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