The dark cave tunnel gets smaller and smaller. Lying on our backs in a yellow inflatable sea canoe, we will ourselves not to move. Shining our flashlights, we can see the craggy roof bearing down to barely an inch above our noses. But before claustrophobia takes hold, we suddenly pop out into a light-filled hong (hole or room), thick with mangroves reaching for the sky above.
Then our guide, deftly paddling behind us, has a second surprise.
We enter a larger, more beautiful cave tunnel – this one draped with glistening rose-colored stalactites, shaped like scallop shells and fans.
He manoeuvers us through it into a peaceful inner lagoon.
We’re exploring Thailand’s Phang Nga Bay by sea canoe on a tour with Sea Canoe, which pioneered sea canoeing in Thailand.
Made famous by the James Bond flick The Man With the Golden Gun, the pea-green bay between Phuket and Krabi is peppered with hundreds of limestone outcroppings rising dramatically out of the sea. Several are shaped like doughnuts, with an open hole in the middle.
When the tide is right, you can canoe through cave tunnels to the inner hongs.
It’s not just stalactite-filled caves that you encounter. The whole day trip is an explosion of National Geographic moments.
Canoeing around another island, we spy monitor lizards (almost a metre long) flicking out their blue tongues to eat crabs, monkeys swinging in treetops – even local villagers who collect the nests of birds, climbing bamboo ladders, to gather swallows’ nests from cliffs for bird’s nest soup, a prized delicacy.
Janice had already visited the north of Thailand (playing mahout for a day with elephants in Chiang Mai and the Golden Triangle, lucky girl).
So on this visit to exotic Thailand, we venture south from Bangkok to Phang Nga Bay. As well as sea canoeing, we try everything from biking around ancient temples to scuba diving to getting twisted into countless pretzel shapes (aka traditional Thai massage).
Exotic Thailand: Discovering Bangkok
Flying into Bangkok, we shake off jet lag at the elegant Shangri-La Hotel Bangkok, ideally set on the Chao Phraya River.
If you’ve never visited the go-go city of 12 million, be prepared to be mesmerized. It’s fascinating.
Topping the must-do list is the glittering Grand Palace complex.
Built in 1782, the palace was home for four kings, including Rama IV, whose son was tutored by Anna of The King and I. Its soaring golden spires, inlaid mother-of-pearl frescoes, jewel-encrusted winged sculptures and gold leaf murals all dazzle the eye.
The adjoining Wat Pho Temple houses the giant reclining all-golden Buddha. It extends a whopping 46 metres from head to toe.
If you’re game, try a traditional Thai massage.
The temple’s massage school is renowned for teaching trainee therapists the 2,500-year old practice, considered a medicinal treatment in Thailand.
After changing into baggy cotton pyjamas, you lie down on one of 40 beds in an air-conditioned pavilion (in view of other tourists also getting a massage). Then a trained therapist pokes, pulls and pushes your limbs until you’re as limber as can be.
It feels a little like yoga, but without the work, and after a hot day of temple tripping, it’s a great way to cool off and put the spring back into your step.
Also ride along the Chao Phraya River and its web of canals in a longtail boat. This is a skinny wooden boat, powered by a noisy motor at the end of a long pole.
We sputter past monasteries, temples and wooden huts perched on stilts over coffee-coloured waterways, where orange-robed monks bathe and children swim.
Stopping at the Royal Barge National Museum, we gape at a fleet of magnificent barges with golden prows carved into mythical creatures, each rowed by 50 or more oarsmen during royal ceremonies.
At the Snake Farm, you can see cobras being milked of their venom and have your picture taken with a python wrapped around your neck (or not).
Exotic Thailand: Cycling the ancient capital of Ayutthaya
An hour’s drive away from Bangkok is the ancient capital of Ayutthaya – an easy day trip.
Founded in 1350, Ayutthaya enjoyed 417 years of reigning glory. A major trade centre, it exported elephants to India and Persia (no less than 300 to 400 at a time) and spices to European merchants, importing luxury goods such as wine, glassware, guns and clothes for the court and aristocracy.
Today, Ayutthaya is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And what remains are the majestic ruins of more than 500 temples, most of which were built on a small island surrounded by a river moat.
It’s possible to see Ayutthaya on a bus tour. But not keen on mashing our faces against tinted windows, we opt to cycle with Ayutthaya Boat & Travel instead. Not only do we get to ogle the crumbling ruins up close, we also see how the local people live.
Our bikes crunch along stony fields, studded with bell-shaped sandstone pagodas.
And we thread our way down narrow village lanes, past rickety fruit stands and old women grilling chicken on charcoal braziers.
Several stalls sell incense sticks and lotus flowers for praying at nearby Buddhist temples. One also displays cold green coconuts – our cue to stop. The stall owner hacks off the tops with a machete, and we greedily suck up the sweet coconut juice through straws.
The morning ends with a spicy Thai lunch, as we cruise around Ayutthaya island on a converted teak rice barge.
And, then, bliss for sore muscles not used to pedaling – a two-hour traditional Thai massage.
Exotic Thailand: Phang Nga Bay’s dream islands
Next up in Thailand? Blowing bubbles underwater in the southern Andaman Sea, where dive sites are regularly listed in the world’s top ten.
Our base? Koh Lanta, a large unspoiled island near Krabi. It’s blessed with miles of pristine white-sand beaches and a national park with hiking trails. Koh Lanta is also a paradise for scuba divers and snorkelers.
Stay at Pimalai Resort & Spa (splurge on a private pool villa), and you can book dive and snorkel trips through its gold-member PADI dive centre.
We motor out in a large comfortable boat; it even has an indoor teak salon with cushioned seats, rare for a dive boat.
Dropping anchor at the uninhabited limestone islands of Koh Haa, we fin our way through a school of silver barracuda hovering by cathedral-like sea caves and past fluttering lionfish, tiny sea horses and giant moray eels.
If we had more time on Koh Lanta, we would dive another day at the Phi Phi Islands.
Remember The Beach with Leonardo di Caprio? It was filmed here. While famous topside for its beaches, Phi Phi is also known in dive circles for its underwater Gorgonian fans, coral gardens, abundant sea turtles and (harmless) leopard sharks.
Exotic Thailand: Phuket
More seaside escapes follow, and then Phuket, our final destination. The island has boomed in recent years. A four-lane highway now whisks visitors from the international airport, past new condo and hotel developments, to their beach resort.
Cosmopolitan in flavor, Phuket has morphed into the Maui of Thailand.
But that also means you can do as much – or as little – as you like. The sea canoeing tours of Phang Nga Bay depart from the fancy new marina. Evenings may find you in Patong town’s lively bars and clubs, shops and Thai food restaurants, or watching Thai wrestling shows.
Then there are the island’s powdery white beaches.
If it’s tranquility you seek, look no further than the Amanpuri (meaning “place of peace”).
One of us (guess who?) is most interested in the resort’s legendary Aman Spa. She submits to the two-hour “Amanpuri Awakening.”
It begins with a traditional dry Thai massage. The ancient treatment is next enhanced with modern pleasures – a relaxing herbal steam shower, then another turn on the massage bed, where aromatic oils and hot compresses (infused with lemongrass, kaffir lime and bergamot) are used in an exquisite combination of acupressure and flow massage.
Just when you think you’ve enjoyed almost everything Thailand has to offer, you discover another exotic and signature Thai experience.
Our magazine article on exotic Thailand
We’ve been fortunate to visit Thailand several times. (We love it!) This story was based on our most recent visit. It was published as “Exotic Thailand” in World Traveler magazine, Winter 2013. (See a PDF of the print article)