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Touring Little Phang-Nga

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I sell dreams. If people knew that behind me as I photographed this sunset, there were shanty houses, garbage strewn everywhere, toilets dumping into the ocean below, tsunami warning signs and the Muslim prayer blaring on the speakers, I don’t know what they would think. It’s really hard for me to see the way these people live. This is not a dream. It’s a nightmare.”

- Tommi P. Photographer and post-card seller from Finland on a rant about Ko Panyi

Hussim’s Mountain Tours

We stayed at a little place in Phang-Nga called Mueang Thong, run by a fellow named Hussim who also operated a touring company. We were leery about staying there as its outward appearance wasn’t all that appealing, but he approached us on the street with our big bags with a huge smile on his face, and his charm won us over. We ended up booking not one, but TWO tours through him: one into the mainland of Phang-Nga, and the other out to Ao Phang Nga. He also did our laundry for us for a ridiculously cheap price; although yet another piece of Kenna’s clothing has gone missing…this seems to happen to her and not me since the women do our laundry and I think they like her stuff…As another aside, we absolutely adore the way fresh laundry smells here. I do not know what they use, but our clothes smell amazing for days, even after wearing them a few times. Anyway, I’ll get to the point now…

The “Discovery Tour”

Reclining Buddha

Reclining Buddha

The discovery tour consisted of a full day of driving in the back of one of the now-familiar converted pickup trucks that act as taxis and buses, and this one was a bit worse for wear. It seemed that every time we stopped, the driver was lifting the hood and fiddling as if to give the little guy some love to keep truckin’ on. I think he may have been refilling the radiator, but every 30 minutes seems like a lot to keep filling it up. The gas tank was also hilarious and a bit scary – it consisted of a couple of plastic jugs that he kept in the passenger seat with a tube running to the engine. Every time we stopped, he’d pour a bit more gas from one jug into the other.

The tour began with a trip to yet another temple, this one a large cave carved out of limestone cliffs, and containing a reclining Buddha. Not much to say on this other than there were a lot of Buddhas hanging around… Our driver (also Hussim’s son) spoke no English, so information on all the stops was really thin. The next stop was a bit of a local park, which was surrounded by limestone caves. These caves were kind of cool, and the path through the caves was actually paved. Other than being limestone caves, again, not much to say about these either.

The terraced waterfalls

The terraced waterfalls

The tour continued with what had to be the worst hike ever. Our driver let us out, pointed to a trail and told us to walk up to a waterfall (or what was advertised as a waterfall). About 250 meters in, we came across a beautiful terraced area, with small pools where local Thais were swimming. The pools all drained into each other, so I suppose this could be called a waterfall… but the hike said we still had 1.5 km to go. So, off we went, and soon the trail turned into bonafide jungle trekking. We didn’t think 1.5km was a lot, but when you’re almost bush-whacking, it takes a while, and it ended up taking us over an hour to get there. And when we arrived… nothing! It was a big empty cave. It is dry season, so I suppose that the amazing advertised waterfall could have dried up, but couldn’t somebody have told us that (and not put it on the tour)? As we mentioned before, we don’t mind hiking if there’s a payoff, but this was nothing but a big disappointment. I would say, worst hike ever.

After our hike back, we were really thirsty and out of water. We had expected a 4km hike to take about an hour, and we weren’t quite prepared for hard jungle trekking. We went in search of some water, and also found a little stall selling fresh papaya salad…pretty much the best snack every after a hike, so it kind of made up for it. :)

Gruesome depictions of hell

Gruesome depictions of hell

To end the tour, we ended up at another temple cave called the “Dragon caves.” This was probably one of the weirdest and most disturbing places I’ve ever seen. I’m not sure even a Stephen King horror flick could compare in its gore. The Dragon caves were at the same time a Buddhist temple inside a cave, a cheesy depiction of Heaven and an extremely gory depiction of Hell. The Hell scene was essentially statues of people and monsters being sodomized, cut with saws, eaten, tortured, disembowelled, and pretty much any other gruesome act you could make into a statue, complete with bloody body parts hanging out everywhere.

As we were hanging around this gory scene, a Buddhist monk came up to Kenna and started speaking Thai, laughing away….to which Kenna would give a giggle and a confused look. He did this several times, not seeming to care that she had no idea what the heck he was saying. He appeared to be collecting the coins out of the various donation boxes (Hell had more than a few statues with coin holes coming out of various orifices, presumably with some Thai writing saying “Donate to this temple or else you’re going to Hell.” Does Buddhism even believe in Hell?) This monk struck us as quite weird – most Thais will either go straight to English or at least say a few words in English, or just nod and say the typical Thai greeting words, but this guy was rambling on in Thai and just seemed weird for some reason. We followed him into the temple, upon his beckoning, which led into a deep creepy cavern with a few small Buddha statues. It also had a long, narrow stream going back a long ways, which was criss-crossed by arched stone bridges. This temple could have been straight out of Indiana Jones. We followed the path along the stone bridges to the end (and the last bridge was like 100 ft long – very Indiana Jones-ish), but all there was at the end was yet another Buddha.

Coming out of the temple, we stepped into a dragon’s behind and walked inside the dragon, coming out of his mouth, and into Heaven. How weird is that? Heaven apparently has a lot of deer, happy beautiful girls, Ganeisha, a lot of Buddhas, and… of course, King Kong. C’mon, what Heaven does not have King Kong in it?!

The “Full Day Tour with Overnight Stay”

Pretty much what all of Phang-Nga Bay looks like

Pretty much what all of Phang-Nga Bay looks like

The next day began bright and early at 8:30, with a short ride in the aforementioned rickety bus and onto a long-tailed boat which would be our home for the day. The tour consisted of going around the bay of Phang-nga, and included some spectacular scenery of limestone cliffs. This was the real reason to come to Phang Nga, not those silly temples. After a tour through some beautiful mangroves, we were surrounded by stunning small little islands with 300m cliffs. The origin of the bay dates back to about 130 million years ago when the area was a rich coral seabed, which resulted in a huge amount of calcium being deposited into the seabed as sediment. Later on, movements in the Earth’s crust put huge pressure on the seabed and caused it to rupture, causing the limestone to either thrust upwards or sink, resulting in the 40 or so islands in the area.

Our first stop was at an odd little place where a few barges were lined up offering sea kayaking. We hadn’t originally planned to partake, but right before we left, Hussim made us an offer to go kayaking for a cheap price because he had given another couple the same price, so we opted in (and presumably, we’d be sitting around doing nothing while the other couple went out kayaking). However, we had expected that this would be a kayak rental where we could gain some arm strength, when in fact it was actually a guided tour with the guide doing all the paddling.

Us on the sea kayak in the mangroves...SMA-WILE!

Us on the sea kayak in the mangroves...SMA-WILE!

When we first arrived, we were not happy to have to take part in this very touristy activity obviously designed for fat lazy North-Americans, but the tour actually turned out to be pretty cool. Our guide took us in amongst the mangrove forests, which are basically trees that can grow in sea-water and are very important to the area’s marine life, as they prevent erosion of the underlying soil. We eventually arrived at a small little cave entrance, which wasn’t much taller than our canoe, and we had to lie down to pass through it. The canoe guide didn’t quite get us enough speed to pass through it, so we got stuck momentarily. Inside the cave, it was more like the place we described in Koh Phi Phi Leh’s “Heaven”, just a hole in the island surrounded by limestone 360 degrees around you – very cool. We ended up going through a lot of these small passageways and seeing a few of these island holes.

James Bond Island...the "finger"

James Bond Island...the "finger"

Next, we got back on the boat to head to James Bond Island, so named because it was the site where “The Man with the Golden Gun” was filmed. The island was slightly more beautiful than the rest, with a large “finger” sticking up out of the bay, and a flat rock face on the beach. But his had to be the worst tourist trap I’ve ever seen – there were more tourists per square meter than Times square or the Eiffel tower. It was brutal and we got out of there as soon as possible. And I still have no idea what part of the island I was supposed to be excited to see – pretty much every James Bond movie from the 70’s and 80’s features a tropical island of some kind where Bond meets the bikini-clad Bond girl, so I can’t really remember this particular one. We’ll have to download it and watch it.

Next up was a stop at a very small island, where our driver handed out flashlights and pointed to a ladder heading into a dark cave. The cave was pretty cool, and actually extended the entire way through the island. One guy at the end of the cave was looking out over the sheer rock face down into the ocean, when his sunglasses popped off his hat and down into the water. Oops! Hope he bought those in Thailand.

A picnic on a pretty tiny beach

A picnic on a pretty tiny beach

After coming out of the cave, the driver had set out a couple of mats to sit and have a picnic for lunch. He handed out some shrimp fried rice which looked and tasted good. But I’m pretty sure this gave me the worst food poisoning I’ve had in years a little later – we think the fried rice had been sitting out all morning since before the tour started at 8:30 (it was now 2).

After lunch, it was time to head to our stay for the night, a small fishing village located on a very small island called Ko Panyi. Ko Panyi is very unique, as it is built entirely on stilts over an area that is flooded by the tide every day. Only the mosque and the graveyard are built on actual land.

We were given a small room with paper thin walls and no real ceiling to speak of (just a thatch roof many meters above us), which resulted us in being able to hear EVERYTHING around us. Our bathroom was a small toilet, bucket flush, that you could hear dump onto the ground (or ocean, depending on the tide level) below. Very interesting. We had quite a bit of time to explore before dinner…and this place was WEIRD. It mostly consisted of shanty shacks and people selling the same old crap that you see everywhere. Kids were riding their bikes along the thin, stilted sidewalks, and a few were even jogging! We walked to the school, which had a volleyball and soccer court, which was also very interesting. We found a tsunami shelter where the stilts met land, and Scott tried to climb up – only was unsuccessful because the bush was so intense. Hopefully the Thais are better mountaineers than him, or this shelter will likely prove unsuccessful for saving them!

The shanty shacks of Panyi

The shanty shacks of Panyi

We wandered around a bit more and found the area where they keep their catch and watched several types of fish swimming around in nets….the highlight of which were trigger fish. Now, Kenna’s love for clownfish is observed in perfect opposition to the trigger fish – she hates them with absolute passion. These suckers are ugly, have giant teeth, and will attack you for no good reason, taking chunks of flesh with it if it’s lucky. Their teeth are razor sharp – we’ve seen them on almost every dive we’ve ever gone on, often ripping giant chunks of hard coral off for food. They are insane. We’ve never been attacked, but many have….Kenna is more scared of them than sharks. So…these trigger fish were hanging out, waiting to be eaten! We had no idea you could eat them…I’m not sure they would be that good, given the hard coral that consists of their diet.

Dinner was at 7 p.m., and we were seated at a round table with a Polish couple (although they were hard to communicate with, their English was minimal), a Finnish fellow (the quotee at the beginning) and a lovely French couple. If you’ve ever wondered what a dinner party would be like with randoms from all over the world…well this was it! We feasted on a seafood dinner cooked for us, including whole fishes with their eye balls still in. That’s how they often cook the fish in these places of the world. Funny thing is, we’re pretty sure it was a trigger fish. It had ugly teeth, and the shape and skin of it looked very similar. We tried to ask as to the type of fish, but due to a language barrier, ended up with another ORDER of fish (even though we were stuffed) instead of figuring out the type. So, it’s still a mystery, but we’re just going to say we ate trigger fish. Haha triggers, take that. We eat you for dinner.

Tommi's sunset. Is this a dream?

Tommi's sunset. Is this a dream?

The Finnish fellow in our group, Tommi, was a photographer and sold post cards for a living. He was actually very horrified with Panyi, and kept saying that coming was a mistake. He was very concerned about the Muslim aspect of the village (he had never been anywhere Muslim before) and was worried about being kidnapped. It was actually pretty funny considering the fellow was well into his 50s. He was very fascinated to learn about our travels through the very Muslim areas of Indonesia and Malaysia and was astonished that we didn’t feel fearful in the slightest. We had about a 3 hour dinner, and when we parted ways before bed, he said how comforted he felt that we were there…and that if he screamed, we’d save him from being kidnapped….and that he was looking forward to going back to Phuket to air-con, beer, fast internet, and the BBC. Haha.

Sleeping on Ko Panyi was like having a giant slumber party. Because of the rickety wood that it is built out of, you could hear everything. As we were trying to sleep, we could hear some of the locals watching tv and children running around like maniacs, not to mention our Polish, French and Finnish neighbours talking and snoring. Some of the locals even slept out in the open, right next to where we had eaten our dinner. Once we had finally made it to sleep with all the racket going on, our night was rudely interruptedwhen I got violently ill – not something you want to have happen in a completely un-sound proof area, with a non-flush toilet that dumps into the ocean and no running water. It’s definitely the worst food poisoning I’ve had in my life – and since none of the other guests got sick, we figure it was from our shrimp lunch that sat out in the baking sun for hours (however, it’s a pure miracle Kenna did not get sick considering how sensitive her stomach is, and how often she gets food poisoning). They don’t seem to understand the concept of keeping things like seafood and mayonnaise cold here – in just about every convenience store, we see sandwiches like ham and mayo, egg and mayo, you name it, just sitting out on the shelf…turning BROWN. Ugh.

Killing Time, Being Sick

After a very painful boat ride back to the mainland, Kenna ran off to find a hotel that would take us in at 9:30 a.m, and which had GOOD facilities so I could spend the day in bed. We felt bad about not staying at Hussim’s again, but his rooms, although very nice and basic, were too basic – the sink dumped out onto your feet and the air-con didn’t really work, and he had no internet. So, we found a place for double the price and very lavish for our standards of this trip and hunkered down while I healed.

The next morning, we headed on the bus to Ranong to attempt our visa run to Burma. More to come on that in the next post, but obviously we survived it to write this blog. :)


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