Welcome to the blog of the sailing yacht Sea Bunny.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas at Nai Harn

We left the Rebak "cruisers' retirement village" on Sunday 18/12 via Telaga for check-out, fuel and wine.  Despite a fuel booking for 280 litres at 1500 we got to the fuel dock at the appointed time to find the tank was empty.  This was actually convenient as we could leave Sea Bunny on the dock while visiting harbourmaster, customs (not there but harbourmaster was moonlighting as customs and gave us our clearance) and immigration.  After the formalities we were able to take the RIB over to the wine shop before the tanks were refilled and diesel became available about 1800. 

A quick trip up, stopping overnight at Ko Rok, got us to Panwa Bali, opposite Ao Chalong, on Tuesday in time for dinner ashore with Amoenitas. Wednesday entailed a visit across the bay to Ao Chalong to check in.  The new computerised system overlaid on top of the paperwork does not yet seem to offer any streamlining of the procedures, stacks of paper being printed out and signed.  We still had to provide paper copies of the boat's registration document ans skipper's passport to each of immigration, customs and port control, despite having uploaded it.

Back at Panwa Bali it was easy to get a taxi into the Central Festival shopping centre for last minute Christmas supplies - no tonic though - apparently this shortage is island-wide after the floods north.  Too many expats downing  their Christmas G&Ts.

After successful emergency troubleshooting on the genset it was a short sail around to Nai Harn to meet up with the advance guard of our Christmas group - MV Mandella II and SV Catcha Star were already anchored in the NE corner of the bay  - Catcha Star, with a new paint job, being identified by her status as a "dangerous target" on AIS.

A trip ashore to leave laundry resulted in a partly swamped dinghy on leaving - par for the course here.

There is not the crowded bay chocka full of boats that there was 2 years ago.  The Christmas Eve buffet at the Ao Sane restaurant was still very good. The swell had built up on the beach there too, resulting in a slightly wet landing from Mandella II's large "tinny" and a very wet trip back to the boats at the end of the evening - thanks Peter.

After Christmas lunch
Christmas Day dawned with 20-25 knots of offshore wind in the anchorage.  The wind generators were working hard!  The gustiness caused a modification to the planned mobile lunch (one course on each of several boats) and the group from 5 boats (Mandella II, Catcha Star, Crystal Blues, Sandy and Sea Bunny) congregated on Mandella II at 1200 for the gargantuan Christmas feast, leaving around 1800. On most boats no more food or drink was required until Boxing Day.  Phone calls to the UK via Skype were not successful but we got the two boys via mobile.

Boxing Day saw the wind continuing and swell on the main beach preventing a dry landing to collect our laundry, we had to walk round from Ao Sane on the north of the bay - we needed the exercise anyway but failed to realise that we had lost a large dinghy wheel -how careless, now presumably on its way to Sumatra.

"Morning tea", as Australians call a mid-morning coffee break (morning smoko in NZ or elevenses when we were young in the UK) was back on Mandella, with mincepies, cake and stollen.  Planned lunch ashore was cancelled due to the wave break on the beach and a scratch lunch was put together.

Boxing Day concluded with talking to our daughter, dinner and admiration of the new sound system on Crystal Blues.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Train Bangkok to Alor Setar for Rebak

In Chiang Mai we were able to book first class sleepers from Bangkok to Hat Yai.  The train apparently splits in Hat Yai with the 1st class carriage being removed before continuing to Butterworth via Alor Setar.  
Beside the track leaving  Bangkok there is still extensive flooding with some houses immersed half way up lower floor windows.  At one point during the night it sounded as if the train was passing through flood water.
The train stopped for about 10 minutes at Hat Yai Junction while our coach and others were detached. Just enough time to buy a ticket (we were first in the queue and had no difficulty) and find a seat in the 2nd class coach that was being converted from sleeper to seating.  In many ways – for seating - this coach is more comfortable than the 1st class but, of course, lacks the privacy of a private 2-berth compartment.
At Padang Besar, the border station, we had to get off with our bags to pass through Thai immigration and Malaysian immigration and customs.
The train attendant suggested that we should get off at Arau, the station for Kuala Perlis, where we could get a ferry to Kuah.  As we know the Kuala Kedah ferry route we opted to stay on.  The attendant may have known something we didn't though as a horde of people, mainly young, got on at Arau, so there was standing room only and we shared our seats. Everyone pealed off at Alor Setar and the station staff called us a taxi for the Kuala Kedah ferry.
After taxi, ferry and taxi we were at the Langasuka jetty in time to catch the 1630 ferry to Rebak and watch the final fly-past of the air show. 


On this trip to Bangkok we decided to stay at a hotel in the Sukumvit area rather than, as previously, in Silom.  The Kingston Suites, recommended to us by a couple we met in Chiang Mai, proved to be an excellent choice.
The visit was mainly spent in the nearby shopping malls, of which Bangkok has many! The squalid traffic laden streets, with little pedestrian walk way,  contrast violently with the sleek malls and overhead skytrain that whisks you between these malls. The latest shopping experience is Tower 21 which is designed like an airport and each floor is a city - very difficult to navigate the terminals when all you want to buy is a hairbrush because the bobbles have worn off your old one!  

Train Chiang Mai to Bangkok

The “rapid” daytime train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok leaves at 0845. The second class  carriage was not crowded although when we booked online it looked as it it would be – we were only given a choice of 5 seats.  Light snacks and lunch are served en route free of charge.
The first part of the journey is through hilly country with several rivers following the route.  The scenery becomes less interesting as the flat agricultural region is reached but then darkness falls.  Approaching Bangkok we could see that there was still flooding, with vehicles driving through water close to the railway.  Arrival in Bangkok was at 2215, 1 ¾ hours late.  Whether this was due to reduced speeds in the wake of the flooding or just “Thai time” we can’t tell.

Chiang Mai

Circling the stupa
We were fortunate to be able to share a car hired by a German couple , Wiebke and Fins to go up to Wat Phra That Doi Suthup 16kn west of the city.  As it was a holiday weekend (King’s birthday) the wat was very crowded with pilgrims doing three circuits of the central stupa praying for good fortune in the coming year. Unfortunately there was smoke haze over the city so the view was not too good.
Further up the hill at the Phra Tamnak Phu Phing palace we were able to visit the gardens.  This is a winter residence for the royal  family although one might have expected it to be a summer one to escape from the heat of Bangkok.

Night market set-up

 The Sunday night market takes over two intersecting streets in the centre of the walled city and is impressive for its size and speed of setting up.
The OMCTG had selected only 4 wats to visit, of which 3 were open to visitors.  In one, chairs were out and there was a service going on – probably prayers for the King.
Visits to “factories” making umbrellas, silk products, lacquerware and leatherware comprised a rapid tour of a workshop area followed by the showroom.  Most of the goods are, of course, made elsewhere.  A highlight was an Indian salesman trying to convince Susan that a pashmina clearly labelled “viscose/polyester” was made from the cheaper wool from the belly of the goat.  The showroom that was impressive was the one selling solid teak and rosewood furniture at very attractive prices that included shipping to UK.
Our hotel ,Villa San Pee Seua, was some way outside town across the river and situated beside it.  Scheduled transport was laid on twice daily into town and on a couple of occasions on request.  On alternate days the evening transport is by boat. It was a very friendly place.  

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Chiang Rai environs

Akha house - Ban Lorcha
On a recommendation we hired a car and driver for our golden triangle day. Starting in the north west at Ban Lorcha hilltribe village of the Akha tribe tourists can visit in a controlled way that actually brings benefit to the villagers in as non-exploitative way as possible.  A small entrance fee is charged and a villager is provided as a guide.  This ensures that the tourists do not intrude into areas where they are not welcome and lets them visit on the villagers’ terms rather than a commercial tours’.  The village has been helped by the PDA, who hope to extend the concept to other villages.

View near Mae Salong
At MaeSalong, which was originally settled by Chinese fleeing the 1949 revolution but from Myanmar - too much fighting to go into, the mountain air was cool and crisp and the veiws are stunning (nasty word).
The Princess Mother, the present King’s mother, who died in 1995, is much revered by Thais for the good works she did, particularly for the hill people of the north.  Her home at Doi Tung in the hills is open to the public as are the botanical gardens that surround it.

Thailand foreground, Myanmar left, Laos right
On a hill outside Ban Sop Ruak there is a superb view of the confluence of the Maenam Ruak forming the border between Thailand and Myanmar and the Nam Khong (.Mekong) forming the border between Thailand and Laos and, to the north of the junction between Myanmar and Laos.  Casinos have been established in both Laos and Myanmar close to the border here to capture some Thai money.  They have also been set up in the border town of Tachilek in Myanmar just across the river from Mae Sai.
A very long day back by 1900 hrs, perfect driver  - lucky tourists we are!

Chiang Rai

Figure in Cabbages & Condoms
The Hilltribe Museum established by the PDA(Population and Rural Development Association) contains a chilling history of the opium trade which flourished in the border areas of Thailand, Laos and Burma until recently.  It makes clear the roles played by the British, French and USA in developing the market, protecting and facilitating the trade.  Particularly concerning is the role of the CIA at the time of the conflict in Vietnam and Laos when, through Air America, they actually assisted the local warlords in transporting the opium and heroin out of the area.
On the same site is the interestingly named Cabbages and Condoms Restaurant, profits from which support the work of the PDA, which has had a significant impact on population control reducing the average number of children in a Thai family from seven to 2. It has some unusually decorated statues.

Wat Rong Khun
A local bus took us 15km toWat Rong Khun, the White Temple.  It is an intriguing modern complex in the making -very shiny like royal icing. The local famous artist is working, rather like Michael Angelo did on the Sistine Chapel, and it is not expected to be complete until 2070! The main temple is highly ornate but with some disturbing representations of lost souls around it.  Inside there are stunning murals with very modern themes reflection the battle of good and evil. There are spacecraft, the Twin Towers, “Transformers”, warplanes and George W and Osama Bin Ladin to list but a few!

Public toilets at Wat Rong Khun

The complex also contains what must be one of the the most ornate golden public toilets in the world stunning.

Oub Khum Museum
The Oub Kham Museum houses a collection of artefacts from the Lanna region of North Thailand, NE Burma, NW Laos, southern China and NW Vietnam. The collection has been put together by a private individual to preserve the art and culture of the region.  The quality of the exhibits, their preservation and their display rivals and excels the national museums of both Laos and Myanmar.  It is absolutely stunning. The Baan SoonTree Hotel just out of town where we stayed is well recommended.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Chiang Khong

Wat Luang
Back in Thailand!  Another hotel on the riverfront - the Chiang Khong Teakhouse very peaceful. In the evening feeling now masters of the Lao bbq were able to assist others with its intricities! This place is a friendly frontier town  and the OMCTG (O Mighty Chief Tour Guide aka Project Director) went on a wat tour before catching our bus to Chiang Rai.

After Laos the temples here are very well cared for - in fact two of the three we visited are in process of major restoration/repainting. One, Wat Phra Kaew had been completely gutted, most of the images removed and the main Buddha covered in dust sheet.  The main temple, Wat Luang, was being painted outside and was locked up. 

Bees nests - Wat Sridonchi
The third termple we visited, Wat Sridonchi, had clearly been recently renovated - the murals were pristine and paintwork fresh.  Even the bees' nests seemed fresh!

A recurrent theme seemed to be temple guardians comprising one dragon eating another or coiled dragons - neither of which we had noticed before.
Dragon eats dragon - Wat Luang

Coiled dragon - Wat Sridonchi

The Mighty Mekong

The VIP boat
Collected from our guest house at crack of sparrow fart, 0630 ,our guide took us by tuk-tuk to pick up the 3 Swiss ladies with whom we were to share our jouney upstream on the Mekong, or Nam Khong as it is known in Laos, on the Nagi of the Mekong slow boat.  This is VIP in that we have soft seats, taken from a coach, lunches and overnight stay in one of the better hotels in Pak Beng included.  Well we were under way by 0650.

Images in the upper cave at Pak Ou
Initially the route is as we took on the book boat.  Shortly after Ban San Souk we reach Pak Ou  caves.  There are two of these, with over 4000 Buddha figures.  Very good exercise climbing the hill. Before 1975 the caves received royal protection, with the village of Pak Ou on the other side of the Nam Khong at the confluence of the Nam Ou and the Nam Khong, responsible for looking after the caves.  Maintenance appears to have reduced with the loss of royal patronage.

In many places the Nam Khong is narrower than we expected but, even when  fairly low, runs fast - we estimated about 4-5 knots of stream against us.  The boat was making about 10 knots over the ground which means the downstream trip takes about half as long.

One of the larger riverside villages
We passed numerous small villages perched above the flood level.  As the water level drops the newly exposed river banks and sandbanks are planted with crops and in some cases small buildings are constructed on sandbanks.

While the scenery is undoubatbly impressive we were surprised by the lack of undomesticated animal life.  We saw maybe 20 birds on the whole trip - no waders or even egrets with the cattle. Allthe animals seen were domesticated -buffalo and other cattle, goats, pigs, dogs and even elephants.

Sticky rice field
Another surprise was how much of the primary forest had obviously been cleared.  In some places, especially on the second day, there was extensive cultivation of sticky rice but in many places the forest had been cleared and the land left to regenerate.  Apparently, after a crop of sticky rice the land is best left fallow for 10 years or yields reduce, although recent adoption of crop rotation may have improved this.  This leaves vast areas of scrub with a few clumps of original forest.  In some places, especially along the river, there were patches of clearly replanted timber - we think teak, but these were few.   We couldn't ascertain whether the timber had been commercially logged.

A planned visit to a Hmoung village on the second day had to be abandoned to ensure that we arrived in Hual Xia in time to check out of Laos and cross the river into Thailand before the border shut at 1800.  As it was we had to pay 10,000 kip (or $1) per person overtime charge as we were after 1600. What a lazy way to spend two days - well recommended.