Readers' World

Island hopping on a DIY Thai tour

Sunday Times reader Sara Essop discovers that hiring a longtail boat is a budget-friendly way to explore Thailand's idyllic islands

24 September 2017 - 00:00 By Sara Essop

There was one thing I just had to do when visiting Phuket: a day trip to Phang Nga Bay. The best way to do it was a more difficult decision.
After mulling over umpteen brochures and websites offering the James Bond Island tour, we decided to do things our own way instead.
We hired a car and drove to Surakul Pier, about 1.5 hours from our hotel in Kamala Beach, Phuket. Immediately we were pounced on by a tout, who followed us on a scooter.
We asked the price to hire a longtail boat to James Bond Island and Koh Panyee. We were quoted THB2,800 (about R1,000) for a private boat for our family - much lower than the guided tours.After paying, we were given lifejackets and set off on our longtail boat. The water was emerald green. There were limestone boulders of all sizes and shapes and mangrove forests by the dozen. It was one of the most beautiful places I'd ever seen.
The scenery was absolutely stunning and I couldn't stop taking photos. Being a fan of wildlife, I found myself wondering what wild creatures lived in these forests and mountains. We passed other boats then came to the first stop where one could canoe through the caves.Both these stops were optional and looked too crowded, so we opted to not disembark. The third stop, however, was one where we just had to get off and explore - the floating village of Koh Panyee.
I could see the colourful roofs and the gold-and-white dome of the mosque long before I got there.
Our boat driver stopped at the main restaurant there but we decided to explore the village first.ISLAND OF THE FLAG
Koh Panyee is a Muslim fishing village. It was established over 200 years ago by three Indonesian families, who left their homeland looking for a new place to live. They vowed to each other that, if one of them found a place where they could love and fish, they would signal the others by raising a flag on a mountain as high as possible.
Toh Baboo found this island, with its abundance of fish, and raised a flag on the towering cliff, thus giving the island the name "Island of the Flag".
The houses are built on stilts in a confusing labyrinth of little streets and alleys. You have to be careful when you walk there as you could fall into the water ever so easily. My maternal paranoia kicked in.
"Many children must have fallen into the water below," I mused aloud. "Yes, but they probably learn to swim from the time they're very young here," replied my husband.A strong smell of fish permeated the air and there were cats everywhere. The people greeted us with salaams, greetings of peace.
We took quick peeks into their houses as we walked past. Like Muslims in many countries, they remove their shoes outside their houses. I could see women cooking inside, and children playing.
Another woman was cleaning freshly caught prawns in a basket.We saw the mosque, which occupied pride of place on the island.
We also saw the cemetery; the school, where kids were playing sports; and the football field, which had been made with planks.
But the old was offset by some modern touches too. I saw a baby lying in a makeshift sling crib, playing with an electronic tablet.
We ended our visit with a delicious lunch of fresh crab fried rice, tempura prawns and fried prawns with chilli sauce, washed down with a green-tea milkshake, lychee juice and watermelon juice.
Our lunch view was amazing and so peaceful. But our longtail boat was waiting for us.
Tummies satiated, we had to bid farewell to this beautiful place.
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