Kuching Cat

24 December 2006
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29 July 2005

Kuching Seasons greetings

24 December 2006
Picture: Laurie picked up some temporary work to help with our expenses!


'Tis the season! We are sitting in Nai Harn Bay on the west coast of Phuket Island contemplating Xmas dinner. Probably lobster again. In the past 15 years between us we seem to have had more lobster than turkey Xmas dinners. We are planning Xmas dinner in our new house with some friends. It's the 20th though and we haven't moved in yet. The furniture arrives on the 23rd and we will move in ready or not. The builder says it will be liveable by then but, for example, we will have metal stairs instead of the wood block ones which will go in at the very end of the build process so they won't be ruined by worker's dirty boots. No worries (as they say in New Zealand), as long as we have a kitchen and an operating swimming pool we are sure the Xmas party will be a success.

Since arriving back in this part of the world we've been busy with the house- finalizing colour schemes, correcting builder's errors, buying furniture. It didn't take up all our time but the demands for consultation were sporadic enough that we couldn't do much else but stay in Nai Harn Bay which is not a tough assignment really. Laurie was also rehabilitating from her fall in Malaysia (now pretty well healed although the sprained ankle needs to be strengthened) so we had a slow month of November. We did manage a week sailing/diving trip to the Similan Islands which is always a pleasure. We never want to leave there and always want to go back. This year the house project is limiting us a bit but next year we have plans for a lot more sailing and a lot less sitting around at anchor.

When our Thai visa ran out we took a two week trip to Vietnam which is a place We have always been keen to visit. We enjoyed the visit despite the fact that Typhoon Durian (with a name like that it was bound to be a 'smelly' one!) decided to pay a visit and we had three rather windy and wet days in the middle of our trip. We were lucky in that David had met the British Ambassador 4 years earlier and had taught him to scuba dive so he invited us to stay at his residence in Hanoi. They were delightful hosts and fed and housed us in a central location. We took a cyclo (like a rickshaw but with a bicycle on the back) tour of the Old Quarter. It hasn't changed much -narrow streets of shops of every description- although now the streets teem with motorcycles instead of bicycles. The sidewalks are used for everything from commerce to dining rooms, beauty salons, restaurants and even outside sleeping areas when its hot.

The central city remains charming with its French colonial buildings and lovely lakes. On one part of our trip we arrived in Hanoi on the overnight train at 5 am, far too early to check into our hotel, so we walked around the central lake and were delighted to see Tai Chi(old people) and calisthenic groups (younger people), traditional dance groups practicing, badminton games and joggers. It was a very active place at that time of the day. We did the required tourist things -Ho Chi Minh's Museum (we skipped the mausoleum where you can see his embalmed body), the Temple of Literature, the War Museum and the impressive Museum of Ethnology. There was state propaganda which wasn't plastered all over the city but was evident in heroic statues depicting the valiant Viet Cong army and in the texts of the museums where it is clear that the French were evil colonialists and the Americans were just plain evil. In contrast to that it is clear that there is an energetic entrepreneurism which is encouraged by the state. It's clear that Vietnam has moved from communism to socialism and is building a mixed economy which now allows wholly owned foreign companies (WOFIs) to operate in the country. That's more economically advanced (from a western point of view) than Malaysia, Thailand or Indonesia. In fact, a huge investment by Intel in a chip-making plant was just placed in Vietnam rather than Malaysia precisely because of the possible of having a WOFI. Which is not to say state control still doesn't exist. People aren't allowed to leave their home towns without permission and they certainly aren't allowed to move to another place to go looking for work. We had to take a taxi from Hoi An to Danang to catch a train (about 12 miles) and the taxi driver had to stop at the police station to pick up his travel document before he could take us.

We traveled by bus and train in the country and found them clean, comfortable and cheap. Plus the trains ran on time. Nothing to complain about there. Our hotels were also very good and well-priced. We weren't staying at the Hilton or the Sofitel though. The full range of options is there from $250 a night to $12 a night. We did splurge during the typhoon though as we thought a good hotel would be worth the money in bad weather. We were right! On our return to Hanoi rather than burden Robert and Pamela again we could not resist staying in the Army hotel (really) - actually in a section called the MOD Palace - how about that for a contradiction in terms. It was really pretty good and yes it was owned by the MOD/Army.

Other than Hanoi, we visted Ha Long Bay on a 3 day boat trip. This is like Phang Nga in Thailand only many times bigger. Beautiful scenery with small high islands and limestone karst pillars spread over 200 square miles of ocean. Fabulous. We also went to Hue which is the ancient capital (one of them anyway) and to Hoi An the Silk City. Hoi An is a UNESCO site and a charming city which has preserved its ancient core. It's also a city entirely devoted to tailoring and accessory manufacture so we had clothes and We had shoes custom made - overnight (well L did - D was told he doesn't wear shoes anymore)! Good quality and incredible value for money. We could have spent a lot more money but who needs clothes on a sailboat! We don't think anyone was making silk bathing suits. We did come across a novel form of bargaining when haggling for a new ruck sack. Having got to within 20,000 dong (about 2 and six!)the sales girl suggested a paper/stone/scissors contest (obviously fancying her oriental inscrutablility vs western scrutability). Unfortunately she lost but to save her face we gave it to her anyway in exchange for a beer!

As you can tell we enjoyed our trip tremendously and are now looking forward to traveling to Laos as well. We'd love to do that this year but with having to get to Canada by mid-March for Laurie's Mom's/Mum's birthday it may not happen.

Now, if you think We have the travel bug We have to tell you that We met an American couple (he was 68 and she was about 55) and they had been traveling for 20 years! No kidding! He retired with a fireman's pension in his 40's, met her in Mexico and they just kept going. They did settle down now and then and lived a year in Bolivia and a year in Hungary but basically just traveled. We didn't ask if there was anywhere they hadn't been but I'm sure it's a short list! Amazing!

Next stop after New Year - Malaysia again with some island sailing en route.

Laurie and David

16 March 2006
Kuching's Similan Island Idyll

After a quick trip to Thailand via Koh Rok Nok where we had a great dive, we headed for the Similan Islands to finally get a dedicated diving vacation. We made the trip up in two legs - the first was 35 miles mostly under sail to a delightful anchorage at Laem Sae. We had good winds and sailed the entire way. The second leg was about 50 miles to the middle island of the Similan group - Miang. We had great winds until noon and then had to motor sail the rest of the way. Still it was enjoyable and we did the trip in just under 10 hours. We took a mooring in the recommended anchorage and spent a wild night with fierce winds working up a confused sea. These winds were typical of the nights for our entire stay and we thereafter sought moorings on the westerly sides of the islands. Though not recommended in the sailing guides, we dived the moorings and found them substantial and our nights were quiet.

The Similans are islands of smooth boulders - some small, some huge. On the eastern side of the nine islands there is sand and coral and on the western side there is just boulders. The diving is varied, fascinating and fun. We dived twice a day for the first 6 days and then alternated snorkelling and diving for the last two. Every dive was different although we do admit to doing one dive site twice. The fish life is spectacular. We saw species that we had not yet seen in the Indo-Pacific area plus we saw turtles, shark and a large (2 metre wingspan) eagle ray. We soon learned the rhythm of the dive boats and were able to dive the sites in relative solitude by diving outside their schedules.

There are lots of dive boats around the islands. They fill the main anchorages at night and occupy most of the moorings. Still we could always find a mooring and didn't find their proximity annoying. However, we took moorings in unusual places and usually had no-one around us. There are moorings around the majority of the dive sites and given that there are more than a dozen dive sites this means there are lots of moorings.

,The dive boats conglomerate in the anchorages at the top of Koh Miang (NE and N sides) and the top of Koh Similan and bottom of Koh Bangu. We weren't hassled when we did take moorings in those places but we preferred the quiet of the less popular moorings.

We met up with the owners of a dive cruise charter boat "Ilala" returning from the Andamans and were enticed with tales of diving there and in the Mergui Peninsula. Next year we will splice 100 metres of rope to our 45 metre of chain and venture up there where the anchorages are deep.

Our food started to run out and business called so we had to leave the Similans. How could we be beating into a southeast wind? Unseasonal as it was, it combined with the ebbing tide and almost stopped us in our tracks for a couple of hours. We motored eastwards to the coast and finally caught enough wind to finish our long day's sailing in Freedom Bay just outside Karon Beach.

The Similan islands were a wonderful way to end our sailing season. Now our minds are turning to packing up the boat and heading for Europe for the long and wet SW monsoon. See you all soon.

Kuching - Thailand

10 February 2006

1 December
We arrived in the beautiful and expansive Bass harbour in front of the main town of Kuah on Langkawi Island and reflected that it had to be friendlier than the Straits of the same name between Tasmania and Australia. Passing the immense statue of a Sea Eagle which guards we found an anchorage amongst dozens of other cruisers, an increasing number of whom we now recognize.

Lacking the charm, history and cosmopolitan nature of Penang, Kuah nonetheless has most of the facilities we need-no theatre or cinema but joy! oh joy! it is duty free and the booze (stocks are running perilously low) is cheap and plentiful. Tiger beer is a heady 1.25 ringgits a can (18 pence!) whilst spirits are 3 pounds a bottle. We even find a bar where the draught is less than a pound a pint with a decent curry for the same sum. Admittedly the food is not as good or as varied as Penang but all-in-all this area could take some beating for helping stretch the pension. Checked in once again in the relaxed Malaysian way, we bought provisions, boat maintenance items and some extra dive tanks before hiring a car and joining Tony and Serena on a drive around the island. A scenic day revealed a remarkable lack of development, lots of green space still and a number of stunning locations, including the most magnificent and attractive public loo which we all thought was a luxury beach side chalet. Then our lunch stop, a a beach to die for overlooking several of the celebrated limestone karsts for which this region is famed (think James Bond ' A Man with the Golden Gun') The lunch was fresh fish and trimmings for less than 2 pound a head.

Despite the fish for lunch we finished the day by buying a magnificent Spanish mackerel (3 pounds) and inviting Tony and Serena to join us for barbecued fish steaks with enough left over for another meal for us all. For benefit of our 'amigos' this so called Spanish mackerel bears little resemblance to our European version - looking more like a barracuda (3-10 kgs)but tasting like upmarket swordfish.

We continued our land exploration with an interesting day looking at building land - guided by a delightful Dutchman who has sold his 120 foot schooner and built himself a home whilst starting to make a living by helping other ex pats do the same. The system here is undeveloped as there is no land for sale in the normal way, but Marius has discovered that it can be obtained on leases of up to 99 years and is incredibly cheap to buy and to build on. He estimates a 2 bedroom 2 bath European standard house with pool on an acre can be achieved for 100K euros. Very interesting but. the plots all have drawbacks. We task Marius to keep looking and our feeling is that Langkawi represents a reasonable mid-term gamble as it is begging to be developed as the Phuket success spills over into this region.

Ten days slipped by and we woke up one morning desperate to get out of Kuah. We sailed out of Bass Harbour to anchor a scant 5 miles away off the delightful limestone cliffs of the so called 'Princess Lake' or lake of the 'pregnant maiden', a remarkable fresh water lake a 10 metre climb from the seaward beach. Legend has it that a divine princess used to bathe here where she was spied by (you'll never guess!) a handsome prince who fell in love and sought a magician's help to win her. Bathing in a mermaid's tears he bewitched her, they married and had a child who tragically died at birth. The Princess discovered the deceit used to win her and cast her dead baby into the lake bestowing on it her magic fertility powers before returning to heaven. We are keeping our fingers crossed and so far neither of us are pregnant but we did enjoy the swim!

We moved on up to the northern harbour of Telaga - in an even more stunning setting. We were anxious to get going to Thailand but the weather did not cooperate. Deep into the so called dry season a deluge of monsoon rain fell for 3 days. We whiled away the time enjoying an impressive cable car ride and hike to the nearby waterfall and seven springs.

Finally the weather broke and we headed off to Thailand via Koh Lipe, Koh Rok Nok and Phi Phi island. We travelled in loose formation with a couple of German friends in 'Irama Duna' (he it emerges is ex East German and at one time a special forces trained diver 'Stasi'?). Now a fit 70 we naturally treat Siegfied with due respect!!

We tried diving but there was still no visibility although we had a lovely snorkel (too shallow to dive)at Koh Roki Nok in the clearest waters to date and see reasonable light coral and an interesting moray. We never did find the alleged fertility symbols on the island (perhaps just as well considering our earlier fertility lake immersion!), but had another great sundowners - distracted slightly by what we took to be a few midges. The Midges turned out to have been sand flies whose bites cover us and are far worse than the mozzies!

We finally have some fabulous sailing from Rok Nok to Phi Phi flying along at 9 knots into some uncomfortable seas with slightly strained grins on faces. After 5 hours and 35 miles odd we opted to go to Phi Phi Lae (the small southern island) and tore in towards the narrow entrance thinking to down sails just in the lee before making a 'nonchalant' entrance to the spectacular enclosed bay. But I hear you say, "What about the accelerator effect of mountains as you approach their lee?" We..ell the resulting 35 knots had a remarkable effect on our unreefed rig as we 'took off' and Laurie's "oh sh." seemed to catch the moment of that interesting pre- hull lift zone which hobie catters so love (and cruisers don't). Gliding serenely (ha!) into harbour having dropped jib and main in record time we were stunned by the beauty of the sheer cliffs encircling the famous (movie 'the Beach') bay. Moored up seemingly against the cliffs we relaxed with another sundowner and watched and listened to the fish eating the hull! This is the only spot we know where if you stay long enough the parrot fish and others will trim your bottom of weed and barnacles free of charge (who needs antifouling!).

We had a quiet Christmas in the Racha Islands with a celebratory couple of Christmas dives (bah humbug!)and then set off to Phuket to check into Thailand. The extra bureaucracy of Thailand was discouraging but we filled in the endless forms all requiring the same information and the same photocopy attachments . Ashore we discovered a different and a much more developed island than Langkawi- nonetheless with its own charms much better food supplies and equally good eating ashore. Met up with British ex Pat Keith (from Christchurch) who had sailed from Florida in 7 months to retire to Phuket. He invited us to his house warming and we had a great evening with some other friends of his including his child hood sailing chum - they had won their class at Cowes several years running and been sailing ever since. Also in the party was a charming guy who was introduced as ex QE2 Captain, ex Navy ex Marines all by the age of 40 - impressive!!Whatever the truth he w as a genuinely nice guy!

Took advantage of the time in Ao Chalong to have our Jib and spinnaker repaired. Excellent work and very reasonably priced at Rick's Palm Marine sail repair shop.
Only mishap was when we nearly lost out dinghy underneath Chalong pier - a lesson to secure with aft as well as bow line!! Amazingly despite immersion - once dried and cleaned our trusty Tohatsu fired up with no ill effects.

With the repaired sails aboard set off early to r/v with Tony and Serena for the a New Year up in the islands of Phang Nha bay - the spectacular area of Limestone Karsts which include the celebrated and now renamed 'James Bond' island where the Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. With a meeting at Koh Hong arranged we were enjoying a great run across close hauled but making 8-9 knots, when we thought we had better check GPS coordinates with Tony. Turns out there are 3 Koh Hongs and we were headed for one of the others. Unfortunately our revised course was straight into wind(!) so progress slowed to 5 knots. Nonetheless anchored 1530 in time to explore the spectacular Hong of the eponymous island. A Hong is a limestone Karst island hollowed out by the sea so that aside from the narrow and often underwater tunnel entrance you are surrounded by limestone cliffs - truly spectacular and there were three in this one Karst.

With New Year duly seen in (have to watch first footing when in a boat!!)including the release of some outdated emergency flares, we set off for lunch in the floating Muslim village of Pan yi. This was a fascinating isolated mainland village of Muslim 'sea gypsies' existing entirely on stilt and floating houses with access only by sea.
From Pan Yi a short motor sail hop to Koh Kudu Yai another group of Karsts with interesting and noisy wildlife - monkeys sea eagles and hornbills and another Hong!!
We then set off for the Koh Hong we of our original courser to find a good mooring and another group of Karst and hongs (does this sound like too much of a good thing?). Actually we were really enjoying this beautiful area and were only surprised at the complete absence of fellow yachties (they seemed all to be staying in Phuket!).

We continued eastward and spent some time at Koh Dam South (an interesting anchorage perched off the edge of a reef) where we enjoyed some quite good diving and some spectacular sundowners. We went to Krabi -Ao Nang)-a tourist town but with a chance to eat well at an excellent restaurant and to reprovision. Attempting to escape the noise of the long tails we headed for the quieter back packer Rai Le beach only to find that since it was only accessible by boat the dreaded long tails were here in abundance as well.

Returning to Ao Chalong on Phuket to reprovision and prepare for a haul out we were caught by a squall. It would not have been a problem had the shackle holding our dinghy to one of its davits not given way(!) and we were suddenly trailing a dinghy by one davit and its aft securing line and trailing falls. In the process we lost the dinghy pump, one oar, one of each of our sandals (!),and our nice new dinghy pump but at least we had the dinghy and despite partial submersion the engine was fine. I think the dinghy must be getting a persecution complex.

We then spent a week hauled out at Ratanachai shipyard on a slip. This is a real working ship yard with a fascinating mix of work boats, ferries, fishing boats and a few yachts. They took great care with the haul out and we had a productive week . This included cleaning and sanding and then painting our bottom (4 coats of a 'chocalate brown ablative anti fouling') - apparently far more effective than the blue! We relieved this with a blue waterline stripe and the finished result looks surprisingly good. We also had our sides cleaned and polished - we painted our dinghy (as it turns out with the wrong paint!), had a lovely new teak floor to replace the rotten shower one, had some lovely teak storage bins and a chopping board made and put in through hulls in the port hull in readiness for a new head and basin (Guests will now have their own facilities!!). All in all a great week only slightly marred by the constant smell of dried fish from the cat food factory next door!! We got to know the local restaurants with their 30 baht (45 pence) main courses really quite well Laurie even introduced some new dishes to their menus!

Now it was time to start thinking about going back to Malaysia as our visas were running out. We returned to Ao Chalong to check out (more bureaucracy and we had accidentally overstayed by one day - 30 days not a calendar month). Fined 400 baht (6 pounds) we set sail suitably chastened.

We thoroughly enjoyed island hopping down to Langkawi again with stops at Phi Phi Don (noisy and not our favourite but great to see it completely on its feet again since the Tsunami). Also Lanta Yai, Muk, Phedra and Tanga mostly sailing and now we're back in Langkawi and catching up with friends - more in the next installment..
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