PHANGNGA, Thailand — We were roaring through mangrove swamps aboard a long-tail outboard in "The Land of a Thousand Islands," dodging mammoth limestone formations. Some 1,000 feet high, the islets were covered with moss and trees.
With most of the other six passengers, we sat toward the stern, holding it low as the flower-decorated prow rose five feet out of the water. A silver awning shielded us from the sun as we pulled up plastic to ward off the saltwater spray.
Our destination was Phangnga Island, which is almost hidden in the Andaman Sea, close to Malaysia.
The bay's green pillars, honeycombed with caves and grottoes, often rise almost straight up from calm waters. Eerie scenes range from early morning mists that evoke Oriental paintings to illusory cloud-swathed peaks and pink and orange sunsets.
Mostly uninhabited, except for occasional fishermen, the bay is deserted.
Our pilot headed directly toward one of the limestone outcroppings. As we neared the huge stone hill, an archway opened. We passed beneath it, studying the giant stalactites and stalagmites surrounding us.
After almost an hour in our boat, we docked at Phangnga Island (also called James Bond Island, where it took two months to shoot the five minutes of film used in "Man With The Golden Gun").
We shared the isle with a few Gypsies selling shells on the beach and with many passengers from the ship that had taken us across the Sea of Bengal from Madras, India.
The island consisted mainly of a giant limestone rock with shallow caves leading upward from the beach, which was sloped so we could land our boats.
After leaving the ship at Phuket, a Thai island the size of Singapore, we traveled for three hours by bus north across a causeway onto the mainland.
Here, at Phangnga, we boarded the boat, similar to ones used on Bangkok's klongs , or canals. It took us to a strange village set on stilts and attached to a cliff.
Settled by Nomads
Pan-Yee, a village with a blue-domed Islamic temple, was inhabited by the Chao Ley, nomads from Indonesia, 100 years ago.
Our guide said not to bring any liquor ashore. Imbibing is against the Muslim religion. "Bring even one beer," he warned, "and you get in big trouble."
To reach Pan-Yee, a mini-shoppers' paradise, from the dock, we climbed rickety stairs and crossed a swinging wooden trestle to be greeted by a shopping mall, Thai-style.
Beyond a sign, "Smard Sea Food & Native Handicraft Centre," stood scores of tables loaded with blouses, slit skirts, pants, dresses, bracelets, bangles, beads, seashell novelties, pearl necklaces and earrings, gems, soda pop and T-shirts emblazoned with "Phuket," all at low prices.
The tempting aroma of curries, satay and fish dinners at an open-air restaurant next to the tables almost lured us from the shopping. Wooden walkways took boaters past shops, a school and the village shrimp works.
Following a buffet lunch of Thai food at a modern hotel overlooking Phangnga bay, we were bused through farmlands and rice paddies to the Temple of the Golden Cave with its long, reclining Buddha. North of the town of Wat Phra Thong is another golden Buddha, one that has defied all attempts to pry it from the ground. It remains half-buried.
We'd been warned not to hold bananas in our hands when feeding the temple monkeys, and expected to find hundreds clambering through the cavern.
We uncovered, however, only a small simian scrambling up a rock outside the entrance and one very red-raced, fat, caged monkey about to explode trying to eat the many bananas tossed at him.
The only regular "companions" of the two monkeys were some wandering dogs, a horde of bats in a corner of the main cave, and far below, the horizontal, gold-painted Buddha, about 50 feet long.
The main cave ceiling is 150 feet or higher, with numerous smaller caverns--Dark Cave, Light Cave, Bee Cave, Kitchen Cave, Glass Cave--spinning off from the central Golden Cave.
Our 100-mile bus ride back to Phuket's Patong Bay capped a memorable day.
Known as "The Pearl of Southern Thailand," Phuket (meaning "area of the mountain" and pronounced poo-ket) is the country's only island province. Combined with nearby Phangnga province's fantastic scenery, its beaches have become a tourist attraction.
Phuket's 200,000 people are a mix of Thai, Chinese, Dutch, French, Indonesians and Malaysians earning their living on rubber plantations and in tin mines.
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United Airlines flies Los Angeles-Bangkok, round trip, for $1,013 U.S.; Thai International, with free movies and drinks, costs $1,133; round trip from Bangkok to Phuket is $123.
As for accommodations, Club Andaman at Patong Beach on Phuket charges $20 to $26 for a double, $40 for a suite; Patong Beach Hotel costs $20.50 double, and Phangnga Bay Resort Hotel is $31 double.
For more information on travel to Thailand, contact the Tourism Authority of Thailand, 3440 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1101, Los Angeles 90010; (213) 382-2353.