Langkawi and Phuket

February to June 1998

Langkawi and Thailand


February 1998


We planned a cruise down the Malacca Straits to Singapore and then over the top of Borneo, Irian Jaya (part of Indonesia) and Papua New Guinea to Australia - or Oz - as it is known in this part of the world. We scrounged and borrowed 150 charts, had them copied, and spent three weeks cataloguing them and checking that we had the whole cruise covered. We then decided not to go!


Contributing factors to this decision were the lack of wind in the area, the simmering Indonesian political situation and reports of pirate activity and attacks on some yachts north of Papua/New Guinea. But the most significant reason was the lack of wind. We would have to motor for a considerable part of the way - and we hate motoring. So we decided to stay in the Malaysia/Thailand area until the next NE monsoon starting in November, and then decide whether to carry on eastward to Borneo, PNG and OZ, or whether to make our way back across the Indian ocean visiting Sri Lanka and the Maldives which we had left out on our voyage eastward.


March 1998


The first two weeks of March were spent doing a leisurely circumnavigation of Langkawi Island, and its attendant, more than ninety, small islands - a total distance of about eighty nautical miles. We found good anchorages opposite luxury hotels on the north coast at Pantai Kok, Datai Bay and at Tanjung Rhu.      Pantai = Beach and Tanjung = Cape.


We were accompanied some of the way by Canadians Doreen and Mike on their yacht St Leger. Mike is a retired Canadian Mountie. It is interesting that on a fairly large percentage of the American and Canadian boats that we have met, the male part of the crew is a retired policeman or defence force officer. The reason is that after 25 years of service, not matter what age the have reached, they retire on full pay, inflation linked and with free medical treatment anywhere where there is a US defence force base. So for them cruising is definitely an affordable life style, especially with the currently strong US $.


The beach hotels round Langkawi are beautifully designed, blending easily into the surrounding landscape, and are of a high international standard - four to five star South African equivalent. But they have some big problems with the sea.  Firstly, no waves, so no surfing or picturesque crashing of water on rocks or sea-shore.  Then there is garbage pollution. The sea abounds with cast away flip flops, other types of shoes and every sort of plastic container imaginable.  Each high tide deposits an unsightly mess on the beach in front of the hotels.  At Tanjung Rhu  the hotel sent out a tractor each morning at first light, towing a beach sweeping device to clean up the water front before the hotel guests arose. 


On the north east corner of Langkawi we went into 'Hole in the Wall', a narrow entrance through high cliffs into a sheltered mangrove lined river. A perfect hurricane shelter - except you don't have hurricanes here. It was hot,  breathless and mosquito plagued, especially at night. So we left the next morning and sailed south to spend two days at Charong island before moving on to anchor in Bass harbour at Kuah, the main town on Langkawi. The name Langkawi means brown eagle and a significant feature on the waterfront is an enormous concrete eagle, painted to mimic the colours of the many hundreds of brown fish eagles that soar over the mountains, islands and sea of Langkawi. Sailing instructions and notes from other yachts say to 'anchor underneath the eagle' - so we did.


During the second half of March we sailed to Penang, a busy commercial island port about eight miles off the mainland of Malaysia, seventy miles south of Langkawi.  We put in an overnight stop at the marine park on Pulau Payer - Pulau means island in Bahasa Malay.  Instead of anchoring we tied up to one of the steel boys provided by the marine nature preservation authorities.  We don't really like to do this as you can never be sure of the condition of the mooring block, chains and shackles, but we had no choice, as otherwise we would be anchoring on coral, which is not good from a holding point of view, and it also kills the coral.  Our sleep was interrupted twice at the change of tide as Senta started banging on the steel buoy.


At Penang we anchored just past the ferry terminal a couple of hundred meters offshore from Chew Jetty, a village of ramshackle wooden dwellings built on platforms supported by stilts over the tidal mud flats.  There is no convenient dinghy landing spot and the tidal currents run strongly, so we used the services of a local sampan to get to and from the shore.


A South African couple Johan and Ingrid on 'Nicola', whom we had previously met in Chagos, were also anchored there and on our first trip ashore, they showed us around Georgetown, the business centre of Penang. And what business!  Every little nook and cranny housed an active entrepreneur selling something: take away foods, jewellery, watches, engine spares, flowers, cosmetics, computers and peripherals, CD and tape players, radios, clothing, pirate CD's - anything you can think of.  And the tiny shops stayed open till late at night.


We spent a week in Penang sight seeing at museums, churches, temples, mosques, art gallery and just strolling through the town watching the people and tourists go about their business. A highlight was a ride up Penang hill behind Georgetown in a combination cable/railway train, called a 'mountain railway'. The track is so steep, about thirty degrees, that the railway cars are built at an angle so that it is possible to sit or stand upright in them. The trip, to nearly 800 meters above sea level, took over half an hour, but it was worth it for the fresh, clean, cool air and a view only slightly spoiled by the haze.


continued at the top of the next column........
....... continued from the previous column
The trip back to Langkawi was unusual in that we were able to sail most of the way, doing seventy miles in seventeen hours in light winds and six hours of a counter current.
After checking in at Kuah we sailed to the Fresh Water Lake, where we anchored in a sheltered cove near a ketch flying the South African flag.  We rowed over in the dinghy to visit, say 'hello' and also to tell them that their SA flag was flying upside down - an international signal for a vessel in distress!  The boat was 'Spirit of Adventure' sailed by Richard and Jean from Durban.  They had left SA in July 1997, arrived in Thailand in September 1997 and planned to stay in South East Asia a long, long time - maybe forever. 
On the way back to Rebak Marina we stopped for a few days at Pantai Cenang where we went ashore to visit Underwater World, a first class sea and fresh water aquarium. In the shark section the viewing walkway has tanks on either side and overhead, so it is quite scary standing there with large sharks swimming all around you.


April/May 1998


Early April was spent loafing around Rebak and preparing for our second trip to Thailand, which was done in short hops, stopping at Butang, Rok Nok and Phi Phi Don islands.


At Rok Nok Pierre developed an infected throat that got rapidly worse, so that by the time we reached Phi Phi he could not swallow any liquids or antibiotic tablets. I was considering ways and means of getting him on to a ferry to Phuket and into hospital, but he said to wait a while and after being really ill for four days he slowly started to recover.


The last week in April and three weeks in May were spent at anchor in and around Phuket, shopping, walking ashore and chatting with friends. We met up again with Barry, Robyn and their young son William, whom we had previously seen at Rebak. They were boat sitting the trimaran, 'Lizard of Oz', for a friend of theirs and hence getting a free three month holiday in Thailand. Part of the deal was that Barry and Robyn had to clean and antifoul the Lizard's bottom. We spent one enjoyable (?) afternoon on the beach at Ao Chalong helping them with the antifouling. We had cleverly stayed far away during the scrubbing, scraping and cleaning phases.


It was the end of the dry season and everything was arid, dusty and dirty. The two sources of freshwater at Ao Chalong had run dry and there was no rain. Luckily Senta's tanks carry about 800 litres of fresh water so we had no problem, but some of the other boats were becominging concerned.


We spent a few days at Boat Lagoon, a marina north of Phuket town, to see what it would be like as a haul-out venue. We were unimpressed. Far too snobbish, expensive and a 'take it or leave it' attitude. So we looked at Ratanachai Slipway Company, the commercial shipyard where the local fishing boats go for their annual haul out and maintenance. This was much more to our liking so we made a booking for early September.


At the end of May we sailed back to Langkawi. On the way at Phi Phi Don island I decided to start a course of penicillin to cure a urinary tract infection that didn't seem to want to go away.  The first tablet I took caused a violent allergic reaction with extreme overall body itching, difficulty breathing and dizziness. So no more penicillin for me - ever!.  The infection was cured by drinking megalitres of fresh water and some potassium citrate solution prescribed by the doctor at Langkawi hospital.


A few days before our return to Langkawi we anchored in a large well protected bay at the south end of Ko Lanta.  Here the dry season ended in spectacular fashion with a thirty five knot squall and so much rain that we could not see more than fifteen meters from the boat.  We were pleased that we had dug in our 65 lb CQR anchor, had forty meters of chain out in eight meters of water, with a further forty meters of chain to let out if needed - which it wasn't. 


Our next stop was at Ko Phetra, a sheer cliff-faced island, like a twenty-storey block of flats.  We anchored on the east side as this was the SW monsoon season.  But at 0300 a strong wind came up from the south east blowing us back to within spitting distance of the cliff face.  We sat anchor watch until first light, when we hauled our anchor up and got out of there - fast! 
A very patchy motor-sail of fourteen hours brought us to Datai bay on the NW corner of Langkawi as the sun set. We were hot and tired and went early to bed after large mugs of tea, some chocolate biscuits and a banana each for supper - hoping that we would not have any more anchor dramas in the night. The joys of cruising!


When we reached Rebak marina a few days later we found it to be crowded, 96 boats in a marina with a maximum capacity of 120. Many boats had come from Thailand to escape the customs authorities who were clamping down on yachts overstaying the maximum time allowed of six months. In Malaysia, although people have visas of two or three months depending on nationality, the boats are welcome to stay forever.


Yachts that we know came and went, including a couple who had left Thailand in January, sailed to India, Maldives and Chagos and then returned to Rebak - a total distance of 4 500 miles in just over four months. A bit too rushed for us.


June/July 1998


June and the first half of July were spent in the marina, generally loafing, doing boat cleaning and maintenance, learning to play Majong, an ancient Chinese game, preparing equipment and supplies for Senta's haul out in September and planning a two week land tour of Malaysia and Singapore.