Treasures of Thailand Asia: From majestic island towers, caves and reefs to rain-forest elephant marches, Phuket and the blissful western coast are nothing short of stunning.

October 04, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,Sun Foreign Staff

I knew we were in for an exotic vacation when - a few hours after arriving in Phuket - we walked from our hotel down to the beach and came upon a pair of baby elephants. It was around 3 o'clock, and the animals were returning from their afternoon swim in the green waters of the Andaman Sea on Thailand's West Coast.

As we met them on a path, their trainer barked commands in Thai. The lead animal knelt down on one knee and bowed toward us. The bow - called a "wai" - is an act of respect in Thai culture.

My wife, Julie, and I had flown to Thailand for a relaxing break from the rigors of urban life and a little adventure. One day, we went trekking on the backs of elephants to a pair of waterfalls in a mountain rain forest. On another, we rode inflatable canoes into the caves and lagoons of Phang-Nga Bay, where a collection of limestone islands jut hundreds of feet out of the water. The striking scenery was featured in the 1974 James Bond film, "The Man with the Golden Gun" and 1997's Bond movie, "Tomorrow Never Dies."

About an hour's flight south of Bangkok, Phuket is an island of 250,000 people where modern tourist conveniences blend with a landscape of rice fields, lush mountains, water buffalo and white beaches. You can spend the day reading by the sea at a luxury resort, sailing along the rocky coastline or snorkeling on reefs where the fish are so accustomed to people they eat out of your hand.

Among the islands

The best part of our visit to Phuket were the exotic day trips. Soon after our arrival, we set off in a boat for a few hours of canoeing among the islands of Phang-Nga.

I'd first glimpsed this extraordinary landscape in a suburban movie theater at age 13 while watching my first James Bond movie. In the finale, Roger Moore flies a seaplane toward the villain's hide-out, one of dozens of limestone islands that rise straight out of the water. I had never seen anything like it and assumed the bay probably lay hidden in some remote corner of Asia.

After about an hour on the boat, I spotted the towering karsts draped with shrubs, trees and vines. Inside some of the islands lie "hongs," or inland lagoons, which canoes can only enter through caves at certain times of the day.

The tidal change runs about 14 feet in Phang-Nga. At high tide, some of the caves are underwater. At low tide, many of the lagoons are reduced to mud flats where thousands of fiddler crabs dart about.

We climbed into an inflatable, yellow canoe and sat back as our guide, Chai - an affable 20-ish Thai who had grown up on the bay - paddled toward an island where the lagoons were only accessible during a full moon. As we approached the cave's mouth, we lay down in the bottom of the canoe so as not to scrape our heads against the ceiling where the jagged shells of an old oyster bed hung.

Once we floated through the opening, the island unfolded into a series of limestone canyons. The interior was a maze of green, primordial lagoons filled with mangroves, birds, insects and monkeys. The canoe glided beneath rock arches and past sheer walls to which palm trees and cactus clung.

Along the mangroves' twisted roots sat mud skippers, which looked as if they had just made the evolutionary leap from sea to land. These fish, which can live out of water for several days, scurried about waving their fins.

An hour or so later, we arrived at a second island and the most exciting moment of the day. We paddled up to a tiny opening in the rocks - so small as to be barely discernible on the island's craggy face. It was perhaps 18 inches high, less than 3 feet wide and completely dark.

Suddenly, we heard a rush of air escaping from the canoe and felt a jolt as the boat sank a little in the water. Chai had opened up one of the plugs to reduce the canoe to a size that would fit through the cave's opening.

Following his instructions, Julie and I lay down with our arms at our sides and listened as Chai pushed the canoe through the small hole. As the boat scraped against the rocks, it sounded as if it might rip at any moment. The opening was so tight we could feel the rubber pressing against our shoulders.

After three hard pushes, we slipped through the opening and floated quietly into a large cave where small stalactites resembling shark's teeth hung from the ceiling. A few feet further, the beam of my flashlight fell on a cascade of sparkling stalactites resembling a waterfall. Inside the island lay a large lagoon surrounded by cliffs rising as high as 600 feet.

No one seems quite sure how the hongs were formed. The islands began life 130 million years ago as coral reefs. Shifting plates within the earth's crust pushed them out of the water 55 million years later. Wind, waves, rain and currents carved them into the unique shapes seen today.

Some think the hongs were once large caves. Over the years, rainwater weakened the roofs, which collapsed and formed lagoons, according to one theory. Whatever its origin, there are few places in the world like Phang-Nga Bay.

Elephant trek

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