We all know Mr. Bond—that charming assassin of Britain’s secret foes, that cold-hearted international killer, that well-groomed and deadly rascal in a tux—but let me introduce you to Mr. Boon, a shy man with a round face, a little English and a little car.
The sun had just risen, the dew was still dripping off the leaves in courtyard, and he humbly stood with his hands crossed before him, waiting for us. Nodding and smiling, he carefully arranged and rearranged our single backpack in the truck, then meekly came to the driver’s seat, bowed, and started the car. Ever so carefully, he slid the shifter into gear and rolled us off toward the marina.
Andy and I were headed to James Bond’s island—the site of that womanizing spy’s unforgettable showdown with… some bad dude I can’t remember.
Mr. Boon, though, while not a high-stakes roller of intrigue and rendezvous, is a retired teacher of 25 years. He gestured enthusiastically and pointed as we drove by the gate of his old school. “Here, here,” his balding head nodded furiously, “Here this my sko-hoool.”
And before he finished nodding, we were back on a two-lane road winding over the hill and through papaya plantations.
“It must be hard,” I said, “to teach in such a tourist haven like Phuket. I mean, all the kids want to chase after quick tourist cash instead of studying for a meaningful career for their future.”
“Yes,” Mr. Boon said, “I teach many years. Many students. Happy students.”
I liked this guy.
Mr. Boon was driving us to the port so we could see James Bond’s famous island—a sweeping crescent of golden sand and a wall of sheer cliffs shooting above it. This tropical amphitheater half-surrounds a pillar shaped like an exclamation mark with its spot hidden somewhere below water. If I understand correctly, in these very sands old Mr. Bond once had a standoff with a villain over a golden gun. I’ve never seen the film.
I’m not alone there: Most tourists, I think, haven’t seen it either. But that doesn’t matter. That’s completely immaterial. The Thais all around Phang Nga Bay hype the island so much we start to think that we have seen the film. And that we loved it. And that it might just be the monumental and inspired piece of filmmaking the globe has ever witnessed. They act like this tiny speck of National Park that served for the set of a few minutes of a single spy thriller was exactly the reason we came to Thailand at all. Even from the airport, from the moment you claim your bags, you see the signs: Tour James Bond Island. James Bond Island Excursion. Visit James Bond Island.
You start to think the film wasn’t fiction, and that the world was actually saved with a single showdown on these sands so many years ago.
The truth, though, is that a kindhearted teacher like Mr. Boon, an honest man and a dependable worker, an industrious family man with an eye for the future good, has done much more to save the world than the bullet-slinging magnate of the Bond industry.
The truth, also, is that the very many tour providers all book the same tour. They all have an understanding with a guy with a boat, and they all push his ticket with a hefty surcharge and take a cut of cream off the top. It’s a pretty slick scheme, and they work it to Stockton-Malone perfection—even down to the Mr. Boon who pads his retirement and funds his kids’ college by picking you up from your hotel and courteously spins you down roads lined with rubber trees and pineapples, smiling and bowing with every word he says.
We arrived at the port, paid the illustrious Mr. Boon, arranged a pick-up time, and scooted off down the pier to our specially appointed James Bond boat. Well, that description may be misleading—if it really were a James Bond boat, it’d probably be a slick, curvaceous number with a squad of super-charged outboard motors and a swarm of equally curvaceous ladies displaying plenty of skin. And it’d probably have some sort of machine gun system normally fit to a Class C Destroyer, too.
What we boarded instead was a double-decker heavy as a Vegas buffet and loaded down with tourists smelling of sunscreen. If not quite as suave, at least we matched Bond’s international flavor: Thai, Singaporean, Swedes, Chinese, Malaysian, Russians, and us of course.
Soon we were chugging out of the harbor and into the glimmering Phang Nga Bay.
Here’s how the island hopping scheme works: You climb aboard, you snack on the cooler full of supplies, and you wait to see what the heck the trip holds. Every excursion pamphlet, below the glossy photo spots of smiling and sun-darkened Europeans frolicking through glass-clear surf, sports the italicized line that reads: Tour Plans May Change Without Notice Due to Tide or Weather Conditions. In other words, sign up, fork over your money, shut up, and enjoy whatever the ride may have to offer.
Andy and I settled in on the bow and commenced to oohing and ahhing over the bay’s world-famous sea-scapes.
I’ve boated a bit through the Maldives—those specks of islands shimmer and laze serenely over the azure ripples. Those guys lie so flat and so calm you could almost mistake them for mirages. You see their indolence, their lazing in the tropical waters, floating in the crystal tides, barely above the lapping little waves. But Phang Nga is a world apart: here islands equal in size to the Maldives rip and tear from the water in futile ambition. They spike toward heaven, strain to pile their crags higher, but are doomed to helplessly erode forever—from the sun and the rain above, from the roots of the trees cracking it apart from within, they crumble back to the sea. But they never soften, never yield, never relent: endlessly, endlessly jutting spears to the sky. These are massive natural obelisks of primordial stone topped with a green tuft of jungle, and they stab from the sea at such an alarming rate, I don’t know how the pilots navigate through the forest they create. Locals tell a legend of a giant dragon that lurks beneath the surface of the water—these sea-borne and solitary cliffs, the visible ridges along the spikes of his coiled spine.
The sea-blue cool and melting charm of one, and the dark tension pulsing through the stone veins of the other—both archipelagos have their respective charms.
We shut down the engines at a particularly fat pillar. Its main feature was an armada of tour boats similar besieging it. Ooh. Must be something cool here.
Below deck, a handful of matrons were frying up lunch, and we began milling restlessly. The half-dozen young Thais of the crew began tossing inflatable kayaks into the water. We got some instructions from the head guide. The tingling aroma of frying chilies and onions was spreading over all. And soon enough, Andy and I boarded our tiny vessel and let ourselves be rowed into the gaping maw at the cliff’s base.
It was a difficult journey: as much as I wanted to see what was inside the sea cave, I could hardly stand parting with that upcoming lunch.
Before I knew it, all was cold and very, very dark. The guide’s feeble headlight splashed across the lapping waves and a ceiling dropping steeply, steeply down. Soon we were lying flat in the canoes, jagged rocks slipping inches overhead, and somehow the guide still paddled us deeper, squeezed us through tiny passages scarcely wide enough for a single vessel, scarcely tall enough for a starving marmot to fit into. cThe only indication we had that we were on the right track and not lost beneath the mammoth cliff face outside was the occasional raft of tourists lying flat on their backs and being guided out by the same path.
Then we saw light: brilliant, blinding, inexpressible light that shrunk our pupils in an instant and ushered us into a brilliant little pool of ocean ringed on all sides by towering, glass-sharp cliffs. The entire center of this pillar had rotted away and left a glowing little cove of water in its remains. We gazed at the small circle of blue, blue sky hovering over us; we stared at the imposing walls rounding us in. This was a tiny little plane of existence nearly completely cut off from the outside world. I got the impression someone had busted off the base of a giant beer bottle, planted the neck in the floor of the bay, and somehow we’d paddled inside to stare at the spectacle of life that had risen within.
A handful of hardy mangroves grew here; the floor was sand and mud beneath knee-deep water. We swished and slogged about, taking pictures and whispering in near disbelief. Personally, I could hardly believe anyone ever discovered this place—of all the craggy trunks of limestone spiking from the ocean, how had anyone managed to poke his nose far enough into these holes and caves to follow them through to this tiny little pool of glory? How many of the other towers housed a wonderland in their collapsed core?
And where the heck was Bond?
“I take you picture. Here now,” the guide was offering. At the cave entrance, fellow tourists were craning their necks and straining their eyes as the blackness of the cave gave way to the blinding light of the hidden cove.
You can get out and walk in here—the water reaches only your knees, and your surprised feet sink in sandy muck. This soil works for growing the mangroves—it curls around your toes the same way it welcomes their tendrils and roots; it wraps all in thick and sandy caresses. It’s strangely refreshing. And the mangroves respond in leafy flourishes. We responded by wandering in aimless circles—and by refusing to get back in the kayak until the last one was leaving.
As an added bonus, I got to paddle back.
To be honest, I was a bit miffed that they wouldn’t let me captain my own boat on the way in. “I’m no newbie to a canoe,” I muttered. “I’ve floated plenty of Missouri rivers and cruised plenty of lakes and ponds. Phang Nga ain’t no different. Don’t they trust me with my own kayak?” Well, the smiling guide must have read my mind, because he handed me paddle and sat back to watch.
How did it go? Well, let’s just say that ocean kayaking isn’t as easy as it looks, and merging that skill with some spelunking doesn’t exactly help: it involves lying on your back and somehow navigating the jagged bends and somehow allowing traffic to come past the opposite path, and somehow not smashing your passengers’ feet and faces against sharp outcroppings. Oh, and somehow keeping the dancing blue sphere of the headlamp pointed where it’s needed, but not in the eyes of the others scraping their way through the turns. It involves practice, lots of practice and plenty of guts and a healthy dose of luck. By the time we got back to the boat, I had a newfound appreciation for these wiry Thai teens who rowed the kayaks through these coves.
I also found these guides putting their youthful exuberance to other uses: namely, trying to toss a trio of plump Swedes in bikinis into the bay. The sunscreened girls squealed and giggled and wrestled the tanned young men on the floating dock on the back of the boat. Fallen foes splashed each other with the warm bay waters and peels of laughter. Bright teeth glinted under a flirtatious sun. It was harmless young fun. You’d have to be named Ebenezer to keep from grinning.
Well, almost—in the bow, a pair of Kardashian look-alikes were shucking their designer towels and robes for a personal photo-shoot with the exotic backdrop. Their L.A. nails were too long and too vibrant, their faces caked with So-Cal makeup, and of course they never smiled—not even for their multitudinous selfies. No, sultry and seductive was their theme: hard stares and grimaces, lounging poses on the rusting railing as if this were a yacht meant for a reggaeton music video. They snapped photos of one another, compared postures, uploaded new profile pics and shared status updates. They never smiled.
It’s the social media effect of travel—the ultimate word-of-mouth advertising for any location. For any would-be tourist hotspot out there, here’s a tip: provide ultra-fast 3 and 4-G networks, recruit some twenty-something with smartphones and a propensity to show off, and you’ll see your revenue triple. They’ll plaster themselves all over everyone’s wall and be sure to let them know exactly where they’ve been. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably end up writing it again, but the travel industry ought to cut facebook a massive check for showcasing the world and sparking destination envy—and spending.
Anyway, about the divas: Andy offered to take a few pics of the duo, and I ended up holding our bags and looking awkward. It’s what I do best, as a husband, I think. I hold the bags.
But I couldn’t help but notice the extremes of the boat: the bow given to scowls and stares and discontented scrutinizing of the camera and phone; the stern a hive of giggles and jokes and cross-cultural, cross-lingual dunking and splashing and fun. I wondered which group would engrave better memories of their vacation on their mind. Needless to say, no one wondered which group the guys preferred hanging out with.
Enough pondering for now—grab a plate off the steaming buffet, juggle that with a cup of chilled Coke, and find a seat as we weigh anchor and chug off toward the star of the show: the James Bond Island.
From a helicopter, from a bird’s-eye view, you could probably find James Bond easily enough: it’ll be the island at the blight blue bullseye of boat traffic in Phang Nga. It’ll be the magnetic epicenter hauling all vessels in, the black hole sucking the tourist suckers straight to its core. I can imagine the radar screen now—dozen of tiny slivers arrowing in on the island already swarming with arrows clumped in masses.
Even before you arrive, you start to see Bond’s charm in the traffic it brings.
You only get a half hour here—a half hour to carefully fling yourself into an aptly named longboat, constructed as it meant to capsize, churn your way to shore, scramble out (again, trying not to capsize) and shove all the souvenir hawkers out of your way as you sprint for a view of the mesmerizing beach. Of course they hide the beach behind a tall maze of souvenir shacks.
And there it lies—you stand on the crescent of sand backed by a 30 meter cliff, and you stare into the center of its ring at a pillar that somehow defies physics and continues to stand. It’s the inverse of the crater you kayaked through an hour earlier, the lone stalagmite piercing the sea, ringed by the amphitheater of snapshots, by the tourists crawling over each other like a hive of ants on a drop of honey.
You realize after four or five pictures that there’s not much more you can do with this. It’s a big rock. How do you make that dramatic? So you scramble up some stony paths for a better view. And you do find some new angles, but they’re really not that different, and the sun is still harsh and shadows ultra dark and it’s hard to make anything of the photo except for the giant checkmark off the tourist list: James Bond Island. Yep, saw that one.
Better upload a selfie of it, too.
To me, this is the curious thing—the masses flock here in droves, but I’d wager most of us never saw the film. Even if we saw it, I doubt it was a life-altering piece of art—more likely nintey minutes of cheap escape from reality—and I doubt that the backdrop was anything that touched our hearts. Yet still we book a tourist excursion featuring this very moment, this very formation that never really mattered to us. We fight for a half-hour in the nautical traffic jam continually sloshing in and out. We elbow each other out of the frame for a photo that would otherwise be a curiosity, but not something to get into a frenzy over.
Like the spy himself, the island features plenty of flash, lots of glitz, and a whirlwind of stunts—but you quickly find it’s all special effects, and that at his core, Bond is over-done.
Never fear, though, you can always resort to the next best pastime on the island: photographing couples and families. Chat them up; see where they’re from; offer to take their pic; and share some tips for other places to visit. Meet the fellow tourists seduced by Bond’s charm and the Phang Nga vacation syndicate. Honeymooners to backpackers, trip-of-a-lifetimers to just-another-fling-with-the-spoiled-kiddos—you can meet them all, help each snatch a moment from time’s nonstop movie into a still-life.
And don’t forget to drink lots of water—it’s a scorcher.
When your half hour expires and you trudge reluctantly back to the rocking longboat filling with your tour-mates, when the diva nation finally returns with a plastic sack full of “James Bond Coffee” that she made everyone wait six additional minutes for and will soon rave about in a tweet to all her jealous haters back in The States, when she fails to convince the Chinese grandmother into giving up her window seat and therefore has to climb over her while wearing 5-inch platform heels, then you can wave farewell to the wonder and carry on with the island hopping.
We put on more sunscreen and silently scrolled through the Canon’s shots. Not bad—we somehow succeeded in making James Bond seem like a secluded spot sampled in calm haze of a lazy tropic’s humid buzz . We furthered its tourist appeal in our photos, and we published those on social media. We did our part to make sure the mounds of tourists keep rolling in—the herd mentality of sightseeing: it’s exactly what’s so special about that (or any other) destination, and exactly what’s so challenging about it–the herds.
The tour wasn’t done, though; we still had more lagoons to kayak through, more seas to sample in swimtrunks and smiles. We stopped for a dip in the warm waves, and took turns leaping from the second-story roof of the ship. We kayaked and photographed and swapped stories with the other passengers. Well, with everyone except the Diva Nation—they had more smugness to exude as the splashing Swedes were keeping all the Thai guides occupied. The Divas forced their way into the cabin and napped.
When the sun started sinking and our energy starting flagging, we boarded the boat one last time and set sail for the home port. We snacked on the last of the ship’s provisions and took turns steering the boat. We thanked the crew and passed a bottle of strawberry Fanta around the group.
At last, when the day had faded and stamped the sky gray, when we stepped foot back onto the pier and strolled past the souvenir shacks closing down for the day, there smiled Mr. Boon in his baggy slacks and too-large shirt, nodding a welcome and a “Mr Miss like her trip?”
Yes, Mr. Boon, we’re sunburned and sated with the islands and the bay. We want nothing more than not to talk about Bond for awhile, and share a bite of fish at a beachside food shack. Take us home, man.