In November 2012, I had the chance to explore beautiful Phang Nga Bay in Thailand, not far from Phuket. One of the most fun experiences I took part in was going sea-canoeing through the gorgeous hongs, caves and limestone karsts in the area. But apart from just being a beautiful day, this experience was also life-impacting for me, as it is here that I first got a bee in my bonnet about plastic pollution and marine debris.
If you have not heard of Phang Nga Bay, here are the basics. It is a national park (officially called Ao Phang Nga National Park) and covers 400 square kilometres. It sits in the Andaman Sea between Phuket and Krabi, and is filled with hundreds of limestone islands and karsts, as well as a complicated cave system.
The caves are carved out by ocean erosion, and there are actually 2 levels to them. The first level is higher up, and was formed by the water millions of years ago when ocean levels were higher. The second level is at today’s water line, and that cave system can sometimes be traversed at low tide.
The other vital part of the Phang Nga puzzle is the hongs that have been eroded in the centre of some of the islands. ‘Hong’ is the Thai word for room and is a fairly nifty description! The hongs are formed by rainwater wearing through the soft stone in the middle of the island, and it creates a depression from the top down, like a hole in a donut. The ocean washes in through the current cave system, creating a secret little lagoon of sorts at the very centre of the island.
But here’s the coolest thing…
You know how I said above that the current cave system can be traversed at low tide? Well, there’s something you need to know.
With most of the hongs, the only way you can really get through the caves is in a low-lying rubber canoe – and the gap between the rock and the waterline is so small that you have to lie down flat to get underneath.
It is a unique experience to be lying on your back with your head in your fiance’s lap, who has his head almost in the lap of the old man paddling you, who himself is lying down, with thousands of tonnes of limestone passing above you barely inches from your face.
I had the most fun doing this, but I can definitely see how a person with claustrophobia or a fear of water might panic.
Having said that, give it a go! The canoes are manned by experienced Thai men who know just which nook and cranny to direct you through to make things as safe as possible. Our canoeist was a very old, very sweet guy with a big smile, and even though I think I could have picked him up with one arm, I felt completely at ease in his care.
Once you’re through into the hong on the other side, you can sit up normally again and enjoy the view.
We were also taken through some of the mangroves immediately next to the hongs. This ecosystem is vital to the health of the nearby reefs, as they form a nursery where baby fish can take shelter as they grow.
Our tour took close to half an hour, and although the cost was included in our day trip, we were expected to tip also.
What About The Plastic?
You may have noticed that in all the above photos there isn’t any plastic or rubbish, and thus you may be wondering what the hell I’m complaining about.
The truth is, I did my best not to include any rubbish in my shots because I wanted to retain the best memories possible of the day. I think this is a kind of natural reaction a lot of people would have – you might think the rubbish is disgusting, but you don’t want to remember that shit. “Oh hey, check out all the crap floating around in this place I went! Isn’t it awesome!” Wasn’t going to happen.
The other factor is that it wasn’t simply the rubbish around the hongs that I ended up lamenting. It was the rubbish I saw floating everywhere throughout the course of the entire day. Ao Phang Nga is a national park; that means it should be the last place that rubbish collects. If you were in a national park on the land and you saw somebody throwing something on the ground, you’d be outraged, right? If the person was caught, they may even get a fine.
But the ocean is not like the land. A lot of plastic is light enough to become airborne, and in doing so, it can end up in the strangest of places. However, in general, it doesn’t float randomly through the air, and so plastic on land takes some time to move away from the area where it was dropped. Water is different. In water, plastic can end up literally anywhere in an alarmingly short amount of time. Every marine environment is connected – the 7 seas are a myth, there is purely one global ocean – so if you throw rubbish into any water at any time, it can end up in literally any place across the globe.
The other thing that may have caused rubbish to collect in Phang Nga is that the multiple karsts and islands act as small barriers. As children, my sister and I, along with the kids nextdoor, would play at watching things float down the gutters in the street. We particularly loved it when our fathers washed their cars in the driveway (this was before the days of water restrictions) as this meant that bubbles of detergent would float through the gutters to the drain, getting caught on the tiny obstacles in the way. Eventually soap would build up and up along the twigs and rocks in the gutter, while the water escaped underneath.
The pieces of rubbish is like those little soap bubbles – getting stuck in and around the limestone until they finally break free. Different weather conditions throughout the year can cause this to happen to varying degrees, but the rubbish doesn’t just go away once it’s left a place. It merely goes somewhere else. I mentioned in a post on my old site about losing my sunglasses on Karon Beach – goodness knows where they are now. They probably washed up on the coast of Langkawi for all I know.
You see, the presence of this rubbish is not a reflection on Phang Nga Bay or the communities that live there. Phang Nga is a beautiful part of the world, and I really think you should visit it. However, because of it’s landscape, rubbish from anywhere – literally anywhere – can get caught there. Places like Phang Nga can be polluted by thoughtless littering half a world away, by people who have never even heard of the area. When it comes to the health of the oceans, we are all in this together, and that’s something we can’t escape from.
I think what really broke me while sea-canoeing is that, after a day of seeing plastic wrapping and packaging and other crap bobbing up and down everywhere, I could have made a difference. As we were pulling back into the main bay the canoe tours operated out of, we passed a polystyrene clamshell. It was the kind of container that many restaurants put their takeaway food in; the kind that squeaks when you open it, and again when you attempt to squish it into your rubbish bin after eating. As if it is screaming indignantly, “You can throw me out, but I’ll be here forever!”
Guys, this clamshell was only an arms’ length away from me. I could have reached out and fished it out of the ocean. I could have helped fix the problem instead of complaining about it. Instead, I sat there motionless while we sailed on by.
A long time has passed since that day, but I think I remember being petrified that the old man working our canoe would think less of me. Thais like to be clean at all times, and I was concerned that he would think I was disgusting if I picked up rubbish, much less that I brought it into his canoe which he spent his whole workday in!
Ultimately, I think that was an acceptable decision. Whilst I don’t think you should worry what others think of you, it’s important to be mindful of the opinions of those who are your hosts. Being respectful and taking care not to offend can build bridges and make for a better world. Having said that, I have gone over this decision multiple times in my mind and I don’t think it would have been terrible if I had acted differently. Who knows – if I had picked up the clamshell, the old man may have understood perfectly what I was doing, or perhaps chosen not to get too worked up about it. Worst case scenario, he may have told everybody he knew about the crazy and dirty falang who picked crap out of the ocean, but he soon would have gotten over it and completely forgotten about me.
After I’d stewed over the day for a few weeks or so, I realised that that entire dilemma would not have occurred if that clamshell never existed. No matter how much care you take to dispose of plastic properly, it’ll still find its way into places it shouldn’t be. Furthermore, it also messes up the places it should be by causing permanent change to landfill areas and so forth. I could only draw one conclusion: I should do whatever I could to avoid purchasing or using plastic at all times.
My thinking here is a little like my reasons for going vegan. I know I am just one drop in the bucket and all on my own I’m not going to change the world. But that’s all irrelevant. If I know an industry is causing huge damage, I can’t perpetuate it. It’s really a matter of doing the right thing even if you know very little will change.
Since that day in Phang Nga I have not completely eradicated plastic from my life – it’s hard. It’s everywhere! But I have been able to cut down in many ways, and I will continue to attempt doing this for the rest of my life. I have to hope that I’ve been able to encourage a few other people to do the same.
We were paying customers of Simba Sea Trips and I have not received anything by writing this post. We took their Phang Nga Tour and their Phi Phi Sunrise Tour on a different day. If going with them, be sure to book as far in advance as you can as they are incredibly popular.
This post first appeared on my previous site, Not Done Travelling, on 29/9/14.
Have you been sea-canoeing anywhere before? What are your thoughts on the topic of marine debris? Let’s discuss it below!