As we roam the distant seas of the globe on our circumnavigation, we have come across various wonderful places that have a draw that can pull you in and tie you up, making it hard to leave. Thailand is one of those places.
Phuket, Thailand and vicinity is on the route of most sailors circling the globe and many, like us, stay longer than expected for so many good reasons. In fact, some end up ‘tied to Thailand’ and never leave. Phuket, an island floating in the Andaman Sea in the southwest part of Thailand, is popular for vacationers from around the world. Even though it’s abuzz with tourist trappings and typical beach scenes, it is easy to be absorbed in the Thai hospitality and culture. For sailors, this port of call beckons with its full array of marine facilities, services (good cheap labour) and supplies (not so cheap). Then between boat jobs and land travel, island cruising in the area is spectacular. It was not uncommon to find single male sailors who end up here losing their independence to the lure of the lovelies. Oh yes, did I mention the delicious and inexpensive food? We knew we wanted to spend a good deal of time here for a full Thailand experience, which would include inland travels, boat refurbishing and upgrades, and island cruising. It would also act as a base for Sea Turtle, as we did land ventures further into Asia.
Thailand offers two types of Tourist Visas. The most common is a 30-day Visa upon arrival from a foreign country. The other option is getting a Visa in advance and prior to arrival, obtained at a Thai Embassy abroad. The latter can get you a 2-month Visa, which can be extended for an additional 30 days once inside the country. Once the Visa time period is up though, you would have to do a Visa run, exiting the country and then returning to start the Visa clock ticking again. So, for our extended times here, we took advantage of both types of Visas, coinciding Visa runs with other trips to nearby countries. Sailboats are given a duty free period of 6 months, after which many sailors do a 24-hour passage down the coast to the lovely Langkawi islands in Malaysia.
When we first arrived in Phuket, the priority was buying a suitable motorcycle for booting around locally and for some planned, long road trips. In Thailand, and Asia for that matter, there is a plethora of motorcycles and scooters. It’s the preferred mode of transportation. They’re very affordable and are the best means of quickly getting from A to B in the congested city streets. As well as for personal use (it’s not uncommon to see a family of as many as five squeezed on them), many are used and adapted for a variety of mercantile uses. But driving here is a daunting experience for the uninitiated. When these otherwise laid-back people get behind the wheel (or handlebars), they turn into maniacs who drive like they are trying to outrun a ticking time bomb tied to their butts. Scooters weave in and out and between traffic, squeezing through gaps with barely an inch to spare at Mach speeds, even with mom sitting behind riding side saddle carrying a little one. Helmets you say? It’s law for adults to wear them, but loosely adhered to and their youngsters with no helmets are nominees for the Darwin Awards. Every other day, we would see the results of two objects trying to occupy the same space, the upshot of that is detritus strewn along the pavement like remnants of a yard sale. It is quite common to see farangs (foreigners) with road rash, the cost of initiation. Survival requires the intensity of that needed to play video games, combined with driving defensively, keeping up with and blending in with the flow, and not making any sudden manoeuvres.
The next priority on our agenda was having some significant work, maintenance and upgrades done to Sea Turtle. We employed a work crew to refurbish most of the interior teak that had seen over 30 years of use; installation of new ports; decks repainted; a new sail from the world-renowned Rolly Tasker sail loft here; adding a solar panel; new batteries; some stainless steel work, etc. Then, it was time to hit the road on our new to us (but used) steed, a Honda Phantom 200. Our first excursion was a round trip up into Thailand’s interior, exiting over the mighty Mekong, through the infamous Golden Triangle in northern Laos, and traveling its length and breadth, before returning thrilled and tired back to Sea Turtle.
For the sake of brevity here (the finer details of our travels are expanded in our blog entries), the highlights were, for Thailand, cruising the verdant hills of the north where we visited the villages of the Karen people (aka Longnecks), an interlude in the laid-back atmosphere of the city of Chiang Mai, most of which is set within the ancient moat and walls, and the sites and remains of the early capitals of Siam.
Highlights in the much less traveled Laos, a country lagging in progress: we navigated intrepid roads to find the puzzling relics on the Plain of Jars in the north, and lingered in quaint towns on the Mekong with enduring charm of past French colonialism. A later motorcycle road trip took us through Cambodia, with the main attraction there, of course, being Angkor Wat; then tripping round South Vietnam, before the return trip back again to Phuket and to waiting Sea Turtle.
As an adventure motorcyclist, the pièce de résistance is riding a classic Royal Enfield through the Himalayas. Being relatively close, we had to do it and, of course, with the excuse that we needed to do a Visa run. So off we flew from Bangkok to India’s low land town of Bagdogra. From there it was a cliff hanging 4×4 road up to Darjeeling, by way of perilous roads I named ‘Jar-deeling’, due to the bone-jarring roughness. Darjeeling is in the Indian district of Sikkim, an area of the Himalayas sandwiched between Bhutan and Nepal. It gained its distinction as a hill station for the British forces protecting the north frontier, and as a cool retreat for the British elite seeking respite from the sweltering lowlands. It sits atop a ridge overlooking steep slopes coated in tea plantations, all under the watchful eye of the majestic Kangchenjun, the 3rd highest mountain peak in the world.
We rented a classic Royal Enfield 500, and spent the most glorious one week of intrepid riding through the remote and rugged terrain. The quote by Hunter S. Thompson sums it up best: “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
When I married Judy, I’m not sure she knew what she signed on for. But she is a trooper, and for sure, she loves every minute of it.
Yet another intermission from the Thailand that ‘ties’, was a flight to Vietnam. We were mesmerized with the bustle of Hanoi center, where its streets and sidewalks were its theater. Everyone moved with a serious purpose. The special time is when dusk transforms the busy sidewalks into a social affair, where these little people meet at the literal sidewalk eateries, sitting on short kiddy-type tables and chairs, while open-air fires cooked up delicious Vietnamese dishes.
Not far from Hanoi is Halong Bay, where we took a 2-day cruise through the magical islands that inspire the Asian water color scenes of towering limestone islands protruding out of the sea, showered in mist. Other high points of the trip were a venture up into the mountains against the Chinese border; to trek the near vertical terrain covered in terraced rice paddies of Sapa as far as the eye could see; and then down to the center of Vietnam to Hoi An, a quaint seaside town rich in history of trade with the Europeans of a previous era.
Later, after a time again back in Phuket, another Visa expiry crept up on us. This time it was Katmandu, Nepal calling – as if we hadn’t had enough mountainous experiences! It was a short trip, but it gave us the essence of the place, which is to say the clock of time has dawdled over the ages, as seen in the practices and culture. We glimpsed the impressive Annapurna Range, wandered the architectural antiquities – many of which were destroyed or badly damaged in a recent, devastating earthquake – and ambled the labyrinth of narrow alleys where tiny shop vendors beckoned, ‘Come in, free to look’. Gems, tapestries, art and crafts were abundant.
From our base in Phuket, we also cruised the fairy tale islands in the Gulf of Phuket. Many of these limestone islands are towering vertical columns, some with beaches and caves. We even used the dinghy to creep through caves so long that it was pitch black, then, when the sky reappeared, we were in an interior chamber. Magical. Then out into the clear Andaman Sea, we visited lovely islands all the way up to the Myanmar border.
When it came time to have Sea Turtle exit Thailand, the pretty Islands of Langkawi in Malaysia was the place to take her. It’s a short, 24-hour sail south, where along the way we could stop at island beaches all to ourselves. Malaysia gives 90-day Visas upon arrival, with the easiest official check-in procedures we have ever encountered. And Sea Turtle is allowed to stay indefinitely!
So there are many good reasons why sailors get tied to this place, but the other reason is that to continue west past this point, it can be intimidating. Piracy history to the north, the rough south Indian Ocean, and the treacherous Cape of Good Hope can put a certain measure of fear in the most seasoned sailor. So needless to say, many sailors who have sailed many thousands of miles, end up staying for months if not permanently here, shuttling back and forth from Langkawi to Thailand. Or should I say Tie Land?
As for us, we had the itch to move on, to continue our circumnavigation. Our plan had been to avoid the Somalia piracy threat and do the Cape, rounding South Africa. However after a lot of surfing the web, we learned that the multinational coalition forces have virtually put a halt to piracy in the North Indian Ocean and Arabian Sea. And as we really wanted to cruise the Eastern Mediterranean, we decided to take the shorter route through the Red Sea. So, unlike many others, we were able to break the bonds that tied us up in Thailand, and made our escape. We have made it past Somalia, up the Red Sea and Gulf of Suez, transited the Suez Canal and are now in the Med, again on our serendipitous journey to landfalls of dreams ahead.