To the is­lands

Stan­ley Ste­wart sets off to ex­plore the se­crets of Phuket’s Phang Nga Bay

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

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

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