(Photo by Matt Burns)

The ceaseless screeching of cicadas filled my ears, and the pungent aroma of guano invaded my nostrils as I drifted into a cave off the coast of the southern Thai city of Phuket.

I was riding in a yellow, three-person canoe paddled by Nick, our helpful tour guide (like most Thais in the tourism biz, he shortened his name for the benefit of Western tongues). We had just entered what’s known as the Bat Cave. The only light emanated from Nick’s flashlight, which ping-ponged along the clusters of bats lurking overhead, not hovering long enough to upset them.

“When you look up at the bats, be sure to keep your mouths closed. And cover your necks!” joked John Gray, the garrulous American ex-pat whose renowned company, John Gray Sea Canoe, organizes this and other adventure trips around Phuket.

The trip would wend from Phang Nga Bay into various hongs, or sea caves, which spill into lagoons surrounded on all sides with enormous rock formations. If you’re lucky, you’ll see some of the crags’ resident longtailed macaques scrounging for dinner near the water’s edge.

Later, we journeyed into Diamond Cave, where drops of water have evaporated and frozen onto stalactites, giving the impression of sparkling diamonds. The all-day event ended with the making of krathongs—elegant offerings to the Lord Buddha made from banana leaves, incense sticks and floral garnishes, which we pushed into the sea.

This was just one snapshot in a series of experiences during a two-week trip to Thailand— but it barely scratches the surface of a complex nation rife with as many darkened corners as gorgeous tourist enclaves.

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the December/January Boca Raton magazine.