Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore to Borneo – 2009

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‘2009 became quite a big year for us with many changes. First and foremost my son Henry joined us onboard Sänna, which was a huge bonus for me in that my travel back to England would be far less. We had a wonderful time, but lesson planning was no easy matter with a youngster fully intending to have a long break from dreary school life – adventure beckoned and learning was not exactly Henry’s priority.” Marie

We arrived in Langkawi from Sri Lanka the previous September, eleven hundred miles in a little over nine days. Interestingly, we were right back into Muslim culture once in Malaysia, but this was not hardcore Islam, this was a different world to the one we’d left behind in the Red Sea, Yemen and Oman. Our original plan when we arrived in Langkawi was to recuperate from our tiring trade-wind voyage from Sri Lanka for a week or two, then head north to Thailand – the Thai border was only eighty miles or so from Langkawi Island, a straightforward two day sail would take us to the hugely popular Pad-Thai cruising grounds of Phuket and Ao Chalong. First, we returned to England for Christmas for Marie to spend extended time with her son Henry.

2009 was going to be a big year for us, largely because we had been planning with Henry, his father and Henry’s school for him to join us for an extended period of time on the boat. His school headmistress kindly gave consent for Henry to be home educated onboard, she assisted Marie enormously in dealing with the education authorities and putting together lesson plans that followed the normal school curriculum. At this point Henry was eight years old and full of beans, he had spent a considerable amount of time with us onboard Sänna before, usually two to three week periods that coincided with school holidays and such forth. In this way the three of us visited much of the eastern Mediterranean, spending long periods in Turkey and Greece before heading through the Suez Canal to Egypt. But south from Egypt in the Red Sea became more difficult, Henry’s father was uneasy with Henry being in the war and famine countries of Sudan, Eritrea and in the more fundamental Muslim cultures of Yemen and Oman. Travel to England was increasingly expensive so this put enormous pressure upon Marie. Once we decided to continue our voyage eastwards from the Red Sea and not to stick to our original plan of returning to the Mediterranean, we were then confronted with two long ocean passages across the Indian Ocean to reach Malaysia and Thailand. There we felt it would be much easier for Henry to join us for the longer term. Henry’s father agreed and we made our plans.

We also made a plan for my youngest daughter Louise to join us too. Lou at this time was in teaching, she readily agreed to assist in Henry’s education so we suddenly became a crew of four, this was a good time for both Marie and myself, we both had our kids with us while participating in a freedom way of life that we had come to value immensely – and Malaysia and Thailand were the perfect locations to see if a family adventure lifestyle would work. The whole thing worked big time.

Schooling lessons though were not easy to begin with. It’s all about establishing a routine… Henry’s main ambition was to have an adventure of a lifetime, he was well off the hook school wise, he saw no reason why lessons had to continue. Mother was there to be played up, she didn’t have the authority of his usual schoolteachers and only reluctantly did he accept the morning teaching regime when he could have been swimming in the sea or exploring on the beach. But we stuck with it, gradually it began to change.

Sänna - Henry Beal, MalaysiaTo begin with, Marie handled Henry’s onboard education but it often became fraught between mother and son – this was a new experience for all three of us. I assisted as much as I could, usually taking the maths lessons which Henry and I called ‘numeracy with a smile’ as opposed to the frustrating maths his mother offered. I tried to make the lesson a fun time thing and it seemed to work well. Louise would soon join us, so we headed back to Rebak Island which had become our favourite go to place. In the garden seclusions of the Rebak resort, Louise quickly took control of Henry’s education and things began to go well. Louise was then asked by other sailboats moored in Rebak to take over their kids education too, but that caused problems in that Henry’s curriculum was hugely different to that of the mainly American and Australian kids in the marina. Nevertheless, Louise persevered, occupying an amazing wooden structure open on all four sides in landscaped gardens, provided by the resort owners. The experiment quickly became a success, it was a wonderful experience all round.

Langkawi & Thailand

Our plan to head north to Thailand suffered somewhat. Dagmar & Peter onboard Iltis were still in Langkawi as were Romeo & Lucy, all of whom we had got to know well in Yemen, Oman and Sri Lanka. We also heard news that our good friends Robert & Jill onboard the English boat Fat Annie were also in Thailand, we knew them well from our time in the Mediterranean, spending huge amounts of time with them in Turkey and Greece. Fat Annie had set out to follow our own route eastwards, they had spent time in Cochin in India before crossing from India to Thailand. In the January we arranged to meet up with them in Ao Chalong – which finally forced us to leave Rebak.

It is essentially a two day voyage to Phuket with an overnight anchorage in the magical islands of Ko Rok Nok. These islands are in the Thai Mu Ko Lanta National Park, technically we were not allowed to stop there as we’d not yet officially checked into Thailand, but the park ranger there was hardly concerned and didn’t seem to care greatly. We anchored between the two island, close to the huge coral reefs and we could easily snorkel the reefs from the boat. There were countless numbers of colourful fish and marine life, we spent three days there the four of us with the park ranger rustling up traditional Thai food whenever we ventured ashore. If there is ever a true paradise then surely it is Ko Rok Nok… or so we thought. The morning we planned to leave, three huge tourist boats arrived loaded with hundreds of young backpackers, many of them so white skinned they could only have recently flown into the country from cold northern climes. They were unceremoniously offloaded onto the island, with the tour operator setting up a massive camp kitchen and beer tent – the island was then totally transformed, it was now that we realised one big thing about Thailand – it’s a backpackers haven, with young so-called travellers flocking there in their countless thousands. These days they were a vital part of the Thai economy.

Backpackers, or young people travelling, is a curious phenomenon. We got to know it as the ‘ant trail‘ – these travellers usually arrive in Thailand as their first port of call, although the more adventurous long-termers sometimes begin their mobile lives in either India or perhaps Nepal. Many of these backpackers are experiencing independent travel for the first time, they are keen to be off the parental hook and, of course, they go for it big time. The lure of Thailand and Southeast Asia offers wild independence, the laidback culture being perfect for free and easy living for these first-world teenagers, usually one-year gap year students and mid-twenty somethings to let off steam – anyone sticking it out into their thirties and beyond have usually turned irretrievably native. Some of these young backpackers go on to become extremely hardcore travellers – and I mean really hardcore, deserving a great deal of respect. Others find the life of alcohol and drugs too tempting, whereas many simply cannot deal with the reality of basic subsistence living – they quickly return home to become the respected members of mainstream society their parents always planned. Some travel forever – but more often than not it all begins in Thailand. These young people, the more adventurous ones that is, begin the ant-trail south through Southeast Asia to Loa, Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia, then to Australia and New Zealand, its without doubt a wonderful experience that teaches true self-survival skills invaluable to later life in general; many seasoned travellers we come across nowadays often began their independent life on the infamous ant-trail. Listening to these backpackers is fun too, when we listen in to their group conversations almost every sentence begins with “When I was in…”, this being a prelude to their excited descriptive monologue of places they have previously visited. Consequently, we ourselves now refer to backpacking travellers as ‘WiWi’s’ – this is not meant to be a derogatory term, just a reference point to how many of these excited youngsters eagerly conduct their travelling conversations. Hearing ‘when I was in’ is a sure sign that you are well and truly on the ant-trail.

From Ko Rok Nok we headed north to Ao Chalong on the Phuket peninsular. This huge anchorage, with maybe over a hundred boats, is the main immigration and customs entry port for vessels arriving in the Indian Ocean side of Thailand. Ao Chalong is also a small resort with many of the ‘attractions’ that Thailand is infamous for. There are throngs of working girls, really good cheap restaurants, amazing street food – and the corrupt Thai officials that many preceding sailors throughout the Indian Ocean had warned us about. Ao Chalong is well known for fleecing the unsuspecting vessel arriving for customs and immigration checkin, even seasoned sailors determined not to get stung get stung, these officials are slick and clever – with one customs officer in particular having a well deserved reputation.

Infamously renowned as the ‘Little Bastard‘, he is a shade under five foot tall. Over and above the normal immigration and customs charges, LB will charge for excessive overtime, also the cost of so-called out of hours taxi rides to the office – and plain point blank ‘administrative charges’ that seem to appear out of nowhere. There are also the ubiquitous ‘public holiday fees’ even when it is plainly not a public holiday. There are no receipts, hardly any paperwork and just about every cruising sailboat between Australia and India has been systematically fleeced by LB when checking in to Thailand. But don’t get me wrong, Thailand is still a fantastic country, it’s an absolute cruising paradise.

Sänna - ThailandWe finally caught up with Fat Annie anchored off Yacht Haven marina. It was good to see them again. We’d last met up Korkova Roads east of Antalya in Turkey, arranging to get together again in a week or two’s time but we never made it. Instead, we headed south to Cyprus then to Port Said in Egypt before transiting the Suez Canal. Although we’d always kept in touch, we never thought for one moment we’d meet up again. Robert & Jill then pretty much replicated our own voyage eastwards, and here we were, together again, both anchored up in a remote bay off Phuket. We talked for hours, we had much to talk about and they were pleased to meet up with Henry again. We agreed that both vessels would head into Yacht Haven marina, which would become our base to explore Thailand and to get much needed refit work done. Fat Annie needed a new engine, we needed to refurbish our teak decking – and teak is a Thailand speciality, even though much of it is illegally logged over the border in Myanmar.

In early February we ventured out to Krabi, but found it difficult to make it up river to this fabulous backpacker’s town. Instead we made a beach landing then hitched a ride on the local bus to the old town. The street food, bars and numerous restaurants make this hangout place a dream, it’s typically a travellers hideaway but without the loud obscenities of Phuket, we loved Krabi and its colourful garment and food markets. We planned to return to Yacht Haven so that we could land travel the north of Thailand, but we had a three month time limit for Sänna to be in Thai waters – so we made plans to return south to Langkawi. This was easy enough, we could simply move between Malaysia and Thailand to begin a new three-month maritime customs period – in this way we got to know the halfway sanctuary islands of Koh Rok Nok extremely well.

Lessons with Henry were preceding well although Louise had by now left to take up a teaching position in Seoul in South Korea. In the March Marie returned with Henry to the UK, the home education experiment having worked out fine; we could now make plans to continue this solution longer term – but little did we know that the education authorities back in our home town of Nottingham were in a raptor-like mood, determined that no child in their region would be placed into an unsafe teaching environment – and that we ourselves would be taken to task for irresponsible parenting. The headmistress who’d been exceptionally helpful in making the onboard teaching experiment a success, was severely reprimanded by the authorities leading to her eventual dismissal. This is the intransigent attitude of those in authority who do not have the foresight or the vision to make them on any level forward thinking, they deserve to be stuck in their little lives waiting to draw their final salary pensions. Please forgive my detrimental attitude, but to be accused of deliberately placing a child in high-risk danger when our only intention was to introduce the freedom family lifestyle we’ve commonly found on other sailboats, typically French, Scandinavian or American, who’s own education authorities are presumably far more relaxed and innovating in their attitude. Anyway…

Sänna - Koh Phi Phi, ThailandIn March we sailed Sänna back to Langkawi, Henry and Marie flew back to face the storm in the UK. My middle daughter of three Lauren flew out to join me for a few weeks to sail Sänna back north again to Thailand, we endured the same customs and immigration saga in Ao Chalong, this time I somehow paid a two way taxi fare, another public holiday surcharge and also something into what he called a ‘benefit fund’. Lauren and I did not head directly for Ao Chalong, first we made for the offshore islands of Koh Lanta where we stayed on anchor for three nights diving and snorkelling the coral reefs. It’s a long drawn out story story but Lauren is an experienced dive-master, a qualification she somehow managed to obtain when she should have been studying for Sänna - Dad & Lauren, Thailand 2009her Chinese language degree in China – we have complete scuba diving diving equipment onboard for three people so the two of us spent a good deal of quality time together diving the reefs. On the morning we left Koh Lanta for our usual stopover in Koh Rok Nok, we caught two tuna fish while under sail, which we would later BBQ when we reached the anchorage in Koh Rok Nok. We again scuba dived in Koh Rok Nok, but by now our air tanks were running dry and we had no means to refill them. We then headed north to the Island of Koh Phi Phi, famous for the movie The Beach with teenage heart-throb Leonardo Di Capreo – all of which was illegal as we had not yet legally checked into Thailand… we still had that exasperating experience to come.

Sänna - James Bond Island, ThailandOnce Lauren and I had completed Thai immigration we sailed north in light winds to James Bond Island, the spectacular stone pillars made famous in another movie by the English spy Mr Bond in his continuous quest to rid the world of evil types intent on enslaving mankind. It really is an idealic location – providing you can put up with the hundreds of day-tripping backpackers and travellers that arrive there by tour boat every single day. From there we sailed on to Yacht Haven marina, where Robert & Jill were still completing their new engine work on Fat Annie.

Sänna - Tan Jung Rhu, MalaysiaIn April, Marie returned to Yacht Haven and Lauren moved on to travel alone overland, Marie and I left Sänna in Yacht Haven for our new teak decking to be completed whilst we travelled the twenty miles or so north by bus to Khao Lak to join a four day liveaboard scuba diving cruise – we’d decided to attempt our PADI Advanced Diving course given that we’d invested so much in onboard scuba diving kit, although my prime reason for this was to be able to repair and clean the underwater hull of Sänna rather than keep paying extortionate diver fees. While we were in Khoa Lak Fat Annie completed their engine refit and decided to head south back to Langkawi, we decided to join them. We had yet more memorable times in the sublime anchorage of Tan Jung Rhu. In Tan Jung Rhu a small community of sailboats had gathered, whilst there we made the decision to leave Langkawi to head south through Malaysia down the Malacca Straits to Singapore. It was a wrench to leave both Thailand and Langkawi behind after nearly eight months but the approaching summer wet season would make the Straits dangerous – they are infamous for being the lightening centre of the world.

Langkawi to Singapore and Borneo

In July, from Langkawi, we first made our way, on engine due to no winds, to Port Lamut, then on to Port Dickson from where Marie flew back to England to once more collect Henry. By now it was the extended six-week school holiday, the flack from the education authorities had died down and Henry could join us for our voyage from Port Dickson to Singapore. Whilst waiting for them in Port Dickson, it became obvious to me that we had another visitor onboard – a rat.

Most sailors will tell you that one of the worst situations to have onboard is vermin. Rats or cockroaches to be more precise, both are bad news – but rats chew their way through vital wiring which can then cause huge safety issues and alarming maintenance costs. You do not want rats onboard your boat. It’s not a good idea to use poisoning to get rid of them, because the dead rat then decomposes creating disgusting smells that drive you crazy. It’s best to use live traps and bait… and in Port Dickson I was directed to a chinaman who sold traps, he was truly a rat expert – cucumber, he said, was the best bait. I’d heard the rat scurrying around the kitchen galley during the night, on one occasion fleetingly catching sight of the damn thing before it scurried away into some hidden recess deep within the bilges. Now it was game on…

Marie and Henry were due to arrive in a couple of days, they were both terrified of rats – it was imperative that I got rid of our stowaway quickly or they would simply not come back onboard. I said nothing to them, setting three huge cucumber baited rat traps, fully confident based upon my Chinese advise that by the following day I would have the rat. It didn’t happen. The traps were still empty and set on the morning that Marie and Henry arrived in Port Dickson and, of course, Marie suspiciously spotted the traps almost straightaway. I explained that I planned to catch the gecko, the small lizard that had lived under the dinghy mount for the last few months, we’d even named it Harry – we regularly fed it it titbits, it was useful in catching pestilent mosquitos with its long curling tongue. The gecko would make a good pet for Henry, I lied.

Early in the morning of the their first night one of the traps sprung, I heard it go with a snap. I knew we’d got the rat – I just needed to get rid of it overboard, then Marie and Henry would be no wiser. I sprang out of bed like a lynx, but I wasn’t fast enough – Henry was ahead of me to get sight of his new pet gecko. ‘Mum, it’s a rat’ he screamed, Marie was a fraction of a second behind me when I grabbed the trap complete with rat and headed up the gangway steps to throw both the trap and rat overboard. It bit my hand through the cage as the screams and shouts echoed behind me, I heaved it overboard and that was that – or so I thought. It later turned out the rat had eaten its way into our box of cornflakes & raisins, and deciding which were raisins and which were not was a complicated task – Marie rightly made me throw the box away. You can read our full blog about Harry the Rat here.

From Port Dickson, it was an easy overnight downwind sail south to Singapore. Late in the evening of the first day we came across two fishermen in a small skiff who’d run out of fuel, they’d tied themselves to a navigation buoy for safety – for three days they’d been there day and night without food and water. Of course, we stopped Sänna to assist them, giving them both fuel and supplies. Henry was really excited that we’d saved two fishermen.

Singapore is extremely officious when it comes to the governing authorities, although Raffles Marina told us that they could handle our customs & immigration – they could not, instead we continued to the main Port of Singapore to complete all formalities. It was easy enough, but they required a full list of previous ports we’d visited with proof. Once cleared through immigration and stringent customs checks, we returned to Raffles Marina because the Singapore authorities informed us there was no anchoring allowed anywhere unless in the designated shipping anchorages, which were way too deep for our anchoring capabilities. So that was never an option for us. Raffles turned out to be a good choice.

We spent a wonderful month in Raffles, we could take the rapid light-railway into the centre of Singapore to sample the delights of this amazing city state. The transportation was cheap, incredibly clean and efficient with easy access to pretty much everywhere we needed.  We did all the hotspots – Raffles Hotel, Chinatown and the infamous Four Floors of Whores which my father had told me about from his navy days in Singapore in the nineteen-fifties – it’s still there, which Henry found mind-bogglingly fascinating to the point that he eagerly explained everything in detail to four twenty-something guys sitting in the bar back in Raffles marina. They found Henry’s story incredulous, the next day they made there own way there, tipping Henry massively for the valuable information.

In Raffles we made good friends with Dave & Heather onboard the British catamaran Milliways, we got to know them well and they especially took to Henry. Now nine, he reminded them of their own grandson, they made the world of him, taking him off our hands for long periods. Henry grew to know them fondly, we ourselves relished our time with them knowing that they were pretty much heading in our same direction. Unfortunately, Milliways had been struck by lightening out in Malacca Straits, their long stressful saga continued in the Raffles boatyard with Milliways‘ repairs taking an inordinate length of time. It really is no fun being hit by lightening.

Sänna - Labuan Offshore Oil FieldsWe were to stay in Singapore for over a month, with Henry and Louise again joining us when we eventually made our way northeast to Borneo in late November. From Singapore Marie and I made the proposed five day sail to Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo, stopping first with engine trouble in the island of Labuan. Our sail from Singapore to Labuan was certainly eventful, our engine died clogged with diesel bug, we had to seek the assistance of an Indonesian fishing boat when we couldn’t fix it, luckily they had a mechanic onboard who soon got the think going – but it again died during the night we sailed through the numerous deep-sea oil rigs that form the rich Brunei oil fields. Labuan is an interesting location, although part of Malaysian Borneo it is an independent territory that primarily serves the huge oil and gas fields, also the gateway to the Brunei Sultanate kingdom. Approaching Labuan’s Victoria harbour without engine power, we dropped anchor in the busy shipping lane right in the path of the local ferry to Brunei. Luckily we swung out of its way. We then made contact with a local Brit originating from Manchester, Neil. Neil arranged for a tow into the local ramshackle marina where he assisted in cleaning our clogged out filters to get us going again. We then made the two day overnight sail to Kota Kinabalu where we could leave Sänna whilst we made the trip back to England for Christmas. We didn’t know it right at this time, but Neil was to become an important and treasured friend during our year long stay in Borneo.

Southeast Asia is a fabulous part of the world, a sailing and cultural paradise that will be hard to equal – a world apart from the rigours and hardships of the Red Sea… which was just as memorable but for different reasons.

Dave – January 2010

Read more… Borneo and the Philippines – 2010.


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