Limestone island hopping in an emerald sea

We have only a few more days left in Ao Nang and wanted to visit the Hong Islands off the west coast before we jet off to Kuala Lumpur on Saturday. Luckily, the day we’d booked for the trip – yesterday – was a beautiful sunny day, with only a few fluffy white cumulus clouds scudding across the sky – perfect. The tour company driver collected us at 8:30 in a creaky little pickup truck and we were off to the Nopparat Thara River and on our private longtail boat, after Ty helped the boat man and his assistant to rock it off a sandy knoll (very low tide), heading out to sea by 9.

Rather than turning south, as the four islands tour did, we turned north and navigated along the coast, past the Royal Residence with its gleaming gold turrets shimmering on the hill, past what looked like two mines on the shoreline, each with piers jutting out into the water for container ships, and out to the limestone islands we could see rising out of the ocean offshore.

As we pulled into the sheltered bay, we could see a few other long-tails moored, but that was about it. Hong Island, the largest of the group of islands in Than Bok Thoranee Marine National Park, is beautiful: powder white sand, glorious green vegetation, turquoise-green water, and towering orange-tinged limestone cliffs. Two small bays are separated by smaller limestone clifflets, through a gap in which we could see boats come and go.

Near the ranger station is a memorial to the victims of the 2004 tsunami, erected by 13 survivors of a tour group which was unlucky enough to be visiting the island then from Phuket. We swam and snorkelled in the bay for a couple of hours, watching as successive waves of tour groups came and went along the beach, including older women in small bikinis striking cheese-cake poses for photos in the water and musclemen flexing their roid-fuelled biceps. A few white and yellow striped fish could be spotted but there is no live coral here; perhaps the tsunami destroyed the reefs and they’ve not had a chance to recover.

From there, we motored around to the back of the island, then, through a tiny channel, entered a gorgeous emerald-green-blue lagoon bounded by a small mangrove forest. As we cruised slowly around its perimeter, several bright orange and green kayaks entered, gleaming brightly against the turquoise water.

Our next stop was Pakbia Island, really two small islands joined by a thin sand bar at low tide.

Here it was screaming hot and we immediately donned our snorkel gear and hit the water, swimming slowly around one rocky outcropping without seeing much. After crossing over the sandbar to snorkel along the rocks on the west side, we saw lots of fish, both large and small, feeding. As we swam further out towards open ocean, the current became very strong and we were glad to have had fins on, making the swim back much easier. Actually, we saw the most fish when seated in a foot of water just off the beach; Ty dropped a few cracker crumbs in the water, generating a torrent of fish swimming frantically back and forth around him, including tiny yellow and grey micro-sharks – Mr Fish Master. Even drinking gallons of water wasn’t really enough to cool us down; we spent the rest of our time there sitting in the ocean, enjoying the company of the fish.

Our final stop was Paradise Beach on Lading Island (I think – the boatman spoke no English). This was a small strip of sand beneath yet another towering limestone cliff, at the foot of which were moored several longtail and speed boats disgorging the same folks we’d seen on the previous islands. Even so, the beach was not so crowded as to be uncomfortable. And, best of all for the Fish Master, beers could be had from the cantine. A fantastic day on the water – thoroughly enjoyed by all!

See more pictures here.