Meandering along the coast of Sarawak, Kuching, Borneo’s Longest River, Bako and Mulu National Parks
13th June to 14th July
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
….on to Baku National Park
…a short speed boat trip away..
…monkeys, hilly walks and lush rainforests…
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.
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!
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:
It’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.
However, near to Miri are Niah Caves…and a day later….we take a short flight to Gunung Mulu National Park (flying is the only practical way to get there). Gunung 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.
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).
at this point internet becomes too weak to continue. Another day I’ll finish with edits and a few more photos….
After a full month in Sarawak it was time to head north for the next Borneo State of Malaysia, Sabah.
Some more little islands of Indonesia, snorkels, selfies and dancing
Anambas and Natuna Islands
16th May to 12th June
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.)
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).
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.)
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)
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).
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!
Tourist visit to Singapore, and sailing around islands of southeast peninsular Malaysia to Tioman
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)
Singapore is fascinating for many reasons.
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)
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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…
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…
Once back aboard Henrietta a few days later, it was time to catch up other boats andI sailed off east and thence up the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia to islands around Tioman (which is itself an island).
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).
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.
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. 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.
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!)
Sea trials for Henrietta and Armelle, Cameron Highlands, Malacca Straits and East past Singapore
8th to 28th April
With propellor finally attached and working properly, Henrietta was launched and pretty much ready to go.
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.
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?)
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).
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!) The 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.And a day later Armelle leaves for KL and NZ. I shall miss her.
But I bid farewell to Pangkor’s wonderful marina staff
…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)
And 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.)
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.It’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.
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’syesterday) 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.
Although 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).
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)
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.
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)
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).
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).
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)
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.)
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?)
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. There’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.
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.
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.
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)
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!
(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.
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.)
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).
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.)
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
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.
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.)
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.
Decent room for under £5 a night
An oft repeated photo, but severe reminder of what went on not so long ago
Well! It wasn’t Everest but it was a sweaty walk uphill
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).
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
Little Thai islands, plus Phuket, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai et al
4th to 22nd February
There are countless little hilly tree-topped white-beached islands on the Thai coastline stretching between Malaysia and Myanmar (Burma). The largest and most visited is Phuket. But many of the smaller islands have comfortable secure anchorages, some of them in a National Park where rangers appear at all hours to ask for fees.
(My conclusion a month later is that Thailand is best visited on land not sea. Boats that venture into Parks and marinas are charged eye watering amounts – though there are many exquisite and free uncrowded anchorages as well. But here at the Boat Lagoon, where I stop for a night to load new anchor chain, it’ll be about $50 a night. Yet visitors can find simple clean welcoming hotel or hostel rooms for under $12 dollars a night and experience all the delights of a marvellous country.)
Koh Muk and entrance to popular Emerald Cave (we swim through tunnel to little bay, but I couldn’t swim with camera. Hence no photo)
Sailing slowly northwards I visit several islands and some popular bays on Phuket, where white Westerners are scattered on the sun-baked sand, big blobs and little blobs, in various stages of peuce, pink and brown, mostly 30 to 50, predominantly, it seems Russian, I hire a motorbike to ‘do’ the sights of Phuket.
There’s a wonderful calm lack of highway discipline such that we overtake on left or right, whatever way we want, drive contraflow on dual carriageways, and courteously refrain from using the horn. We smile at all-comers, ‘Road rage’ completely unheard of, but accidents commonplace.
A week’s visit to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai makes a memorable and almost wholly delightful change from life at sea aboard Henrietta.
Chiang Mai may long have been a tourist mecca, and it’s a large town, but it seems supremely friendly, awash with good food and welcoming people, and of course the overarching, calming and beautiful presence of a multitude of Buddhist temples.
Chiang Rai, a much smaller northern Thailand town, is just a three and a half hour bus ride away. Armelle, whom I’d met earlier, and I go there.
And rather than expensive tourist trips to hill tribal villages, elephant sanctuaries of dubious credentials and busy temples, we hire a little pink motorcycle; and just muddle along very happily.
With just one night in each of several guest houses we whizz from super-popular and crowded and marvellous unorthodox modern Wat Rong Khun (‘White Temple’ ) to dark sinister and somewhat gruesome Baandam (‘Black House’), and museum and much more in between.
At night, the markets of Chiang Rai are alive and bursting with colourful clothes, mysterious foods, and scents and bright lights, and music. The Flower Festival happens to be here too, one of those unexpected bonuses with this form of unorganised and unplanned travelling. A festival, meeting, dance, concert, demo or party just sometimes unexpectedly comes along……
The motorbike ride up to to Doi Mae Salong,Santikhiri, an Akha hill tribe village near the Chinese border, is long and windy as the road climbs through tea plantations, terraced hillsides, lush bamboo groves and roadside stalls of fruitsellers. It’s growing blissfully cool in fresh mountain air.
A had had no breakfast
We enjoy walks in the hills (including one of those ‘we’re lost’ walks through rotting bamboo, scratchy tall grasses, pine trees and steep scramble slopes where, but for the miracle of smartphone GPS, you may not have heard from us again. And nighttime temperatures are cool enough to awaken my soggy somnolent tropical brain, and need a blanket. And the scenery is soothing and magnificent.
And, after our quick trip to the hills, and back in Chiang Rai, I bade ‘au revoir’ to Armelle, caught first pre-dawn bus to Chiang Mai, and via Air Asia and so on, was back aboard Henrietta in Phuket soon after dark (she’d swung and spun on a rented mooring buoy for over a week, the only way to avoid crippling marina charges).
Though life on board is seldom dull for long, I shall miss the happy friendly companionship of a lovely Parisian….and maybe dream of elephants instead…
Christmas 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..
Always make me smile
Happy evening bonfire at favourite Lankawi spot (secret!)
Still fine after 35,000 miles
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.)
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.
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.
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