Experience sea canoeing, sailing, and other adventures at this exotic southeast Asian destination.
The cave tunnel gets smaller and smaller as we lie flat in the yellow inflatable kayak. “No moving!” laughs Sayaan, our Thai guide. The roof constricts to barely half an inch above my nose. Moments pass, then the grotto widens. “Turn your flashlights on,” he whispers. Glistening stalactites hang down like giant ice crystals. A rock crab scuttles over a rose-colored, fan-shaped formation. I want to stay and absorb the beauty longer. But we’re dependent on the tides, so he paddles us through the hong (island), shaped like an angel-food cake, to enter the inner lagoon. We’re exploring Phang Nga Bay, Thailand, in sea canoes. This is just one of the exotic adventures that awaited us in this friendly and captivating land.
Made famous by the 007 movies “The Man With the Golden Gun” and “Tomorrow Never Dies”, the bay is home to hundreds of weirdly-shaped limestone outcroppings that rise dramatically up from the sea. But while our son, 10 at the time, is obsessed with the ‘007’ PSP video game, we don’t go anywhere near the tourist site of James Bond Island.
“Too busy!”, exclaims Sayaan. “We go where there are no other people.”
Elephant Treks & Other Exotic Activities
We started our day trip to Phang Nga Bay from Phuket, off the west coast of Thailand. A world-class resort island, Phuket has fully recovered from the devastating tsunami of a few years back. Its international airport is more crowded than ever, and that’s good news for families. You’ll find deluxe hotels (and less expensive accommodation) offering cribs, babysitting services, children’s menus, medical clinics and everything else you want when you take your kids on an exotic holiday.
My first taste that this was going to be no ordinary beach vacation occurred just after arriving. Jet-lagged, I dozed off in my beach chair, when a baby elephant tickled my foot with her trunk. ‘Sally’ and her handler roamed the grounds of six hotels spread along the three miles of white sand beach comprising Phuket’s Laguna Resort area.
Without expecting money, her handler invited children to sit atop and pet his elephant. One afternoon, we noticed Sally standing in the ocean, getting splashed by a horde of excited youngsters and spraying them in turn with her trunk. We later learned that Sally and other elephants have been brought down from Chiang Mai, where logging had recently slowed. With Siam Safari Nature Tours (+66 76 280116), you can experience educational visits with an elephant and a half-hour “trek” without traveling to northern Thailand. But if you find the prospect of riding elephants daunting, three riding clubs at Laguna Phuket, Ban Sai Yuan, and Patak Road offer horseback riding instead.
Phuket’s less demanding activities involve being seduced by the sun, sand and sea. The hotel lawns fringing the beaches are havens for indulging in beauty and relaxation treatments.
Local Thai women give bargain-priced massages and combination manicures and pedicures in the shade.
The beach was also our favorite place for trying out the deliciously spicy Thai food. We’d stroll, barefoot in the sand, until we came to a restaurant that struck our fancy. Typically, we’d be seated in comfy cane furniture, 20 feet from the water’s edge, underneath a canopy of hand-painted, colorful paper parasols, enjoying a dinner of curried crab or fresh tiger prawns for the equivalent of US$7 per person. (Youngsters need not fear – French fries can be had, too!)
Sea canoeing was perhaps the most memorable part of our stay in Phuket. We were picked up from our hotel and driven to John Gray Sea Canoe (+66 76 2545057) on Phang Nga Bay. There, guests were split into two groups and assigned individual guides according to their previously-registered language preference. Our group of 14 then boarded a large, covered boat for the one-hour cruise through Phang Nga Bay to our first hong. Along the way, we read about how the stalactites we’d soon see are formed by slowly dripping water and how the lagoons inside the hongs are formed when the central section collapses, resulting in the doughnut shape.
Upon arriving at the first hong, we slid into our canoe. Each rubber canoe accommodates two adults (there’s room for one child up front) plus a guide who sits at the back and does the paddling. After practicing the art of lying down still and going through our first cave, we clambered back up aboard our boat and motored off to our next hong.
We explored four hongs. Sayaan discovered the Princess Cave on our second stop nine months earlier while swimming nearby. At the end of its 150-meter tunnel, Sayaan paddled us cautiously past a mangrove snake curled up in a mangrove tree growing in the island’s lagoon. Elsewhere, we spied monkeys in the vegetation at the water’s edge. And our fourth hong found us inside the pitch dark Bat Cave where our flashlights illuminated a colony of bats hanging from the roof.
Back on the boat, we ate a late lunch of coconut milk soup with shrimp, followed by freshly cooked blue crab (kids can order sandwiches in advance if they wish). Everyone was starved by the time we ate, but it was a must that we see the hongs first, while the tidal access times were right. The window of opportunity for entering each cave varies from 90 minutes to a mere 8 minutes — after that, the rising tide will flood the cave! In the lagoon at the end of the Princess Cave, the water rose at the rate of one foot every 10 minutes. On our return to Sea Canoe’s dock, we passed by an oyster farm and were entertained by Sayaan’s magic rope tricks.
Family Resorts & Kids Programs
Phuket is a large island with many segregated resort areas to suit all budgets. However, with all the renovation and rebuilding that followed the tsunami, it’s become more of a luxury getaway. No matter, Asian hotel prices usually permit a family from North America to stay in a much fancier resort than one would think affordable. And one of the best features of staying in the posh Laguna area, is the variety of organized children’s programs available to hotel guests, and even to guests at other nearby properties who purchase a day pass.
The Laguna Beach Resort Kids Club is the center of fun, with morning, afternoon and full-day sessions each day, as well Evening Sessions (on selected nights) so parents can enjoy a romantic sunset meal while the kids are busily engaged. The non-Laguna Phuket visitor can enquire at any of the resorts in this compound about a Day Pass for their kids to attend the camp, or a family day pass for all to enjoy the many pools and other facilities.
A favorite of ours is Quest Laguna, a youth program operated by Quest Recreation, an outdoor-adventure training organization. Their free bus collects kids 8-18 years from the five other local resorts for a half day or full day of rock climbing, high and low rope courses, beach volleyball, and arts ‘n’crafts (batik painting, making birdhouses, shelling and more), all based in seven acres of tropical park land beside the Laguna Beach Club Hotel. For a day of adventure together, check out their Family Challenge programs designed to physically exhaust all ages and all fitness levels!
All Quest counselors are University-trained and snacks and lunch are provided, for modest fees.
Visit Laguna Phuket for more information about the six deluxe resorts in the complex. Families staying in any of them can take advantage of the five spas, 18-hole Laguna Phuket Golf Club, extensive shopping, 30 restaurants (great for teens who want to roam a little on their own), and numerous sports and recreation facilities.
We enjoyed the luxurious Thai-owned resort, Dusit Thani Laguna Phuket (66/76 336 2999), at 390 Srisoontorn Road, Cherngtalay, Talang Phuket 83110. This is a lovely modern resort surrounded by lush grounds, waterfalls and lagoons which sometimes bring mosquitoes (a problem in this area.) The Dusit has a beautiful pool overlooking the fine white sand beach, and superb Thai hospitality. Their Busy Bee Kids Klub for ages 4-12 is open daily 9am-9pm for origami, water polo, sand castle competitions, etc.
The Sheraton Grande Laguna Beach Phuket (66/76/324101, 800/325-3589) is another option, an island resort complex in Bang Tao Bay, with a golf course, and extensive tennis and watersports facilities. Children will love its exotic tropical feel: the artfully planted palm trees, ceiling fans, Thai style open-air dining pavilions, tuktuks (three-wheeled scooters) for resort transport, and public spaces filled with free Thai classical dance and gamelan performances. All ages can use the main children’s center off the lobby (with babysitters available), which has toys and books to borrow, and a communal play area.
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