Sayan Tamtopol stared in frustration at the snow on his TV screen, while the James Bond theme crackled in the background.
Trying not to notice as he fiddled anxiously with the videotape player, six travelers sat in a semicircle on the floor of his sparsely furnished living room, chatting politely. In the background, the generators powering this Muslim fishing village sputtered gently and Sayan's wife fixed tea and dessert.
Finally, Martin, a gangly young Australian who had worked in a VCR repair shop, offered to take a look. After close inspection with a small flashlight, Martin uttered a great Aussie-accented gasp of disbelief.
"Haven't you blokes heard of tape-head cleaners?" he asked.
Sayan offered him a package of Q-Tips.
"What about alcohol?" Martin asked.
No alcohol, Sayan said.
Sayan smiled. "No, no nothing like that here."
While Martin was considering what other cleaners might be found on a tiny Thai island, someone suggested cologne. Sayan's eyes lit up. He left the room, returning moments later with a bottle of his wife's perfume.
Martin delicately scrubbed the tape heads, extracting great gobs of dust until he pronounced the machine ready to play "The Man With the Golden Gun."
It was the sweetest-smelling Bond movie ever.
I had gone to Thailand hoping to find a quiet slice of sand to call my own. Perhaps an inexpensive bungalow on a secluded beach. What I found was Agent OO7. My search started in Phuket, an island in the Andaman Sea just off the coast of Thailand, about 550 miles south of Bangkok. But Phuket didn't deliver. T-shirt vendors and farang (Thai for foreigner), 20-story hotels and sex clubs littered overpriced Patong, the island's most famous beach.
Determined to find something authentic, I boarded a local bus for a two-hour trip across Phuket and over the Sarasin Bridge to the mainland town of Phangnga (pronounced PUNG-AH) at the mouth of beautiful Phangnga Bay. Sayan Tours had proudly hung its sign next to the muddy field that served as the bus station. "Boats to James Bond Island and Phangnga Bay," a poster with faded photos advertised.
I learned that Ko Khao Ping Kan--a particularly scenic island in the bay--had played a role in the 1974 Bond flick, "The Man With the Golden Gun." Although not one of the more memorable Bond outings, Ko Khao Ping Kan (Ko means island) made a memorable backdrop for the film's finale in which Roger Moore saves the world (once again) from the clutches of a megalomaniac nemesis.
My "Let's Go: Thailand" guidebook mentioned Phangnga Bay and Sayan Tamtopol, who ran tours of the area. The guidebook recommended Sayan (his first name), because, it said, his tours to James Bond Island reportedly avoided the onslaught of day-trippers from Phuket. More important, Sayan also offered a combined tour-and-overnight-stay at the little fishing village of Panyi (pronounced pan-YEE) on the island of Panyi north of James Bond Island. At 300 baht (about $12), the Panyi overnight--which included dinner, breakfast, and Spartan but clean accommodations--was a bargain.
I signed up, joining two Australians on their extended honeymoon through Asia, two young Frenchmen, and a German girl who had been studying in Taiwan for the past two years. Clouds rolled over Phangnga Bay as we pushed off in our long-tail boat. Similar to a Venetian gondola, the roofed long-tails of Thailand use an outboard motor and feature an extended rudder and propeller--hence the name--for easy maneuvering through shallow channels.
Taking a route inaccessible to larger boats, Sayan veered from the main channel that leads out to the islands of Phangnga Bay, heading instead into the heart of the mangrove swamps along shore. The tide was out. A maze of channels snaked between low vegetation and the verdant limestone cliffs that dramatically line the bay.
Back into open waters, we motored south through the bay for half an hour or so and arrived at Ko Khao Ping Kan--James Bond Island. The tiny island consists of two stone monoliths, several hundred feet high, connected by a slip of sand perhaps a hundred feet long. Just off the beach is Ko Khao Ping Kan's most notable feature, a dramatic pinnacle called Ko Tapu, which rises straight up from the waters.
We landed and discovered, to our horror, that the short stretch of sand was occupied by nearly a dozen vendors hawking T-shirts and shell trinkets. Enterprising Thais have turned the former movie location into a monument to tourism. It didn't take us long to explore the miniature island, decline the offers of vendors (who already had begun closing up for the day before we arrived) and pile back into our long-tail for the trip to Panyi.
The skies threatened showers and after a few minutes the deluge began. Makeshift canvas curtains lining the sides of the boat helped shield our packs and cameras from the spray. Toward the end of our half-hour journey, however, the skies began to clear and the town of Panyi emerged on the horizon, hugging a limestone crag, its bundle of houses built over the bay on wooden stilts.
It was anchored on a flat of sand on the southern side of the island, and the pale green minaret of a mosque overlooked the rickety village, everything but the mosque situated on stilts 15 to 20 feet above the water. Sayan explained that families of fishermen from Indonesia had settled this unusual spot about 250 years ago to work in fertile waters and have easy access (via boat) to nearby mainland communities. The present population numbers about 1,500 and, according to Sayan, they're all descendants of the original five families. Although the people of Panyi still fish for their livelihood, James Bond has changed their economy. As many as 2,000 tourists a day stop here for lunch, en route from James Bond Island. The great advantage of Sayan's tour is his ability to sidestep the crowds. And here, late in the afternoon, Sayan welcomed us to Ko Panyi, with nary a tourist in sight.
I walked west across the maze of wooden sidewalks in time to see the sunset over the bay. As the sun sank into clouds blanketing the horizon, the wail of evening prayers enveloped the village. This was my first trip to a Muslim place and the brooding song soothed my mind as it pulled at my soul. About 95% of Thailand's people are Buddhists, but here in the south, near the Malay border, one encounters almost as many mosques as Buddhist wats .
Later Sayan led our little group to one of the dining rooms that usually hosts Panyi's lunchtime tourists. One plate after another emerged from the kitchen: a huge fried fish served whole, steamed crabs, stir-fry cabbage, coconut milk-based tom yam soup with abalone, tomato, onion, basil, lemon grass and chilies, a dish of fried shrimp, pineapple and, of course, moist dollops of steamed rice.
While we feasted, battling with crab shells and gulping water between sips of the potent soup, Sayan told us about his village, cautiously reporting local gossip and the changes that daytime tourism has brought to Panyi.
Then it was time to watch "James Bond." (The film was never referred to by its title; Panyi seemed content to treat this 007 movie as the only one ever made.)
Since the climax of the film takes place at Ko Khao Ping Kan, we sat to the bitter end, when Roger Moore finishes off Christopher Lee with the titular weapon. The credits rolled and, on cue, Sayan returned to bid us good night. It was a ritual of which he showed no signs of tiring.
By that time, most of the village's generators had been shut off. We walked to our rooms, aided by flashlights and a full moon reflecting off the water and through the cracks in the plank walkways.
The six of us shared three rooms on the eastern edge of the village. Each room had a dramatic view of the bay's main channel. Three beds and a pair of small tables were all the furniture in the room I shared with the French travelers; a simple mat separated bare feet from splintering wood. Above my bed was a large open window, which overlooked the main dock.
As the village quieted down, I heard Panyi's night music: the sea undulating rhythmically, the wooden supports creaking and groaning, someone washing dishes, the rinse water splashing delicately into the bay. Although the peaceful environment would seem made for sleep, I tossed and turned on the thin mattress through the night. Sometime before dawn, a song. The morning prayer flowed over the village, summoning the men to the mosque for the daybreak service.
I rose from my bed, unable to sleep and headed blindly, barefoot toward the hallway. Using outstretched hands and tentative steps, I felt my way through the walkways to the dock still bathed in moonlight. Fluorescent light glowed from the top of the mosque--a homing beacon for the faithful. A man walked down the pier toward me and dove into the water. A cat purred warmly against my legs. Soon a pale orange light flooded upward from the horizon and the sun rose, unceremoniously, over the water.
As the water lapped up against the pier, I mused over my expectations of a country that has enthusiastically embraced the 20th Century, Hollywood and all, and thought about the adventures we had watched the night before.
This wasn't Thailand the way James Bond would have done it, and yet, by simply stepping onto a local bus, I had dared to leave the tourist treadmill in a foreign country and started a series of exploits that was, in its own way, just as exiting and exotic.
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Floating to Panyi
Getting there: From LAX, there is connecting service to Phuket on Thai Airways, China Airlines, Malaysian Airlines and Korean Air. Lowest advance-purchase, round-trip fares start at $1,000.
From Phuket (which is connected to the mainland by a bridge), the two-hour trip via air-conditioned bus to the town of Phangnga runs about $2 and leaves every couple of hours.
It's also possible to take a bus from Bangkok to Phangnga (13 hours, one way, $8-20, depending on type of bus); or travel via overnight train from Bangkok to nearby Surat Thani (11 hours, $18 one way for a first-class sleeper), and then embark on a three-hour bus ride to Phangnga.
Where to stay: If you decide to stay overnight in Phangnga, there are only a few options. The Muang Thong Hotel, a block from the bus station, has double rooms with private baths and air-conditioning for about $13; (no telephone number available). One can also stay a few miles outside town, near the docks, at the Phangnga Bay Resort (from the United States, telephone 011-66-76-412-067), which features a restaurant and pool, and has doubles from about $50.
The tour: Sayan Tours is located near the center of Phangnga, next to the bus station. Sayan can be contacted through the Thawisuk Hotel (tel. 011-66-76-411-686) in the center of Phangnga or at his office, tel. 011-66-76-430-348. Although Sayan Tamtopol speaks English, some of his assistants have minimal fluency. The five-hour tours leave twice daily, at 7:30 a.m. and 2 p.m., and cost $6. If you choose to stay overnight in Panyi, you will arrive back in Phangnga early the following morning; the tour, dinner, breakfast and accommodation combination runs about $12. Be wary of other guides in Phangnga, some of whom reportedly use Sayan's name, capitalizing on his success.
One can also independently charter a long-tail boat to tour the bay. Go to the dock and negotiate the best rate, about $20 for a few hours. Be sure to book with a guide who has at least some grasp of English so that you can appreciate the sights and agree on an itinerary before leaving.
For more information: Tourism Authority of Thailand, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1100, Los Angeles, CA 90010; tel. (213) 382-2353.