Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious – a sophisticated word I picked up while watching the musical Mary Poppins. Until now, I never thought I would use this word as I have never had the chance that deemed fit for the usage. But what’s so special about this one-day trip to Phuket? The emerald waters of the Andaman Sea or the sundry mysterious islets scattered all around? Is it the perfectly organized and friendly crew or unforgettable activities planned for everyone onboard? Well, John Gray’s Hong By Starlight is everything stated rolled into one! Beware, this, in fact, is not an endorsed article. I have honestly written what I experienced on the guided tour.
On deciding to travel to Thailand, I immediately looked online for places to visit and experiences to have. Travel websites were filled with promotions and guided tours, albeit with difficult-to-read terms and conditions. Skeptical about the “80% discount offers” in a few prominent sites, I checked with one of my friends for some inputs. The year before, he was on a week’s trip to Thailand, where he had the chance to explore three important tourist cities – Bangkok, Pattaya, and Phuket. With the wisdom he learned from his trip, I was told to avoid Bangkok and Pattaya and head straight to Phuket. That was because Bangkok roads would be congested with traffic during the peak season. Also, hotels would overprice their customers because of demand. After dismissing Bangkok from the list, he advised me to choose Phuket over Pattaya because of this one-day cruise, which was extremely good. Following his advice, I decided Phuket as the travel destination and roped in three of my friends for the trip. So basically, we chose Phuket with the significant selection criteria being the Hong By Starlight cruise.
Reserving your seats in the astounding cruise is easy and available on multiple websites. The organizers have a website as well: John Gray’s Sea Canoe. This link directs you to the booking page for the appropriate trip, but you can check their homepage for a host of other activities as well. Also, booking is available on websites like TripAdvisor, Viator, Expedia, etc. We booked ours from Expedia as I felt customer support and cancellation procedure is better with it. Almost all the websites offer tickets for the same price – For adults, it is 3950 THB/person, and for children (12 & Under), the rate is 1975 THB/person. But it is free for Infants (6 & Under). My friends on the trip were hesitant to join me for the cruise as the ticket price was on the higher side. But I was told not to miss the experience no matter what. In Indian currency, it weighed a little above Rs.9500. So, after a day’s discussion, I booked four tickets.
Phuket is a small island off the mainland. We stayed in a bustling tourist hotspot in Phuket – Patong. One day before the one-day cruise, organizers of Hong By Starlight called us to confirm our attendance. This was reassuring because we did not know how it was going to work out. They notified they would pick us from our hotel in the morning around 8. As informed, we got a call the next morning from a driver scheduled for us. On reaching our hotel entrance, we were surprised to see a spacious luxury van waiting for us. A three-member family from Latvia was present in the van already. We boarded the van right on time, and thus the trip began!
Ao Po is the Boarding point, which is located at the north-eastern end of the island. It was more or less an hour to reach the Ao Po Pier. On reaching the boarding point, we were given the entry tickets and tags. We reached an hour before our departure into the sea. There was a couple of novelty store right beside the pier. Apart from an array of novelties, a diverse range of items like clothes, raincoats, action cameras, selfie sticks, food, beer, and other such attractive products were present. An important point to remember is not to buy anything other than food and beverages. Pricing was hiked up to 3 times for certain products. Also, one of my friends, against my advice, bought an action camera for 1000 THB. Later, during the trip, we found that the action camera was a film camera that could be used underwater. We learned a valuable lesson the hard way. So, after meandering about for some time, it was time to board the boat as all other vans shuttling our co-passengers had arrived. Once ticket verification was done, we were guided through the pier to reach our double-decker boat.
The upper deck of the boat contained seating on the edges, giving a comprehensive view for the passengers. On boarding the boat, life jackets were distributed for everyone. We donned the personal floatation devices given and settled in one corner, as the captain took center stage. The captain started his orientation session with greetings and then moved on to the trip’s history. He described how John Gray managed to put together an impressive crew for sea exploration. Continuing on the topic, he introduced the crew members aboard and then explained about the day’s itinerary. While he was addressing us, salads and fresh tropical fruits, along with beverages, were served to us. All the need-to-know information was shared with us, including the location, its geology, weather, emergency procedures, etc. All this happened for about half an hour as the boat detached from its anchorage and gently moved deeper into the sea.
Hong is the Thai word for cave. And rightly so, the day’s agenda was exploring the mysterious caves that revealed whole new island lagoons. Once we got a bit further from Ao Po, the surroundings changed drastically. And no, it’s not the fact that we were on the water, but there were these small hills on islands. These mounds were fully covered with dense thickets. It was a completely new sight and differed vastly from that of inland Phuket. Also, to get in the Islet, there was no visible beach or an opening. The dark seawater contrasted the colorful islets, and it was a sight to cherish. About one hour since the start, we reached our first stop. Every detail was briefed already, and so, we were told to go downstairs where the kayaks were stored. One kayak could carry three to four people without any issue. For the four of us, two kayaks were offered with a personal guide rowing each of them.
Similarly, there were more than a dozen kayaks with two to three passengers per kayak. The boat was on standby a quarter-mile away from the Islet. The kayaks one after the other started moving towards the Islet.
Weather in Phuket is fluctuating, and that day was not an exception. Till we got on our kayaks, it was sunny. But suddenly, it started to drizzle. The kayaks were directed towards the island one behind the other; We were last in the line. The guide paddling our kayak introduced himself to my friend and me and asked the same about us. He was a native Thai fisherman who also works as a guide during the fishing ban season. He was conversant and fluent in English, Thai, and Mandarin. Most of the guides from the company are multilingual. The group was just paddling around the edge of the island, and I thought we were going to circle the whole Islet.
As we got closer to the edge, we could see the geography of the Islet in detail. The geography of the Islet was rocky, and there were protrusions from carved edges of the Islet, just like prop roots. As we were conversing and observing the surroundings, we lost track of the kayaks in the front. And on inquiring about the whereabouts, the guide casually replied, “You guys will see in a bit!”. This further stirred our curiosity as we paddled further towards a sharp turn.
Voila! There was a dark entrance that led the kayaks into the Islet. The entrance was dark as it was not a split open fission, rather a network of caves that paved the way to the island’s interior. This passage was completely unexpected by me, although the “Hong” in Hong By Starlight literally means a room or cave. Earlier, I imagined the caves to be present on the island and not on edge with seawater flowing into it.
The cave entrance was intimidating, with even more protrusions from all angles. Added to that, the roof of the cave was also not high. As a matter of fact, we were requested to lie back on the kayak while traversing through the dark cave. We followed command while the guide skillfully paddled the kayak with just a torchlight attached to his head. The guide asked us not to lie any further and showed the cave’s roof while briefing about its structure. Within a few minutes under the dark cave, we saw a beam of light from the other end. And again, it was time for us to lie back as the exit arched too low. The exit was a bit tricky with sharp boulders projecting above from the water. But the guide shrewdly directed the kayak safely out of any trouble.
As we got up, we were taken aback by what was in front of us – a whole new paradise with its own mini-ecosystem. And I am not exaggerating when I am saying “a whole new paradise.” The conditions within the Islet was different from that of the outside. All the other kayaks were circling in the seawater now masquerading as a dwarfed lake. With the seawater flooding in through the caves, the central open space of the Islet was filled with hip-deep water. But the water was sluggish, and my friends (who, by the way, are professional swimming coaches) retorted from jumping into the water for a swim. The guides allowed us to delve into the setting for an hour before returning to the mother boat.
Once everyone reached the boat, we were told the next stop was just twenty minutes away. The boat traveled further down south to reach another hilly island. We were expecting a similar trip into and out of the island. So again, we got ourselves into the kayak and paddled near the Islet. Here, the cave entrance was visible, and the roof was much higher. The minuscule waves caressing the land rippled the waters around, and that made for a fun kayaking experience. As we entered the cave, our guide mentioned it was a bat cave (no, not the one that belongs to Batman). The cave was stinking from bat poo, but we could not spot any bats. The guide mentioned that the bats would retreat to the caves in the higher ground during the day. It was quite fascinating to retrospect upon the fact that those colonies of bats had the islands to themselves (I wonder what they do for their entertainment!). Jokes apart, it was a new and worthwhile experience. Compared to the previous cave, roving through the bat cave was not complicated. Of course, we had to deal with the stench.
Bat caves led us into a small rivulet-like waterbody surrounded by modest gorges on either side. The path was confusing as it had numerous meanders, but due to the guides’ gathered wisdom, they were confident with the path. Contrarily, to the passengers, it sure was a complicated route. One needs to know the tidal range as the route might change based on the water in it. With a confident crew such as John Grays’, we reached the Islet’s central waterbody similar to that of the previous one. There was a small mound of sand with a tree in the center. As we got close by it, I noticed other kayaks circling the tree.
Amidst all the murmurs, the guide informed us that there were walking fishes nearby the tree. One such walking fish was climbing the tree with its fins/legs. The ecosystem within this island was different than the previous one with the presence of much more diverse fauna. In half an hour, we retreated back to our boat.
It was time for us to paddle to the third island. The entrance for this atoll was wide open, and therefore it was easy for rowing inwards. Yet again, this place was distinct with a miniature beach formed in the lagoon. After circling a few times, the guides gave the paddles to us to kayak around.
This lagoon was deeper than the previous ones, and the water was better as well. It was not sluggish due to a consistent fill of seawater. My friends dived into the water and swam across for quite a while. Meanwhile, I was trying my luck at kayaking. Other passengers were occupied with activities of their own. There were few families who got down on the beach for some while others drifted further to explore the Islet. All this happened while it was raining heavily for a few minutes with the bright sun peaking at times. Never have I ever experienced such contrasting weather within a matter of minutes.
Rains got intense, and I thought we were taken back to the boat. No! The guides let us decide about the proceedings. We spent a little too much time kayaking as we were the last to get out the isle. I was kayaking my way back to the boat while my friends were swimming all the way.
On reaching the boat, we saw all the other kayaks capsized and tied to form a makeshift slider. The setup was an instant water theme park fabricated by the guides.
Everyone, including the kids, tried running through the wobbly kayaks. Although many failed and fell into the sea immediately after crossing one or two kayaks, few managed to run across till the end and dived. People took turns to run one after the other on the kayaks, while some were just swimming and the rest observing and cheering them from the deck. This activity again is something that was completely unexpected, and I am sure everyone that day had some serious fun.
In the afternoon around 3, all the passengers assembled on the top deck after failing to dry the outfit. It was time for lunch, and a beautiful seafood buffet was arranged attractively by the time we settled. And by the buffet, they were generous with their menu. Starting from fresh tropical fruits like sweet pineapple to healthy broccoli, from Pad Thai noodles to sandwiches, from tiger prawns to chicken dishes, from continental dishes to authentic Thai food, it was a fulfilling lunch. They even served the famous crunchy Thai salad and unlimited beverages to wash that all down. Adding to the glory, the food was hot because of a fully equipped kitchen in the lower deck. The menu was designed to serve people of varied ages and countries.
Loy Krathong is a festival widely celebrated in and around Thailand. It is the Thai version of the festival of lights. The difference lies in the banana tree trunk being used as a floatation object. It is decorated with brightly colored flowers, leaves, incense sticks, and candles.
But nowadays, people use plastic and Styrofoam, which pollutes the water. So, on this cruise, the guides helped us celebrate the festival by assisting us in creating our own Krathong. Kids especially loved this activity.
Also, the guides endorsed the importance of awareness about not polluting the land and sea. Rightly so, our Krathongs were made the old-school way. But where are we going to glide them away? In a dark cave, of course! Crafting the Krathong took up to an hour.
It was already dark, around 6 in the evening. We reached a mystical cave island (in the dark, we could not see the island’s structure). We got on the kayaks as usual and paddled towards the cave. While paddling, the guide asked us to notice the trail left behind by our kayaks. It was glowing green and blue due to the presence of phytoplankton. As we entered the cave, bioluminescence was brightly visible. This was another “first” of my life – to witness the spectacular phenomenon. Our guide stopped in the cave’s center and informed us to glide the Krathong on the water gently. He reinstated the gesture’s true purpose – thanking nature for its abundance. All the Krathongs crafted by our fellow passengers lit the whole cave making it a memorable instance.
After floating the Krathongs, we exited the caves, and I was stunned once again. The sky was clear and darker than ever, paving the way for the stars to be clearly visible. I just laid back on the kayak and gazed at the stars for a mere ten minutes. And it was one of the most satisfactory star gazing that I have done.
On returning to the pier, I recollected the events of the day. Earlier that morning, when we hit the first island, I thought that was an amazing place and exploring that one island was worth the cost. Boy, was I naïve! I constantly was dumbfounded after experiencing one place after the other.
It was an hour’s travel back to the pier, and it suddenly started to rain heavily. This was another occurrence that muddled me, as it was a clear sky one minute and raining heavily the next. On reaching the pier, the captain thanked us and handed over disposable rain-proof ponchos to everyone. It was not necessary as we had the van to shuttle us back to our hotels. But they went the extra mile to serve the passengers better, and it was just the icing on the cake. This shows their expertise and sincerity in serving their customers. Right from the first impression to the finishing touch, everything was planned with minute attention to details – be it the custom made SOTAR kayaks, seafood buffet, trip itinerary, or the experienced and friendly guides. After all, trusting my friend and choosing to attend Hong By Starlight paid off very well. And it is my sincere appeal to everyone out there visiting Phuket to try this out. Do not wonder about the cost, as I am sure at the end of the trip you would definitely be happy like I did!