Phang Nga Bay is certainly the crown of all the must-visit sites in the province of Phang Nga, to which Khao Lak belongs. Located roughly a one-hour drive south of Khao Lak, Phang Nga Bay is a Marine National Park that covers 400sqkm. Similar to (though smaller than) Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, Phang Nga Bay features 42 islands in the form of tall limestone cliffs pierced by caves and tunnels, towering out of the emerald waters of the bay.
The ecological importance of this area is second to none. Sheltering over 80 bird species (including the endangered Malaysian plover and Asiatic dowitcher), over 25 species of mangrove, as well as many other fauna and flora specimens, Phang Nga Bay offers the opportunity to discover a stunning natural environment which is more than 10,000 years old.
The bay counts a few landmarks that should not be missed during a visit, though their global reputation means that they may be slightly overcrowded during high season. Koh Panyee is a fishing village built on stilts at the end of the 18th century by nomadic Malay fishermen. Featuring a good choice of seafood restaurants, it is the main lunch-break stop during most of the day trips on offer.
Another landmark is James Bond Island. Locally known as Koh Phing Kan and featuring Nail Island (Koh Tapu) in the centre of its eastern bay, it became famous in 1974 for being the hideout of Francisco Scaramanga, the villain in the James Bond movie The Man with the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore and Christopher Lee.
The easiest way to discover Phang Nga Bay is to join a day trip. Two main types of trips are on offer: cruising the bay on a motor or sailing boat (junks are also popular) with stops at the main landmarks and beaches or get really up-close and personal experience with a sea kayaking day trip. The latter way of discovering the bay is by far the most popular.
Introduced by John Gray in the 1980s, the exploration of the bay by sea kayak gives the possibility of entering the many caves dug through the limestone cliffs by the sea, as well as reaching hidden lagoons inside the islands. These lagoons are called hongs, which means ‘room’ in Thai. They are the climax of a visit to the bay: going through a pitch-dark tunnel then coming out in a lagoon surrounded by 100m-tall limestone cliffs covered with tropical plants is really a memorable experience.