Monday, January 3, 2011

Christmas in Thailand

Well, it promised to be different, and it both was and was not; but Christmas and New Year in Thailand was lovely!

Creatures of habit and needy for the safe and familiar (well, in some aspects of our lives...), we annually decorate our lives with Christmas trimmings and surround ourselves with loved ones and, hopefully, the spirit of Christmas. So it was that we tried to place ourselves and our floating home in similar Christmas circumstances this year… in a Buddhist-mostly / Islam-the-balance country, with no beloved family or old friends around us. And we had a great Christmas…. not so different from previous, really!

Yachts, as you may know, are generally a touch sort on storage space, so we do not have a box of Christmas decorations / tinsel / tree... so began the improvising: first preparations for Christmas were done in Langkawi (Malaysia, a wholly Muslim country, so it was a surprise to go to a large supermarket and find, not just a large rack of Christmas decorations and cards for sale, but the ladies behind the tills wearing typical red and white Christmas hats! One of them mentioned that at Christmas they become” just a little bit Christian”…! Prudent businessmen, some of the stores are Chinese-owned and they know their market; in fact, although pork is not allowed in Malaysia, yachties know where to buy it: “past the market, third road left, fourth house on the left, wait till there are no Muslims in the shop then ask quietly and they will go to their back freezers….” We supplemented our decorations with beautiful pieces of driftwood and lovely rocks collected on a beach at our (so-far) southernmost Malaysian anchorage in a beautiful fjord-like setting with island cliffs soaring up on both sides of a narrow channel in which we were anchored.

Our wherewithal was taken up to Thailand, where we cleared into the country while based in Ao Chalong (Bay on the south of Phuket Island) and spent a week doing chores, dentists (Irene’s temporary filling of Rolf’s molar won no awards), computer work and shopping… finding pork and Christmas products easy to come by. Phuket really had Christmas blooming, with decorations and carols in the big centres; however, public Christmas displays only start appearing about mid-December here, very different from the October start we remember from SA, and the extent of the decoration in Phuket was beautiful but far more subtle in quantity.

So we sat on our boat in rolly Ao Chalong, looking up at the Big Buddha at the highest point, listening to the many firecrackers set off by Buddhists to chase away bad spirits and in the evenings hearing the Muslims called to worship over loudspeakers in the nearby village, all as we sorted out our small Christmas arrangement... what an amazing experience! Note the two decorative captains...

The NE monsoon season only really set in on 20 December, making it reasonable for boats to start enjoying the western (tourist) beaches of Phuket at last. Unseasonal SW monsoon winds had caught many unawares, tossing about a dozen of the very expensive King’s Cup Regatta racing yachts onto a west-facing beach, along with one cruising yacht. The rest of the cruising fleet had retreated to sheltered waters or anchored at a safer distance from the beach and used real anchors!

Various previous trips by scooter to the west coast beaches in the low (SW monsoon) season had revealed beautiful beaches but little provision for tourists. In the current high season, what a hugely different picture the beaches are! Huge expanses of beautiful white sand, bedecked from end to end with gay umbrellas and countless loungers; food stalls, bars, massage stands at regular intervals..... what a treat! THIS is what cruising is about... easy anchorages, beautiful clear seas, stunning coves and beaches which can generally be accessed easily with the dinghy, giving the option of beach walks, shore food and massages!

At our first night’s anchorage on this west coast we felt festive enough to put the Christmas lights up and decorate the “tree”: read Christmas driftwood! A celebratory meal enjoyed under the lights.... then the lights were quickly relegated to “short use only, special times” status as we found they drew 6 Amps from the house battery!! So we returned to enjoying the evenings under our solar-lamps, with the Christmas lights on.... for short intervals ... at special times only!!

The evenings in high season are very beautiful: warm, balmy, starry, twinkly colourful shore lights and decorations reflected in the sea … but it turns out these evenings are not restful. Every night from about 23 December to 30 December, no matter which beach we were anchored off (with the exception of one day-only beach), we watched and listened from the boat as fire-dancers twirled their flaming two-headed batons, fireworks were sent up and parties on shore continued loudly until at least 3 am. Noise travels well over water… and not much sleep was enjoyed by some.

Lifting anchor and moving to the next beach every two days was a great routine until we reached Nai (Beach) Yang, our planned Christmas beach, alongside Phuket airport... where the planes appeared to be landing on a beach towel at times!
The beach was glorious and we found a spot to take the dinghy in and remain dry: we often arranged to meet boat friends on shore and at least one couple would arrive sodden and dripping – having experienced a ‘dinghy surf dump’!
The Christmas social gatherings involved drinks on board boats or drinks and meals on land while a great Christmas day was spent with about 16 other yachties having a picnic in a park under huge trees (in the background of the photo above). On commenting that this was the first time since 1978 that we had been without family for Christmas, the observation was made: “well, we are all orphans here!” Orphans with an average age of 60…!

Our BEST (well, only) gift…. an OOB.

Three Australian and a Canadian couple had joined us for an extended evening of drinks and snacks on Ketoro’s deck one evening and one of our glasses was accidentally knocked overboard (on reflection, it is a wonder that one does not lose even more crockery / cutlery / friends overboard on evenings like this…!). The next morning our Canadian friends (not the guilty party) were found snorkelling round the boat trying to locate the glass for us (no success)… and gave us this gift! Since we also needed it explained to us …. an OOB is an Object Over Board locator: toss the heavy end bit (which can be made of anything at all) over immediately your precious object is lost, and the float will identify the spot for you.

Something else new for Ketoro: we had one of these on board!

This is Hayley (2) and she brought her sister, Mum and Dad, two cousins, aunt and uncle and granny for the day to Ketoro. The weather played ball so full use was made (at different times, obviously) of the croc, dinghy, full sails, snorkel gear… and any space we could find anywhere, for the necessary provisions! This picture of Hayley was taken about 5 hours after she should have slept, but she was so busy skippering the boat and ensuring there were teeth in the group photo below that there was too much sensory overload and she just kept going… until she collapsed!
Collapse is something that Rolf and I did too… on New Year’s Day, after sailing 40 miles from our NY Eve venue, having had precious little sleep the night before… but we are ahead of ourselves…

Thai people love to celebrate. The Thai New year, in April, is celebrated with great gusto, apparently; so is the Chinese New Year; and we can attest to the fact that the night of 31 December is a huge night in their calendar! The parties on every previous evening did not prepare us for the enormity of the spectacle of the New Years’ Eve celebrations on Patong Beach. We sailed into Patong Bay about midday to anchor near friends, on whose large catamaran a group of us was to gather for the evening. By the time evening fell, there were well over 100 sailing yachts around us, as well as other “gin palaces” and fancy large charter motor boats.
Imagine a beach 8km long, end to end with hotels or resorts and each of these is providing a fireworks show for its guests. Add to this the music from each place, which is in any event being drowned out by the music blared from the beach loudspeakers for the thousands of beach revellers and the mighty BOOMS of the industrial strength fireworks. Then add the piece de resistance: floating fire lanterns, each over a metre high, being sent up in their hundreds so that the night sky at every moment from about 8pm to 2am is dotted with hundreds of orange glowing balls. This remarkable sight, added to the continuous fireworks picture, is reflected in the water in front of our boats over the whole stretch. Mesmerising and magical.

There were moments of tension, as about 20 of the lanterns did not soar all the way but rather burned the paper lantern and left the flaming heat source to plummet into the sea around the boats; greater tension arose when idiots on a boat nearby started firing distress flares from their boat: an illegal activity and exceptionally dangerous. These flares are incredibly hot and still burn when they hit the water (or boat). Happily no damage was done.

So Christmas and New Year in Thailand, surrounded by the pragmatism and tolerance of the local communities and the kindness and warmth of new-found friends, was wonderful!
And NOW we have some family time.... we are off to Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia tomorrow, to travel with Erik and Diana, Irene’s brother and sister-in-law!