July 16, 2014, Raffles Marina, Singapore
So here we are, back in Singapore after eight months away from this thriving city. By this time tomorrow morning we’ll be pointing our bow toward Indonesia’s Sunda Strait. The Strait will mark our “exit” from exotic, colorful, boisterous, and sometimes frustrating but always mesmerizing Southeast Asia. From there we sail across the Indian Ocean to South Africa.
This past year has been one of contrasts. On the sailing front we didn’t make a lot of headway. The extent of our travels with Shango involved a loop up the Strait of Malacca from Singapore, through Malaysia to Thailand and back down to Singapore. On the experience front however, we traveled far.
January and February of 2014 found us exploring Southeast Asia by land (see previous log). We spent the month of March sailing our way back south to Johor, Malaysia from Phuket, Thailand. April brought us back to Raja Ampat (by air) for a farewell visit to our heaven-sent friends and the spectacular diving at Papua Paradise. Chris and Leah, the Resort Managers, were embarking on a sailing adventure of their own and it was great to be able to reconnect before we all headed off toward new horizons.
May and June found us making one last land trip, this one, an amazing and most enlightening visit to India and Bhutan.
Despite the brutal summer heat we managed to explore Delhi’s museums and landmarks, though with frequent recuperative dashes back to Basera, our wonderful guesthouse refuge. Sun poisoning and Delhi Belly couldn’t keep us from our explorations. Despite Roger’s near asthmatic response to the spice market of Old Delhi and Amy having eyes swollen shut from the 115 degree heat, your trusty sailors soldiered on.
At our guesthouse we enjoyed a wonderful evening of Guzel music accompanied by harmonium and tabla with vocals provided by one of our host’s friends. Dau, our favorite taxi driver took us to visit his Sikh temple which was an experience not to be missed. According to Dau you can find a potato and a Sikh anywhere you go in the world. Who knew? We watched the swearing in of India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, while seated at the bar of the British Colonial relic, the Imperial Hotel. Amusingly the power went out mid-swearing in. It was Very India.
Last but not least we made a pilgrimage to the Taj Mahal. Despite our fears that this “wonder of the world” would be over-rated and over-run by tourists we were overcome by its beauty. As we approached through the west gate, the sight of the Taj Mahal was stunning as it appeared to float above the invisible horizon, shimmering in the heat, with no landscape to interfere with its silhouette. It took our breath away. That one view was worth the visit.
After fourteen blisteringly hot days in Delhi we were transported by the very able pilots of Druk Air to Bhutan, the Land of the Thunder Dragon. To land at the only international airport in Bhutan takes very fair weather and “good local knowledge” as we sailors would say. The Bhutanese would say it requires “auspicious conditions”. They should know.
The Himalayan Nation of Bhutan is bordered by India on three sides and by China (Tibet) on it’s forth. The country, which measures its success by “Gross National Happiness”, is the size of Switzerland with almost no infrastructure. It has a population of 700,000 people, almost all of whom are Buddhists. We had two sources of inspiration for this trip. The more recent was through a couple we met on a dive trip in Komodo who spoke glowingly of their previous stop. An earlier, though lingering inspiration was an exhibit of Bhutanese textiles at the Peabody–Essex Museum in Salem, MA. years ago which Amy attended. It seemed to be a place of mystery with untold wisdom which few seemed to visit. Add to that the spectacularly temperate climate and we were sold.
Unlike Nepal you can’t just show up at the border and waltz right in. Oooh no. This was going to be a bit more time/money consuming. We’re sailors though, we can handle the paperwork, yes? Well, yes, and patience is a virtue. After all was said and done and we were firmly ensconced in the hills outside of Paro at the end of our first day it all seemed worthwhile.
Naturally, from there we were enlightened to the vagaries of Bhutan travel. Our flight to Bumthang (in central Bhutan) on day two was cancelled due to less than auspicious weather. Too bad. Unfortunately it was the last flight till the end of monsoon season two months hence. Perhaps we can convey you by van instead? Eleven hours later, after driving in the pitch dark on the one and a half lane national highway (occasionally paved) in a misty rain, passing and being passed by highly decorated/blinking Indian trucks, we arrived, at one thirty a.m. in Trongsa, only three hours short of our cancelled twenty-five minute flight’s destination. So it went. We were, thanks to the good work of our tour company, Windhorse, able to make it to Bumthang for the beginning of our three day trek.
The Owl Trek was three days of pure bliss. We wore long sleeves, we got cold, the views were spectacular and we didn’t suffer from altitude sickness despite having arrived from 0 feet above sea level before ascending to 4200 meters. We were taken care of by two off season yak herders (our lunch packer and our cook), an 80 year old horse driver and his six horses, and our trusty Windhorse guide, the ebullient Yeshi. The trek ended with a downhill day that took us to Tharpaling Monastery, a beautiful ending to our walk.
Another week of Buddhist monasteries & temples, ara barley wine, fluttering prayer flags, spinning prayer wheels and amazingly friendly people rounded out our trip. With a sense of gratefulness and a desire to return we boarded the Druk Air flight to Singapore. As we flew south beyond Paro we watched as the silhouette of the eastern Himalayas faded into the distance. It was finally time to return to Shango and bid farewell to Southeast Asia.
February 2014 Logs
Tuesday, February 18, 2014, Yacht Haven, Phuket, Thailand
For those of you who are along just for the sailing narratives feel free to close now and wait for later installments. We promise that your time is coming. Soon we’ll be crossing two oceans in quick succession but for now all you get is…
A land travel narrative.
Southeast Asia conjures up many different visions. For some it’s the multitude of exotic cultures and religions, for others it’s the amazing food. The Vietnam War still causes painful memories for many and the politics of the region still perplex. We wanted to explore at least a bit of Southeast Asia to see if we could bring some clarity to our hazy understanding of the region.
Sailors are rather spoiled. We travel the world with everything we need in our floating “homes” As a by-product of our little land adventure we were going to discover whether we had any aptitude for backpacking.
Monday, January 6th – Monday, January 13th, Thailand
Our first stop after leaving Shango in Phuket was Bangkok. The capitol of Thailand is known for its Wats (temples), it’s Palace, its food, its gridlock and more recently, its political unrest. We made our way into the city with a strangely giggly taxi driver who deposited us at the Asadang B&B in the Ratanakosin neighborhood. Our guesthouse was nestled between two Khlongs (tiny canals) and was within spitting distance (sorry) of some great street food.
We started the eating portion of our tour shortly after our arrival with a stop at a local restaurant called Chote Chitr. The dinner’s highlight was the Banana Flower Spicy Salad. The owner’s two small dogs provided entertainment for our dining pleasure. We had planned only a few days in Bangkok before we headed to Northern Thailand. We immediately knew this was a miscalculation and decided to return to Bangkok on our way back. There’s just too much to see, especially when you are laid back travelers like we are.
With our commitment to return to Bangkok established the pressure was off. There was no need to rush to the tourist-mobbed Grand Palace or to Wat Pho or Wat Arun just yet.
Our first order of business was to visit my Aunt Malee. Aunt Malee was born and raised in Thailand but was whisked away by my Uncle John to live in the U.S. where she spent forty years. A decade after my Uncle’s death Malee returned to her homeland where she lives with her Thai family outside of Bangkok. Our partner in organizing this reunion was Mayuree, Malee’s wonderful niece. After a multi-modal odyssey across greater Bangkok with Mayuree we attained our goal out in the suburbs; a wonderful afternoon with Malee. Malee, my exotic Aunt who could make girl-sized silk suits, dry beef in the sun, turn plants into bonsai and tell my Uncle a thing or two was as feisty as always and very happy to be back in the warm climate of Thailand. We felt very fortunate to have been able to visit.
We were not hugely successful at talking ourselves into visiting the tourist highlights of Bangkok. We did spend a half a day at the National Museum touring with a terrific docent (the ONLY Thai docent). She was able to give us, among other interesting information, the highlights of Thai Buddhism which were quite helpful.
One evening we combined dinner at a nice local restaurant, Krua Apsorn, with a walk to Democracy Monument where we hoped to get a sense of the current unrest. The ongoing political demonstrations making news in Bangkok pit the “yellow shirts” against the “red shirts”. The yellow shirts feel the government is absurdly corrupt and ought to go. The red shirts say that the government was elected by a majority of the people so it should be allowed to stay. On the face of it you’d say that perhaps the red shirts are right but needless to say the devil is in the details which are too involved to lay out here. Suffice it to say finding a solution won’t be easy. Many Thais feel that when their present King, Rama IX, dies, any political stability left in the country will disappear. Although the King wields no real power he is beloved by the population and they pay close attention to his rare pronouncements.
After four days in Bangkok we headed north to Chiang Mai. We had hoped to take the overnight train but it was all booked up. Faced with a choice between a nine hour bus trip and a one hour plane flight we wimped out and flew.
I’m not sure what we were expecting from Chiang Mai, the fabled walled city in Northern Thailand, but what we found wasn’t something we fell in love with. Many people rave about Chiang Mai. We were never able to warm up to the place. Our primary complaint was that it was full of people like us. There were hordes of us wandering shoulder to shoulder through the streets which were lined with travel agencies, cheap hotels and smelly bars. The bar scene, it turns out, provided us with the highlight of our visit. The Wild Boar opens early and broadcasts sports all day long. One Sunday morning we found ourselves planted firmly in front of their televisions watching a New England Patriots football playoff game. It was Roger’s first opportunity to see a game this season and happily his team won. It was worth every bloody mary we had to quaff.
From Chiang Mai we boarded the most luxurious bus we have ever encountered to travel to Chiang Khong on the Thai – Laos border. This was the bus to beat all busses. In order to travel more comfortably you would have to fly first class in a large Boeing aircraft. Why the Thai – Laos border merits the “Green Bus” I don’t really know but we weren’t complaining.
For us, as for many, Chiang Khong was a brief stop. We anticipated one uneventful night before continuing on to Laos. This is basically what we got with one tiny twist. The very friendly Innkeeper at the Day Waterfront Hotel (very clean, highly recommended) was surprised to discover (while photocopying my passport) that I was from Vermont. The fact that I was their first guest from Vermont should not come as a huge surprise to anyone. What WAS surprising was that our fine Innkeeper had gone to college in Burlington, VT at the VERY SAME school as my Father. The world is a very small place.
Tuesday, January 14th – Wednesday, January 22nd, Laos
Our entry into Laos marks the beginning of more humble transport for your happy-go-lucky sailors. After a painless border crossing we boarded a local bus headed for Luang Namtha in the foothills of Northern Laos. I suspect that the average rural Laotian doesn’t travel much. We reached this conclusion on this first (of four) Laotian bus rides. Initially we didn’t notice the empty plastic bag hanging from the ceiling of the bus. This was probably because we were too busy climbing over the bags of rice which covered the aisle. With only about twenty seats there wasn’t a lot of room, even with everyone’s luggage and all the chickens up on the roof. After an hour or so many of the locals were hanging their heads out the windows to be sick. It was probably just as well the “motion sickness bags” were all gone from the ceiling dispenser. What would the passengers have done with the bags had they used them?? Despite the motion sickness epidemic the trip was not without its high points. The scenery was really quite nice with villages of thatch-roofed huts and lots of water buffalo. Our destination of Luang Namtha was an intermediate one with the town of Muang Sing being our most northerly stop. Our night in Luang Namtha was memorable only for our dinner entertainment. At the table next to ours at a local eatery a young couple from Berlin tried to engage the restaurant owner in a discussion about the communist government of Laos. The conversation was a non-starter but it was fun to listen to the Berliners making their best efforts.
One day and one local bus later we found ourselves in the small town of Muang Sing at the southern border of China. We had the name of a guesthouse eight kilometers north of town but hadn’t been able to contact them. We secured a tuk-tuk at the bus station and, along with an elderly woman carrying a large bundle of greens, we set out towards the Adima Guesthouse. The woman with the greens disembarked 700 meters from the guesthouse without paying. Her ride must have been our good deed for the day. Fortunately there was room (lots of it) at the Guesthouse and we sent our tuk-tuk driver on his way. Our young hosts didn’t speak much English but we were able to get our various points across using sign language. After a bowl of soup we headed off for a walk to the Chinese border.
The scenery in this area of northern Laos is very striking, with rolling hills and distant mountain views. The land is agricultural with tree covered hills rising above. There is a steady stream of China-bound trucks laboring up the border road filled to capacity with Laotian sugarcane. At other times of year the trucks are filled with heaping loads of bagged rice. Several times we noted the entrance to a hill tribe village marked by a hand woven gate. Before too long the sun began to sink and we headed back to our lodging to eat and take refuge under a pile of blankets to ward off the January cold.
Over the next few days we visited Muang Sing’s sights. We went to the morning market where Roger was mobbed by the local weavers who plied him with an assortment of scarves and shirts, dressing him like a giant doll. We visited the local museum and sampled the local cuisine. Roger spent an afternoon hiking up into the hills past several villages and up to a summit. He came back refreshed and making noises again about doing more backpacking and hiking when we returned to shoreside living. Finally the cold drove us back south via yet another local bus.
Luang Prabang in central Laos is known for beautiful architecture and numerous temples. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site which we thought could be a good thing or a bad thing. Would it be a repeat of Chiang Mai?? Mercifully, no.
The architectural remains of the French colonial era are everywhere in Luang Prabang. The peninsula on which the town sits is flanked by two rivers, the Mekong and the Nam Khan. The middle of town is dominated by Phu Si hill with its little temple. We loved it here. It was laid back and friendly. Locals still seemed to actually live here. The food was good and the walking was great especially in the afternoon when we could remove several layers of clothing. After five days of meandering down alleys and poking around the local temples we parted ways with quiet Laos and headed to the craziness that is Vietnam.
Thursday, January 23rd – Monday, February 3rd, Vietnam
The days leading up to the celebration of the Lunar New Year (Tet) in Vietnam are crazy. We arrived in Hanoi in the early evening and were quickly jolted out of our Laotian calm. At all times of year the Vietnamese are a horn happy bunch. Not only do they blow their horns to alert drivers they feel are too close, they use their horns to announce their impending arrival on any stretch of roadway. Our trip from the airport to our hotel in the Old Quarter of the city set the tone for all future road travel in the nation. Fast and loud. Adding a special flourish to the traffic were the holiday kumquat trees and peach blossom branches being transported on the backs of motorcycles to their various destinations. They reminded us of our western Christmas trees.
St. Joseph’s Hotel, just behind St. Joseph’s Catholic Cathedral, was a perfect base for exploration. We wandered the streets and alleys of the old quarter. These are organized by the products they sell. Although we didn’t carry a list of what each street name meant it was generally pretty obvious as you wandered its length. There was the street of buckets, the street of office supplies, the street of bamboo poles, etc. The street of herbal medicines was particularly noteworthy for its aroma. As always the food vendors were everywhere. Pots and grills lined the sidewalks and were surrounded by small fleets of foot high plastic stools which were invariably occupied with snacking locals.
In Hanoi we decided to be slightly more conscientious tourists so we took a city tour with young Mr. Bean. Mr. Bean, a university grad and happy communist, took us to visit a variety of sights including long dead Ho Chi Minh. Roger, as is his habit everywhere, plied Mr. Bean with an unending string of questions about the country, its politics and its economy. Poor Mr. Bean wasn’t as prepared with answers as Roger would have liked. The highlight of the day was lunch. Mr. Bean scored points with his selection of a restaurant near the Temple of Literature called Bun Cha Van Mieu. As you might suspect their specialty is Bun Cha, a soup with pork and lots of fresh greens to throw in. It was delicious.
The energy in Hanoi was palpable. We don’t know if it was particular to the holiday but it was contagious and we loved it. As we headed for the airport (white knuckled in the careening taxi) we knew we should have stayed longer.
From Hanoi we headed to Danang. Danang is a coastal city located half way down the length of Vietnam. In the 1960’s and 70’s it played a prominent role in the Vietnam War as the site of a major U.S. airbase and R&R center. Today Danang is trying to market itself as a beach destination, with many large resorts built on the spectacular beach which stretches south for thirty kilometers to Hoi An. Unfortunately the message has not made it out to the masses yet. The beach is quite empty and apparently stays that way for much of the year. Other than lying on the beach there isn’t a lot in Danang to hold the attention of a visitor.
The one thing we wanted to do during our visit was to try to get a sense of what went on here during the Vietnam War. To this end we joined Jeremy and Tam from Looking Glass Jeep Tours for a day trip. Together they were able to give us a small glimpse into the past. Jeremy, a young American, is a great student of war history generally and Tam, a Danang native was a teen when the Americans landed here. She described her experiences as an informal translator and cook for the American troops. Her regard for and loyalty to the soldiers is un-dimmed to this day.
Our final stop in Vietnam was the small city of Hoi An. Another architectural gem, Hoi An was a prominent seaport until its river silted up in the late 19th century. This stroke of bad luck seems to have worked out in the long run. The lack of development over the years preserved the old Japanese and Chinese buildings which have now been protected by a very savvy downtown merchants association.
Like Luang Prabang in Laos, Hoi An is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and brings in the associated tourists. We found the city to be lovely but, this being Vietnam, far less laid back than Luang Prabang. We took up cycling around the downtown and out to the beaches and generally enjoyed the much warmer weather. The extent of our organized activity was a cooking class. We had stumbled upon a review online for a restaurant called Baby Mustard which caught our attention. The restaurant was located outside of town in an area called Tra Que Vegetable Village. It took us more than a bit of time to find the place but it was well worth it. Both lunch and a subsequent class were terrific. After five days we were ready to move on. After one more bowl of Cau Lau at the city market we said goodbye to our lovely host family at the Magnolia Homestay and headed to Cambodia.
Tuesday, February 4th – Thursday, February 6th, Siem Reap, Cambodia
At about this time we started paying closer attention to the calendar. We wanted to be able to spend some additional time in Bangkok before heading back to the boat and we wanted to be back to the boat by mid-February for an early March sailing date. The bottom line on this was that we were not going to do justice to Cambodia. If you could go to only one place in Cambodia where would it be? The answer was simple; the temples of Angkor.
With only two days available and having done no homework we arrived in Siem Reap, the doorstep of Angkor. Our guesthouse, The Purple Mangosteen was terrific. They came through with a guide for each of our days of touring and we weren’t disappointed. Sam, our guide for the “small circuit” on day one was friendly and knowledgeable. His discussions of Angkor Thom, Angkor Wat and Ta Prohm made up for our lack of study and we thoroughly enjoyed the day. For the “big circuit” on day two we were accompanied by Sekong. Our stops included Pre Rup, Banteay Samre (our favorite) and Banteay Srei. Sekong, in addition to his knowledge of Angkor was a good source of more modern Cambodian history having been a KPNLAF guerilla for many years. Despite its short duration our visit to Siem Reap and Angkor was an enjoyable one.
Friday, February 7th – Wednesday, February 12th, Bangkok
In order to get a one month visa instead of two weeks we flew the short hop from Siem Reap to Bangkok. The month would, we hoped, get us through our remaining stay in Thailand. We were happy to return to the Asadang and our neat little neighborhood. We had to adopt a new local restaurant since our old one had dropped its shutters for the duration of the demonstrations. Our new favorite was a tiny spot called Som Hom on the same block as our old favorite.
We spent the week mostly running errands and catching up. Medical exams were followed by much needed haircuts. Roger's exam was more notable than mine. The Thai urologist had very different opinions than his or his Newburyport urologist so there was much blustering for a few hours. We did manage an early morning visit to Wat Pho before the crowds descended but we never talked ourselves into the Grand Palace. It was just nice to be back in Bangkok.
On the 13th of February we returned to Shango in Phuket. All was as we had left it happily.
As for our conclusions about our ability to travel light? It’s definitely easier than we anticipated and we’ll do it again.