Indonesia, North Sulawesi

Borneo to Sulawesi to Halmahera 

30th August to 30th September

Bye-bye Malaysia, hello again Indonesia, sailing eastwards along the northern islands of Indonesia, warm welcomes, happy people, gorgeous scenery, white sandy beaches, clear waters P1020561

The last few days and nights in Malaysia include happy hugs and fond farewells as the Malaysia rally ends and differing plans have many of us parting ways. There’s a final ‘steamboat’ dinner with rough-humoured Aussie wit and banter, the need of Indonesian visas, Malaysian exit paperwork, stocking depleted food stores and diesel tanks, and a foul foul anchorage (where rafts of plastic rubbish stream almost constantly by, and given windy nights, many boats including Henrietta drag anchors, in my case the anchor always retrieved and festooned with clumps of plastic, old ropes and stinky slimy mud), and thankfully a repaired mainsail (sent overnight on a local bus to Kota Kinabalu, an 11 hour trip, returned three days later with seams restitched – but a new sail is needed!)…..enough of this, I was to tell you of the next country.

Indonesia once more……But before we leave Malaysia here is a link to video made by one of the Rally boats.

 

And so after leaving Malaysia the past month has taken us some 800 miles east, from our final port, Tawau the stinky rubbish one, in Sabah, to Kalimantan and over the top of Sulawesi to where I write this, Morotai, an island to the north of Halmahera.IMG_E2338

Most of the month was spent traversing the top of Central and North Sulawesi and when I look back at all the places we saw, people met, reefs snorkelled and dived, meals shared, hills climbed and events attended, I realise this summary would soon get out of hand. So, I’ll just cover three things: a bit about Sulawesi, a bit about time with my young guides in Toli Toli, and a quick mention of other happenings.

Sulawesi, like so many islands in Indonesia, is huge, fascinating, distinctive, diverse. (We’d touched islands off Southest Sulawesi last year). Sulawesi was once upon a time called Celebes. The sea we crossed is the Celebes Sea. It’s the world’s 11th biggest island, slightly smaller than Britain (ie. England, Scotland, Wales, which is 9th), and has about 20 million inhabitants. The biggest city, Makassar, is in the south. I went there a long time ago, when it was called Ujung Pandang and had less than half its current population of 1.3 million.

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Sunset and local fishing craft, Toli Toli

Much more interesting is Sulawesi’s amazing range of flora and wild life, dozens of species being endemic to Sulawesi alone. It’s part of Wallacea and hence is home to species of both Australasia and Indomalaya: cute tarsiers, macaques, strange pigs (one called the ‘warty pig’!), colourful lorikeets, and many more. There are lots of nature reserves (I visit two), and three marine protected areas, one of which we visit.

But as so often, deforestation threatens the future of much of this diversity. Thinking about the gross consumerism and wastefulness of modern mankind makes me feel sad and urge you please to think very seriously before you go on yet another needless shopping spree. But I’m not here to preach…

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Some of Toli Toli’s fishing fleet

 Although southern parts of Sulawesi, particularly Tanah Torajah are popular tourist destinations, very few foreigners ever visit the inaccessible towns in the northwest; just an annual flock of migrating sailing boats, perhaps 20 boats in all that pop in. The generous warm welcome of Indonesians is both extraordinary and humbling, and I’m often bothered at the thought of how we in the West too often treat too many of our visitors and immigrants.

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A part of the vast crowd that seems to want to see what we look like

Here we are treated like royalty. Hands are shaken and photos called for, many hundreds of times. A village welcomes us with over 1,000 people neatly dressed and apparently happy just to have a glimpse of mainly aging foreigners with hidung panjang (long noses)!  Food is offered, welcoming dances are performed, speeches and greetings given. (You soon come to sympathise with the plight of popular monarchs for whom this sort of thing is central to their lives)

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A traditional dance – with very sharp knives

First port in Sulawesi is Toli Toli, which I reach after a typically sleep-deprived two nights from Nunekan, Kalimantan (which is Indonesian Borneo). It’s been a delight to be sailing again after so many weeks with very very little wind, and I rejoice at not hearing the almost constant steady throb of diesel engine. (From here I’m more resolved to let the wind and weather determine where and when I go, no longer bound by the timetable of a Rally fleet or need to maintain high speeds in windless conditions.) 

On kayaking ashore in Toli Toli, I’m met by a smiling gathering of young men and women, and children too. They are mostly graduates from the local University who’d been taught by Hendra, the charming and helpful tourism official who’s overseeing this annual visitation of a dozen or so sailing boats.

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The town of Toli Toli. Our boats in the hazy distance.

Two of the young, Ma’ruf and Lisa, are allocated to me, and soon become friends and guides for the next few days. They each have a motorcycle and I take turns riding pillion with one then the other; both careful drivers – but her’s the more comfortable bike.

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Ma’ruf and Lisa visit Henrietta

Ma’ruf is local and very familiar with the town and area. He’s touchingly helpful and always willing to take me anywhere, arrange anything and introduce me to his many friends. A graduate of the local university, he’s another of the thousands of bright young Indonesians who cannot find work that will use his talents. He works in a local motorcycle dealership doing I’m not really sure what.

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Another market shopping trip

Lisa, with a warm wide-eyed slightly flirtatious smile, is clearly clever. Though I sensed from a humble family, she’d won a scholarship and studied applied statistics at Makassar University; now writes letters in search of gainful employment. She’s spirited beneath the Muslim decorum and willingly tries a session with snorkel – not a usual Indonesian practice.

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Kirsten teaches Lisa to snorkel (full Islamic dress adds to difficulties!)

And so, as a happy trio and later with others, we visit market, mountain walk, special tea trip, traditional house, dance, snorkeling, dinner with the mayor, Saturday night out, and more….

Photos to summarise: –

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Joyful swimming in cool fresh pool

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Vaguely art deco architecture in Toli Toli
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I think we’re used to help market strange local tree-leaf tea (eternal health youth and beauty etc.)
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Dinner  and group photo with the Mayor of Toli Toli (centre with grey beard and clenched fist – he’s very popular)

P1020522After the fabulous welcome and entertainment laid on during our week in Toli Toli it would have been too easy to be disappointed with the next stops in North Sulawesi. 

But it was OK, at the next stop Buol, we meet the King and Queen. I think I’ve never met a king or queen before – anywhere. P1020536He’s charming, faultlessly polite and gently smiling and dressed in informal regal gear; but, as we sit around amiably sipping plastic cups of water, asking innocuous questions, and declining yucky-looking little cakes in gaudy colours, I can’t help feeling the king would really rather be out fishing in his own simple little traditional fishing boat. He likes fishing.

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Posing with the King and Queen of Buol

And then, we visit Buol schools, we swim in tiny pools and plant some rice (expecting photos from headteacher in a few months to show us what I’m sure will be an utterly pathetic harvest – Westerners haven’t a clue.)

Next stop, Kwandang, would normally have been more rewarding but unusual wind direction means island anchorage untenable; only five of us boats lingering for long overland drive to regional capital, Gorontalo, and an offshore island to snorkel. But we’ve bought some beer and morale remains high.

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Several schools to visit

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…and then, I’m rambling on…several more anchorages en route to final Sulawesi port-of-call, the City of Bitung. More trips, a bit of shopping, walking and talking and looking and thinking – the sort of thing any retired Englishman might do; except here it is an adventure, every hour full of surprises, little mysteries, peculiar foods, smiling faces. (To keep my head out of the clouds and spirits subdued, I do follow the Brexit saga. Proxy vote ready for the showdown/s that must inevitably come.)

…and finally I bid farewell to many friends who now head south towards Australia, my heart heavy at the knowledge that most, I shall not see again, but warm with thoughts of experiences shared over the past five or six months….Henrietta carries on eastwards.IMG_2240

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Dancing and crowds and flags and banners and warm welcome at Bunobogu

 

 

Sabah, North Borneo

Labuan to Tawau

15th to 30th August

Musings on the Rally, meandering along the coast of Sabah,  around the top of Borneo, wildlife, walks around Mount Kinabalu, Kinabatangan river, clearer waters and so on…

State flag of Sabah

Just as a week sharing space on a sailing boat very quickly shows you most of a fellow sailor’s fine qualities, skills, personality and blemishes, so a few weeks with a sailing rally soon uncovers the truths of our fellow boaties: the very good, the sometimes bad and, alas, occasionally the teeny bit ugly; national stereotypes confirmed, dismissed or, more usually, just a bit modified.

But I tread carefully; the British have more blemishes than many. And above all, sailors, all those on the sea, help one another, share a wonderful life and always learn from one another.

Rally fleet at anchor, Pulau Bohaydulong

 

We join local people for beach clean-up near Sandakan

I loosely joined the rally from Langkawi, West Malaysia to East Malaysia (i.e. Sarawak and Sabah, North Borneo), nearly 2,000 miles, mainly because of the security offered whilst sailing the final few miles close to troublesome islands in the Southern Philippines.

Little wind at dawn as we motor off together
Watching local dance at the top of Borneo
…and trying to follow the rhythm and steps…

In this smallish area extremists have kidnapped unfortunate souls for ransom, and occasional execution – though not, I think, yachts from Malaysian waters – thanks I suspect to Malaysian security forces, acronym ESSCOM, who have escorted us for the past two or three weeks. The escorted bit around northeast tip of Borneo meant decisions about when to leave, where to anchor, where to stop, where to go etc. were out of our hands; we sailed within a grouped flotilla never more than four miles by two miles, maintaining a speed close to 5.5 knots almost all the time, with accompanying ESSCOM vessels and shore stations watching over us.

The reality for the whole rally, covering over four months since April, has been a lot of fun, many new friends and a wealth of experiences.

But, were it not for the security offered for the final three weeks, I’d choose not to join such a rally. Rallies run contrary to the nature of the independent free spirited souls who form the bulk of long distance sailors.

Laundrette – always an early stop in new towns – this one Lahad Datu

 

Over the past  months happiest times have been when away from the fleet of up to 29 yachts, pottering alone upriver in Sarawak, anchoring in secluded bays, snorkelling with one or two others, meeting local people, making our own decisions and choosing our own timetable. Above all I’ve loved land travel with Armelle (who’s been with Henrietta for most of the past two months in Borneo – but alas will not become a global sailor).

We visit and are entranced by proboscis monkeys and, here, silver-backed monkeys (their babies start out ginger and change to silver grey after 6 months)

The above simply summarises my view of the Sail Malaysia Rally to the East. It’s not meant to sway you towards or away from taking part should you be heading this way. But another time, I’d go alone.

Dinghy docks and anchorages sometimes get busy when on a Rally.

From here this post is just a hasty summary of a full month sailing and exploring Sabah, the Malaysian state that covers the northernmost patch of Borneo.

The best way to do such a summary, given I’ve run out of time with internet, is with a series of photos….

 

From Sarawak, Henrietta pottered northwards overnight to the island of Labuan, a busy stretch of sea cluttered with oil and gas rigs and boats zipping hither and thither at all hours. No chance of sleep.

I bypassed Brunei, a proposed rally stopping place, unwilling to visit a country run by a strange dictatorial zealot, however benevolent.

Labuan, like much of North Borneo has historical interest, local colour and a marvelous mix of helpful and friendly indegenous people. Labuan also has duty-free status; yachts sit a little lower, burdened under the weight of beer.

Approaching Labuan at dawn

 

Mount Kinabalu (Borneo’s highest peak) and, below, world’s largest flower, and we do find one…

On next to Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu, and from there land travel to spend a couple of days in Gunung Kinabalu National Park.

Some eye catching sculpture adorn the roundabouts

here it is

A moving memorial to those killed by Japanese cruelty and neglect on the Sandakan death marches

 

After Kudat, we’re disciplined into following the instructions of ESSCOM, though still with some freedom to do-our-own-thing when moored in the larger towns of Sandakan and Lahad Datu.

Pictures from Sandakan and around…..

 

Scones and cream cannot compete with Devon’s but setting is beautiful – near Agnes Keith house

 

Ashore wiith an ESSCOM officer

And from Lahad Datu and around….

Borneo’s biggest gong. Not allowed to bong it as someone had just died in the gong-making village
We spent a night in this ‘homestay’ with a few fellow cruisers, as guests of local and ASEAN Homestay director, Kobra (on the right)

 

Plus there’s a pleasant few days pottering up the River Kinabatangan, and a day’s speedboat trip to the Marine Park island of Sipadan for diving and snorkelling before the final week heading on to Tawau, last port-of-call in Malaysia, and close to the border with Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan).

…a little tributary of river Kinabatangan…in search of monkeys and birds

Images from Kinabatangan River

Martin joins me while Armelle goes to meet her daughter….…  and at the end of the rally, it’s wonderful to have a few days with A and Josephine…… (Here’s a link to Armelle’s version of Sabah )

..who join in heavy rain

Sociable evening, as guests aboard Swiss catamaran Javerne,

         


     

Soon the curtain will close on Tawau and I’ll leave Malaysia – for    a while

Next stop for Henrietta will be Kalimantan, and then I plan to sail further east through more islands of Indonesia….Sulawesi, Raja Ampat and Papua.

Yes, I know it’s going the wrong way for England. But I’ll turn around somewhere and head west again……

 

Sarawak, Borneo

 

Kuching to Miri

Meandering along the coast of Sarawak, Kuching, Borneo’s Longest River, Bako and Mulu National Parks

13th June to 14th JulyIMG_1484

First, a bit about Borneo: it’s the third largest island in the world, more than three times the size of the U.K. The biggest chunk of it, Kalimantan, is within Indonesia. The smallest chunk, but by far the wealthiest per capita, is Brunei. Then there’s East Malaysia, which makes up nearly a third of Borneo, and comprises Sarawak and Sabah. It’s Sarawak and Sabah that I’ll visit in the next two months.

And this chapter of the blog is about Sarawak. It’s the largest Malaysian State by area but has a population of only 2.6 million. It’s wealth comes from timber and oil/gas and palm oil; there’s a lot of all three. The capital is Kuching. I liked Sarawak a lot.P1010296

 

The history of Sarawak is fascinating. A slice of its history from 1839, saw it under the control of colourful eccentric, James Brooke (the white Rajah) and his successors. And after WW II, and the Japanese were defeated, it was a British Colony until independence and Malaysia’s Formation in 1963. P1010334

This blog post is overdue. Lots of excuses…..

On arriving at Kuching Marina (something of a misnomer for the poorly maintained pontoons that protrude into the rubbish-strewn and fast-flowing river a couple of miles from Kuching) from Natuna, Indonesia; after sleepless day/night sail; my solitary solo sailing life came to an abrupt end – at least for a while.

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Kuching Marina (Henrietta top left…before others arrive)

The delights of two strong-minded, lovely women interrupted the reveries of single-handed life. First my sister, Margie, then Armelle, shook me up and set me on the path to righteousness. Margie brought a wondrous load of gifts that surpassed all Christamases for years gone by (spare parts for Henrietta, plus Waitrose muesli and a pair of top quality M&S swimming trunks!)

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Margie and Armelle, Kuching

She’d come for white sandy beaches and coconut palms. But Sarawak’s speciality is crocodiles, murky waters and mangrove, so alas stayed only a few days before leaving to explore the more attractive islands and towns of sun-blessed West Malaysia. There was enough time for her first to explore thoroughly the streets of Kuching and share a trip to Bako National Park.

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We’d had coffee and cake with Lane and Kay (it was raining outside!)

Then Henrietta headed downriver from Kuching (it’s about 12 miles to the sea) along the coast a bit and into the River Rajeng, which is Borneo’s longest river. To an Englishman it seems huge with 10,000 ton ships, express ferry boats and giant barges heading upstream for many miles, collecting timber or gravel or produce or people from Sarawak’s interior.

…photos of vessels on the Rajeng River…

 

It takes two days’ motoring along this wide and delightful river to reach the city of Sibu over 100 km upstream; and Sibu is considered only the starting point for river traffic heading even further inland into the rainforest of Borneo’s interior. You anchor wherever you like near the banks of the river, nights filled with all the glorious sounds of rainforest life, though we also stopped at Sarikei a largely Chinese town where we’re shown a glimpse of Chinese life by Stephen Chang, a generous hospitable local entrepreneur.P1010400P1010376P1010371

As an aside, I add that for some unknown reason Sarawak’s larger towns have chosen items to ‘adopt’ as their local mascots. For Kuching, it’s cats (the Malay word for cat is ‘kucing’, though city has nothing to do with cats!); for Sarikei, it’s pineapples; for Sibu, a swan; Miri, a seahorse etc. Here are photos to give you the gist of it. Just think what you could do with the town of Sandwich in Kent, UK!

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Pineapple in Sarikei
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Swan in Sibu

Were it not too tedious for you to read about, I’d fill volumes with the delights of gentle motoring downriver, meeting local people, fishermen, wise forthright men and women, bright smiling children. Listening and seeing and scenting the fabulous colours of tropical rainforest, rainbows, birds and insects.

But, here are some photos instead….

…images from Sungai Rajeng: IMG_1272

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Traditional Iban Longhouse (on the right)
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Marianne and husband, Nelson, visit us for tea
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Schoolchildren, seven in total , have four teachers from across Malaysia

P1010468It’s a further two days and nights at sea to next stop, Miri. It’s Sarawak’s second city, wealthy with oil money sloshing about, flattened by bombing in the war, then rebuilt but with little local interest. 

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passing offshore gas rigs…there are many such platforms

However, near to Miri are Niah CavesP1010489…and a day later….we take a short flight to Gunung Mulu National Park (flying is the only practical way to get there). IMG_1348Gunung Mulu National Park is cave country, bat caves, world’s largest cavern included, stalactite and stalagmite country, insect country, rainforest, rivers, and mountains; kind clever industrious people. Again, to save the volumes I’d need to write to describe this fabulous area, for now I shall just add a few photos. If you have a chance, you’ll need to go yourself.

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Armelle and I stay on a few days, take a boat upstream and walk to Camp 5. This is the base point for those who’ve booked to climb the Pinnacles. We hadn’t. Instead, the Headhunters’ Trail and unvisited, unspoilt mountain stream provide a wonderful day’s leisure and tranquility. (It had been a sleepless night lying cold and wet in the Camp 5 dormitary, sound effects courtesy of the Malaysian Snorers’ Ensemble).

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Fellow homestay guests, Malay, Polish, French and English

at this point internet becomes too weak to continue.

Here is a link to Armelle’s version of Sarawak in French and English

After a full month in Sarawak it was time to head north for the next Borneo State of Malaysia, Sabah.

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Anambas and Natuna, Indonesia

Some more little islands of Indonesia, snorkels, selfies and dancing

Anambas and Natuna Islands

16th May to 12th June

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Two small Archipelagos (over 500 islands) in the South China Sea

We’d better start with a quick bit of geography. The average participant in a UK pub quiz would not have heard of these islands, let alone be able to locate them. (A year ago I’d not heard of them either.)

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Tarempa, the capital of Anambas

The Anambas and Natuna islands are about half way between Singapore and Borneo, or between West and East Malaysia (Sarawak), in the South China Sea. They are a part of Indonesia, but as they include sizeable reserves of natural gas, others, especially the Chinese, dispute this. (A massive Indonesian military camp is now taking shape here on the largest of the Natuna Islands.)

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A semi-arid ‘waterfall’ with a view and fine for a freshwater dip

The Anambas Islands, there are about 250 of them, offer some of the best snorkelling and diving in the world.  They are tricky to get to (unless you have time or money or a yacht) and the islands are largely untouched.

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‘Pencil dot island’ (it’s that small on a chart) and nice to snorkel-circumnavigate

The Natuna Islands, about 270 of these, seem to have less clear water and more fishing, but as I’ve only been to four of them I must not judge. Villages are tidy and seem relatively afluent – with well-amplified mosques calling us to prayer.

Homes on Tanjung Kumbrik, Natuna

First impressions? Wonderful.

Final impressions (I must leave soon)? Wonderful, exquisitely beautiful, delightful welcoming warm-hearted people, largely unspoilt, isolated and very little visited. I could go on but a poet would do more justice than  prose could ever achieve. I’ll brighten your day with a few more photos.

On first reaching these Indonesian islands from Malaysia (after blissful brisk overnight sail from Tioman, with bright full moon to light the way), we anchor on patch of sand in a classical jungle-fringed tropical bay with crystal clear water, pristine coral all around and a tiny village a half mile away.P1010183

There are some little fishing boats; I’d already forgotten that the small one- or two-man fishing boats in Indonesian islands do not have silencers and their engines have a distinctive loud resonant throaty chugging sound – not offensive, just noisy.  (Size isn’t everything when it comes to volume!).

But they wave and smile as we eye up one another. (Fisherfolk and local people seem to view foreign sailing boats rather as we might join whale/dolphin spotting trips to view our swimming mammals. Certainly the boat-watching visitors like to take photos – to excess.)IMG_1167

Sailing alone I visit nearly one island per day, usually snorkel, clamber up a hill or explore a beach, trying to remember enough Indonesian to talk to inquisitive local people. (I was in the country about 40 years ago).

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Then…1979
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…and now, a mere 40 years later…(widespread headscarves a relatively new idea…)
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…and yesterday

Solo sailing means life swings wildly between days of gentle solitude or Indonesian visitors, when I may see no boat and no Westerner, read a book, absorb a podcast or clean my ‘home’, achieving quite a lot (or so it seems); and then frenetic sociability with Indonesian culture and speeches and food, or generous boaty sundowner hospitality (Australians – and most boats are Australian- are especially hospitable and keen not to miss a sunset drink.)

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Visitors from Pulau Midai, Natuna
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Share a coconut with man and his granddaughter
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Mobile phone…. She’s two years old! Should children be dressed like this?
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Happily dancing children, Anambas
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Anambas girls get ready to dance
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Sundown aboard friendly Australian (+Canadian) boat ‘Pegasus X’

 

As a final titbit of Anambas interest, I’ll just mention Roman Devivo. He’s a nutritionist, originally French but longtime American resident (before heading to Indonesia), and he’s taken his commitment to the paleo diet idea to an extreme. (‘Paleo’ seems to be one of the many fashionable mildly wacky diets that has legions of enthusiastic converts)

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Roman Devivo in front of his Balinese-style home

I’d kayaked over to Roman’s islet of Pulau Sama, Anambas, to the north of what sailors have christened Moonrock Bay. He’s lived there for the past year with his wife and two daughters (8 and 11), and is busy developing, “…with an Indonesian company…”, a resort (one Balinese style hut/house on each of several nearby beaches).

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Panorama from ‘Moonrock’, Anambas Islands

His family seem to exist happily and healthily on a raw food paleo diet which entails eating zero processed food (not even bread) and without ever cooking anything (this isn’t merely a hunter-gatherer diet, it’s pre-cooking too – everything went wrong, he says, when we started to cook). You can sun-dry your meat or eat it raw, but not barbeque it, let alone use a stove!

One day before too long, you’ll be able to visit, stay a while (minimum ideally three weeks – for your gut to adjust!) and live an even more extreme form of self-denial than the most austere of monks – and I guess it might cost a lot too. (When I find my notebook I’ll post the website address). Crackpot or well-informed activist and doer? I found him fascinating and utterly sane, and it’s good to find folk who follow their convictions (as long as peaceful), however outlandish.  But it’ll never be a diet or life-style for me. Goodness no!

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Next stop Sarawak, East Malaysia – hopefully leave in a day or two…

 

Singapore to Tioman

Tourist visit to Singapore, and sailing around islands of southeast peninsular Malaysia to Tiomanimg_0059

29th April to 15th May

With Henrietta cosy and secure at Sebana Cove, Malaysia, I left her and took buses for a few days’ holiday in Singapore. (My sailing budget doesn’t run to the agent fees and marina charges for Singapore by yacht)p1000971

Singapore is fascinating for many reasons.p1000901

But before I launch into the usual tourist tales and tell you how amazing and wonderful it is, I should remind you that despite its amazingness, Singapore is a member of the shrinking club of countries that still  retains the death penalty, and thus demonstrates its lesser known credentials as a ruthless, ultimately arrogant cruel and intolerant sort of nation, earning itself a place alongside some other well-known beacons of medieval enlightenment such as Texas and Saudi Arabia.

And should you believe it’s an appropriate form of retribution and deterrent to serious crime, it’s best first to seek out data to support your view.

(In case you wondered, Singapore’s preferred technique is long drop hanging, at Changi prison at dawn on Fridays. And in 2018 it possibly had the world’s highest per capita execution rate – 13 prisoners ended their days that way.)

When it comes to maintaining law and order, you probably already knew that you cannot buy chewing gum, spit or walk across the road against a ‘red man’. I am usually a law-abiding sort of fellow, who detests spitting and doesn’t much like chewing gum, but I feel tempted to try all three. It is surely innate in man to challenge rules that seek to bind us too tightly? (perhaps I’m just naughtier than I’d thought)p1000904

Anyway I was about to move on and tell you how efficient, clean, helpful and friendly I found the place. But then I recall the immigration hall queues at the Malaysia/Singapore border, a vast warehouse sort of shed that handles hundreds of thousands of people a day.

Up until I’d experienced this shed, I’d thought nowhere on the planet could surpass the United States for slow intractable unsmiling uncompromising border control. But I’m unhappy to announce that Singapore can; it’s even worse than busy times in American airports.

I know the land crossing is not Singapore’s Changi Airport (which I gather has a better class of visitor and has streamlined itself), but nonetheless, we’re still human beings even if we arrive by bus. After over an hour in the queue, which was moving more slowly than a meditating monk in neutral, and we were perhaps half-way there, a young child started screaming inconsolably in front of me; loud, incessant yells of anguish, and I know we all sympathised and wished we could join in the screaming. But of course we didn’t dare.

(If you find excessive queues when entering Britain, let me know and I’ll send you the address of the Minister to write to.)img_0953

Okay, enough of the sorry state of Singaporean rules and controls.

It is, despite its abhorrent sense of justice and these seriously negative comments, a fantastic sort of place. (I’d been born there a very long time ago, revisited a few times in the 1970/80s but not been back since.)p1000937

I shan’t whitter on too much about Singapore as a tourist mecca and streamlined business hub as you may have already visited yourself and, if not, the guide books will fill you in.p1000947 

For me, the architecture (imaginative, super-modern, fabulous high-rise vistas from anywhere you choose, somehow still incorporating a few gems from its colonial past); top-class museums and galleries (well planned and beautifully assembled); a transport system – once you’re in – that should be the envy of any city in the world (spotlessly clean, quick, cheap and easy); fabulous gardens and public spaces that are both beautifully laid out and perfectly maintained….all these things make it unique, beautiful and a credit to urban planners, architects, engineers and the many others who create such a city.p1000969

And if you’re into shopping and eating, there seem to be all the fashion labels and perfume houses you’ve ever heard of plus many more; and diets to suit any palate and any size of wallet in settings that vary from colourful roadside stall to air conditioned splendour (though I didn’t actually try any of the latter.)

Here are some slides…

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To think that in January 1819, a mere 200 years ago, the place had about 150 inhabitants and much of the island was inhospitable swampy jungle. When Stamford Raffles and Major Farquhar landed with their party of Britons and hangers-on they agreed with the local Sultan to rent the place for 5,000 Spanish dollars a year in return for exclusive rights to establish a settlement.

Big deals were managed pretty quickly in those days – though not without careful diplomacy of course, plus a lot of work, ambition, vision and surprising empathy.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit. And I do still marvel that over five million people now live peaceably, tidily and politely on such a poky little hot and humid island.

I don’t know whether Singaporeans are happy (there didn’t seem to be much laughter going on). And perhaps more of us will have to live in such cities if we are to squeeze over 14 billion humans into planet earth in a generation’s time. But I’m glad I shan’t be one of them.

Oh yes! Here’s a little table to show which Chinese Horoscope sign applies for your year of birth. Combine it with the myths of the Western Horoscope and you’ll know exactly who you are… p1000885

Once back aboard Henrietta a few days later, it was time to catch up other boats and I sailed off east and thence up the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia to islands around Tioman (which is itself an island).p1000982

I soon meet up again with sailing friends and find several more new good-natured folk to chat with. There are at least 20 boats of various shapes and sizes assembling hereabouts in a rather haphazard sort of way, and it’s a sociable way of life if you so choose.

Day 1 in Tioman: I’d arrived just in time for games with local children and adults (Silly games and plenty of fun).

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Sort of egg and spoon relay…
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Kevin, anchor man and captain accepts first prize for men’s tug of war
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…women, below not so solid…

Day 2: We sweat and puff our way a few hours up a gorgeous tropical forest path to swim in cool not-so-clear waterfall pool.img_1008

Days 3 etc. More walks, more islands, more waterfalls, more snorkelling (lovely clear coral waters again), more chat, more friends, more beer ………

I especially liked visiting a Turtle Project on Tioman’s East coast.p1010024 Perhaps a dozen young volunteers from around the world have created an information hub and turtle nesting area, where they enthusiastically tell us of the horrifyingly rapid drop in turtle numbers – in large part a direct consequence of man’s impacts (plastic and global sea temperatures).

The year’s first batch of baby green turtles hatch in the evening of one day I’m there, and 120 of these mini turtles scurry into the waves. Of a thousand that start out, they reckon as few as two will reach fertility, some 20 years later. Without ocean plastic it could be as many as ten.img_1045

 

Next stop after Tioman will be the islands of Anambas and Natuna in Indonesia. These islands are about half way to Malaysian Borneo (Sarawak), and we’ll spend a month there.

Some boats seem to have left already. The rest of us wait for wind to fill our sails, not wanting to motor such a distance. (And anyway I’m licking some minor bruises and wounds from a little local motorbike accident….which was probably mostly my fault!)p1000981

Malaysia to Singapore

Sea trials for Henrietta and Armelle, Cameron Highlands, Malacca Straits and East past Singapore

8th to 28th AprilIMG_0889

With propellor finally attached and working properly, Henrietta was launched and pretty much ready to go.

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Next few months to cover some of this patch

First though, Parisienne friend Armelle comes for a visit. This is unexpected; and wonderful. I’d not seen her since Northern Thailand over a month ago.SGBA9485

We took Henrietta for ‘sea trials’ over to the island of Pangkor; trials for boat and Armelle. Intensive sailing lessons too. She’s of course quick to learn; the helm, port/starboard, sheet and genoa, tacking, furling – words for which I do not know the French; I hear her practicing knots: “le petit lapin…le trou…l’arbre”. (Is this how French youngsters are taught the bowline, I wonder?)

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Lunch presentation improves

After walks ashore and night at anchor (on sea that’s seldom as calm as the River Seine), we head back to marina, abandon Henrietta, and drive inland a few hours to the Cameron Highlands (it’s an old colonial area high in the hills, well north of Kuala Lumpur, nearer the town of Ipoh).P1000754

It’s blissfully cool after steamy sticky heat of the coast and there’s heavy rainfall most afternoons. The tea plantations cloak the hills in verdant beauty; and soggy little-visited mountain treks are heavenly. (You must turn a blind eye to acres of scarring plastic sheeting that envelope swathes of hillside, growing vegetables for the markets of Malaysia.)

Tea plantations roll across vast areas of undulating mountainside, small tea bushes of dense cultivation, narrow paths between the bushes just about enough to scramble along (but I’m not sure we should be here!) P1000771The mountain path we choose next day from the peak of Mount Brinchang is not yet open or ready, is not signposted or on maps, and only a kind knowledgeable local Indian tells us how to find the start; but it’s magical, a fairy-tale land of moss covered trees and twigs, lush green creepers, muddy rocks, fungi and small crystal clear mountain streams. One of the year’s more memorable short mountain walks, and we see not a single other person along the way.

Next day, after stopping briefly at Perak Tong, an unusual and peculiar Buddhist/Hindu temple cave (no time for history lesson here), we head back to Pangkor marina.P1000790And a day later Armelle leaves for KL and NZ. I shall miss her.

But I bid farewell to Pangkor’s wonderful marina staffP1000792

…and enjoy final marina on board drinks with friends (thank you, Geoff and Charmaine for the splendour of your saloon and hospitality…and Terry for photo)

IMG_0935And then, as they say, it’s time to move on.

First, clearance procedures; that’s immigration, harbour master, customs – three tedious and faceless offices a long way apart and a long way from the boat.

Mostly helpful and efficient people, but one unbelievable pompous tit-pip who suggests I wear long trousers ( so I nervously lower my shorts as far as they’ll decently go, nearly covering my knees, and he smiles and relents. After all, I had shaved, showered and worn my best clean clothes specially; and I’m an utterly innocuous old Englishman. But, long trousers? You must be joking.)IMG_0939

Sailing gently southwards (photo thanks, Il Sogno)

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The almost brand new skyline at Puteri

Then I sail south. It’s about 280 miles from Pangkor to Puteri Harbour (near Singapore but in Malaysia). I planned to cover half with a day and night sail, then two or three day sails for the last and busier bit.

The first night, after an appallingly heavy hot humid stifling and sweaty day, and around midnight, the skies ahead start to light up with electrical storms, almost ceaseless flashes growing ominously closer and totally unavoidable.

Worst nightmare on board is being enveloped by thunder and lightning, much more alarming I find than any gale or rough ocean sea. This was my third such storm in five years, and definitely the worst.

It’s hard to describe the conditions and anxiety that accompany a severe electrical storm. And in this instance it was a dark night, and I was adjacent to busy shipping lane and about to cross the route that ships must take as they enter Port Klang (Malaysia’s busiest port, and though you may not have heard of it, it’s busier than any British port).

Suffice to say, I am rarely frightened, but now I was definitely shaky, (though I’m pretty sure there was so much electrical energy in the stifling air that even my little on-board brass Buddha was shaky.)

Before long the rain hits us and sudden squally gusts of wind reach 40 knots. Between the flashes of lightning it’s pitch black. My glasses stream with water and vision is blurred as I desperately keep alert for ships’ lights or unlit fishing boats. And around us vicious forks of lightning crash into the sea.

It’s like a scene from a film (I think ‘Life of Pi’ had one such scene) where special effects have produced images that you do not believe could ever happen in real life. But they do! That night they did.

In the midst of it all, there was the double beep as all Henrietta’s instruments failed, then died. A near-strike of lightning had triggered failure. No chart plotter, no autohelm, no depth, no wind speed/direction. I’m back to hand steering by compass – something that nowadays we so seldom do for long spells. (I don’t mind, but feel vulnerable to lightning strikes as I nervously hold the metal wheel and grow chilly in torrential rain.)…for obvious reasons there are no photos!

Anyhow, all unpleasant things must sometime come to an end. A couple of hours later there’s the sweet relief of still being around; I’m alive, the storm is well past, ships’ lights clear once more and by dawn, a gentle breeze to carry us the last few miles to Port Dickson.

Rebooting all instruments next day has all, apart from ‘wind’, working again – phew!

From Port Dickson to Puteri in Johor, and thence around the south of Singapore, we’re close to the world’s busiest shipping lanes and a near constant stream of massive cargo vessels and tankers scurry north and south feeding the needs and excesses of us all.P1000814It’s a ship-spotters paradise….

…but I dislike sailing alone at night near such traffic (there’s no chance of even cat-nap sleeping) and so cover the miles in daylight and enjoy a couple of peaceful nights at anchor, and some time in marina at Puteri.

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Rally briefing with Sazli – who tries to manage us…

I’ve joined another rally to sail east from here for a spell, around the top of Borneo in a few months’ time, the Malaysian bits of that vast island – Sarawak and Sabah), via some little-visited Indonesian islands (Anambas and Natuna) on the way.

For now (that’s yesterday) we visit crocodile ‘pets’ (yes, ‘pets’ – no handbags here – 1,000 living, vile and dangerous beasts), an organic fruit farm, horseshoe crabs (these mini beasts have blue blood – really ‘blue’ not ‘aristocrat blue’) and fisherman museum to start with.

It gets us in the mood, as it were.

P1000829Although not generally keen on ‘rallies’, it seems to be the safest way to pass the pirate/terrorist-troubled areas between Borneo and the Philippines (Malaysia provides armed escorting ships).

The rally will take us through to late August, and provides helpful advice for visiting some remote parts of East Malaysia; as well perhaps as new sailing friends along the way.

After that, I haven’t a clue where I’ll go. (At this stage of world sailing, few of us have very clear plans about what comes next – in life or on the sea).P1000736

 

Thailand 2 and Laos

In which Henrietta sails south from Phuket (Thailand), via Langkawi, and lots of little islands to Pangkor (Malaysia), and is lifted into the yard, and I travel without her to northern Thailand and Laos…., and return to work briefly frantically to have Henrietta relaunched (‘splash’ as Americans call it)

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Final night at anchor before boatyard

23rd February to 5th April

It’s all been a bit of a blur if I’m honest. Too much to absorb and think about, let alone understand or make much sense.IMG_0802

But it has been overwhelmingly stimulating, rewarding, a lot of fun, often fascinating or very peculiar and, again if I’m honest,  sometimes a bit wearisome. (Remember folks! I could be ‘at home’ enjoying my Senior Person’s Bus Pass, the latest Bake Off series on telly [if you’re not British, this is a popular TV series about people who bake cakes, a sort of baking competition – which may not even be on telly any more, I am sooo out of touch] and up-to-the-minute commentaries on Brexitalia, and the wonder of spring flowers bursting forth, and other things, which when feeling lost or nostalgic or sick, I do sometimes miss).

Now I’m rambling…So, what happened?

Well, I think it’ll be easier for you and me if I just copy a few diary entries (edited of course to miss out the juicy bits, the libellous stuff, and anything else that might incriminate me or make you think it isn’t all wonderful – which of course it isn’t always; and I might occasionally change names…just in case…and to save people’s embarrassment, and I shan’t begin to tell you of all the people I’ve spoken with)

6th March

Henrietta’s lift-out is tomorrow. So sail over to Pangkor marina, grounding briefly on mud at entrance – v. low tide (and yes, enough wind to sail – makes a change).

It’s been a brisk no-nonsense sort of sail south from Phuket, never more than one night anywhere, early starts and late anchoring. Just a day’s rest in the hospitable island of Rebak (Langkawi).

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Rebak swimming  pool

There’s always a borderline alcoholic friend or more to share a beer in Rebak, and that evening, competent musical sailors strummed and plucked and hummed their fare as we sipped our booze (and swatted at mosquitoes) next to the hot calm sandy tropical beach. This is often a happy mellow sort of life.

Rebak resort/marina’s swimming pool is a haven of delight, water well below the hot-tepid temperature of all other water I come across; and it’s nice enough to look at plump lady Australians going pink in poorly fitting bikinis spread out on the recliners around the swimming pool. (Wondered if I’d have the courage to chat to the two Australian ladies in question, but in the end realised it isn’t my place to give swimwear advice to anyone, plus I could see a diplomatic issue arising).

While on the topic of swimming attire I might point out that the islands of southern Thailand, by way of contrast, tend to have young pretty Westerners in nicely fitting bikinis (and some bulky Russians too) spreadeagled all over the place. Beer’s about the same price everywhere, and fizzy and cold (I tell you this in case you’re choosing where to have your next sunny break in Southeast Asia. Personally the beach life is of very limited appeal; I’m quickly bored with sweaty sunburn and seaside tat).

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Beach life in Thailand suits some….

7th March

Henrietta’s lift-out earlier today was fine with cheery marina staff to hold my hand and get me plonked in a decent enough spot in the swelteringly hot sweaty sunny boat yard. Neighbours tell me of rats and ingenious ways to stop them clambering aboard. But others say the rats are all dead now because expert rat people came and poisoned them. (At least, I never see or hear a rat or have a rat in my bed whilst in the yard)

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Fresh out of the water and work starts here
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Fixing stuff and checks at masthead

13th March

A week later….I’ve arranged a trip back to Northern Thailand. Tomorrow it’s a bus ride to Kuala Lumpur airport, then fly to Chiang Rai. I feel excited and Carlsberg tastes like nectar. This evening my neat minimalist backpack is just about ready: a spare pair of underpants, a note-book and pen and pills and two t-shirts and toothpaste (to keep to cabin baggage allowance).

After an industrious week in the boat yard I realise I’m a pensioner, and not totally impoverished, don’t have to work so hard and there’s no compulsion to be groaning and cursing and shaking and sweating and climbing masts and sweating and fixing dusty dirty boaty bits and still sweating and finally burning my delicate feet on the superheated deck (teak seems to reach frying pan temperatures by mid morning).

Also, here are expert Malaysian boat fixers on hand for doing almost everything, whether I can do it myself or not. (Among the things I cannot happily do myself is cutlass bearing replacement. For non-boaty people, this bearing seals the hole where propellor shaft goes out of the hull, so not something I want to mess up. We’d sink if I did.)

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Boatyard and marina at Pangkor

17th March

Overland travelling, indeed travelling on land or sea, is for me a very intense experience:- daily meeting many new people, almost daily changing where I stay, temples, colourful markets, the strangest of foods and bone-shaking of transport.

Travelling people on boats are for the most part uncomplicated yet unconventional, though a small minority of them are I suppose some way beyond the norms of typical human existence; yet I love meeting them, hearing their stories of eccentric and adventurous lives (and, by comparison feeling utterly conventional and normal myself).

Travelling people on land are the same, this mix of straightforward unconventionality – although on average they’re about a third the age of the sailors and travel with fewer pills but much bigger backpacks. Most are younger more confident versions of myself, as I was 40 years ago. But some are really very extraordinary.

The first is a 25-year old very beautiful Thai woman who sat next to me and was happy to chat. (Please don’t jump to silly conclusions.) She was a postgraduate student of international relations, working in KL, boyfriend an Indian in Melaka, fluent English, as knowledgeable about Europe as you or me, courteously surprised that Britain wanted to ‘leave’. Despite her aspirations, Thai family ties and obligations had her heading back to a small town in far north Thailand; she felt she should be there a few months, and suggested I visit.

Then there comes an American from Seattle whose son (one of her ‘babies’) works as a Peace Corps volunteer up the road from Chiang Mai. Her daughter ‘baby’ is in Manhattan. Her name’s not Chantelle, but she doesn’t want to go back to the States,”…nothing good for me back home, but no money and I need new visa…” She talks a lot and says embarrassing things about female orgasms – I’ve only known her a few days. I feel uncomfortable but she touches me emotionally. She’s a lost soul, and potential liability on Henrietta (should it come to that). I flee. (Do these encounters happen to all of us?)IMG_0799

On the cultural front, and after a few days, I start to suffer from fairly advanced Buddhist Temple Fatigue. Magnificent, stirring, shining and colourful as they are, there really are an awful lot of them. The big touristy ones are busy, and we amble about bare-footed, quiet and respectful, snapping photos of nagas, and elephants and Buddhas and golden stupa domes; before heading off for a curry and fresh fruit juice.  Personally, in temples, apart from the atmosphere of peace, I’m always impressed with folk who can sit still and cross-legged on the floor for hours, or even minutes – and are then able to stand up and walk away – as if they’ve just had a cup of tea.

 

My favourite temple, Wat Phra Kaew, is tucked away in a Chiang Rai backstreet. Dating from the 14th century it’s one of the oldest and has an enchanting history of myths that seem to envelop it now. Surrounded with many flowering plants and few people, mostly monks and novices sweeping the pathways. P1000477There’s a small tidy museum; and I go there a few times. It calms me and makes worldly stuff seem very distant, and has me thinking seriously about a few days silent meditation in a Chiang Mai monastery that someone had told me about. So tomorrow I’m off to Chiang Mai (a few hours by bus) to find out more.P1000387

20th March

With ‘silent meditation’ on the agenda, I visit a couple of monasteries outside Chiang Mai and talk to monks about how it works and what is expected. First place, Umong, appeals; it’s small, very few Westerners and surrounded with forest. The programme is little different from life at sea (up at 4.30 am, sleeping mat on floor of little space, simple food, silence not a serious difficulty as on my own on the ocean I don’t talk much anyway) – just the meditation is different; on boat I daydream; which isn’t the same thing. The trees in the forest have little signs with pithy homilies or phrases of Buddhist wisdom.P1000418P1000417

Yes, I like it. Three days is the minimum stay. I tell head monk that I’ll maybe come back in a couple of days.

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Lots of sweeping, not much eating

The second monastery does not appeal to me at all:- loud speakers with Buddhist orders from a bossy sort of monk, smartish huts to sleep in, lots of bowing heads to the floor etc. and, to cap it all, I see a Westerner solemnly doing walking meditation.

Yes, you walk super slowly, absurdly slowly, in your white pyjama outfit while meditating, and I guess keeping half an eye on where you’re going. I shan’t describe it beyond saying that even if this funny looking bloke was experiencing inner peace and higher-plain tranquility and was ‘in a good place’, he looked daft, probably completely nuts. And the walking style means you cover little more than 10 metres in 10 minutes. I couldn’t believe grown adults do this sort of thing. As far as I’m concerned life’s too short. I’ve definitely ruled out staying in this place.

Back in Chiang Mai that evening and drinking second bottle of Chang beer with a cluster of tipsy Westerners, I realise I don’t really have the right attributes or very much commitment for silent days of meditating. I quite like talking with the people I’m with this evening.

So, feeling abruptly decisive and without much hesitation my mind is made up. Instead of meditation, I’ll go cooking.

Chiang Mai is brimming with places that offer a half day, full day, week or whatever of Thai Cookery Classes. For me, a half day cooking five Michelin five star Thai dishes was the next day…lots of fun…and I’m immodestly impressed with my organic veggie cooking skills. (But you’ll not have me cook them again; far far too many ingredients and I don’t have – or want – a mortar and pestle. Anyway Tesco does an adequate green curry paste in a jar)

 

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Lilly is our lively, clever, fun-loving young teacher
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This my first (of five) amazing dishes – cashew stir fry etc.
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…and this is the classroom

23rd March

Just a few days later I am this evening in a dusty bamboo hillside restaurant in Laos. We’re overlooking the Mekong River.

Folk on table next to me jumble their senses with a little harmless bamboo opium pipe-smoking – this was after telling me the length of their trip depended almost entirely on how Aston Villa perform in some upcoming football match. It’s sometimes a mad mad world!

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Khampheng, a helpful and delightful Lao girl, sells me a Slow Boat ticket for trip down the Mekong
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105,000 Kip is under £10 ! For a two-day boat trip….with good company too.

(For me Chiang Mai in Thailand had lost its appeal for several reasons which I shan’t recall here. I’d decided to go to Laos and taken a bus to Chiang Khong on the Mekong Thai-Laos border and thence crossed to Laos and joined the ‘Slow Boat’ downriver ).

 

The Mekong captures my imagination in a very special way – and in my life I have been lucky enough to see and live near many of the world’s great rivers.

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Mekong River at Pakbeng, Laos or maybe Chiang Khong, Thailand?

The Mekong oozes mystery and drama and history in its grey brown waters and mountainous misty and smokey landscapes, and I imagine its waters starting their long journey on the high hills of Tibet, before meandering thousands of miles via a few giant dams, through Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. (Note, I need sometime to read more about this wondrous river). We’re in the village of Pakbeng where we have a one night stop in a simple guesthouse on the two-day Slow Boat trip downriver to Luang Prabang. (It’s not really a Slow Boat at all as I note it does about 18 knots in the downstream current.)

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All aboard for the river trip downriver for two days

I ask the captain about the boat but don’t get clear information – at least he doesn’t want to talk to me. Seems his boat, a typical one, is about 45 to 50 metres long, 5 metres wide, and 200-300 HP diesel engine, today pretty full with about 95 passengers (overwhelmingly backpackers well under half my age but some Lao people who join and leave us at little villages along the way).

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You will be eaten but for today the mud feels good on the banks of the Mekong

The atmosphere is happy and I am fortunate to have delightful and interesting people around me, more mature French couple, an Austrian (who shares my room in Pakbeng tonight – sharing keeps costs down), a German, a younger Frenchman and Nikolei, my super-extraordinary Russian friend.

Nikolei (not sure how to spell it) was borne in Siberia, moved to Turkmenistan while still USSR, now has flat in St Petersburg. He is a raw food vegan i.e. He eats only vegan stuff that is uncooked, is this a ‘cruditarian?’ He has an avocado and some overripe tomatoes with him, and sports a turquoise turban so that he resembles a poorly nourished Taliban fighter. He’s very thin and has been ‘on the road’ for several months. He likes to travel, making small earnings on the way with website development for a Russian employer, and hasn’t eaten cooked food for over seven years. He’s adamant that Communism was much better for Russians; Brezhnev a great Russian and Gorbachev pretty much a traitor; and Nikolai is clearly a clever educated thoughtful man. I meet him several times. (The backpacker trail across these northern provinces of Thailand  and Laos, is clear and we often encounter people more than once.)

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Nikolai

30th March

A week later and I’m in the fine old French colonial town of Luang Prabang (second time here). It’s touristy but understandably so, and I’ve rented a motorcycle for the day.

A bit silly of me as advanced diarrhea is mighty troublesome, and I am feeling weak after two days without food or alcohol. Never mind, there’s lots to see and do. A motorbike’s a good way to get around in Laos. Plus I’m very conscious of Henrietta’s relaunch planned for next week, so need to pack a lot in without squandering too much time in the loo.

Images from Luang Prabang

 

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Luang Prabang has UNESCO heritage city recognition, (though I’d question some of its credentials a bit). Anyway, it is a charming town and I could happily spend much longer here with this fine blend of French colonial and Lao architecture, its air of peace, boat trips, markets, gardens, hills and ever-present riverine life on the Mekong.

I’ve just shown a few pictures and suggest you visit yourself.

The very extraordinary and extremely delightful French couple I meet here are Dominique and Ghislaine. My sort of age (ie. getting on a little bit), they left Montpelier about five years ago in their campervan. Except it’s not really a campervan at all; it’s an aluminium box on the back of a Toyota pickup. They sleep on a little shelf behind the cab, and can be totally self-reliant in a space that’s a tiny fraction the size of any normal prison cell. Makes accommodation on Henrietta seem other-world luxurious.

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Dominique and his ‘campervan’
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…and the accommodation..

They really do fascinate me, he a retired architect, she an artist, and I have huge admiration for such adventurous and unorthodox souls. They’ve got permission from the monks to  park and sleep in the dusty yard alongside a Buddhist temple.

(As an aside, it interests me that the French are in general far and away the most spirited, adventurous and interesting of the global travellers I meet. I gather it’s their secondary education with its obligatory dose of broad-based philosophy that probably helps, but whatever, it seems a better idea than macro-economics or business management, or whatever else we may teach our young.)

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Very friendly Sandy from Berlin, whose birthday is today ( lost you Sandy! Send a message.)
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…and lovely Jean-Jacques and Jo (Slow Boat together and same guesthouse choice in Luang Prabang)

Between first and second visits to Luang Prabang I’d been to a couple of villages: Nong Khiaw and Muang Ngoy, (tongue-tangling names for small villages) both full of simple guesthouses and little tour company stalls – (catering for backpacker tourism is one of the few ways of adding to the poor and largely subsistence local economy).

Memorable companions in the minibus to Nong Khiaw were a bright and attractive couple of friends from Newcastle (the N.E. England one). Charlie and Sophie, about 23 I guess, were/had taught in Hanoi and Argentina – not together – and were interested enough to talk with me on the hot bumpy two hour journey, about life afloat at sea and in the world at large.

Over the curry, when we later meet for lunch, Sophie seems to be asking for my suggestions and ideas about how best to get happily through this life! (Why on earth do young people sometimes seem to think that wrinkly folk of their grandparents’ age might have any sense or good ideas that they do not already have themselves? Anyhow, I just mention to Sophie and Charlie that I haven’t yet decided what I’ll do when I ‘grow up’ (and it’s getting a bit late now to grow up very much.) They seem perfectly balanced and clear-headed already. And, for spirit and enquiring minds I’d put them well in the league of youngsters from anywhere in the world (makes me feel proud to be British). They almost certainly had a more rounded and useful education in a Newcastle comprehensive school than I did in a swanky overpriced Berkshire public school (but that’s an entirely different tale).

That lunchtime curry tasted delicious but was probably dangerously very dodgy and verminous. Although I energetically spent that afternoon walking the hot, steep, sweaty popular path, to nearby viewpoint with smokey views over the village, I spent most of that night being noisily ill. I shan’t dwell on details.

 

1st April

Buses in Laos are pretty good, go everywhere and are very cheap. The roads are alas pretty lousy.

Last night I took the sleeper bus south from Luang Prabang to Vientiane. (Bit of a rush now to get back to Malaysia in time for Henrietta’s relaunch).

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Sleeper Bus

This particular sleeper bus (sometimes called ‘sleeping bus’) in Laos is smart-looking yellow and red, clean and punctual – punctual at least when leaving. But it’s not as spacious as Cambodia or Vietnam sleeper buses. Perhaps Lao people are thinner and shorter. Its narrow double bed bunks with very narrow aisle down the middle are not designed with six foot Europeans in mind. I’m on top bunk next to window, already finding the space a bit cramped, and fervently hoping a snoring giant won’t be my bed companion.

But there’s no need to worry! I’m blessed and my bed-mate is Hein Ko-Ko, a 26 year old artist from Maymyo in Central Myanmar. Not only is he small and neat, he’s also polite, smiling, courteous and fascinating. (I remind him of his grandfather, apparently. He loved his grandfather).

We chat a lot as his English is excellent:- of art in Myanmar, beliefs, travel, plans, politics (he, like others I’ve met, reveres Aung San Suu Kyi and readily recognises that she has no real power, other than from her intelligent presence and the respect she has earned). This link may tell you more about him; you can read books about her.

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All aboard for a night on the bus…
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The obligatory selfie with bedmate, Hein Ko Ko

In Vientiane there’s a day to fill before flight back to Kuala Lumpur. After ‘doing’ the limited number of sights in Vientiane (a very hot dusty city, albeit more laid back than most, but of no outstanding merit or interest, in my opinion), I impulsively decide to have a haircut.

On entering what I’d thought was a basic barber shop, I find I’m in a rather upmarket Hair Stylists place; think they’re called ‘Salons’. It looks expensive and air-conditioning is much too cold.

I consider leaving but think that would be rude, so nervously flip through glossy magazines of people with extraordinary hair-dos and strange tatoos, till a neat and determined lady summons me to a back room with a firm wave of her hand and no-nonsense look in her eyes.

Blimey! What sort of a haircut is this going to be?

It’s ok, the summons is just for a vigorous hair wash or two, with pulverising head massage thrown in. Next thing I know, a silent person of indeterminate sex with garish yellow shirt with sickly bananas all over it, sits me down and starts snipping.

There’s no point in my saying anything. He, or it might be she, does not talk. Just snipping. And with my glasses removed I can’t see what’s happening. ….this is silly…snipping goes on and on. But as I start to nod off, it’s all over.

There’s a lot of hair around me, a little bit of hair left on my head (there wasn’t a lot to start with). I pay a few thousand Kip (around £5 – local money, the Lao Kip, is real Monopoly stuff) and wander off, very very happy to be free again, and quite content with a thorough trim that could last for many months.IMG_0874

Overall, I’ve enjoyed a memorably marvelous time in northern Laos and feel a bit sad as we take the Air Asia plane back to Malaysia. (Malaysia is a world away in terms of wealth and culture and its people.)

5th April

Back in the boat yard in Pangkor in west Malaysia….a rather frantic spell this morning (and yesterday) reassembling Henrietta’s propellor (which is variable pitch and fussy, and had been removed in order to change shaft bearing and seal), finding my grease gun was broken, not enough grease, and other woes of sailing boat maintenance etc etc.

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Reassembling the prop seems a bit like doing a Rubik cube, with greasy fingers

The opportunity of a high tide, with available launching time, won’t come again for several days.

I’m anxious there won’t be time to launch today. But Ani, the mechanic’s colourful and helpful wife, was an angel in taking me round local stores and, before it was too late, Henrietta was ready to go, relaunched, shiny and beautiful in the afternoon sunshine…..Goodness, I often feel I’m a lucky man.

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Shining with polish and freshly antifouled, ready for the year ahead…

 

The unreliable journal of a sailing voyage