Phang Nga Bay in Low Season - Plenty of Orchids

Phang Nga Bay trip report for June 2000.

I returned from a business trip to the US on Wednesday night, May 31, and began preparing for a trip at 7:30 the next morning. After the boats were loaded and gear sorted out, I went to the pier to meet our guests and the support boat we were using for the first time.

Our guests Peter and Marcy had been traveling in the north of Thailand for some time. They had located us through the Lonely Planet web site. They asked about kayaking in southern Thailand and were referred to us by another guest. We were happy the word was getting around, “Paddle Asia gives a good trip.”

Orchid.The boat we were trying out for this trip was a fishing boat that regularly made the run between Phuket and Racha Island. Racha is good for sport fishing and for snorkeling. It is also a good destination for a kayak crossing, as it lies 10 miles from the southern end of Phuket. The boat captain had never been into Phang Nga Bay. He didn’t seem familiar with reading a nautical chart. No worries, I guided him by the time-tested method of pointing at where I wanted him to go. Once he realized I knew the area, he relaxed and we arrived at our first paddling destination.

Cymbidium Orchids.Marcy and Peter had some orchids in their southern California home, and were interested in the wild orchids we see in the Bay. The tide was too low to paddle into one hong (interior lagoon) that hosts an unlikely colony of dendrobium indivisum on the branches of a dead mangrove tree only two meters above sea level. Fortunately they wanted to see these orchids - I always want to see them. We exited the boats and walked slowly across the mud flat, sticking to exposed rock where possible. Luckily they were wearing Tevas; flip flops would have been devoured by the thick mud.

Aerides Orchids. Click to enlarge.The dendrobium indivisum is an orchid generally seen at higher elevations. But I have been visiting this colony for about a year now, and it has adapted to this environment quite well. Marcy pointed out a few clusters of the orchid which had made their way to a nearby healthy mangrove tree.

We returned to the kayaks and put on our spray skirts. There was a lively tidal flow around the back side of the island and we wanted to prepare for the mildly choppy water. Marcy and Peter had both paddled sit-on-top kayaks in Baja and were comfortable with our water conditions. Had they been beginners we may have stayed in the lee of the island.

After paddling around the first island, we went across a channel to a small bay that at higher tide is good for swimming and for taking a short, beautiful nature hike. We left the boats on some dead coral and walked across the rock to the beach. We passed small clusters of live coral, brightly colored exceptions to the dull dead rock. Then off we went on the little path behind the beach.

The destination was a large ficus tree. The ficus supports its weight by extending buttresses well out from the trunk. This creates different little “rooms” between buttresses. People invariably want to pose for pictures. This is a remarkable tree and well worth the short walk.

Then it was time to check into the bungalows and order dinner. This fishing boat draws more water than the local longtail boats and we had to wade through deep water to get to the beach near our bungalows. The captain and crew were cheerful and helpful, which made up for their lack of knowledge of the area. However, we may return to the more familiar large longtail boat for our next trip.

Oriental Prantincole.The next morning the sky was clear and we were looking at a beautiful day. I changed the day’s plan and went to a closer island on which I had previously seen many orchids. It turned out to be a good move!

We were early enough to have the island entirely to ourselves. During high season this island is visited by many tour boats and canoe companies. The resultant congestion takes away from the beauty and quiet enjoyment of the place. Imagine entering a lagoon clogged with 30-40 sit-on-tops and inflatable boats, with several guides simultaneously yelling their spiel to the often disinterested audience. We avoid this place during high season.

On this day, it was just past peak high tide and we were alone. The hong, the lovely lagoon, was full of water and we could fully appreciate its unique nature. We spotted orchids in full flower. These climbing orchids had fastened themselves to the limestone cliffs, their aerial roots hanging down toward the water. We paddled to a rock that had a huge cymbidium cluster on it at eye level. When in its glory, its inflorescence would easily reach down to the water at high tide. Today it was just a mass of thriving greenery to the casual viewer.

Brown-winged Kingfisher.Kingfishers flittered about the lagoon. Marcy and Peter were quick to reach for binoculars to see if the flash of blue belonged to a Black-capped or a Collared Kingfisher.

We decided to move on and paddled toward the lagoon entrance. Then we spotted another mass of climbing orchids in flower, lovely pale pink flowers jutting from the limestone rock. There are three different species of orchids flourishing within a 15’ radius on this rock wall.

We paddled around to the white sand beach that is so favored by tourists in the high season. Today it is empty, just a few National Park employees rousted from their midmorning slumber by our shouts of joy. We strolled the beach, soaking up the glory of the day!

Time to move on. Spray skirts on, we ventured into the third hour of the falling tide. There was quite a current on the windward side of the island and we paid close attention to the swell as we paddled into it. We had wind with tide; it would be choppier with this wind had the tide been coming in.

Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker. Click to enlarge.We rounded the rock at the end of the headland. No wind, no current, no swell. It was almost a letdown after that last stretch!

We returned to the boat and moved to a group of islands not far away. We anchored in some calm water on the lee of one island and got back in the boats.

We paddled around one island and moved toward another when I took serious stock of the weather around us. We had left the blue sky behind when we departed our orchid island. We saw some rain fronts moving in the distance. I noticed one island in this group had a silvery sheen on it; rain! The wind picked up and the swell doubled in size almost immediately. I pointed to some rocky overhangs on our destination island where we took shelter. We paddled a few long minutes through the gusting wind and were hit by the hard drops of rain just before reaching shelter. The tide was falling, our tenuous refuge wouldn’t get washed away. So, we sat under the rock ledge and waited out the storm.

The storm passed and the boat moved our way. We carefully picked our way through the exposed barrier reef and returned to the boat.

That evening at dinner Marcy and Peter talked about their Baja paddling trip. One big difference was the water; in Baja the water was cold. They marveled that during the storm the ocean was warmer than the air. Welcome to the tropics!

Interesting Moth facts

The Vampire Moth uses its proboscis to pierce the thin membrane around animal eyes to drink blood! Some moths don’t eat anything! They get all the food they’ll need for life while they are caterpillars. They don’t even have a mouth.

The third day we didn’t want to go far. It was already raining by breakfast time, and the captain wasn’t certain of the way back to the pier. We went to a nearby island and checked out a few caves. They weren’t deep, but we enjoyed seeing the stalactites around us.

We headed back to Phuket but there wasn’t enough water to reach the pier. The east coast of Phuket doesn’t have any resorts because at low tide it’s a massive unattractive mud flat. The local longtail boats can negotiate some channels, but not this boat.

But never mind, we are infinitely adaptable. Our captain waved down the taxi boat that has come from Yao Noi Island. We loaded all our gear and boats on the roof, and proceeded to the pier. Mai me banhaa, or as it appears in English, we have no problem. It was a good trip.

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