Last night I spent the night in a Muslim floating fishing village called Koh Panyi. It’s a village of about 2,500 people, entirely constructed on stilts over the water, just in the lee of a small island right in the middle of the spot where the river joins the bay. The story is that the village was founded about 200 years ago (or 100, depending on who you talk to) by a Muslim fisherman who came from Java with his family. Supposedly everyone in the village is descended from this one family, and now there is a primary school, a mosque, a market, and even a football field (made of concrete).
I came to Phang-Nga town for the express purpose of doing a longtail boat tour of Ao Phang-Nga bay, but hadn’t considered doing the overnight option. I’ve seen the fishing villages on stilts in both Phuket and in Krabi, always separate from the rest of the town, and always Muslim. They looked a bit sad, and I imagined poverty on stilts with whiff of fish and raw sewage. But I had already spent one night in Phang-Nga town, which is just your basic Thai town, unremarkable except for the fact that there is no tourism, and I liked the idea of doing something different and getting away from the noise of traffic.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I left Krabi for Phang-Nga on Tuesday morning, and promptly met a Swiss German woman on the bus, who is also traveling alone. We did the requisite swapping of travel advice. She was considering a trip to Bali next and was eager to do yoga and eat organic food after backpacking through 4 countries in 7 weeks. She had already been to the places I plan to go next, so she gave me some tips, though she seemed very exhausted by many of the places.
The minibus dropped us on the highway at the entry to Phang-Nga town, into the arms of a waiting sawngthaew driver (a pickup truck with two narrow benches along the sides of the back, used in cities like a local bus). We were not so happy with this – imagining that now we’d have to pay more and that the driver was no doubt a friend of the bus driver. When we asked how much it would be, he told us “no charge.”
The reason for this became clear when he delivered us directly in front of the “MR Kean Tours” office in the bus terminal. Mr. Kean came out and greeted us with flyers for his tour services, and a book of glowing comments written by travelers. It was fine because he offered exactly what we were looking for, and the price was reasonable. Perfect. Yet, I cannot help feeling like a juicy fly who is lured into the silken web artfully woven by the tour operators. They make it so easy for us, the travelers, and at least in this case, it made no sense to fight it and to insist upon comparing operators. They are literally all the same. And to put it in perspective, this was a small, budget-oriented tour, which goes to the less-visited islands, as opposed to the huge tour boats that come from Phuket. And who could complain -- once he signed us up and took our money, he gave us a free ride to our accommodation. We stayed in town at the lovely Phang Nga Inn, where the owners were most gracious and obliging. There are other accommodation options along the river, and you can find more details at this website.
Miriam, my new friend, and I spent the afternoon walking around and talking, mostly about the joys and challenges of traveling alone as women in our 30s. I’ve met many women like me throughout my travels – roughly the same age, single, in the middle of a transition, leaving one life/job and planning to start something new at the end of the journey – and we’ve had some wonderful conversations, I’ll write more about that later, in a post on traveling alone that is forming slowly in my head.
The only highlight of Phang-Nga town that we saw was the “Heaven and Hell Cave,” a monastery with all sorts of kitsch life-size, brightly colored figures of monks wearing tiger skins and all sorts of animals. There was a Buddha sitting on top of a giant tiger head. A hillside was dedicated to life-size figures of Hindu gods. A giant dragon curled across a pond, with a figure of Kwan Yin, the Chinese bodhisattva of compassion. The most surprising was an assortment of tortured figures obviously meant to represent hell. I thought that Buddhists do not believe in hell, but samsara, the cycle of death, rebirth and reincarnation. Hmmm. Being able to read Thai would have really helped clear up the mystery of this strange place.
The next morning we departed early to board our longtail boat. Ao Phang-Nga bay is just east of Phuket and northwest of Krabi. It’s compared to Vietnam’s Ha-Long Bay, and is a bay of deep green water decorated with vegetation-covered limestone karst islands, in all sorts of curvy formations. The islands are called hongs, and many are hollow inside, with caves for exploring. We stopped at an island and walked through one, and it had white crystal stalagmites that glowed in our flashlight. At the end of the cave, an opening in the rock revealed a small lagoon of water inside.
But before we reached the bay, we followed a circuitous path through the mangrove forest. The tide was low and we almost got stuck in the muck a few times. Our driver would bark commands at us to move whenever we shifted our weight unexpectedly. I joked that he must have been in the military because he always communicated with us in commands: “Hello! Now you get off boat. One by one!” “Hello! Leave bag, bring only camera!” “One by one!” “Go see cave!” “One by one!” “Hello! Thirty minutes on island!” There was not much in the way of information about what we were seeing or where we were.
We had a nice group of just six. It was myself and the Swiss woman, a pair of very fit Dutch women who had biked down from Bangkok (very far away!) over two weeks, and a French Swiss couple who had rented a car and were traveling and diving along the coast. We stopped for lunch at a small beach, and I swam out into the bay, floating on my back and looking up at the towering limestone cliffs above. All sorts of green things grow out of the limestone, including bamboo and wild orchids, so the overall effect is very lush and green.
If you tell anyone remotely connected with the Thai tourism industry that you want to go to Ao Phang-Nga, they will say “James Bond Island?” Apparently they think that tourists are only interested in this one single tiny unremarkable island made famous by the “Man with the Golden Gun.” Most tours of the bay are simply called “James Bond Island” tours. I haven’t yet seen the movie, so it was all quite lost on me.
The island is identifiable by the ring of many tour boats surrounding it, but it wasn’t so awful as we had managed to avoid the tour boat congested areas up to that point. We got off on the island, and walked around the path where the actual “James Bond Island” is, a tiny little narrow karst, just offshore. In Thai, it called Koh Tapu, in reference to its tapered shape, like a nail (tapu). Everyone stops and takes pictures of her/himself in front of the island, and then you go around the corner, and there is a small market set up on the beach selling T-shirts and pearl (supposedly real) and shell jewelry and other trinkets.
The most interesting thing about the island is that it has great significance for Thai people for reasons that have nothing to do with either James Bond nor ensnaring tourists. The real name of the main island (from which you view James Bond Island, since it is too narrow to set foot upon) is Koh Ping Kan, which means “backing each other island.” It is named for a spot where the limestone is split cleanly, one half leaning against the other, creating a narrow space at the base where you can enter. According to a tour guide from one of the Phuket tours who kindly answered my questions, the legend is that it represents a united couple, one side male, and the other female, each supporting each other. He told me that couples will come to the rock, and kneeling together, will place their hands on the rock and pray for a good relationship. Single people apparently do the same to ask for a partner to be sent.
Even the king of Thailand has visited the island. Rama V, who ruled from 1868 to 1910, visited the island with his family, and there are five tiled plaques mounted on the rock wall, each containing the signature of each member of the royal family. For Thai people, who revere their king above everything, this adds great importance to the place. In the total of 10 minutes I spent looking at the spot, not one, but three Thai people pointed out the signature of the king to me.
I am fascinated by the layers of meaning of the place. Many foreign visitors take pictures of themselves “pushing” against the giant rock face, Sisyphus-like, with little knowledge of the legend or the King’s signatures. And the tour companies will continue to push the “James Bond Island” mystique even though I'd venture that most tourists are less interested in a 1974 James Bond movie and more interested in seeing beautiful limestone islands. And Thai couples will continue to come quietly to the island, ignoring the foreigners as they kneel together and pray at for their love to last at this massive rock face.
The tour group left me at Koh Panyi, the floating village, late in the day. I was preparing myself for an evening of solitude (and was quite happy about it, though the staff seemed to feel sorry for me), but later a Swedish family of four turned up, and at dinnertime, a foursome of not-so-friendly, chain-smoking, matching-sports-sandal-wearing Estonians. So much for solitude.
In the late afternoon, I wandered around the walkways that connect the village, made of wood, concrete and bamboo in different places. Most tours of Ao Phang-Nga stop at Koh Panyi and the villagers take great advantage of this, selling the usual jewelry, T shirts, scarves, and sarongs. But by late afternoon, the tourists had all gone home and I could glimpse bits of daily life. Men were fixing boats and engines and mending fishing nets; women were packing up their market stalls, feeding small children, cooking dinner, chatting in groups. A group of men sat in a small restaurant watching Thai boxing on TV. Some women wore headscarves, but only a small minority. Most women wore sarongs of gorgeous floral prints from Java. The villagers seemed to live relatively comfortably, as I caught glimpses of houses with sofas and TVs through the doors that were always open.
At one pier, an extra-long long tail boat blasting loud pop music discharged a large group of unsmiling women – the sellers from the market stalls at James Bond Island. I stood at the top of the pier as they walked by me, only one responding to my smile, tired after a day of selling and not so happy to see yet another tourist in their home village. Another extra-long long tail discharged school kids in uniforms who commute daily to the secondary school. Young men wearing the jerseys of the sea canoe company returned home in boats, looking like a football team coming home from a game. (There is one island dedicated to the touristic activity of “sea canoe,” which consists of pairs of tourists being paddled around an island and through a cave by a jersey-wearing young man. All the canoes follow each other in a line, doing laps around the same island, and it looked quite silly. When we passed by it appeared to be a group of Japanese tourists who were partaking in the sport.) Young men jetted about the bay in small, aerodynamically designed little rocket boats, with long tail motors attached to them. The boats are painted with bright colors and move incredibly fast.
Dogs, alcohol, and pigs are not allowed on the island, but there are plenty of cats and roosters. And a monkey in diapers, owned by a very friendly woman who insisted on taking my photo with said monkey. Then she asked me for money to feed the monkey. And I was wondering why she was so friendly and talkative! Everyone else I encountered was more guardedly friendly. It was hard to get information on the village, since few people speak English outside of those who deal directly with foreigners. I did manage to learn that the electricity comes from a generator and is very expensive. Their water comes from a pipe underground from the mainland. And sewage seems to go directly into the bay. When I showered, the water drained directly out through a hole in the floor. The toilets were the self-flush kind, and late at night when it was quiet, I heard it all go straight out below…and down the bay to the spot where I had gone swimming earlier…
It was all great fun. I loved that I that I could see through the cracks between the floorboards in my bedroom, and could hear the water below as I drifted off to sleep. It was very breezy and the entire structure seemed to sway in the wind. It was quiet at night, and I watched the moon rise over the opposite shore, and never have I seen Orion so bright and so low on the horizon. I saw the sun rise and watched small grey herons fish, and sea eagles with white heads and bellies and red bands on their wings soared overhead.
My Swiss friend had been trying to decide if she’d join me on the overnight and before we left Phang-Nga we spoke with a German man who had done the tour the previous day. He spoke disparagingly of the village, saying “It’s not much. There’s nothing to do there. I don’t know why you would want to stay.” She worried that the accommodations would be too basic – mattresses on the floor, cold water showers, and self-flush toilets. His words and her worrying made me start to doubt my decision to spend the night, but I am so very happy that I stayed true to what I wanted to do.
Traveling is very personal, and one person’s “there’s nothing there” is another person’s Eden. I get irritated when people try to impose their opinions of a place on others, or take their views of a place as universal, especially when these are negative and critical views. Even in places that I term “unremarkable” there is something to see, to learn, to take away, someone to chat with and learn from. Traveling is the most extraordinary learning experience in this way. In just 24 hours I learned all that I’ve written here, in addition to learning about Swedish mid-summers night customs, how to properly tie a sarong, that Estonian men seem to like to start drinking beer at 9 am (based upon a sample size of two), a great deal about Switzerland, and much, much more.
I’ve dedicated this afternoon to writing in an internet café in Phang-Nga town, and will hopefully get the other posts up as well. At 5.30 pm I will board an overnight bus to Bangkok. I’ll arrive at 5 am, take a taxi across town to Hualamphong train station and hopefully be able to get a ticket on an express train going north to Phitsanulok, about 5-7 hours. Then I’ll grab bus to Sukkothai, about one hour away, and hopefully arrive in one piece by late afternoon in time to find a nice clean guesthouse with a comfortable bed. I’ll spend a few days exploring the Sukkothai ruins (and recovering from the journey) before heading to Chiang Mai.
I have some great photos of Koh Panyi that I will upload as soon as I find high-speed internet.