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“Lie as still as you can, lie as low as you can,” my guide whispered as he slowly navigated us into the weave of tunnels. I kept calm and still as I watched the cave close in on me, sharp rocks dangled inches from the tip of my nose.

“This is too narrow. I am going to have to let some air go.”

As my guide, Souk, gently deflated the canoe with his hands, I should have felt alarmed. The deeper we pushed ourselves into the limestone caves the further the canoe shrunk, and molded itself against the sharp rocks and squeezed through this narrow tunnel. The end was imminent, I envisaged that one of the rocks would pierce the thick rubber coating mercilessly, and both of us would drown in the darkness.

I had left the party crowds of Patong to see the other side of Phuket, where we crossed a serene countryside through laidback Phuket Town to join Phuket Sea Canoes on a day trip to explore Phang Nga Bay, an area that is part of the Ao Phang Nga National Park, protected for its natural beauty and ecological importance to the area. Dotted with limestone islands, or islets, each a distinct sculpture out of the sea so beautiful that it has been the backdrop of many movies such as ‘The Beach’ and of course, 007 The Man with the Golden Gun, of whom an island is now named after. I had come with expectations of the big open sea, now I am no longer sure what I had signed up for.

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I was however, feeling surprisingly calm. Above us colonies of small furry bats hung swaying on their hind claws, squeaking and fidgeting among themselves, staring at us with their beady eyes, mocking our attempt. Everything was silent; the only sound came from the hissing of air escaping from the rubber under my weight. A chilly draft eerily whispered through the tunnels and Souk’s face suddenly broke into a laugh. Had he gone mad?

“It’s air! Do you feel it? We are here!”

‘Here’ was yet another 200 meters ahead of us but I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and a wave of relief washed over me. Twenty minutes earlier, my claustrophobic husband had already retreated back out of the tunnel to the safety of a nearby beach, unable to handle the disorienting feeling of complete darkness. I patiently floated along, allowed my eyes to slowly adjust into darkness and now back to light, and trusted that Souk would eventually deliver me to the paradise he had promised.

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And what a paradise it was. After fifteen minutes of paddling, pushing, shoving, hissing, squeezing and sliding we emerged out of the tunnel into what I can only describe as a hidden Eden.

We were in what is called a ‘Hong’, a collapsed cave system common across the national park, where unique eco-systems have formed over the years, home to intertidal forested wetlands, with at least 28 species of mangroves, as well as 88 bird species among the various fish, reptiles and mammals. What seems like just another sea-protruding island from the outside is an enclosure filled up to the cliff walls with lush tropical vegetation and wildlife.

Souk steadied the canoe to let it drift naturally with the smooth movement of the tide. Among the limestone fortress crabs scuttled along the shallow mud pools and mudskippers jumped on and off the mangrove roots; a grey heron stepped slowly and gracefully looking for its next meal and white-bellied sea eagles circled the sky above. I lounged back into the canoe, closed my eyes and listened, I enjoyed a moment of peace when a high pitched call pierced through the peaceful surroundings behind me, I turned my head to see two crab-eating monkeys chase each other into the cliffs.

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I could have spent my entire day drifting in this enclosed oasis and listening to the chirps and shrieks of birds and monkeys, however time was short and there were sunset cocktails to be had back on the main boat. So, through the same darkness and the same effort we exited back out into the open ocean.

“How did it go?” my husband asked as he approached our canoe.

“Outer worldly.” I replied.