Friday, 19 January 2007

Happenings 2007 Number 9


Malaysia took us by surprise!

Following on from a languid Indonesia and clockwork Singapore, Malaysia bustles with energy, fueled by government ambition for the country to be a fully developed nation by 2020.

With its significantly proportioned mix of Malays, Chinese and Indians whose 23 millions approximate Australia’s population, Malaysia seems well on the way to achieving that goal. As was equally evident with Singapore, (which was part of Malaysia until 1965), an undercurrent of core values and orderly business acumen, to my mind, reflects its time of British colonialism. In places, it’s as modern as tomorrow - in others, bathed in antiquity, while retaining its own strong cultural identity.

Recalcitrant maybe – though undeniably controversial and staunchly Muslim, retired Prime Minister Mahathir (a qualified medical doctor though lifelong politician) did much for Malaysia during his 22 years as leader, taking it from a rubber, tin and timber economy to its present manufacturing sector dominance.

2007 sees Malaysia celebrate 50 years of nationhood, the country is awash with tourism promotion, and many grand events are scheduled right throughout the country during the year. The people are openly friendly, unlike many Singaporeans, and far more affluent than Indonesians.

However, let’s not get carried away here so soon, but rather, as all good stories should - let me start at the beginning.

We left you last on 3rd November with ‘Envy’ drifting around in windless conditions in Johore Strait, the Singapore – Malaysian boundary, just off Raffles Marina at the start on the ‘Sail Asia’ segment of the 2006 Rally.

Almost daily thunderstorms had cleared the ubiquitous smoke haze, so the hot sunshine cooked the humidity into another typical tropical day as we motored on a flat glassy sea heading north up the Malacca Strait. For centuries past and up to and including modern times these waters have been infamous for piracy. Fortunately for us, statistics show small yachts are seldom involved in this area, (none these past 4 years), with large ships being the favoured prey, though attacks there are also on the decline.

100 nautical miles northwards from Singapore lies tiny Besar Island, where there is a large, magnificent Tuscany style tourist resort that would have cost many $ millions to build; though completed, it never opened for business, the first of many such commercial abnormalities we came across throughout Malaysia. Failed, unfinished and/or deserted mega projects are a sad flipside legacy of the sudden economic boom that swept Malaysia in the 1990’s and, we’re told, an associated commercial psyche that often dispenses with market research.

The following day, three days out of Singapore, we arrived at Port Dickson’s Admiral Marina, where we cleared Customs into the country, and which, like most marinas in SE Asia, are part of a holiday resort complex, with swimming pools, restaurants and accommodation, etc. But with very few tourists about, we had the pools to ourselves most places we went. ‘5 Stars’ all the way!

Port Dickson hosted the first of the Malaysian Rally functions. It was a hectic few days with more free dinners and bus tours. Day 1; we visited an Army Museum, Ostrich Farm, the King’s Palace, and a Village ‘open house’ hosting a traditional Malay dinner.. Next, day 2 we toured the intriguing port city of Malacca, with its distinctive Portuguese and especially Dutch architecture, including St Paul’s Church built in 1600, during its heady days as a major Straits trading port, and walking through some of its streets gives one a fascinating feeling of a bygone era.

Then on day 3 it was off to Kuala Lumpur, a westernised Asian capital whose modern skyline is crowned by the twin Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest building. With mostly new motor cars everywhere and its new US$8 billion federal government administration centre - similar to Canberra or Washington DC, KL’s affluence is obvious. Old colonial buildings contrast modern Islamic masterpieces, with a vibrant Chinatown and bustling Little India adding a rich heritage of colour and character to this modern metropolis.

Following one busy but interesting week, ‘Envy’ departed Port Dickson for a day’s run up a quite unattractive and shallow coastline, dodging many fishing boats and nets all the way to Port Klang, (the main seaport for KL), where we anchored in the vast but shallow river mouth, only to be rocked all night long by the wash of the busy river traffic and many fishing boats. We high-tailed it out of there in the pre-dawn darkness next morning with no wind, but plenty of storm clouds, thunder and lightning – though no rain, for the 67 nm trip to the Berman River, a very ordinary and inauspicious November 13 birthday day for ‘young’Audrey!

However that was all to change 24 hours later when our flotilla of six yachts anchored in a beautiful little hidden sandy cove on Pangkor Laut Island, where we treated Audrey to an absolutely splendid ‘Beach BBQ Bash’ of swimming, food, drink and chatter she’ll long remember in this idyllic picturesque place we dubbed “Birthday Bay”.

Three day hops later we arrived at Georgetown, the capital of Penang (and often generally referred to as ‘Penang’), an Island 3 km offshore connected to Butterworth on the mainland by SE Asia’s longest bridge. Penang was the first of the British Straits settlements even prior to Singapore, is now Malaysia’s second largest city after KL, and remarkably still retains much of its charm and old-fashioned character, seemingly having missed the development boom that swept the rest of Malaysia. Whilst KL has ‘gone modern’, central Georgetown is a largely Chinese city whose appearance has changed little retaining most of its original architecture, albeit many of the colourful old Chinese shophouses are starting to crumble through neglect.

We berthed “Envy” at Tanjung City Marina conveniently located right on the waterfront doorstep of Georgetown (Penang), from where a free shuttle bus service took us winding through narrow streets to the town centre, returning via the other half of its circle route providing a wonderful tour of the inner city. The marina was another Rally destination, with yet another official BBQ dinner.

Apart from inevitable boat maintenance, our all too few 6 days in Penang were spent sightseeing Chinese and Buddhist Shrines, Temples, Pagodas and Gardens, old Fort Cornwallis, the centre of many impressive old buildings of colonial architecture, and the maze of Bazaar style street shops full of bargains for those who choose to barter. We walked, looked and shopped til we dropped, and most evenings we dined at local cafes where good meals including drinks cost about A-$7 total for us both. An excellent variety of good inexpensive cuisine is a highlight of Penang.
Although there are a couple of modern new shopping malls, central Penang’s charm effuses from its multitude of colourful old Chinese shops, colonial buildings, merchants and Trishaws as one strolls down Penang Road, and its side alleys. The sights, sounds, colours, smells and aura surrounding this fascinating place easily made it our favourite destination in Malaysia.

Having missed the experience of savouring a visit to the famous upmarket Raffles Hotel in Singapore, we determined not to miss the venerable Eastern & Oriental (E&O) Hotel here in Penang, a charming old waterfront colonial hotel built in 1884 by the same Sarkies brothers who later founded Raffles. With its grand lobby, colonial opulence, and expansive sea-front aspect, having Tiffin there was quite a buzz.

With ‘Envy’s’ fuel and water tanks topped up, we paid the exorbitantly cheap Marina berthing charge of RM 21.60 p/day (A$7.70 - less than 25% of Brisbane marina costs), and headed north all day to anchor that evening between two high sided islands whose narrow calm passage was steeply walled resembling a Fiord. Just on sunset there were about 20 eagles soaring on the thermals above us, and next morning we awoke to the chatter of monkeys on the nearby rocks.

After a leisurely breakfast there at Dayang Bunting Island, studying the antics of our ancient forbears on the rocks, we motored in windless conditions the 2 hours’ run to Langkawi Island, the principal of 104 islands scattered 30km off the coast at the northern end of peninsular Malaysia, bordering Thailand. With a jungle clad interior and some stunning beaches around the coast, and a Duty Free Port as well, it is a cruising haven.

Langkawi Island’s Telaga Harbour was our final Malaysian and ‘Sail Asia Rally’ destination, and also the venue for the Langkawi International Boat Exhibition (LIBEX), the 2006 event being staged simultaneously, with our arrival, at the adjacent Telaga Marina.

We arrived late morning in good time to patronise, with other yachties, a little dockside Indian café for an excellent lunch (A$4 for 2 meals + 2 Cokes), then cleared in with the Harbour Master, a time wasting requirement at every Malaysian port. The following day we visited LIBEX, bought ‘Croc’ beach shoes (the latest footwear fad out of the USA), and attended the official dockside Rally Dinner hosted by Malaysia’s Deputy Prime Minister that night.

Over the next few days we enjoyed the last of the official rally functions – free day-long Bus Tours to Kuah, the main town, then a cable car ride up the mountain for spectacular panoramic views, a very interesting Rice Museum, the ‘Atma Alam’ Batik Art Village with its superb silk paintings, lunch at an upmarket Thai Restaurant, and then to Galeria Perdana, an outstanding collection of gifts received by past President Dr. Mahathir over 22 years – from countries all around the world, an amazing variety of hundreds of some significantly breathtaking items.

Then a memorable night of song and dance aboard the traditional Indonesian Penisi sailing ship “Silolona” as the ‘Rally’ came to an end. I can’t recall any earlier mention of our ‘resident’ entertainer, a fellow rally sailor of our vintage, one Johnny “Boney” Mahoney, a (previously) part- time professional musician with full accompanying electronic equipment. You’d never pick him as such, a tall, skinny ex plumber, but with a voice equal to any. A simply wonderful finale.

The combined ‘Sail Indonesia’ and ‘Sail Asia’ segments covered 4 months and 5 days since our departure from Darwin on Saturday, 22nd July 2006, ‘Envy’ having sailed 3177 “Rally” nautical miles through Indonesia, Borneo, Singapore and Malaysia and 5420 nm (or 10,038 kilometres) in total under the keel since leaving Brisbane. At no stage whatsoever did we, or anyone we’ve spoken with, every feel threatened or unsafe at sea or in any of those countries. There were always land touts ready to relieve the careless of their money, but that’s the lot of any tourist in this area.
So it was over, the ‘keep moving’ pressure gone – time to relax, but we still never stopped. Then a week later we moved ‘Envy’ the 16 nm from Telaga Harbour around to Bass Harbour, outside Kuah, Langkawi’s principal town. We walked all around its busy little streets discovering the duty free shops, bought a Honda 2Kva portable generator, box fans and a bread maker, duty free liquor at less than one third normal cost, and toured the island’s 478 sq km in inexpensive rental cars.

Nine days later, on 8th December 2006 we dragged ourselves away from the soft comforts and easy pleasures of ‘town living’ to join our friends at a island anchorage 12 nm distant, in a snug and pretty little sandy cove which we named ‘Lover’s Bay’, having just witnessed from our yachts at anchor close by, the very amorous behaviour of a lone young Muslim couple on the beach. It’s a lovely private beach, barely 100 mtrs long, framed by rocky headlands, with a clear sandy bottom; we stayed a few days and later returned, for it became our favourite beach BBQ venue.

We needed fresh water and diesel fuel, so on 11th December ‘Envy’ took a berth in nearby Rebak Island Marina Resort, one of Langkawi’s three marinas, which entirely occupies a tiny satellite island a stone’s throw off Langkawi; the Marina was totally destroyed by the Tsunami and newly rebuilt, as were others in Malaysia. Along with several other Rally boats we stayed at Rebak for more than two weeks, doing boat maintenance and other jobs in the mornings and then enjoying a swim in the Resort Pool late afternoons, with an occasional water-taxi trip across to Langkawi for duty free shopping in Kuah town, or rental car touring around.

Rebak Marina incorporates a large hard-stand work area running back to a densely wooded hillside, from where, we’re told, monkeys come and raid boats stealing food, etc. Most evenings we all dined ashore at the Marina café where the meals were so inexpensive that it was arguably cheaper than cooking aboard! The Koran forbids Muslims to drink alcohol and the café was accordingly ‘dry’ which suited us to a tee since we bought our own cheap duty-free drinks to dinner.

By this time, we had farewelled several of our fellow Rally friends, including Trevor and Joan Long off ‘Been-A-Long’, our special sailing companions all the way from Brisbane, who were returning back to OZ for Christmas, by air of course, ‘cause nothing goes to windward like a 747!

By mid December “Envy’ looked resplendent in her Christmas decorations; and in no time at all it was Christmas Eve with 45 Rally yachties having our own private bash in the Marina café. Then on Christmas Day we had a superb smorgasbord lunch at the main Resort restaurant, after which we took over the beautiful tropically un-walled open entertainment lounge for three hours of non-stop entertainment by our ‘own’ Johnny ‘Boney’ Mahoney. A great Christmas never to be forgotten, followed by a quiet New Year’s Eve in company with others having another BBQ back at ‘Lovers Bay’.

A few days later anchored in the harbour outside Kuah town, whilst getting into my dinghy beside ‘Envy’, I dropped my mobile phone overboard and, in a knee-jerk reaction trying to catch it, overbalanced the dinghy and into the water goes I, and lost my spectacles to boot! You would have cried with laughter – but too deep and murky to try and dive for them, so I was up for a new mobile phone and spectacles, thankfully much cheaper than in Oz, and I was due for new specs.

After a couple of (rare) rainy days resulting from a low depression in the South China Sea east of the peninsular, Monday 8th January saw us depart Malaysia after nine wonderful weeks for the short step across the unseen maritime border into Thailand, where we spent our first night anchored at the tiny resort island of Koh Lipe. We’ll tell you about that soon.