Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore 
Sunday, January 28, 2018, 09:47 PM - Trips
Posted by Administrator
I worked out with my family to hold Christmas a little early in order to jump on another sailing adventure with Alejandro and crew. I landed in Phuket at 1am on Christmas day, couldn't get to sleep until 4am, and was headed to the marina by 9am.

Yacht Haven Marina had a chill vibe on Christmas. The charter company walked Dro and I through the boat systems on our 38’ Lagoon, “Hermione” while Taylor (‘T’), Hannah, and Nicole filled the galley lockers. I'd done a fair bit of research on catamaran construction and operation but it was nice to see familiar equipment aboard. I was also happy to operate as first mate for another trip. Skippering is stressful and I was happy to do another chartering dry run before I try it on my own.

We got out of the marina at 1pm and tried to make it up to Koh Hong. The day was particularly hazy and I wondered if we'd get blazing sun at any point on our sail. There was about 1 knot of wind, so we motored our way north and eventually gave up at Koh Phanak near dusk. (Some mooring information is here, but the definitive guide is the Southeast Asia Pilot.) We jumped on the dingy and I motored us around the karst features. We noticed a bunch of tourists heading for a cave so we decided to check it out as well. We were lucky and it was nearly low tide because the cave was actually an extensive underground river and it took us back in a serpentine path until we discovered light! We looked at each other and said, "can we fit through there!?" We ducked under the limestone arch and popped out in a hong (Thai for 'room') in the middle of the island. It was incredible. None of us were expecting to re-emerge in the middle of the island so it was wild. Just as we did it, the kayaking tours started coming through the “Bat Cave” tunnel; we were lucky to have gotten the solo experience just before dark. We paddled back through the tunnel back to our boat for dinner. (Here's our GPX/GPS tracks)

The next morning, I was up by 5am (thanks jetlag). By 6:30, I couldn’t wait any longer and I popped my head into Dro and Nicole’s deck hatch and started singing the James Bond theme song. I wanted to get to the island before it was overrun with tourists, and my ploy worked. Dro jumped on the helm and I operated the windlass. We motored for about an hour while people started waking up. We passed Koh Hong with a small hong and vertical islands. It's amazing how the island cliffs spring straight out of the sea--such strange, mindblowing geology. The longtail boats were zigzagging around with the first tourists, but we were ahead of the larger tours. Since Khao Phing Kan and Ko Ta Pu (James Bond Island) are in such shallow water (less than 2 m according to our charts) we decided to anchor off Koh Yang and dingy over. Unfortunately, the wind was starting to pick up and we were heading straight into it. The couple foot waves were enough to soak everyone on the boat and we needed to bail, with our way-to-small-to-be-effective bottle. T declared this is exactly how James Bond would have arrived on the island. (That is if he didn’t have a seaplane.) We managed to stay afloat to land at Ao Phang Nga National Park and walk the path up to the beautiful overlook on Ko Tapu (เกาะตะปู, “spike”). Khao Phing Kan also include some other cool caves and neat limestone features for exploring. We caught this island at low tide so we could get close to JB island. I convinced T to re-enact the scene from The Man with a Golden Gun, but was disappointed that no one saw (or remembered) the film.

Back aboard Hermione, we raised sails and finally got enough wind to properly cruise. Motoring at 3 kts is nothing compared to 6-7 kts on a beam. It’s quiet except for the waves and wind and boat creaks. Such a lovely day cruise down to Ao Nang. Ko Kudu was gorgeous and I wish we could have stopped – worth checking out the next time we’re in the neighborhood. Dro and I took turns sailing, although he gave me plenty of shit when I got caught in the lee of an island near Ko Pak Ka. We anchored at Ao Nang around 3pm and went ashore for snacks, beers, and to pick up Travis, Sarah, and Dee. Generally, we’d just order up a load of food across the menu and eat family style. That was a fun way to explore the Thai culinary experience, especially when getting particularly adventurous. We loaded up everyone motored south to Railay (Rai Lei) Beach for the evening with dinner and drinks ashore. With the new crew, I bought out a sheet and pillow and slept on the trampoline of the catamaran. It was chilly, but waking up with the killer view and the birds singing to me was heavenly.

In the morning, we popped around the corner to Ao Phra Nang Beach at Tham Phra Nang. Everyone grabbed their snorkeling gear and dove in. I headed through the tiny islands to the south east and out along the cliffs. The water visibility was poor, so the snorkeling was so-so (big fan coral and barrel sponges) but the island features were great and the little caves and cliffs were fun to explore. I climbed a rope to get to what I thought would be a fun little deep water soloing spot, but the rock was so sharp, I couldn’t make it up to the smoother stone and fell 5’ back into the ocean – nothing very exciting. I headed back to Princess Cave and found Travis, Sarah, and Dee on the beach. A bunch of climbers are playing around on some routes in the caves and we watched them, like the hundreds of others congregating on the beaches by speed boat and longtail.

About noon, we went back to Ao Nang and picked up the last two crewmembers, Michael and Gail. After resupplying ice and a few other provisions, we pointed our boat south and anchored north of Ko Dam Khwan “Chicken Head Island”. The snorkeling here was far better and I spent nearly a couple hours exploring. Watching the branded sea snake hunt was a particular treat, but the schools of parrotfish, angelfish, butterflyfish, and damsels across a backdrop of anemones, brain coal, clams, staghorn coral, and plate coral was just as awesome. I chased the schools around with my GoPro gleefully. We had the whole crew assembled at this point, so it was fitting to have finest sunset of the trip that evening. From the trampoline, hammock, and foredeck, we watched the golden sun drop through the craggy islands on the horizon with our happy hour drinks in hand. Travis fired up the drone and flew it around our boat at sunset to capture the moment from 1000’. The footage was spectacular. There were 7’ long coffin-like berths in the front of the pontoons. They were slightly claustrophobic, but I realized I could pull the cushions out to sleep on the tramp without losing heat through the netting. That helped a lot.

In the morning, we continued South, stopped for a lunch snorkel at Bamboo island. The visibility continued to improve as we moved out of the delta into deeper waters. Large coral heads towered 10 feet above the ocean floor and I played around diving deep. On shore one of the longtail drivers was playing around with a small ray to the delight of the tourists. We then headed around the east side of Phi Phi Dom (the northernmost Phi Phi island). We stopped off at the monkey beach on the west shore of Ton Sai Bay. The monkeys were feasting on fruit the tour boats brought, but weren’t shy either. When a new longtail landed, one monkey jump on the boat stole a plastic juice bottle from a woman’s hands, jump to shore, and popped the cap off expertly.

We filled water at a floating pier and anchored on the west side of the bay. A couple dinghy rides later we were all ashore at Phi Phi (Pronounced “Pee Pee” and often written “PP”). We feasted on mango sticky rice at the Mango Garden, sipped beers on the beach, and had dinner at Anna’s. I tried three different dive shops before I found one that would pick me up on Hermione on their way out of the bay. Eventually, Phi Phi Scuba Diving Center agreed and in the course of 15 minutes I had my gear picked out and paperwork squared away—although I didn’t have my passport or dive certifications so I may have guessed at a few numbers.

At 7:30am the next morning, a yellow PP Scuba boat pulled up to Hermione and we were headed to Ko Bi Da Nok. I met the divemaster “Thaiman” from the Netherlands and my dive partner, Rob, from Seattle who was working on his divemaster cert. We three and two Chinese divers geared up and hobbled over to the back of the boat and took a big stride into the Andaman Sea. It was cloudy so the reef didn’t glow, but the visibility was 10-12 m. We circled down and around the island. We saw 3 black tip reef sharks, an eel, loads of starfish (and feather stars), clams, fans, trumpetfish, etc. Despite being a ‘beginner’ dive site, the current was stiff and the Chinese woman could barely move forward because she kicked with her ankles bent. Funny but annoying. We did a surface interval at Maya Bay on PP Lee and then dove Mushroom Coral. I talked Thaiman into letting Rob and I have more autonomy, so this was a much nicer dive and I could explore at my own pace. We dove down a cliff to 18 m and saw Clark’s and False Clown Anemonefish (Nemo!) in their anemones, a couple rays, lionfish, a lobster, Giant Travelly, Slugs, whip coral, plate coral, sponges. Greatly enjoy that one. When we got back to PP, I was surprise to Hermione still anchored. So after our debriefing, I texted Dro to link back up with the group. It turned out they wanted a little more shore time for hiking, massages, and in the case of Dee, a commemorative world map Thai tattoo on her left shoulder.

After lunch and a short downpour, we did a little provisioning, and then sailed down to Maya Bay at Phi Phi Lee for the night. This spot is super popular because it’s the beach from “The Beach” and everyone wants to be like Leo. We snorkeled around to a few spots on the north side: a secluded beach and a cool tidal cave. In the cave, the waves were amplified and knocked me off my feet. It was fun, but a little unsafe and I did end up strapping my shoulder. That evening, riding the high of diving and duty-free scotch, we blasted music into the bay while dancing under the stars until midnight. The next morning, I lay bleary-eyed on the foredeck around 6:30 when I heard 3 loud longtails cruise past. I jumped up and ran around the boat yelling, “let’s go, first dingy to the beach now!” as I released the lines and dropped the boat into the chop. People were taking their time getting up, so Dro, Nicole, and I headed in to the fabled Beach. It was already swimming in people at 7am and we only made it about 10 steps before someone asked us to pay the park fee. None of us had money, so I returned to the cat for cash and the 2nd load of people. Admittedly, it was a very nice beach—if it weren’t for the hundreds of people. We snapped a few pictures but didn’t wait around for more invaders. We swung around to the other side of the island to poke around in Pileh Lagoon. This was stunningly beautiful as well, but wasn’t as crowded since it didn’t have a beach. After a dingy loop, we headed south to Ko Ha Yai.

Ko Ha Yai had a set of islands with different geological formations, described best as a bricklayer best effort after gallons of Chang beer. There was a cool arch island that we could swim through and the snorkeling was the best of the trip. The coral was diverse and vibrant and fauna abundant. I enjoyed joining huge school of Yellowback Fusiliers. We then headed to Ko Lanta for our evening anchorage. We originally planned to eat at a nice restaurant recommended by the guidebook, but after waiting for an hour, we found a different spot down the beach, where the steamed lemon red snapper was potent but very well done.

The following morning, Dro woke me early to make a major sail all the way back north to Ko Yao Yai. I was very worried that we’d get trapped down south and couldn’t pull off this big leg, but the winds locked in from the NW and we cruised 6+ kts. As we rounded PP Dom, I put us on a beam reach and watched our speed climb to 7.5-8 kts. Awesome. As we came to the southern tip of Ko Yao Yai, the darkening storm clouds seemed particularly ominous. The winds were only 14 kts, so we keep the sails out, but this was a mistake. Dro was at the helm, suddenly we had sustained 30 kts and Michael and I went into crazy action. We managed to get the boat into the wind and fuller the genoa and drop the main. It was clear we should have seen this coming and reefed, but we didn’t. In the action, one of the jib sheets flapping aggressively wrapped under the galley port hatch handle and broke the window. We enjoyed getting the breeze through the galley, but should probably have closed those while under sail. Some good lessons learned and ultimately about $200 shared between the 10 shipmates. We motored the rest of the way to our anchorage outside Yao Tai Beach Resort. We managed to do 52.1 miles in 8:35 with 5.3 kts (6.1 mph) average and 7.8 kts (9.0 mph) max; by far the biggest sail of my life.

We knew that Ko Yao Yai was a Muslim island, but assumed that westerners would still have easy access to liquor on New Years Eve. This turned out to not be entirely true, but we worked a deal out with a beach restaurant to BYOB, so we brought our remaining liquor to shore. I found someone willing to sell beer and the crew danced until midnight, when the pier lit up with fireworks. For the record, laying on a white sand beach in Thailand watching fireworks light up the Andaman Sea is a great way to ring in 2018.

Way too early the following morning we headed back to Yacht Haven Marina. We topped up our diesel for $80 and went through the checkin procedures. I was in a hurry to meet my girlfriend, Jess, at the airport, so I said my goodbyes and took off for the next segment of the adventure. Jess didn’t have an international phone plan so we preplanned to meet at the southern end of the airport. I was relieved when she triumphantly showed up on the far side of the world. We taxied to our hotel and explored old town Phuket by foot. We got a nice lunch with Changs, Coconuts, and curry and visited the Hai Leng Ong (Dragon) Statue, Wat Mongkol Nimit, the silly Phuket Trickeye Museum, and got Thai massages at Kim’s. For dinner, we met Dro, Nicole, Michael, and Gale at Tu Kab Khao. Then we said our goodbyes again, but this time for real, and then Jess and I began our great trip south.

We had a “ferry” booked the next morning, so we asked the front desk to get us a taxi. The nice lady called a few taxis said they were far away and then looked over to her counterpart, as if to say something secret, and then called another person. She said we’ll have a driver out front in a couple minutes. We were surprised when a decaled Mitsubishi rally race car pulled up and waived us over. The interior was covered in auxiliary gauges for monitoring, presumably, the engine and turbo pressure and temperatures. He blasted Mexican, Thai, and English techno all the way to Rassada Pier – quite the wake-up. But then we sat around for an hour while ferries loaded and took off. To my surprise, we were loaded into a smaller speedboat with triple 250 HP outboards. We pulled out into the open water and proceeded to get knocked around in 4’ waves all the way to Ko Lanta and then down to Ko Lipe. We covered 135 miles at ~30 mph and by mid-afternoon we were deposited dazed on a beautiful beach in southern Thailand. The island is entirely walkable and popular as a low-key destination for families. We grabbed some fruit on the way to our hostel and then walked out to the beach through the impoverished ghetto. On the other side, photogenic beauty reappeared. We did a short snorkel, but the tide was so low it was hard to find routes through the coral. Jess still thought it was great since this was her first time snorkeling! I was also her first time backpacking, in the travel sense. She was making the most of it, but was struggling with a persistent cough. I always hate traveling while sick, but she seemed unfazed. That evening, we snagged beers and walked down sunrise beach around to sunset beach. Normally this wouldn’t be possible, but because the tide was so low we could sneak through the rocky areas. Then we crossed the island to the southern beach and had a tasty dinner on the beach with Mai Tais and G&Ts. We took the Walking St back to the hostel and perused the wears, trinkets, and eateries. This evening was definitely a highlight of the trip.

The next day, we tried to catch the sunrise on sunrise beach but it was cloudy. Instead we walked the beach and checked out all the beached longtails. The 2-meter tide is very aggressive so half the day the boats can’t clear the reef. As the tide returned, we did another snorkel and then set out to catch our ferry to Langkawi. Unfortunately, I assumed it was the same timing as the previous day as that boat was to head on to Langkawi, so we ended up missing our speed boat and had to go through an annoying process of getting another one. Fortunately, getting stranded in paradise isn’t so bad and we saddled up on the beach to wait to go through immigration. A few hours later we found ourselves in Malaysia in a driving rainstorm. We taxied to our hostel, the Honey Badger Hut (I couldn’t not stay there), and we headed for Kampung Lubok Buaya and wound up at Lavazza Café on Cenang Beach for dinner. It rained more. We tried to Uber, but after 25 minutes and no progress from our driver, we just walked back to the Hostel in the rain.

In the morning, I let jess sleep in and went out to gather breakfast. I found it surprising that the large grocery store we visited the night before wouldn’t open until 10am. Luckily a place next door, Siti, was open and a woman with a hijab was cooking made-to-order roti canai with a honey sauce – way better than traditional donuts but probably no healthier. I did really like all the fishing boats in the small river in the vicinity of 6.303155, 99.722448, so I stopped to get a few pictures on the way back to the hostel. Jess was up and ready to go when I got back. We had our breakfast and Ubered to the Langkawi Cable Car. It’s a bit like Disney Land around there, but we managed to find it a ride up to the Langkawi Sky Bridge. The storms had moved off, but the visibility was still poor from a low-lying Malaysian haze. We hiked up to the top of the mountain and then down to the arcing Langkawi Sky Bridge. The suspension bridge used a single internal tower, which is very cool architecturally and mechanically. There were also a couple transparent floor tiles on the walkway where we could stand over a hundred feet of nothing, and did the trick of giving our hearts an extra beat.

Back at sea-level, we hiked up to base of Seven Wells Waterfall and then the hundreds of steps up to the upper pools. We were hauling our full packs at this point, so Jess and I were dripping sweat by the top. Fortunately, this area was a great spot for locals and tourists alike to cool off in the humid midday heat. We had fun relaxing in the pools and watching the local long-tailed macaques hunt for natural foods and human refuse. We had arranged for an older taxi driver to take us to the ferry terminal at 1:00, but when we got back down at 1:00, we asked the driver to wait while we got some food. The price for a meal is incredibly about $2 and exploding with flavor. This seems to be the universal case in Malaysia.

After this, our driver slightly raised the price of our pre-negotiated drive by about a dollar. I lightly protested but he explained it was documented on the sign at the Oriental Village but forgot the amount. Then he went way out of his way to make sure we saw the sign, in what I took to be an over-the-top gesture of honesty. After that hiccup he zipped us across the island to the Ferry terminals in Kuah. Along the way he showed us his circa 1993 military photo and explained that he was part of the UN peacekeeping operations led by the US military in Bosnia. I got the sense he was impressed with the leadership in that conflict because he started referring to me as ‘sir’ after I said we were American.

A far more relaxed ferry ride dropped us off in George Town on Penang Island. The city was sizable, but the area around Fort Cornwallis was quaint with small shopping areas like “Little India”. Actually, this area was recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 because it represented an exceptional example of a multi-cultural trading town in Southeast Asia with unique architecture and lifestyle. The rain came and went so Jess and I were happy to drop off gear at our hotel. We visited Kapitan Keling Mosque and tried to get a drink at the rooftop bar of the Kontar, but lightning prevented anyone from going on deck. Instead, we found a dim sum place and I gorged on dumplings until I couldn’t see straight. Jess managed to exercise self-control, which I couldn’t understand as we were being faced by an endless supply of such wonderfully scrumptious packets of happiness. Somewhere along the way we also snagged a quarter of a durian. It’s a horrifically stinky fruit but tastes ok if you pinch your nose. Jess and I watched in amazement when a small Asian woman devoured an entire fruit without gagging.

In the morning, we walked in the rain to a ferry to a bus station that took us to Kuala Lumpur. I think taking the train would have been slightly nicer, but the bus worked out well. Then we took a metro across town to the Bukit Bintang district and our 5-star Marriott across the street from the Pavilion KL, a grandiose shopping center with Louis Vuitton, Prada, and other fashion shops that I had zero interest in visiting. We walked the surface streets past dozens of construction jobs to the Petronas Twin Towers and KLCC Park. It was interesting to see the famous bridge halfway up the towers by day, but the towers were far more spectacular at night when they seem to glow with rings of light. The evening was unexciting: we strolled the mostly-closed KL Citywalk and purchased a celebratory Pina Colada (which is taxed something like 300% because Malaysia is a Muslim country). We did finally figure out the series of skyways on the way back to the hotel though, so that was far more pleasant to stay out of the rush-hour traffic.

On our final day in Malaysia, we took the metro to Batu Caves. Initially, we (accidentally) visited a very strange, neon-powered collection of ‘psychedelic dioramas’ in Ramayana Cave, named because the oddly sculpted characters depicted the Indian story of Ramayana. Feeling confused, Jess and I walked along the shops until we discovered the actual Batu Cave, along with hordes of tourist buses. We climbed the 272 steps past the golden Murugan statue to the monstrous Cathedral Cave. Passing through this cavern, you climb another set of stairs to an open limestone room with a Hindu Temple and mischievous monkeys. We saw one woman have her lunch striped from her hands. On our way down the main stairwell, we decided to do the Dark Cave tour. It included nice cave features (columns, curtains, stalactites, gour pools, etc.) and critters (crickets, bats), but we didn’t see the famous trap-door spider. We did some fast shopping at the gift shop and then it was Ubering to the hotel and airport to head further south.

The way the flights worked out, Jess got to Singapore a couple hours before I did. I met her at our hotel and we linked up with Mervyn, my first grad school advisor from Georgia Tech. We hadn’t seen one another for 12 years (!) but hit it off talking about complexity theory, former colleagues, and the future of technology. He was nice enough to show Jess and I to a section of town tourists don’t often visit: Eminent Frog Porridge. A Chinese run establishment that served bowls of whole cooked frogs slathered in sauce. The frogs were pretty good actually and I ate a couple of them. But Merv wanted to give us the authentic Singapore experience and ordered a feast of chili crabs, prawns, fried rice, and veggies. It was a flavor rollercoaster. We then got a couple drinks (including a Singapore Sling for Jess) at the Bungy Bar at Clarke Quay. It was nice to sit along the Singapore River and reminisce about a part of my life that seems so long ago.

Early the next morning, Jess and I were on a plane heading back stateside and somewhere around 24 hours of travel later we were comfortably back in burque.
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