Hong by Starlight – Our Phuket Highlight

Spring has officially arrived in Guiyang!  The trees are all in full bloom, the sun is out and the weather is gorgeous!  After 3 long months of rain and feeling like my very bones were cold, I am warm, wearing a skirt and am not bundled in 3 layers of clothing!  I couldn’t be happier!!!!

Everything is becoming greener again!
Everything is becoming greener again!
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The tree I posted last week has completely opened up and started shedding its flowers. I get to walk by this at least twice a day 🙂

The warm weather has inspired me to write about the highlight of our time in Phuket.  Our incredible Hong By Starlight Tour had it all: breathtaking views, adorable animals and fantastic food!  The trip TO the Hongs alone was impressive in of itself, but it all went uphill from here.

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The karst landscape reminded us both of our Li River Cruise in Guilin.
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There were gorgeous cliffs and plenty of islands to see.

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Now I suppose I should explain what a Hong actually is.  We passed many islands during the hour and a half boat ride to the islands we’d be exploring.

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Cute little islands like this 🙂

A small number of islands near Phuket are hollow inside, and those are called Hongs.  They are only accessible by caves and those caves are only accessible at certain points in the day, dependent on tides.  Our tour involved seeing three of these Hongs by  Sea Canoe…an inflatable canoe, designed specifically to go through caves.  They are very tough and can be deflated if the tide is too high and the squeeze is too tight getting in or out of a cave.  They are also unflippable…which is always nice 🙂

Hongs are lagoons, located within an island.  The only way to get into one is by going in through a natural cave.  These caves can only be accessed when the tide is low.
Hongs are lagoons, located within an island. The only way to get into one is by going in through a natural cave. These caves can only be accessed when the tide is low.

Though there are several companies who do these tours, we booked ours through John Gray’s Sea Canoe, which has won many awards for eco-tourism and has rave reviews on Trip Advisor, as well as on their website.  Of course, we had to experience the tour ourselves to really understand why they’d won these awards.

This is John Gray.  He is a very interesting guy who has spent his life trying to save the earth by educating people about the damage we do on a daily basis
This is John Gray. He is a very interesting guy who has spent his life trying to save the earth by educating people about the damage we do to it on a daily basis

Talk about a top notch tour!  Every aspect of our day exceeded our expectations.  The food was fantastic.  Not only was it delicious, but because John Gray is all about environmentalism, the fish was net caught (not farmed) and the chicken was free range.  This means that everything you are served on this tour is cruelty free and chemical free.  A nice touch.

Did I mention it was also delicious???
Did I mention it was also delicious???

The staff were also incredible.  Not only were they knowledgeable and friendly, but they seemed to really care about the company they work for.  They asked us to speak quietly while in the Hongs, to not disturb the wildlife.  No garbage was left behind and I actually saw our guide, Ole, pick up garbage that had been left behind by other groups.

Ole has worked for John Gray's Sea Canoe for 16 years.  He is fluent in English and is so incredibly informative!  I felt like we were on a wildlife education tour!!
Ole has worked for John Gray’s Sea Canoe for 16 years. He is fluent in English and is so incredibly informative! I felt like we were on a wildlife education tour!!

When you add up these elements of the tour, and add in a truly fascinating and beautiful tour destination, you’ve created quite the memorable day trip.  So here it goes…I’ll go one cave at a time 🙂

Cave #1 – Diamond Cave and Lagoon

As we approached first island, I could see the small entrance while still in the canoe, and it made me a little nervous.  I’m a tad claustrophobic, so the idea of going into that small opening made me quite scared.  I made sure to get it on video so you can see what it was like going into that dark space.

I didn’t have zoom on at all through that video and a moment after I stopped making the video, the ceiling was so close that I would have cracked my head on it if I’d even tried to sit up a little.  Quite the experience!!!

But then you make it to the end….

Suddenly there's sky above!
Suddenly there’s sky above!

Words fail me here…the inside of these islands is something I hope everyone in my life gets to experience at some point.  It was worth every bit of claustrophobia I felt!!  And although the scenery alone would have been enough to make my day, Ole had a lot to do with the way we experienced these 2 Hongs as well.  He spoke softly so that the wildlife didn’t run away.  He paddled softly and slowly so that we could enjoy the peaceful stillness of the Hong.  He taught us about the area in a quiet voice and paddled a little behind the other guides so that we didn’t have to be around all the other loud tourists.  These were perfect moments.

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My first Mangrove Tree 🙂 This is the only tree in the world that can grow in saltwater. They are essential to the ecosystem as they act as a nursery and hiding spot for many many types of fish.
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We saw this guy crushing a clam up against the rocks. Monkeys, unlike apes, are excellent swimmers, and they will swim from island to island to find food.
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The entrance to the second Hong
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Such beauty!!!

The way out of the island was a tight squeeze, as the tide had risen a little.  We were the last ones out of the Hong and at some points in the journey back to the boat, I thought we were going to get stuck in the cave and drown.  I could hear our canoe rubbing against sharp rocks and kept envisioning it deflating.  The cave ceiling was close to my nose even while I lay flat on my back, arms and legs tucked.  But we made it through!  I was happy to discover later one that our canoes are built with those rocks in mind and that it’s incredibly difficult to rupture one badly enough that it sinks.  Still…my mind was racing on our trip out of that island!!

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These are some of our fellow tour goers at the opening of the cave, where the ceiling was still high. It got much worse from here. Some of the other guides had actually had to deflate their canoes a little to get out of the cave!!!

Cave #2 – Mangrove Lagoon

After this first stop, I couldn’t wait to see my second Hong!  In spite of my excitement, however, I was able to enjoy the moment and take some pictures of our journey to the second island.

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This opening looks like a giant mouth 🙂
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Beautiful islands 🙂
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I miss the ocean already!!

Our second stop was in Mangrove Lagoon.  I managed to get a video of our entrance into the Hong, although it is a little distracted as Dave was as excited as I was and wanted me to take videos of everything at once!! haha!!!!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VU-oyWmxOWM

This particular Hong didn’t have as much wildlife in it, but what it lacked in primates it made up for in foliage.   There were over a dozen mangroves in the Hong, all different sizes and different shapes.

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I officially love Mangroves!

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And we did see SOME wild life!

Ole spotted a mudskipper :)
Ole spotted a mudskipper 🙂  Can you find it??

The mangroves weren’t the only beauty this lagoon provided.  The rocks were jacked and beautiful and as the afternoon turned to evening, the light in the lagoon made for some beautiful pictures.

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The red rocks were a beautiful contrast to the blue water
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One of my favorite pictures of the entire trip

Our second island was as gorgeous as the first, and Ole proved to be consistent with his tours.  He was wonderful yet again.

We were given a break at this point to swim in the ocean, paddle around in the canoes and take some pictures.  We took advantage of all 3 options 🙂

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Some neat rock formations coming out of the island
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We weren’t the only group there, but there was hardly a crowd. Much fewer people than in any of our other tours!!
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We enjoyed some swimming beside our boat 🙂 I left the water when a gigantic jelly fish decided to join us!!! Being stung by the little ones is bad enough!!!

Supper Break

Supper break gets it’s own section because it was that good.  And no, for once I am not solely referring to the food!  John Grey’s Sea Canoe aims to educate its customers and educate they did!  Not only did we learn about the wildlife in the Hongs and see for ourselves what sort of habitats these lagoons provide, but we were also taught about Thai Culture.

The Thai Kratong:  Proof that it isn't just Thailand's landscape that is beautiful
The Thai Krathong: Proof that it isn’t just Thailand’s landscape that is beautiful

The Loi Krathong festival typically takes place in May.  Buddists build these offerings and set them out to sea, both in gratitude for all that the sea provides and in remorse for the pollution they have caused it.  Each Krathong is different from the next, but they all share commonalities.  For examples, most Krathongs will have marigolds, which represent prosperity.  The 3 sticks of incense represent the 3 major parts of Buddhism: The Buddha, The Monk and Scripture.  Ole explains:

Ole told us that he has been making Krathongs every year since he was a child, so for him, this creation was no big deal.  I was amazed at how so little could look so elaborate!!  I took pictures as he worked.

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The Thai use every part of the Banana Tree. The round part in the middle is Banana tree trunk. The green things surrounding the trunk are made of banana leaves
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He let us help with this part 🙂 The sharper the corners, the nicer the Krathong. My OCD was thrilled at the challenge!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next, he placed orchids all around the trunk.  Traditionally, they use toothpicks or pieces or wood to fasten them on, but because they take these Krathongs back every night, and don't leave them out to sea, for our purposes, metal nails were used.
Next, he placed orchids all around the trunk. Traditionally, they use toothpicks or pieces or wood to fasten them on, but because they take these Krathongs back every night, and don’t leave them out to sea, for our purposes, metal nails were used.
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Next came the marigolds and candles. We lit the candles once in the third Hong…but I’ll get to that!
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Every time I thought Ole had finished, he added more embellishments.
A close up of the birds he made using prebloomed orchids.  I got to keep one.  I've pressed it and should be able to scrapbook it later!
A close up of the birds he made using prebloomed orchids. I got to keep one. I’ve pressed it and should be able to scrapbook it later!

Sending Krathongs afloat also has another purpose.  As you let go, you are suppose to make a wish.  As it floats away, the Krathong takes your bad luck with it.  Within a few hours it becomes waterlogged and sinks into the ocean, where it provides food for fish and other sea life.  I’d love to see this festival take place in November!!  It was such a lovely addition to our already lovely day!!

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Dave and I with our completed Krathong. I tried to get Ole to take a picture with it, seeing as how he did most of the work, but he was more concerned with our happiness than with taking credit for his work.

Once done making our Krathong, we had some free time before supper.  During  break, we had plenty of time for photo ops, which worked out well because this break was during sun set.  Have you ever been on the ocean for sunset?  I hadn’t until our Starlight tour, and wow is it an experience!!!

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All the colours changed as the sun set. It was quite beautiful!!
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This boat was docked the whole evening. It made both Dave and I jealous of its owners. We’d love to retire on a boat and dock somewhere like this overnight!!
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The skies were clearing so we knew we’d have a nice view of the stars once the sun slipped away completely
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Talk about a photo op!!

After eating, it was time to head into our last cave and our last hong.

Cave #3 – The Bat Cave!!

Unlike in China, where things are given names that make no sense, this cave was named perfectly.  Yup!  It was full of bats!  I didn’t get many pictures because at this point our camera was dying, but some of these bats were as big as birds!  We saw hundreds of them once in the cave, but don’t worry, they were sleeping!!

As the last bits of light disappeared with the setting sun, we head into the bat cave…

By the time we made it through the cave and reached the Hong, it was almost completely dark outside.  We could see stars above and we were the only tour group left so it was quiet and peaceful moving slowly through the water in the dark.

On the canoe.  Ready to set out Krathong into the water
On the canoe. Ready to set out Krathong into the water

Ole lit the candles of our Krathong and we set it in to the water where it floated calmly.  The rest of our group were setting theirs into the water as well and when we looked around, we could see fire floating on water all around us.  It was quite the scene.

Ole told us to make a wish as we let go of his piece of art, and we had a hard time thinking of anything more we could want in that moment.  So we wished for a happy life for all 3 of us.  What more could we want?

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The tour was nearly over and it was time to make our way back out through the cave.  It was completely dark now and the stars were shining above us brightly.  We were able to stay sitting up while we slowly paddled through the Bat Cave; it has high ceilings and the tide was low.  Ole had one more surprise for us, but it couldn’t be caught on camera so I’ll have to tell you about it instead.

For anyone who has seen Life of Pi...we got to see the real thing.
For anyone who has seen Life of Pi…we got to see the real thing.

He told us to reach into the water and move our hands, and as we did, little specks in the water lit up.  We were surrounded by Bio-luminescent Plankton, that light up when the water is disturbed.  We put our feet and hands in the water and watched it light up!  Then we splashed water onto the walls of the cave and watched THEM light up!  This plankton can only be seen in the dark and I think it was so cool that we got to experience it while in Thailand!!!

Only special cameras can catch these creatures on camera.  Here's something I found on Google.  It doesn't come close to showing how cool it was, but you get the idea!
Only special cameras can catch these creatures on camera. Here’s something I found on Google. It doesn’t come close to showing how cool it was, but you get the idea!

Before long we were back on the boat, on our back to Phuket.  I felt sad that our Starlight Tour was done, but I comforted myself with the hope that some friends might come visit us next year, and we can all go see this together!!  It’s an open invitation, so if you’ve been thinking of meeting us in Thailand…read this post again if you need more convincing!!!

I’ve only got one more post to write for Phuket, and that will be arriving on my page some time next week.  Thanks for reading!!

4 thoughts on “Hong by Starlight – Our Phuket Highlight”

  1. Marie was a beautiful piece of
    Information and photos and videos . Stunning surroundings !! I don’t think I could do the caves though you are brace 🙂
    You are so truly blessed to be living somewhere so go rogues enjoy xoxoxoxox

    Like

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