November 2001 : Singapore and Malaysia



The month started with a trip to Singapore. We decided to leave Perdika safely and cheaply tucked up in Nongsa Point Marina, and made our trip by ferry, staying in an extremely basic central hotel/hovel. Singapore was fantastic – a stunning cultural contrast to our previous two months in the poverty and disorganisation of Indonesia. Sparkingly modern, confident and glitzy – combined with a solidity and gravitas emanating from the great old colonial buildings. In many ways Singapore was much as we had imagined it would be. As everyone knows, Singapore is a great synthesis of cultures – predominantly Chinese, plus Indian, Malay and European – but to actually to experience all this colourful diversity was extraordinarily exhilarating. Absolutely everything is available there – any craving can be satisfied – even our’s for croissants! We went a little crazy, confronted with so much ‘availability’, buying and eating far too much. From our exceedingly barren little room in central Singapore we explored Chinatown – now becoming rather gentrified, but still full of curiosities, fabulous food and temples, Little India – streets highly decorated with lights for Deepavali - where we dined on fish-head curry off banana leaves, and the River and Colonial areas – taking in the mandatory Singapore Sling at Raffles hotel – magnificent and opulent, yet still charming. We also spent our usual half a day trekking around an area of hardware stockists and mechanical workshops looking for miscellaneous boat bits, in torrential rain – all very fascinating – to Chris! It had been a long held ambition of mine to visit Singapore because my father was born there, and the only disappointment of our visit was our failure to locate anything or anywhere remotely connected to him or his era. He wasn’t able to give us much information, and the Singapore of the 1920s has very long gone, along with several eras since then. Singapore is a ruthlessly ‘now’ place.

We had watched with some awe from our vantage point at Nongsa Point the constant stream of gigantic vessels making their way through the Singapore Strait with hardly a gap between them. Our ferry trip to/from Singapore gave us more of a taste of what we would be up against in Perdika, although at 25 knots, the ferry was rather more nimble than us, at a more stately 5 knots. We set off to cross the strait and round Singapore with some trepidation. However, the passage was a great anti-climax. The point we chose for the crossing was a mere three miles wide and took only half an hour, making it easy to pick our moment and get across safely. More scary was our passage through an anchorage of around 50 vast empty tankers – fascinating to view their enormity at such close quarters.

The rest of this month has been spent gently cruising 450 miles up the west coast of Malaysia. After the previous two months where most individual passages were 200-300 miles taking two to three days, we decided to day-sail up the infamous Malacca Strait – our decision based partly on the possibility of encountering ‘sumatras’ and/or pirates in these waters. ‘Sumatras’ are line squalls up to 350 miles long and 30 miles deep, which move across the strait eastwards from Sumatra, usually at night. Gusts of 50 knots can be expected together with torrential rain. We felt that we had suffered enough of this sort of weather in the latter stages of our Indonesian travels and would prefer to be safely anchored each night. The reputation for piracy in the Malacca Strait was not something we took terribly seriously – attacks against yachts are almost unheard of, although commercial vessels are regularly raided. We decided nonetheless to do the whole coast together with Vagabond, for company and security. The windless conditions of the previous couple of months have persisted and we have had days of tedious motoring or motor-sailing all the way. The problem with daysailing – passages averaging 45 miles - is that there is always a destination to be reached before dark – no later than 7 pm, and it is not feasible to accept periods of very slow speed under sail alone, even with good tide. We experienced a couple of squalls, but nothing we would claim as a full-scale ‘sumatra’, and as we have come further north the weather has generally lightened up. One notable feature of the whole coast has been the filth and debris in the water – rubbish of all kinds plus branches and trees, no doubt washed down from the numerous rivers of this very populous country. Another characteristic has been the intensity of fishing activity. The boats in Malaysia are very organised – different rules for different sizes and different colours for each of the different states – mauve for Melaka, red for Selangor, yellow for Perak, etc. The smaller ones lay out long buoyed nets, larger ones are fitted with trawling/dredging equipment with which to scour the seabed. We have ceased our own fishing activities, convinced there can be nothing left alive in these waters. Another interesting aspect of the sailing has been the behaviour of the cruising community. From the time we left New Zealand, across the Tasman, up the coast of Australia and through Indonesia, we have been virtually on our own – aware from radio contact of a few other yachts and meeting them at collecting points such as Darwin, Bali and Nongsa Point, but infrequently sharing anchorages. It has been very pleasant not to feel part of a herd. We have noticed recently however, that small groups have formed to travel up this coast – possibly having taken the piracy threat to heart – and numbers are growing. We anticipate quite a fleet developing the further north we go.

We have thoroughly enjoyed our time in Malaysia, although after the outgoing exuberance of Indonesia and glamour of Singapore, it took longer for its particular charms to manifest themselves. Malaysia is a developed and comparatively westernised country. The infrastructure works, and despite the current recession the country appears thriving and relatively affluent. Possibly because of all that, it appeared initially less interesting to us, and with a more sophisticated and more reserved population, we have certainly not been the novelty we were in Indonesia. However as we have proceeded north we have been increasingly captivated by the different cultures existing alongside each other here. On the west coast the Malay areas take a back seat, seeming to us just a quieter and sanitised version of Indonesia. The Chinese and Indian communities on the other had live their lives flamboyantly and fully according to their own colourful traditions – which together with the colonial background makes for an exciting variety of sights and scenes. We have not been aware of racial disharmony, but it is hard to believe that there is none.

We made ten stops up the coast, some just overnight and others for several days. Maybe I should just mention a few highlights. We made brief stops at several islands before ever touching the mainland. At one – Pulau Pisang – Banana Island – we walked up to the lighthouse and were charmed to meet the two keepers there, who work ten day shifts. One – an ancient Chinese – has been doing this for 54 years! All the lights in the

Malacca Strait, they told us, are run by Singapore which clearly has a great interest, not to mention resources, in keeping the lights in good order. We will always remember these two rather shy characters and can imagine others stationed in their lonely offshore outposts around the world. Our first real landfall in Malaysia was at the extraordinarily oppulent – but strangely empty - Admiral Marina Resort near Port Dickson. With a swimming pool and facilities even more grandiosely lavish than those at Nongsa Point we felt quite out of place. Still, it was a good place from which to see Melaka, which we did by bus for an overnight visit. This is where the delights of Malaysia really started to dawn. Steeped in colonial history, it is a fabulous and fascinating old city with abundant and picturesque remnants of its Chinese/Portugese/Dutch/British past. The temples of all sorts were as numerous as in Bali. We were particularly struck by the south Indian Dravidian style Hindu temple, the Chinese Confucist/Taoist/Buddhist temple and the Kampung Kling Mosque – all situated on Harmony Street – apparently harmoniously! We also made a day trip to Kuala Lumpur, home of the world’s tallest building – the twin Petronas Towers which we duly ascended – but being a very modern capital, found it not so interesting otherwise. We then made a couple of forays up jungle lined rivers to investigate the rural scene. First Sungei Selangor where, after a very intrepid shallow river entrance, we anchored off a Chinese fishing village on stilts. We wandered around, strangely provoking no reaction whatsoever from the inhabitants, busy drying large quantities of fish on racks. Peeking in through open doorways, we noticed every home had a shrine, occupying the position of the fireplace in a British home! Another river, Lumut, is home to three rather characterful and permanent yachting communities. We spent a very entertaining evening in the company of an old British salt who has been ‘stuck’ there for ten years!

Penang consolidated our enthusiasm for Malaysia. We anchored in the so-called ‘Junk Anchorage’, which I had romantically assumed meant that it would be full of Chinese Junks. It probably was in years gone by, but now is just full of junk. From this spot there was a water-taxi service – for the various working boats anchored there as well as the half dozen visiting yachts – provided by an ancient Buddha-like Chinese ferryman who definitely spoke no English – and possibly nothing at all! This gave us an incredibly intriguing entry into the city of Georgetown, along the alleys of the stilt village community of the Chew Kongsi - or Clan – one of several such communities lining the waterfront. Penang is magnificently Chinese – more so than China we suspect - with streets and streets of terraced shop/houses with their characteristic louvred windows all in a state of picturesque decay. Fantastic foodshops, temples, restaurants, clan-houses and businesses – a totally Chinese community of enormous size. We encountered a bizarre traditional Chinese opera performance set up near our ‘clan’, which seemed to go on over several days. We would dearly love to have known what it was all about, with its lavishly costumed characters making long declarations, engaging in stylised duels and singing raucously and discordantly to the accompaniment of gongs, cymbals and drums – making British pantomime seem quite subtle and sophisticated in comparison! Sadly though, hardly anyone was watching this awesome performance, so there was no one to ask. Not so when we visited the vast complex of the Kek Lok Si Buddhist temple, where we were approached by a young monk in brown and black robes, suggesting in impeccable and very posh English that we must be "amused by the antics of the monks".

We admitted to being intrigued by what turned out to be a ceremony for young boys – all dressed as monks – making a retreat at the temple in their school holidays. Our informant had recently returned from a year’s study in Bristol – which we all agreed was a "quite extraordinary" coincidence! The Indian quarter of the city was similarly like being in India – with Indian dress, shops and food. We had the strange experience of eating lunch in a rather deserted restaurant where the staff were all fasting for Ramadan. The excellent Penang Museum describes the lifestyles of all the various communities in Penang – not only the Malays, Chinese and Indians, but also the various very specific mixes and the colonial British. This fuelled my desire to track down something of my grandmother’s heritage. Having failed in my Singapore ‘pilgrimage’, we were somewhat more successful in locating where my grandmother was born in 1896 and married in 1919. Sadly the original buildings have now been replaced, but the area is much as it probably was in her time – a restful affluent residential area dotted around with large colonial mansions giving a very British feel, which we would probably never have seen but for this focus.

However it is not all fun, and our activities this month have been somewhat overshadowed by various boat problems. Just as we were about to leave Nongsa Point, we found that one of our shrouds (the wires holding the mast up!) was beginning to come apart. Very bad news. We delayed our departure – causing some consternation because we had already arranged our clearance out of Indonesia – so that Chris could rush across on the ferry to Singapore to have a new shroud made up. This operation went smoothly and the shroud was quickly in place. However, within a week the same thing had happened to another shroud – the same one on the other side. We have made a temporary repair of this, but have decided that the rigging must all be replaced. It is eight years old and has done over 50,000 miles, so we can hardly complain. However, this turns out to be a very inconvenient part of the world to have this problem. With hindsight we should have returned to Singapore. It transpires, after much investigation, that the only other rigger on our route northwards, is situated in Phuket and charges extortionate monopolistic rates. We have therefore been busy on email and the phone, trying to track down alternative suppliers, compare prices and delivery charges and times – all quite time-consuming, worrying and unsettling. We have now ordered new terminals from the UK and rigging wire from Singapore. Alongside this saga, we have had to confront an engine problem - a very infrequent reluctance to start, has now become a permanent feature. So far, despite hours of thought and investigation, Chris has been unable to identify the problem. We had the battery tested in Penang – no problem there. The starter motor is under scrutiny, although it seems OK. We found a backstreet expert in Penang, but Chris balked at the challenge of discussing starter motor problems in Chinese! As I write, he is removing it to take it off to an expert (we hope) here in Langkawi. Then the wind-generator stopped working and one of the saloon lights unaccountably failed. The final straw was when the bank refused to dish out any more money. Sometimes it has all seemed too much. The last three problems all turned out to be temporary glitches and have been sorted out, but we are still left with the big ones.

Now we are in Langkawi at the north western tip of Malaysia, where we will be for some time, awaiting delivery of our rigging parts which can be delivered here duty free. At least the scenery here is wonderful – the most impressive natural landscape we have seen for a long time, in the form of stunning limestone cliffs, peaks and pinnacles covered in noisy jungle, rising straight out of the clean water. It could not be a more idyllic place to be trapped in. We have even discovered our recorders for the first time this entire voyage, and the boat is resounding to horribly Les Dawson-like rounds and carols!