Saturday, May 21, 2011

Seattle, May 21, 2011

I’ve been buzzing around the US since March 21, while Tom has been slogging away at the boat in Phuket,Thailand. It’s been a hard, long haul. Meanwhile, he immersed himself in the full Thai cultural experience, as shown from these pictures with his lady friends from his birthday party aboard the freshened Rasa Manis. After a record time abroad of fourteen months and 36 hours of travel, he arrived May 16 in Seattle, very tired.
To recap the last two months in Thailand: At the end of March, heavy rains stopped all work on the boat for 10 days. April was a scramble - the painters and varnishers had to finish while Tom and his helper cleaned and reinstalled every movable part on the boat, which had been stripped pretty much bare in January. On April 30, he moved back aboard. Racing against time because the channel to the sea is only navigable for a few days each month at very high tides, he left Phuket’s Boat Lagoon Marina a week later, enjoyed a few idyllic days on the hook, checked out of Thailand and sailed 120 miles overnight to Rebak Marina in Langkawi, Malaysia. With less onerous regulations, cheaper rates, and a pristine setting, it’s a good place to keep the boat.
For me, it’s been a slow reintroduction from the steamy sunbaked shores of Thailand to temperate climates. I spent three weeks in Bradenton, Florida where, in perfect weather, I helped my mother move from her condo by the beach into her boyfriend’s condo by the bay. We celebrated Amy’s completion of law school, and joined Eve for the Atlanta wedding of a longtime friend of the family.
With dogwoods and azaleas in full bloom, Atlanta was lovely. I’m not sure if the best memory was the breakfasts at The Flying Biscuit Company, the wedding by the gorilla enclosure at the zoo, or the bachelorette party, which ended in a smoky basement bar. One attendant was a twenty something lap dancer who lit her nipples on fire. Another was a sixty something lady in a torn fishnet body suit who was said to crush aluminum beer cans between her breasts.
My US tour continued on to Berkeley, CA to celebrate Eve’s birthday live and in person. We ate more wonderful meals, and wandered up and down the Cal campus where she is studying for her MBA.
And then it was “homeless in Seattle”. My first stop was the box of warm clothes in the storage unit - sweaters, fleece, jeans, boots, jackets, wool socks. Not many because I’m living out of a suitcase, first staying with my friends Anne and Roger and then a month house and dog sitting on Puget Sound, watching the yachts, tugboats, tourboats and barges round the corner into the Ballard Locks. After that, ten more days hosted by friends up in the San Juan Islands. Starting June 1, a short term fully furnished rental apartment.
I feel a bit like a visitor from outer space, seeing this megalopolis with new eyes. The traffic, the consumerism, the smart phone culture, the cold and cloudy weather. Spring has not sprung – it’s in a state of frozen suspension. Quite a change from SE Asia.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chiang Mai, Thailand, March 8, 2011

For this seasoned traveler, the two day slow boat trip up the Mekong River from Luang Prabang was one of the travel experiences of a lifetime. I’m not sure, in retrospect, why that was so. Was it the stately pace, just about twice as fast as Rasa Manis, with nonstop entertainment on the riverbanks? The remoteness of the scenic mountains? The water buffalo, goats, and elephants drinking and swimming in the river? The bits of human life that appeared along the banks when the sun wasn’t too hot – fishing, harvesting seaweed, bathing? The excitement of going through rapids? Figuring out how the skippers avoided the rocks and shoals?
Was it carrying my pack up and down very long, steep embankments and over narrow gangplanks with the young European backpackers? Watching the liveaboard crew tend their small children and eat their meals with their hands? Imagining how trade was done by women transporting big bags of stuff – cabbages, dishes, shoes-from one river town to another? The prospect that soon, this part of the Mekong may be dammed by the Chinese? The thrill of doing it by myself?
The riverboat journey ended in Huay Xai, Laos, where the Mekong lies in a delta and separates Laos from Thailand, not far from China and Burma (the Golden Triangle). One could not help but be struck by the differences on the Thai side of the river: electric wires, imposing government office buildings, cars buzzing along highways, fields managed for agribusiness, industry, new seawalls, lavish temples, metal roofs. Culturally, the peoples occupying the two sides of the river are virtually the same – but how differently history and politics have treated them.
I spent five days in northern Thailand before flying back to Phuket. I really wanted to see if there was a real Thailand away from “spoiled” Phuket. I have to say I did not find it, but I had a good time looking at temples and lots to buy, visiting the highest mountain in the country, and taking a Thai cooking class.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Luang Prabang, Laos - February 27, 2011

Our travels continued north into Laos, another country that fell to Communist rule after the US withdrew from SE Asia in 1975. The hammer and sickle flag still flies, though the economy has gone free market. It doesn’t seem to have helped much. This is perhaps the poorest, least developed country we have visited, but a delight all the same. Thirty years ago, we could not have travelled in this part of the world and are lucky to be experiencing it now, in 2011.
This is SE Asia and we almost never lacked for cable TV coverage of Egypt, Libya, the Christchurch earthquake. Thought we tuned into the news every day, we didn’t learn about the deaths on S/V Quest until we got onto the internet several days after it happened. We were shocked, saddened, and sobered by that terrible tragedy and are stunned by the devastation (this is written a few days after the Japan earthquake and tsunami) and changes taking place in the world.
Laos – like much of SE Asia – is a land of slash and burn subsistence farming. Dust was everywhere. Our first sighting of the big Mekong River was from a Lao Air plane taking us to the sleepy capital, Vientiane, so we could obtain new extended stay visas from the Embassy of Thailand. That two day operation gave us time to ramble the almost charming little city, where a small vestige of the colonial influence still remains in the form of crumbling Tudoresque buildings and baguettes. Also on offer were a night of Lao music and dance, many Buddhist temples, and handspun, hand-dyed, hand-woven, intricately patterned silk.
To see the land of Laos, we bought first class bus tickets to the former royal capital of the country, Luang Prabang. The distance – about 250 miles. We were told it would take 8 hours. That was a significant underestimation. The two lane road – the major highway in the country- was only recently paved. In the mountains, it runs through a handful of villages where people live perched right on the side of the road in thatched huts, trudge up and down the steep hillsides to their gardens, and collect grass to make brooms to sell. Formerly they would have grown opium poppies for cash.
Luang Prabang turned out to be a jewel of a town nestled amongst hills and the Mekong River – filled with old, golden temples, saffron robed monks, nice restaurants and inns, scads of tourists from all over the world. Most of them fly in, the adventurous come or leave by river. Which is how Ellen travelled back to Thailand, while Tom flew back to Phuket to attend to the boat projects.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Siem Reap, Cambodia - February 20, 2011

We took a break from overseeing boat work in Phuket to do some travelling in SE Asia. First stop, three days to see the temples of Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia. The temples and ancient waterworks were very impressive, but between the crowds (2 million visitors a year), the heat, the dust, and the swarms of children begging you to buy a little something, some might prefer the Discovery Channel.

The area has significant charms. The tourist infrastructure - put in place in the last ten or so years after the cessation of civil war/occupation - is phenomenal, with hotels, a lovely new airport, lots of English speakers, an entertainment district, and, for $10 - 15 per day, your own private transport and driver to visit the ruins and whatever else you fancy. The transport is a tuk-tuk, a motorcycle with a covered cart, and as you canter along the flat roads - some tree-lined, others so dusty you have to cover your entire face to survive - it feels downright comfortable as your sweat evaporates in the breeze. At many of the temples there was live local music - similar to Javanese gamelan - being performed by small orchestras of land mine victims.

After what the country has been through, it is gratifying to see that some of Cambodia is reaping the benefits of this historic resource. When the US withdrew from Vietnam, leaving miles and miles of active minefields behind, Pol Pot and the Communist Khmer Rouge took over Cambodia and in four years killed off an estimated 1.5 million people. All of the capital was evacuated on one April day in 1975. The city people - doctors, lawyers, merchants, teachers, artists, the Chinese, the sick, the elderly - were forced out into the countryside where the farms were undergoing socialist collectivization. Those who survived have harrowing tales to tell. As Americans who lived through this era, it was very difficult to respond when our guide asked us, "Where was the world when all this happened?"

Now, despite a reputedly corrupt and autocratic regime that is waging a war against Thailand over who will control the revenue of some ancient temples near the border, the Angkor area is humming with good works, international funding and NGOs with wonderful projects ranging from new museums, temple restorations, deactivating land mines, teaching and marketing native crafts for employment, microfinance to generate small business, educating children so they won't have to beg. The world - or some of it - is trying, and it felt good to be spending our tourist dollars here.

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.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

November 25 2010 - Langkawi, Malaysia

We weren’t looking forward to Malaysia, for a lot of reasons. Last year, our good friend was catastrophically injured here when he was run over by a speeding tourist boat – and the authorities did nothing. The political stance is strongly anti-Israel if not officially anti-Semitic – for example, banning an orchestra from entering the country because the program included the work of a Jewish composer.
What we read about the history and culture before we got here was unsettling. There is little or no record from before the 1400s, when a prince from Sumatra founded Malacca and developed a thriving center for traders from China, Arabia, India and the Spice Islands who brought their religions, foods, technologies and intermarried with the local women. The Portuguese took over, then the Dutch, then the English, then the Japanese, who invaded the entire Peninsula in a few days. At the end of the war, the Brits returned until they were worn down by a twelve year civil war. Two big chunks from the island of Borneo were added to the new country and Singapore was subtracted from it in order to maintain a Malay (Muslim South East Asian) majority instead of an ethnically Chinese one.
With that, we set off from Singapore determined to find something to appreciate about Malaysia. The coast was pretty dull – a parade of cargo ships up and down the Straits of Malacca, fishing boats desperate to harvest the increasingly scarce seafood, and oil drilling. Our hopes to tie up the boat and see the sights ashore were dashed when there was no room at the new marina because it was being reconstructed. The next marina was built, but officially closed because nothing worked. Another was open but vacancy was kept at 30% because boats had to be separated to avoid masts colliding. Others were so silted up with sand that sailboats could not get in and out. For this, in the last 10 years, the government spent a reported $35 million US dollars.
When they build it, and it doesn’t work, they let it rot. The amount of crumbling concrete structures in Malaysia is astonishing –hotels, office buildings, water parks, shopping malls, abandoned. One morning anchored off Pangkor Island, we woke to see a big chunk of something floating towards our boat and Do It, the boat nearby. It turned out to be a 15 foot concrete deck section that had washed away from the abandoned marina in the next bay. The skippers got together and towed it ashore, shown above.
We were glad to reach Langkawi, a resort island with picturesque harbors and three fully functioning marinas, in three overnight 150 mile passages spanning five days from Singapore. We checked into Malaysia, moved into cushy Rebak Marina, and cooked ourselves a Thanksgiving dinner that couldn’t be beat. No turkey, stuffing or pie, but the barbecued chicken and root vegetables, cranberry orange relish, crunchy green beans and bottle of Vasse Felix from Western Australia made a meal to remember.