John Gray moved closer to me on his charter boat’s bench seat. He was holding a plate filled with fresh watermelon and fried shrimp. Lunchtime was almost over, and the deck of the Machakun was teeming with eager, sunscreen-varnished travelers.
It was early spring, and the Andaman Sea sparkled like wrinkled cellophane.
Since our last encounter a quarter century ago, Gray and I had developed a few wrinkles of our own. With his unruly white beard and piercing blue eyes, Gray, now in his 70s, looks almost messianic — an image belied by his bright floral bathing trunks and overhanging belly.
Still, those passengers who recognized him greeted him with awe.
“It’s funny,” he said, shaking his head and laughing. “People come up to me all the time these days. On the boats, even people who live on the islands. They stare at me, mouths open, and say, ‘You’re John Gray!’
But honestly, I’m just another guy.”
That may have been true 25 years ago, when John Gray’s Sea Canoe Co. was a scrappy startup on Thailand’s Phuket (poo-ket) Island. Today, Gray has become one of the Andaman Sea’s most successful promoters, ardent explorers and dedicated conservationists, with four charter boats, hundreds of high-end sea kayaks and more than 100 guests a day.
Since fleeing life as a communications director for a cancer research center in Hawaii in the mid-1980s, Gray has devoted himself to a small inlet of the Malay Peninsula called Phang Nga Bay.
It may be the most beautiful place in Thailand.
Land that time forgot
The bay, about 15 miles northeast of Phuket, is punctuated with more than 40 rocky ko, or islands, the overgrown remnants of an ancient coral reef that once covered the area. Some tower hundreds of feet above the sea, and many hold fascinating secrets, which Gray and his wife, Amporn, began discovering years before my first visit in 1993.
Phang Nga’s islets weren’t unknown before Gray began his trips. Boat tours have long skirted the sculpted edges of these spectacular limestone formations, which were used as a location for the 1974 James Bond film “The Man With the Golden Gun.”
But it was Gray and Amporn who deduced that, when the sea tides were just right, it was possible to paddle through low tunnels and into the open centers of some islands.
From 1990 through 1994, they found dozens of such chambers, called hongs, or rooms. These hidden ecosystems, populated by mangrove trees, crabs, macaque monkeys, butterflies, water monitors and kingfishers, are tropical dioramas, pocket-size worlds in themselves.
After lunch, Gray, a small crew and our guide, Tee, along with a photographer and me, left the crowded one-day tour boat and boarded a smaller, more traditional long-tail boat for three full days of exploring the bay and its island wonders.
Our first destination was through a passageway that Gray called the Bat Cave, so named for the scores of winged mammals sleeping upside down on the ceiling of its spooky entrance. Their dark forms hung parallel to scores of oddly shaped stalactites.
As Tee paddled us through the cave, I leaned back in my kayak like an Egyptian mummy, my nose passing just below smooth calcite formations.
My eyes had barely adjusted to the dark when we emerged into the open interior of the island, flooded with brilliant sunlight: the land that time forgot.
“The definition of a hong,” Gray said, “is that you’re surrounded, 360 degrees, by solid rock.” And once you’re inside, you’d better be vigilant; entrances can open and close in minutes. Even as we drifted, the tide was receding.
Small mudskippers, the first fish to try their luck on land, splashed in the shallows, and we could see the current as it swirled out through our cave passageway toward the sea.
We silently paddled for a few minutes, listening to dusky langur monkeys moving through the trees. A giant hornbill creaked overhead.
As idyllic as the scene was, we needed to make our exit or we could have ended up stuck inside the hong for hours.
Beauty below the water
During our three days on the water we visited about half a dozen islands, paddling quietly into their hongs. Each had its own character. Some were dense with mangrove trees, whose latticed roots (able to desalinate seawater) crisscrossed the water in a crazy grid of Chutes and Ladders.
One of the most beautiful parts of Gray’s multiday trips was the sunsets, enjoyed on private sandy islets as the crew set up cozy tents and built a beach fire.
I had no idea how they did it, but every meal was a small miracle. Skewered prawns, fresh vegetable curry, pad thai, spicy chicken satay, grilled fish, sticky rice and mango … and Kit Kats for dessert.
The evening entertainment was equally magical: After dark, we waded into the warm, shallow surf, where every movement stirred up glittering trails of luminescent plankton.
By midmorning, we were back in the kayaks. Though entering the hongs was a highlight, I also loved paddling around the periphery of the islands.
Here, the beauty often lay below the water: Delicate corals glowed in iridescent shades of green, blue and pearl white. The isles rose above me, high knobs of limestone freckled with shrubs. Their naped bases dripped with stalactites that reminded me, in reverse, of the anthropomorphic hoodoos in Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park.
It was incredible to realize that most of these had been growing for thousands of years, built up by water droplets carrying tiny bits of calcium. Elongating at about 0.03 inch per year, they had gained nearly a full inch since I last visited this bay.
A quixotic battle
There have been other, less subtle changes as well. Despite Gray’s best efforts to protect Phang Nga Bay and its fragile hongs (a passion encouraged by Thailand’s beloved Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, whom Gray taught to kayak), they are in danger of being loved to death by less scrupulous tour operators.
During our three days on the water, Gray and Tee went out of their way to collect plastic trash floating in the water.
And because the bay is a Thai national park, the use of motor-powered boats is officially forbidden inside the hongs (one or two of which are large enough to allow access).
As we paddled toward the entrance to Ko Hong, a steady procession of long-tail and charter boats roared past us, rocking our sea kayaks in their wakes. Half a dozen, filled with tourists, were already anchored inside.
Gray was livid. “No motors in the hongs!” he bellowed from his kayak. But it was like spitting in the ocean. Where there is money to be made in Thailand, conservation faces an uphill battle.
Even if it’s a quixotic battle, Gray is determined to protect this bay and help turn its inhabitants into stewards of their beautiful resource.
“These hongs are just majestic,” Gray whispered as we glided noiselessly into one of his favorites. “It has a buzz to it that gives you chicken skin. When you’re in here, you know that you’re in a special place. That’s why we protect this bay, we honor it, and we’re reverent when we go into these hongs.”
Tee, Gray’s head guide, is also an avid environmentalist. He grew up on Ko Yao Noi, which has about 5,000 residents and is one of the larger islands in Phang Nga Bay. He comes from a family engaged for generations in the arduous collecting of birds’ nests for the Chinese soup market.
Like the other members of our small boat’s crew, Tee treated Gray with reverence and impishness — the latter evidenced by his pale blue T-shirt, worn by all the staff, printed with a simian caricature of Gray above his Thai nickname: Ying Lai, or “Big Monkey.”
“A lot of foreigners come to work in Thailand,” said Tee, paddling our kayak under a gnome-shaped stalactite. “Some just think about how to make money. But John taught people how to kayak and how to work with tourists. He taught us about collecting trash and about how to take care of these islands.”
Tee estimated that more than a thousand locals in Phang Nga Bay were making their living from ecotourism, thanks to Gray’s steady efforts.
“I’ve never seen anyone like John.” he said, shaking his head. “John is different from everyone. The people here will remember him for a long time.”
Although Gray has had some recent physical challenges, the 6-foot-2-inch former athlete is able-bodied in his kayak. All the muscle memory of an explorer’s life returned as he rotated his oars.
During our return to his base on Phuket Island, he held forth on his latest obsession: joining a concerted effort to declare the Andaman Sea a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It would be the world’s largest, from James Bond Island at the top of Phang Nga Bay to the Malaysian border, an area of nearly 4,000 square miles.
“The waters are unbelievable,” Gray said. “We saw sea turtles, dolphins and dugongs [a sea mammal related to manatees] all in the same place.”
“When I think about my legacy,” Gray said, “I think about the way we've taught people to appreciate the natural beauty they have here, and treat it sustainably. And I think about the way my staff and many other people on these islands are living now. Because of our efforts, people here have had the chance to build families, buy cars and houses, and pass their values on to their children.
“It’s not about money,” he said. “It’s about how many people you can help.”
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PHUKET, THAILAND
From LAX, Cathay Pacific, Air China, China Southern, Qatar, Emirates, Singapore and Korean offer connecting service (change of planes) to Phuket. Restricted round-trip airfare from $920, including taxes and fees.
John Gray's Sea Canoe is one of a few eco-aware outfitters offering trips to Phang Nga Bay and its hongs. Full-day trips cost $125 per person, food included ($65 for 12 and younger, 6 and younger free); three-day two-night “mini-expeditions” cost $860 per person ($430 for ages 7-12; 6 and younger free).