Cruising Notes


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Crew: Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon

Tokomaru in the Straits of Malacca

We’ve spent February sailing 400 miles up the Malacca Strait as far as Penang. We haven’t been attacked by pirates or run down by a ship, but all the exaggerated talk of such dangers persuaded us to sail only in daylight.  In fact, of all the potential for disaster in this maritime bottle neck, it’s the fishing boats that concentrate the mind.  Fishing is the livelihood of the people who live along the coast and they work the waters in the inshore traffic zone (where we sail, to avoid the big ships!).  Negotiating an obstacle course of fish stakes, fish traps, nets and so on, strewn across the sea, we’ve managed not to get entangled, and we’ve steered clear of the trawlers, hundreds of them, who love to steam across our bows.  All this fish is dried in the sun and every village and town has shops overflowing with bags and bags of it.  Supermarkets have barrels of little withered fish and miniscule dried shrimps. 


                                                Fishing boat Malacca strait malaysia

After a few nights of anchoring off the coast, we came to the River Klang, which goes all the way up to Kuala Lumpur.  A strong tide swept us ten miles up the river to Port Klang where, according to our book, we could pick up a mooring buoy at the Royal Selangor Yacht Club (no less!)  We passed a stilt village, rounded a bend and to our surprise and alarm found ourselves in the midst of an extremely busy port.  Traditional wooden cargo boats (high prow and towering stern) were all over the river, some of them crabbing sideways in the current as they manoeuvered round each other (and us!) with much shouting and revving of engines.  We looked in vain for the promised moorings but seeing a pontoon, we thankfully tied on to that.  In the morning we found our yacht club, a classy building away from the busy docks, where they welcomed us and asked for 50 ringgits (£7) per night to park on their pontoon. The club has a swimming pool, an airy verandah, and a bar.  So we stayed a few days, feeling somewhat self-conscious as the only visiting yacht.   Port Klang town, a hot walk away, has some grand, but run-down buildings, a relic perhaps of the heyday of tin mining and rubber plantations in the Klang Valley.  But it’s a safe and friendly place and we soon discovered a railway station with regular trains to Kuala Lumpur (KL), so an unexpected opportunity to visit the capital. 
                                                             Admiral Marina Port Dickson                    


                                                      Royal Selangor Yacht Club Port Klang

Our train brought us in to the majestic old KL station, rows of Moorish arches, domes and minarets, built in 1910.  But KL Sentral is now the main terminal so sadly this fine edifice is looking drab and under-used.  We walked up to Merdeka Square, reminiscent of an English village green with its mock-Tudor buildings and Anglican church.  Opposite the square is more colonial/Islamic architecture, complete with Victorian clock tower, all now dwarfed by modern high rise KL and the Petronas twin towers, which rise higher than anything else (in the world!).  This is impressive architecture and we felt very small and scruffy wandering around and gawping at the lofty foyers (one at each base) amongst neat executive types.  We were too late for a visit to the sky bridge, so we headed off to the telecom tower to try our luck there.  This one is very tourist-friendly and we were soon transported up 276 meters to a viewing platform from where we gazed out over the great sprawl of KL and the Petronas towers - all that glass and steel glinting in the sunset.

                                                            Petronas twin towers Kuala Lumpur

The convenience of trains to KL and the bliss of cooling dips in the yacht club pool were eventually outweighed by all the noise and commotion of a trading port, (the boats were from Sumatra and the goods were traded, no money involved).   Harbour rats had also found their way to our biscuits…..time to leave Port Klang.


                                                                       Sungai Selangor

25 miles up the coast is the next river, Sungai Selangor.  Here, we had to wait for the tide to rise enough for us to creep across the mud flats.  The tsunami (while causing no damage around here) has slightly altered the depths along the coast, so our charts are not always accurate.   Local boats coming and going with their shallow draft gave no indication where the deeper channel might be.  We eventually inched our way through the brown water, eyes glued to the depth sounder, and then had a lovely evening sail up the river, its shores lined with mangrove and dotted with great white egrets. We anchored just short of a Chinese stilt village (whence the fishing boats) and were entertained all night by screaming rockets as this was 8th February, New Year’s eve.  Walking through the village we noticed every home has a shrine, in fact, two shrines, one indoors and one out, all bedecked with offerings and smouldering incense sticks.  The outdoor shrines looked freshly painted and the trees were full of ‘ang pow’, little red money envelopes.   People in holiday mood wished us a happy new year.  There were lots of flash cars parked around as relatives traditionally come home to their roots for the festival.  Our impression from the river of quaint houses, each with a traditional boat moored to the piles, was rather shattered!  
Our spot on the river was very peaceful, with a nature reserve on the opposite bank.  We saw the Lesser Adjutant(!) a rare kind of stork, and lots of monkeys and Brahminy kites. But the falling tide brought a  parade of rubbish floating down the river, a lot it getting snagged in the mangroves.  Egrets don’t look quite so picturesque stepping amongst tatty old plastic bags.  Fishing boats plied up and down and one or two brought their holiday visitors to have a look at Tokomaru, and we had the unusual experience of being photographed as a tourist attraction! 



Next, we sailed up the River Dinding to Lumut, a pleasant town with a riverside promenade and a popular spot for many local and a few international tourists.  As well as the ubiquitous dried fish you can buy beach balls and souvenirs, a sort of Malaysian Looe, except that the girls don’t wear bikinis!   The headscarves they wear, softly framing their young faces, are very becoming as they stroll with their boyfriends.  Lumut is the place to get the ferry to nearby Pangkor Island.  The tourist economy shows in that Lumut is the first coastal town we’ve seen that has recently smartened up. We sailed across to Pangkor Island, and anchored in clean, clear water off a pristine beach, a real treat after silted estuaries and muddy, mosquitoy rivers.  One afternoon, a merry band of otters bounded out of the sea and frolicked on the sand.  And for the first time since Lizard Island in Australia (last August!) we swam off the boat;  very refreshing as this month has been the hottest ever, anywhere so far, with the temperature passing 35 degrees in the cabin.

                                   Spider Lily                                                                                   Spider

We left Pangkor before dawn to sail 70 miles to Penang.  The north east monsoon which is supposed to be blowing us along seems to have quietened down early this season.  We get a good breeze in the morning, but by midday it has died away and we have to start the engine.  Then an afternoon sea breeze picks up from the west and we can sail again.


                               Starling                                                                                               Hornbill

We are now moored to a pontoon, 5 miles south of George Town (Penang), perhaps the most historically interesting town in Malaysia and a wonderful mix of cultures, generations of Indian and Chinese families living alongside the Malay people in mutual tolerance, (though we’ve come across the odd example of mutual irritation!).  Half the population of Penang is Chinese, so there’s lots of temples, imposing clan houses, the odd mansion and thousands of shop-houses. Many of the latter are in a state of total collapse, but there are still whole streets of houses looking very picturesque, beautifully carved and decorated.  For some reason developers have not seen fit to ‘clean up’ Penang;  so charming shop-houses, grimy concrete blocks, greasy workshops, neat wooden homes, food stalls, mosques, temples, are all jumbled together alongside cluttered  pavements and open drains.  Weather-beaten clan jetties teeter over the sea.  If it wasn’t so hot, you could wander the streets for hours.  All this butts right up against a sophisticated modern infrastructure, with dual carriage ways sweeping around the town and over the new bridge which spans the sea 13 kilometres to the mainland.  


A funicular railway runs 800 meters up Penang hill, where we walked in cooler air under the rainforest canopy.  This is where the Brits built their bungalows when Penang was part of the Straits Settlements with Singapore and Malacca.  There’s also a Hindu temple (such as we’ve seen in every town) all painted pink and blue and smothered in statues and carvings.  A Buddhist temple complex, Kek Lok Si, (the Monastery of Supreme Bliss) sprawls over a nearby hillside.  It was built 100 years ago and culminates in the seven-tier ‘pagoda of ten thousand Buddhas’.  There are indeed thousands of statues of Bodhisattvas and Buddhas, and as if that wasn’t enough, an enormous bronze statue of the Goddess of Mercy has just been added, 30 meters high.  The whole place is strung with millions of red and yellow lanterns and is full of enthusiastic Chinese tourists and worshippers.

                                                         Lanterns Kek Lok Si Temple Penang

There seems to be a lot here about Chinese culture, but in fact, overall in Malaysia it is the Malay/Muslim culture which predominates.   Mosques far outnumber temples.  (And even in Penang, the massive new Tesco has only a very small, segregated area where you have to go if you want to buy pork, and another for alcohol.)  We have found the Malay people more reserved than their exuberant Indonesian neighbours, but they are always quietly welcoming and enjoy a chat.   We’ve seen no dogs in Malaysia (I think Muslim people are anti-dog) though plenty of cats.

                  Khoo Kongsi Clan house Penang                                                         Hindu temple Penang

Since being in Malaysia we hear much less about the tsunami.  There’s a fishermen’s jetty near here which looks as though it has recently collapsed a little further into the sea, but mostly, people talk of the devastation elsewhere.  The papers are full of the issue of illegal Indonesian migrant workers.  Before the tsunami there was a government drive to repatriate all illegal immigrants by the end of 2004.  As a gesture of compassion, this deadline, or ‘amnesty’ was extended to 1st March as most of the people are from Acheh.  But it still seems rather unfortunate timing. 

                                                                      Penang Hill

Our next stop will be Langkawi Island where we look forward to meeting Nick and Danny who are coming for a holiday.  We’ll sail with them to Thailand.
It’s difficult to imagine all the cold and snow you’ve been having, as we send our best wishes from the hottest place we have ever been, ever!     Liz and Nick
Website © Nick Thomas and Liz Vernon 2008