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LOCATION
Thailand

Not too long ago the Phang Nga Bay area was a pristine, unvisited region of Thailand – blue water, secret caves, and karst beauty. Those days are over and the whole area can get a bit overcrowded at sea and on land. But in the air? That’s a different story. Whether one is yachting around Krabi or taking a break from a private Phuket island, a trip in a helicopter over the Phang Nga Bay area is a must.

ABOVE: Airbus Helicopter EC130 preparing for take off.

As Phang Nga bay experiences go, it couldn’t be simpler. No crowded boats, no pier lines. Starting at the Phuket heliport, passengers get a bird’s-eye view of green vegetation, small villages, and an abundance islands and dramatic rock formations. From treetops and patterned farming landscapes to shrimp farms and windy rivers, the vistas are uninterrupted, and there’s no denying the cool factor of the ride.

A traveler can step on a Airbus Helicopter EC130 for a faster trip around this fabled Thailand must-see. Safe, modern, and the quietest helicopter on the market, the Airbus is spacious and flies smoothly.

ABOVE: Koh Panyi from above.

The chopper first circles around Koh Panyi, a floating village housing nearly 1,500 people. With a mosque, school, market, restaurants, and a floating football pitch, this fishing community relies on tourism for its sustainability. From high above the crowds, guests can observe the stilt-built homesteads and walkways from the comfort of the air-conditioned Airbus chopper.

Heading further east, the experience continues with panoramas of limestone towers covered with trees that soar up from the Andaman Sea in Phang Nga Bay. Declared a national park, Phang Nga Bay is home to 28 species of mangrove as well as 88 species of birds, living among more than 40 islands, many of which remain uninhabited.

The flight’s destination is a trio of islands forming Khao Phing Kan and Khao Tapu, made famous by the James Bond movie, The Man with the Golden Gun. The movie’s iconic backdrop is Khao Tapu, a karst rising 20 meters above sea level, spanning eight meters at the top and narrowing to only four meters at the water’s edge, just big enough to house the solar panels that fuel the movie’s namesake, the golden gun. The unusual shape is the result of erosion from wind and waves that gradually ate away at the limestone at the water surface.

The flight back from Phang Nga Bay brings more landscape vistas and hidden lagoon views.

An experienced and knowledgeable pilot narrates the 40-minute adventure with the help of noise cancellation headsets, on which travelers can communicate. The Airbus has a ceiling altitude of 10,000 feet and features the latest in active vibration control system technology in a pretty nifty six-seater craft. Upon return to the Phuket helipad, the experience ends with refreshments and cold towels.

This same service – and the same level of service – can be found in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. But, let’s be honest, nothing says tropical Thailand quite like Phang Nga Bay.