Siem Reap, Cambodia – As mentioned previously, the sea canoe tour I embarked on while in Phuket was absolutely amazing. The gist of the tour was to enter two hongs (open lagoons in the middle of a few of the limestone karsts) in Pha Nga Bay via sea cave during the day and then re-enter one of the hongs at night using only three forms of natural light. The only catch with the whole thing is that for most of the sea cave passages, you need to lie flat on your back – with the ceiling only inches from your face in some instances (good luck if you’re claustrophobic) – to glide through the cave without nailing your head. There was a guide with each canoe to do all of the paddling so you didn’t need to worry about it while trying to keep from smashing your face.
Onto the highlights:
- Riding on the support boat through Ao Pao Harbor and out into Pha Nga Bay, the unfolding scene seemed straight out of Jurassic Park or Avatar. The limestone karsts jutting up from the sea in varying shapes and forms, with hidden valleys and waterfalls around each turn – each covered in thick jungle and colored a vibrant green. Upon closer inspection, the sea had eroded some of the karsts in such a way to create over hanging shelves with finger like pieces of rock hanging down into the water. The scene truly looked like something not of this world.
- I wasn’t allowed to go out in a canoe by myself. Instead, I was paired up with a girl from Australia who was also on the tour by herself. She was in Thailand with her sister who had been on the same tour before and loved it. Always good to know someone enjoyed the tour enough to recommend it to their sibling (although apparently not enough to go on the tour a second time).
- Once inside the hong it was quiet and peaceful – all you could hear was the paddle hitting the water and the sounds of birds, cicadas, and maybe even the occasional monkey in the trees. It was like entering a secret world, so cool.
- The aptly named “bat cave” – due to the hundreds of bats roosting on the ceiling – was by far my least favorite cave passage on the tour. It was a huge cave, with the bats well above your head (can you imagine going through on your back with a bat only inches from your face? I shiver just thinking of it) but, the place smelled like shit. I mean, it was just foul. And, with the heat and humidity it was suffocating. The worst part though was having water drip off the ceiling and hit me on arm. Thinking it was bat piss, or something worst, I almost jumped into the water and swam back to the support boat.
- The food we were served was absolutely the best I had in Thailand. Lunch wasn’t bad, but it was the afternoon snack and dinner that was simply unbelievable. For afternoon snack, we were served fresh banana bread muffins (I’m a sucker for good banana bread), fresh watermelon and hot tea. For dinner, we had quite the spread: Prawn soup, curry with fresh fish, chicken cashew, grilled sweet and sour chicken, fresh pineapple, and grilled fish (without the curry). Unfortunately I couldn’t eat too much, lest I start chumming the waters when we got back in the canoes.
- Before dinner each boat group teamed up with their guide to build a kratong – made of banana leaves, a piece of a banana tree trunk, flowers, incense, and candles. A kratong is traditionally made and floated on a body of water to bring good luck and honor the goddess of water during the lunar festival, normally in November. Our kratongs were being built for fun, so we floated them in the water and took them back out after snapping a few photos. I’d like to say I did quite a lot to help make the kratong, but all I really did was fold banana leaves and look pretty for the pictures (and one could argue I didn’t even do that right). Most of the work was done by our guide, and I must say he did a great job.
- Unfortunately, it was low tide at night which means the hongs would be dry. Instead of going inside a cave or hong to experience the three natural light sources (moonlight, the kratongs, and bioluminescence from phytoplankton) we had to settle for a dark recess in the side of a limestone karst. While not the awe inspiring experience I was expecting, it was still pretty cool. You could slap the water and watch both your hand and the water glow in the dark for a few seconds.
- The real fireworks occurred on the boat ride back to the pier. The stars and moon were out and the boat wake was glowing bright green from the phytoplankton. Every once in awhile a fish would jump out of the river and leave a fluorescent green trail in the air. The water was calm and the cool sea breeze and ocean spray felt nice and refreshing after a hot day in the sun. I had a “pinch me” moment just sitting on the boat trying to take it all in. One of the guides mentioned everyday is like this. Maybe I just found a new career.