A Short Visit to Sabang, Indonesia
25 December 2017
We were sitting in Phuket, Thailand wondering where to go for the next month before going back to Langkawi, Malaysia for Christmas. We spotted a small flyer about a sail rally to Sabang, Indonesia, someplace we never heard of. Turns out it is only a 2 day sail from where we were and a great way to get back offshore and out to sea. We had not been out in the ocean for 2 years and we wanted to test out our boat and equipment for our upcoming sail to Australia next Spring. Things on boats tend to break down, freeze up, or gremlins invade the electrics when a boat is not used much. Good thing we did because I spent 3 days fixing a long list of small but worrisome problems.
Sabang is the main town on the island of Pulau Weh, this is a lovely island and Northern most inhabited area of Sumatra. The island is approximately 60 sq miles in area and over 20 sq miles have been set aside as conservation zones. Once considered a premier dive area the reefs suffered major damage from the 2004 tidal wave and bleaching due to warmer than normal water. The reefs are recovering slowly but it could be a decade or more before they approach their former splendor. Population is about 40,000, the people extremely friendly, and the water very clear. Coastal Malaysia and Thailand water has about 2-6 feet visibility. Not from pollution, but sediment from runoff. Visibility in Sabang was 20-60 feet and we were looking forward to snorkeling again.
The Indonesian government is heavily promoting tourism and want Sabang to be a cruiser's destination of choice in the area. In order to entice us to come they offered the following incentives.
Free mooring balls to secure your boat to, three meals a day for five days, daily guided tours, each boat was assigned a local resource person to handle questions and provide any assistance needed. We received at least 10 hats and a dozen nice shirts between us, plus other gifts such as tote bags, Sumatra coffee, woven table clothes, various nik naks, 50 gallons of free diesel fuel, and hundreds of smiles and several new friends.
We would definitely go back again if we had the time. It would be an easy place to spend a few lazy months exploring by motor scooter and boat.
A brief look at Viet Nam and China
28 December 2016
With monsoon season still hampering sailing conditions in Sept and Oct we took the opportunity to visit China and Viet Nam. China had long been on my list of places to see and we had heard that Viet Nam was beautiful, so off we went.
We had heard from friends that travelling China can be a challenge due to restrictions on which hotels could take foreign visitors and the rarity of English being spoken outside of major cities. Even in the largest cities few spoke any English. For that reason we opted for a personally guided tour which worked out perfectly for us. Although expensive we were able to choose our itinerary and make minor modifications along the way if we chose. In the 3 weeks we were there we visited 7 different regions, took three local flights, two trains, and had an English speaking guide at each destination. They met us on arrival, made all arrangements, and made sure we got on the right plane-train for our next stop. The company was called China Highlights and we highly recommend them.
We were not sure what to expect in our first Communist country but found the people very friendly and welcoming despite the language barrier. The country is much too big for only a 3 week visit. We would love to go back but I think time will not allow it.
Vietnam was definitely a good choice to visit. The people are much poorer than in China, and the Communist government more restrictive. It was interesting to see how their government portrayed the evil war monger US vs the peaceful Vietnam government during the war. In a former pow prison we visited, the infamous "Hanoi Hilton", we saw two photo's of Sen. John McCain in prison along with photo's of other pow's enjoying volleyball, gardening, chess, and healthy meals. At the same time condemning the US for targeting schools and hospitals of the cities and towns. We did not get into any discussions about the reliability of these reports. I was told that most citizens were not happy with their government ( sound familiar? ) but were afraid of retribution if they spoke out against it.
Despite the political climate the countryside is beautiful and you can travel on a small budget. Most of our hotel rooms were less than $20 per night including breakfast. Rooms were basic, comfortable, with hot showers, tv, wifi, ac, and centrally located. We would enjoy returning for another visit.
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!!!!!