We have finally completed our transit of Malaysia’s western coast. We entered Malaysian waters as a family of three and exited her northern shores as a family of four. Of the ten months that Atea was temporary resident, we have cruised a two months of that time.
Of general impressions, it is a culturally fantastic place to visit however not ideal from a cruising perspective. Her waters are a murky, dirty brown and littered with rubbish. Beaches are equally scarred by a waterline filled with plastic debris. The skyline is hazy and thick of smoke from burning palm plantations. Yachts typically day hop up the coast because a maze of fishing traps make night passage hazardous and the horizon is a cluster of lights from the hundreds of trawlers pulling up anything with a gill or fin. We’ve stopped any attempt at fishing out of compassion for the little marine life left. The heat has been repressive, Ayla suffering the most. She had three bouts of heat exhaustion before we identified the cause of her illness and now sleeps with a fan inches above her head.
From a tourist perspective however, there is much on offer. Most of the tourists are from near and far reaches of Asia and I’ve enjoyed being immersed in the mix, standing out in my whiteness like a sore thumb. It is predominately Muslim and days are punctuated with the call to prayer. While as a tourist we are not expected to dress in full cover, it is still a courtesy to cover shoulders and legs – a hard won courtesy in the heat. In several towns the mix of religions is evident and what stands out is the multi-cultural cohesion: Mosques, churches and temples are evenly dispersed down alleyways and ethnic diversity is evident in the wide range of cuisine options. We toured Malaysia through our bellies, guided by our appetite.
Remote anchorages dominated our previous cruising seasons and we spent our time in either isolated bays or small island villages where locals relied on subsistence farming and fishing and resources were scarce. Atea always left homeport fully stocked for the duration of our trip, cubbyholes stuffed with a year’s supply of canned and dried goods. This season has been very different. We boarded Atea where we would be spending the initial part of our season rather than facing the long distances we’ve undertaken in years past to get to our cruising destination. We are planning on spending the first six months sailing up and down the Malaysian and Thai west coast, exploring local sites with nothing more than day hops in front of us. There is no need to stuff Atea to the brim with staples as food will be cheap, delicious and in ready supply. Given the large Indian population, we are filling our bellies with roti cani, tandoori chicken and green curry, in addition to local Malay and Chinese cuisine. Markets are filled with a wide range of fruit and vegetables and grocery stores are stocked with local and imported goods to satisfy multinational cravings. Food, for the first time in our cruising history, is easily stocked and easily replenished. I used to have a secret stash of treats, doled out on special occasions. Now it feels like a lavish lifestyle to eat as the taste buds desire.
This rule used to follow for alcohol as well. Where it was once our “liquor reserves,” it is now a stockpile. Langkawi is a duty free haven and the tax cuts make it a cruiser’s Mecca. Boatyards offer a good place for mariners to base themselves for haul out and refit, and parts are available at good rates. It is also Mecca for the alcoholic. Top shelf booze runs $10 a bottle, and there is no limit to quantity or variety. Beer runs $2 a can, and we purchased it by the truckload. Wine is the only category of liquor that is consistent with New Zealand prices, so we are skint on cork but loaded with anything 80-proof and up.
If you are a yacht owner or an alcoholic, Kuah is a must. If you want a taste of cruising in the Med, Telaga offers you the flavour. If you like history and art, Penang offers a maze of vibrant colour that lines the boulevards, where street art abounds…if you are not too distracted by all the delicious smells from food trolleys to see it. The Fjords south of Langkawi are stunning skyscrapers of rock projecting from the sea, scenic and quiet and beautiful. The mangrove forests east of Langkawi are winding arteries of river, nourishing the abundant wildlife that feeds off it.
While I mention the things that Malaysia lacks from a cruising context – murky water, clogged and cluttered – there are amazing attractions on offer that are not accessible to the average tourist. Of course, charters are available to take tourists out to the sites, but they are powerboats that run at high speed and in a cluster. What they miss is the magic, the beauty of solitude. It is the freedom to stay where you want, for as long as you want that defines the cruiser’s ambition. It is the joy of finding a place on your own and discovering its quiet and its noise: Deep red sunsets setting to the silence of fallen wind and tide, a million bats floating out at dusk to cover the moon, eagles that swoop and rise again with fish in talon, dodging each other in flight, monkeys lapping up water at the shores edge, playful and flirtatious for none but you as witness. These are only a few of the moments we’ve shared with the inhabitants of Malaysia over the course of the past few weeks.
For those who wonder why you’d take a yacht 20,000 miles through fine and foul weather when you can hop on an airplane for a fraction of the price – this is the point of cruising. You can never fly to where you can sail, and you can never buy what you can get when you work for it. My previous post highlighted “The Other Days,” which in truth are few and far between. It is These Days, self-sought and not offered in travel brochures, which breathe the soul into the life of cruising.