2017/18 CRUISING MALACCA STRAITS & THAILAND
17 March 2018 | Malaysia Thailand
So - 3 months afloat and 880 nautical miles: the longest trip since our Andaman's cruise out of Singapore via Phuket in 2012.
We started this one in Singapore, not on Dreamcatcher, but on Kokomo. Friends Mark & Julie planned an exit from Singapore December 6th - but we went one "man" short, having offloaded Julie due to a fractured elbow: too risky for her to take a 550 mile trip in case things got rough, so the 3 of us packed the boat with lots of provisions and set off. Pouty moment for all of us as Julie had done such a great job victualing and was looking forward to the trip with all of us, but, common sense prevailed and we left her with a sad face on the dock. The trip was relatively uneventful: a nice overnight anchorage at Pulau Pisang to take a breather after negotiating the Singapore exit - one of the busiest shipping channels in the world.
Shoo'ed out of the anchorage early by some local fisherman in pursuit of their drift net, we set off north up the busy Malacca Strait, aiming for another stop in Pulau Pangkor. This is one of our favourite anchorages: safe, scenic and a nice rest spot: a good dinner, a beer and a restful sleep before pointing towards Penang, which would be another potential stop. Foiled by a late afternoon thunderstorm, Penang was off the list as an anchorage and we ploughed on to Langkawi, arriving mid-morning on the 10th with Julie waiting for us at the dock, having flown up that morning. It was a win/win for us as we were able to help them get Kokomo to Langkawi, and in turn they transported Dreamcatcher's 10 new golf-cart batteries, plus food treats we knew we couldn't get in Langkawi. The latter is great for two things: duty free booze and chocolate. What more does one need?? Well, chutneys and other Mediterranean goodies that are often hard to find in Malaysia.
A week in Langkawi - Dreamcatcher's home - saw us organized with the above victuals, plus several other loads of groceries, pre-cooking meals and loading fresh fruit & veg. We exited Langkawi a few days after Kokomo, northbound. First stop was at Ko Tarutao - everything north of Langkawi is Thailand. A nice overnight rest stop, then a day passage to Ko Lanta Yai, anchoring on its west side just off the Pimalai resort and the following day, a dull & boring 50 mile motor into Nai Harn Bay in Phuket, arriving 23rd December.
We're very fond of Nai Harn : from a sailor's perspective it's a wide, safe anchorage, it has a dinghy dock (albeit floating plastic cubes a bit like a Lego set) and bars and restaurants ashore. Getting from the dinghy dock to said restaurants requires a walk up a ramp, then a mountain goat climb over some very big boulders which are sometimes part submerged during high tide, then a steep rickety staircase...interesting at night after a few drinks. This daily sortie is made more challenging due to loads - rubbish out, shopping in. Cruisers rule is, never leave nor return to the boat empty handed!
It was at Nai Harn that we became concerned about the new batteries: they didn't seem to be holding a charge, so outside expertise was needed and we spent several days running the genset to charge the batteries up to the hilt, even though we'd motored about 16 hours since Langkawi. We finally were satisfied that they were ok but as a result, decided we need to upgrade our solar controller and Link 10 system, so they went on the "buy" list. (We have them now but yet to be installed).
The 24th of December saw our friends Kokomo arrive in the anchorage along with their 2 friends who'd flown in from Sydney the day before. Pelikan accompanied us and we had a rip-roaring Christmas Day aboard Kokomo: Pelikan did the veggies; we provided the dessert and Kokomo the roast chickens and venue. Needless to say there were plenty of liquid refreshments, all boats having stocked up in Langkawi!
The following few weeks were simply spent frolicking in Nai Harn, swimming, kayaking, eating out, shopping and just general socialising. After a month, we needed to do a visa run (both Aust & US passports get 30 days in Thailand and we hadn't applied for the 60 day visas), so we parked Dreamcatcher in Boat Lagoon in Phuket and flew back to Singapore for a few days to be with the pussycats, Jane and generally catch up on admin which had been neglected over the prior 6 weeks.
A return to the marina in Boat Lagoon let us spend a few days with Kokomo as they were there for some boat projects: a few nights eating out and re-provisioning: it was like old home week as both boats had been in there for 2 months during 2016. Dreamcatcher launched out again early February, returning to Nai Harn and a rendezvous with our old cruising friends: the Andaman Adventurers! The 4 boats - us, Rusalka, Rascal and Smystery. It was wonderful to catch up: dinners and planning sessions - we were off again on another adventure, this time to Northern Thailand.
We've sailed the bays in Phuket up as far as Patong, but now, further north. Unfortunately, this is where our dinghy engine played up. It had been running fine, but it just decided to stop. Henry pulled his hair out; we cursed and eventually gave up and had the mechanics pick it up from the beach one morning, prior to us passaging north. The boats dropped the hook in Bang Tao beach and the next morning, about 15 miles north and the dinghy engine was returned to us with a "bandaid" on the culprit: the carburetor, with a reticent promise that it would work "for a couple of weeks". Well, it worked - for a couple of days. We stayed in that anchorage for 3 nights hampered by our dinghy and alternator issues aboard one of our friends' boats, but it was a nice spot, so no complaints. From there, a day sail to the Thai Navy Base. This was ALL new to us - never having ventured so far north of the equator since we crossed the Pacific!
The Navy base was a deal! It is also used by the day-tripper boats who only know one speed - pedal to the metal. Unfortunately our arrival timed around 1700 hours, just when the day tripper boats were returning to base - what a mess! The approach to the anchorage is like making a big "C", avoiding a long shallow reef, and finally in to the channel, which is marked appropriately with red and green buoys (I would hope so, it's the NAVY!). A cautious wind through the inlet for about a half mile found us at a small protected anchorage along with our friends - this time 5 boats. We were happy to follow the recommended dinner plans - get in dinghy and ride in the dark to none other than the Navy Wives Club! A brightly lit casual affair that is run by exactly that: the navy wives. Great menu, great food and tons of beer at very inexpensive prices. It cost us 600 Baht for both dinners and a half dozen big beers - $24 Sing/Oz dollars, about $19 USD. We couldn't move, we'd eaten and drank so much! A great night until our dinghy engine died on the way back to the boats and we had to be towed. It never worked after that, despite our cajoling, insults and other poking and prodding from Henry. Thus, we were beholden thereafter to our good friends to transport us from boat to boat and boat to shore. Sigh.
An early 4 am start saw all the boats leave the Navy anchorage. Not us. Don't do 4am unless we're paid for it! Their goal, rightfully, was to reach the sand bar inlet for the inland sea on the rising high tide, about 35 miles north. We had decided to take our chances and anchor outside it and enter the bar the following morning: turned out there was no need - we were able to negotiate the bar entry without any real depth or shallows issues and dropped the hook alongside our friends by a sandy beach. Here's the difference to Nai Harn: there was no one there. No one. Such a contrast to the Russian populated state of southern Phuket. No-one. It was fantastic and the 5 crews built a fire on the beach and barbequed fish and sausages, ate salads and drank wine. Wonderful, unique night. Next morning we all discovered we had half a ton of very, very fine sand on our boats - it got into everything!
A decision was made to meander through the inland sea and find a more northerly anchorage. This place is AMAZING! Wide, deep enough, scenic, no commercial traffic, no other yachts....very hard to find such a venue in today's cruising world. It took us about 5 hours of motoring/meandering through the waterway when we saw one of our group anchored: they'd left earlier with intention to sail to the Surin Islands. We all dropped the hook outside a very small, very local fishing village. A shore excursion proved interesting: wooden and concrete homes, a school and many fishermen mending nets. A gaggle of little girls in fancy dress for what appeared to be some sort of party. No cars, only a couple of motor bikes - probably a population of less than a hundred. Shabby but charming, and sadly, so much rubbish lying about. The locals wouldn't get many visitors but they took us in their stride, friendly enough. One man was building a boat - a Thai long-tail, with no plans and nothing but a set square, one pencil and a tape measure (he did have an electric drill). The boat was magnificent: no blueprint, just being built by feel, his boat-building skills likely in his DNA for centuries. It was a strong and handsome vessel and we would have loved to see it finished.
That night we celebrated Chinese New Year. The event was hosted by Rascal, Carol being Singaporean. We did the Lo Hei (Yusheng)...Google It....those living in Singapore will understand just how beneficial tossing food in to the air can be and how much prosperity and health it will visit upon you! It was a super night. Back to our boats for a sleep and off early the next morning bound for Ko Phayam, just south of the Burmese border. The 8 mile drive out to the exit of the inland sea was beautiful: misty, silent, lush.... So many things to go "ooh and ahh" at, and lots of anchorages logged in the mind. We'll be back, for longer, next time.
We finally got all the sails up! So far we'd only used the headsail and mizzen but a 15 minute sorting out of the main, reef lines et al, got us sailing - it looked and felt great. Then the wind dropped. We put the main away after a frustrating 20 minutes and motor-sailed the scenic coast 40 miles into Ko Phayam. One comment-worthy point: the beaches along Thailand's north-west coast are amazing. Long, long, stretches of uninterrupted white sand - no people. Further to the south there are a few small "resorts" but north of the Navy yard - no civilization. Deserted and pristine. We got as close as we could on the way up while staying in a safe depth - just lovely.
Another noteworthy aspect of our cruising in company - we had SUPER onboard dinners! We've known this group of friends for decades, we've done a lot of racing and cruising together including a month in the Andamans and we eat and drink together just as well! Each boat takes it in turn to host the evening and provides everything - sundowners drinks and dinner, typically between 6 & 10pm, tons of fun and wonderful food too. I think all of these chefs afloat are better cooks than we are, but we did ok and the chili jam on cream cheese and crackers was a hit of a starter! Our fridge/freezer performed admirably and we were able to supply ice to the other boats when they needed it. Other dinners were onshore at a variety of eateries and restaurants, all casual, some with your feet in the beach sand - all good and very inexpensive.
We arrived at the northern bay on Ko Phayam around sunset and dinghied to the beach and found - ah, nirvana - the 60 Baht Beer Bar!! A LARGE bottle of Chang beer, served ice cold, for $2.10 SGD ($1.75 USD).... Brilliant. Funky and relaxed with an interesting clientele. We paid homage there every night before wandering over to a selection of beach-front restaurants. The most noteworthy being the Hippy Bar. Check out the photos. A cross between Pirates of the Caribbean's Black Pearl and a hillbilly ranch. Very, very clever: built solely from driftwood and string, this establishment was crazy! Rambling back from the beach, it had alcoves and drinking benches everywhere, sprinkled with fish traps, orchids and a variety of marine paraphernalia. We ventured to eat dinner there one night (in the "bow" of the boat) and it was surprisingly good, albeit served by a Thai-come-Rasta-man who had a joint between his fingers as he passed out the food! And this in a country that has the death penalty for drugs!!
Over the next day or so, we explored the island on foot - well paved roads, no cars but motor scooters that one could rent or simply hop on the back of a motor bike taxi. We saw cashew nuts growing (fascinating), rubber plantations, little shops selling bananas and a few other items. Scenic, laid back, fragrant. The travelers/tourists there were different to Phuket - we didn't see or hear any Russians - mostly Europeans from Germany, Italy and Switzerland. We LOVED Ko Phayam and will be back!
The third day saw us motor 5 miles to the south bay for the evening - uneventful until we got both dinghies caught in a huge cross-bay fishing net in the dark. Once sorted, a short walk up the beach for our last dinner there. An early start, and southbound we were, bound for the Navy yard again. Rainstorm. Anchor. Drinks aboard Gezar. Dinner at the Navy Wives Club again - who wouldn't at that value?! The 10 of us made for a pretty rowdy dinner table - lucky no one else was there.
Our 0930 start the following morning was marred by the idiot drivers of the high speed tour boats who are based in the Navy area: as said, they only know one speed - pedal to the metal. Unfortunately, being in a narrow channel with shallows on one side and reef on the other - essentially between a rock and a hard place - we had nowhere to go as they sped past us and got bounced around mercilessly by at least a dozen of these jack-asses. Note to self - never leave the Navy base at 9.30 am. We have a lot of respect for the long-tail boat drivers and the fishermen, but NONE for these reckless dudes. They're in the same camp as the idiot jet ski riders who buzz the boat while at anchor.
Two boats continued south to Nai Harn while Rascal and we stopped for a couple of nights at Kamala Bay - what a lovely place! Good anchorage, wide sweeping beach flanked by lots of restaurants and apartments cascading down the hill. We dined on the main street at a great spot called Blue Manau, joined by our other cruising friends who live in Kamala during the sailing season: they'd had to leave the cruising group earlier to meet an overseas friend. A bit of exploring found us pizza restaurants, a big supermarket and lots of interesting eye-candy both in the shops and tourists! It was a really nice time. Our departure was marred by the fact that we'd caught a huge blue rope around the propeller: couldn't go anywhere, couldn't get it off. So, thank goodness for the mobile data package while at anchor, we were able to research dive companies in the area. Merlin divers were super to deal with, found a diver, delivered him by long-tail boat to Dreamcatcher and he summarily removed the nasty tangle. So, "mobile" once again, and off to Nai Harn where we re-joined Kokomo: it was great to see them again - such good company! ...Not to mention the margaritas!
We spent several days there catching up, shopping and finally did the paperwork check out from Phuket. Next morning we left Kokomo at anchor and sailed off to North Ko Lanta. By lunchtime we realized we wouldn't make it before dark - a strong opposing tide and not much wind - so we dropped in to Ko Phi Phi Lei and picked up a mooring. Those of you who read last year's blog might recall just how disappointed we were with Phi Phi Don: clogged with day-tripper boats and the beach simply inaccessible. Phi Phi Li was the same. The anchorage area is smaller and it is simply jammed with high-speed day tripper boats, long-tails and larger passenger tour boats - it was busier than Changi airport with the comings and goings! We would have loved to kayak to the beach but the risk of being mowed down was way too high. Things did settle down as the tourists left and the evening rolled in and we did have a calm night. We put the alarm on for 0630 in the morning, planning an early exit: no need, the long-tail boats with bleary-eyed tourists started arriving at 6.15 am! Still dark - don't know what they thought they were going to see.
We did get away at 0700 before the throngs arrived and made landfall at Ko Lanta Yai's northern bay around lunchtime - pretty place and good anchorage: long white sandy beach with little "resorts" and shops. It was here we re-united with Rascal, Rusalka and a new addition to the fleet, MoonBeam. A lovely dinner evening onboard Dreamcatcher and a couple of nights later saw us up anchor and start south-bound in earnest.
A long hot day made more than bearable by the magnificent scenery. This part of the world is so sparsely populated and so beautiful and only accessible by boat. And often not accessible due to the deep water surrounding the islands. These are essentially limestone karsts or mountains that rise dramatically from the ocean, many with sheer vertical sides. Breathtaking scenery. We dropped the hook at Ko Bulan Le next to our friends' boats in a bright anchorage opposite a white sand beach and adjacent to a sandy spit that pointed out from the south eastern corner. We had 2 nights and one very delightful day here: eating, drinking, kayaking and swimming in sparkling aqua water. The full day was spent orienteering over the island: we walked several well-marked trails to pretty bays, one of which was a tiny fishing village with fishermen cleaning their traps. We met some villagers, a lovely pussycat, bought bananas and had a great seaside lunch with lots of liquid refreshments after our 3 hour walk. Unfortunately Henry twisted his ankle so that laid him up for the evening, which was probably a good idea as it freed him up to handle the next day's adventures admirably.
Next stop, the northern bay of Ko Tarutao, again. But this time we were on a mission. There is a cave deep in the mangrove rivers: saltwater crocs used to populate the jungle and rivers but are now extinct so it is possible to explore the cave by long-tail or dinghy. Once again we had the privilege of being the only ones there. The 3 dinghies motored slowly up the wide rivers for an hour with mangrove, jungle and cliffs on either side and eventually tied up at a rickety wooden dock that was unusable. 15 minutes of scrambling over rocks and small ravines and we arrived at the entrance to the cave. Steamy, darkish, tricky - we had to climb down a wooden ladder then land on two floating docks (same as the one at Nai Harn) in the gloom. One of the docks was on a thick rope in the water which you used to pull the raft along: so the 8 of us sat down on the muddy float and pulled away. Torchlights and ducking heads to escape the stalactites was the order of the day and we thought it was great. We eventually got to the end of the cave river then clambered about the remaining 200 meters of cave in the slippery mud in the dark (with torches), oohing and ahhing at the giant stalagmites and tites, all still damp and growing. Very adventurous. Very Indiana Jones. Several of us lost our footing and all of us ended up wearing some degree of mud (which stains, by the way). There were also bats - not the big ones we see at Tioman Island but small butterfly-sized ones. Not too daunting.
The return river ride was just as interesting and the river eventually expelled us on to the beachfront again and we set off for lots of cold beer and good food at the one restaurant on the island. It was a great day!
And sadly, it was our last. An 0600 departure the following morning saw Dreamcatcher weigh anchor, Langkawi bound, where we cruised in to our berth at RLYC late afternoon. The end of a fabulous 3 months cruising. Sigh. When can we do it again??!