On location: James Bond Island

Image: http://www.sky.com/tv/movie/the-man-with-the-golden-gun-1974/The island-studded bay of Phang-Nga was rarely visited by foreign tourists prior to 1974. That changed dramatically with the release of the James Bond film, The Man With the Golden Gun. Koh Khao Phing Kan — the Island of Stones Leaning Together — was where the film’s titular villain, Francisco Scaramanga, played by the inimitable Christopher Lee, had his secret lair, and where the film’s climactic duel (pictured left) played out. The island overlooks a distinctive limestone wedge, known as Koh Tapu or Nail Island. Tours to ‘James Bond Island’ are, according to Phuket Tours, “the second most popular activity in the region.” As the characters in my work in progress spend time in Phuket as tourists, in the interests of authenticity, I had to go on the tour.

James Bond Island today: no longer the place for a secret lair

James Bond Island today: no longer the place for a secret lair

As it turned out, perhaps predictably, ‘James Bond Island’ itself (the name is now applied to Koh Tapu) was the least attractive of the places we visited. Jam-packed with tourists wielding selfie sticks and shops selling tacky souvenirs, the untouched natural beauty that must have attracted the producers of the Bond franchise 40 years ago seemed like a distant memory. But Phang-Nga Bay with its 40-odd islands is a place of rare beauty.

The highlight for me was Koh Panak. Our guide , Noon, said the name means ‘small village’, perhaps on account of its six caves, accessible at low tide via inflatable canoes.

Paddling to the cave entrance

Paddling to the cave entrance

I wasn’t crazy about the idea of being paddled inside a cave (‘too many jealous spirits’, a Hmong shaman once told me), though the fact that our canoe ‘captains’ wore head torches helped, illuminating stallactites and the cave’s resident (mostly sleeping) bats.

Exiting the cave

Exiting the cave

But the real thrill was passing through the mouth of a cave so narrow, we had to lie flat in the canoe, and emerging into a series of lagoons — hong, ‘room’ in Thai — completely enclosed within the island. We were on the water with the sky above us, surrounded by jungle-draped walls of rock on all sides. Sea eagles circled overhead and families of monkeys scaled the cliffs, their chatter the only sound other than the splash of the paddles and the gasps of wonder from us tourists.

Emerging into the lagoon

Emerging into the lagoon

‘It’s like The Lost World,’ I suggested to my canoeing companion, Gerson.
‘I was going to say King Kong,’ he said.

The hidden world inside the island

The hidden world inside the island

Noon said the caves of Panak Island were once the hiding place of pirates. Noon himself looked like a pirate, the son of a Thai Buddhist father and a Muslim mother from the floating village of Panyee, settled centuries ago by Indonesians. His opening spiel for the tour was all about how we would spend the day together ‘like a family’, and despite my cynicism, all of us on the tour boat seemed to be feeling the love by the end of the day.

Leaving Panak Island

Leaving Panak Island

We were an electic bunch. In the minibus en route to the pier, I met Canadian-born Claudia and her husband Josh, a native of North Carolina. I took and instant liking to them, and we ended up meeting up for dinner after the tour. The only other solo traveller on the tour was Gerson, a Brazillian of Taiwanese descent, who recently finished a law degree and is spending a year in Taiwan learning Chinese. We were paired up for the canoe rides and he was terrific company. Next I met Derek aka Zhong from Singapore, a pale, lanky boy with trophy ears and an effervescent sense of humour, and his shy girlfriend Amberley.

Stunning Phang-Nga Bay

Stunning Phang-Nga Bay

Gradually throughout the day, I made a point of meeting everyone on the boat, curious to know where we all came from. There was an Algerian-French couple from Marseille on their honeymoon, her in a purple headscarf and shiny purple leggings, him with the longest eyelashes I’ve seen on a man, the two of them clearly in love. Another couple was honeymooning from Kolkata, others from New Dehli and Malaysia. There was a couple from Poland who spoke very little English, two Belgian girls in bikinis, and two German men.

Tour groups returning from visiting Hong Island (Claudia & Josh at front)

Tour groups returning from visiting Hong Island (Claudia & Josh at front)

I spoke with one of the Germans towards the end of the tour. He was very nonplussed about staying in Patong, a sleazy part of Phuket, which he did not like at all. When I suggested he must have been happy to have come out on the tour, he told me frankly that if I wanted to see real natural beauty, I should holiday in Europe, specifically Sardinia. I had to stop myself from laughing out loud: it’s always the Germans who seem to find the rest of the world lacking when compared to home.

In terms of my novel, the lessons from the tour are the diversity of the tourists in Thailand, and the savviness of the Thais, who flatter a popular culture obsession — in this case, the James Bond franchise — and use it as a drawcard to showcase the real beauty of their place.

Gigi the 'lady boy' with Gerson my canoeing companion

Gigi the ‘lady boy’ with Gerson my canoeing companion

Oh, and the fact that there’s never a bad time for a drag show in Thailand: Noon’s colleague Gigi performed a ‘lady boy’ show on the boat on the way back to Phuket, much to the delight of everyone on board — apart from the Belgian girls, who looked deeply uncomfortable. Strangely similar to the way I felt about their transparent-when-wet bikinis.

As I wrote in my journal, it was the kind of day it felt great to be alive.

I booked the tour online through Phuket Tours Direct, opting for the cruise boat option after reading this blog post

 

 

 

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About Angela Savage

Angela Savage is a Melbourne-based crime writer, who has lived and travelled extensively in Asia. Her first novel, Behind the Night Bazaar won the 2004 Victorian Premier's Literary Award for an unpublished manuscript. She is a winner of the Scarlet Stiletto Award and has thrice been shortlisted for Ned Kelly awards. Her third novel, The Dying Beach, was also shortlisted for the 2014 Davitt Award. Angela teaches writing and is currently studying for her PhD in Creative Writing at Monash University.
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6 Responses to On location: James Bond Island

  1. What a lovely place, Angela! And I’m so glad you got the chance to see the real beauty of the island, rather than just the tourist stuff. The canoe ride sounds like fun, especially when it meant you got to discover those lagoons. I’m loving this travelogue you’re creating!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Margot. Phang-Nga Bay really is a special place. Part of what I love about Thailand is that it can continue to surprise and delight me with each new visit, 30 years after I first came here. I hope you keep enjoying the travelogue.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Samantha D says:

    Hi, Angela

    I am sitting at my desk reading your blog post with no small degree of envy. Except for the part about lying flat in the canoe to pass through the entrance to the cave (!)

    Hope you enjoy the rest of your trip.

    Regards

    Samantha

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for dropping by, Samantha. Funnily enough, before I left home, I read a blog post by some girls who described ducking under a narrow gap in the rock to paddle into a cave and I thought, ‘No way am I doing that!’ To quote another James Bond film, it turned out to be a case of ‘Never Say Never Again’.

      I guess you only live twice… 😉

      Like

  3. Kathy D. says:

    Sounds fantastic. Love the blog notes and the photos. Would love to be canoeing around these islands, but a vicarious traveler am I! So, I’ll enjoy reading about it and viewing the photos.

    Like

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