Saturday, January 22, 2011

Phuket, Thailand - January 22, 2011

We will be based here in Phuket for several months while the boat is having a make-over. Rasa Manis should be very beautiful after the interior is varnished and the exterior is painted by the squads of Thai workers who are laboring six days a week on her.
In case you were wondering, Phuket is pronounced sort of like “poo-get”. The Thai language has an alphabet that resembles Greek, Sanskit or Russian, so there’s no sounding it out or visual word recognition. Shopping for food is a whole different experience when you can’t read the signs, the labels, or the receipts. Ditto for driving, though they try to make it easy in this tourist center with English language menus and important directions like “exit” and “to airport” duplicated in English.
Phuket’s an island on the southwest coast of Thailand, the biggest of many in a long chain in the Andaman Sea, which is the right armpit of the Indian Ocean as you look north towards India. Phuket’s about 120 miles south of the Myanmar (Burma) border, and about the same distance north of the border of Peninsular Malaysia. It’s about 450 miles up a long skinny peninsula to Bangkok, a 14 hour bus ride according to the guidebook. Fortunately there’s an excellent international airport.
Phuket has a huge tourism industry that has spread like the plague across the archipelago. At 8:00 am every morning, noisy longboats and speedboats start fanning out across the inland waters of Phang-Na Bay with daytrippers to see the striking limestone formations, explore the caves, cavort on the white sand beaches, snorkel and dive. What was wiped out in the 2004 tsunami has not only been rebuilt, but expanded, with the addition of tsunami sirens and evacuation routes.
Tourism is down this year due to the financial crisis in Europe. However, Russians, Chinese and Koreans are picking up the slack and the price of real estate is sky high even by US and Australian standards. There is a large expatriate community – mostly white men who have settled here with their Thai partners. Shopping malls, big box stores, fine Western restaurants, all the comforts of home. It’s hard to figure out where the locals who serve this tourism machine live.
It’s hot and sunny and we are staying in a two bedroom apartment here through the middle of March. Looking for a great place for an escape from the Northern Hemisphere winter, friends?

January 1, 2011 - Phuket, Thailand

Would you believe the best ever New Year’s? I apologize in advance that I don't have any good pictures!
From serene Nai Harn Bay, where we spent Christmas, we moved a few miles up Phuket’s west coast to Patong, the island’s hub of tourism, for New Year’s Eve. The bay was full of noisy jetskis, loud tour boats, dozens of yachts. Ashore, in one of the tackiest tourist towns we have ever seen, were hordes of sunbathers, tourists, hawkers, masseuses, and shoppers. As night fell the excitement grew. The neon lights came on. Street vendors starting selling pancakes, kebabs, fried noodles, roasted corn.
On the beach you could buy fireworks (the really good ones!)and lanterns. At the base of the lantern was a wood disk that you lit. When the fire was hot, you let go of the lantern and up, up, up, up it flew, just like a hot air balloon. The sky was filled with hundreds of them for hours and hours and hours. All night long, people set off fireworks along the big beach, punctuating the starry backdrop of the lanterns. This was a privatized display – no corporate sponsors, no government regulation. The noise and excitement reached a crescendo at midnight, as we watched from a trio of catamarans rafted together in the harbor. According to some of the Aussies on board, it was better than Sydney Harbor New Year’s.
And that wasn’t even the main entertainment. Earlier, sitting at a bar on Bangla Road, we watched the giddy crowds shoot aerosol cans full of streamers at each other. The crowd included: katooeys (cross dressed former men or men in various stages of transformation to the female sex , distinguishable as such only by their over the top glamour), old farang (white) men pushing baby strollers to meet up with the working mothers of their children, pole dancers, go-go girls, Thai ladies leading their farang boyfriends around by the night or week. Even more eye-popping was the ping pong show, where an almost undressed middle aged woman did, well, very impressive tricks with ping pong balls, darts, and a variety of other things. A sex circus, one might call it.

Phuket, Thailand - December 25, 2010

We are at anchor in the quiet, protected Nai Harn bay (in the photo) on the west side of Phuket Island, Thailand. There is a very low, long, gentle swell coming in off the Andaman Sea giving the boat the first taste of ocean swell movement in, well, all season. It is the northeast monsoon season here which means that the wind is blowing from the northeast, protecting all the anchorages on the west side of the landmass of SE Asia. The days are sunny and hot now that the monsoon has settled into its pattern. The breeze is often enough to keep us comfortable.

We are anchored among about 50 boats, many of them friends or acquaintances from our travels over the years. We picked this particular bay for Christmas because it was chosen by the group of boats carrying children. And there is nothing better than a bunch of kids around at this time of year. Yes, we miss our family and our own particular children but these surrogates are a great lot of fun too. And what's more I get just what I love to get for Christmas: Christmas Day on the road somewhere!

Yesterday afternoon the parents organized a Secret Santa for all the cruiser kids on the broad, white sand beach at the bottom of the bay. All along this beach there are lounge chairs and umbrellas for shade. There must be hundreds of them lined up in triple rows. Behind the beach there are cafes and restaurants, souvenir shops and many, many massage tables under umbrellas. Yes, I actually have seen massage taking place in some of these establishments.

I had been chosen to be Santa for the festivities and enjoyed playing it up with a Santa hat, a red tee shirt, and a bag stuffed under it to give me more girth. There was much anticipation, excitement, photos, and laughter as I pulled out the presents one at a time for each of the ten or so children sitting in a circle on the sand. There were dolls and Frisbees and transformers and bubble guns and each present was awarded great attention and glee. After all the presents were handed out and my bag was empty all the kids attacked me, thinking that the bag under my shirt had more goodies. They pulled me to the sand and out came the bag. Disappointed, they only found the odds and ends I always bring ashore. The rough and tumble was an unexpected joy for me and plenty reward for my Santa efforts.

As with every Christmas my favorite activity is singing Christmas songs. Every year as I have traveled on the boat I have organized some type of carolling. This year with the help of two boats, Anui and Imagine, both with kids, we dinghied around the anchorage singing our hearts out. There were six adults and five children in two dinghies. We made a lot of noise and had a lot of laughs as we sang song after song to our friends on their boats. Of course we sang "Give us some figgie pudding" at every stop and were treated with wonderful goodies: candy canes, rum balls, mince cookies, and the occasional beer for the guys. The kids got tired just in time because we hardly had returned to the boat and climbed into bed than a rain and lightning squall hit the bay and we all were very happy to be in a warm, dry bed to sleep and dream of sugar plums and all good things.

On this Christmas when we are so far away from our family and friends-- for many of you very nearly on the other side of the world-- we think of each of you in very special ways with love and fondness that transcends the miles and makes our hearts sing glad tidings of joy to you and your kin. We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Monday, January 03, 2011

December 15, 2010 - Langkawi, Malaysia

After Lake Toba, we flew to Kuala Lumpur to discover Malaysia. Maybe without the boat we would have more success.
“KL”, as it is known around here, sounds exotic but it is a big, modern city with state of the art airports, fast trains, monorails, magnificent shopping malls, great nightlife. Its icon, the shining stainless steel Petronas twin towers, were, for a moment in the not too distant past, the tallest buildings in the world. In addition to women in veils (from hot pink with glitter to black all over except the eyes), we saw a lot of modern Islamic architecture here and in the new capital city, Putrajaya. This takes concepts like the Five Pillars of Islam and translates them into design elements and motifs. In contrast to the decaying marinas along the coast, we were impressed by the architecture and by the road system. Extravagant, yes, but Malaysia seems well on the way to meeting its goal of becoming a first world country by 2010.
We took a road trip into the highlands of Peninsular Malaysia, visiting Bukit Fraser, a hill station established by the British in the relative cool of 6000 feet. After a short walk on a nature path in the jungle, I pulled off my shoe to find a leech on the bottom of my foot. It bled like a river for 90 minutes, then, all was well.
We visited the cities of Malacca and Penang. Both have long histories and quaint Chinatowns and Little Indias. We stayed in musty old buildings that oozed charm and antiques, visited temples, palaces and forts, learned about the trading days, rode in a trishaw. As everywhere, we tried to sample as much of the renowned local cuisine – Chinese, Indian, Malay, Baba-Nyonya (Chinese/Malay), as we could. Maybe we were too adventurous for too long a time, because our digestive systems rebelled. Our attempts to communicate in the Malaysian language (closely related to Indonesian) were frustrating – maybe because most of the people we were trying to talk to spoke Chinese or Nepali. Fortunately, English worked well.
After two weeks on the road, we concluded the west coast of Malaysia just wasn’t all that interesting. We returned to the boat in Langkawi to be fitted for 50 yards of shade and rain awnings by Nasir, one of many migrant Indonesian workers in Malaysia. Mission accomplished, very successfully, we headed to Thailand for the holidays.

1 Dec, 2010 - Lake Toba, Sumatra, Indonesia

After a taste of Malaysia, we were very pleased to return to Indonesia. We chose Lake Toba in the cool, rainy highlands of Northern Sumatra based on stories and hauntingly beautiful photos our friends Rob and Sue had brought back from their Asia grand tour 25 or so years ago. The local people, the Batak, were fearsome cannibals. The Muslims never made any headway with the Batak, but they are now Christians.
I’m sure the journey is nowhere near as epic as 25 years ago. With connections, it took about 8 hours to fly the 200 miles from Langkawi, Malaysia, to Medan, the largest city in Sumatra. The next morning, a minibus picked us up at our hotel. With seven riders and the cargo area full to bursting, we headed off. The grimy, chaotic metropolis sprawled forever.
We enjoyed 10 minutes of toll roads. The Trans Sumatra Highway dwindled to two lanes but the drivers made it a three laner – pulling out and passing whenever possible. Nothing to do but try to relax and look at the palm oil and rubber tree plantations. Four and half hours later we arrived at beautiful Lake Toba. Touts directed us onto a gaily painted ferry and had us disembark at a resort that had been built by a German woman who had settled in the village of Tuk-tuk on Samosir Island after marrying a local Batak man. Our villa was clean and quiet. It had a soaring roof and a beautiful view of the lake. What a place to take a break from the heat and noise of SE Asia.