To the islands
Stanley Stewart sets off to explore the secrets of Phuket’s Phang Nga Bay
Secret fantasy: Traditional Thai boats are drawn up on the sandy shore of Phang Nga Bay. The inlet is dotted with islands, some of them large enough to have secret lagoons at their heart HEY are islands a child might draw, islands from a storybook, steep sugar-loaf islands, beautiful and bizarre. Flotillas of these weird islands are scattered across the pistachio-green seas of Phang Nga Bay in southern Thailand. If Eden had an ocean,’’ one guidebook swoons, it would look like this.’’
This is a seascape made for Chinese junks and scimitar-bladed pirates, for sea gypsies and James Bond villains. One of these strange humped islands starred in The Man with the Golden Gun, as the scary Scaramanga’s hideaway.
I am holed up in the Six Senses Hideaway, a luxury resort tucked into a former rubber plantation on the island of Yao Noi. It is the kind of place where Bond would be installed at film’s end with a sultry beauty who has decided to hand in the diamond-encrusted dagger secreted about her lingerie.
The outdoor shower framed by jungle fronds, the bathtub overlooking a pristine beach, the secluded terrace, the private pool, the bed wide enough for energetic interrogation sessions . . . it all says title music, rolling credits and a towelling bathrobe falling round the bare feet of a former KGB operative.
Free of such distractions, I concentrate on the islands. From my terrace, I watch them come and go like ships, carried off by the prevailing light and the waxing and waning of clouds. In the morning they are dark sails on a shining sea. At midday they seem to be tacking towards the mainland. In the evening they are becalmed among billowing clouds.
These islands hold secrets, and like Bond, I am on a mission to uncover them. At the heart of many of the Phang Nga islands lie lagoons, or hongs , a hidden world enclosed by turreted cliffs, invisible to passing seafarers. Most are accessed by narrow sea passages, some only passable at low tide. People say these secret lagoons are one of the great sights of Southeast Asia.
I set off early one morning with Cho, slipping across a calm sea towards the group of the islands immediately to the east of Yao Noi. Cho is an island man who has spent his childhood on his father’s fishing boat exploring these seas. I would hide beneath the nets when I should have been at school,’’ he says. My father was never angry. He always said I would learn more in a day at sea than a month in school.’’
We make our way slowly between the strange formations. The islands are the peaks of drowned mountains that rise in sheer cliffs from the sea to heights of 300m and more. Their brows are crowned with bedraggled jungle. They are reminiscent of the mountains in Chinese paintings, tall and surreal, their flanks running with colour. Heavily eroded by the sea, the base of the islands is invariably the narrowest point.
Girding these slender waists are dangling
rock formations like stalactites, veins of harder rock the waves have not yet demolished.
If these islands are bizarre, so are their contents. As we round one, we come upon a cave, about 7m above the waterline. On a ledge a man squats. He lifts an assault rifle as we approach. Above his head flocks of swifts dart in and out of the cave mouth.
Swifts’ nests are the caviar of the east. Composed of the hardened saliva of the male bird, they are famously used in China’s bird’s nest soup; dissolved in liquid the bird spit gives the soup a yummy gelatinous texture. It also helps with that perennial Chinese concern, revving up the libido. In Hong Kong a bowl can cost up to the equivalent of $50. In the markets a kilo of bird spit can go for $10,000.
The nests are harvested from caves throughout Southeast Asia, including here in Phang Nga Bay. I hope to talk my way inside with charm, guile and a crisp note. But our armed friend isn’t in the mood; he’s a bird spit bouncer, ready to fire on prospective thieves and wandering writers. He seems an excessive precaution; birds’ nests are hardly the stuff of a smash-and-grab burglary. The caves are vast and most of the nests are on the ceilings, requiring harvesters to erect a giddy system of bamboo ladders and swaying cantilevered boards with nothing more than a dodgy torch and nerves of steel.
Whatever the difficulties, my name isn’t on his list. Standing in the bow of the boat, I smile, gesturing ostentatiously with a clutch of notes. But he just shakes his head and shifts his gun across his lap as if Scaramanga himself is holed up inside. James Bond, I feel, would have done better, though possibly with the benefit of an ingenious abseiling device made from his necktie and a smoke bomb concealed in the band of his underpants.
At the next island we creep along the base of the cliff until we come to a narrow cleft in the rock. In the open channel, barely 50m away, you could pass this entrance without seeing it. Cho swings the boat into the passage, guiding it carefully between rock faces with hardly an arm’s width on either side. Sunlight, reflecting off the water, dances across ledges where herons are nesting. A moment later we emerge into a large lagoon enclosed by cliffs at the very heart of the island. We have entered a hidden world.
The hongs (the word simply means room or chamber) are collapsed caves, eroded by the waves and tides. The collapse leaves an open lagoon, accessed only by a single tenuous entrance, in the island interior. Many can be reached only at low tide; their tunnel entrances fill with water as the tide rises.
We cut our engines and glide across the still surface of the lagoon. The water is barely 2m deep; there are no waves and virtually no wind. Looking down through the clear water, I see clusters of starfish splayed across the bottom. Small fish school about the boat; these sheltered hongs act as marine nurseries.
Above us the encircling cliffs rise like vertical forests to a wide bowl of sky. Wild primeval gardens of inverted cycads, of liana, of twisted bonsai palms and miniature screw pines, of orchids and tangled ferns, dangle from the rock faces. A crescendo of cicadas rises, swept around the amphitheatre walls like a Mexican wave, before falling silent again. There is a stirring in the foliage and a small troop of crab-eating macaques descends through the vertiginous bush, swinging from branch to branch. The tide is on the way out and they might find oysters, their favourite delicacy, among the rocks.
I slip over the side of the boat and swim slowly across the lagoon. Floating on my back I watch a white-bellied sea eagle circling between the clifftops. At the far end of the lagoon, where mangroves stand on the elaborate
Twilight zone: Six Senses Hideaway’s bar and pool