Washing against the east coast of Phuket, Thailand’s most beguiling bay is a paradise for yachties with a taste for island-hopping and easy adventure
By Mark Eveleigh
Photographs by Mark Eveleigh
Few things elicit the same thrill as running your finger across the map at the start of a sailing trip. Your fingertip skims so smoothly and effortlessly across the sheet, heedless of hidden reefs, sweeping currents, and blustering wind, that even for a novice boater like myself, the potential for exploration seems limitless. Especially so when the map—or “chart,” to use proper sailors’ parlance—is of southwest Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay, whose waters are peppered with dozens of craggy islands with mysterious-sounding names like Koh Ba Tang, Koh Roi, Koh Phanak, and Koh Kudu.
And so, excited by the prospect of spending a week exploring one of the world’s most beguiling seascapes, we set sail from Phuket’s Ao Po marina aboard a 13-meter sloop called the Papaya. Encompassing coral reefs, sea-grass beds, and mangrove forests and studded with surrealistically sculpted limestone outcrops (technically known as karst), Phang Nga Bay fills a shallow basin between Phuket and the Krabi coastline, making it as accessible as it is scenic. We had no plans beyond sailing on a wing and a prayer, wherever tide and wind took us. The galley was well stocked and, by way of extra ballast, we had loaded several crates of Chang beer into the hold.
For all our buoyant enthusiasm, we were a lubberly crew if ever there was one. My father, who had been nominated second mate, grew up in the same Devonshire town where Francis Drake was born almost 500 years ago, but apart from a fathomless repertoire of seafaring clichés—“Call me Ismael!”; “Shiver me timbers, we’ve hit the jetty”—little actual knowledge of sailing has survived the centu-ries of landlocked family history. Nor had my mother (from Bristol) or my girlfriend (from Cape Town) managed to acquire any nautical know-how from their respective maritime burgs. As for me, I once crewed briefly on an ill-maintained yacht in the western Mediterranean. There was a brief bout of wild excitement when a storm nearly drove us onto the Algerian coast, but mostly there were weeks of extreme boredom in the company of a lazy captain. I jumped ship in Gibraltar.
Fortunately, rental of the Papaya came complete with the services of one Jed Jennings. When he is not racing multimillion-dollar yachts, Jennings works as a freelance skipper for Sunsail, the company from which we chartered the boat. He knows his way around the sea-lanes and shorelines of Phang Nga Bay like few others.
“I’ve been sailing these waters for more than a decade,” said the 38-year-old English- man, “but no two days are the same. It’s just so spectacularly beautiful that it could never get boring.”
Indeed, Phang Nga Bay is home to some of the most photographed isles in Asia, from pillar-like Koh Tapu (nicknamed James Bond Island for its cameo as the villain’s lair in the 007 film The Man with the Golden Gun) to Phi Phi Leh, which served as the setting for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie The Beach. But these hot spots attract hundreds, perhaps thousands, of visitors every day, and we were intent on sailing beyond the crowds.
On our first afternoon, having left the flotilla of tourist boats jostling at their Koh Tapu moorings, I spotted an enticing sliver of gleaming sand at the base of another rearing spire of limestone. As far as Jennings could tell it, didn’t even warrant a name on his charts. But it did look appealing, so we set a fresh course and sailed deeper into the tangled maze of pinnacles. It took about 40 minutes to arrive and another 15 before I was easing the dinghy—“tender,” Jennings corrected me—onto the shore of one of the prettiest little desert-island paradises in Southeast Asia. There wasn’t a single footprint on the beach, and we snorkeled across a pristine reef that seemed to stretch right out into the Andaman Sea and all the way to Sumatra. Jennings stayed on board, clearly pleased to have the boat to himself for a while. “No offense,” he said, “but a spot of Jed time is quality time.”
Just after weighing anchor next morning, we spotted a homeward-bound fishing boat, and Jennings eased the tiller over to bring us directly into the wind, in a stalling maneuver known as “luffing.” As the man and woman onboard spoke no English Jennings haggled with them in pidgin Thai for a heap of prawns, fresh from the net. The sun was blazing down on their unshaded deck, so as a parting gift we tossed over two icy cans of Coca-Cola. The fisherman held one against his forehead as if it was the first cold thing he’d seen in weeks.
We sailed onward and that evening, between the stark karst outcrops of the little twin islets of Koh Kudu, where colonies of giant fruit bats roost, we grilled the prawns on the Papaya’s stern-mounted barbecue. As we cooked we sipped Chang beer to the cheery wind-chime jingle of rigging on the alumi-num mast. By the time we’d finished eating it was almost dark, and the sea was putting on a spectacular display of phosphorescent plankton that rivaled even the great dome of stars overhead. We dove overboard to get a closer look and were amazed as thousands of otherworldly submarine sparks flickered off the ends of our fingers and even off our noses.
For the next few days we cruised a zigzagging course among islands that rose like dragon’s teeth from the tropical waters. We explored mangrove-fringed lagoons and climbed a razor-sharp coral outcrop to discover a little lost lagoon that showed on our charts as a watery bay, but that had actually been cut off from the sea several years ago by a landslide. We slept to the sound of waves lapping gently against the hull. One day slipped into another and we began to wish that this could be a way of life rather than a relatively fleeting excursion. We would soon be coming to the end of our little voyage, yet nobody was eager to getting back to terra firma.
An hour before sunset on our last evening we glided into an anchorage in a sheltered cove on the coast of Koh Yao Yai, the largest island in the bay. There was not a building in sight, and, apart from a single fishing skiff running for home, the sea was empty.
For the moment, it seemed that the little crew of landlubbers aboard the Papaya had all of Phang Nga to themselves.
Sailing Phang Nga
—When to Go
Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast is at its windiest during the southwest monsoon (May to October), though the sheltered waters of Phang Nga Bay offer safe sailing year-round.
No experience is necessary to rent a boat from Sunsail (66-81/891-4437; sunsail.com), but unless you have sailing accreditation you’ll need to hire a skipper, whose local knowledge will in any case vastly enhance your experience. Rates start at about US$3,045 for a seven-day rental of an 11-meter monohull out of Phuket.
Originally appeared in the June/July 2013 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Afloat in Phang Nga”)