers, I just let him work his magic as the work will definitely be much more efficient without you stumbling and fumbling with your inexperienced hands.
Tip: Whilst you make your Kratongs, it will probably be the sunset moments too. Don’t forget to snap perfect photos of the glorious orange skies as the sun departs for the day.
Loi Kratong Releasing
This was also the only trip which extended till night, where you release your Kratongs into the sea. The boat brings you to a calm portion of the sea, which was near some pillars that I assume had be part of a old abandoned building project. With only candlelight on your Kratong, you board a canoe and release your Kratong. In the midst of all the quiet, we saw flying fish literally “dancing” in the moonlight. It was amazing. The guides also claim that the waters around here are filled with plankton that produce bioluminscene upon touch. However, either the moonlight that night was strong, or the little plankton were pretty shy, as there was no presence of the elusive plankton.
After releasing your Kratongs, the eco-friendly agenda of John Gray was evident as they asked us to take back our Kratongs instead of leaving them in the open ocean. Most of the materials are biodegradable except for the pins that you use to stick the decorations to the lotus leaf, so I could understand where they were coming from.
From the limited number of customers to personal guidance, you can really feel a stark difference in quality between this tour and the cheaper normal ones. The John Gray tour was an exceptional and expensive experience, but I would recommend everyone to try this out when visiting Phuket, at least once in your life.
Have fun sea canoeing!