On to Thailand

Langkawi, New Year, England, Thailand

21st December 2018 to 3rd February 2019

P1010108Christmas and New Year came and went with a bang, and just about quickly enough. Langkawi (perhaps Malaysia’s most popular tourist destination) is a pleasant enough place to spend the time, and after three Christmases of solitude it was good this time to share festivities with many friends. But, in truth one of the nicest things about January is that it’s 11 months till Christmas comes round again..

 

Given next that we all realise that all this blog stuff is to an extent just us lot whittling on (and perhaps even showing off) about what a wonderful time we’re having, seeing beautiful places and eating some most peculiar foods, and meeting fascinating people, (which is maybe even less interesting to you than your varicose veins or hip replacements), I’d like now to talk about the three really vastly more fascinating topics of Religion, Politics and Sex -yes, the big three.

But alas I can’t do that either. Self-censorship decided against it. Shame…

Instead I’ll just mention that I paid a quick visit to my homeland, Britain, and realised that Britain seems from my point of view to have much too much of the ‘P’ but not much of the ‘R’ and ‘S’. And the only really nice things when I visited were seeing family and some friends (and, to a lesser extent, finding plentiful shops stocked with everything man could ever want, and much he wouldn’t. Oh and I value the vintage architecture, BBC, public transport, green hills, recycling and central heating.)

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Family and friends, Topsham, Devon

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Two sons and friend and scones for tea (other son has exams and is working hard)

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Some Indonesian headgear in Devon

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My local cathedral, Exeter

The current U.K. soap opera is called Brexit and it’s quite gripping. There are two warring families: one lot are called ‘Brexiteers’. Their henchmen mostly have double chins or double-barrelled names, and the support of an embarrassing and scurrilous organ called Daily Express (and, for posher people, a bigger organ called Telegraph). The other henchmen generally have better haircuts, but some have double chins too, and they are called ‘Remaindeers’ and their supporting organ is Guardian (which is also preferred organ of educated vegans and people with rings in their tummy buttons). But really they are both quite passionate and bubbling with the peculiar certainty of self-belief (me too). But this soap opera raises my blood pressure, and when I feel calm again it simply depresses me. Nonetheless as I say, it’s gripping stuff.

If you take Brexit seriously (like me), do listen to this series of podcasts Brexit A Love Story

Returning to talk of Britain, it seems most folk live in January swaddled in dark clothes, in neat little brick houses beneath overwhelming damp grey skies, scurrying out to work dreadfully long hours in brightly lit office complexes, endlessly burdened with angst and ennui over the Brexit fiasco, troubled with mortgages and rent, ill-health, Royal Family, celebrities (whom you and I have never heard of) and debt.

If nothing else it genuinely emphasises the extreme good fortune of those of us privileged to live and see the world from a little boat.

 

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And lest you think I didn’t enjoy my two weeks in England, I stress that it was a delight. It just reinforced my belief in life afloat as a preferable way of muddling along – at least for now.

The sheer horror of travel by aeroplane, squeezed for 13 hours next to a snorting sniffling giant person, whilst whizzing across – and ignoring – a huge chunk of our planet, convinces me that a slow boat is the only worthwhile way to travel – unless you walk or bicycle….but you’d only say you don’t have time, or that’s not what you want….

And so now I’ll bring this nonsense to an end and finish by saying I got back to Henrietta, bought some bananas, cleared out of Malaysia (local bureaupratcy requiring a half day of boring stuff, while I travel between the three well separated offices of Harbourmaster, Customs and Immigration…), and sailed north into Thailand.

I know nothing about Thailand.

After a week in the country day-sailing north from one little tree-topped limestone island to the next I can say it seems friendly. The first young fisherman, in bright red t-shirt, on a noisy ‘long -tail’ boat, greets me raising both arms high, shouting “Welcome to Thailand”.

It took a week to reach Phuket where I clear in. Phuket is of course a well-known international tourist island. It would be unfair to judge it too quickly when I’ve only been here a day. But it doesn’t seem to be my sort of place. Nightlife is definitely intimidating.

More another time…..

But finally before I sign off, I’d like to tell you of three Youtube sites which have some excellent film of the sort of trip this is. All three couples are young and competent with videos and editing, and I’ve met them all  along the way. It gives a good flavour of the stuff that happens – from perspectives of Spanish man, French woman, British couple, American couple

 

https://youtu.be/w6d4_Gzjpd8

 

https://youtu.be/OMYmX8vvqFM

 

https://youtu.be/aOiBUUSsu_k

 

Langkawi

Port Dickson, Pangkor, Penang, Langkawi

27th November to 20th December

Another month sailing northwards (with drifting and motoring) takes us to Langkawi and Christmas time.

First then, I wish you a Merry Christmas, a good holiday, and health and happiness for 2019.

Malaysia has its share of seasonal stuff too, though lacking the scale and frantic intensity of Europe: but still with Christmas trees and twinkly lights, plump pink-faced Father Christmases, snow-dusted reindeer and so on. It seems absurd in a predominantly Islamic society where the climate is oppressively hot, brain-dribbling and humid (to the point where both snowflakes and overdressed Father Christmases would instantly turn to puddles of ploop). But Christmas here sells chocolate and colourful strings of flashing lights – all to the soundtrack of “Love Actually” piped insistently around the giant local shopping mall.

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Dinner at a beach on Pangkor…

On the sailing front, I’ve enjoyed the company of friend Adrian on the sail from Pangkor to Langkawi.

 

 

We’ve anchored in beautiful coves, swum in murky Melaka Straits waters, admired the sea eagles, monkeys and dolphins, eaten too well in many seaside spots – and took a full fortnight to drink the first bottle of whisky.

Winds have been fickle and seas usually calm, but the scenery as we near the Thai border is wonderfully improved over southern Malaysia; Langkawi island itself especially charming with its tree-cloaked hills and mountains and over 90 small offshore islands, providing endless blissful empty anchorages.

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Like a scene from a James Bond chase…it’s just day-trippers in Langkawi

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…who visit this UNESCO gem

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The small low-key Rally, ‘Sail to Langkawi’, is over. Our final dinner evening and the next night’s cocktail party (alas! no cocktails) became border-line emotional as many friends bravely kissed and hugged farewells.

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European friends at final dinner

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Australian and American friends (cocktails-not) …

For many of us it was the end of over five months’ adventures and shared excitements, so tears were often near the surface, hearts bursting with emotions (not at all British, of course, but these folk are mainly from more advanced nations).

Langkawi (and nearby Phuket) signal a decision time. Sailors must choose to go southwest then via Sri Lanka  west via Suez to the Mediterranean, or via South Africa, or southeast round Singapore and on east to Philippines and North Pacific, or back to New Zealand/Australia, or linger around here for a year or two or more. Seasonal winds (monsoons and cyclones and stuff) mean timing choices are limited, and decisions must be made soon. It all gives me a headache – so, taking a cue from British government,  I haven’t made up my mind.P1010022

I’m sure, I think I’m sure, everything will be fine in 2019…………..

On to Malaysia

Malacca Straits

(Puteri, P. Pisang, P. Besar, Melaka (Malacca), Port Dickson)

6th to 26th November

We’re in the Malacca Straits, West Malaysia. Malacca Straits are the narrow waters between here and Sumatra, towards the left of this map.

It’s the world’s busiest shipping route. About 100,000 vessels a year pass through to feed the energy demands and shopping habits of us all. It is sobering to witness the procession of vast tankers and container ships that surge between East Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Amazing too that there are not more accidents as ships and fast ferries, slow barges and fishing boats criss-cross shipping lanes in and out of Singapore, speeds are often high, VHF channels buzzing with constant communications (many with incomprehensible English). Shipping in the English Channel seems a quiet country lane in comparison. 

Plotter overloaded with AIS targets
Barges of gravel for land reclamation

We head north from Indonesia, briskly crossing the shipping lanes, turn left at Singapore (their patrol boats strictly enforce Singapore’s waters), and go to Puteri Harbour, first stop in Malaysia and first marina since Cairns over four months ago. It’s in soulless, eye-opening contrast to the simple and untarnished anchorages of Indonesia.

Shoreline at Puteri Harbour

From here, Malaysia entry paperwork is quick and straightforward, diesel is piped aboard (after months of jerry cans that’s a treat!), fresh potable water is at the jetty, my torn sails are removed and sent away for repair, my grubby body has a long cool shower (and another one), and a long cool beer (and another one).

And there are all the other trappings of modern materialist sanitised living – fine for a day; but my heart already misses the special beauty and unexpected delights of Indonesia. But our welcome to Malaysia is warm and friendly.

Traditional welcome gifts of flower and an egg

I’ve joined another rally. It’s a small one, ‘Passage to Langkawi’, and many friends, and some new faces too, are with me. (The trips, discounts and sociability make it a popular option for the 400 odd miles heading north up the Malaysia coastline.)

Pineapple Museum – beats a sheep museum!
We walk a long walkway to Asia’s southernmost tip
Young musicians feast with us
Village feast near Melaka

But the Malacca Straits are not a pleasant cruising patch: ships, at anchor or streaming north and south, fishing boats, nets, grubby water with lots of floating rubbish (everything from plastic bags to trees), a dull low-lying shoreline, fickle winds interspersed with violent squalls, currents, and a horrible overheated humid climate. (Makes me sound like a whinger? – but this really isn’t a nice area to go sailing!)

150 miles up the coast, after a couple of overnight anchorages, comes Melaka (the local spelling for what you may know as Malacca), a World Heritage City. It has a dramatic and fascinating history with centuries of occupation by Portuguese, Dutch, and British (and briefly Japanese); and for centuries preceeded Singapore as the main Southeast Asian trading centre.

Now it’s overrun with tourists and accompanying glitze, tat and colour – some good stuff too…

The mouse deer, a symbol of Melakan history
‘Hello Kitty’, a loud toe-curling presence all over town
…and its advertising!

Alas! Sailing is seldom a leisurely way of life. In pitch darkness we’re awakened to howling winds, and then abruptly scurrying north out of Melaka’s anchorage as 30-40 knot winds hit us at midnight. Such squalls are called ‘Sumatras’ (always blame a foreign source!), and mighty unpleasant in a shallow lee-shored anchorage with poor holding.  Luckily none of the 20-odd boats or crew are hurt as many drag anchors and we toss and roll in roaring wind and choppy seas, and head offshore and north to Port Dickson.

Port Dickson has a comfortable marina, local shops, a swimming pool and more. We indulge in some silly and harmless games….

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His name’s Trevor

…and have a day trip to Kuala Lumpur….see Batu Caves temple complex, Twin Towers, National Memorial, and lots more…..

 

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KL is a fabulous city and I plan to visit again. But it’s time to sail on north…..

Lingga and Riau

Penuba, Lingga, Equator, Benan, Bintan – Tanjung Pinang

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These islands are all within Riau Province, Lingga Islands and Riau Islands being two groups within the Province. The former are little visited: to quote from the Cruising Guide, ”…almost zero English spoken..transport non-existent…locals a mix of Malay, Bugis and Hakka Chinese..”.  The Lingga Islands straddle the equator and there’s a long history of international trade through such a calm and strategic area (though Singapore of course now dominates such trade).

It’s scenically either splendid striking unusual mountain peaks or flat mangrove islets, and there are hundreds of offshore simple wooden platforms with families of fisherfolk. Sailing at night would be a hazardous business.

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Clusters of these fishermen dwellings sprinkle the shoreline

Heading slowly north, more motoring than sailing in such calm and windless seas, we stop briefly on tiny and rarely visited Island Penuba, but after gentle stroll, quick and simple shopping, opted to miss the rally ‘festivities’.

A couple of days later Henrietta’s back in the northern hemisphere, Caroline and Joyce, crossing for the first time, celebrating and placating Neptune in novel fashion. Unusually there’s both a sea crossing and a land crossing hereabouts. We wander up steps to a peculiar equator monument on a peninsular in Lingga.

And next day motor further north to the island of Benan for more rally festivities (dancing, visiting school and eating…) and, prompted by party-oriented Americans, Halloween party – enjoyed by local people as an example of Western culture …(I cringe).

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Halloween….

It is then only a thirty mile sail to the island of Bintan and its capital, Tanjung Pinang, by far the largest city we’ve seen since Cairns, some 3,000 miles behind us.

Two of my crew leave on the fast ferry to Singapore, soon to enjoy a well-earned shower (though I shan’t publish the happy photo of post-shower pink and smiling faces!).

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Going our separate way at the fast ferry terminal

I could write lots and lots about the joys and trials of sharing small boat life with two, and then three, women. Suffice to say, I’ve enjoyed the time and adventures shared, learnt much, eaten lunches, tried to keep my mouth shut and never thought of taking my shorts off. Ann leaves me too a day or so later, and I slowly return to the routines and rigours of single-handed sailing.

There’s a final rally outing around Chinese temples on Bintan, and to the birthplace of the Indonesian language, Pulau Penyengat (which alone would merit a chapter of a book…but here’s a photo or two instead….)

IMG_0538Final port of call in Indonesia, a soulless modern resort for well-heeled Singaporeans, is where we collect exit paperwork and passports (and eat yet another final dinner!). There are many emotional farewells as we part from friends established over the past three months and more – though I shall stay close to many as we soon head north to Malaysia.

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A trip to Penyengat – before the rain…

 

Belitung to Bangka

Belitung, Gelasa, Bangka

18th to 24th October

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Love birds but no butterfles

Before leaving the island of Belitung and its remarkable islets of massive granite boulders, we visit a newly opened butterfly farm – so new that we visit on its very first day.

Alex, originally a Scot, is a youthful ex-teacher living with his young family near our anchorage. Rumour, which proved correct, had it that he was making pizzas; butterflies were a bonus, as was his exuberant and chattily imaginative son.

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Alex and family

Butterflies were a problem though. Ideally they needed to be found at caterpillar stage when it was clear what leaf the caterpillar liked to eat (they are very fussy about their diet). Trouble was that caterpillars having spent ages munching leaves tended then to emerge as rather dull brown moths, not the hoped-for flashy butterfly. If caught at butterfly stage however, it wasn’t known for sure what leaf the egg/chrysalis/caterpillar would need, so offspring might simply starve, unless you happened to find the right leaf. The upshot of the complex butterfly reproductive system was that on the first day of opening there were only two butterflies, which we could not find anyway. But I admire such enterprise and enthusiasm, and can only wish success for such a venture.

Despite lack of butterflies there were some colourful vivid yellow and green love birds, in the vast netted enclosure Alex had built. And I’m always fascinated in the stories and plans of men like Alex who choose to pursue passions way outside the norm. Pizzas were a delicious treat too. On the walk back, a fabulous torrential downpour and early monsoon storm freshened the sultry hot tropical day.

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..shelter and watch and wait….

Next day we motor northwards, winds these days very light and fickle. It’s a rare bonus to have the sails up and drawing.

We stop between coral reefs for a night off the densely wooded and uninhabited island of Gelasa. Just a handful of colourful little fishing boats anchor there by day, and fish offshore after dark.

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Fishing boats at Gelasa

Then, with some wind at last, on to the next Rally stop off the large island of Bangka. A lee shore was the designated anchorage but with heavy swell it is uncomfortable and feels insecure, and landing means total soaking of all on board – despite willing help of local youths who wade out to their necks to guide the tender onto the beach. After two such landings and two sleepless nights we, along with several others, sail gently 35 miles north to a large empty peaceful bay at the northeast corner of Bangka. (Later we learn the swell abated a day or so after we’d left)

It’s Caroline’s birthday, 21 all over again. The day is sociable with morning ramble over beach and hill, and evening bonfire on the remote sandy beach with food and friends from most corners of the sailing world. Local Indonesians are invited to join, and shyly sip drinks and nibble strange western food. The inevitable photo session, complete with obligatory thumbs-up, is just part of local life.

Such evenings linger in one’s memory as among the best of a sailing cruiser’s life, a harmonious contrast to the discomforts and limitations of being off the beaten track of normal dirt-dwelling life.

Kalimantan to Belitung

Kumai, Kalimantan, and Belitung

6th to 17th October

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A fashion show!

The sail from Bawean to Kumai in Central Kalimantan was marred by running aground near high tide on a lee shore near the river’s bar. Even with very capable help from fellow sailors and an Indonesian tug, we were unable to float free for many hours. After midnight a wind shift thankfully helped ease us off. (In case you’re interested, Navionics charts are hopelessly inaccurate in this area!)

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Welcome dance for Central Kalimantan 

Then followed a few wonderful and especially memorable days. First, an action-packed day that left us dizzy with new experiences: in the space of 15 hours on that one day we had welcome dances, lessons in blowpipe use (the Dayak weapon of choice, though we did not use poisoned darts), drinks of rice wine in Dayak longhouse, a colourful children’s fashion show (in torrential rain), a ‘getek’ race on local river (‘getek’ is local open narrow motorboat), two palaces, gala dinner with speeches and dances (lest you think these dances are all the same, they’re not – Kalimantan’s being much less formalised with livelier rhythm (and apparently happier participants) than Bali’s, for example, but everywhere the costumes are fabulous). It was a supremely well-organised and fascinating introduction to Kalimantan. Here are a few photos….

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Next day, we’re collected by our ‘klotok’ (local boat, colourful double-decker) for ‘the orangutan trip’; three days and two nights when we are spoiled and guided by the local crew – four of them for the four of us.

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A busy spot for ‘klotoks’

These trips are the prime reason for tourists to visit Kumai, and in peak months as many as a hundred of these boats are navigating the narrow waterways to and from the various orangutan feeding stations, and allied jungle walks, and viewing – and hearing – the varied local wildlife (which includes kingfishers, proboscis monkeys, fireflies and the amazing cacophony of creatures whose loud orchestra fills the night).

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More comfortable than ‘Henrietta’

Crew, Ati, Sabri, Faqih and Oji, happy with t-shirts

With need to move briskly from Kalimantan to the next rally stop on the island of Belitung , nearly 300 miles away, we leave as soon as our orangutan cruise is over. It’s a tiresome trip with motoring and motor-sailing most of the way, adverse currents and a shipping lane, plus many tugs that pull big loads of coal or oil or goodness-knows-what across the Java Sea.  

Small island Belitung boasts white sandy beaches and crystal clear water, and seems popular with Indonesians from Java and Sumatra. We have an organised coach trip to the town, our unflappable and smiling guide, Kiki, keen to show us the local sights (school, traditional house, market, dancing, snacks, meals, boat building et al.) and is only a little put out that no-one was up for karaoke on the return journey.

And then we’ve had a day of leisure on a gorgeous little islet decorated with huge rounded granite boulders, and the happy spectacle of young Indonesian girls learning to swim (or float at least) which they do with headscarfs and full dress, and lots of giggling…..but I had no camera…

Bali to Bawean

Bali, Menjangan, Raas, Bawean

19th September to 5th OctoberOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe days pass very quickly, as we meander our fabulous route across central and now western Indonesia. The staggering variety, colour, diversity and beauty of these islands coupled with the warmth and kindness of Indonesians means senses glow with appreciation and gratitude. We sail across a dreamlike world of surreal beauty and magical warmth.

Bali has for many decades been the main focus of Indonesia’s tourism. And although I weep at the changes inflicted on villages of my early experiences – Ubud the prime example – there is still the appealing pervasive Balinese Hindu culture of festivals, of scented offerings, of gorgeous colours, spiritual meaning and dignified elegant dancing.

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A few of the 800 village women who will dance on the beach at Lovina at start of Festival

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn just a few days on Bali we had welcome ceremonies, rambles through paddy fields, art galleries, temples, schools, markets, a bull race, big dances, little dances, gamelan music and mega-amplified pop music, the inevitable ‘gala dinner’ and just time for a couple of ice creams

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…before…it was time to weigh anchor and……via a night in north west Bali’s National Park (snorkelling) and another night in Rass Islands off eastern Madura…

We reach the island of Bawean.

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North Bawean Anchorage (and my motorcycle driver on first day)

This is the first time a rally has stopped at Bawean. And foreigners rarely visit. So there’s the delight, after Bali’s tourist hordes, of empty roads, not a souvenir shop in sight and a more spontaneous smiling chaotic welcome. A local student gives me a lift to town on her motorbike (to top up internet – a contemporary sailors’ staple)

Early next morning Henrietta’s crew mount motorcycles, my own driver, Alvan, a slight, safe and gentle 16-year old, unphased by a retired Englishman clinging on behind; and the four of us (that’s Caroline, Joyce, Ann and me) putter and roar and bump our ways through tranquil villages waving happily and marvelling at life’s rich landscapes.

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My young motorcyclist, Alvan, who takes me round Bawean

A swim in mystical lake (firmly warned against swimming far off shore), village of local batik, dance and music, plus the inevitable stops for ATMs, lunch and supplies….then, as if we’d not already had a full day, a long evening bouncing across Bawean in pickups to yet another gala dinner…oh!

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A freshwater swim with my crew

With stop at hot spring – I know not why! Then dinner where I’m refreshing my Indonesian with an important politician’s proud mother, her son, an MP, back from Jakarta to develop his island’s tourist appeal (an airport has just been finished). I think I’m to be enlisted as skipper for her large motor vessel. She’s a charming and determined lady (with clout), so it’s time to bid a polite farewell and bounce back in pickup to peaceful relieved sleep aboard Henrietta.

The island of Bawean has been another delightful treat….but it’s already time to head north towards Kalimantan (if you hadn’t heard of it, it’s Indonesia part of Borneo – the lion’s share)….

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Phew….it’s getting hotter