Friday, September 3, 2021

Thailand & Malaysia Part 1

Our check in routine begins with peeling back the sheets and scrutinizing the mattress for nasties with our flashlights. We had just arrived in Phuket Thailand from Rangoon Burma and the place we had booked online came with bedbugs at no extra charge. We showed the madam, she nodded, we strapped our backpacks on and relocated to a nicer place up the block. Bedbugs will move into your belongings, are very difficult to rid yourself of, and will take pleasure in ruining your life. We certainly didn’t want to import them to our friend’s yacht. 

And then the fun began! 

We had come to Phuket to meet my friends Tobin, Therese & Maddie, and to sail for a couple weeks on their luxuriously appointed yacht. We’d met 10 years earlier when I was in Singapore managing the refit of a yacht I use to captain. I spotted them on the dock walking with their dachshund “Why did the Texan get a dachshund” I queried, and then quickly followed up with … “So he could ‘get a long little doggy’!” Turns out they were from Texas and though my joke fell flat we became good friends. We had stayed in touch over the preceding decade and when they learned we were in SE Asia they invited us to cruise with them for the Xmas/NYE timeline. They fell in love with Aleja immediately as we slipped the dock lines and motored out of the marina. 

Great Sensations is an Island Packet 420. Built in 2002 and upgraded regularly ever since, this beauty keeps getting better. She now has aircon throughout, a washer/dryer, a thrumming generator to power them, a bow thruster, a water maker, top of the line chart plotter navigation monitors, and full solar panels with a wind generator for those evenings when you prefer the peace and tranquility of a quiet anchorage. We lived in luxury for a week as we sailed down island from Phuket, Thailand to Langkawi, Malaysia. 

As a man who once exalted in the role of “The Captain”, I was now thrilled to be reduced to crew. It promised all of the joys of cruising with none of the responsibilities or expenses. It lived up to its promise. I’ve sworn off boat ownership indefinitely but more than occasionally I catch myself shopping boats along the Dalmatian coast. Bad habits die slowly. 

Our Traveling Companions Daughter 

Madeline Alexander is an interesting case study in growing up abroad. I met her when she was 9. She’s now 21. Her parents are both Americans with perfect Texas accents. Maddie has the same accent, though she’s never lived in the USA. She’s lived all over Asia and is perfectly fluent in Mandarin. So when she arrived in Boston for her first semester of university and the kids would ask her where she was from… You can imagine the shenanigans: “I was born in Phuket, Thailand but mostly raised in Singapore”. Blank stare. “But you’re white and you sound just like me.” I went to English speaking schools.” “You don’t sound English. Where are you really from?” “You caught me – I’m from Texas.” Then she would turn to the Taiwanese guy and speak to him in lightning fast Mandarin. 

While we were sailing around her mom read her a headline from Florida that said 2 Carnival Cruise ships had collided. Maddie said – “I hope no animals were hurt!” We laughed. She didn’t get it. Tobin said, “She looks American, She sounds American, She might smell American – not American!” 

The approach to Maya Bay. Made famous by the Dicaprio movie The Beach

The Anchorages 

We anchored off Phanak, and Ko Yao Yai islands, but our 2 favorite anchorages were Koh Lanta at the southern end and Koh Lipe on the north side (though we made the rolly mistake of anchoring on the south side for one night). We spent Xmas on Koh Lanta. Fire spectacles on the beach, fresh seafood, and endless cocktails made for a luxurious celebration of our lord and savior amidst the pageantry of Buddist Thailand. 

We made it to Koh Lipe in time for Therese’s birthday with the swarms of Swedish backpackers. It’s so odd how certain islands attract a given nationality over others. 

Koh Lipe was our last anchorage in Thai waters before we made the short hop to Langkawi Malaysia. We managed only 10 minutes of sailing in total and it was on our final approach to the Marina in Malaysia. Sometimes the gods of wind just don’t share your travel plans. 

New Years In Langkawi 

We cleared customs and immigration, enjoyed the international cuisine and rang in the New Year that would go down in history (Good old 2020) in a small harbor on a large island just off the coast of mainland Malaysia. 

 The Alexanders awoke early the next day to catch their flights and Tobin handed me the keys to his boat. That’s unheard of. Possibly, the highest praise one can give to another is trust, and when one entrusts to another their most cherished object, that's really special. All the more exceptional when that object represents the lenders dreams. He didn't loan me a commodity. He entrusted to me a large piece of his retirement reveries. I was honored beyond words. Tobin Alexander – a true mensch whose inclusive spirit and generous trust attest to his honorable actions. Needless to say; I’m a huge fan. 

"The Tobin" entertains the local boys

The Nelsons 

In 2008 Suzi Roberts and I were in a beach front bar on Guadalcanal in the Solomon Island chain looking over charts of the surrounding seas. All the sailboats that we had sailed across the South Pacific with were headed thru the Torres Strait to Darwin Australia. I had a wild thought to instead sail over the north of Papua New Guinea and through the entire eastern Indonesian archipelago to Bali. No one does that. Gene Nelson was the only other person who had the same idea. We shook on it and made a pact to buddy boat the 4000 nautical miles together in support of each other. We didn’t see another Western boat the entire way. And oh the places we went together. Wow! 
Eating coconut crab on Barraveigh in the Admiralty Islands of Papua New Guinea 2008

Gene skurfing in the western Solomon Island Chain with their yacht Emelia in the background while the locals looked on 2008

Gene had been diagnosed with throat cancer and the family was all together in Penang for his surgery and recovery. We left Tobin’s boat in the marina and caught a flight to see them. We rented a room nearby. Our first meal was at an authentic Indian restaurant. Aleja and I immediately made eye contact after the first bite and in perfect chorus said, “Let’s eat every meal here”. We almost did. 

We toured the city in between daily overloads of fantastic Indian cuisine and hung out with Gene in the evenings. 

Gene Update 

Somewhere in Eastern Indonesia after many drinks and songs 2008

He made a full recovery and flew back to his boat that is anchored in Kilifi, Kenya. We flew back to Tobin’s boat and sailed it back to Phuket. But that’s in the next dispatch. 
Great Sensations in the pretty little marina of Telaga Harbour Langkawi Malaysia

Your man on point, 
Able Seamen Bobby

P.S./ Lots of sailing memories huh? Do I need another boat in my future?

Friday, April 30, 2021


We flew into Mandalay at night. Peering from the small plane window all one could see of the countryside was a disconnected patchwork of village lights. It looked very primitive. The airport is far from the city and connected by a long highway devoid of street lamps. It wasn’t the safest road I’ve traveled. The taxi drove us to the city through small hamlets separated by huge black voids; evidence that further supported my theory that Myanmar is either sparsely inhabited or spotty with electricity. We were an hour from the airport before the city glow announced the upcoming metropolis. 

First impressions: 

1) Barren and undeveloped. 2) They drive on the right side but the steering wheel is on the right side also… Odd to say the least, and the opposite of everyone else.

Thank you – “Cheesuba”. Hello – “Mingalaba”.  I thought Swedish was composed by a cute 5 year old. Ditto for this place.

The hotel looked as if it was designed with an eye towards communist grandeur 60 years ago.  It was as tired as we were.


Exotic. Loud. Dirty. We promptly rented a scooter and set a most ambitious itinerary in order to see it all. When all the other horns on the road said, “Make a freaking hole!” mine said, “Excuse me please.” We made it out of town and quickly found ourselves lost in what I am calling “Temple Valley”. This was a giant bowl ringed with stupas and dotted with temples.  I called Luang Prabang “Monktown” and I’m referring to Mandalay as “Temple Town”. How did they ever find the time to build a successful space program while constructing all these temples? Oh right… They didn’t.

Ruins galore. This was a giant brick elephant

Begun in 1790. Never finished and ruined by an earthquake in 1839 - Mingun Pagoda

Life Without Cheese

There are plenty of wonderful cuisines of the world. Burma won’t make the list. It’s imaginative but too oily for my tastes. The peasants’ version of Thai cooking maybe? 

With your entree they bring out 10 different condiment components in small dipping bowls. We sampled them with spears of zucchini. I dipped one in and let it drain. It's not like I heaped salsa unto a chip. It was rather liquid so only the scant residue remained. That was enough to send my whole head to Dante's inferno. It may have been the hottest thing I ever put in my mouth. I immediately got a white hot electric flash of coming distress. The beading sweat on my scalp announced the building panic that makes you inhale instead of scream. Your pores know you are in serious trouble even before your taste buds fully register the Scovilles.  This is your body broadcasting the coming agony so you have some reflection time to ponder what you did to yourself and hopefully learn a lesson so we don’t have to live through this again. My thin cruel lips almost swelled to a normal size while the bulbous lips of Alejandra inflated an additional 100psi and threatened the waiter. He asked for my opinion: “this one very dangerous for foreign man. This one very delicious for foreign man. This one very bad for everyone.” I was of course referring to some expired shrimp paste goop. I don't ever want to remember that flavor. I may need counseling. He smiled knowingly.

Mole Hair For People Who Can't Grow A Beard

There is much to catch your eye: The sarongs on men, the tree dust sunblock, the single 3 inch hair blossoming from a facial mole, and as much as the gold buildings dazzle the senses, I find the detailed woodwork of Shwenandaw Monastery even more exquisite. They show their devotion by constantly replacing pieces that rot. The work never ends.

Intricately carved wood

Another pic from Shwenandaw Monastery

The tree dust potion they turn into sunblock.
Very common and I've never seen it in any other country


The bus ride to Bagan delivered us to a place of photographic splendor. Put this destination on your bucket list. Between the 11th to the 13th centuries AD the kingdom built over 10,000 Buddhist temples, 3000 monasteries, and 1000 pagodas and stupas in a 40 sq mile area (104 sq KM). That’s a very dense count of aesthetically pleasing edifices with brilliant sunsets and dust particulates that make for some phenomenal photos. While their neighbors were killing each other, they got rich, avoided war and went on a construction spree. Their empire was defeated by the invading Mongol hordes in 1300 but fortunately for us - over 2200 still stand today. They suffered 400 earthquakes between 1904 – 1975 and a big one in 2016 that brought down almost 400 temples in one day. Get here soon!

There is a museum onsite where you are encouraged to wear
the ancient headgear of the nobles.
That's not true - no one was looking and my Instagram account needed a boost


2 planes later we checked into our dump hidden behind the beach resorts. Every colossal edifice is owned by a general (Maybe a little foreshadowing for what was to come). We stayed for a week and upgraded our accommodations slightly but this place is expensive (extremely expensive by SE Asian standards), and the resorts have a lock on beachfront access. It’s a lovely beach but it comes up shy of their marketing statement: “One of the best beaches in Asia”.

Yangoon / Rangoon

The connoisseur's street table of betelnut

Poverty, sickness, open sewers, the mass of humanity begging at your car window. I tried to think of it as training for India. Let’s call Rangoon “India Light”. 

Filth and red spit – As if their contamination and disease rates weren’t already high enough, Rangoon has made your odds of tuberculosis even higher with their city wide expectorant policy. It’s not confined to the male population. Everyone chews betelnut and spits the red juice everywhere. I’ve been to Guadalcanal and this is worse. I found Rangoon to be mildly disgusting and hygienically unsafe. 

Even the tourist attractions were underwhelming and polluted. Its slum adjacent to slum and the best parts look like Chernobyl reinhabited. The buildings are old Soviet era disasters that haven’t been repainted since constructed and the external mold has run amuck in the tropics. The city is a dystopian setting for abject poverty and the decline of Eastern civilization. You should move here immediately, develop a drinking problem and write the great Asian novel of loss and regret. I spent a week and a forgettable birthday here.

One communal cup for street water. How do you think they made out when Covid hit?

The Culture Game

Our hotel in Rangoon... The room service cleaners made the bed with the top sheet on top of the comforter. All wrong. I tried to explain it to them: Polite blank stares. Upon thinking about it later we decided, "of course they wouldn't know, they probably don't have a comforter because they don't have an air conditioner" so the culture game is really a poverty game. I thought I was going to teach something…instead I learned something.

From Hell to Heaven 

The driver wasn’t very proficient with a clutch but he was a master of the horn. It was a very spasmodic loud ride to the airport. If you use your horn 5 times in 30 minutes it’s probably you and not the other drivers. Slow down and get counseling. 

We spent a month in this country and we left it to live on a yacht for the next 40 days as we cruised the azure waters of Thailand. Our lives got immeasurably better but in light of the military coup that the people of Myanmar are now suffering, I can say with certainty that their lives only got worse. And they weren’t great to start with. 

In Conclusion: 

Bagan good. Rangoon bad.

Your spoiled bastard on point,

Captain Bobby