Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Phang Nga Bay

Picture of Phang Nga Bay (Thailand): James Bond island, or Ko Tapu, in Phang Nga Bay National Park
We boarded a boat on a river near Phang Nga, and although we had the limestone islands of the bay already in our mind, the boatman first took us through the backwaters of the bay. Small rivers with mangroves on both sides and an abundance of green was only to get us ready for the bay and its islands. Already here, as in Phang Nga town, we could see tall limestone rocks sticking out of the landscape. Suddenly, the landscape widened, the horizon disappeared in the distance, and we had entered Phang Nga bay itself.

Picture of Phang Nga Bay (Thailand): Hill reflected in the backwaters of Phang Nga National Bay
With the constant drone of the longtail boat engine in our ears, we rapidly passed Ko Panyi and the panorama became truly amazing. High limestone rocks, covered with a green layer of trees and shrubbery, defined the horizon of Phang Nga National Bay all around us. Since the sea was quiet, the peaks of the islands were reflected in the water. We stayed fixed on the landscape unfolding before our eyes, when eventually the boatman guided us to the beach of an island where we explored a cave. After that, we sailed through Tam Lod Grotto and ended up having lunch at a beach with a gorgeous view over the bay.

Picture of Phang Nga Bay (Thailand): Islands peeking out of the sea at Phang Nga National Bay
The boatman disappeared, leaving us stranded on the island in the middle of Phang Nga National Bay, and when he finally returned, he took us directly to Ko Khao Ping Gan. Here, we disembarked and just around the corner, a strangely familiar sight came on our eyes as tiny Ko Tapu became visibile, sticking out of the little bay. This weird rock rose to fame because it starred in James Bond The Man With The Golden Gun. Actually, its more common name now is James Bond island. Unfortunately, this means that it has now turned into a major tourist trap with little stalls selling all kinds of souvenirs on the beach opposite the rock. Filter this out, and you can still appreciate the amazing beauty of the islands.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Ko Panyi

Picture of Ko Panyi (Thailand): Ko Panyi: typical hill towering over the houses and mosque of this fishing villageOn our way to Phang Nga Bay National Park, we passed Ko Panyi, or Panyi island, and knew we would be back later. After half a day cruising the bay with its typical islands and rocks, we moored at one of the many piers of this fishing village. While most other visitors just stay for half an hour, we had decided to stay overnight. In fact, Ko Panyi, established in the 18th century by Indonesian fishermen, at first seems to be a tourist trap. The first streets you see are completely packed with tourist shops, with shopkeepers trying to sell, without even selling anything very special.

Picture of Ko Panyi (Thailand): Ko Panyi: woman adjusting the nets in one of the streetsBut it certainly is a good idea to walk on, and reach what could be called the outskirts of Ko Panyi. No more shops, no more people trying to sell, here is where you see the local fishermen preparing their boats, you see women repairing or cleaning the nets of their husbands, you see children cycling on the narrow strips of concrete that were laid on top of the stilts on which almost the entire village is built. It also brings you to the small mosque of the village (the Indonesian fishermen who moved here were, almost inevitably, moslim), and on to the border of the village. From here, you can have a great view of sunset, while you see the sun give its warm colours to the houses of the village.

Picture of Ko Panyi (Thailand): Ko Panyi: end of street of this fishing village with islands of Phang Nga Bay Upon return, our guesthouse had prepared a surpringly sumptuous and delicious meal for us. While the village had been quite lively just a few hours before, activity died down rapidly and the village rapidly assumed a dark look. No wonder, most of the inhabitants are still fishermen, and early the next morning, we heard the longtail boats with their noisy engines leaving Ko Panyi in search of their nets. Thanks to them, we were in time to see the sun rise from a hazy landscape, see some fishermen return with full nets, and see the village come alive again before heading back to the mainland.

James Bond Island, Phang nga bay

What does it take to put a tourist destination on the international map? Great beaches, crystal clear water, clement weather? Not really… You are certainly best off trying to get it into a James Bond movie! The 1974 film ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ is remembered for three things; a gun (made up of gold jewellery), an arch villain (Scaramanga), and those odd shaped little islands where Scaramanga set up base.

Although on the tourist circuit they are collective know as James Bond Island, there were in fact two islands featured in the movie. Koh Khao Phing Kan in Phang-Nga Bay was the bad guy’s base and cone-shaped (broad at the top and narrow at the bottom) Koh Tapu where he hid what we would call today a ‘weapon of mass destruction’.

Although there is no doubt that James Bond Island is a ‘must see’ destination, you are probably aware of what you will get. Most people reach the island by tour and although there are some genuinely beautiful sights to be seen, the tours usually involve you being dropped of on a beach to be confronted by swarms of vendors trying to palm off tasteless souvenirs! Classic! The tours do often include a lunch at Koh Panyi which is a step in the right direction.

Our advice: Do it… despite everything, it’s an enjoyable trip!

How to get there: There is a bus boat that moves around the islands and ends up at James Bond Island but by far the largest number of people do this trip via a tour from Phuket that takes people through some of the major sites on the way. Alternatively, take a boat cruise from the north of Phuket Island – less crowds and a bit quieter.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

James Bond Island

    This is the reason why everyone goes on the "James Bond Island" tour. They want to stand on the beach in the same place as Christopher Lee and Roger Moore some 25 years ago.

The approach to Khao Phing Kan island is crowded with long-tailed boats. The tourists are only allowed seconds to get off the boat before it returns to the bay to wait.

Thousands of tourists arrive each year to have their picture taken in front of "James Bond Island". This island is known to the Thai people as Tapu Island or Nail Island.

The short stretch of beach facing "James Bond Island" is packed with souvenir stalls and at the far end there is a toilet block.

The 52 souvenir stalls sell cheap trinkets and take up every inch of space.

Ao Phang-Nga (Phang-Nga Bay) NationalPark

Phang-Nga BayAo Phang-Nga (Phang-Nga Bay) NationalPark was declared a national park on April 29, 1981. It lies in the districts of Phang-Nga Town and Takua Thung and the total area is 250,000 rai (1 rai = 1,600 sq. meters). Most visitors are intent on viewing Phang-Nga Bay's bizarre landscape, which includes more than 120 singularly strange looking islands. Therer are many places where boats can be rented to travel Phang-Nga Bay:

- Ta Dahn Soon Kahkorn Pier: near Phang-Nga Bay Resort. Boats from small to large including ones suitable for C tours may be rented.

- Surakoon (or Ka Sohm) Pier: lies in Takua Thung. Here you will find long-tail boats seating about 6 persons each.

- The pier in the area of National Park : has long-tails holding up to eight persons each. It takes about three hours to view Phang-Nga Bay. The best season is from December to April, but because of the calm seas that prevail year round in this waveless body of water, trips to Phang-Nga are an on-going activity. Many companies in Phuket offer sight-seeing tours, and various modes of travel are possible: from long-tail boats, to sea canoes, to Chinese junks. Virtually all of them include lunch in the price of the tour. Check with your travel agent for details. Those wishing to explore on their own can charter a boat and prices are negotiable: If the first boatman you ask quotes a price outside of your budget, don't hesitate to ask another.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Beachfront land prices to rise 15-20%

Beachfront land prices in the three key resort destinations _ Phuket, Samui and Phangnga _ will increase by at least 15-20% this year, mainly due to increasing demand of well-heeled tourists, according to CB Richard Ellis (CBRE). Beachfront plots on Phuket's west coast are currently going at 21 million to 50 million baht per rai, with the exception of Patong beach, where prices have reached 200 million baht per rai.

''It is very rare to find a beachfront plot for sale as most prime sites are already occupied and developed,'' said CBRE chairman David Simister.

Samui beachfront land prices are trailing Phuket's at around 15 million baht per rai, while beachfront land in Phangnga is priced in the region of 5 million to 20 million baht per rai, depending on location and size.

Land prices in 2007 continued to rise from the year before for Thailand's three major beach destinations, although individual transactions fell due primarily to uncertainties about proposed amendments to the Foreign Business Act and political concerns.

Transaction values for the first nine months of 2007 in Phuket were estimated at 6.9 billion baht, down 6.7% from the same period the year before.

For Samui, transactions averaged 413 million baht per month through the first three quarters of 2007, or 3.71 billion baht, down from 450 million per month or 4.05 billion the same period in 2006. Values for Phangnga were unavailable.

''For this year, the number of tourist arrivals will be the key driver to boost the property business,'' Mr Simister said.

The Tourism Authority of Thailand estimates that tourist arrivals should rise by at least 10% this year.

In Phuket, arrivals by air last year totalled 5.47 million, up from 4.49 million the year before. Samui recorded 1.5 million visitors, up from 1.2 million. Arrivals in Phangnga also increased in 2007.

Mr Simister said growth in Phangnga should continue to increase as a number of prime sites remained available for development at relatively lower costs when compared with Phuket and Samui.

Phuket would continue to appeal to the upper end of the market, thanks to world-class facilities. The island has five marinas to appeal to high-end tourists, and more than 500 private jets landed on the island last year.

Around 124 villa projects are for sale in Phuket, with unit prices ranging from $2 million to $5 million. Luxury villas account for less than 15% of total supply.

In Samui, 70% of the villas on the market are priced under $1 million. CBRE says greater development is expected at the $2 to $3 million level in the future.

Mr Simister said more professional local developers with foreign partners were expected to enter the Samui market this year. Development to date has been led mostly by smaller companies.

The arrival of international hotel brands such as W, Conrad, Four Seasons and Park Hyatt would also benefit the property market in Phuket, Phangnga and Samui.

In the next two years, CBRE expects the supply of global branded residences to jump sharply. In Phuket the residences under development: Shangri-La Villas in Bangtao. Other developments in the pipeline include Taj Exotica in Koh Lone, Park Hyatt and Capella in Emerald Bay, Four Seasons in Rawai and Dusit and Raffles Residences in Phangnga.

Samui is following a similar trend with The Estates at Four Seasons, Conrad Residences. CBRE is marketing W Retreat and Residences with prices ranging from 65 million to 205 million baht per unit.

Sea gypsies accept God and a new life

Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont is in Ranong today handing out temporary identity cards to more than 200 Phang Nga and Ranong people.

Many of those identity cards stipulate the holder's religion as Christian.

There has been an unprecedented rise in conversion to Christianity in the region since the 2004 tsunami.

Before the disaster, Christians numbered between none and about two in every 100 people in Phang Nga and Ranong.

Although census records have not been updated, provincial officials say mushrooming numbers of new churches evidences the rapid rise in Christianity in their provinces.

Most of the residents receiving their new identity cards today are sea gypsies who converted to Christianity in exchange for tsunami aid.

This is common among many villages wiped out by the waves more than three years ago, here and in countries like India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

"Previously, sea gypsies never identified ourselves with any religion, but many of us have become Christians. That's the only way we could get help," Suparb Pramongkit said.

"We were as hard hit by the tsunami as everybody else, but we had no access to help from our government because we could not prove our citizenship.

"The Christian Church of Ranong came in and offered us immediate aid and now permanent new homes."

Suparb is a community leader and known as the messenger from God of the Christian Church of Ranong. It built a new settlement on Koh Chang, about one hour by boat from mainland Ranong.

After the tsunami, Pastor Sien Buaget of the Church of Ranong raised money from American foundations to buy land and build a new church and houses. So far, 31 sea-gypsy families who lost their homes and boats to the tsunami have moved there from all over Ranong.

Unlike in Indonesia, and some other countries with religious tension where both state and secular groups closely monitor aid-tied recruitment of new converts, Protestant churches operated freely in Thailand.

Some government officials are reportedly unhappy with their activities, but Ranong senior provincial clerk Palad Mon said local authorities did not interfere. The churches have deep pockets and their help is seen as a means to improve the quality of life of the poor, chiefly the ethnic sea gypsies, most of who are landless and lack education.

"We are still debating if we should have Christian on their temporary IDs, because we don't know what Bangkok might say," she told The Nation yesterday. "We'll decide after a meeting with our provincial governor later this afternoon."

Sien said he was well aware of the controversy surrounding Protestant churches' use of tsunami relief aid as a recruitment tool. But he has never encountered an incident in which his motives have been questioned.

"You go ask the villagers and they can tell you I help everybody, not just Christians. I never talk religion unless people ask me. But, when asked, I'm a pastor and it's my job to tell them the message of God. Conversion to Christianity is totally voluntary," he said, adding that the Church of Ranong has built five churches and mercy centres in different districts of Ranong in the past three years.

However, some sea gypsies blame Christianity for the break-up of families and communities. Suppachok Talaykla from Koh Lanta in Krabi said he had never seen his brother's family after they converted and left the community.

"My brother said he cannot return for family reunions and to pay respects to our ancestors' spirits. His church prohibits him to uphold his original practices," Suppachok said.

"He cannot have our [deceased] parents' pictures in his house, nor can he come back to our annual boat-floating ceremony. This angers me, and I'm not sure if I want to see him again."

Sien said those who were worried over the numerous conversions to Christianity may be surprised that ultimately many would give up the Christian faith.

He said he would be happy if there were just a few believers left in the next two years, from the 30-odd families at his new settlement on Koh Chang.

"I know they came because they needed material help, and that they would leave once they got what they want," Sien said. "I know some of the new churches in Phang Nga had to close down, because nobody attended anymore.

"Oh yes. We knew this would happen, but we received donations to build the churches, and that's what we had to do. We could not use the money for other purposes apart from those of the donors."

Nantiya Tangwisutijit

The Nation

NDWC to install more tsunami-warning buoys

PHUKET CITY: The National Disaster Warning Center (NDWC) has finally received 165 million baht from the central government to install two more tsunami-warning buoys in the Andaman Sea. They are to be installed by the middle of this year, NDWC Director Dr Smith Dharmasaroja told a conference in Phuket City on January 21.

The conference, at the Royal Phuket City Hotel from January 21 to 24, was held to simultaneously update a total of 77 key figures in the region.

At the seminar were Phuket Vice-Governor Tri Augkaradacha, the directors of 24 schools in Phuket, Phang Nga, Krabi, Ranong, Trang, and Satun, as well as officers from Phuket office of the Department of Disaster Prevention and Mitigation (DDPM – Phuket), the Provincial Fisheries Office, Phuket Provincial Education Office, the NDWC and the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology.

Dr Smith confirmed that the budget was approved the day before the seminar, on January 20.

“The two buoys will be about 250 to 300 kilometers from Phuket, much closer to shore than the one already installed, which is about 1,000 kilometers from the coast. They will give us better and faster information than the old buoy; the Meteorological Department will be responsible for making sure they are functioning,” explained Dr Smith.

“The buoys will confirm whether or not a tsunami is approaching, and will be critical in making the decision whether or not to issue a tsunami warning,” he added.

Dr Smith called for the buoys to be installed quickly. “We have to hurry because there have been many earthquakes in the region. We have to open the bidding for contractors to build and install the buoys very soon,” he said.

He also expressed concern about the system of warning towers throughout the six tsunami-affected provinces. “Many areas still need more warning towers and some islands still do not have any warning towers at all. But it’s difficult for us to do anything now because we have to ask for more budget from the government, although we have received many requests from Krabi, Phang Nga and Ranong provinces for more warning towers,” he said.

“I still worry for villages that are far from high ground. They should have tall buildings for tsunami shelters. We now have the budget to build four tsunami shelters this year, but we have yet to begin construction.

“Koh Phi Phi Don has only one tsunami shelter. I think that’s not enough because there are many tourists on the island, and don’t forget what we owe to tourism,” he warned.

“Currently, we have only 79 warning towers in the six Andaman provinces. It’s not enough because many danger areas are still isolated.

“Also, Patong has only three towers and they are not loud. Patong should have five towers. If we have more towers, we will not have problems with people not hearing the warning. We are also currently improving the language used in the warning,” he said.

However, Dr Smith warned, “I’m not satisfied with warning tests. It’s not good enough. We should hold tests more often and not warn people that a test will be held.

Key organizations and figures, such as the Ministry of Interior and local leaders, must develop evacuation routes, he added.

“We will inform people of the warning system through TV and through public notices in tourist areas. People in risk areas should be warned as soon as possible and be able to react quickly,” he said.

Dr Smith repeated his call for the NDWC to be an independent body. “Our problem is that we have only a few officers and our organization is not an independent entity. Some of our executives are from other government sectors. We will appeal to the new government to pass a law to make us an independent entity.

“The NDWC is already recognized by various nations about our duty, service and ability. I want all people in the six Andaman provinces to trust our system and I urge them to follow instructions from officers when we conduct our [tsunami-warning] tests,” he said.

Phuket. Puravarna continues Phang Nga Bay Regatta sponsorship

Click picture to enlarge

The 11th Phang Nga Bay Regatta sees strong entries and sponsorship as the hotel and property development company, Puravarna, continues their title sponsorship of the regatta for the second year.

The 11th Puravarna Phang Nga Bay Regatta will be held 6-10 February 2008. Traditionally held over Chinese New Year, the regatta has cemented its place on the regional regatta circuit and has become known for its great sailing grounds and fun social programme.

“The regatta has become many things to many people over the years. Some people call it “The regatta among the mountains” others call it “The fun regatta”. It is both, and 10 years on, the regatta remains true to it's foundations,” said Caroline Payen, President of the Puravarna Phang Nga Bay Regatta organising committee.

Registration and the opening party will take place on 6th February at Chandara Resort & Spa on Phuket's east coast. The regatta will sail from Phuket into Phang Nga Bay, then to Krabi and Phi Phi before finishing at The Royal Phuket Yacht Club, a Purvarana Resort, on Nai Harn Beach in Phuket on 10th February, where the closing party will be held. There are four race days on the 7th, 8th, 9th, and 10th of February with a party and prize-giving each evening held at different venues along route.

“We try to make some changes every year as is tradition with the regatta. We mix hotel parties with beach parties, and this year we plan to return to the Chong Lat anchorage at the very north of Phang Nga Bay for a party on the mainland. This was a feature of the earlier regattas and after a few years away, we are excited to return. It's a very special place,” commented John Everingham, Vice President of the organising committee and one of the three original founders.

2007 saw the largest fleet to date with 50 yachts taking part. The regatta's aim is not to grow into the largest regatta in the region, but retain it's unique sailing grounds and fun notoriety. With entries for 2008 already strong at 28, and many more expected, the organisers are bracing themselves for another large fleet.

“It is not our intention to grow the regatta to be like others. We complement other regattas in the region and wish to remain that way. We work together with the local sailing community on Phuket and a large part of our fleet are locally based yachts,” added Payen.

Sponsors this year include Puravarna, Raimon Land and QBE Insurance, as well as a host of local island sponsors who continue to support the event each year. The regatta is organised and supported by SEA Yachting magazine, with racing and on-the-water support from the Ao Chalong Yacht Club.

To enter or find out more about the course and the regatta, go to

Duncan Worthington
Image: Somtam trapeze: © Simon James