Monday, December 13, 2010

Thailand over land and sea

It’s the diversity and variety that does it.

The last month has given us an amazing range of experiences and sights in Thailand -from huge modern cities to ancient city-sites, from forests and rice farms to islands and caves; we have seen diverse communities from well-heeled to impoverished in Bangkok, to the different ethnic communities ofthe Hillside Tribes in the mountainous northern areas on the border with Myanmar (Burma). We have seen night life ranging from the notorious Patpong Road in Bangkok (definitely not to be detailed!) to the lady-boys in Bangla Road of Patong (Phuket) to the famous Chiang Mai night markets to quiet local eating houses far north in Thaton – and very quiet evenings on the boat (punctuated by skipper’s selection of Francoise Hardy, Chris de Burgh, Neil Diamond and Percy Sledge – some people are beyond help)!

All this we found while travelling from the mountainous Thailandborder with Myanmar to Phuket Island and then on to a sea entry into Malaysia at Langkawi Island. There was so much, that in sharing our travels with you we know that we cannot do it justice.Nonetheless, here is the story(sub-titled or bolded so you can identify sections to read or skip!), trying to capture some of the amazing sights and special moments….

The plan was to join Sandy, Patrick and Ros in Bangkok; we had just over 3 weeks in total to see Bangkok and environs and the Chiang Mai area, thenon to Phuket and sail them down to Langkawi in Malaysia. Only the first night’s accommodation was pre-booked and no flights or other transport had been arranged: we organised everything as needs arose and plans developed.

Bangkok: amazing, fascinating, stimulating city!Poverty is seen alongside wealth, there is less litter and clearer skies than we expected, hectic and busy traffic yet very controlled and disciplined.

The city’s appeal is strengthened by its contrasts: walk past the expensive Erewan hotel and major fashion houses towards the street corner amidst the noise of 6 lanes of traffic that pass alongside each way and three overhead bridges that carry pedestrian traffic and two separate train services – and thenon the street corner hear beautiful Thai music and find a Buddhist shrine with dozens of locals coming in to pray, light incense and candles, or make a donation for beautiful petite Thai dancers to bless their love-life through elegant classical dance.

A trip down a canal on a longtail boat was another highlight particularly to see how people live alongside the river but also for the locks and for the appeal of these longtails.

In some areas, large-bore pipes pumped water back into the canal from the adjacent residential area (the residential areas were below water level); elsewhere we saw homes on stilts with floors only just above water level, while in other areas they did not have the luxury of stilts:picture a man sitting on his outside table happily swinging his gum-booted legs above the water that coveredthe floors of his house.... at other homes, washing was on the lines and life carried on despite the floors being awash with flood-waters.

All this is in contrast to the fantastic statues, gold stupa and rich jewels of the Grand Palace…alongside the food sellers where we ate delicious food in surroundings that would never tempt us to stop in our home country. We are constantly amazed that no one becomes ill from the primitive wash-up and food disposal facilities… which are nevertheless obviously effective.

Always fascinated by the exotic, the unknown and not-yet understood, we were delighted to see many monks: at work in the temples, on the streets, on ferries, going about their lives. We were told that all Buddhist boys or young men spend at least one week (but generally a couple of months) as a monk, in privation to understand the lot of the under-privileged. This perspective and the frequent sightings of young novice monks (just young boys growing up in another culture) took away some of the mystique surrounding monks but lent some clearer understanding of this culture.
You are regularly being confronted with trying to understand and explore other cultures when travelling in SE Asia. Near Bangkok is the ancient city of Ayutthaya – a capital city of a previous empire that ruled the area…Acres and acres of temples that were built / ransacked / re-built over centuries of warfare and invasion and counter-invasion with neighbouring kingdoms.

A place under a tree to let the ambience quietly seep into your consciousness is one of the best ways to feel these ancient cities. Centuries from now, what will tourists make of the remains of Bangkok or, for that matter, Pretoria - our home town?

Chiang Mai in northern Thailand is a very touristy city, but nonetheless you are still able to imagine what it must have been like living in the old City surrounded by the moat and the huge walls, with a Wat on almost every street. Today, there is always a market happening somewhere, the best being on Sundays when they close many of the streets of the old town to traffic and you walk the miles of stalls and musicians -with your head turning and your neck twisting and your mouth bargaining and your arms carrying increasingly loaded packets! Whilst picking from all the foods on offer at a selection of food stalls, or sitting back for a foot massage, it is amazing to lift your eyes and see the unmistakable lines of the roof of a Wat and realise that the market is in the precious grounds of a temple - very unusual to our way of thinking.

Having the good fortune to be in contact with a young Lahu man, Lek, whose father, a Christian pastor, runs a tiny start-up orphanage way north of Chiang Mai, we spent two nights in the Thaton area, close to the Myanmar border. The Lahu are one of several Hill Tribe communities that live in the hills in northern Thailand, having apparently originated in China then ended up in Thailand after being chased down via Burma (Myanmar). They have their own culture and language and many earn income from their specific range of handcrafts. Lek and his father took us to a Lahu village where we were able to buy some craftwork directly from the villagers, then to a Thai military outpost on the Myanmar border, where it became apparent that borders of countries are often fluid: some of the military encampments on the top of each hill in our view were flying Thai flags, where two weeks previously they had been Burmese military posts. Lek’s family honoured us witha feast for lunch, including “black chicken”, a dish made from black-footed chicken where the meat has black streaks in it: this is tasty (just like white chicken) but in Chinese culture is regarded as a “medicine” as it is believed to possess special healing properties.

Reality checks!

How did we do these land travels? This was part of the adventure. We walked and walked; used scooters; got to know the local transport options well, early on; became relatively adept at understanding train routes and underground trains, learnt about which taxi / tuk-tuk/ shuttle to take when and where. We had an experience at every new abode, where we kept our costs down to below US$20 per double room: all had own bathrooms and (mostly) the rooms were clean; sometimes one had to lift the shower hose high to encourage the water heater to kick in, at other times strike the heater a sharp blow with a heavy object to achieve this result ; sometimes re-position the fridge to be able to reach the electrical trip switches near the roof; sometimes the loo and shower occupied the same 1.00 square metres and it was best to keep loo paper outside.

But at least there was loo paper; trips to the lavatory outside of places of accommodation necessitated familiarising yourself (especially the ladies) to different systems and methods, which were mastered early on and grown not to dislike.... except for uncomfortably saturated floors and what then to do with your clothing and bags? Personal hygiene was interesting on the street too: women unabashedly groom themselves and each other, to the extent of looking for nits in friends’ hair!

And another part of the adventure was being caught in a scam. After having read the warning, we STILL fell prey to the tuk-tuk drivers’ “You cannot go to the Palace today, they are having a ceremony. Come with us... for only 10 Baht we will show you the Golden Buddha then take you to...” (showing us on the map). Great! And the Wat with the Golden Buddha WAS actually a great visit, with the school Principal from over the way explaining so much, then promoting the concept of supporting local industries by using TAT (Tourism Authority of Thailand) for doing bookings and buying local products, e.g. jewellery and tailored goods. Thus it started... the trip to TAT, who were angry that we did not plan our whole holiday through them (“but we will give you big discounts”) and the trip to the tailors and jewellers, where the tuk-tuk drivers became angry at our lack of participation. The outcome was that we each lost about US$15 in the price we over-paid for rooms for the next 2 nights. We subsequently met tourists who used TAT to arrange all their transport and accommodations for weeks of travel, and it cost them thousands of Euros in over-payment.

Sailing again

Then we all had time (some guests would say “did time”, depending on how much they feel imprisoned by the confinement) onKetoro, as we sailedour friends from Phuket Island (Thailand) to Langkawi Island (Malaysia). We anchored off islands where we could get to beautiful hongs, lagoons and beaches (this time we were very familiar with our modes of transport… our trusty dinghy and croc canoe); we had sundowners on board and we had sundowners at lovely small pubs on islands (often featuring Bob Marley crooning in the background!)

And weAGAIN ticked the boxes for a lot of “firsts”. On the first day, we caught a jet ski (well, he caught us, the idiot…. and took our fishing lure away, attached to his handlebars… visualise his grimaces and Rolf’s gesticulations!), and then caught terra firma in the form of an underwater rock (or something, obviously unseen) when we stopped to buy prawns from a longtail boat and the fishing lure sank down. Getting your line free of an unseen huge object whilst on a boat that is being carried by a current, requires carefully going in astern without getting said line wrapped around the prop; turns out the task is impossible, but one does one’s best before admitting defeat and cutting the line.... the prawns were delicious.

We enjoyed seeing fish walking on water and birds surfing (respectively: pipe-like fish that shoot out the water then tail-walk or hop for hundreds of metres and birds that find rest from the arduous task of flying on bits of floating polystyrene or wood; when the water is rough it is fun watching the birds surfing this way!). We sometimes stopped way off land and simply jumped in to cool off... once being so audacious as all of us leaving the boat simultaneously... a “Look Ma, no driver” scenario that happily did not leave us floundering and abandoned.At times we played classical music to soar over the seas and call the whales or dolphins back to Thailand…. (figured Rolf’s Percy wouldn’t do it!)
We had our first glass and plate breakage from sliding off the table in a rolly sea... catamarans are pretty stable boats, and owners of monohulls are constantly amazed at our (non-plastic) crockery and our lack of need to put everything away, in most seas. Until the day we anchored at Phi Phi Island and sat down for lunch in a civilised fashion, on a calm sea.... and then an IDIOT driver of a day-tripper speed-boat came by close, at speed, causing such a huge wake that, despite many hands leaning forward to grab what they could from the skidding crockery, a glass and plate left us.

We caught our smallest fish ever (two were returned to their watery home, to warn their mates, while another two actually made delicious dinner on the braai!) and also our biggest catch... a huge fishing net (and the 40 ton fishing boat to which it was attached!) It took some underwater work by Rolf and somewhat anxious boat manoeuvring by Irene to sort that one out; the crew of the fishing boat were themselves anxiously watching to see whether a large blade was being used to free the net but we managed to get the net intact off the saildriveleg and the rudder blade where it had caught.
Another first:we did some dentistry on the boat ... Irene gave Rolf a temporary tooth from a baseline of nearly zero with the help of the on-board first aid kit!

Loi  Krathong

Thai people have frequent celebrations and festivals, one of these being the LoiKrathong Festival when they give thanks for water and all they receive from it, by lighting lanterns and sending them skywards and also floating candle-lit boats (krathongs) of banana leaves. We were fortunate to be in Chiang Mai for the build-up to this festival, and joined in by sending up our own lantern dedicated to our departed family and friends, while on the actual night of LoiKrathong we were anchored off a beautiful island and floated three of our own home-made candle-boats. For days afterwards, when at sea we often saw floating remains of other Krathong, the festival having clearly been celebrated on islands and the mainland all over the country.
There is just so much in SE Asia. So much to see and do, remember and understand, hear and taste, plan and work out. There are just so many areas to visit to see so many exotic places, to feel and experience so many happenings, of such a diverse nature and magnitude. It is just astounding and breath-taking. Even the most mundane activity still results in the senses being bombarded with visual and auditory input of an exotic nature and demands huge involvement. This can be very tiring but the nature of the holiday does not allow any time-out!

And it is really while recalling it all that the scope of it dawns and becomes mind-blowing. While you are doing it and seeing it you are…. well, doing it and seeing it, and thinking about it and allowing your senses to absorb what they can. Reflecting on the whole and trying to isolate the experiences and your feelings about them at the end of a period of travel (in which, each day, you were exposed to so much of such great exotic-ness) is when it all becomes tricky…

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Getting back into it

Can we still do this? How do we…..??

These are some of the questions we are quietly asking ourselves as we adjust back to boat life after a wonderful month back “home” on land in SA.

For “do this” in our first question, read…. sail / live happily in the cramped circumstances of a small yacht / put ourselves into travelling situations many would never attempt / use the bathroom facilities of a boat / be entirely reliant on ourselves when in need far from any help / sleep at ease on a bed rocking and rolling / sacrifice the comfort of living on land with transport at hand in a city that can easily satisfy your every need and desire.

The reality is that the questions pertaining to the actual business of sailing have been building for a while…. All the time we have been tied up in the relative comfort of a marina and not pitting ourselves against the sea. But enough about this crisis of confidence. The answer to the question is simply…. Yes. Or if not immediately, it will come back. Or we will learn again…. whatever is required. Just do it. (I see some Obama slogans here, sidling up to those of renowned sportswear…. How depressing not to be original!!)

So we have returned from a sojourn in South Africa: a marvellous visit, with hind-sight this was a much-needed break from the boat and to re-acquaint ourselves with the lives of friends and family and touch base with who we are. “Who we are”? That has become somewhat of a quandary…. resentment in our first year at having TRANSIENT stamped on various documents has been replaced with a certain pride at not being wholly defined by our land of origin. Nonetheless, back in SA we slipped awfully quickly into the role of who we were: that mantle is comfortable with years of familiarity. Narration of certain tales, particularly those of the worst storm / worst almost-collision moments, brought about a feeling of “Was that me? This feels like somebody else’s life I am describing….”

But we are back now, finding our home undamaged by the storms that apparently lashed it while we were away and finding also that it is easy to call this boat home… another mantle of familiarity is making itself felt. Picking up the threads of this life, we have undertaken two small excursions that have each, in their way, re-affirmed to us why we are cruising.

We are cruising because it gives us relatively easy access to places and people on land we would otherwise not get to enjoy. So we set off on a scooter over Sarasin Bridge, leaving Phuket Island for the Thai mainland province of Phang Nga.

With no real agenda, we enjoyed small beaches and locals fishing off broken piers; endless roads lined with stalls and shops selling mostly the mundane but also sometimes the exotic: fruit, shrines, unrecognisable foodstuffs; ugly electrical reticulation highlighting the beauty of ornate decorative arches; beautiful waterfalls in natural forests (notwithstanding that 80% of the forest has been replaced by plantations of rubber or fields of pineapples); a clean, freshly-gifted shrine deep in the forest; unexpected harbour areas made gay with colourful flags on brightly-painted boats; and we enjoyed the fact that we were the only tourists around.

We are cruising because it gives us relatively easy access to places on the sea we would otherwise not get to enjoy. After we had languished for a month in SA we decided we needed to take the boat out to check all its systems in preparation for another trip to Malaysia (to renew visas) in the next few weeks. Ketoro, of course, has been languishing for about 2 months at her current berth in the marina so we were aware that, as we have grown rusty, so must she…. So it was time to blow out the cobwebs!

With a newly-refurbished (and actually functioning) water-maker we set off to explore some islands about five hours away. Within 20 minutes the anchor was down and Rolf was in the water investigating why 1) we were getting no revs from the engines and 2) we were not getting the boat speed we should from the meagre revs we were managing and 3) we were getting no boat speed and distance readings on the log - which impacts on our interpretation of weather conditions available for sailing etc. We knew the answer to the third: growth (good solid green stuff) on the impellor wheel, which Rolf freed after repeated dives under the hull and swipes with a sturdy scrubbing brush. The answer to the first questions? Growth too: barnacles. Exuberant in their numbers on the propeller blades and shafts, providing such resistance that the engines achieved only half their maximum revs and changing the face and shape of the propeller blades utterly so that we might as well have had bricks flailing around in the water trying to achieve forward motion.

We resumed our trip, deferring the barnacle problem until our destination, and set about raising the mainsail to make use of the wind and attempt to ignore our burdened propellers. When the sail was near the top of the mast, the electric winch cut out. No problem…. Must have tripped out from over-heating when it lifted and decanted a hundred litres of rainwater that had accumulated in the folds of the sail. Add to the list of ‘look into at our destination’!

Well, we reached Ko Roi and anchored in one of our prettiest spots ever.

Giant towering rocks above us, greened with trees and bushes determined to find nourishment in apparently hopeless circumstances; fish eagles gliding high above the chattering of other bird populations and a calm sea which showed us to the small entrance to a hong.

This hong (pictured with Rolf the explorer), accessed only by that small hole at sea level, is huge, with walls soaring skyward, dense with mangroves and its own seawater lake: home to fish and crabs.

Ko Roi also provided a lovely beach…. and a magnificent backdrop to the necessary activity of diving under the boat with gloves, scrapers and brushes to remove the tenacious barnacles from their new home. Some time later the propellers were clean of barnacles and had been polished to a gleam with scouring sponges… and the result was engines that attained full revs and an extra 2 knots on our speed! The problem of the electric winch required the owner’s manual, screwdrivers, spanners, some deft short-circuits to by-pass suspect components and finally a few well-chosen words on ascertaining that the circuit-breaker is itself broken. A beer also helped the process.

The current status? General un-readiness for sea on the part of the boat and crew has been addressed and all are fit to go! But first we head off on a land exploration of Bangkok and the northern highland areas around Chiang Mai before returning to take our home off to Malaysia…

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Luxury and Indulgence compared with Privilege and Opportunity

We have now been sailing for exactly a year and during that time had numerous friends join us on the boat and had communication with many more. Our friends being generally of the outspoken variety, do not hesitate to hurl insults and heap abuse and the nature of their chirping would suggest that we wallow in a life of indulgence and luxury aboard our yacht, idling away the hours sipping cocktails, being fanned by palm fronds and admiring nubile wenches cavorting on sun drenched beaches (this would of course be me observing the crew!).

Those that have actually joined us on the boat do grudgingly admit to new insights into the relentlessly physical nature of life aboard. However, they remain stubbornly dismissive of most of my pitiful and heart wrenching laments – so I must lobby my cause here.

We are indeed privileged to have been able to briefly put on hold the hardship of earning an income while we take our ‘gap year’, and to enjoy enough fitness and health to spend that time on our boat in order to grasp this opportunity.

Because you are so smart you will have noticed that the key words of the venture are privilege and opportunity – not luxury and indulgence!

Consider your daily long, hot shower followed by fluffy dry towel and freshly laundered clothes and compare this with the meager trickle, cold, at the best of times or no shower at all when fresh water is rationed or we have no fresh water (i.e. when you have a Sea Recovery watermaker that has been under repair - under warranty – for the past three months). Scarcity of fresh water necessitates jumping into the sea off the back of the boat wielding a bar of soap, which does not lather in sea water! Followed by a wipe down with a multipurpose towel that has seen too many purposes that day and clothes that only pretend to be dry. Nothing is ever really dry. But occasionally our sea bath is accompanied by the magic of dense bioluminescence of thousands of tiny stars, down to the depth of your feet - that simply cannot be captured on film. Lying back in the dark seawater and making ‘snow angels’ that stir up millions of luminescent stars and then emerging to find some of these brilliant lights sticking to you. Having the opportunity to experience such a memorable event makes all the cold boat-showers no hardship at all.

Never was an invention more worthy of a knighthood than the flushing masterpiece of Sir Thomas Crapper and the 110mm diameter water borne sewage system. A simple flush makes it all disappear. Forever. Guaranteed! Sheer genius! Why, oh why do boat builders inflict on us 38mm pipes that are devoid of any significant water pressure? And that pipe is 38mm for only a brief instant before constricting to nothing by scaling, deposition and those special installation kinks. I’m afraid I cannot find a positive opportunity to balance this one! Except perhaps the profound relief when all the boat systems combine and make the fish happy.

Picture yourself striding through your spacious house, flicking the remote and easing into your air-conditioned car, flicking another switch for the automated garage doors and proceeding apace towards your selected gratification of the moment (noting in passing that you are dry, freshly groomed and not breathless). I on the other hand suffer the relentless hassle of launching the dinghy, loading and boarding this gyrating beast in the prevailing seas, navigating to the rusty pier where I scale the steel girders, secure the dinghy amongst the congestion of dinghies already there and offer up a quick prayer that some idiot does not untie mine for fun or in neglect (or steal my outboard motor); walking, walking some more, did I mention walking? perhaps some motorcycling if I’m lucky (or feeling lucky!). Any journey onto land inevitably involves buying provisions which means loading up the motorcycle like a beast of burden, back to the dinghy, load up that unstable beast by lowering fragile packets from the pier, or perhaps the added excitement of a beach launch through the surf – made even more memorable by the tide having receded leaving 200m of exposed mud, back to the yacht (hopefully still there) unloading uphill onto the yacht (with the fragile packets now adding the special challenge of being wet), and then hoisting up the bloody dinghy (125kg of motor, fuel tank and boat). Eeiish!!

But then the dinghy also introduces us to the privilege of racing playful dolphins that swerve and dive only inches from the boat; discovering, diving and snorkeling fantastic reefs; fishing the gentleman’s way despite the yacht being at anchor; exploring caves and hongs and deserted lagoons; and perversely, being able to hoist the dinghy aboard and enhance the feeling of independence and readiness for the next destination.

Dishwashing – for years our dishwasher on land had all the fun. As the non-cook on board I have the opportunity to re-discover and appreciate the ruthless efficacy of dishwashing soap and the sensuous pleasure of caressing the grease and gunk off the non-stick frying pan in a foamy explosion of sparkly soap bubbles: ..… Ah! how travel broadens the mind and opens new horizons!!

The internet and computers – fortified by a mighty army of anti-virus, anti-malware, anti-spyware and firewalls; naturally all updated constantly. And I mean constantly, because our internet connection speed does not allow for anything more than serving the update demands of these masters! Experts predict dire consequences of infected and therefore non-functioning computers that will inevitably result from anything less than code red vigilance at wi-fi spots and public internet access in Thailand. The result is a computer so slowed down with conflicting and self-serving protection software that it does not function in any event. I’m trying to find the positive here but the best I can do is promote Apple or cheapos that you can throw away!

Drinks on deck at sunset, in splendid isolation, with spectacular views and balmy breezes – Yes! I love it - so go ahead and be envious. I offer you only the small consolation that perhaps I lacked the fortitude to cart the drinks along the tortuous dinghy route described above. Yeah, right!

Changing a light bulb. Our spare bulbs are stored in a box in the starboard engine compartment – in order to get to engine, remove bedding and mattress and suffer the wrath of the crew; put foot into filthy water in engine compartment bilge – find sponge and clean out bilges; note that the v-belt tension for the sea water cooling pump is loose – fetch spanners; tighten stud to tighten v-belt; give daily portion of blood after nicking hand on sharp edge; over-tighten stud and twist it off completely; discover new words and concepts; jury rig a webbing strap and cable ties around an engine mount to get some tension on the v-belt. Note to self – arrange for first class, English speaking diesel mechanic with access to machine shop to remove bracket with offending broken stud and return quickly bearing superb workmanship and negligible invoice! Find bulb. Return to light fitting to find it corroded solid. Fetch pliers to apply judicious force. Discover pliers are rusted solid. Get penetrating oil and Q20 / WD40 and apply also to the side cutters, the non-shifting shifting spanner and to the machete. Rust has made machete blunt – sharpen this (at the back edge of the boat because you are smart and have learnt, the hard way, that rust particles cannot easily be removed from gelcoat). Discover that rust nevertheless still falls onto and stains gelcoat. Drink Beer. Drink more beer and revel in the feeling of a job well done. By now it is night and you wonder why it is dark even with the light switch on. Luxury and indulgence! Hah! (True story).

Anchorage and passage – safety is a 24/7 pre-occupation. In foul weather, a stable house would invite you to snuggle down with a good book / DVD / partner and perhaps emerge a little later for a refreshing stroll to the nearby coffee shop. Instead we snuggle deeper into smelly foul-weather clothes and wet boots, worry about absolutely everything from being run down by a ship, suffering major breakages, dragging anchor, generally cocking up something – to not having anything warm to eat or drink. However, I admit that the privilege of being able to move our entire ‘cottage at the beach’ to a completely new beach in a few hours - with new panorama, new diving, new people and new places to explore – and fishing en route – provides great opportunity.

Travelling to new countries, locations and experiences. You have a computer online and can find out anything, you have a telephone that works and know who to call to fix whatever and you have a car that enables you to meet face to face. You enjoy the therapeutic pleasure of regaling your friends with accounts of frustrating issues while drinking copious amounts of beer that you got cheaply from a little place you found. On an overseas vacation, everything is temporary and can wait until you get back! That is luxury! The price we pay includes comfort and convenience and the familiarity of home. The countries we have visited – some of the courtesy flags we hoisted while in each of these are in the photo above (South Africa, Mozambique, Bassas de India (France), Madagascar, Seychelles, Chagos, Maldives, Sumatra, Thailand and Malaysia) each impose their own brand of bureaucracy, offer their own selection of supplies and facilities – or not; but in any event, all on terms and in a language foreign to our frame of reference. They do however form part of a kaleidoscope of experiences and opportunities to explore the country, interact with the people, learn something (not least of which patience, tolerance and humility), and enjoy the various activities – everything from the modes of travel, the food?, the diving, the humour, the interactions with people, to the natural beauty and features of the environment. Luxury and indulgence is certainly not a feature of our daily fare, but fantastic opportunities for life and experience certainly are and that is a privilege.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A need for land and for sea

Recently, we have blogged about the joy of life on land in Phuket (made so interesting with people contact in the busy towns) and in the glorious natural environment of the uninhabited surrounding islands. Sailing in these sheltered areas in this SW monsoon season is so easy: protection from storms which thus provide little challenge; safe anchorage to be found everywhere and Phuket island offers several marinas for berthing the boat… and the opportunity to be idle and pampered with shore power, shore water and easy access.

However, we have tried to be more active than idle. Chatting to others and watching the behaviour of the many cruisers here, it is clear that there is a very definite risk of losing confidence in yourself and your boat and have your sailing skills deteriorate if you languish too long off the “real” sea and so it is necessary to put yourself out there and sail! On top of that, after a while we find that we miss the beauty and isolation of the sea.

Hence our choice to again sail to Malaysia recently to be able to renew our visas (instead of the costly option of flying there). Sometimes it was only us in our world of huge sky and sea, with only a small strip of land on the horizon, and sometimes we were happy to share the watery world with other yachts and fishing boats.

These seas offer different challenges: those of avoiding the numerous fishing flags that mark the fish traps and buoyed-up sections of fishing nets (and thereby avoid getting propellers fouled up in the nets)… and also avoiding the small-boat fishermen… and bad spirits! Local coastal fishermen use long-tail boats for their work, a colourful sight as the scarves on their bows flutter in prayer and apparently release bad spirits. Occasionally we see a long-tail, off to one side, suddenly accelerate and come rushing towards our boat to cross the bow with only metres to spare. Evidently they believe that if they pass in front of a yacht, in close enough proximity, the bad spirits from their boat will leave them and jump onto the yacht!

A more sobering reality is that some of the fishermen apparently pass dangerously close to the front of the yachts in order to force a collision and thus acquire a new long-tail boat in the ensuing claims, which are heard in local forums.

The large fishing boats are less threatening, if more intimidating in that it would be us at the bottom of the sea in the event of a collision! They are also more visible by day… and the horizon glows end-to-end with fishing lights at night. There are far too many fishing boats for these small, over-fished waters.

We were told that much foreign aid after the 2004 tsunami took the form of a new fishing fleet, and associated wages and diesel money until 2011, when foreign aid dries up. There is nothing left in these waters to provide a living for so many in the fishing industry and we fear for the fishermen from next year. Let it be said, however, that Ketoro boys (Rolf and John recently) caught a massive barracuda in these same waters… after cutting loose a magnificent tail-walking sailfish!

When dealing with storms, your world becomes very small: just you, the boat, waves and wind, and the business of getting through it safely. In this passage to Malaysia, we were spared real storms and enjoyed alternately a wonderful calm world and then superb sailing winds… but one morning on leaving an overnight anchorage we were surprised to find the group of fishermen nearby on a set of rafted fishing boats at anchor, gesticulating to us and conveying the message that the waves were too big out there, and we should rather remain in the sheltered anchorage. Unsettling as that was (they work here and know these seas, don’t they? So we should heed their advice!) we ventured forth, resolving to return within an hour if they were proved correct. Well, the sail was brisk and not very comfortable, but we were glad of the opportunity for some hard sailing again and felt great when entering Pulau (Malay word for Island) Langkawi in Malaysia the next day.

Turns out land exploration in Langkawi is as interesting as it is in Thailand and deserves far more time than the two separate weekends we have devoted to it so far. The charm of the rural setting, complete with water buffalo grazing alongside the main roads, has made us determined to explore this area further. Pulau Langkawi Geopark, a World Heritage Site, is spectacularly beautiful when seen from the cable car that is set up in two stages, while the bridge is an amazing feat of engineering… and anyone with vertigo is advised to keep looking ahead and up!

On our return from Malaysia we cleared into Thailand again, thus starting the clock on another one-month visa, and waited impatiently for friends to visit. Andrea and Brian, Veronica and John spent about 8 days at a resort north of Patong Beach on Phuket island, but subjected themselves to our tour plans for land and sea, giving up their air-conditioned hotel comforts for two nights and three days on Ketoro.

The land side of the visit included Phuket Old Town, Wat (Temple) Chalong and a poignant 10m-high Tsunami Memorial metal sculpture called Jitt Jakawan (Heart of the Universe). Another stop was the Big Buddha. This stands proud on the highest hill of Phuket; it had gazed East and over us for many days in Ao Chalong (Bay) so a visit was called for. The statue, 45m high and covered by 135 tons of Burmese white marble, is still under construction; the enormity of the task and the quantities of materials is staggering, and the project is funded entirely by donations. The Big Buddha is accompanied by an already-completed 12m high, 22-ton, imposing brass Buddha statue.

Land travel was undertaken in Tuk-tuks (allowing us to chat and sight-see, leaving the stress of driving in crazy traffic and breaking down at the top of a steep hill to our driver) and on scooters: yes, despite Rolf’s “Driving in Thailand” blog our friends were brave enough to try scooter travel. Happily none us of ended the day with injuries beyond the head impaled on a mirror that is visible in this photo….!
The freedom and independence offered by scooter travel is wonderful; we went off the regular tourist tracks and were able to enjoy roads along beaches and through busy little villages and stop at a roadside market we happened upon which offered a huge (and largely exotic, to western tastebuds) variety of foods to sample and savour… or reject.

Thailand surprises visitors with its range of shopping experiences and the incredible variety of fruits and vegetables available. We subjected our guests to as much as we could, including local fruits rambutans, dragon fruit and the durian fruit, famed for its rich, exotic taste and pungent rotten smell (the word “subjected” has this fruit in mind: hotels refuse to keep it on their premises!)
Menus always provide interest: from the variety of new tastes and food-types to (when an English text is offered) the spelling and hence odd associations! We could not recommend the tuna “sandwic” option in this menu.
When it came to their time on the sea, Ketoro obliged our guests as she generally does, and tested this next group of stalwarts: the electric halyard winch gave up, forcing skipper Rolf to supervise ‘crewmen’ Brian and John as they applied brute force to the manual winch and manfully raised the heavy main sail (happily, the fault fixed itself and the electric winch worked fine the next day). We were lucky to have amazingly good sailing winds that carried us off to the magnificent islands of Phang Nga Bay with their lagoons, hongs, caves and tunnels to negotiate in the dinghy; followed by great snorkeling off Ko Hae (Coral Island).

The Sea Recovery water-maker being in the same state of disrepair it has been for the past few months (all under warranty of course), we were cautious with water usage but our new canvas water-collector did a great job. A 3-day requirement for water is not particularly onerous, but nonetheless some decided to have a sea-bath and were delighted to be swimming with millions of tiny bio-luminescent sea creatures. As with previous visitors to the boat, the heat was oppressive and some found it better to sleep on the trampoline, but the best use for the trampoline, of course, is “drinks-on-deck”. Happily Ketoro managed to avoid being beset by bad spirits from fishing boats (instead, enjoying the most incredible fresh prawns from one of them), but the drinks on deck experiences provided spirit of another kind.

We are now about to embark on some serious land visiting: to land-locked Pretoria to be with friends and family for a month. Our sea home is not a “lock-up-and-go”: preparing it for our time away has included taking everything out of lockers and out of bags to dry things off before returning them to their storage space; in the process we have had to address issues of mould on most items, ditto rust … even on items not exposed to the sea (eg un-openable zips of wetsuits and equipment bags) and a scuba tank compressor that has compleley succumbed to corrosion and manages only some desultory flatulance. All canvases are safely inside a cabin, the food lockers have been cleared of resident weevils (lest we be met by batallions of them on our return), the dinghy is covered (required swimming in the marina water, taking care to avoid the monitor lizard and lion fish that live under the pontoons), the fuel from jerry cans has been poured into the diesel tank (to decrease the volume of air above the fuel and thereby minimise condensation), the water in the water tank has been treated and most importantly the lines that secure Ketoro to the jetty have been checked and re-checked lest she loses her hold on land.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Driving in Thailand

We write a lot about our travels (travails?) on the boat but in the past couple of months in Thailand we have really only pottered about in the relatively protected waters of PhangNga Bay or down the coast into Malaysia to renew our visas. Much of our daily life and travel is in fact on land and our preferred mode of land transport is a rented motorcycle. The rental transaction enjoys some sort of government oversight as the one page contract is a fairly standard document wherever you get the bike and it is mandatory to produce a valid driver’s license at this point. Fortunately for those who have no motorcycle license and no known expertise on such machines, a confusing looking foreign car license appears to suffice (or in my case a bad photocopy as my license is at the bottom of Ao Chalong Harbour). This obliging approach is a good early indicator of the pragmatism that is a feature of road traffic here.

The arterial traffic routes are dual carriageway with each carriageway accommodating two demarcated traffic lanes (carrying approximately three lanes of actual traffic) plus a motorcycle lane - which in addition to motorcycles accommodates also parked cars, stopped cars, moving cars, unwary pedestrians, wary dogs, and motorcycles that are travelling in the opposite direction.

This disconcerting phenomenon of motorcycles travelling against the flow of traffic is because in order to get to a destination on the other side of the road it is necessary to overshoot the destination until you get to a designated U-turn point through the centre median and then double back. The official U-turn points through the centre island are at intervals of about 3 – 5 km and this detour is understandably inconvenient and time consuming and therefore widely disregarded in favour of simply crossing over into the oncoming carriageway at a U-turn point before reaching the destination and then driving against the oncoming traffic directly to the destination by the shortest path.

The first time we tried this and were confronted by a three / four lane phalanx of advancing traffic at a combined approach (collision?) speed of 140 kph, there resulted a convulsion of several muscle groups – one of which caused the throttle twist grip to be advanced inadvertently and another that causes that unstable feeling in the bowels. Muscle functioning returned to normal before any major consequences but only after some local motorcyclists learned a couple of new moves.

One of the other interesting local customs is to sometimes disregard red traffic lights. It must be said however that this only occurs when there is little crossing traffic and not much evident danger. It took us a few days of enduring noisy exhortations from bikes stuck behind us to overcome our sensible reluctance to invite attention from the law. We are particularly sensitive to the presence of the police as the somewhat imperfect status of my drivers license will at best withstand only the most elastic interpretation and invite a modest spot fine. Unhappily a new law on 1 July requires passengers to wear helmets and this has motivated a sustained programme of police roadblocks to promote compliance. We are ever hopeful that the authorities will tire of the game.

Motorcycles entering the main traffic stream from a side street simply enter without the inconvenience of stopping, or even of pausing or looking; albeit usually slowly enough to allow the mainstream of traffic sufficient time to take avoiding action. Cars and trucks entering the main stream often wait for a gap in the traffic. When they do not, it does behoove motorcyclists to hold their line and slam on brakes. Fortunately the brakes are rarely good enough to induce wheel lock and uncontrollable skids, but ones instinct and anticipation necessarily develops to a high level.

This all works surprisingly well and all drivers / riders with equanimity simply slow down or swerve or stop in order to promote traffic flow. The goodwill and pragmatism displayed by everyone is a far cry from the common driving practice back home of extending ones ego with the aid of a fuel injected, one ton steel cocoon powered by testosterone and armed with a bouquet of gesticulations and invective.

Petite Thai girls in dresses sit side saddle on the pillion seat – with feet delicately pointed upwards to retain their shoes on their feet. There is evidence of the odd lapse in concentration with single shoes and slip-slops found lying in the motorcycle lane. The Thais appear born to these machines and display the nonchalance of long familiarity. It is a common sight to see three girls on a single bike with all three engaged in animated conversation, texting and/or talking on their mobile phones and admiring one another’s purchases of clothing and jewelry; the passengers with painted toenails in the air and the driver easily controlling the bike.

Another common sight is entire families on a single scooter, including babes in arms and often with the driver carrying the baby – and then on top of this, the days shopping or laundry or whatever. And ‘whatever’ encompasses a remarkable range of building materials, furniture and appliances, pets. In our case we tried to emulate the locals with Irene on the back wearing a rucksack bulging with newly purchased provisions and equipment, complete with two folding stools that had legs protruding above her head like space antennae; another bag of stuff between us on the seat and a further bag between my feet. Did I use my feet to keep the bag on the scooter or to keep the bike on its wheels? …. I am getting so good at multi-tasking!

Motorcycling along city roads proves exciting on a different level. Multitasking is taken to new heights what with indicators, throttle, brakes, etc. plus keeping the bike on two wheels and remembering to put out a useful foot to steady the bike when stationary (and keeping slip-slop on said foot). Taking off from rest while turning sharp right at intersections (and remembering about the foot still on the ground); all while having a civilized discussion with my navigator about the relative merits of reversing a bike that cannot easily go in reverse compared with the simple expedient of making a u-turn and driving against the flow of traffic, in order to reach the destination we just passed. Thai script is entirely different from our Roman alphabet and most street names and other landmarks therefore remain tauntingly elusive. (In tourist Phuket, major street signs helpfully have English subtitles)

The navigator in question (aka crew/shark-bait) in the meantime is juggling a road map (in the breeze, and often the rain); wearing a huge backpack with purchases; balancing a couple of bags / packets of stuff on the seat between us; operating a camera (all photos in this blog taken by the navigator at speed; forgive some lack of focus….); remembering to point her feet upwards so as not to lose her slip-slops; providing commentary on passing sights, smells, sounds and my driving; remembering to not sway the bike unduly; making pleasant interactions with other road-users in passing; and directing us unerringly to the desired destination. Every time. Remarkable.

On the more rural, narrow roads or where there are road-works, one encounters gravel (treacherous mud!!) and potholes filled with water (sinister bike traps!!). Bikes don’t naturally stay up well in these conditions and we have had the odd heart stopping moment that requires a steadying foot on the ground (which is thereafter covered in mud and brands you for the day). However we have not (yet) had to display the true badge of the travelling tourist, which is a seeping bandage around an arm and a leg and a decidedly stiff and painful way of moving, and which can only be earned the hard way that draws expressions ranging from ‘ha ha - that must have hurt’ to ‘there but for the grace ..’

Initially, sight of the numerous dogs on the road caused some anxiety and persistent images of an unpleasant tangle of bike parts, body parts and extract of dog. However, the trick is, from a distance, to distinguish between young dogs and scarred old veterans. The gimpy old warriors are no problem – they have in their younger days obviously had some altercation with traffic and discovered its hazards; and the fact that they are old is the clincher. You do not become an old dog by going walk-about in traffic. So we confidently careened past the old fleabags at speed and fortunately did not see many youngsters – it’s obviously a hard school.

We are loving our travels in Thailand. Their pragmatic approach strikes a chord with the moderately robust treatment of most matters that we know from South Africa and being somewhat scarred old veterans already, we will hopefully become locally street smart with only a gentle learning curve.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Travellers in Thailand

Well, this is all wonderfully interesting!

In our past, we have had the good fortune to enjoy the most glorious holidays (restful or active; indulgent or economical) and taken home memories and photographs to return to at will, but there will be none that form as much a part of us as these travels that we have experienced in environments that are radically different from our usual milieu. Our travelling has given us opportunities to become generally more aware in circumstances and environments other than those that we are used to… which we mistakenly call “normal”.

There can be few places that give a western tourist more chance to do this than Thailand. Travelling in Thailand gives new experiences to every one of our senses by the minute: this is a country of glorious abundance in sensory stimulation! Simply moving between two villages offers an overload: the buildings, people, vegetation and modes of transport all a feast for the eyes; food stalls and markets are feasts for eyes, noses and taste buds; the beautiful written language looks poetic and musical while the sounds of the language have the lilt of an exotic song… and, as a feast for the ears of older travellers like us… curiously the pop music sounds of the 60s play everywhere! The frequent sounds of firecrackers being set off to chase away bad spirits may sometimes, however, be a burden on sensitive western ears.

The colours.... a roadside orchid nursery (selling growing plants at 50Baht: about US$1,60); beautiful shrines outside every home and retail venue; colourful scarves on every fisherman’s long-tail boat to flutter and chase away bad spirits; the vibrantly hued fruit and vegetables at the travelling fresh produce market in the field (while the fish and meats at the same market are so fresh as to offer no offence.... unlike the fish at the Phuket town market, after 11am!); magnificent old Sino-Portuguese buildings may appear unkempt until you see attention being paid to the front edifice at ground level and the contrast makes the picture; and the bright fresh paintwork of the lone old petrol station where the mode of petrol dispensing comes from another era.

The smells (apart from the fish above)... there are food-stalls and hawkers around every corner, giving rise to unfamiliar but stimulating smells at every turn that make one endlessly hungry! The huge variety of foodstuffs will tempt every palate and it is all tasty: you just need to be prepared to try something new, even if you cannot understand the person explaining the dish to you nor read a single word on the rough menu. It often occurs that you and a whole group of people nearby will start sneezing and coughing simultaneously…. Chilli is being fried nearby! You can always control the heat or bite of the dish when you put in your order… unless you want to challenge your senses extraordinarily!

The sights of people leading their lives in this, their (normal) home environment, are endlessly fascinating.... and none more so than how they get around. Driving scooters on these roads has been a real eye-opener as we generally succumb to local practice and take the locally-adopted pragmatic stance on which side of the road to drive and other small issues..... but that is the subject of another blog!

The variety of Thailand’s abundant natural beauty (incredible soaring island structures, beaches, overflowing vegetation, mysterious caves and hongs) is matched in its populated environs, but this exotic culture has an attraction and beauty so different from that of typical western towns. In Thailand, there is something to hold the interest and stimulate tourists on sea and land and around every corner: nothing is like “home” and therefore everything becomes imprinted in the memory, even if travelling here is not always comfortable or easy. Here, Erik and Cliff carefully negotiate the canoe through a pitch-dark narrow tunnel to take them through to a hong (cave where the roof has collapsed and the beautiful “room” thus formed has developed its own eco-system).
Part of the fun of being here is the foreign language; although this obviously has its drawbacks and frustrations, it contributes wonderful experiences to our memory banks…. and hopefully our improving non-verbal communication skills will stand us in good stead for games of Charades in our dotage! Recently Rolf and I were in different situations asking for two products: soda water and battery water. Saying those words in our flat South African way resulted in no glimmer of understanding from the listeners; however we eventually found that using a higher tone on the last letter assisted everyone: so say …. Sod-aaaah and batte-leeeeh to great happy smiles, comradely nods and a scurry off to help you. Another lesson learned: Thai people cannot put two consonants together; saying sipoon, pilate and tewenty will ease understanding.

Listening to conversations between Thai people is fascinating: huge tracts of information are conveyed between them without our understanding a single word, syllable, letter, and there is so much communication in the language that relies on tonal inflection that it sounds melodious. For different reasons, listening to the radio (with English-speaking Thai presenters) gives another glimpse into this world, and particularly so when listening to “Thailand in perspective”, a news programme that is “… live from the PR department of the Royal Thai Government”.
On land, we get around on scooters and sometimes in a Tuk Tuk (above, with the family), while travelling using Ketoro as our home base is proving exceptionally rewarding as we get access to beautiful islands that the day trippers do not go to (view through a port-light hatch below).

The two most recent sets of visitors (friends John and Wendy from NZ then family Erik, Diana, Karl and Cliff from Aus) explored islands with us, enjoying the beaches, villages, caves, sunset drinks (John’s driftwood photo from a sundown beach) and sometimes on-land resorts as well as being taken through their paces with normal life on Phuket Island. Sometimes the input of different experiences may have been overwhelming!

Travelling on a boat does occasionally also elicit understandable anxieties and prove challenging to our visitors: few people would request, before departure on their holiday, storms whilst on board, nor cramped quarters or having to be endlessly mindful about water, gas and power usage, (let alone everyone’s fears about the usage of the heads / toilet…. not to be discussed here!) but they have all rallied round magnificently. Hopefully, after the travels with Ketoro are done and they recall their photos and memories, the range of experience enjoyed in such an incredibly diverse land will leave them with imprinted fond memories of a real adventure vacation!

Of course, there are times when the hosts may question their own invitation of these guests; for example our very good friends from New Zealand who boast a pretty good rugby team (at present). We are South African, a nation equally passionate about its rugby, and the gods saw fit to schedule a game between the two nations while they were on board. Being the good-natured and fair-minded Springbok supporters that we are, we resolved to generously keep feeding them beer and snacks during the game, no matter what. Imagine our surprise when we awoke to find an All Black flag flying from our masthead! You cannot imagine the shock, horror and outrage felt by the hosts, nor the speed with which the ancestry and general character of the guests was denounced as a South African flag was hoisted above the (rather large) Kiwi flag. We needed our beer and snacks after this…. particularly as our team was soundly thumped.

Our Australian family was less forward (and also less disparaging when their adopted team also thrashed ours the following week). They, in fact, took a different approach to our mast-head as we made a pre-emptive strike by hoisting them up the mast. This (below) is a birds-eye view of us on the trampoline, taken by Erik half-way up the mast … happily the boat was very still at anchor that evening!
In the privileged situation of having done so much travelling in a short time, we often forget momentarily where we are (and in fact the Kothes, who travelled to Malaysia and back with us, had the same experience)… is this a syndrome common to all travellers? (Or just old ones!?). Well, an experience with a lost traveller was an eye opener… anchored off Ko Hong with the family on board, we saw a man approaching at pace (but without skill) on his canoe. Invited on board to catch his breath, he told us his story (well, what little he knew of his own story….). In a nutshell, he was part of a canoe- day-trip group and the big boat had left without him. Having been told they all had an hour to explore on their own, he returned late to find the boat gone. No problem, we had a phone… what was the boat’s name and to what company did it belong? “Don’t know”. Ah…. So we produced several brochures and asked him to identify the boat from the pictures. He was unsure. Ah…. So we phoned one of them and dealt with a concerned and patient person at the other end of the line, describing the canoe (was it perhaps one of theirs?) and asking if their boat was possibly missing a client, by the name of Raymond (surname withheld …. Wilson!) Well, they don’t know their clients by name (!) as they just know how many to collect at each hotel …. “Raymond, at what hotel are you staying?” He was unsure. Ah….

Turns out our very nice confused Raymond was an Argentinian from Australia (he was unsure if he would be allowed back as he thought his visa had expired… not a lot of clarity of thought there…. No wonder he did not know from what hotel or boat he had come!) Our (or, rather, Raymond’s) story has a happy ending: a big boat came round the corner… it was doing laps of the islands looking for the fellow. Raymond was unsure (still) if it was his boat so he and Rolf popped off in the dinghy while Erik gallantly paddled the canoe across. The rest of the very large group on the boat clapped and cheered joyfully and the tour operators were undoubtedly glad to have their canoe back (oh, and Raymond too….).

With many smiles and waves at Rolf and Erik returning on the dinghy, Raymond took off into his future… you are sure to bump into him sometime, looking lost; send him home to Australia…. um Argentina…. um Thailand…

Interestingly, various dictionaries put tourists as persons who travel or visit a place for pleasure, some referring to the word “tour” originating from Latin or Greek words meaning “circle” and “return”, i.e. going home at the end. Wikipedia also offers “One who visits a place or attends a social event out of curiosity, wanting to watch without commitment or involvement.” Travellers, meanwhile, are said to be Gypsies or other nomadic persons, with Wikipedia also offering caravan dwellers and tinkers as travellers.

Well, we all wish for everything: travelling nomad-like to see as much as we can of our world and its peoples, simultaneously with a wish for fun and with a desire to return home. Here on Ketoro, we take our home (caravan?) with us, such is the beauty of cruising, and when friends and family come to spend time with us we love to show them something of our nomadic travelling tourist lifestyle.