Mass tourism at Phang Nga Bay

Phang Nga Bay, known for its karst rock formations jutting out of the sea, is one of the most visited places in Thailand. The bay is certainly beautiful but its popularity destroyed all of its charm. The most popular, shortest water routes are unbelievably crowded while more far-off destinations require hiring your own boat.

In short, you can choose between a relatively budget option among maddening crowds or a very expensive trip away from it all. The small and sleepy Phang Nga Town doesn’t have much tourist infrastructure but is a good place to enjoy a night market frequented by locals.

floating fish farms in the sea with karst formations in the background
Fish farms near the floating village at the Phang Nga Bay

Since Phang Nga can be visited only by boat, the only way of avoiding the crowds would be hiring your own vessel at Phang Nga pier, setting off at dawn and moving further away from the main routes. Remember that the further you go, the more costly it would get so if you are not part of a larger group (six people or so) it’d be very expensive. Avoid buying any tours from Phuket or Krabi- it’d be much more expensive than simply getting to Phang Nga Town and finding a tour on the spot. Our budget allowed us only to take a mass-tourism option which was so unpleasant that we almost regretted visiting Phang Nga Bay in the first place.

Journey to Phang Nga

Getting from Krabi to Phang Nga Town was one of our cheapest journeys in Thailand. First, we took a 20 THB songthaew from Krabi Town centre to the Krabi bus station (located inconveniently on the outskirts). From there, we took a regular, public bus to Phang Nga Town which cost us only 60 baht.

We were expecting to arrive at the centre of Phang Nga Town, find a tour for the following day and search for the accommodation somewhere nearby. However, we didn’t know that recently a new bus terminal was built and all buses stopped quite far away from the town centre (as is annoyingly common throughout South East Asia).

We were just trying to work out a cheap way to get to the town (only a 50 baht tuk-tuk seemed possible) when we were ushered inside the office of one of the two existing tour operators in Phang Nga Town.

The negotiations with the tour operator

Realizing that the man who approached us was the only tour operator at the new bus station, we mentally prepared for tough negotiations. The agent insisted that we should join the boat tour straight away as ‘tomorrow it might rain’. He said the minimum number of people for his tour was four but he was willing to offer us a private tour (normally tagged over 2000 baht per person) for ‘just half price’, namely 1200 baht per person.

Naturally, we weren’t particularly keen to spend this money for a half day trip including ONLY transfer to the pier, long tail boat and transfer back to a recommended hotel. We already managed to negotiate price down to 800 baht when suddenly two Canadian tourists entered the scene. Thanks to their presence, the agent reduced the price to 700 baht which we stupidly agreed on. I’m sure we could have gone down to  at least 600 baht under those new circumstances.

Karst formations in the James Bond island from the boat
The famous James Bond island where one of the old Bond movies was filmed

We were promised a 4 hour tour including stopping at the famous James Bond Island and at the fishermen floating village. A whopping 300 baht per person would have to be paid separately for landing on James Bond Island. However, we could chose to simply stay on board and encircle the island instead.

The disappointing tour

After the negotiations were sealed, we hopped on the agent’s pick-up van and were dropped off at the long tail boat pier where another man took over.  At the beginning, we were riding through mangroves and there weren’t that many boats around. However, once we entered the open sea and got closer to the iconic James Bond Island, the sea became packed with vessels of various speed, shape and size.

Karst formations from the boat with  front of the yellow long tail boat in focus
Heading in a long tail boat towards the James Bond Island

The James Bond Island itself was hugely underwhelming: there wasn’t anything particularly different or attractive about this specific tiny rock. All four of us agreed there was absolutely no point to pay 300 baht for the dubious pleasure of walking on a crowded stretch of a beach full of touts. We just took some photos from the boat and carried on to the next, equally lacklustre attraction.

Loads of tourist kayaks under the cave like pathway between karsts in the sea
Crowded kayaking spot

We approached two massive floating kayak rental outlets on the water. The sea was swarming with dozens of kayaks full of mostly Chinese tourists carried by the local paddlers. The kayaks were constantly bumping into one another and there was a huge queue to paddle through a tiny arch in one rocky island. I just couldn’t believe anybody could enjoy it and could not even imagine how this place might look like at the height of the season.

Prehistoric paintings in the wall of a Karst formation
Prehistoric paintings

Our third, incredibly short stop was to take photos of a couple of prehistoric paintings visible on the rock just above us. There was obviously no explanation regarding what we were watching.

The floating village from the boat and karst formations in the background
The floating village from a distance

The floating village after hours

Everything happened really quickly and we were wondering if we were going to spend another few hours at the last promised site: Ko Panyi, a Muslim floating village. Our ‘guide’, who could barely speak English and wasn’t able to answer any of our questions, showed with his fingers we have 40 minutes to explore the island. I thought it would be way too much of free time but actually it took us exactly 40 minutes to get to every nook and cranny.

A wooden path on stilts in the floating village with the houses on both side
A ‘street’ in Ko Panyi

The floating village was for me the most interesting part of the trip. I was glad we were visiting it in the late afternoon, after all package tourist left and most of the tourist stalls along the main avenue were closed or just closing. It wasn’t the souvenirs we were after.

A floating small football pitch with karst formations in the background and few boats by the side
Football pitch at the village

We dived into a labyrinth of narrow lanes and discovered places where tourists rarely venture, including a small beach full of garbage where some kids were playing. We also saw a famous floating football pitch and a mosque. As most of the villagers kept their doors and windows open, it was easy to get a sneaky-peat of their lifestyle. It was a truly interesting place, though I must say for some reason it was also the dirtiest I saw in the entire Thailand.

Fish drying in the sun on a steel net
Fish drying in the sun

The trip cut short

When the time was up, we returned to our boat, curious what was coming next. As it turned out, the boatman simply returned to the pier, barely 2 hours from the departure. I was fuming. I paid for a 4- hour trip and felt cheated. The explanation from the agent who received us at the pier was that the trip WOULD HAVE taken 4 hours if we landed on James Bond Island and rented a kayak. Well, I believe we SHOULD HAVE been informed about it beforehand.

Mangrove forest, few boats and a karst formation in the background
On the way back to the pier

The best thing about the trip was that Phang Nga Bay was a pretty place indeed and that it was just four of us on the boat. Otherwise, it was disappointing and definitely not worth the money.

I have little doubt that this agent’s competitor had an identical itinerary therefore my advice is: consider skipping Phang Nga Bay altogether. It’s over-hyped and if you’d like to see some nice karst formations, you could do that in Krabi or Khao Sok (or both) instead. Even better, leave that trip until you visit Vietnam and get blown away at Ha Long Bay.

Phang Nga town

As most of the tourist come to Phang Nga bay on a one-day trip the Phang Nga town remained a very authentic place. The food from the night market (near to the old bus station) was very good and unbelievably cheap. However, the accommodation wasn’t good value for money. We could find only posh accommodation when searching online and the prices quoted by more modest guesthouses on the main road were unacceptable. Finally, we settled for the recommendation of the agent – we got a rather depressing, dark and mosquito infested room for 350 baht.

The tour agent told us that we would’t need to take a tuk-tuk to the station to catch a public bus to Takua Pa, from where we were planning to take another public bus to Khao Sok National Park. In fact, even if we wanted to do that, it’d be rather impractical with the luggage, as only motorcycle taxis were available that morning.

We read that the buses stop in front of the Tops chain store, across the street from the former bus station. However, when we started asking the people around about the bus timings (most of the people don’t speak English, mind you), we were warned that the bus may or may not turn up. Nobody really knew when would it arrive. Therefore, when a minivan stopped in front of us I thought we might give it a try and negotiate. As the van was almost empty, we settled on the price of 350 baht for two of us, almost the same as we would have paid for both buses. We were really lucky.


How to get there?
You can get a cheap, local bus from Krabi and (a bit more expensive) from Phuket. There are also direct buses to Bangkok (be aware it’s a long, 13 hours journey). If you’d like to get to Phang Nga from Khao Sok, you’d need to change in Takua Pa.
You’d need to pay for a tuk-tuk or a motorbike taxi to get you from the Phang Nga bus station to the town centre.

Prices [in Thai baht as of May 2018]:
700 THB a bargained 2-4 h boat trip to Phang Nga Bay with a local operator (no guide, no food or drink included)
350 THB double room, en-suite
175 THB bargained minibus to Khao Sok
60 THB bus from Krabi to Phang Nga Town
50 THB meal at the night market
10 THB large pineapple (ready to eat)

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