Mention the Straits of Malacca to most any sailor and the first thing they are likely to say is “pirates!” This busy shipping lane certainly has a long-standing reputation as one of the world’s piracy hot-spots, and rightfully so. But in recent years, apparently due to increased police patrols resulting from the cooperation of the governments bordering the Straits, the number of reported incidents is down significantly. The few attacks that take place nowadays seem to be almost exclusively on commercial shipping, so the risk to cruising yachties is almost nil.
In fact, the Malay Peninsula has become quite cruiser friendly, and it doesn’t take too long to see why. The weather is pretty good all year round, there are no tropical cyclones, there is a “nautical stairway” of excellent marinas and anchorages a day’s sail apart all along the coastline, the scenery is gorgeous, provisioning is easy, and something that is near and dear to most all cruisers, the prices are low. And did I mention that the people are very nice? This area is sort of like the Mexico of the Eastern Hemisphere. The biggest challenges when navigating these waters seem to be the continuous stream of commercial shipping traffic in the channel offshore and the ever present fish (boat?) traps in the shallower waters closer to shore. In order to avoid the risk of collision in the shipping lanes, the risk of fouling an unlighted fish trap, we opted to make the trip to Langkawi, situated just on the border between Malaysia and Thailand, in a series of day sails, close to shore out of the shipping lanes during the daylight hours.
We were a bit soft after a thoroughly enjoyable month in Singapore with Moonshadow resting in Raffles Marina. Heading out the Johor Strait and turning to the northwest, we were immediately assaulted by 15 knot noserlies accompanied by a short choppy swell. After a few hours, we either found our sea legs or the swell abated, I’m not sure which. We had purposely planned for the first day out of Singapore to be an easy one, which was a short 31-miler to Pulau (that’s Malay for island) Pusang, where we anchored for the evening. Our second day out was another non-eventful motor sail in gentle breezes and flat waters, to an anchorage in the lee of the Water Islands, 68 miles northward.
On our third day out, we finally got our first few hours of genuine motor-off sailing in more than a month. It sure felt nice to hear nothing but the wind in the rig and the water lapping up against the hull for awhile, but unfortunately the breeze turned fickle and dropped away as we approached Port Dickson. The marina there, 40 miles from the Water Islands was our port of entry into Malaysia. We arranged a berth for a couple days at the Admiral Marina and Leisure Club, an attractive new marina/residential complex a few miles to the south of the actual town of Port Dickson. Formalities were a breeze, because for 50 Malaysian Ringgit, about US$13, the very professional and efficient Veronica Chee at the marina office completely organized our Malaysian Customs and Immigration check-in and our port clearances in and out. Needless to say we were already beginning to like Malaysia.
We spent the next day in the town of Port Dickson doing all the things we normally do when upon arrival to a new country: score some local currency at an ATM, purchase a local SIM card for the mobile phone, wander around and check out the vibe, see what kind of foods are available at the supermarket and of course, sample some of the local cuisine. Port Dickson is a small and fairly non-descript town, but with at least four ATM’s, a decent café, dozens of mobile phone stores, and an excellent supermarket, it more than met our basic needs.
We were eager to get north so departed Port Dickson the next day and made our way to Port Klang, about 60 miles up the coast. Port Klang is the busiest port in Malaysia and is ostensibly the sea port for Kuala Lumpur, the capital and largest city in Malaysia, which is located a short ways inland. We anchored for the night in an arm off the main shipping channel and left at first light in rain showers the next morning.
The next stopover anchorage that appeared to offer reasonable protection from the westerly wind and swell was the resort island of Pangkor, about 90 miles to the north. With relatively flat waters and a light breeze, we burnt up dinosaur juice all day long. We experienced a north setting current which added a knot to our groundspeed for most of the day, so we easily made it to the anchorage on the southwest corner of the island in time for sundowners. Starting at first light again the following morning, we arrived in Penang, 75 miles to the north by happy hour. Since we were fortunate enough to have no bad weather lay days, we were a bit ahead of schedule, so we decided to spend a few days there and chill out a bit before pressing on to Langkawi.
Penang is a large and beautiful island connected to mainland Malaysia by a 13 kilometer long suspension bridge. Its landscape is a mixture of hills covered in native rain forest, high rise apartment, office and hotel towers, numerous ornate temples and mosques, and in the original city of Georgetown, a mix of British colonial buildings and old Chinese shop houses. We berthed in the Tanjong City Marina, adjacent to Georgetown, which is the main city on the island.
The Tanjong City Marina is brand new, and had only been open a couple of weeks when we arrived, so they were still working out a few of the bugs. The marina is very attractive and is very handy to Georgetown, and most of the issues were quite minor and will likely get sorted out over time.
There are two real screw-ups on the part of the developers/builders that may require some substantial investment to fix. First, the northern most finger has berthing for vessels up to 100 feet in length. The pens are about half again as wide as the average vessel of that length (excepting multihulls) but only wide enough for two vessels half that length. I suppose it really doesn’t matter at the moment, as there is only about 2 meters (6 feet) of water at low tide, so nothing much over 50’ multihulls could get in anyway. Two yachts in the fifty foot range that arrived after us got stuck in the putty when they arrived. Not a very good look. The other problem is that there is no breakwater or wave attenuator on the perimeter of the marina, which is exposed to the shipping channel and is right next door to a very busy ferry terminal. When a large ship steams up the channel or a ferry arrives at the terminal, all hell breaks loose. We witnessed a couple of 40+ footers rolling at least 30 degrees side to side while tied up, spilling cocktails, flinging gear all over the place, and tossing occupants out of their berths. Putting two yachts side by side in one of those pens without staggering the masts could prove calamitous. We chafed through the casing of a dock line in five days. Another cruiser friend of ours snapped a dock line late one evening and pulled one of the cleats right out of the dock the next morning. Also not a good look. In any event the rates were very inexpensive, and it will suffice as a short stopover marina till improvements are made.
If the marina was not quite right, the city of Penang proved to be an absolute delight. The Colonial District, Chinatown and Little India were all just a few minutes walk from the marina. The streets were very colorful and buzzing with activity day and night. The locals we came in contact with were friendly and helpful. There were plenty of shops selling a variety of interesting goods, and plenty of cafes and restaurants. Most of the sights in Georgetown can be easily reached by foot from the marina. If your feet get tired, you can always hail an awaiting trishaw to give you a lift to your destination. If it starts to rain, the driver pulls up the convertible top and tosses a tarp over your legs to keep you dry. It’s not exactly the fastest way to get around, but it is inexpensive, fun and refreshing to have the breeze on your face.
Penang is particularly known throughout the region for its excellent cuisine. We sampled Malaysian, Indian and Chinese meals and were thoroughly impressed with the flavors and surprised by the low prices. We also visited the stately Eastern and Oriental Hotel and had one of their famous weekend buffet meals. The E & O’s Sarky’s Corner put on a fantastic smorgasbord of excellent food of all types, free flowing beer and wine, wandering musicians and a great early 1900’s atmosphere. All this for less than $20 US per person. We recommend you go very hungry and thirsty. After a big night at the E & O, we hired a trishaw to take us home. The driver didn’t speak a word of English, but through a translator we managed to convey to him where we were going, and after we got underway, he switched on his boom box and pedaled us home to the beat of disco music.
During our stay we took in the Penang Museum in the Colonial District and found it to be very interesting and the exhibits well presented. We also caught the tram up to the top of Penang Hill (I think its more like a small mountain) and along with cooler air, we enjoyed some spectacular views of Georgetown, the rest of Penang Island, the Andaman Sea and mainland Malaysia. We enjoyed a casual lunch on the terrace of the Belle View Hotel on the top of the hill with a great view of Georgetown spread out below us. Above us in the arbor, we spotted a couple of beautiful green pit vipers snoozing on a branch. Apparently they are deadly poisonous, but they seemed to be very uninterested in us or our meals.
After lunch we decided to get a bit of exercise and walk down to the bottom of the hill and avoid the slow, cramped and sweaty tram ride. Kitted out in just shorts and thongs, we were expecting a nice stroll down the paved footpath. Needless to say, were not exactly prepared for the hand over hand rope climbing we encountered in a few spots along the way. It was a very scenic walk, and we made it without much more than a few scrapes and scratches, but not wanting to push our luck, we hopped on the tram for the last leg down to sea level.
We were keen to stretch our legs again the next day, so we taxied to the botanical garden and got in a good walk through its circuit. During a brief downpour, we took a trail through a heavily canopied rain forest section and hardly felt a drop. As far as botanical gardens go, it was pretty average, but the walk was enjoyable nonetheless.
At the end of the walk, near the entrance, we came upon a band of very cheeky long-tailed macaques (monkeys) that had come down out of the trees to feed. I tried to get close enough to one of them to take a few close-up photos, but I apparently invaded her space. It must have been a sight to watch-one of these little buggers, no more than a foot high and carrying an infant no less, coming at me hissing and growling, and me, six feet tall, back pedaling as fast as my feet would go. And I was worried about pirates in Malaysia?
We sailed out of Penang promising to ourselves to come back again next season to enjoy a bit more of this vibrant, fun and friendly city. Our last hop in Malaysia was Langkawi, a cluster of 99 to105 islands (depending on which publication you read) lying less than 50 miles north west of Penang, and just offshore from the Malaysia/Thailand border.
In that short distance the transformation is incredible. The water gradually changed from very murky brown to a much clearer blue-green. The profile of the islands shifted from rolling hills to the dramatic, steep rock sided haystack-shapes with dense green vegetation on top just like you see in all those travel posters of Thailand. Stunning! We had one day before we were meant to check in to the Telaga Marina for the SailAsia Rally Week so we dropped the pick one last time in a spectacular anchorage known simply as “S” in the Andaman Sea Pilot, next to a small islet called Pulau Gabang Darat.
While relaxing over a sundowner we were passed by numerous small open boats, mostly full of children, apparently on their way home from school. These were the first “long tail” style boats that we had encountered. A long tail is an open boat propelled by a small engine mounted on a fully articulating boom. The tiller is in line with a propeller shaft that extends out about half again the length of the boat. The tiller moves the engine from side to side (for steering) and up and down (depending on water depth), and the propeller throws up a huge spray of water. Of course, they have no mufflers so the decibel level is higher than front row seating at a heavy metal rock concert.
The next morning, after watching the sun rise over the beautiful rock-faced islands surrounding us, we made a leisurely two hour trip up to the Telaga Harbour Marina, where we to be treated to a week’s stay and festivities, courtesy of the SailAsia Rally.