Phang Nga Bay, which in English is also sometimes spelled Pha Nga Bay, is a gorgeous, 400 square-kilometre bay in the Andaman Sea. Bordered by the island of Phuket in the west, the province of Krabi in the east, and Phang-nga in the north, Phang Nga Bay is one of the top tourist destinations in Thailand. Sometimes referred to as the “eye-candy” of the Andaman Sea, the bay is dotted with limestone cliffs, caves, unusual rock formations, and fascinating archaeological sites.
A shallow bay with more than forty islands, Phang Nga Bay was named a Ramsar site in 2002. Ramsar is an international treaty between nations to protect endangered wetland areas from development. As a Ramsar site, Pha Nga Bay enjoys protection from the tourist development that has replaced some of the natural beauty of Phuket, Krabi, and other Thai resort areas.
The bay gained Ramsar status due to its shallow marine waters and intertidal forested wetlands, which provide habitat for close to thirty species of mangrove, along with seagrass beds and coral reefs. As for animals, birdwatchers visiting the area might want to try counting the more than eighty bird species that call the bay home, including several threatened species, such as the Malaysian Plover and Asian Dowitcher. Other animals in the bay include 82 species of fish, 18 species of reptile, 17 species of mammal, and 3 species of amphibian. Many of the species that live in the bay are listed as threatened, vulnerable, or endangered.
Besides the biodiversity, Phang Nga Bay is also culturally quite diverse. Small villages are located on a few of the islands, where the mainstay of their economy, fishing, is now supplemented by the international tourism their quiet patch of paradise draws each year.
In particular, the Muslim fishing village of Koh Phan Yee is an interesting site to visit that is included in most boat tours of the bay. Often referred to as a “sea gypsy” village, Koh Phan Yee is located entirely in the waters just off the coast of the island of the same name. All the homes are stilted bamboo houses, shadowed by a huge limestone cliff. Only the village's mosque and graveyard are built on dry land. It is thought that the two hundred families living in Koh Phan Yee are all descended from just two Javanese families who fled their homeland over two centuries ago. Visitors will enjoy the souvenir shops that crowd the village's main pier.
Despite the tourist attention, the devout Muslim residents of Koh Phan Yee maintain their traditional way of life. If you take the option of staying overnight in or near the village, you'll be able to get a glimpse of the “real” Koh Phan Yee, the Koh Phan Yee that's not dominated by tourist activity.
The most common way to see Pha Nga Bay is by boat. Long tail motor boats and sea canoes are the primary form of transport, but it's also not unusual to see kayakers paddling their way around the bases of cliffs and islands in the bay.
Most boat tour operators follow a standard route around weird rock formations, hidden lakes, isolated beaches, and ocean caves. Almost all tours include an obligatory stop by Khao Ping Gan Island, more commonly known by westerners as “James Bond Island”. The island, along with several other spots in the bay, played a cameo role in the 1974 James Bond film, The Man with the Golden Gun.
The Tham Lawt caves are another site in the bay you won't want to miss. Accessible only by boat, the large, limestone cave system is a favorite with kayakers. The rock formations and stalactites make the cave seem otherworldly.
For visitors interested in stunning landscapes, cultural experiences, and unusual wildlife, Phang Nga Bay should definitely make your Thailand itinerary, especially if you were planning a stop in nearby Phuket or Krabi anyway. For scuba divers and snorkelers, Pha Nga Bay is not Thailand's best spot, but there is still some snorkeling and diving to be had here. A tour around Phang Nga Bay and the Koh Phan Yee village make an excellent day trip, and you could certainly spend additional days canoing or kayaking around the cliffs and caves.