Thursday, 12 February 2009

Happenings 12 - 2008 March to July

Land and Sea Gypsies

Many months ago around last Easter, the ongoing odyssey of the retirement sailing explorer “Envy” finds us island hopping south from Thailand, (where ‘Envy’ spent the past three months as reported in ‘H-11”), back to Langkawi Island, our wonderful inexpensive and duty-free paradise off the top western coast of Malaysia.

We’d suffered a worrying passage of recurring engine alarms and burning smells, which took yours truly some time to pinpoint as an electrical problem caused by continuing demand on the ship’s electrical supply - too many new gadgets were overloading the system. It is now eight years since “Envy” was totally refurbished so system failures and breakdowns can be expected.

We cleared back ‘in’ at Telaga Harbour Park, one of the area’s three marinas, then on to our ‘home base’ at nearby Rebak Island Resort Marina a couple of kilometres away where we spent two weeks doing reprovisioning and maintenance, preparing for the continuing voyage south to Sebana Cove Marina at the bottom end of Malaysia across from Singapore.

That passage took three weeks in the mostly light airs, motor-sailing in day hops, with several stopovers enroute at Penang and Port Dickson marinas, which are always a welcome haven after sitting in the cockpit on ‘anchor watch’ in the middle of the night as wild thunderstorms and lightning rage about, or dodging seriously dangerous waterspouts too close for comfort.

The tail end of a dangerous much larger water-spout

Landlocked in the middle of nowhere five miles up a muddy river, Sebana Marina is hot, still and humid, causing everything to turn green after a while. But a saving grace is that it's safe, secure, inexpensive, and provides a daily passenger ferry service to nearby Singapore, mecca for spare parts and shopping, of which we regularly partook during our two weeks there.

By mid May the ‘Envy’ sea gypsies become land gypsies with full backpacks at Singapore Airport headed for Bangkok to join our good cruising friends Trevor and Joan, off Brisbane yacht 'Been-a-long', for 32 days of land travel through Thailand, Laos and Cambodia.

After an interesting day and night in Sukumvit, Bangkok’s seedy and colourful nightclub district, we took a 2 hour bus trip to Kanchanaburi, a busy tourist village of WW2 history where we stayed for 3 days, and that afternoon we walked across the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Bridge on the River Kwai

The next day we visited the ‘Tiger Temple’, started by a Monk who took in an orphaned cub a few years back, where the same Monk plus helpers walk fully grown tigers around like leashed pussycats. For an additional fee you can have photos taken nursing one in your lap. Wow!

Our favourite Cat at the Tiger Temple

Kanchanaburi - day 3 finds us in a small air-conditioned van doing a day tourist trip as follows. First stop was to a waterfall, then 1½ km down a shallow winding stream on a Bamboo raft, followed by an Elephant ride thru the countryside, saw basket weaving, and on to Hellfire Pass.

Basket Weaving

Preparing for our Elephant ride

Hellfire Pass

‘Hellfire Pass’ is the name given to the Konyu Cutting where allied POW’s hand dug a railway pass through a solid rock ridge on the infamous Burma Railway, resulting in many deaths. We then took a 25km train ride on an old ‘rattler’- together with scores of uniformed school kids, from nearby Krasee Railway Station (Where Lt.Col. ‘Weary’ Dunlop had his hospital and operating theatre in a cave beside the tracks) back to our waiting van further down the line.

Next morning we take a mini-bus from Kanchanaburi northwards to the old royal capital of Ayutthaya, travelling firstly through semi open cattle grazing country, past many sugar cane plantations and then quite extensive rice paddies, (Thailand is a significant exporter of high quality rice) arriving at historically scenic Ayutthaya at 1pm. Later that afternoon we booked train tickets for our trip to Chang Mai the following day, then took a ‘longtail’ boat ride down the river to explore three ancient WATS, one of which was quite superb.

Wat ruins in the old royal capital of Ayutthaya

At 10am next morning we board the air-conditioned express train, not nearly as flash as it sounds, and were unfortunately seated directly above the bogie wheels which made for a noisy, uncomfortable trip, arriving Chang Mai at 8:15pm. The countryside comprised mostly flat agricultural land cropped to rice, sugar and smallcrops, though we did encounter two slow winding, high-country passes, a pleasant change from the monotonous plain lands.

Almost all our Thai accommodation was in ‘Guest Houses’, whose rooms are similar to ground level motel units; clean, not always air conditioned, though often nicely landscaped but minus the car park out front. Cost was usually around Aust $20 per night.

The next day we arranged for a tour guide to drive us around Chang Mai’s several tourist spots, one of the highlights being the hilltop Buddhist Temple – Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep, both architecturally and historically interesting, dating back to 1355 AD. The National Museum featured early history artefacts and art, with little variety, and we found it uninteresting.

After five days exploring Chang Mai, mostly in Songthaews (pronounced song-tau) pick-up trucks with bench seats, we headed further north to Chang Rai, stopping enroute at the superb ‘White Temple’- nearing completion and absolutely awesome, featuring stunning meticulously fine craftsmanship - then on into the Golden Triangle, the infamous opium poppy growing area, where Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and China converge, hence the name Golden Triangle.

The White Temple

Village elder from Chiang Rai area

Next morning we took a local bus along a sealed but horribly pot-holed road to Thailand’s border town of Chiang Khong, situated beside the Mekong River, where we had to walk down through the sandy riverbank silt to board a small longtail ferry-boat to cross over to Laos.

Mekong River at Chiang Khong

Long tail ferry-boat across to Laos

Laos - poor, clean, friendly and a single-party communist state, achieved independence from France in 1949, only to be overthrown by the communist Pathet Lao in 1975. With a population of around 6.5 million, it is our first visit to this Socialist Republic.

A new country – another adventure. We loved it!

The people are Lao - the culture is Lao - and the language is Lao, but during the 1870’s, as a newly fledged French colony, some bureaucrat in Paris tacked an ‘s’ on the end, hence its adopted name Laos. (Pronounced ‘louse’ – not ‘layos’). Lao currency unit is called Kip, but US dollars are widely used and preferred. The mid 2008 exchange rate was 8650 Kip=US $1.

It was here in Houei Sai that we boarded our river boat for a two day, thrilling 200km one way ride down the fast-flowing mighty Mekong River, which was low and running at a brisk 5kts (about 8km/hr); we were on the very last scheduled run at the end of the season, when the river is too shallow in places to safely navigate, so they stop for a few months til the rains come.

This was to our benefit since there were only eight passengers on board and we were treated like royalty. Up here in Northern Laos, the Mekong traverses flat country for just a few kilometres where it forms the border with Thailand, then runs canyon-like through predominantly mountainous terrain for most of the two day journey to Luang Prabang.

The sensation of doing 25kts (40km/hr) through the many narrow channels of rock-bordered, white-water rapids was quite exhilarating, seated at the open bow as the 100ft-long narrow wooden boat sent the bow spray flying as it knifed through the murky brown waters.

Scooting down the Mekong at 25kt

We had a tourist stop at a ‘Hill Tribes’ mountain village of the Hmong people, who live in relative isolation with no roads through these inaccessible mountains, and only the river as their contact to the outside world. They live a life of mere subsistence, eating (dryland) ‘sticky rice’, scrawny half-starved poultry and whatever vegetables they are able to grow. A heavy rain shower whilst we were there made for a most difficult descent down the steep and very slippery firm-mud track back to the boat; something like walking on ice!!

Hmong hill tribes children

The overnight stop was near the village of Pak Beng, at the Luang Say Lodge, a collection of bungalows with thatched Bamboo Roofs, nestled 200 metres high above the Mekong, offering panoramic views both up and down the river and surrounding hills. Dinner was excellent Lao cuisine, the local brew was US$2 per can, we slept with open shutters and whirring fans, under mosquito nets, whilst it rained most of the night.

Welcome to Luang Say Lodge

The river boat viewed from our bungalow

Departed at 8am with rain all next morning, so opted not to stop at another slippery hillside village; we continued our race down the Mekong all day, occasionally passing other boats, a few riverside villages, and sped through more thrilling rapids, saw a few fishermen, other river tributaries that joined the Mekong, and enjoyed another good lunch underway.

Mekong River trading post

That afternoon we stopped at Tham Thing to visit ‘The Caves of 1000 Buddhas’ (which are right on the bank of the river and so named for the thousands of Buddha statues/ettes, of every size and type deposited there over the years), before arriving at our destination, the old royal city of Luang Prabang at 4pm after a most memorable and enjoyable two day Mekong River experience.

The Caves of 1000 Buddhas

Luang Prabang is World Heritage listed; a biggish country town with many of its old buildings historically valuable, two-story wooden structures with a decidedly French architectural style. The main two streets reflect an ambience of past grandeur, as does the wide tiered stairway down to the Mekong River. We stayed a kilometre out of town at the Haysoke Hotel (a two star guest house costing US$ 28 p/day including breakfast), with a scenic view over rice paddies.

In past history Luang Prabang was, for a period of time, the royal capital of Laos and the old Palace with its colourful though modest décor is now unoccupied and open to the public. It is located in the main street of this touristy town, around which we did a 3.5km walking tour, including the steep 400 step assent to the temple on Phou Si ‘mountain’, directly opposite the Palace, offering splendid panoramic views of Luang Prabang. Each night, the main street becomes a very colourful market offering a great variety of quality local arts, crafts, apparel and food, albeit expensively priced compared to the local economy.

Luang Prabang, Laos

Old Luang Prabang

Following our three day visit, we hired a private air-con mini-bus and departed southwards next morning for the small town of Phonsavan, a six hour drive in heavy rain through very mountainous country with deep valleys, on narrow winding roads. After a slow 4 hours we had a welcome stop at the tiny cross-roads village of Phou Khoun for lunch - chicken noodle soup was all they offered. Dinner that night in Phonsavan was the opposite; a truly huge meal for 15,000 Kip (A$1.90), then we walked the 1km back to our room at the Banna Guest House.

Planting new season rice

Our two day visit to Phonsavan was to see the mysterious ‘Plain of Jars’ where, at three separate locations, many ancient rock-hewn stone jars of varying sizes lay in small clusters in open fields, miles away from where they were quarried. Reputedly used for the storage of grain and liquids in times long passed. It continued to rain as we miserably visited all three sites, with one of them being accessed via a slippery track through rice paddies. The ‘on-site’ café again offered only chicken noodle soup at A$1.15 for the meal.

Our guide explains ‘The Plain of Jars’

Farm cultivator-cum-transport

The next day at 4pm we arrived in our private mini-bus at Vientiane, the largest and capital city of Laos, whose mix of old French and traditional Lao architecture makes for some very interesting streetscapes. Nestled on the eastern bank of the now much wider and shallow Mekong River, (most of which is dry sand channels until the wet comes) and which is the border with Thailand, Vientiane’s charming river boulevard is shaded by tall Teak trees, whose leafy canopies offer cooling shade from the tropical heat.

Old Teak Trees Vientiane

The city is clean, the people are friendly, the food is good, and the scenery is interesting - and we became instant ‘Laotian millionaires’ as the bank’s ATM handed over 1,000,000 Kip, approx A$116! We took the local currency to pay for meals and accommodation to conserve our dwindling reserve of US dollars.

Our room at the downtown Asian Pavilion Hotel was very good value at US25 p/day, and within walking distance of all the things to do and see. We had no trouble buying antibiotics, prescription free, at the pharmacy for our deep chest colds, and so inexpensive!

Vientiane offers the usual run of touristy things including museums, monuments, architecture, and all things cultural etc., including the Patuxay Monument, an Arc de Triomphe look-alike affectionately referred to as the ‘Vertical Concrete Runway’, so named after being built with USAID that was granted to fund construction of a new airport runway in the 1960’s.

“The vertical concrete runway”

Farewell to Laos - and to Trevor and Joan

After twelve busy days in the Lao People’s Democratic Republic, six of them in lovely, tidy Vientiane, we farewelled Trevor and Joan and flew on a Vietnam Airlines A320 jet to Phnom Penh, capital of the Kingdom of Cambodia. It is a constitutional monarchy with parliamentary representative democracy. Our preferred Paragon Riverside Hotel was booked out so we took an excellent room at The Asia Hotel downtown, good value at US $22 incl breakfast.

Our hotel Phnom Penh - Cambodia

Having arrived before midday afforded us time to go exploring around Phnom Penh. We walked a few kilometres around this bustling city that afternoon, and more again the following day and decided it was the filthiest town in SE Asia with litter everywhere; traffic was totally bizarre with mad drivers out of control. It was generally more expensive than socialist Laos, though the big yellow-domed market close to our hotel offered many good bargains via barter.

View from Hotel

Street litter

Scrounging thru rubbish

Sadly, there were lots of street beggars, with missing limbs, ‘UXO’ victims - (UneXploded Ordinance) – the land mine legacy from the murderous Pol Pot regime. We took a city tour which included the infamous Khmer Rouge ‘Killing Fields’ where thousands of human skulls are on display at the Choeung Ek Memorial , then to Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, previously a school where Pol Pot incarcerated their mostly political victims prior to their deaths.

“The Killing Fields”

Pol Pot victims Memorial

One soon tires of the ubiquitous Wats, Temples, Museums and Markets ‘ad nauseam’, but we did enjoy our visit to the Silver Pagoda within the Royal Palace to view a magnificent 90 kg Solid Gold Buddha emblazoned with 2086 diamonds and precious gems, sculptured in 1902.

The Royal Palace, Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Another memorable Cambodian event was having a haircut. I sat down in the chair at this modern Barber’s Shop in Phnom Penh and a grey haired barber gave me a haircut (what little I’ve got) with antique Hand Clippers – just blew me away! It is 55 years since my previous hand shearing; Ron the local Chinese Barber at Graceville had electric clippers 50+ years ago!

Then it was off to Siem Reap, a 6 hour bus ride away through all flat country with long straight roads where we had to negotiate a huge tree fallen across the highway, and plenty of mad, dangerous drivers in the very heavy rain.

At the roadside stop, on offer were large fried insects resembling crickets and even larger tarantula spiders!!!! Apparently a delicacy in rural Cambodia.

We spent the next day discovering Angkor Wat, the most famous and best preserved religious temple in Cambodia, and the nation’s leading drawcard attracting over 4 million visitors in 2007; these ancient ruins cover several hectares, surrounded by a man-made moat. The numerous buildings and passageways featured many superbly detailed reliefs depicting ancient Khmer culture and history, with much of it remaining originally intact. Our long day included visits to Angkor Thom, Bayon Temple, the Elephant Terrace and Royal Palace. Though ‘off season’, there were scores of tourists everywhere; very tiring but a worthwhile excellent day.

The Temples of Angkor Wat Temple Gallery Reliefs

Our final day was spent souvenir shopping in Siem Reap for (near) pure silver ornaments, for which local silversmiths are renowned. We flew back to Singapore next morning then caught the ferry across to Sebana Cove Marina, where “Envy” opened up well following our 32 day absence. All in all it was a wonderful experience and next year – who knows where?

Do you think you’d get away with this in Australia?
These are everyday scenes in SE Asia






Four on a Motor Bike

Cheers ‘til Happenings 13 – Borneo and the South China Sea, coming soon.
Bruce and Audrey