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
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.
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.