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Destination: Thailand : Long-Tailing It to Panyi : Slipping away in a fisherman's boat from crowds of visitors, one small group samples life in an isolated, but not outdated, Muslim community

October 01, 1995|DAVID SWANSON | Swanson is a Boston-based free-lance writer. and

PANYI, Thailand — Sayan Tamtopol stared in frustration at the snow on his TV screen, while the James Bond theme crackled in the background.

Trying not to notice as he fiddled anxiously with the videotape player, six travelers sat in a semicircle on the floor of his sparsely furnished living room, chatting politely. In the background, the generators powering this Muslim fishing village sputtered gently and Sayan's wife fixed tea and dessert.

Finally, Martin, a gangly young Australian who had worked in a VCR repair shop, offered to take a look. After close inspection with a small flashlight, Martin uttered a great Aussie-accented gasp of disbelief.

"Haven't you blokes heard of tape-head cleaners?" he asked.

Sayan offered him a package of Q-Tips.

"What about alcohol?" Martin asked.

No alcohol, Sayan said.

"Liquor?"

Sayan smiled. "No, no nothing like that here."

While Martin was considering what other cleaners might be found on a tiny Thai island, someone suggested cologne. Sayan's eyes lit up. He left the room, returning moments later with a bottle of his wife's perfume.

Martin delicately scrubbed the tape heads, extracting great gobs of dust until he pronounced the machine ready to play "The Man With the Golden Gun."

It was the sweetest-smelling Bond movie ever.

I had gone to Thailand hoping to find a quiet slice of sand to call my own. Perhaps an inexpensive bungalow on a secluded beach. What I found was Agent OO7. My search started in Phuket, an island in the Andaman Sea just off the coast of Thailand, about 550 miles south of Bangkok. But Phuket didn't deliver. T-shirt vendors and farang (Thai for foreigner), 20-story hotels and sex clubs littered overpriced Patong, the island's most famous beach.

Determined to find something authentic, I boarded a local bus for a two-hour trip across Phuket and over the Sarasin Bridge to the mainland town of Phangnga (pronounced PUNG-AH) at the mouth of beautiful Phangnga Bay. Sayan Tours had proudly hung its sign next to the muddy field that served as the bus station. "Boats to James Bond Island and Phangnga Bay," a poster with faded photos advertised.

*

I learned that Ko Khao Ping Kan--a particularly scenic island in the bay--had played a role in the 1974 Bond flick, "The Man With the Golden Gun." Although not one of the more memorable Bond outings, Ko Khao Ping Kan (Ko means island) made a memorable backdrop for the film's finale in which Roger Moore saves the world (once again) from the clutches of a megalomaniac nemesis.

My "Let's Go: Thailand" guidebook mentioned Phangnga Bay and Sayan Tamtopol, who ran tours of the area. The guidebook recommended Sayan (his first name), because, it said, his tours to James Bond Island reportedly avoided the onslaught of day-trippers from Phuket. More important, Sayan also offered a combined tour-and-overnight-stay at the little fishing village of Panyi (pronounced pan-YEE) on the island of Panyi north of James Bond Island. At 300 baht (about $12), the Panyi overnight--which included dinner, breakfast, and Spartan but clean accommodations--was a bargain.

*

I signed up, joining two Australians on their extended honeymoon through Asia, two young Frenchmen, and a German girl who had been studying in Taiwan for the past two years. Clouds rolled over Phangnga Bay as we pushed off in our long-tail boat. Similar to a Venetian gondola, the roofed long-tails of Thailand use an outboard motor and feature an extended rudder and propeller--hence the name--for easy maneuvering through shallow channels.

Taking a route inaccessible to larger boats, Sayan veered from the main channel that leads out to the islands of Phangnga Bay, heading instead into the heart of the mangrove swamps along shore. The tide was out. A maze of channels snaked between low vegetation and the verdant limestone cliffs that dramatically line the bay.

Back into open waters, we motored south through the bay for half an hour or so and arrived at Ko Khao Ping Kan--James Bond Island. The tiny island consists of two stone monoliths, several hundred feet high, connected by a slip of sand perhaps a hundred feet long. Just off the beach is Ko Khao Ping Kan's most notable feature, a dramatic pinnacle called Ko Tapu, which rises straight up from the waters.

We landed and discovered, to our horror, that the short stretch of sand was occupied by nearly a dozen vendors hawking T-shirts and shell trinkets. Enterprising Thais have turned the former movie location into a monument to tourism. It didn't take us long to explore the miniature island, decline the offers of vendors (who already had begun closing up for the day before we arrived) and pile back into our long-tail for the trip to Panyi.

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