Ao Phang Nga
The most popular budget tours of Ao Phang Nga are the longtail-boat trips run by tour operators based inside Phang Nga bus station. Competition between these outfits is fierce and the itineraries they offer are almost identical, so it’s best to get recommendations from other tourists fresh from a bay trip, especially as reputations fluctuate with every change of staff. To date the one that’s remained most constant is Mr Kean Tour; next door but one is Sayan Tour. Both offer half-day tours of the bay costing B500 per person (including national park fee; minimum four people), as well as full-day trips, which cost B800, including lunch and national park fee; take the 8.30am tour to avoid seeing the bay at its most crowded. All tours include a chance to swim in the bay, and most offer the option of an hour’s canoeing around Ko Thalu as well, for an extra B350.
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All tour operators also offer the chance to stay overnight at their own guesthouse on Ko Panyi. Mr Kean can also sometimes offer (dependent on the tides) an interesting alternative overnight programme on his home island of Ban Mai Phai, a much less commercial version of Ko Panyi, with the chance to trek, cycle and kayak.
Local sights around Phang Nga town
Mr Kean can arrange trips to Tham Phung Chang, or Elephant Belly Cave, a natural 1200m-long tunnel through the massive 800m-high wooded cliff that towers over the Provincial Hall, about 4km west of the town centre. With a bit of imagination, the cliff’s outline resembles a kneeling elephant, and the hollow interior is, of course, its belly. You can travel through the elephant’s belly to the other side of the cliff and back on a two-hour excursion that involves wading, rafting and canoeing along the freshwater stream, Khlong Tham, that has eroded the channel.
Mr Kean also offers tours that take in several other local caves, plus Sa Nang Manora Forest Park, which has hiking trails through thick, impressive rainforest and several waterfalls with swimmable pools, 9km north of the town centre.