Saturday, 19 April 2008

Happenings 2008 Number 11


“Envy’s” riding at anchor 200 metres offshore in a broad inlet that forms the mouth of the Pakchan River, which itself delineates Myanmar’s southern boundary with Thailand, 137 n/mls from Phuket. This is the extreme northern limit of Thailand’s west coast – the narrowest point of the Thai/Malaysian peninsular where the Isthmus of Kra narrows to a slim 32 km separating east from west - the Andaman Sea from the Gulf of Thailand.

Myanmar’s border town of Kawthoung is clearly visible across the inlet at the tip of Victoria Point; we’re intrigued with the huge volume of traffic- the never ending procession of un-muffled engines of longtail boats that ply their noisy way back and forth across the 3 km wide river mouth, all day long, never fewer than ten or more in any one window, doing whatever their business is with ‘old Burma’ – now the Socialist Republic of Myanmar.

Up a narrow channel, 1km behind our little facing island anchorage, lies the small but extremely busy port of Ranong, home to a huge fishing fleet, and we’ve just discovered the filthiest and smelliest place on earth! The stench is almost unbearable --- unbelievable!

Crowded along several hundred metres of old wharves with decaying buildings, a mix of more than 100 large and small fishing boats are rafted side-by-side several deep, intruding out into the narrow 100 mtr wide channel, which itself is the colour of dark chocolate and, my guess, the most toxic water on earth.

The port is alive with activity; people everywhere milling around talking, or watching the labours of bare chested lithe young men manually loading or unloading last night’s seafood catch, plastic barrels of ice, food stores, general cargo etc; the cacophony of the shouting workers blending deafeningly with the constant noise of the ubiquitous longtails speeding menacingly in the narrow channel. We live in fear of being splashed with this unctuously poisonous cocktail as our dinghies weave between them, bobbing up and down as we negotiate their threatening bow wash. The smell!!

We’ve come here in the company of two other yachts, in search of a restaurant to celebrate Bruce’s 64th birthday, amongst other things, but notwithstanding the prevalence of suitable venues, the Port stench sends us scurrying the 5 km into Ranong township where we enjoy a lovely birthday lunch, buy fresh stores at the open street market and search out an Internet CafĂ©.

By mid-afternoon we’re all back on our boats and making the most of the favourable current as the ebb tide carries us swiftly back the 22n/m to our sheltered anchorage off the sandy beach of tiny Luk Kam Klang Island, where we take a late afternoon swim to wash away the last smelly vestiges of Ranong, and enjoy a cool ‘Sundowner’ as another day in paradise slips away.

But this is February 2008 and we need to account for the passage of time since our last Happenings report (#10) many months ago back in 2007, following our return from India’s Andaman Islands, the principal topic of that report.

Not much cruising travel happened during the period in question, and since old news is stale news and boring, I shall quickly paint a broad brush account of events.

Clearing back into Thailand on March 1st 2007 upon our return from the Andaman Islands, “Envy” took a berth in Yacht Haven Marina at the top end of Phuket Island. We hired a car for a week and set out daily to discover this very touristy island, with its numerous bays, beaches, resorts, and thousands of tourists – mainly European, only now returning after two very quiet years following the devastating ’04 Boxing Day Tsunami.

At that time we met a lovely Aussie couple, Peter and Dorothy Hermit, ‘weekending’ aboard their yacht in the marina, who live and work in Bangkok. We ‘hit it off’ immediately so they invited us to visit and stay with them in their unit in the colourful suburb of Sukhumvit.

A few days later we took a V.I.P bus for the day-long trip up to ‘Bangers’, sight-seeing Thailand out the window along the way, then spent five action packed days and nights discovering this modern bustling city. Sukhumvit itself is one of Bangkok’s highlights being central to everything including its seedy nightlife.

Dorothy was our daily guide, taking us to all the most interesting sights, going by tuk-tuk, skyrail, river or canals, and we never wasted an hour deciding where to go or getting lost. It seems like we visited every palace, temple, shrine, museum, and open market in lively Bangkok.

The rest of March was spent cruising the sheltered waters of famous Phang Nga Bay, east of Phuket. Dotted with scores of tiny islands with their walls of interstitial limestone and sheer cliffs towering above caves, caverns and open ‘hongs’, this shallow protected area is itself a natural wonderland.

Karstic waterline caverns with their galleries of eroded limestone having a Stalactite appearance are a feature of this geologically karst area. It is simply exhilarating to dinghy into these large ‘open rooms’ through a cave-like entrance and marvel at nature’s handicraft within.

April Fools’ Day finds us checking back into Malaysia where we spent the next two weeks making ‘fun while the Sun shone’, visiting our favourite anchorages at Kuah town, Telaga pond and Lover’s Bay, before the onset of the imminent south-west monsoon season which arrived, predictively mid-month, bringing April showers almost every day. The ‘wet’ season is not pleasant for cruising with storm winds and rain, so by mid April “Envy” is snugly tucked up in Rebak Marina at Langkawi.

However, a few of us are determined to revisit exciting Penang Island before the monsoon really sets in, so in early May we sail the 65 nm south to the new Tanjung City Marina in Georgetown, Penang, where we spent the following three weeks indulging ourselves in the food, sights and culture of this wonderfully historic English birthplace of old Malaya, with its homogeneous mix of Chinese, Indian and Malays. One of its greatest attributes is that old Georgetown remains architecturally intact, and has escaped the downtown ‘modernization’ that raged through the rest of Malaysia in the booming 1980’s.

Street after street is lined with old two storey shophouses within this mainly Chinese commercial enclave, though colourful and noisy “Little India” shares several downtown blocks within this same area, much of which has been saved for posterity through Heritage legislation. And Penang is a gourmet’s paradise – excellent and inexpensive Malay, Indian and Chinese food, renowned throughout Malaysia. We never cook dinner on the boat.

The weather was becoming increasingly hot, steamy and wet, so a small air conditioner was purchased for the boat which significantly improved our daily comforts and sleeping at night. We also made some new friends who live there, their acquaintance being passed on by another yachtie. Colin is a retired Aussie married to Jacky, a Penang Chinese lady, and they took us to everything worth seeing, and to all the best local non-tourist eating places, all over the island. Magnificent!

However, not all Penang’s attributes are rosy; the Marina, which is so ideally located just a few minutes walk from the middle of town, has as its unfriendly neighbour the main ferry terminal, and the wash from those large vehicle ferries that ply to and fro from Butterworth has us rolling in our marina berths both day and night.

So after three wonderful weeks in Penang, and with the wet season building daily, early June finds ‘Envy’ returning to Rebak Marina in Langkawi, far northern Malaysia, where, on 20 June, we had her hauled out onto the hardstand for maintenance and a sparkling new paint job, whilst we returned to Australia for a visit (by air, of course – since nothing goes to windward like a 747!).

With its relative isolation, travel to or from Rebak Island Marina (off Langkawi Island), necessitates a little juggling, so we caught the water taxi across to nearby Langkasuka Beach Resort on Langkawi for the first overnighter, and took a small regional airline to Penang early next morning, where it was necessary to again stay overnight to catch the next day’s flight to Kuala Lumpur. Next morning, after a 1½ hour wait couped up in the 747 on the tarmac while engineers fixed its problem, we departed KL on our flight to Brisbane, via Sydney, arriving at midnight to be doubly greeted by Audrey’s mum and my lifelong friends Anthony and Denise Goodwin.

Looking out of the aircraft window about eight kilometres up, we saw wave after wave of endless sandhills, bathed in gold by the setting sun as we flew over the central Australian desert, and Sydney’s cool June night air was a pleasant change to the constant 30°+C of the tropics over the past 14 months.

During our nine weeks back in Australia, we spent much of that time away from Brisbane. Our rented home had just been vacated so time was devoted to its presentation, between catching up with family and friends around town, and also in the Sunshine and Gold Coast hinterlands. Bruce’s little Pontiac coupe had been thoroughly overhauled in preparation for this visit, so we were looking forward to giving its new engine a good run.

Another of the highlights of our return was to visit our dear friend Margaret Neill at her cattle property “Newstead Station” in the Surat district of south western Queensland. The overnight mid winter temperatures there dropped to well below freezing, as they often do ‘out west’, but it felt so good being back in the ‘bush’. With Audrey’s roots going back to farming and grazing in both Kenya and central Queensland, and Bruce’s lifetime career in rural marketing, we both enjoyed it all immensely.

Then it was off for a visit with our favourite Aunt June at Bowral in the southern highlands of NSW, which is something we always enjoy, and with it, a short trip to visit our long standing special friend Roz Murray in Canberra.

A visit to Sydney’s International Boat Show had been planned months before, to coincide with our time in Sydney, where we spent ten days visiting relatives and friends. We purchased an inflatable dinghy at the Boat Show and shipped it back to Malaysia, where we bought a new outboard motor for it much cheaper than in Oz.

6am one mid August morning found us departing Sydney to avoid the morning peak hour traffic as we drove to Lake Macquarie to drop in on friends there, enroute to Brisbane, where we arrived at 8pm. With so many jobs to do the following two weeks flew by and before we hardly knew it, we were on a September 2 flight back to Malaysia where we were reunited with “Envy” back at Rebak Marina in Langkawi.
It was still very much the ‘wet season’ there, but during non showery breaks over the next six weeks we managed to complete much of “Envy’s” work list. Then a quick 4 day trip by high speed ferry to Penang to collect the dinghy shipped up from Sydney, before returning to more maintenance on “Envy”. (The old saying is that cruising is really only about doing maintenance in exotic locations.)

During mid November Bruce returned to Brisbane for a 50 year School Reunion and at the same time Audrey’s mum Lavinia paid Audrey a surprise visit at Rebak, where they both ‘swaned it up’ in a deluxe luxury suite at the Resort that attaches to the Marina.

By late November the SW Monsoon season had pretty much petered out and with our Malaysian Visas also coming to an end, the week before Christmas “Envy” set sail for Thailand and we day-hopped via the islands of Khao Yai, Muk and Phi Phi Le the 140 n/miles to Chalong Bay at the bottom of Phuket Island where we cleared Customs & Immigration formalities on 22 December, for our 3 months visit.

The following day we motor-sailed the few miles around the bottom of the island to Nai Harn Bay with its picturesque sandy beach and joined a bunch of yachty friends there for a Christmas Eve buffet dinner at ‘Jungle Jims’, a basic waterfront restaurant right on the beach. Christmas Day was spent on our friends yacht ‘Jaraman’, and was an all-day affair! It started with ‘Bloody Mary’s’, smoked salmon and prawns, and BBQ vegetables with roast pork loin. … and the party continued for a few days at different anchorages.

New Year’s Eve was a wonderful experience for a group of us on the large foredeck of ‘Muscat’, a friend’s catamaran anchored 500 mtr offshore in Phuket’s popular Patong Bay, where many hundreds of candle lanterns floated seawards overhead, all night long, to commemorate those killed by the Tsunami. Simultaneously, (as if in serious competition with each other - as they probably were), most of the large expensive waterfront resorts put on spectacular fireworks displays of a most elaborate quality and quantity, for indeed not a single minute passed between 8pm and 1am that the sky wasn’t lit with fireworks, and for a half hour period either side of midnight, the 2km long stretch of Patong Beach was ablaze of pyrotechnic splendour, the extent of which I’ve almost never seen elsewhere.