The Hong by Starlight tour is one of the top-rated attractions in Phuket. This full-day tour brings guests to the grand limestone karsts and sea caves in Phang Nga Bay. There are elements of a private tour, with each twosome getting a personal kayak and guide. With lunch and dinner included, this tour is excellent value for the once-in-a-lifetime sights that you will witness.
The drive from our hotel to the port took less than an hour. We were staying in the quiet Nai Thon area, so only one other couple was sharing the van with us, who we ended up becoming good friends with for the rest of the tour. If your hotel is in Patong or Old Town, expect a much longer drive and a more crowded van.
Arrival at Port
The Ao Po port where the tour departs from has a souvenir shop on the premises. Hats, sunscreen and other souvenirs are for sale. If you want to drink alcohol or soda during the tour, you must buy it here from the souvenir shop. The boat’s cooler only contains bottled water. The prices of beer at the port shop are reasonable. Remember to get cans, as I’m not sure if there will be a bottle opener on the boat.
Any drinks purchased can be stored in the communal cooler. Yes, you will have to trust that none of your fellow tourists steals your drinks. We were, surprisingly, the only two people to bring beer on board, but nobody “accidentally” took our beers.
Make sure to use the toilets at the port before boarding. They are in the back right corner of the shop. The toilets are not the best. There were sitting toilets, but there was no paper, and the soap at the sink was watered down. There are two toilets on the boat, but you don’t want to be queuing for them and missing the scenery.
Boarding, Orientation and Light Lunch
An open-air bus took us for a thirty-second drive down the length of the pier. Some light refreshments were served shortly after we boarded. There were fresh bananas, pineapple, fried noodles, salad, spring rolls and four types of juices. After lunch was cleared, coffee and Thai tea was served.
While we ate, we enjoyed the view of the rocky islands in the distance. The guide with the best English talked about the itinerary and cracked light-hearted jokes. Use this time to change into your bathing suit or use the washroom. Once the boat gets to the first cave, it’s pretty much non-stop activity until dinnertime. Wear clothes that you don’t mind getting wet and leave your shoes on the boat.
Cruising the Hongs and Sea Caves
There was a slight change in the itinerary since the tide at the first cave was too high. The tour simply went to another cave, and we came back to it later when the tide was more favourable.
John Gray Sea Canoe provided waterproof bags for anyone who wanted them. We didn’t bother with one since we wanted our cameras handy for pictures. If you have a crossbody bag, that will be good enough. It wasn’t splashy once we were in the canoe, and our phones stayed dry.
Boarding the sea canoe is a bit wobbly and takes some balance. The guide sits at the back and paddles. Whoever is in the middle boards first, and will have to scoot back once on the canoe. The person sitting up front will have the easiest time getting in and out. Don’t bother putting on a life jacket. It’s bulky and will get in the way when going through some of the caves.
Every pair will get an inflatable kayak and guide for themselves. The English skill of the guide can vary significantly. We got really lucky even though we were one of the last to pull a name from the hat. Our guide was Chan, a cheery Thai man with above-average English skills. Our friends from the van got a guide who could barely communicate with them, so they missed out on a lot of information.
There is a photographer standing in the water that will take your photo as you pass by. The photo will be in a souvenir frame and for sale at the end of the tour when you’re back at Ao Po port.
While on the canoe, we got up close to the stunning, looming rocky islands. We travelled through lots of tidal nape sea caves that would lead to sheltered pockets or “hongs” with cliffs on all sides. Chan was a wildlife enthusiast, so he often pointed out birds, snakes and monkeys and told us interesting factoids about them.
One of the coolest, most unique things we did on the tour was traversing through squishy tunnels in the low caves. We both had to lie down as flat and tight as we could, arms tucked in and our faces off to the side. I wasn’t able to turn around to see, but somehow Chan did the same while also paddling. We floated through the cave, the rock just centimetres from our faces. These tunnels would lead to beautiful secluded lagoons with turquoise waters.
After about an hour and a half of exploring the scenery, Chan took us back to the boat. Before moving on, everyone had about 45 minutes of free time. We were allowed to take a kayak and paddle ourselves around. Kayaking is hard work, so we went swimming instead. Don’t make the same mistake I did and change out of your swimsuit once you’re done. There’s one last canoe ride at the end of the night.
Make Your Own Kratong
The next activity begins very quickly. I went to the washroom to change and arrived back at the cabin to a flurry of activity. The materials to build a traditional Thai Kratong were spread out on the main table.
Chan showed us how to fold the banana leaves that make the base of the Kratong. This was pretty much our only contribution to our Kratong. Chan worked with the skill of someone who had done this a hundred times as he placed decorations and made beautiful lovebirds out of flowers.
All of the other groups were kind of like this: with the tourist doing simple work and the guide making most of the Kratong. The other guides were joking around and showing each other the delicate thing they just made. I get the feeling that it’s an in-house competition among all the guides to see who can make the most intricate Kratong.
The dinner was very impressive, considering that it was all cooked in a tiny kitchen on the lower deck of the boat. The quality of the dishes was comparable to a highly rated restaurant, and there was more than enough food for everyone.
Bowls of tom yam soup were served as the first course. The buffet spread included a big pot of pineapple fried rice (vegetarian and non-veg), two different kinds of sauteed veggies, vegetable and seafood tempura, fried fish, chicken Masaman curry and deep-fried fish with cashews. There are unfortunately no proper tables on board, so everyone had to eat with their plates on their lap.
Releasing Your Kratong
At sunset, we all went back onto our kayak with our guide. We travelled through another cave to release our Kratong. The water was very shallow in the hong, only reaching up to our ankles. Chan lit the candles and offered to take pictures of us with the Kratong before releasing it into the water. It was quite lovely to see all the other Kratongs illuminating the shallow lake.
Once the candles had burned down, Chan retrieved the Kratong to properly recycle it after the tour. On the way back, one of the guides spotted some bioluminescent plankton. Chan and a couple of the guides splashed them with water so we could enjoy the sparkling light show in the water.
End of the Tour
After the Kratong release, all that’s left is a nighttime cruise back to the port. I wasn’t paying much attention to the time, but it felt like close to an hour. Once back at the port, all of the guides will be on the path back to the pier helping guests disembark. If you want to tip your guide, make sure you find him at this point and give him whatever amount you feel he deserves.
The souvenir photo from the start of the tour will be for sale at a small table on the pier. The price wasn’t bad, no more than a couple hundred Baht. We were tempted to buy, but unfortunately, our picture came out blurry, so we didn’t.
We paid 2990 Baht per person for the Hong by Starlight tour. This was a limited-time promotion price to mark the re-opening of Thailand to tourists. The price of the tour has now increased to 3950 Baht per person. It’s still worth it and we would pay that price.
What we liked most about the tour was that nothing felt rushed or jaded. Even though this tour has run hundreds, if not thousands, of times, all of the guides were enthusiastic and friendly. It really helped that we had such a wonderful guide like Chan. He seemed to love being on the canoe just as much as we did, bird watching and enjoying the tour in his own way.
Everyone should take the Hong by Starlight tour if they can. I don’t think you’ll see anything as incredible as Phang Nga Bay for the same price if you stayed on land, not to mention with two meals included. Even though the Hong by Starlight tour is John Gray Sea Canoe’s “budget” tour, everything from the experience to the food had the care and attention of a tour that costs ten times more.