Roaming Around South East Asia
21 June 2016
It has been 6 months since our last update and though we have not travelled far we have not been idle. While most of our time has been in Malaysia we have also visited Thailand twice and once to Cambodia. Later this fall we anticipate a visit to China as well as more time in Thailand. We have now sailed half way around the world, 180 degrees of longitude from where we started.
After leaving Singapore in late December it was a short sail to Port Dickson/Malacca in Malaysia. The cruising along the coast of Malaysia is not very good. The water is murky with sediment and hordes of fishing boats and fish traps make sailing at night hazardous.
Predominantly a Muslim country that tolerates religious diversity we found the people friendly and outgoing. While the annual income of most is very modest by US standards there are obviously many wealthy Malaysians as seen in the capital of Kuala Lumpur. The skyline is pierced with modern office buildings, upscale shopping malls, and luxury hotels.
Further up the coast is the island of Panang. We expected a typical small island with a few small resorts and stores. The island is small but a tourist mecca. 1.5 million people live here and the economy is as vibrant as the capital's.
We seem to have settled in on the small island of Rebak, a few miles off Langkawi, itself an island and tourist destination for locals. Privately owned there is an inexpensive boat yard and marina to leave your boat for inland touring. Several cruisers we have met have also made it their home base.
Our first visit to Thailand was by air to the city of Bangkok. We both need dental work done and Bangkok the place to go. We have received care up to US standards by highly trained staff for a fraction of the cost back home. For example, replacing a crown runs about $350 vs $1000 in the states. Bangkok is huge, has traffic jams 24 hrs a day, and the fastest way to get around a short distance is by motorcycle taxi. It's also the most intimidating. These guys weave in and around traffic jams, ride on the side walk, missing cars and people by an inch, literally. The people are extraordinarily friendly and conflict goes against their nature.
Street food vendors are everywhere and you can get a tasty, and very spicy hot, meal for under $3. Buddhism is the primary religion and they do not tolerate using his name or image for any commercial or decorative purpose. People have been refused entry into the country for having a Buddha tattoo.
Governed by elected officials the country still has King and Royal family that everyone loves. He is now in his early 90's and is the longest reigning monarch in the world, 70 years on the throne. Last year a journalist was arrested for saying something derogatory about the king's favorite dog.
While in Bangkok we visited many temples, all ornate, beautiful, and still used for worship. One of the provinces a few hours N of Bangkok has over 7000 temples alone. We plan to see more of inland Thailand later this year.
We flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia, primarily to visit Angkor Wat, the largest religious complex in the world. Covering almost 250 acres it was built around the 12th century, originally as a Hindu temple but eventually turned into a Buddhist temple. The country side surrounding Siem Reap is strewn with many more temples that had been gobbled up by the jungle over the centuries. Most of those discovered have been at least partially restored. We visited during dry season so the vegetation was not as lush as you would expect.
In the early 70's a brutal despot named Pol Pot led the Khmer Rouge army to over throw the government and take control. The US secretly supported them because they were enemies of Vietnam. When his army invaded Phnom Penn, the capital, they ordered everyone to leave the city and take only what they could carry. In 3 days the population went from millions to 10,000 army troops. The educated ones, teachers, doctors, artists, etc, where killed outright. Of the 14,000 people imprisoned in a former school only 7 left alive. Those herded from the city were put into forced labor growing rice, digging new irrigation channels, fishing, etc. For most the only possession they were allowed was a cup and a bowl for food. Hundreds a day were clubbed to death in the killing fields once they were too weak to work ( bullets were expensive) . In the 3 years Pol Pot was in power an estimated 25% of the population died, as many as 2 million people.
The land along the border between Cambodia and Thailand is considered one of the most hazardous in the world. Tens of thousands of land mines were planted with no maps to show locations. Even today people still are maimed and killed if they wander off the main trails. There are international efforts to remove the dangers but the challenge is finding them.
A Brief Look at Singapore
12 January 2016
We stopped in Singapore for some needed boat supplies and shopping in a 'real' city. We had planned on flying to Bangkok for 2 weeks so booked a month in a marina. It was very upscale and turns out we cancelled Bangkok and could have left after 2 weeks except for the non refundable month's slip fees. Oh well, it's all good anyway. We were with friends from other boats and the marina was top notch. The island it is on had free bus service around the island, and the marina had a free shuttle to the mainland about 6 minutes away, dropping you off at the central train station. It ran every 30 minutes 6am until 10:30pm so very convenient.
Singapore is rated as the most expensive country in the world to live in and we believe it. The country is only about 23x16 miles in size and like a giant shopping mall. There is one store, Mustafa's that is 2 blocks long, 70 yards wide, 6 stories high, and makes a Super Wal Mart look like a 7-11.
The country has no agricultural or ranching enterprises and almost no manufacturing, so everything is imported and taxed. It is one of the busiest shipping ports in the world and much of the revenue comes from cargo trans shipment to other parts of SE Asia. It has also become a central hub for telecommunications and international banking in this region.
Most people speak at least some English, crime is uncommon and the streets are safe to walk at night. Mostly of Chinese descent, there is also a large Indian, Malaysian, and expat population from NZ, Australia, Britain, and the US. The various cultural and religious back rounds all seem to mix together well, live and let live, respect your neighbor, be kind to strangers. At least that is how we perceived. They have the most modern and well organized public transportation system we have ever seen. Within a few days and a smart phone app we were moving around the country like locals with no fear of getting lost. You can get almost anywhere quickly, cheaply, and never wait more than 10-15 minutes for a bus or train. The government seems to spend a lot of money keeping roads in good repair and providing numerous free parks and nature preserves for the citizens.
Every one me met seemed content so it's probably a nice place to live, but I think people work long hours and many days per week to afford it.
Indonesia Part 2
27 December 2015
The second half of our journey through Indonesia was as great as the first. Labuan Bajo on the W end of Flores was our next anchorage and what a treat. The small tourist town was packed with cafes, small markets, and important to us...dive shops. This area is known for some of the best diving in the world and draws thousands of divers annually. We stayed a week and made 8 dives in Komodo National Park, every one excellent.
After a brief stop in Lombok we sailed to the fabled island of Bali, now a tourist mecca for Indonesians as well as foreigners. We anchored off the town of Lovina Beach and just happened to arrive at the beginning of their annual festival. We had never seen so many colorful costumes and dances in one place before. On top of that prices were low and everything you may need in the way of supplies was available. We end up staying for 3 weeks and did make 2 dives in the underwater park, which was good but not like Komodo.
Friends on Persephone and us flew to the Island of Java to spend a few days enjoying some cultural exploration in Jakajakarta, home to several historically significant landmarks.
The Indonesian government, as well as Malaysia, Singapore, and others, take a dim view of drug traffickers. Along with the routine preflight instructions, seat belts on, tables up, etc, they notify you that drug possession carries heavy penalties up to and including the DEATH penalty!! So you better listen up and be good.
A 3 day sail next brought us to Kalimata where we participated in their annual festival. The island is small with only 2 villages mostly built over the water on stilts. This is the first evidence we saw of the raging fires on Karimata. The dense smoke travels hundreds of miles, choking the air, closing airports, resulting in emergency evacuations, medical problems, school closures. All in the interest of making a buck for the palm oil companies. It is a yearly event and despite formal complaints from neighboring countries the government does nothing to stop it. They are mostly large international corporations with a lot of money and influence, and we all know how that works compared to complaints by the little guys. We skipped several planned stops because of the smoke. Visibility was often less than 1/2 mile where normally it would be 5-6 miles at sea, or more.
Benan Island was our last 'remote' stop, and what a wonderful place. The small population of 800 so were very warm welcoming. We enjoyed many days getting to know the local doctor and number 2 government boss on the island. They welcomed us into their homes and their lives, asking nothing in return but stories of our homes and our travels. We hated to leave but our visas were expiring soon and no more extensions were allowed.
Next stop Singapore
Indonesia part 1
15 September 2015
After a brief stop in Australia we sailed to Indonesia after joining a rally with 40+ other boats. The bureaucracy and Byzantine paperwork in Indonesia changes from port to port and the officials all have their own version of what is required. The rally organizers hired an Indonesian agent who works with the government to facilitate the paperwork. Even so some of us have waited 10 days for visa renewals (due every 30 days), and have been threatened with impoundment of our boats for not having some document they think we need but no one else ever did. Oh well!!! That’s all part of cruising.
Now the good stuff. Indonesia is made up of over 11,000 islands, has the 4th highest population on the planet, speak over 250 different dialects, the largest Muslim population in the world, more than a hundred volcanoes, many still active, and $80 US will make you feel rich when you exchange it for $1,000,000 Rupiah. Our group has boats from 14 different countries, including 2 men that sailed single handed, one from Ireland, the other from Germany. There are also several boats that we have know for a few years from other cruising grounds. We even have at least 5 doctors in the group that make ‘boat calls’ if the need arises. Fortunately we have spread out along the islands so we don’t all invade the smaller villagers at the same time.
The people here have been extremely friendly and welcoming. We have only cruised the Eastern provinces so far, and these are the least visited. An elderly woman at one small island Michelle and I stopped at had never seen a white skinned person before. She couldn’t stop touching Michelle’s arm trying to figure it out. Many of the planned rally stops had welcome ceremonies and dinners arranged for our visit and most of the food was delicious, strange, and bountiful. The people love to have you take their pictures and the kids really like to ham it up. Every where you go you get a big smile and a “Hey Mister”, generally the only English they know.
So far we have really enjoyed Indonesia and look forward to the next 2 months before we are required to leave the country. Ahead lay the Komodo dragons, a 2 day river trip to an wild orangutan refuge, the world’s largest Buddhist temple, and lots more surprises I’m sure.
IT”S ALL GOOD!!!!!
25 June 2015
We almost skipped Vanuatu because of a terrible cyclone that hit here in April. Vanuatu gets hit with more cyclone than any other Pacific nation. We were concerned that we might be a burden on their recovery but the government said please come. They need the tourist income, the major source of income, to help rebuild. We only had 3 weeks we could spend there as we had to be in Australia by mid June, a voyage of 1300 miles.
Vanuatu, formerly called the New Hebrides, was once jointly under the influence of Britain and France. The achieved independence in 1980. Consisting of 80 islands, each with it's own unique customs and personality, the country is a cruisers delight. We hope to return in a year or two and spend a lot more time.
Fiji, our home for a year
18 March 2015
We just realized it has been a year since our last update, time does fly. In the interim we have sailed from NZ to Fiji, flew back to Chicago for 3 and 4 months, and dodged cyclone Pam which just devastated Vanuatu, 450 miles W of us. The end of our 1000 mile voyage from New Zealand was celebrated with our oldest son Jon and grandson JJ joining us for 10 weeks shortly after we arrived in Fiji.
Fiji has a reputation as the friendliest of nations and we can believe it. Of 300+ islands about 100 are populated by 850,000 Fijians, approximately half native Polynesians and half East Indian. The Indians were originally brought here by the British as indentured servants, sort of a politically acceptable form of slavery. Despite several coups over the last 2 decades the people seem to get along well with each other and the government. Last fall Fiji had it's first democratically elected government in more than 2 decades. I think it is mostly the same military people who now are officially the elected government.
Outside the bigger cities the islanders still tend to live by traditional ways. Each village has a chief who is the final arbitrator in community matters. It is a hereditary position. In more remote area visitors, tourists as well as Fijians, are expected to present a give of kava ( a root to make their native drink from ) to the chief's spokesman. If the chief accepts it you are welcomed into the village as part of their community and under their protection. The most traditional villages require the women to have skirts down to the knees, and covered shoulders. Men wear a sula, like a skirt wrap, no hats or sunglasses, and shirts. The chief is always the first person you need to go see. You are also expected to respect the traditions of the culture even if they seem a bit outdated or arbitrary. For some reason it is taboo to touch the top of another persons head. I had to stop myself many times when I went to pat some young child on the head. No one could tell me why that is, must be very tough for the barbers.
Until recently the more remote outer islands were off limits to cruisers. Apparently a few visitors chose to ignore local customs despite being told about them and gravely offended the islanders. After complaints by the chiefs the Lau Group of islands was made off limits for many years. It could take several months to get written government permission to go there and only if an island family invited you in writing. It has opened up again which we were grateful for. These were our favorite areas of Fiji and many places we went had not seen a cruiser in over a decade.
For divers Fiji is known as the soft coral capital of the Pacific. Diving is one of our favorite activities and we were not disappointed. Most of the reefs are in excellent health, unfortunately this is not the situation in much of the Pacific we have cruised.
We liked Fiji so much we changed our plans to sail N for cyclone season last year and stayed here another 6 months. We hate to leave this beautiful place but it is time to move on. We will be heading W through Vanuatu or possible New Caledonia, and N Australia in route to Indonesia and Thailand where we anticipate spending up to a year.