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travelogue
 PAST ISSUES

INT. TRAVEL ARCHIVE:
677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshu’s most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burma’s many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnam’s urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finland’s Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   
ISSUES 299-

See worthy

Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay.

“Lie down,” warns our guide. We bob in the tranquil waters of Phang Nga Bay, awaiting our turn to skirt the tiny opening in the cliff face into one of the many sea caves that have made this area of towering limestone islands a prime attraction from nearby Phuket.

With a whoosh of the paddle, we're off. Silently gliding under stalactites that threaten to rake off their ounce of flesh as entry toll, we cross the threshold into a world of darkness and bat guano. Formed during eons of geological convulsion and subsequent erosion, the countless caves that etch the interior of these islands are now at the center of Phuket's burgeoning ecotourism industry—an industry whose very success now threatens the area.

 

Rooms with a view
John Gray's SeaCanoe, the first operator to offer tours of Phang Nga's sublime geography, was founded by veteran American explorer John “Caveman” Gray, who began to explore the area in the '80s as an extension of his expeditions in Hawaii.

Specially designed, inflatable narrow canoes provide access to hidden hollows

Signing on for Gray's less crowded sunset tour, we are now scything through the black waters in complete darkness with a motley assortment of complete strangers. But no worries here. Everyone—Thai tourists included—seems equally enthralled by the silence of the cavern, inhabited only by the bats whose guano imparts a certain ammoniac zest to the fetid air.

Wending our way through the hushed grotto, our eyes are just beginning to adjust to the darkness when a glint of light alerts us to the approaching exit. Blinking, we pass out of the cave into a hong (room), a cathedral-like lagoon in the interior of the island whose only connection to the outside world is through the cave at low tide, or from the air.

Formed by tropical Thailand's torrential monsoon rains eating through the porous limestone and causing the ceilings of the caves to collapse, these hongs are a world within a world. Providing a home for delicate mangroves, their sheer, vine-draped walls are inhabited only by birds, monkeys, and, at the moment, our party of 20 or 30 tourists and guides.

Quiet to the point where our conversation is reduced to a whisper, the magical hongs have been protected as part of the Phang Nga Bay National Marine Park.

So far, the protection seems mostly to have worked. Despite the popularity of the tours, the by now multitude of operators seem to have realized in time that their continued existence depends on maintaining the pristine state of the hongs. Garbage is prohibited and, despite the parlous, plastic-clogged state of many Southeast Asian seas, the hongs are immaculate.
Nevertheless, says Gray, the very success of the tours is putting pressure on the area. “Ecotourism puts nature before money,” he notes. “Mass tourism puts money before nature. Ecotourism can only be sustainable when all operators in an area agree to put nature first. That happens in the West, but I haven't seen a location in Asia where all operators put nature first. Most don't even know the concept exists, let alone put it into action.”

 

Sea breezes
Leaving Phuket on a ferry in mid-afternoon, we had lazily chugged our way north into the forest of islands that dot Phang Nga Bay—first made famous in a Bond film—transferring to custom-designed inflatable rubber sea canoes for the caves themselves. Along the way, our head guide, Nakorn Pol-Ngam treats us to a lecture introducing the geology and ecosystem of the area.

Only an hour from Phuket, Pha Nga Bay is a sea of tranquility

Formerly with a less scrupulous company, Nakorn says he went to work for Gray because Gray seemed genuinely concerned for his staff. Now Gray's man on the ground is pioneering the company's newest destination, a cave river system in Laos. Nakorn says he has worked the hongs for close to a decade, yet still seems as spellbound by them as do we first-time visitors.
Returning from the cave to the boat for a leisurely swim, we then tuck into the meal whose odiferous smells have been tantalizing us for the last few hours. As the sun sets, we watch the heat lightning play over the horizon as vaguely menacing fruit bats make their nightly migration from their roosts in the islands to their feeding grounds on the mainland. Washing down our tom ka gai chicken soup and fried fish with a cup of coffee, we prepare for the highlight of our trip.

Easing back into our canoes, we slip through the now darkened seas, phosphorescence lighting the wake behind us. Once again in the hong, we gaze up at the stars in the inky black sky, framed by the soaring walls that define the hong's interior. Could the tourist hustle and bustle of Phuket be only an hour or two ferry ride away?

Back in our hotel in the evening, the spell cast by the hongs of Phang Nga lingers, as it does to this day. But beyond the visceral beauty of the experience itself, the experience engenders thought.

The sea canoe tours of Phang Nga Bay demonstrate both the accomplishments and the limits of ecotourism as a model of sustainable development. While ecotourism here seems to have forestalled the dynamite fishing and poverty-induced environmental degradation that have ravished much of Southeast Asia's crowded seas, its very success has engendered a need for controls. “In Thailand, that may lead to awareness in another 50 years, and actual practice in another hundred,” says Gray, pessimistically. “The big question is if there will be anything else left on the planet by then.”

Nonetheless, when compared with the industrial development that has scarred so much of Japan's once pristine archipelago, ecotourism seems a promising avenue that might be applied to the more scenic areas of Japan's coastline: Sea canoeing in the Inland Sea anyone?

 

Getting there
JAL, Northwest and Thai Airways are only a few of the many airlines serving Bangkok from Tokyo, while Malaysia Airlines, Dragon Air and others serve Phuket directly from other cities. From Bangkok, Thai Airways and Bangkok Airlines serve Phuket frequently throughout the day.

Where to stay
Comprehensive lodging information for Phuket can be found at www.phuket-hotels.com. Recommendations include the Chedi Phuket at Pansea Bay (tel: +66-76-324-017/20, fax: +66-76-324-252), and neighboring deluxe hotel, the Amanpuri (tel: +66-76-324-333, fax: +66-76-324-100).

More information
Based in Phuket, John Gray's SeaCanoe also offers tours in Vietnam, the Philippines and Fiji. Tel: +66-76-254-505/6. Email: info@johngray-seacanoe.com, www.johngray-seacanoe.com

Photo credit: Courtesy of John Gray's SeaCanoe

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