2007 – Thailand – Peninsula Malaysia – Malaysian Borneo

South China Sea - calm enough for a dip

As usual this is written in retrospect. I started in May writing about January. But I had to tell you about the Surin Islands in Thailand and a couple of other things before getting on to this year’s Big Journey.

Come to think of it, we’ve had quite a busy travelling year so far. After the islands in January, we slipped the boat in Satun in southern Thailand in February; Philip flew home to Australia for a couple of weeks while I tripped through Laos with our son in March; we took the boat south to Langkawi in April and went across to Satun for Songkran (Thai new year); had 3 weeks in Penang, including traveling around Malaysia by car; and came south through the Malacca Straits around Singapore and to the Tioman Islands, including a week in Johor Bahru. I've said it before, no doubt, but why not say it again....The opportunity to travel to neighbouring SE Asian countries, using Phuket as a base, is one of the fantastic things about cruising here. Travel is incredibly inexpensive for fares, accommodation and food.

January 2007 - Surin and Similan Islands, Best and clearest snorkelling and Diving in Thailand.

We tried to go to the Surins in April last year. Rounded the southern tip of Phuket, only to be met by a large rolling swell and a flotilla of yachts abandoning the anchorages of the west coast and the Andaman Sea. We figured we’d left our run too late, turned around and determined to go early 2007 – before the south west swells began.

So on 2 January this year, we cruised to Rawai (a beach on the south side of Phuket island – about 5 nm from Ao Chalong), and hopped our way up the west coast of Phuket and the mainland until we got to Thap Lamu.

Thap Lamu is the site of a Thai naval base on a large protected estuary, a little way south of the Thai Burma border and abeam of the Surin islands to our west. With nor’easters predominant at that time of year, this coastal run is easy and comfortable. (On a yacht it would be a nice off shore wind sail). Thap Lamu township is a grubby little place but has some vegetables and fruit available, a few groceries and, sometimes, some bread or frozen chicken, so is OK only as a final top up of fresh stuff.

In tourist-packed Thailand, the Surin Islands are special – not just because of their gorgeous coral reefs and white sand beaches, but also because few boats go there. We had most of the anchorages completely to ourselves most of the time – an unbelievable situation in Thailand where longtails rule! Despite the quiet, there are thatched restaurants ashore –this is Thailand after all – but here they are run by the National Parks. (Like every third person in Thailand, Thai National Park officials also want to run their own restaurants, it seems.)

We suspect that each national park in Thailand is run more or less independently as a small business – they are all so different from each other.  And all charge different prices. The official rate for foreigners (10 times that for Thais) is 400B (about $17) per day per person plus B200 for the boat. But no national park actually charges this. At Surin the deal when we were there was B1,000 for both of us and the boat for  “a week” (or how ever long you stayed).

Beach entrance to the park.

Koh Surin has two pretty national park campsites with bungalows with million dollar views. The originals were wiped out by the Tsunami so these are new and elevated.

The coral is very varied from huge drifts of pastel-coloured “Australian wildflowers” in one bay, to small walls of fans, clams, “tea roses” and soft corals in others. We encountered turtles under water for the first time and found a moray, scorpionfish and lots of smallish coral trout. (Like everywhere else marine in Thailand, these national parks are fair game for fishermen – although not as blatantly, as rangers seem to actually patrol here.) It’s definitely the best snorkelling we’ve had since Australia.

Clear water at the Surins.

We also encountered our first Thai Sea Gypsy (Moken), one of a community who live on one of the Surin Islands. The Moken were said to have avoided the tsunami because their native culture “knowledge” recognised the signs and they all went to higher ground. Our sea gypsy visitor deserved an academy award as he mimed being cold (and other things he wanted.) But it was great for us to be able to give him something useful while at the same time ridding ourselves of warm clothes we ain’t gonna use for a long time.

Sea Gypsy

As we traveled south towards the Similans we stopped at Koh Tachai where lots of dive boats were jockeying for moorings. Apparently the attraction was large black Manta rays, though we didn’t manage to see any in the fifteen minutes we were there(!)

The Similan Islands are seemingly made up of piles of boulders backed by jungle and fringed with white sand. The anchorages are rolly as…..and deep. If all the other boats beat you to the moorings you won't be a happy camper. But it is a lovely place.

Small southern bay at Koh Bon at top of Similan Islands. Clear water, snorkelling with turtles, kayaking around the corner.

Not long after we got back to Ao Chalong, we decided we had to do something about our overdue haulout. We've always slipped at least every twelve months, mainly because Lifeline is timber and now, especially, as antifouling seems to have a shorter life here..

February 2007 - Haulout

Because we knew PSS at Satun – knew their work, trusted them, liked the price – we decided we would make a special trip down to slip. (Satun is in southern Thailand, not far from Langkawi). Naturally we cruised along the way. And this time we stayed in a hotel in town with a hired motorbike and had the slipway do the work. Luxury!

March 2007 - Philip in Australia, Me in Laos

About six months before, we'd booked an incredibly cheap flight to Australia from Phuket so Philip could spend two weeks driving the east coast to go to the skin specialist, see the accountant, visit friends and family and put things in our shed. Meanwhile, I was supposed to earn my keep by taking back and varnishing the inside woodwork.

But at the last moment I had an offer I couldn't refuse: travelling with Kit to Laos.

This was my third trip to Laos in a year. Philip and I did a quick flit to Vientiane as a visa run during our drive along the Mekong last year.

Then in September – during the wet season - my sister met me in Bangkok and we took the train north via Ayutthaya to Khon Kaen, and bus to Nong Khai and Vientiane. That was my first introduction to the great bus ride from Vientiane to Luang Prabang. The steep mountain scenery, its thatched villages perched precariously over the edge of the road and shrouded in mist, had us jumping from one side of the bus to the other taking photos.

Looking back to the road just travelled (September 2006).

This time, though, it was the dry season. Instead of mist and vertiginous green mountains, burning off had produced dusty, charcoaled slopes and smoky polluted skies for the whole journey.

But we did discover Vang Vieng. Halfway between Vientiane and Luang Prabang it’s a kind of backpackers’ staging post. A one street town coated in dust but stunningly located amongst Karst mountains by the Mekong. Have a look at these water buffaloes and the scene from our riverfront resort (the Thavisouk – air conditioned bungalows $12 -15US a night).

The view from the restaurant deck of Thavisouk resort.

Just as it had been when I was there with my sister, Luang Prabang sat quietly and well groomed alongside the muddy Mekong. An oasis of Europeania but with jungle and bougainvilleas.

Main Street, Luang Prabang.

Side street, Luang Prabang.

Kit and I rode bikes around the town, visited the old palace, went to a traditional dance performance in the museum grounds and ate Mekong seaweed.

Mekong seaweed is dried in sheets like paper, covered in sesame seeds, dried garlic, etc. It is then deep fried for a fraction of a second and served as a snack with beer. There’s nothing like it – and it’s delicious! And, as far as I can tell, the only place they sell it is Luang Prabang. (I brought home a supply from the markets.)

Performance of Laotian "Ramayana".

While I was swanning around in Laos, Philip was in Oz driving like a mad thing between Sydney, Coffs Harbour, Brisbane, Canberra and back to Sydney.

Travelling seemed to help us decide that, yes, we did want to cruise this year. For three months we’d been hum’ing and ha’ing about whether we’d go to the Philippines in 2007 as we’d been planning or put it off for another year and keep on enjoying Thailand. But, suddenly, we woke up one morning with the clear feeling that we didn’t want to spend another wet season at Ao Chalong. So we made a fast getaway.

April 2007

Rebak marina at Langkawi still had special rates of R30 ($10-$12) a day so we made a detour for a week to do some work. I still had the interior varnishing that I’d put off and Philip wanted to paint the decks, cabin roof, change oil etc. Rebak is terrific for this as it is dead still and has a wonderful lagoon-like pool to cool off in at knock off time. The wi-fi at the boat or in their magnificent sala bar is pretty good too. And of course we could run our wonderful window air conditioner.

The marina is part of one of the most beautiful resort developments I have seen, with Malay mansion-style 2 storey stone and timber chalets (all empty) in beautiful gardens. Because it is at an island a little way from Langkawi, some yachties regard it as a bit isolated, but they do have a free ferry so boaties can meet the travelling veggie man on Langkawi island on Fridays. (The whole resort and marina was destroyed in the tsunami and is only in the last 6 months getting back on its feet.)

Every afternoon the boaties meet at the pool at beer o’clock before ambling off for dinner at the “Hard Dock Cafe” (down at the marina’s hardstand area). Here you can order from a special menu – the food is cheap but is cooked and brought down from the resort restaurant kitchen by uniformed waiters on bicycles.

Rebak marina resort pool.

Before heading south for Penang from Langkawi we did a little detour by ferry to Satun in Thailand for Songkhran (Thai new year.).

April - May 2007. Penang

We had three weeks based in Penang – this time at the Tanjong City marina instead of the Junk anchorage. We knew we had some jobs to do this year and so decided to spend a lot of the hot and steamy transition season of April and May in marinas enjoying having an air conditioner. (Plus Tanjong City had a special of R28 per night, so who were we to pass that up?) I spent my time cleaning off the computers and re-loading the operating systems and software, while Philip got to repair a leak in the exhaust, replace a battery and hump drums of grease and oil for future jobs. Philip would do more painting, cleaning and major engine maintenance at Tioman Island marina.

This time in Penang we rented a car and took off with Phil and Margaret from Argos for some of the Hill Stations of Malaysia. The British in Malaya must have been quite keen to escape the heat: they managed to conquer impenetrable jungle on incredible slopes to site stone houses, golf courses and tea plantations up in the cool of the mountains. No need for air conditioning here – the temperatures hover around the low 20s (C). One place we stayed even had an open fireplace!

We sampled the hill stations of Cameron Highlands (tea plantations and nurseries) and Fraser’s Hill (quieter and with fog and pine trees). And still managed to see a lot more of Malaysia. It’s amazing how far you can get in a car.

Cameron Highlands tea plantations.

Frasers Hill - mist and pine trees.

Our tour took us to the east side of Malaysia to Kota Bahru and then down the coast via Kuala Terangganu and Kuantan before crossing back to the west coast. We were a little unsure of what to expect in this strongly fundamentalist Islamic neck of the woods. These states are “dry”, karaoke is not allowed and apparently men and women have to line up in separate checkouts at the supermarket. I had also read in an article in a Malaysian newspaper that if you are eating in a restaurant when the call to prayer time comes, the food is covered up and you are sent outside for 15 minutes until it finishes.

Yet, apart from drinking lime juice instead of beer when we were out, we saw no evidence of any of this. Women looked just like they do everywhere else we’ve been in Malaysia – ie covered head to toe in long polyester silk floral sarongs and tunics with contrasting head scarves.

But while we were in Kuala Terangganu a Chinese doctor we met opened our eyes to a fascinating phenomenon that must be happening in Chinatowns the world over – birds’ nest farming.

Throughout SE Asia we’ve seen cliffs and caves draped with rickety bamboo poles hundreds of feet in the air to allow men to reach the swift’s nests. We’ve heard “birds nests” are highly prized by the Chinese – not just for soup but for medicinal properties. We assumed from guards’ houses nearby that they must be valuable. In Thailand we have also seen 2 – 3 storey concrete bunkers with small holes, purpose-built to provide nesting places and broadcasting chirruping to attract the birds.

What we hadn’t realised until our visit to Kuala Terangganu’s Chinatown was that many of the old shophouses, while hosting businesses at street level, were decrepit above. Unpainted and with shutters askew, there would be a few openings. And swift were flying in and out, swirling around in the air nearby. Even if we had noticed it before we would have assumed it was a natural phenomenon – a decrepit building colonised by birds.

But – surprise! Surprise! – it turns out that birds nests are worth R5,000/kg (about $A2,000). Shophouse owners can earn more money with birds than by letting out their upstairs premises. And the birds don’t care if the place is dilapidated. Although probably against city health regulations, what no-one knows, no-one cares about.

Sultan's palace, Kuala Kangsar, Perak.

We left Penang on the 8th of May after a three week stay that flashed by. Poor old Tanjong City marina. They must scratch their heads. Why did hardly any of the rally from Australia come there last year and why have they been empty for months yet boats are coming here now? The price is certainly part of it, but Penang is suddenly on the cruisers' map primarily because long term Thailand stayers now have to leave the country each 6 months to get a tourist visa. Penang is the closest consulate where you can conveniently go on your boat.

Most of the rally didn’t go there last year because word got around (as it is wont to do via radio scheds and other yachtie gossip) that the marina is rolly and “several boats suffered damage” (broken cleats). Both true. But there is always the Junk anchorage. Such a shame to miss Penang.

One of the Baba Nonya houses in Penang.

14 May 2007

It’s five o’clock. The sky overhead is dark. The sea green grey. The temperature has dropped to a cool 29 degrees C. We are just about to be struck with rain and wind from this afternoon’s thunderstorm in the Malacca Straits. (This picture is blurry, but it gives you an idea of the afternoon storms here. They're good ones - plenty of thunder and lightening too.)

Because they were halfway between India and China, and Europe and the Spice Islands of eastern Indonesia, the Malacca Straits used to be one of the world’s most important trading routes. Sailing ships would arrive at the Malacca Straits on one monsoon and offload their cargo at one of the trading cities. From there it would be elephanted across the Thai/Malayian peninsula to huge Chinese junks waiting in the South China Sea. The sailing ships would remain in the Straits waiting for the following monsoon which would blow them home.

When we learnt about the European explorers at school, it was wanting a piece of the SE Asian spice trade action that spurred them on. Now here we are, where it was all happening. After the 1500s Portugal, Holland and Britain took turns at ruling the Straits. But by the 1800s Britain had Penang, Malacca and Singapore. Romantic names like Francis Light, Raffles and the British East India Company crop up all over the place.

Tomorrow we should be in Johor Bahru, ending our trip down the Malacca Straits. I can’t say I’ll be sorry to have a couple of days off. The week since we left Penang has been full of 10 – 12  hour days, where, a lot of the time, we’ve been lucky to get to 5 knots. (And, rarely, we’ve rocketed at over 8.) To the west of us hundreds of ships charge up and down the Straits while our course is strewn with nets, fishing boats and logs.

Because we’ve wanted to travel in daylight to avoid the obstacles, we seem to have had contrary tidal currents most of the time we’ve been travelling.

To estimate tide times and heights we use a computer-based program into which we enter our current latitude and longitude to find the closest tide port. This shows quite different times for highs and lows at stations only 60nm apart, making it difficult to judge when we are likely to have an ebbing or flooding current and what direction each flows. Luckily the wind – mostly on the nose - is very light, so at least we don’t have pitching and spray to contend with.

We suspect we’ve probably also got a bit of growth on the prop. – these SE Asian barnacles are very adept at what they do. But didn’t fancy going over the side to scrape it in the murky Straits waters. Philip will have a go at it once we reach Tioman Island on the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, before we cross the South China Sea for Borneo.

Even though we’re making distance, it won’t feel like we’re on our Big Journey until we start our crossing of the South China Sea to Tanjung Datu in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

19 May 2007

For the past few days we’ve been taking it easy in Johor Bahru, capital of the southern peninsula Malaysia state of Johor on the Johor Straits which separate Malaysia from Singapore to the south.

Flower sellers outside Hindu temple Johor Bahru.

We’re anchored at Danga Bay, in a river just off the Johor Straits to the west of “The Causeway”. (The causeway is a roadbridge across the Johor Straits between Singapore and Malaysia. Because it is at sea level, boats can’t get from the western end of the straits to the eastern end other than by going south and around the island of Singapore.) Danga Bay is less than 5kms out of the centre of Johor Bahru and within walking distance of the city’s two tourist attractions: the Royal Museum and the Mosque. It also has a small secure dock where you can tie your dinghy or get water and fuel. Shops are close and the buses run literally every five minutes or less. What more could a cruiser want?

Apparently the first Sultan of Johor set up here after the Portuguese booted him out of Malacca. He was a force to be reckoned with. There were quite a few sultans knocking around in those days and pirating each others’ ships (and those of the Europeans) was a legitimate, if dastardly, way to build their empires. This guy built a good one – if his family wealth is anything to go by.

We checked it out closely at the Royal Museum. Nine of the thirteen Malay states still have their own sultans, who, every five years, choose a king of Malaysia from amongst themselves. And they still live in palaces – though usually new ones. The old ones get turned into museums. We’ve seen a few of these in Malaysia, now. But this one in JB is the best.

The sultan who built it was an Anglophile, apparently. So it exudes late nineteenth century exotic oriental opulence but with British overtones… Fifty foot (?) ceilings with gold ceiling fans – that sort of thing. The hunting trophy room is full of elephants’ tusks, stuffed tigers, elephants’ foot wastepaper baskets and rhinoceros tusk ink stands. But the stand-out, in a relatively small lounging room, is the French cut-crystal dining suite. (I want to know how they upholstered the crystal chairs in blue velvet.)

Trinket in a small room JB museum.

Yesterday we did a circuit across the bridge to Singapore for the day and back to Johor via the causeway. All by bus, for the princely sum of $A2 each way. And what an incredible experience it was.

We were pretty impressed in the morning when we were only two of about a dozen people hurrying off the bus to clear out of Malaysia; meeting the bus outside; crossing the bridge; stepping off the bus to clear into Singapore and back on again for the fast drive into town. The immigration and customs facilities for cars, trucks and buses on both sides of the border are set up like airports, with special lanes for each and corridors for people to move between them. It was clear they expect a lot of people at times by the look of the dozens of stainless steel queue dividers.

But we were absolutely gobsmacked at peak hour on our way home when we traveled with thousands of others (from the number of queues at Immigration we estimated 4,000 people at once) who commute every day to work in Singapore and back home to Johor. Pack into the bus, queue at Singapore exit, queue for another bus, ride across the causeway, off the bus and through Malaysian Immigration. Fortunately for Malaysians, they don’t have to get their ID cards stamped at the Malaysian end. But it still takes a couple of hours from go to whoa.

The Malaysian government has started building and negotiating with Singapore an “International Development Zone” where overseas companies (eg Singaporean ones) can enjoy lots of business privileges as well as cheaper Malaysian labour, by setting up in Johor. That should make life easier for lots of Johorians who maybe then won’t have to cross the border to Singapore each day.

After 2 years, we have finally scraped the last dregs from our last jar of Vegemite. We’re not world champion Vegemite eaters. Yet the fact that we have run out makes me vaguely anxious - Vegemite is the only food known to man that we have not yet seen available anywhere in our travels!

21 May 2007

We have now cleared the busiest part of the Singapore Straits and by nightfall will have achieved a new milestone – anchoring on the east coast of peninsular Malaysia (touch wood). Luckily we’ve had favourable current most of the way from our anchorage at the bottom of the Johor Straits, giving us average speeds of around 8 knots (9.3 our top.)

The extra speed from the current is good but this morning it was against the wind so we had current-driven waves (steep and close together) which, combined with the 2m washes from all the ships produced some pretty confused seas.

Of course this just adds to the fun of ship dodging. We have had our radar on all day to help determine whether ships are moving, if so, in what direction and whether they are on a collision course in relation to our course. You have to watch carefully because they may only alter course a couple of degrees

The quick and dirty method is to look and see if the background is moving. Background moving back – they will pass in front of you; background moving forward – they will pass behind you. Background not moving at all – oops…Better change tack.

And you can’t assume because they are a big ship they behave differently from us. We have had them cruise up close and, when we look through binoculars, the captain and officers are on the bridge ogling us.

Everything seems busy in this neck of the woods – even the electronic charts! They are opaque with markings, – depths in black obscuring the water they measure, islands in beige, shipping lanes in pink and a hell of a lot of blue contour lines. We try to stay out of the shipping lanes but in places it is impossible where there are turns into harbours in the newly reclaimed land.

Constant around Singapore is the radio argy-bargy between ships in all the accents in the world as they manoeuvre.

23 May 2007 - Tioman Island

The steep pinnacles of Tioman Island rise 850m straight out of the sea. Green and shrouded in mist. Just like “Bali Hai”, in fact. Whoops! Tioman is where they filmed the old “South Pacific” in the 1950s(?). It is still reputed to be unspoiled, with super clear water for diving. (Perfect for washing that man right outa your hair...)

Teluk Tekek/Kampong Tekek
A week before we got there, a friend ahead of us had phoned. “You won’t believe the water in the marina. You can see the bottom”. He was right about that. And you won’t believe it either unless I show you a picture. It’s the only marina we’ve been in where you feel like having a swim.

Despite the fact that Tioman is written up in “lonely Planet” as almost exclusively tourist for the last twenty years, Tekek reminded us more of islands in Indonesia than many places in Malaysia with its low key, mostly unadorned village and no cars. We found it delightful.

Two nights running we went to the little restaurant that only had 3 dishes and we ate the same three – roti with a superb chicken curry dip, Kampong fried rice with an egg on top (featuring dried ikan bilis) and fresh salad drizzled with mayonnaise. As you might guess, Kampong Tekek is very used to seeing westerners and I don’t think they would have let us off the mayo salad no matter what. (As it happened, it was delicious)

In a similar but different way, Teluk Salang, was low key. This time a little like Koh Lanta in Thailand with a Swiss Family Robinson Bar and thatched cafes on the beach and bungalows. Yet while I think Lanta is a product of the western backpacker market, Salang seemed to be populated with Malay families, groups sporting “Tioman 2007” shirts and men in long white tunics and white flat skull caps (do imams have conferences?).

Did I mention the clear water? I snorkelled towards the beach from our mooring and was rewarded with not bad coral and fish. Later when we snorkelled around the nearby island in very clear water, we managed to see half a dozen blue bison-like humpheaded wrasse and a 5’ long shark.

30 May 2007 - BORNEO HERE WE COME!

While The South China Sea conjures images of typhoons and pirates, Borneo is “Boys’ Own Adventure”, gliding along slow greasy rivers cut through dark, untamed, jungle. (Though, from what we’ve seen of Malaysia, there’ll probably be an abandoned Mediterranean style resort to greet us when we arrive – more Rapunzel than Conrad).

This morning at 7.25am we set off for Borneo from Pulau Aur, an island near Tioman. Tanjong Datu in Sarawak (308nm) is to be our first landfall.

So far (68nm and 10 hours into the trip), it’s been calm, with the (less than 10kn) breeze on our beam strong enough to cool us but not enough to create those pesky waves to roll us. I can take another 40 hours of this.....Philip has mostly been on the day shift while I have done a bit of cooking, a bit of reading, writing up the log and eating. I’ve only been on watch the couple of hours he had a rest.

We had always planned that when we crossed to Borneo we would cruise via the Anambas Islands. These belong to Indonesia and are strewn across the South China Sea between Malaysia and Borneo at very convenient distances, making day tripping feasible. Not only that, but, word is, they are very beautiful and unspoiled.

The problem is, they have a shocking reputation for piracy...by the officials it seems. We weren't about to let that stop us. Official pirates can only get you if you arrive without correct papers, forms and approvals etc. So we determined to get everything we needed. We knew about the CAIT and the two month visa and knew how to do it all by email. Our problem was finding somewhere to clear in and out - the Indonesian government has apparently decided that this must be done (in AND out) from Nongsa Point south of Singapore. That works for Singapore boats going for a cruise to Anambas and back to Singapore, but it didn't work for us.

Frustratingly, at Tioman Island the day before we set off, we found out from a Singapore boat, the right contacts in the Anambas to smoothe our way. Unfortunately we would still have required a CAIT, which, by that time, it was too late to get. We will follow up to maybe cruise there on the way back. I'm sure a lot of yachts would go there if it were easy. (The Anambas people might also be able to deal with the assertions on www.noonsite,com, currently unchallenged, that the Anambas Islands are full of pirates and yachts shouldn't go there.) If we find out what to do, I'll stick it in the SE Asia Resources section of this website.

1 June 2007 - Tanjung Datu, Sarawak (Malaysian Borneo).

After a perfect, calm trip of 45 hours, we made landfall at dawn. The South China Sea was like a swimming pool a lot of the time. So we stopped and had a swim in it and found that it was also very clear, the rays of the sun making shafts of chrome blue in the deeper blue of the water.

A celebratory whiskey to quell the exhilaration and off to bed for a proper, long, uninterrupted sleep...

Crossing the South China Sea

3 June 2007 - Pulau Talang Talang, Sarawak.

I’m sitting on the aft deck in the cool of the morning. The air is clear and the full moon is still visible high in the western sky. The clouds still have that tinge of pink from the sunrise. From a low line parallel with the horizon they grow tall narrow cumulus columns. As I look towards Tanjong Datu there is a whole row of them poking their heads above the hill line.

Every few minutes we hear that big gulp of air that turtles take before they dive. Or a flipper slapping the surface as a couple of them mate. We are anchored at a small island, blanketed in jungle, a white sand spit at one end. Ashore is a turtle hatchery. This is our first image of Sarawak in Borneo.

8 June 2007 - Santubong and Kuching

Since the construction of a flood mitigation barrage and bridge, yachts with tall masts can no longer get up the Sarawak River to anchor in front of Kuching city as in days of old. So Santubong, 25 kms from town, on a pretty estuary flanked by Mt Santubong, 800m tall, is now the preferred anchorage. A local squire kindly allows yachts to tie their dinghies to his private marina and also to fill jerrycans of water.

Gunung Santubong

Nearby Damai is rapidly developing as a beach resort area, complete with a "cultural village" showcasing the traditional cultures and houses of the main ethnic tribes of Sarawak. Minibuses regularly ply the route between the area and the centre of Kuching.

200m closer to the river mouth, fronting a small beach, is Santubong village itself. While the narrow paved roads in the village are built up, the houses stand on stilts over the tidal swamp/mangrove land. Raised walkways meander between them. Santubong is a Malay kampong, traditionally relying on fishing, though nowadays the closeby resorts at Damai seem to provide work in hospitality for a lot of the locals.

In the few days since we have been anchored here we have managed to clear in (a half day excursion and circus) as well as visit Kuching several times. Yesterday was spent at the wonderful old Sarawak museum, which, despite renovation, has managed to retain the charm of museums of old. I'm talking about old glass cases chock-a-block with stuffed animals and birds, native baskets and weaving, spears and traditional implements and old photos. We were particularly fascinated by the "head flattening" tool, complete with model baby. It deserves its reputation as one of the best museums in SE Asia.

Still to come are visits to the orangutan sanctuary, Gading National Park to see a Rafflesia flower, we hope, and hornbills.

Kuching is probably the loveliest SE Asian city we have seen so far. With about 600,000 people, it manages to combine oriental ambience, history (the white rajahs), a beautiful river setting and interesting ethnic diversity with clean, modern facilities. It seems bustling too. I think one or two tourists might have discovered how much to see and do there is.

How you get across the river in Kuching city

[As an aside, Borneo has suddenly become a SW monsoon cruising destination for a lot of the yachts in Thailand because Chagos has become too expensive. It's amazing the ramifications one administrative decision can have on things - and how far the ripples can spread. From 2007 onwards the British administrators of uninhabited Chagos (a reef/island paradise in the Indian Ocean apparently) will charge yachties going there a hefty monthly fee. Suddenly 20 or so yachts have decided to go to Borneo instead. Suddenly, the little kampong of Santubong in Sarawak has 6 yachts parked in front of it with more to come. Suddenly there are foreigners wandering through the village, eating mee goreng on their front verandahs which serve as village restaurants, and asking where they can get water/hire cars/have washing done/get fuel etc. Who knows, they may be the cause of a mini economic upswing in Santubong village. ]

On one of our visits to Kuching we realised that there is a fleet of large fishing boats that manage to get up the river. On further enquiry we found that the barrage is a kind of lock - not impassable - and the bridge has enough height for us. We may take Lifeline uptown yet.

This fish farm in the Santubong River grows reef fish: Red Snapper, Grouper and Barramundi.

26 June 2007 - More About Kuching and Santubong

After 3 weeks anchored at Santubong, with 5 days of car hire under our belts, we've had enough time to form a few impressions of Kuching and surrounds.

Kuching seems to be a planned city but with naturally beautiful location, life and history. A Sarawakian Brisbane with tribal overtones. Here are some photos:

Part of the waterfront, a long, treed esplanade. Rajah Brooke's palace opposite. / Carpenter Street and Padungan Road are the main Chinese streets.

In Kuching, the equivalent of the Thai motorbike as family transport is the micro car. And if you really want to be anonymous you drive a gold, 650cc Perodua Kancil. At 60kph you're really fanging.

In our gold, 850cc (sporty model) Kancil (R60/day), we managed to drive through jungle, visit a couple of Bidayuh longhouses, the Malay-Indonesian border market (twice!), the Semenggoh orangutan rehabilitation centre, the coast to Tanjung Datu, where we'd anchored and plenty of shops and stalls selling "puah kembu" locally inspired (but made in Indonesia?) warp-dyed cloths, carvings, brass earring weights, baskets and rattan and bamboo bracelets.

These lamps at the Serikin town (Malaysia-Indonesia) border market are actually made in Java. Very cheap./Orangutan at Seminggoh N. P. 20kms from Kuching.

The Cultural village at Damai is great. In a rainforest setting they have transported and sited 6 different traditional ethnic homes: Bidayuh, Iban, Melanau and Orang Ulu longhouses, a Chinese farmhouse from the early 20th century and a Malay house. Craftspeople live there and carry out traditional weaving, carving, small farming and sago processing etc. The village also provides a show of traditional dancing and blowpipe demonstrations. We spent a whole day there. It's obviously for tourists but not "touristy" (OK it is touristy but not tacky) and they have an ongoing training program to ensure the cultural activities of the various tribes are maintained.

As part of the cultural village show, an Iban warrior demonstrates his skill with a blowpipe - firing darts over the heads of the audience to burst balloons at the back of the theatre. Here he's doing a traditional dance. (Incidentally, the blowpipes are not bamboo but wood, painstakingly hollowed out and smoothed using a clever manual drilling system.)

Sarawak's population is approximately a third Iban (the Borneo headhunters of old), a third Chinese (many are descended from Foochow brought in by the White Rajahs in the late 1800's to get farming going) and another third, Malay. (There are about 10 percent from other tribes too, all traditionally longhouse dwellers, except the nomadic Penan...)

What's All the Fuss about Longhouses?

I first remember hearing about longhouses in the writings of some of the 1930's+?? western anthropologists studying headhunters in Borneo. They were fascinated by the concept of whole villages living under one roof. A longhouse is really like a row of terraces but connected by a wide enclosed/covered verandah running the entire length. Each family has a large room with a door onto the verandah. When a son or daughter gets married and starts a family, they add a new room on the end of the longhouse and extend the verandah.

At this Bidayuh longhouse the verandah is covered but not enclosed.

Before being allowed to get married, though, men had to have taken at least one head to prove their bravery etc and women had to be able to weave a beautiful and complicated puah kembu cloth. (It's a bit more complicated than this and varied from group to group, but that's the gist.)

These days, many people still live in longhouse communities, fishing and rice farming (and going out to work at the logging operations), but the young people particularly are starting to be attracted to the cities. Longhouses are no longer built of bamboo, wood and thatch but are instead made of wood and corrugated iron.

Read any tourist brochure or Lonely Planet and you will see that "the highlight" of any trip to Sarawak is a visit to a longhouse. This is not because of the architecture, but because of the legendary hospitality of people who live in them. There are any number of tour outfits who will take you for a visit - we have been to a couple of longhouses ourselves. But the real experience is only to be had if you get an invitation. Only then can you interact with the people in their own environment, see the real ways they live and play......apparently.

As for "hospitality" or "welcomingness", we have been lucky enough to experience this nearly everywhere we've travelled. Yet, somehow, the Sarawakians seem to have been able to ramp this up a few notches...extraordinary.


Haven't been able to see a Rhinoceros Hornbill (Sarawak's mascot) yet. Or a Rafflesia flower (we were a month too early for one at Gading NP)

I'm now sitting on the top floor of the magnificent Sarawak state library, as a temporary member, using the wifi. I've spent hours here looking at books and photos of crafts and people. But now I have to get down to my work of getting this website into shape. (A couple of the photos are not on this computer or my USB stick so they aren't going to show up until I save them properly - probably not until Miri in a few weeks time.)

We are about ready to leave Kuching so we have enough time to see the Batang Rajang before hightailing it to Miri to meet Tim. We have received our replacement globe for our LED anchor light (Lunaled 27 - fantastic product - have a look at their website at www.lunatronic.net) and bought a new laptop to replace (finally) our PC which played up one time too many. We love Kuching - a very impressive and liveable small city.

Our Malay Wedding

I'll leave you with a couple of pictures of our Malay wedding. We were wandering through Santubong village one morning and noticed quite a few people dressed up, before we came to a marquee set up on the road in front of a house. A wedding was in progress. The participants and hosts kindly insisted that we stay a while and, whilst there, we were married! To do this we sat together on a specially decorated sofa on a dais while two ladies sprinkled us with petals and daubed our foreheads and the back of our hands with a white creamy mixture.

The men ate outside under the marquee, while the women sat inside the house. After our marriage, the women had their meal under the marquee.

The real bridal couple chose western rather than traditional wedding attire.

To be continued......

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