Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Malacca Straits

We had an uneventful (that's good) run up the Malacca strait to Langkowi. Mention the Malacca Straits to many people and their immediate response is "Pirates!" Since 2006, the straits have been dropped from Lloyd's of London's list of "dangerous waterways" - so that's the worry about pirates dealt with, which just left squalls, shipping lanes and suicidal fishermen.

The straits should be a delightful area to sail in, with winds blowing from either the south-west or north-east, depending on the monsoon season. There is however that tricky transition from one monsoon to the other, during which winds can be light - unless you are run over by one of the numerous squalls. These nasties could arrive at any time of day or night, with blinding blasts of lightning, deafening thunder, gusts of over 30 knots and torrential rain. We specifically chose this transition season (no wind) between monsoons to try to sneak across the top of the Indian Ocean in calm conditions.


The Malaysian coastline does not offer an abundance of secure anchorages, so we decided to opt for a mix of day trips and overnight passages. Yachts are advised to head north in a virtual channel between the official shipping lane (filled with fast moving tankers and container ships) and the 10m depth contour (beyond which lie fleets of small fishing vessels). Sounds like a good theory, but it does place small fragile yachts in the same waters as behemoth tugs towing vast unlit barges. Night watches required considerably more vigilance than we're used to with the E-Reader and MP3 player being replaced by radar, AIS, binoculars and the hand-bearing compass.

Our first stop was Pisang Island and we specifically chose this short trip so Tom could have time to don the SCUBA gear and clean the bottom. He did clean the prop and keel cooler, but with 10 inch visibility and some fast current, he came back aboard to try another day.

Our next day trip took us to the Water Islands near Malacca (that we had visited by bus). We had a slightly rolly night and left early the next morning for Admiral Marina in Port Dickson. There we met Tiger Balm again and swapped some notes. We enjoyed a nice dinner out, swam in their pool and enjoyed a cool cabin from the air conditioners as we slept.

We chose to overnight the next 140 miles to bypass dirty Kelang and anchored in a nice bay off Pankor Island. The fishing boats fish at night too and lay a long net with a blinking (or not) light (or not) at one end of the net and keep the boat at the other. With one boat showing on the radar and the tiny blinking light one mile away, it is child's play to decide not to drive between the two. It gets harder with 5 boats and near impossible when we counted more than 30 boats on our radar set at 4 miles. Sometimes they will motor towards you at high speed and/or frantically wave a light to try and get us to steer one way or the other. At a couple of really heavy fishing areas, we diverted more than 5 miles off course to avoid getting tangled. Only once did we catch something in the prop (with no boats or nets close by?) and our speed dropped from 6 knots to 4. We just slowed, backed up and the knife cutters on the prop shaft must have cut through whatever it was. We never saw anything floating and our speed went back to normal.


We safely anchored at Pankor just off a beautiful resort where we watched rich folks being delivered by helicopter.

We used the free WiFi signal to find out its name and phone number. A quick phone call and they came out in a small launch to collect us and bring us ashore for lunch. We were given a private tour of the island and spa and told we could enjoy all the facilities. We had a scrumptious but expensive lunch and spent the entire afternoon by the enormous lap pool drying ourselves with their fluffy towels.


Our next day trip took us to historic Penang Island and we took the last available slip at Straights Quay marina. Clustered around the marina were several nice restaurants. We had a nice meal and took a bus to explore Georgetown the next day.  Georgetown was clean and pretty with 3-wheeled rickshaws, Chinese temples, beautiful fabrics and friendly Muslims.


We enjoyed two more cool nights and then made our last day trip to Langkowi.

I believe that this group of islands has been strategically placed at the end of the Malacca Straits as a reward to cruisers. After cruising through the archipelago, I could understand why this has become a long term hang-out for many sailors.

Langkawi is an example of limestone karst scenery - which translates into a plethora of steep sided islets, many with sheer rocky cliffs which seem to be melting via stalactites into the jade coloured sea. The waters around Langkawi are all fairly shallow, which makes for some interesting navigation, but also enabled us to anchor close inshore, under towering rock formations. We chose an anchorage called the Fjord and it was special. We were greeted by a massive soaring eagle which was appropriate since Langkowi has taken this bird as their symbol.

The next morning we motored the 9 miles in Rebak marina for our last week of provisioning. The marina is on a private island and connected to a 5 star resort. We pay about $25 per day for dockage, but can use the swimming pool, spa, restaurants and free ferry to Langkowi.

While there, Tom changed every engine fluid he could find while Kim bought every frozen meat, can good and fresh vegetable she could find. We bought 3 more 20-liter pails of engine oil and a few more assorted filters. Tom also finished cleaning the bottom and got all the SCUBA tanks filled. This is a duty free port so we also managed to find room for about $300 worth of wine, beer and spirits. That actually is a lot since beer here is about $10 a case and a full liter bottle of Absolut vodka is $11! Why are we leaving?


For shopping, we took the resort's speedboat ferry for a 10-minute ride across the harbor to Langkawi, where we shop, do errands, and sightsee. We rented a wreck for $15/day from Mr. Din on four separate days, the unsmiling Chinaman who has his fleet of cars parked at the ferry dock. We rush to get one of his "luxury" cars for an extra couple of dollars as they're usually in better shape. One of them even had automatic gearshift. We pay in cash, no driver's license requested, no paperwork, no insurance. (If a foreigner has an accident here, it's his fault. Driving on the left and risk is all part of the adventure of third world travel.) The first thing we do upon leaving the parking lot is to gas up, since the fuel tank is almost empty. About $5 gas takes us all day. Mr. Din is rumored to siphon off any extra fuel when cars are returned, leaving his customers just enough to get to the nearest gas station.

One car rattled our teeth when idling and would dump copious amounts of cold water from the A/C on Kim's feet every time I made a right turn. The second car was so infested with ants that we stopped at a hardware store to buy and empty a can of insecticide at the scurrying creatures!  But the car air conditioners were both pushing out frosty air and somehow we found everything that we needed.  We visited several museums and we saw batik being made and bought a few more pieces.

We only had one extra beef tenderloin that Kim could not jam into the full freezer. That got cut in half and jammed into the icemaker!

So it was with a full freezer and refrigerator and fruit hanging in nets aft, diesel fuel sloshing out of the overfilled tanks, we push off to sea. Next stop is about 12 days to the west in the Maldives. I've been watching the wind and seas for a month and have never seen any wind over 15 knots (mostly 5 knots and below) and seas always below 2 meters. This weather is a sailboater's nightmare and a trawlers dream…we shall see. Stay tune dear reader to see how it all works out.

Posted via SSB on passage

PostScript- To make things interesting for our last night on land, we heard the reports of the nearby 8+ earthquake and feared another tsunami was on its way toward us. A quick check on the internet showed it west of Sumatra and unlikely to affect us. It was however, almost directly on the route we plan to take at sea. My engineering background tells me that being at sea over an earthquake would be OK since tsunami damage only occurs as the waves near the shore, but still… In any event, the crew of Emily Grace did not feel a thing and we appreciate all the concern from friends and family.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Melaka - A Road Trip

We took a 2 hour bus ride north to spend 3 nights in Melaka (or Malacca).  We booked into the Jonker Boutique Hotel right in the heart of Chinatown.  We had a nice room with A/C and private bathtub for soaking that overlooked the famous performing stage on Jonker Walk.


In the heart of Melaka is a long narrow five hundred meter street flanked by old houses dating back to 17th century. It was merely a row of shacks when it started on the Western bank of Melaka River. The servants and subordinates of Dutch masters used to live at nearby Heeren Street. However, as soon as Dutch left, it became noblemen's street! Rich Babas and Bibiks started to live and trade here giving the street a deep-rooted ethnic and cultural flavor. Now officially named as Jalan Hang Jebat, it is popularly known as the Jonker Walk. Due to availability of collectible items dating back to medieval times at many shops, it is also referred as the Antique Street. Due to Chinese influences, its also referred as the China Town of Melaka. 


During Dutch Period, it was known as rich men's street as rich Baba Nyonya had by that time established their businesses here!


Whatever the name, it really appears to be a living museum and is a must-see place for anyone visiting Melaka. Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, the street is closed for motor vehicles from 6 pm to midnight and roadside stalls are installed by street vendors selling gift items and souvenirs for the visitors of Melaka.  We arrived on Sunday morning, so we could enjoy one noisy night from the revelry outside our window and then have two quiet nights.


Strolling along the Jonker Walk gives impression of Carnival-like atmosphere. There are many shops selling collectable items or 'antiques' as old as few hundred years. However, most of these 'antique' shops are either closing or are already closed in the evening time. The artifacts from the Portuguese, Dutch and British colonial periods can be found in many shops.


One can also bargain for invaluable antique furniture from China, centuries-old Javanese and Sumatran wood carvings, intricately carved Chinese rosewood furniture inlaid with mother-of-pearl, Indian brassware and tapestry items, porcelain items dating back to the Sung, the Ming and the Ching Dynasties, Dutch hanging kerosene lamps and other curios. Enthusiasts of numismatics can find interesting coins and banknotes as well. Visitors with eagle-eyed looks can even find items made of banned ivory and statues of Buddha! Many reflect the influence Chinese immigrants who sailed to Melaka with Muslim Chinese Admiral Cheng Ho in the 15th century, Straits Chinese and later Chinese immigrants to the then Malaya. 


We found a few shops still making the famous beaded shoes.  Nyonya Melaka beaded shoes, also known as ‘kasot manek’, literally meaning shoe beads, is a type of shoe that dates back to the early 20th century. It refers to beaded shoes worn by a nyonya to complete her Sarong Kebaya outfit, together with chained brooches (kerosang rangkai) and a silver belt (pending). The shoes are made of Nyonya cut beads (manek potong), which are treasured as these beads are no longer available.

Vintage kasot manek are intricate and finely stitched, a testimony to the fine workmanship of yesteryears. The intricacy and fine workmanship of a pair of beaded slipper is also a hallmark of highly accomplished Peranakan women, also known as nyonyas, whose skills in embroidery and beadwork are highly valued.

The beaded slippers were worn by both the Peranakan males (baba) and females (nyonya) and were popular in the 1930s. Nowadays, the beaded slippers are more commonly worn by women only. The beaded slippers were made for two types of occasions. For happy occasions, like the Chinese New Year or birthdays, these beaded slippers used colorful beads with intricate patterns. For sad occasions, the beads used were likely to be in black, white or blue colors (Chinese mourning colors), and the patterns were simple. The beaded slippers were either opened face (peep-toe) or covered face. The popular motifs used for the patterns were flowers, birds, butterflies, and fruits. These motifs, likely to appeal to the feminity of the Peranakan women, had both European and Chinese influence. The sample patterns were likely to be cross-stitched, with each stitch representing a bead. The beads were then used in the actual beading of the slippers. The Peranakan pattern for the beaded slipper is unique in that even the background is quite ornate resulting in a colorful patterned mosaic with a well-defined border. To sew the pattern, a laced-up wooden frame (pidangan) is used to provide the right tension for the beading. The beading process starts from the center of the pattern, moving to the right then left. The main motif of the pattern is first beaded, followed by the background and then the border. The border may have a smooth or scallop-edge. When the beaded pattern is completed, it would be sent to the cobbler to be made into slippers. Leather is usually the preferred material for the beaded slippers, and may be either made with low or high heels.  At over $130 US per shoe, we decided to leave with only the memory and a few photos.

Wonderful variety of local and ethnic traditional cuisine, beverages, desserts and Baba Nyonya delicacies can be found in the shops and cafes of the Jonker Street.


We tried the Chicken Rice Ball, a Melakan specialty made by boiling rice in chicken stock, some chicken oil and salt and flavored with garlic, ginger and shallot. The rice thus cooked is shaped into balls and served with boiled chicken pieces, garnished with cucumber, spring onion, and chili sauce.

Spring roll, called 'Popiah' can be found here and there in the Jonker Street. Mostly both wet and deep fried varieties are available. Traditionally the contents include scrambled egg, fried onion, lettuce, turnip, bean sprout. The contents of popiah at Jonker Street may include fried pork fat as well. Chili paste and sweet sauce is provided with popiah.  We also sampled spiral cut potatoes deep fried as we walked up the road.


Chendol or cendol is one of the popular desserts in Melaka and it was so strange, of course we tried it. It consists of a big pile of shaved ice and white coconut milk, Gula Melaka (palm sugar) and sweet fruit juices like mango are poured over it and sometimes corn is added.  After you eat the sweetly flavored ice, you find surprise items underneath.   I found thin worm-like, pandan-flavoured, green-colored pea flour noodles and red beans, pieces of glutinous rice, grass jelly and even a few peanuts... really interesting.  Kim and Emily only tasted mine once, but I ordered it several times here in Malaysia and find it surprisingly refreshing!

We enjoyed the food, toured several Chinese temples and took a ride on the 3 wheeled bicycle powered carts.  It was pleasant to be away from the boat and the job list for a few days.