HAPPY CHRISTMAS FROM PHUKET!!

 

We have been overtaken! The Blue Water Rally has caught up with us – 30 yachts sailing round the world (25,000 miles as the crow flies round the equator) in 21 months, which may sound slow but doesn’t allow much time to see whatever country you are in at the time. Pete and Val are on Valhalla. We hadn’t seen them since Southampton, but they recognised Intrepid and we swapped rally stories; the Blue Water Rally have already had one boat sink (hit rocks – no fatalities fortunately) and Gypsy Moth (which used to be sailed by Sir Francis Chichester and is now sailing with them) hit a coral reef in the Pacific and had to be dragged off on sheets of plywood and taken for a refit – her professional skipper lost their license over that one.  Lots of breakdowns as well, generators especially and things ‘falling off’; also skipper/crew arguments – one skipper (Bernard on Goldeneye – another Westerly Oceanlord) is charging all his crew 7000 UK pounds/leg each, then when they can’t stand him any longer and leave, refuses to refund anything… . A fishing boat tried to go between the 2 hulls of a catamaran and broke the beam joining the 2 hulls – luckily they and the mast just stayed together until they reached port, the fishing boat limped away. The complete Bluewater Rally costs 9750 UK pounds/boat and there are mutterings that it isn’t good value, the briefings are not adequate etc. It all makes Sail Asia feel very good.

 

Telaga Marina on Langkowi was full so we anchored outside behind 2 sheltering islands, and dinghied in to the 6 restaurants. We were having Greek tapas (the proprietor is Greek) one evening when an entourage of about 12 people swept by and settled down at the table next to us. Dr Mahathir, the ex PM of Malaysia apparently likes the chili prawns there – he seemed fit enough (he is aged 80), we were eyed up by 2 security men, and said Hello to the ex-PM. A few Malaysians whispered, and came up to shake his hand, but few expats seemed to recognize him. 

 

When he was PM he was the master of the grand project – tax free Langkawi as a whole is one, but another is the cable car up to the 710 metre high peak. Its operated by an Austrian company and gives a panoramic view over the island. 2 years ago our friends had coincidentally and fortunately decided to go up this cable car on Boxing Day 2004. When the Tsunami hit…………..Today, Langkawi is almost completely back to normal – 3 Marinas were almost wiped out but Telaga looks fine, and Rebak which fronts a luxury hotel looks as good as new – which it is I suppose. The tsunami crashed all the way up the winding entrance channel then smashed everything in its way. Insurance money or Government grants have enabled them to replace everything, and we stayed 2 days by the pool. A flu type bug has hit most of the rally, one person (in his 30’s) was hospitalized for kidney stones, people need as much maintenance as boats! But Silolone a beautiful replica Indonesian cargo boat built by a merchant banker threw a party and we had rally women pole dancing (well almost) by the bowsprit.

 

Kuah the capital of Langkawi has a monster concrete eagle towering over it, looking for all the world like an advert for Kentucky Fried Eagle, but the duty free was the attraction – we had to stock up for the 5 month Indian Ocean crossing. We also rummaged around for valves for inflatables in the most unlikely places and now have 12 spare valves of various sizes (our dinghy only has 4 valves in total) – one must work………or is this just hot air? (and it did work so that our dinghy looks once again like a fresh faced youth instead of a wrinkled old person- botox for dinghies?).

 

We were exhorted to spend more money so did our best – Malaysia is doing well but its economy is still overly dependant on Government spending its 1.2 m barrels/day oil revenues (x$60/barrel = US$72 million/day). Fine until the oil runs out, but still only $3/person/day…for an oil nation, Malaysia’s currency is surprisingly weak (it used to be 4 ringitt = 1 pound, now its 7) – which is counter-intuitively an advantage for them as it enables them to be more or less competitive for assembly and manufacture. USA is currently trying the same cheaper currency which will work fine until oil is priced against the Euro or a basket of currencies rather than the US$. …..Private sector investment in Malaysia is only 12% of total investment, down from 35% pre-Asian currency crisis – I think Chinese and western investments must be going to even cheaper wage economies in the region – hence the Malaysian drive to move into service sectors – tourism, health, 3rd age. And a side effect of the high oil price – 5 years ago plantations stopped tapping trees for rubber – $14 oil meant it was cheaper to make synthetic rubber, but now tapping has re-started and they are even planting new rubber trees.

 

Have you read ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman?’ Its written by John Perkins a US (ex) partner of an American consultancy. It describes how the USA uses(d) strategic consultancy to persuade the leaders of 3rd world and/or oil rich countries to take on huge debt for (eg) airports or electricity generation by using ludicrously high estimates of future economic growth (15-18%/year) to justify it. Then private US firms would build whatever infrastructure it was, providing commissions to the leaders making them very wealthy, but leaving the poor citizens burdened with impossible debt. When the countries couldn’t repay the debt, the US used this leverage to gain their support at the UN and generally as part of the pro-American anti-communist block. Interesting book, backed up with lots of facts by someone who clearly knew the system. I guess a similar book could be written about the UK and the murky area where politicians and business strategic decisions interact.

 

We had already exceeded our planned 3 days in Langkowi by 5 days when we motored round east to the hole in the wall, not an ATM but a genuine geological gap (Langkowi is now a UNESCO Geopark) which we squeezed Intrepid though, anchored, and dinghied up winding mangrove lined muddy creeks right through a 20 metre long cave round lovely limestone formations navigating by my Timex watch compass (which typically required calibration half way up, and told me the time in Taiwan instead).

 

But then we really had to move north into Thailand – well actually into the string of islands that run from the southern Thai/Malaysia border north 100 miles to the holiday island of Phuket. These 5 southern Thai states (Songkhia, Satun, Narathiwat, Pattari and Yalta) are predominantly Muslim and have seen significant violence which the new Thai military government blames on the previous civilian government, but which actually is more to do with independence than any particular government. In fact we had already seen the early Thai signs in Langkawi (which is right on the border) – spicy hot food, and boats with long prop shafts powered by truck engines, stuck out of the back of the boats.

 

Thailand like Malaysia has made these offshore islands a marine park – so no fishing – right? Well, we anchored on the east side of Tarutao national ecotourism park, behind a smaller island, and within 1 hour a 60 foot long fishing boat with 12 men and 3 boys swept along, slowed, looked as though they were coming on board, then laid a fine mesh net (+/- 1 cm mesh) in a circle about 150 metres diameter. Quite complicated, then spent the next hour retrieving it until finally they had a fold of net that was leaping and splashing. They tossed out 100’s of jellyfish about ½ metre diameter, and were left I think with a few anchovy size fish which is probably all there is left here. Not much to show for one hours hard work, although we enjoyed the performance.

 

So we sailed round the north of Tarutao, anchored at the National Park HQ, paid our entrance fee (400 Baht each, about 6 pounds), and walked up through the jungle to a peak, and then dinghied along mangrove lined channels in search of another crocodile cave which we totally failed to find although we had a good time looking. The park staff, having taken our money volunteered little, and seemed not very interested in anything than lying round. So we trekked up to a wonderful waterfall which cooled us down, and next morning sailed off 25 miles west, offshore in search of some clearer water and less jelly fish. Tarutao used to be a prison island – in WW2 all their supplies ran out and the prisoners and guards in desperation hijacked a passing ship. This proved so lucrative that they stayed and it took the Royal Navy in 1946 to remove this modern gang of pirates.

 

To our surprise we caught a 3 Kg  Wahoo (outside the NP boundary) and also found yellow sand beaches and clear jellyfish-free water in Ko Adang and Ko Lipe – it’s the muddy estuaries and logging from the mainland bordering the Malacca Straights that makes the sea murky and muddy, and these islands 30 miles offshore avoid this – also less rain – it rains an average of 21 days/month from May to October near Phuket (most in May and October); for November to April the average is 5 days/month. We attached to a mooring buoy off the Porn Resort – yes that’s its name – it seems to attract Germans and Brit divers and snorkellers, and drank a Singha beer admiring the sunset there.

 

We sailed 8 miles west and discovered near-perfection islands. In Ko Buteng we re-entered crystal clear water only 3-5 metres deep with coral and fish on a par with the Pacific, lots of blue stemmed sea anemones each hiding 3 clown fish, and a tremendous variety of hard and soft coral spread over acres around the island. We saw 3 other yachts today but they have gone now – we spotted a mooring ball east and south of Ko Boteng and as I write the sun is setting, the sea is mirror calm tinged with pink, the coral and fish are more varied than I have seen anywhere, the only sound is the lazy chirping of birds, and the cicadas, no sign of human activity anywhere we look. The temperature is a pleasant 25C, no wind; we have a wahoo to cook and rose wine to drink. You may find us here for Christmas (but I had to mend a leak in the Y valve yesterday which took a few hours and the nights are hot and humid). Our camera has just broken so we cant even send you a photo, but I will try with the most recent ones we have on our website.

 

The Tsunami that struck these shores with very little warning could do so again at any time. In USA, and Aus there are hurricanes but with 48 hours warning. In UK (except 1988) we are spared hurricanes and the closest we get to living constantly with the threat of sudden death is accidents and in the 1950’s to 1980’s nuclear destruction with just 8 minutes warning. People living here have to listen for Tsunami warnings now installed in population centres, and get to higher ground asap. Still I guess we have evolved to cope with exactly that sort of hunter/gatherer/prey style of life, so enjoy it!!

 

My book has gone through the editing stage and now moves to production – the cover is almost ready and I should get the proofs in Phuket, although it will not be on the market until May 2007. The book aims to help you get the right job or occupation for you and achieve the life-style you want, (well why aim low?), so it includes a lot of career choice, psychometrics, cv’s, on-line applications, interviews and even a practice assessment centre and how to get headhunters to work for you. 

 

Thursday we sailed north to Rok Nok island keeping offshore in the clearer water and fresher winds. Many of the rally boats seem to motor about 75% of the time and are frequently re-fueling; we try to sail when we can even if it means doing 3 knots rather than 6 or 7 – right now though we are sailing at 6 knots in bright sunshine.

 

Rok Nok is actually 2 small islands 20 miles offshore Thailand, 50 miles south of Phuket. The National Park have placed mooring balls to protect the coral from anchors. These balls have strong 1.5 inch (4 cm) diameter ropes and we tied up to one. Good until I snorkeled to check and the rope is attached to coral which has worn through the rope 6 metres below the surface – 4 thin strands are left; so I tied one of our mooring ropes to theirs below the worn part. Next day even the coral had come loose and was bouncing along the seabed so we moved to a much stronger concrete mooring. But there are sandy beaches, a few bungalows, and a timid beach bar which tries to light a BBQ at sundown and smokes out the whole anchorage – or are they just smoking any remaining mosquitoes? By anchoring at least 150 metres offshore we have avoided mosquitoes almost entirely on this trip.

 

Klaus and Kakia moored next to us late next day and at 6pm we asked them round ‘for a beer’. Interesting cultural differences – we thought for a drink then eat later; they thought they should eat first then come round for a beer. So at 8pm Nicky and I were disconsolately munching pate and peanuts and preparing to BBQ when they rowed round having eaten. BBQ on hold again and we have a great time till near midnight – unusually for the rally they are in their 40’s, Klaus had started then sold a small electrical engineering business in Hamburg and had always wanted to sail round the world so why not? They have taken 4 years which they think is about right. We shared estimates of the number of boats circumnavigating – about 300/year.

 

We are still on Malaysia time which makes it easier to get up at what is really 6am (we think its 7am) to sail the 50 miles to Ko Racha Yai. This turns out to be quite a crossing with 1 metre waves and a full gale (winds averaging 35 knots) but we arrive at this small pair of islands 12 miles south of Phuket just as the day boats are leaving. It’s a fully developed resort, nicely designed, but I am afraid seafood buffets and cultural dancing on the lawn aren’t what we are looking for and we find Racha’s bar tucked away and enjoy no-spice (Yes!) crab and prawns in a sandy beach bar atmosphere. 2 guys on 2 separate tables have acquired Thai girlfriends – hard work by the sound of it, one guy spends his time on his phone, and the others argue about money then gaze moodily past each other in silence. We return to find our dingy has gone – then we spot it just at the limit of sight, drifting. I grab the only other dinghy there, luckily not padlocked, a Yamaha so I start it easily, collect ours while Nicky remains to explain to the owner if necessary that we have ‘borrowed’ it, and re-tie the borrowed one. Next day we see notices saying that 3 dinghies have been stolen there recently – we must have got back just before they could hide the dinghy, so they let it loose. Little intrepid is now chained on.

 

Sailing north to Phuket next morning is pleasant but Ao Chalong the main anchorage is not. About a hundred speed and dive boats are based here taking tourists to near islands from the end of a 1 km long pier. The pilot book says take any vacant mooring buoy so we do and go in to clear immigration – we have been briefed there is a one stop shop for immigration, customs etc. But for our convenience they have moved to Phuket town, so we have wasted a day coming here and the boats do 20 knots through the anchorage. Around the pier much Thai massage is offered, and westerners sitting morosely with young Thai women, so we eat on Intrepid. Then at 10.45pm Seabea a large dive boat claims our mooring is ‘theirs’ – and in fact drop 2 crew off onto Intrepid and untie us. The mooring ball is totally anonymous, there is no way to tell. We remonstrate vigorously about how it is done, but we are not going to fight so pragmatically take all their details then move off and anchor. Partly the problem is language partly poor administration and partly Thailand does not welcome tourists or despairs of the type of tourist they do attract – tourist staff don’t bother, other staff appear half witted and the visa process is Byzantine – no-one seems to understand it.

 

I thought I was being cynical ……until I read the Thai Prime Minister’s views in ‘The Nation’ today. PM Suray Chulanont said that (and these are the exact words reported):

 

‘In Thailand, ethics morality and good governance have almost vanished and corruption has become rife. Nepotism has become rampant. Most bureaucrats have lost the will to work for their country. Bureaucrats use 4 tactics to advance their career – lick feet, use money, flatter and eat yoke (marry the boss’s daughter).’

 

Suray is a retired Army General – he says that he rejected a ‘bag of money’ during the previous administration – even allowing for the tactic of all incoming new CEO’s to blame the previous one, we have to hope that he can create a better state for this poor country. By contrast it makes Malaysia seem idyllic. Officials have to declare their assets now – the PM has about 10 million UK pounds – not bad for a general, but I suppose the decision to declare assets is to be applauded.

 

Royal Phuket Marina is reached by a 2 mile long channel that we just scraped over 1 hour before high tide guided by a pilot boat. A new awning, new sacrificial strip for the genoa, boat cleaning is in process, I have changed engine oil, polished the dinghy etc, a new relay for the starter arrived , and I have paid a 20,000 Baht (300 UK pounds) cash bond to the Army Officer in charge of Immigration be allowed to leave Thailand. I get a cheque back when I return!?

 

 Sri Lanka is in the middle of a terrible civil war, but we still hope to go there (if we didn’t go to places where there is civil war or coups our trip would be short). Perspective is important – during the IRA bombs friends wondered if it was safe to live and work in London – but terrible as it was, there was far more danger from car accidents for example. However our 1st half 2007 schedule is ‘fluid’, with many visas to apply for.

 

We wish you a very Happy Christmas and a satisfying and peaceful 2007.

 

Andy and Nicky Gibb.

 

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