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First Light adventures
Asia travels
15/08/2011, Thailand and Laos

The first of our Asian travels began in late July when we flew to Bangkok and travelled by train to the northern area of Thailand. En route we stopped off to visit Sukothai which was once an ancient city and the original capital of the first Thai Kingdom. The ruins are well preserved and extensive, so hiring bikes and cycling around the ruins was an efficient way of exploring the historical park in a few hours.

Our next stop was Chiang Mai about 6 hrs further north, where we were booked to do a 4 day bike ride with our friend Marcus who was our tour guide. Marcus is originally from Melbourne but is now based in Chiang Mai and runs Crouching Tiger cycling tours. Our rides covered 100kms on average each day, which at times was challenging especially in the heat. However, we got to see so much of the surrounding countryside, it gave us a real appreciation of that part of Thailand. The city of Chiang Mai is in a valley but surrounded by high mountain peaks and limestone cliffs that are often covered in cloud. Our rides took us along narrow roads through bright green, rice paddy fields and up into the hills beyond, where you could often spot richly decorated Buddhist temples perched on the highest hilltops. Chiang Mai is now a bustling city, but has retained the old city which is a neat square surrounded by remnants of an old medieval style wall and a moat. Beyond the moat is the sprawling new city of restaurants, businesses and accommodation for the thousands of tourists who visit. Being a local, Marcus is 'in the know' about the best places to eat, so we enjoyed some really delicious Thai food.

Feeling fitter after 4 solid days of bike riding, we headed north east towards the border crossing of Chiang Kong where we would cross over from Thailand into Laos. The mighty Mekong River separates the two countries at this point. It is an extremely swift flowing river and the little boat that carried us from one side to the other really had to work hard at counteracting the flow of the river. Once through passport controls and checked into Laos we boarded a much larger boat for a two day ride (over 300kms) down the Mekong to Luang Prabang, a large town in northern Laos. The boat was very long and narrow with a seating capacity for about 50 people. However we were part of a group of 5 guests on board, so it was very comfortable with plenty of room to move. The captain, his wife and children and our guide made up the crew. The captain proved very skilful in navigating his boat down the river, dodging rocks, shallow areas, over falls and whirlpools. His wife prepared a hot, local lunch for us on both days and their children being on school holidays just enjoyed the ride. Half way down the river, we stopped off at a small village and spent the night in a hotel as boats are not allowed on the river after dark. We then set off again early the next morning and made it to our destination of Luang Prabang, later in the afternoon. The river scenery was really interesting and it was a very relaxing way of travelling from A to B. We really enjoyed our three days in Luang Prabang which has retained many of the French colonial influences especially in its architecture. It is surrounded by steep rugged mountains with sheer limestone outcrops, so amazing countryside.

We then boarded a bus for a drama filled days drive across the mountains to Vientiane. The bus driver had trouble with the gears and only got a Km out of town before stopping and trying to repair the problem with a welder on the side of the road. Two hours later, still no gears, we limped back to town and after another hour, boarded another bus. Finally on our way we encountered very windy roads and torrential rain. The driver drove through a large puddle smashing the front of the bus on the ground, knocking the front door almost off its hinges and cracking the glass. We climbed up and down steep mountains all day inching past washed out sections of road with sheer drops on the side. Not surprisingly, some passengers suffered motion sickness for the whole journey. We finally made it to our hotel at 10PM that night.

We found the Laos capital of Vientiane a little bland after the spectacular scenery of the north. After two days we travelled just 30 kms to the Thai Border where we caught an overnight train back to Bangkok. The Thai capital is such a bustling city, but easy to navigate round using the sky train and water taxis. We particularly enjoyed our visit to the Royal Palace and the enormous Sleeping Buddha. Our trip to Kanchanabri-'Bridge Over the River Kwai' fame, was memorable for our visit to the Allied POW's war cemetery and museum and a train trip along the edge of the Kwai River. The heat and humidity is relentless in Thailand and it wasn't hard to imagine the horrendous conditions the thousands of POW's were forced to endure at the hands of the Japanese, in the construction of the Burma railway. The visit was a sober finale to our travels in Thailand and Laos!

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Boat maintenance & Sailing
15/07/2011, Langkawi

As we are not sailing much this year we haven't been as diligent with our blog, but we have been busy, so we will endeavor to update you on what has been happening with us since we have been back in Langkawi. Our plan for this year was to base ourselves in Langkawi in Rebak marina and take the opportunity to see more of SE Asia through land travel. In between times would be spent on boat maintenance and improvements while tied up to a jetty.
We arrived back in Rebak Marina early June after spending the latter weeks of May admiring and enjoying our new granddaughter Ruby who was born (to Jayne & Damien) on the 14th May.
Our first job was to anti foul the boat. First Light was carrying quite a lot of growth due to the warm water around here, so we hauled her out and spent ten days 'on the hard' scraping off barnacles, applying anti foul and completing a few repairs to the prop. It was a hot and dirty job, for Bern in particular, who spent most of the day dodging the sun. Morning sun meant working on the port side and vice versa in the afternoon. Fortunately the air/conditioner that Bern installed over the main hatch earlier in the year has made life in the cabin so much more comfortable. So it became a real haven in which to escape the heat when working outside became too much. The tropical heat and humidity are very wearing and we are now both convinced, we are built for cool climates.
Once we were back in the water, with a nice clean hull, we glided out of the marina for a weeks sailing around the island in company with some Aussie friends on their boat 'Sassoon'. It's amazing how easy the boat moves when her undersides are clean. Our first anchorage was in the Fjords, a narrow but very pretty waterway just south of the main island. The area is completely guarded by high cliffs covered in lush growth, and home to Kites (eagles) and monkeys. It is also quite protected from the weather, so a good place to spend a few days in the SW monsoon season. After a few days, we continued around the island to the ' Hole in the Wall' another protected anchorage, with a very narrow entrance between rocks that opens out to a large bay, once inside. Leading off this bay are many narrow creeks that are a few kms long and again bordered on either side by steep rocky cliffs. It was a great place to go exploring with the dinghy, but we were in stiff competition with the 'hundreds' of local, long tail tourist boats that spend all day zapping up and down and around, laden with tourists. After 5pm the end of the business day, it became a quiet peaceful anchorage again. Our final anchorage was at the northern end of the island, in a bay that is overlooked by an exclusive resort. We dinghied into shore to enjoy a drink at the resort bar which was very civilized. However, our attempts to dinghy back out to the boat weren't so civil. By the time we were ready to head back to the boat, there were breaking waves on the beach. We tried to time our exit in between waves, jumped in the dinghy, ready to fire up the outboard, but despite Bern's efforts it wouldn't cooperate. The next wave threw the dinghy back and washed over us both. Wet, bedraggled and a little embarrassed (there were many onlookers sitting on the beach) we tried again, but took another wave. Totally embarrassed, we resorted to the oars which got us beyond the break- should have tried that in the first place! It proved to be an uncomfortable anchorage exposed to the NW which brought in quite a swell from the ocean and we copped a big thunderstorm with gusty winds in the early hours of the morning. The following day we motor sailed in a lumpy sea down the west side of the island back to the marina and the air conditioner!

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Pirates thwart plans
01/05/2011, Maldives

Early January I received an email from a sailing friend Matt, the skipper of Island Time. He asked if I was interested in sailing with him from the Maldives to the Med via the Red Sea in March and April. I jumped at the idea as Di was teaching during that period and I was at a loose end. Also it would be good experience before we undertake the same passage next year.

However in the week before I flew to the Maldives to join Island Time, Somali pirates captured the American yacht Quest and the four American crew. A few days after their capture the crew were all killed by the pirates. We had met them in Vanuatu in 2009, so this was a real shock to us. Quest was captured in an area that up till then had been considered a low risk area for pirates. Clearly the pirates now had the capability of travelling thousands of miles from the Somali coast and were now after yachts as well as merchant ships. In the weeks that followed the Quest incident, the Danish yacht ING was also captured and the crew of seven taken to Somalia.

These two incidents and other reports from yachts making the passage to the Med via the Red Sea indicated that the risk of being attacked by pirates had dramatically increased.

When I joined Island Time in the Maldives, Matt was still keen to make the passage to the Med. But as we learnt more about the pirate situation and also political uprisings in Egypt and other Middle East countries around the Red Sea, he reluctantly had to concede that it was now too dangerous to attempt the passage.

The decision was made to sail from the Maldives back to Sri Lanka. Spend some time there, then sail back to either Thailand or Malaysia. Our stay in the Maldives came to abrupt ending when we were told by the authorities to leave. Apparently the agent that Matt had used to obtain the required cruising permit and other formalities had not done a thing. The end result of their inactivity was that Island Time with crew had cruised some of the islands without a permit - a situation frowned upon by the authorities.

The passage from the Maldives to Sri Lanka was uneventful - winds were very light so we had to motor a good part of the way. It was hot with the occasional respite when a thunderstorm provided a downpour of rain that cooled the decks, topped up the water tanks and cooled the crew.

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We made it!!
24/11/2010, Langkawi

After leaving Pangkor marina we made a short sail north to Monkey island and spent the night there so we could ensure we 'd make the distance to Penang in daylight hours the following day. We got an early start and as there was no wind we were motoring along and dodging a few fishing boats and nets. Suddenly the engine slowed down and there was a bad vibration...must be some rubbish around the prop again. A quick check to make sure there were no jelly fish around and Bern was over the side and diving under the boat to investigate. As expected there was a big plastic bag wrapped around the prop and as he dragged it clear he felt a stinging pain on his arm and chest. There must have been jellyfish tentacles caught up in the plastic. With the plastic bag clear we got back on our way and started first aid treatment on a very painful arm and chest. We quickly ran through a plan in case he became unconscious and needed medical assistance. After about four hours the pain had subsided and he was feeling much better. We arrived in Penang early afternoon and anchored in a reasonably sheltered bay as the marina there is exposed to swell and the wash from non stop ferry traffic. The next day we started exploring the old city and finding our way around. Penang is a former British colony with many of the colonial buildings well preserved and still in use. We spent quite a few hours walking around the museum which describes through the numerous displays the history of Penang and the influence of all the cultures that have contributed to how Penang is today. People have come from China, Indonesia, Bangladesh, India, Burma, the middle east and of course Britain. We walked through Little India, Chinatown and some huge shopping malls that are popular throughout Malaysia. The choice of cuisine is endless and we discovered a great Indian vegetarian restaurant serving delicious food at a total cost of $5 AUS!!! From Penang our next stopover was in the Fiord like islands just south of Langkawi and was one of the prettiest anchorages we have been in this year. The area is entered through a narrow channel in between high cliffs, home to Kites and monkeys. It is very secluded and a very protected anchorage. We spent three days here with quite a few other yachts then motored a further 5 nms around to the main town of Kuah on Langkawi Island. Kuah is mainly filled with Duty Free Shops and is a popular shopping destination for mainland Malaysians. Alcohol, chocolate and clothing are the major drawcards- Bern was quite excited to be able to buy a slab of beer(24 cans) for $10 AUS!!! Our final stop for this year was to a marina on Rebak island not far from Langkawi. We have spent the week here cleaning the boat from top to bottom in readiness for leaving it closed up while we return to Australia for a few months. As the weather is very humid and mould is a problem we have to leave fans running and containers of bleach sitting around to keep the boat as dry as possible and the mould at bay. We fly to Kuala Lumpur on Friday for the weekend and finally arrive in Australia Monday morning. We hope you have enjoyed following our blogs. There will be a break of a few months before we resume our travels in Asia next year.

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30/12/2010 | Matt Paulin
Hi Bernie, Matt from island Time. did you want to do the Indian Ocean leg? I'm singlehnded at this stage - you'd be welcome. Send me an email - I left your email ADD on the boat! [email protected]
Almost through the Malacca Straits!
16/11/2010, Pangkor

We are now two thirds of the way up the Malacca Straits and enjoying a few days in a quiet marina before heading north another 70nm to Penang. We finally left Johor Bahru last Friday after spending three interesting days sightseeing in the city of Malacca. This is a great city to visit with Chinatown being the major part of it's heritage area, tastefully restored and maintained. It's maritime history dates back to the 1400's when it became the centre of trade for the west coast of Malaysia and the meeting point between east and west shipping. Over the centuries, it has been dominated by the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British and the influence of these cultures is evident in the architecture and layout of the old city. Our time there was certainly a highlight of our time in Malaysia so far. Our two day sail up the Straits of Malacca was challenging as far as the weather and the amount of shipping that plies up and down this busy waterway. Huge container ships, tankers, tugs towing barges and local fishermen all have to be negotiated! Fortunately there is a designated shipping lane in which nearly all of the larger ships stay. On the edge of the shipping lane is where the tugs towing barges travel and inside of this area, are all the local fishing fleet. We opted to sail up the edge of the shipping lane and found dealing with the tugs and barges less stressful as they travel slowly and nearly all carry AIS and are well lit. So they are easy to identify. In contrast, the local fishermen have poorly lit boats and of course no AIS so we have to be continually on the lookout for them. Daylight is always welcome after a night at sea when so much is going on around us. The calm, predictable weather we experienced for so long in Indonesia has spoilt us and we now have to adjust to daily thunderstorms, lightening, heavy downpours of rain which is often accompanied by strong wind squalls. We were hit by such a storm on our second night at sea. The lightening lit up the sky for many hours and then eventually we were hit by a strong wind squall, a quick 180 degree change in wind direction and heavy rain which reduced visibility and had us really wondering - where are those little fishing boat??? Thankfully it only lasted a few hours! We are hoping that we will be able to manage the rest of the passage to Langkawi in daylight hours. We plan to leave for Penang tomorrow, apparently Georgetown is a very interesting place to visit. From there we have another 70nm to Langkawi, so we are on the home stretch!

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18/11/2010 | Graham T
I'm in KL and getting the daily storms as well so I'm glad it was you guys out there rather than me. We visited Pangkor when we lived here - was a sleepy place back then, I imagine busier today. Sitting in the office feeling a bit envious, but we'll get back on the water soon as well.
26/11/2010 | Chiquita
I thought you were still in Oz. I have just arrived in Opua, Great sail down from Fiji. NE wind for a week! 15-18 kts! 195nm/day! I am aiming for Phuket next year. Hope to catch you up.
Danga Bay
25/10/2010, Johor Bahru, Malaysia

After nearly two weeks we are still securely tied up in Danga Bay Marina in Johor Bahru. The Sail Malaysia Rally dinner and official briefing for our sail up the west coast to Langkawi, was held last weekend. Prior to that we had two busy days in Singapore sightseeing and shopping. Singapore is a short bus ride over the causeway from Johor Bahru. There are about 80,000 Malaysians who travel each day across the causeway to work in Singapore, so it is always a busy thoroughfare. The infrastructure for customs and immigration on both sides is well developed and well managed. It is a straightforward and efficient process. We were very impressed with Singapore's rail and bus transport which is easy to use and gets you around the city quickly in air conditioned comfort! Our visit to the 'Battle Box' in Fort Canning Park was really interesting and informative. It consists of a group of underground rooms and tunnels which was used as the command centre by the British and allied forces during WWII. Extremely realistic life- size models of army personal produced in England similar to what you'd find in 'Madame Toussards ', help recreate the story of the days leading up to the fall of Singapore to the Japanese. It is an audiovisual exhibition with some of the models designed to appear as if they are actually speaking . Fort Canning Park is a peaceful, leafy retreat amongst the hustle and bustle, but one of the many 'green' areas of Singapore which has a cooling affect in an otherwise steamy climate. Last Thursday we enjoyed a tour of south Johor organised for the rally participants. We were taken down to the SE and SW tip of Malaysia which overlooks the Singapore Straits. A maze of boardwalks have been built in amongst the mangroves which are now a protected species and a focus on this environment has been developed into a tourist attraction. Surprisingly the mangroves were littered with all kinds of rubbish washed in from the adjacent busy shipping straits. Afterwards we were taken to a local village for a traditional Malaysian lunch which was quite delicious and then onto a pineapple museum(!) entirely devoted to the history of pineapple growing in Malaysia. Yesterday was 'Deepavalli- the festival of lights' one of the major festivals for the Indian community here. It is celebrated in a similar way to Christmas, with families dining together and exchanging gifts which is often money. Last night we heard fireworks being set off all over the place so guess that was the finale. For the rest of the community, the Chinese and Malays, it is just a public holiday and a chance to shop in the many plazas and dine out in the many restaurants. The Sail Malaysia Rally commences tomorrow with the first stopover being Malacca and apparently a very interesting place to visit. Unfortunately the anchorage in the bay there can be very exposed if the winds blow in strongly from the west. As it is only a 3 hour bus ride from Johor, we have decided to stay longer in the marina here and travel by road to Malacca, stay for three days and join the Rally tour and attend the official dinner. We will then return, set sail on Friday and catch up with the Rally further up the coast.

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First Light 111 Adventures
Who: Bernie
Port: Melbourne Australia
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