We normally try to avoid tourist hotspots, but in Phuket it’s practically unavoidable. At some point, you’re sure to find yourself on a potentially crowded boat headed to either Phi Phi Island or to James Bond Island in Phang Nga Bay. Once you arrive, you’ll be dumped off on an over-crowded beach with a million other tourists taking millions of selfies of the exact same thing.
In other words, Phuket is in many ways a victim of its own beauty.
Like the boat loads of tourists before and after us, we set out on a day trip to explore the stunningly beautiful – and well-traveled – Phang Nga Bay.
This was the tourist photo taken right before we set off on our kayak ride. The photo was so crummy and 70s looking that we decided to buy it. Note: I did not edit this photo beyond scanning it.
our guide loved cutting out heart shapes in floating leaves and taking our photo through them
“Floating 7-11.” You could find pretty much every drink and snack conceivable on this guy’s boat. We purchased fresh coconut juice because seriously, how could we not buy something?
James Bond Island was given its name after a James Bond movie was filmed here.
mandatory James Bond Island pose
Koh Panyee, a Muslim village on stilts. We’re standing on the town’s famed floating soccer field
One of the villages’ specialty snacks: tiny dried shrimp coated with a sweet and spicy glaze, and mixed with cashews, chilis, and kaffir lime leaves. It was probably one of the best snacks I have ever eaten — sweet, salty, chewy and crunchy. We bought several bags and regretted not buying more.
They gave us way too much to eat for lunch. This was for two people…
A Private Longtail Boat Tour of Phang Nga Bay
We knew that trying to find a secluded getaway in a touristy resort town would be a somewhat futile effort. We accepted that about Phuket. Yet in our hearts, we knew it could be done. There’s always a way to visit a touristy place without feeling like you’re just another tourist. In fact, it almost felt like a challenge to find quiet, personal, moments within the general resort town tour group chaos.
Eschewing any tour that mentioned the words “tiger sanctuaries” and performing elephants, we instead splurged on a private longtail boat tour of Phang Nga Bay. Our boat left early morning, well before a fleet of white minivans began dropping off hoards of tourists at the dock. For at least an hour, ours was the only boat we saw coming or going, and what boats we did see were packed bow to stern with passengers.
In contrast, our journey through Phang Nga’s clear turquoise waters and towering karst formations felt peaceful and unhurried. Our longtail driver effortlessly navigated us in and out and around cliffs and caves shrouded in a mystical blue haze*. On our huge boat, alone with our thoughts, we rarely felt the need to speak. The beauty of our surroundings spoke for itself.
Khao Phing Kan aka James Bond Island
After boarding a kayak to explore small caves and large mangrove forests we returned to our longtail boat and headed to James Bond Island. It was here where we got our first dose of tourists. Boats lined the shores and kiosks selling tourist trinkets peppered the natural landscape. Most of the tourists seemed to be gathered in the same place, so Sly and I headed in the opposite direction. We hiked up and over and around the island (in flip flops) until we found our own private spot to enjoy the view.
Our final stop on our tour of Phang Nga Bay was Koh Panyee, a village that seemed to rise out of nowhere in the middle of the bay. The village, like most every spot in Phang Nga, was definitely aimed towards tour groups with stall after stall selling the exact same merchandise. We spent just enough time here to pet a bunch of kitties, buy a few delicious snacks, and eat a massive lunch. Somehow, we managed to escape just before a swarm of tour boats dumped off another load of tourists.
It seemed that we kept just barely one step ahead of the crowds the entire day and we were so thankful for that. While our tour was a splurge for us, we both agreed that it was well worth it. As two people who prefer off-the-beaten-track sort of activities, and who tend to avoid organized tours in general, we worried that we wouldn’t enjoy a place like Phuket. We thought it would be all crowded beaches and annoying tour groups. And to some extent, it was all those things — but not for us. Even in a resort town, visiting one of the most popular attractions, we managed to find a slice of paradise.
Easy Day Thailand | DESCRIPTION: Our private tour of Phang Nga Bay and James Bond Island cost roughly twice as much as the going rate for a reputable group tour, but given that it was the one touristy thing we wanted to do, we decided it was worth the splurge. Since we had our own transportation, we were able to negotiate a discounted rate as we didn’t require hotel pick-up/drop-off. Not only did this save us money, but it also saved us time, as we didn’t need to wait an hour or more as a minibus picked up passengers at their hotels. One of the huge benefits of booking a private tour, besides having an entire boat to yourself, is that you can leave whenever you want. We chose to leave in the morning before all the tour groups descended onto Phang Nga Bay. Another benefit is that you can stay on the islands as little or as long as you like. There’s no rush, and if something isn’t your cup of tea (or there are too many tourists), you can get the heck out of there. The Phang Nga Bay boat portion of out tour lasted about 4 hrs (though we could have stayed as little or as long as we pleased) and included a set lunch at a touristy, yet decent, Thai restaurant. A note on booking tours in Asia: not all tour companies are created equal. If it sounds too cheap to be true, it most likely is. BUDGET OPTION | Before we decided to book a private tour, we considered going down to the docks at Ao Phang Nga National Park and renting a boat and captain for the day. According to this informative blog, it’s considerably cheaper than a private tour (and even cheaper than many group tours). In the end, we decided on a private boat because we didn’t want to show up at the dock in the early morning only to find there were no available boats for hire. And we didn’t want to haggle or waste time (mis)communicating where we wanted to go. In our eyes, this was time we would rather have lazing about on the beach or taking in Phuket’s natural beauty. | VERDICT: We found Easy Day Thailand through the blog mentioned above, and liked that it felt more personal than the run of the mill tourist agency that is a dime a dozen in Phuket.
Braun Car Rentals | COST: Roughly $35/day for a small car. Includes tax, pick-up/drop-off at the airport, and insurance. You do not need an international driver’s license. | DESCRIPTION: I’m including this information here in case someone is researching / on the fence about renting a car in Phuket. We absolutely loved the freedom of being able to rent a car to explore Phuket. A lot of people get nervous driving in Asia, but to us, driving felt no more dangerous than driving in Korea (or anywhere, really) which cannot be said about many countries we have visited. The roads in and around Phuket were wide, newly paved, and even had lanes for tuk-tuks and motorbikes. | VERDICT: Recommended. Don’t be scared by what guidebooks or other people tell you. If you drive cautiously, you’ll be fine, just like in any country. We had a good experience using Braun and would use them again. They picked us up from the airport, took us to their rental agency, and we were on our way. Easy. Peasy.
* The “mist” was actually a result of some massive forest fires in nearby Indonesia which threatened the lives of the already endangered orangutan population. These fires were a result of slash and burn farming to make way for palm oil plantations. Palm oil can be found in a variety of products, including peanut butter. If this sort of thing bothers you, make sure to check your labels and only buy products that use palm oil from sustainable sources.