Why You Need to Kayak on Phang Nga Bay: Tour Review of “Hong By Starlight”

Image shot from behind in yellow kayak during Phang Nga Bay tour in Thailand

Let me start this post by saying that kayaking through caves and lagoons in Phang Nga Bay is an incredible experience, and you should absolutely try it. However, it’s even more incredible when you have an attentive staff, fresh food, and a kayak guide who goes above-and-beyond to make the experience memorable.

I was fortunate enough to have all of these factors during my Hong by Starlight kayaking tour with John Gray’s Sea Canoe. Fun fact: the word “Hong” is essentially Thai for “room”. So, the namesake of the tour comes from visiting each of these lagoons (or “rooms”) that are hidden from the outside world.

This tour was, quite frankly, magical. When I went, it was my first day solo after parting ways with the Intro Travel group…but I didn’t feel lonely at all. I happened to find the tour through Viator before even arriving to Thailand (months before, in fact), and I was skeptical about spending my last day in Phuket away from Phuket. But, I am SO glad that I did!

I lucked out with a guide named Charlie who was incredibly sweet, very knowledgeable due to growing up in a fishing village in the area, and played a huge role in creating an amazing experience. During the course of my tour, Charlie fished a harmless jellyfish out of the water for me to see and hold; extended our stay in each lagoon so that I could experience them with less people around; took countless photos and videos for me; scooped up bioluminescent plankton inside a cave so that I could hold them; and more.

WATCH: Kayaking tour video

Getting to the Boats

My day started with checking out of the hotel booked by Intro Travel; and checking in to my new hotel Patong Terrace, where I would be picked up for Hong by Starlight. After getting settled into my room (a big thank you to Patong Terrace for having it ready early!) and changing for the tour, a minivan picked me up outside the hotel right around 11am.

The drive from Phuket to Ao Po Pier took about an hour and a half, but it was very relaxing. Not only was the van air-conditioned with generously-reclining seats; but it was very peaceful to take in the sights that zoomed by us during the journey.

Once we arrived at the pier, I saw that there were a LOT more people than I had expected. I got concerned about how organized and personalized the actual tour would be. But, I need not have worried! We were all soon greeted by the overall tour leader, Mr. Yang, and given clear instructions of how we would split into two groups onto two different boats (I got Boat #1 – woo!).

There was minimal downtime after that, just enough to go to the bathroom and peruse the items for sale at the pier’s shop. After everyone was accounted for, we were split into the aforementioned two groups and led to the ships. Once onboard, we were provided with life jackets and an explanation of what to expect that day. Mr. Yang also briefly explained the significance of the Loy Krathong ceremony that we would be doing that evening (more on that later).

Leaving for Phang Nga Bay

Soon enough, we were heading to Phang Nga Bay with good weather on our side. All around us, the sun reflected off the water while limestone karsts rose in the distance as we got closer and closer to Phang Nga National Park. Meanwhile, it was time for the first of our two included meals: lunch, buffet-style. The abundance of authentic Thai food and fresh fruit was pleasantly surprising, and definitely provided fuel for the rest of the day’s activities.

Limestone formations in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand during kayak tour.

As we neared the first drop-point, Mr. Yang began pairing us with our kayaking guides. Most groups were split into pairs and set up with one tour guide per two people. However, I lucked out and got a guide all to myself! As I mentioned earlier, this guide (Charlie) really made all the difference in my tour experience. After we met our guides and finished our lunches, it was time to start getting into the kayaks and set off. I went downstairs with my dry bag, GoPro, and waterproof phone lanyard and found Charlie, ready to go with our kayak.

Kayaking through Caverns and Lagoons

During this first kayak ride, I had a wildlife encounter before we even went through the first cavern. As we were paddling toward the entrance, I felt movement behind me and turned: Charlie had scooped a jellyfish out of the water! Now, I had no idea that there were varieties of jellyfish that didn’t sting. I just presumed that they all different levels of intensity and toxicity. Clearly, I was wrong. After gawking at the jellyfish for a second, I confirmed with Charlie that it didn’t sting. Once he verified that I would not have an unfortunate souvenir to take back with me, I let him pass me the jellyfish to hold. It was so cool, but strange to feel its little tentacles moving on my hand! I was truly in awe, and was so excited to be interacting with a new animal. But, I quickly realized that the poor thing probably needed to go back into the water. Thus, I said goodbye to my new jellyfish friend; released it back into the ocean; and we carried on through the cavern and into the lagoon.

The first “hong” that we entered truly made me feel like we were in a different little world. If you were looking from outside of the caverns, you would never know that this lagoon – and others – existed! After we were in the lagoon, Charlie was generous enough to wait for the rest of the kayaks to head back to the boat before we left too. This allowed me to experience the quiet that overtook the lagoon once the abundance of activity was gone. As I laid back in the kayak to take in everything I was seeing and (not) hearing, I experienced a profound sense of contentment and peace. In those moments, all that mattered was the calm that surrounded me – nothing else.

Sitting in a yellow kayak, enjoying the silence of the lagoon in Phang Nga Bay, Thailand.

Sadly, we couldn’t stay in that lagoon for too long – because we had a lot more to cover that afternoon! After arriving back at the boat, coffee and juice was served as we departed for the next kayaking location.

At the second location, we explored more hongs – and this time, Charlie was kind enough to be my photographer and videographer as well as my guide. I really appreciated this, because it can be pretty tricky to capture memories as a solo traveler (without resorting to a lot of selfies). During our exploration of these particular lagoons, Charlie indicated that I should look up and see shape what the crowd of trees formed. Take a look at the photo below: can you tell what it looks like?

Heart shape created by group of trees in Phang Nga lagoon in Thailand.

At the third kayaking location – our last one before dinner and the Loy Krathong ceremony – I actually got to take the kayak out by myself! Prior to this, however, Charlie showed me the lay of the land (or should I say “water”) and the best areas for me to paddle by myself. As we were exploring, he spotted a mudskipper that was hanging out on one of the nearby mangrove roots. Let me tell you, you need to have pretty good eyes to see one of these little guys! It blended in super well, and I couldn’t even see it until it finally moved. But, when it did move, it was so fast that I couldn’t quite see where it ended up. Oh well, at least I caught a glimpse!

Before our guides took the kayaks back to the boat – at which point all the passengers could take them out at our leisure – everyone had the option to free-swim for a bit. However, the area that we were supposed to swim in was behind the boat. This wouldn’t have raised a red flag for me if we hadn’t been informed to not go “number 2” during the free swim period. After I heard that, I knew there was no way I wanted to be in the path of potential destruction. So, I asked Charlie if I could free-swim in a different area that was between the lagoon and boat – luckily, he agreed!

After swimming for a bit, Charlie took us back to the boat whereupon he handed me the paddle. I was really excited to go out by myself for a bit, although apprehensive about bumping into anything. Thankfully, the current wasn’t too strong. I got to enjoy some time by myself: enjoying the mild weather, cool water, and beautiful sights around me. Once I got back to the boat, I was definitely ready for dinner and for the Loy Krathong ceremony.

Dinner Buffet and Crafting Flower-Boats

As everyone arrived back onboard, delicious smells emanated from the center table where a fresh buffet dinner awaited us. Massaman curry made a reappearance (yay!) as well as cashew shrimp. Yummm.

We all filled up our plates and chowed down. Then, it was time to learn more about the Loy Krathong ceremony from Mr. Yang. This ceremony is seen as a time to say goodbye to misfortune, wash away sins of the past year, and make wishes for the coming year. Although Loy Krathong is usually held on the full moon in the 12th month of the Thai Lunar calendar (November for Western calendars), we were able to replicate certain aspects of it and still have a wonderful experience of our own.

Part of this experience involved making flower boat “offerings” with our guides. In my case, Charlie definitely did most of the work. This was partially because he knew what to do, and also probably because I kept accidentally ripping the banana leaves during the first step. Oops. At least it turned out well!

Loy Krathong Ceremony and Bioluminescent Plankton

Once our flower boats (krathongs) were ready to go, we arrived at the final stop of the night: Koh Panak Cave.

We set off in the kayaks one last time, and began our journey into the sea cave to make a wish and let our krathongs drift away. It was pitch-black inside Koh Panak – minus the occasional blip of fireflies, and the glimmer of bioluminescent plankton that reacted whenever water was splashed over them. At one point, Charlie was able to scoop up a handful so that I could hold them. When gathered in a clump, they were oddly slimy! Still, it was such a cool experience: like holding a glowing, sparkling blue-green ball in the palms of my hands. I simply wish that they would’ve shown up on camera. I tried with both my phone and my GoPro, but no luck!

In order to conduct our personal Loy Krathong ceremonies, each guide found a quiet corner of the spacious cave. Once we arrived at our “spot”, Charlie lit the candles on the krathong and handed it to me. Before making my wish, I observed the ceremonies going on around me. It was a profoundly spiritual experience. It may sound dramatic, but I honestly felt like I was going to tear up – out of happiness. Something about the quiet sense of peace, hope, and community around me nourished my soul. After I made my wish, I blew out the candles and set my boat into the water.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, this Hong by Starlight tour turned out to be the perfect start to my solo travel experience and I would do it again in a heartbeat. If you manage to go on this tour while in southern Thailand, be sure to request Charlie if possible. You won’t regret it!

Overall, experiences like this also remind me to appreciate the special little connections that we make with everyone along the way. Even if we never see them again, they are woven into our story and leave their own unique mark. That day, I realized these connections are one of the aspects that light up my story. Although it gives me a slight sadness to know that I may never see Charlie again, it was wonderful to speak to someone so passionate and knowledgeable about his homeland. May we all seek to weave our stories with these vital threads of connection.

~

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