วันอาทิตย์ที่ 7 มีนาคม พ.ศ. 2553


avoiding a row of stalactites hanging like a gate of a medieval castle at the entrance to the cavern. Advancing more cautiously now, our kayaks glide through a narrow passageway leading from the open sea towards the hidden heart of the island.
We are in Phangnga, a sheltered bay northeast of Phuket, where more than 160 limestone outcrops and islands jut straight out of the sea to form one of the most dramatic and surreal landscapes found anywhere on the planet. Depending on the tides, the water can be so shallow here in places that the best, perhaps the only way to fully explore this wonderland, is by kayak.
Were it not for our torches, the inky darkness inside the cave would have been claustrophobic. Instead the beams of light reveal a breathtaking cathedral of limestone sculpted over millennia into impossibly gothic shapes and contortions. I swing my torch up at the roof and start in surprise at a
constellation of eyes that sparkle down at me, a colony of tiny bats hanging in crevices like a collection of miniature gargoyles. A few of them flutter about in alarm so I dim the torch and let my eyes adjust to the darkness. Ahead I can see the faint glow of an unearthly turquoise light that signals the exit to the cave deep ahead inside the island.
This light grows in intensity, drawing us forward like moths to a flame. After the gloom of the cave the bright sunlight leaves me momentarily blinded. Once my eyes adjust, I look around in amazement: the centre of the island is completely hollow surrounded on all sides by high cliffs dripping with vegetation. I have the strangest impression that I've been jransported to a secret world. Called hongs, meaning "room" in Thai, these hidden internal lagoons are a unique feature of Phangnga's limestone islands.
was the sole sea-kayaking operator and personally discovered many of the hongs that have now become major tourist attractions. He estimates that at least 2,000 jobs now depend on the sea-kayaking business in Southern Thailand, not to mention its massive contribution to the local economy.
The downside of this success is that many of the operators have no knowledge of and even less regard for the fragile environment they operate in. Their customers are herded through some of the more well-known sites in groups of up to 100 at a time and are given little or no information about the natural wonders they are experiencing. Even worse is the impact of uncontrolled tourism on ),he flora and fauna; the coral reefs damaged by anchors. the birds and animals scared away by the noise of tourists shouting to each other, not to mention the litter they leave behind.
John motions for us to remain quiet, essential if one is to observe any of the shy wildlife like crab-eating macaques and gibbons that live on these islands. The silence is perfect, even the sound of the sea is muffled here. Then slowly, timidly, the hong comes alive. A lone cicada cheeps somewhere in the undergrowth and a Pacific reef egret that had been perched perfectly still on the submerged oyster beds warily takes a step forward. John points to an overhanging branch and at first I can see nothing until a slight movement reveals a gorgeous brown-winged kingfisher looking at us inquisitively down its bright-red bill.
John introduces us to his favourite inhabitant of the hong, the mudskipper. A truly bizarre living fossil that has inhabited this area for 20 million years or more, it is best described as a fish that walks. Mudskippers spend more of their lives out of the water than in it. Immediately recognisable by the bulging eyes that protrude from
the tops of their heads, mudskippers are distinct from other fish in that they are able to breathe on land. How they do it is almost science fiction. Once out of the water, their gills begin to dry out and stick together, so mudskippers have a special cavity behind their ears ,where they store sea water. As they rotate their eyes, pressure is applied to the cavity that re-oxygenates the water in the cavity and restores the gills to their normal function.
A curious gurgling sound made by water draining out of the rocks reminds us that the tide is still receding and John judges it is time for us to leave before the water becomes too shallow for our craft to float. Inside the hongs, the water is sometimes only inches deep, which means that they can only be accessed at very specific times when the tides are high enough to get in and out or else you can get stuck in the mud or stranded inside a hong when the water rises.
Back on the boat we eat a delicious lunch of fried chicken with red chillies and cashew nuts followed by steamed groper with shredded ginger and soy sauce. There's something about the sea air and exercise that gives us all a healthy appetite and we ravenously tuck into the food while the boat cruises across the bay towards the Krabi shore.
The voyage is like an animated geology lesson as we pass by _islands ranging in size from mere outcrops hardly larger than a city bus to hulking great masses with sheer cliffs rising 400
metres or more straight out of the sea. All are draped in the most exuberant vegetation with even very large trees seemingly grafted onto vertical rock faces. Limestone is a comparatively soft rock and the islands are weathered and eroded into incredible shapes and colours from a combination of rain, seawater and plant action that are a perpetual delight for the eye.
We pass by gloriously empty, white crescent beaches that positively cry out to be visited and to our great delight the captain chooses a particularly beautiful one for us to camp at for the night. As the sun sets, a flock of fruit bats leave their roost in the trees behind our tents and make their way across the darkening sky on their way to raid the orchards on the mainland.
A PAIR OF SEA EAGLES BANK AND DIVE HIGH ABOVE US AS WE SET out on the kayaks the next morning. John swears us to secrecy about our destination: fiercely protective of what he describes as the "mother of all hongs", he doesn't want the more commercial operators to find out where it is and destroy its magic. It certainly looks deserted enough here, the shoreline fringed with some of the thickest mangrove forests I have ever seen. We wend our way slowly through a maze of natural canals that pierce the mangroves. Under threat from clearance for prawn farms and coastal-development projects in much of Thailand, here the mangroves seem in pristine condition.
Long maligned as lifeless swamps, mangroves are actuallycomplex ecosystems that play a crucial role maintaining a healthy
coastal and marine environment. Hugely important as nurseries for sea fish as well as crabs and prawns, their dense vegetation also provides a rich habitat for birds, reptiles and mammals like otter, monkey, wild pig and a variety of bats.
Up close we can see the long roots of the Rhizophora trees completely exposed by the low tide. Perfectly adapted to this semi-aquatic environment, these trees tolerate saline water by excreting salt through their roots and leaves. The young plants get a head start in life by sprouting directly from the parent tree, and are equipped with dagger-shaped appendages that allow them to penetrate the mud when they drop.
The cliffs begin to close in on both sides and it looks like we are going towards a solid wall of rock. When we are only metres away I realise there is in fact a small opening barely wide enough for the kayak to scrape through. We enter a narrow channel and then negotiate another tiny crevice where we have to lie back almost flat on the kayaks to get through. The way seems blocked by a dense stand of mangroves but again we manage to pass hrough with centimetres to spare. I begin to wonder where John is taking us, when without warning the view opens up to reveal perhaps the most spectacular scene I nave ever witnessed in Thailand.
The walls of a majestic canyon soar up nearly 300 metres into the sky, swathed in forest so thick and green it reminds me of the Amazon. At the base of the cliffs the rock seems to have been melted like hot wax, dripping in 12-metre long stalactites to the water. Our kayaks look like toys against the grandeur of this natural scene and there is no need for John to warn us to be quiet. We are all absolutely dumbstruck.
In the distance I can hear the distinctive call of a gibbon but it is impossible to see where it comes from in the deep jungle that rises up all around us. In fact, if a pterodactyl floated overhead or a Tyrannosaurus rex suddenly came storming out of the mangroves I would not have been surprised. It is that kind of place, an awe-inspiring glimpse of how the world was at its beginning. I feel immensely privileged to be here and understood immediately why John wanted to keep it a secret.
We spend the next two hours exploring this hidden paradise stopping often to drink in the atmosphere in total silence, gazing up at the imposing rock formations and exchanging looks of wonderment with each other. All too soon it is time to leave, for even here we are at the mercy of the tides.