Saturday, 5 August 2006

Cambodia—The Angkor Temple Complex

First the pictures:
a. Angkor Wat courtesy of GoogleEarth. This gives you some idea of the scale.
b. Angkor Wat from the air, photo taken from an early morning balloon flight.
c. An abandoned temple.
d. Landmine victims making money other than by begging. These groups are all over the area. Give them a $1.
e. A group of hopeful tourists looking at sunset over AW. As with many sunrise/set events this was not as great as promised (however, to be fair, on those two or three days a year when environmental factors are right it is spectacular—so I am told).

Understanding the AW Temple setup:

Overall, there are approximately one hundred structures scattered over the AW Temple area, which begins approximately six kilometres north of Siem Reap. I suspect that there are still many other buildings, covered by jungle, waiting to be uncovered. Many of these are small, in a poor state of repair, and rarely visited by tourists. The hoards of tourists who daily descend upon AW head in the main towards three main complexes of ancient buildings.

The eponymous and most well known of these is Angkor Wat. Without doubt (at least to me) it is the most imposing temple, though not the largest structure. It was built to reflect the structure of the universe with continents, oceans and the heavens. In essence there is a central temple, with three levels, surrounded by a square with open galleries upon whose walls are engraved bas-reliefs of religious and political events. Surrounding the central building is a series of walls and entrance ways. In practice it was a giant showroom for the kings and aristocrats. During ceremonial occasions the people would gather around the temple—but not inside—to gaze upon the nobles as they marched in procession to worship the gods. This custom of course also reinforced the existing political structure. It was built by Suryavarman II (c. 1112–52 AD).

Three kilometres to the north of AW is the second structure of tourist note, Angkor Thom. This is a stone city, encompassed by large and imposing (but no longer effective) walls. This city was built by the great Jayavarman 7th. At the centre of this now abandoned city is the Bayon Wat. On the eastern perimeter of Angkor Thom is the ‘Terrace of Elephants’, from this highpoint, no doubt on top of a large wooden review stand which no longer exists, J the 7th reviewed his troops and people. Also part of Angkor Thom is an interesting structure, the ‘Terrace of the Leper Kings’. This is a platform, upon which sit an enigmatic statue, surrounded by religious carvings. The statue is near unique in that it depicts a figure with leprosy. It is a universal given that the gods are perfect (with a few exceptions, Hephaestus for example), but here is a god with leprosy! The statue may represent Yama, the god of death, or a Khmer ruler Yasovarman, who, it is believed, died of leprosy.

The third structure is Ta Prohm. It lies three kilometres to the east of Bayon. This Wat is famous because, as every 2nd person in SR will tell you, it was used as a set in the first (and better) Tomb Raider movie. Its principal and readily visible claim to fame is the numerous number of trees and other foliage which have grown in and through the entire building. Inside the temple are rooms, passage ways, and open areas, all looking a little unstable. This is the temple built for the mother of J the 7th. On the first day I saw this temple it was crowded with tourists.

An interesting aspect of these temples is their pluralistic nature. They were/are used for both Hinduism and Buddhism. Originally, the temples were Hindu, but then they were converted to Buddhism. There are signs that some of the religious artwork was vandalised due to differences in religious opinion. Religion! Also, less spiritually, but just as annoying, there are a number of graffiti produced by previous generations of tourists.

These temples were rediscovered by the modern world in the mid to late 19th century. The first Europeans to see them were mightily impressed with the art and engineering, as well they should be, they are impressive accomplishments. There was a degree of archaelogical work carried out beginning in the late 19th C but this work was interupted by the various conflicts in the region, not the least of which was the Kymer Rouge regime. Since the 1990s tourism and archaelogical work has greatly increased. Hopefully these monumnets will be preserved for humanity as a whole and the Kymer people.

I spent a total of four days visiting these and other temples. I will say that I was impressed. They are impressive, imposing and certainly worth seeing. I would recommend to any traveller. I would also recommend the one week AW pass (1 day pass $20, 3 days $40, 1 week $60—too cheap imho), take your time, come back and enjoy.

Monday, 17 July 2006

Cambodia—Siem Reap (Angkor Wat) Pt 1

Cambodia—‘Heart of Darkness’ or the Land without ATMS!

(I decided to post my adventures in Cambodia in several parts in order to keep my avid readership up to date.)

First, the photos:
a. Me waiting for a bus in PoiPet.
b. The bus!
c. Posted on the back of my guest house door—someone was having a fun time.
d. My first view of Angkor Wat.
e. Lots of tourists.
f. Some details
g. View from the top
h. View from the top 2.
i. Me and Angkor Wat.

With a great deal of regret I finally made the move from the Kingdom of Thailand to the Kingdom of Cambodia. From my reading I knew that this would be more of an ‘adventure’ than any of my previous travels. The Lonely Planet guide warned of the ‘Bus Scam’, the bus which carries one from the border goes not to the designated bus station but to a local quest house. To be frank, after 10 pleasant days in the ‘Land of a 1,000 Smiles’ I was not looking forward to hassle and troubles, however, I did want to see Angkor Wat. What I have come to find distressing about travel is not the expected: the hurry up and wait, but rather the sense of dislocation that occurs with each move. One gets settled and comfy, forms a social network, and then moves on, never to return.

Thursday the 13th of July was my departure date. I left my hotel at 07.30 in a mini-van, which carried me to a larger van, which in turn carried me to the Thai/Camb border, a three hour trip. The border town was dusty and dirty, and our driver warned us about pickpockets and child beggars. Here is where the fun began. We slowly moved through Thai and Cambodian customs, the details are lost to me, but there was a lot of dust, dirt, people in fancy uniforms stamping things, and time spent waiting in line, inter-sped with long walks along (dusty) paths. After at least an hour we were finished and through into Cambodia.

After experiencing several moves over borders I have to say, why bother with this border control waste? If anyone truly wishes to cross between any two countries in SE Asia, without official notice, there are 1,000s of kilometres of unguarded jungle. Effectively, border control is worthless. And, one could ask, what is one going to smuggle into Cambodia that is not already there? The entire procedure does not provide any meaningful protection, it merely provides sinecures for a few people, while wasting time, money and tourist patience. A second opinion I will share: the crossing was not as bad as we were led to believe. After all of the warnings I was expecting the wild west, in reality there were maybe a dozen children begging, with dozens more running around. If you chose to ignore them they were not a problem. The saddest part of the experience was the sight of children, dressed in rags, playing on a rubbish dumb.

After the border crossing we were conveyed (again) on a mini-van to a bus depot in the border town of PoiPet (aka dusty rathole) where we 'enjoyed' a long wait, at least an hour (‘20 minutes sir, no more’) before our bus arrived to take us to Siem Reap. This trip was an experience in itself. The road was poorly maintained, think of the worst country road in Australia, maybe a bit worse, and that is the road we travelled on. Overall, it was a seven hour journey, with two stops along the way. The bus was very crowded (by western standards), with luggage and people—I could not see any way to stuff more people on board—but the passing local buses showed how this could be done. I would not recommend a local bus to any potential traveller to Cambodia. However, I found the trip a bit of a hoot! Our ‘conductor’, who sat on top of our bags, provided some humour to the trip, and answered the usual silly tourist questions. The landscape along the way was the most beautiful I have seen to date: rice fields, villages and towns, temples, hills, valleys and trees. If the road was better far more people would travel into Cambodia, a commonly shared sentiment.

The buzz is that Bangkok Airways(?) have bribed the Cambodian gov to not upgrade this road, forcing people to make the journey by (expensive) air. This is somewhat confirmed by the good condition of the other main roads in Cambodia. I was told that the road between Siem Reap and Phon Phem is in excellent condition.

I arrived in SR at around 21.30. There was a small amount of hassle upon arrival, the ‘conductor’ just happened to run a guest house which we were all requested to inspect. Not bad, US$5 a night for a room, bed and TV, with private facilities. However, I insisted on going to the Mandalay Inn (an outrageously expensive US$15 a night, with breakfast), which I had already booked. I arrived there at about 22.00, had a look around, paid for my room, showered and went to sleepy bys. I will add that the manager of the Mandalay, Mr Maun, was very helpful to me when organising my journey. He runs a happy Inn.

The major industries of Siem Reap are tourism, textiles and agriculture. I am fairly certain that it is tourism which brings in the hard currency. I was told that the main groups of tourists are Japanese and Koreans, however, my bus contained a wide mix of people from Australia (me) to a guy from Macedonia. To accommodate this influx accommodation in SR ranges between 5 star, $1,000 a night hotels, down to $2 a night guest houses. In the central tourist area of town I am sure that every second builiding is either a guest house, a restaurant, a money changer or an internet cafe. Apartments are approximately US$500–$1,500 a month to rent and $35,000–$100,000 to buy. I am inclined to say, overall, that SR is a nice place to visit and to stay. I suspect that in years to come Cambodia, rather than Thailand will become a destination for expats.

Angkor Wat (Temples of Angkor)
The reason Siem Reap is the city that it is, and not a small and sleepy village, is the centuries old collection of buildings referred to, incorrectly, as ‘Angkor Wat’. In reality AW (Wat = temple) is merely the largest of what is a huge collection of temples (100s over 100s of square kilometres), which collectively should be referred to as ‘The Temples of Angkor’. This collection was created way back between the 9th and 13th centuries AD by the egomaniacs who ran a large Cambodian empire stretching as far a field as Thailand and Vietnam. The kings of this empire, as kings invariably do, built ever increasingly large palaces and temples in order to glorify the gods, And themselves And their own ‘greatness’. As a demonstration of divine devotion one of these kings Jayavarman 7th, created images of the Buddha with the king’s own facial features. What a guy! Interestingly enough, J the 7th is now something of a national figure in Cambodia.

In the guide books this ‘empire’ is referred to respectfully as being a ‘great’ empire. Well, I am sure that it was, however, with all empires and the egomaniacs who create and run them the average folk, both in the conquered and conquering country, are worse off. For example, the great king Jayavarman 7th had a temple (Ta Prohm) built for his mother. While this sounds like an outstanding example of filial piety the reality is less than pleasant. Eighty thousand people in dozens of villages were required to care for and maintain this ostentatious residence, which included a large statue of the rather obese woman. Perhaps the old, and rather grumpy looking matriarch would have been happier in a more human and less stony abode? These huge edifices are never built for personal comfort (e.g. Versailles), they are created to overall and impress others. The people who live in these palaces are emotionally retarded children.

Another fascinating aspect of religion is that the gods live in stone while the lowly humans live in less durable wood. Thus even the palaces of the kings are decayed away with only boundary stone, walls, and other fragments to mark there existence. Perhaps if all this time and effort was invested in a sewage system the bulk of the population would have been better off?

However, having said this, it must be understood that all the human suffering and misery created by ‘empires’ does have one concrete benefit—big things tourists can photograph and climb all over. AW is the biggest and best climb, it has sets of very steep steps which one can slowly and carefully both can ascend and descend. There are of course steps with handrails, but only girls would use these. All great fun.

To be continued...

PS There are no McDonald's in Siem Reap!! I repeat, no greaseburgers!!
PPS Our driver from Thailand assured us all that there were no ATMs in Cambodia. Not true, there is one in Siem Reap.

Sunday, 16 July 2006



Again, blogger is not overly good with photo layout. Also I am posting from Cambodia where dialup is high speed access, so bear with me:

a. Me, on a Ferris Wheel! A real hoot.
b. The old capital of Ayuthaya.
c. From the top of a tall lookout in Bangkok. A view of the city far below.
d. A genius of modern design who created this and other masterpieces of art.
e. Me comfy and fed on a boat heading back to Bangkok from Ayuthaya.
f. Just in case the Arts Degree does not pay, I have an alternative career waiting.
g. Enjoying a ride on an elephant.
h. At Ayuthaya, climbing a Temple steps.
i. The resting Ian.
j. One of the 'naughty' areas of Bangkok.
k. One of the other 'naughty' areas of Bangkok.
l. Me and an elephant getting acquainted.

How can mere words describe my happy times in the ‘Land of 1,000 Smiles’? I will state here and now that Thailand has been the most fun destination in my Asian travels. The people, the places, the sights have all been enjoyable, rewarding, and fun fun fun.

My first stop in Thailand was in the southern city of Hat Yai, while small, this is a bustling town with a booming economy. I spent a day here in order to sample the delights of Thailand before diving into the megalopolis that is Bangkok. I secured a room without a view at a small hotel which caters for passing farangs (Euro foreigners). I then looked around for a few activities. The most obvious was a one day expedition into the jungle. This I partook of, it was hot and humid, sticky and with a few bugs, but an enjoyable experience. After this I was more than ready to head north to the big city. I booked a train, first class (the other classes were not so good), hopped on board and immediately went to sleep.

The train trip itself was fine, however, I have noted that most of the countries I have visited were somewhat bureaucratic in their operating procedures. Thai rail was no exception. No less than three people came by in my first half-hour on board to ask to see my ticket. This was in addition to the chap who showed me to my cabin. Needless to say, this was not overly helpful when it came to sleep.

Upon arrival in Bangkok I was approached by a local taxi driver who offered to take me to my hotel for a mere 200 Baht (~A$7), and offer which I accepted. I did suspect that this was pricey, and was later to learn that this was in deed excessive, when relying on the meter few trips in Bangkok cost more than 75B. My hotel, as I was again soon to learn (travel is an educational experience), is in the middle of the red light/entertainment area of Bangkok. There are several such areas catering to western men (and more than a few western women) in search of paid ‘romance’ (or fucking). To be frank I see nothing wrong with a little financially remunerated humpy bumby. If I were to register an objection to any form of social behaviour it would be towards smoking and the consumption of alcohol. However, what I did find disturbing was the sight of attractive young Thai girls walking hand in hand with some of the grossest, fat, loser slobs you have ever had the misfortune to set your eyes upon. Every day at breakfast there would be this dichotomy between beauty and the beast. One sight sticks in my mind, this loser from the UK had his girlfriend wear a Supergirl outfit, including boots and cape, for several days. The scariest sight, one which I am still attempting to suppress and will never mention again, was a old, ugly, farang, walking along a main street, in a bright red dress, with his (remaining) hair dyed blonde. Very scary. The Thais are a tolerant people.

One of the entertaining activities in Asian travel is a visit to the local markets. One of the larger in Bangkok is the JJ weekend markets. This is a large area located at the end of the BTS (the Skytrain). I went there on a Saturday to look around and to also meet up with a Thai girl (Aon) I had met on the internet (yahoo messenger to be precise). After a little running around and miscommunication we met and spent a few enjoyable hours chit chatting and travelling around the markets. In summary, prices were I believe good, and there were lots of farangs wandering around looking hot and tired (just like me). One thing I will mention is that it was at this market that my mobile phone was stolen. So far this has been the only disagreeable event of my trip. It was my fault. I normally kept my phone inside my shoulder bag but I had just used the phone and so put it on my belt. A crowded market is a prime location for pickpockets. So, future travellers, be warned!

Speaking of visiting things, I went on a lot of tours, however, with one exception, I shall not attempt to individually itemise. I saw temples, museums, art galleries, saw old building, toured new, climbed high places, visited everything of worth. In case anyone is wondering Bangkok is a great city to visit.

The one tour I found particularly worthy of note was a visit to the old capital of Thailand, Ayuthaya (‘R-U-T-R), which lies about an hour’s drive to the north of Bangkok. It became the ‘old’ capital after an invading Burmese army destroyed the place. Thankfully, old temples and palaces do serve one useful purpose, they make excellent tourist attractions. I took a one day tour to Ayuthaya. In short, it was great, maybe the best tour so far. First we visited the King’s summer palace, then we headed to the old city. It is in ruins, but is slowly being restored. Amidst the rubble and half standing buildings there were hoards of Thai students running around and having their photograph taken. Clearly Ayuthaya is a designated ‘cultural’ artifact for the Thais. My tour group was shown two main set of ruins, one was the palace complex, the second an adjacent temple complex. The tour would have been better if the guide had been a little more knowledgeable about what we were seeing. Fortunately, I had previously purchased a book so I had some idea (and of course, there is that source of universal information: ‘The Lonely Planet Guide to ....’. Then, after the history, was the fun part. A small amusement area, with elephant rides and things to buy. Great fun! The journey back was on a ship, which served an excellent lunch. Being a vego the catering staff kindly made for me an excellent and very large vego meal! I got back to Bangkok happy, replete and tired.

One amusing aspect of touring in Thailand is the presence of touts. You will find these people standing outside tourist spots: temples, sights, and markets, saying something like ‘Where you from?’ or “You like to see something better?’. There goal in life is to take you not where you want to go but to somewhere they want you to go, and spend money. In effect these folk are harmless. There is no prospect of physical violence or intimidation (the Thai’s are a polite people, and also a people small in stature). Their patter, after a few iterations, is amusing, and one can, if one wishes, have some fun with these guys by answering their patter back—’Are you sure this temple closed? People are walking in and out’, ‘Maybe I go, can you pay for taxi first’, etc. All good fun. I did see a few people become annoyed with the touts, understandable, but keeping one’s cool and staying in control of oneself is always the best option. As Mark Twain once wrote, ‘A man should only be concerned about the prospect of being shot in the morning’.

A few passing thoughts on Thailand:
Before I left for Bangkok I had read and been told about the omnipresent noise, pollution, and congestion of the city. I had heard so much that I had come to believe that this could be a damper on my enjoyment, however, I am happy to state that reports of Bangkok’s environmental degradation are greatly exaggerated. It is true that rush hour traffic does not, that noise is omnipresent, and that vehicular pollution can be annoying, but I found all of this, and me coming from the small and quiet city of Perth, not to be a great problem. Away from the main streets you can find quiet and peaceful accommodation, while even near the main thoroughfares things are not so bad. Do not let the oft repeated claims of Bangkok’s detractors put you off from visiting this fine city.

I did see a two movies in Thailand (‘Superman’—OK; ‘Pirates 2’—not so good). The cinematic experience is, I am sure, the same world wide, however, there are two small items of note: Thai cinemas are cold, I was shivering in one; second, the Thais respect their King, amidst the movie previews and the adds for hair cream, there was a 60 second advert for the King, everyone in the cinema, including yours truly, stood. This respect for the King is found in the innumerable signs, banners and posters of the King which are found all over Bangkok (and I am sure throughout the country).

As I am sure everyone knows Thailand is a Buddhist country. The guide books say 95% of the population are Buddhists and, judging by the overt and covert Buddhist activity, I can only agree. This amount of religious adherence does lead to an interesting situation when yours truly is asked to discuss his religious affiliation. Every Thai ‘knows’ that Australians are christians, as such when the topic of religion arises I am invariably referred to as a christian. When I try and explain that I am an atheist and that god does not exist I am met with blank stares from most Thais. The paradigm of religion is deeply embedded in Thai society.

There are lots of farangs in Bangkok, and tourism is a big business, however, it is not being developed as well as it could be. I keep coming back to the example of Singapore, which is essentially a small island with nothing of real interest, but has created a tourist market from scratch with manufactured and somewhat cosmetic attractions while other countries, which do have natural features of note, ignore or fail to fully develop their tourist potential.

After close to two weeks in Thailand I decided it was time to depart and find new adventures. This was to lead me across the border into Cambodia—the next step on my Odyssey.

Wednesday, 5 July 2006


a. The artisan who hand crafted the 'Kris' knives of Malaysia.
b. Me, about to ascend Penang Hill.
c. George Town from a lookout in the city
d. The ferry which carried me across to Penang.
e. George Town from the top of Penang Hill.


Originally, I never in fact planned to visit Penag, it was an idea put into my head by a chance acquaintance on the road (an English traveller by the name of John), and by a desire to break the long train journey to Bangkok.

First, some explanations for those not in the know. Penang is a small island off the coast of northern Malaysia. Its major city is Georgetown, across the water is the neigbouring mainland city of Butterworth. Gtown is a more expensive, tourist city, there are a fair number of visitors and a fair number of expats (largely from the UK) who reside either temporarily or year round on its balmy shores. Transport across is either by ferry or the 13km long (longest in Asia) bridge.

In my mind I thought of Penang as being a sleepy, small town, with a few palm trees and a handful of hotels—nothing could be further from the truth. The town is a growing enterprise with condominions springing up along the coast like weeds. It was only when I ascended Penang Hill (800 metres) and saw the entire city spread out around me that I appreciated the size and diversity of this city (600k people: according to Lonely Planet). It is a vibrant city, yet also friendly and relaxed. I am a little hard pressed to explain this apparent contradiction, but even though people in Penang were usually busy they were never to busy to chat or say hello. Every time I walked past the taxi drivers outside my hotel (a 4 star for A$30 per night! the off season) they said hello and chatted with me for a few moments. In comparison Singapore was a busy and working city, you were definitely a tourist: arrive, see a few sites, and move on: KL was more lively than Sing, but it definitely had that big town feel. Not so Penang.

I spent a total of five days on the island and enjoyed them all. I am almost at a loss to explain what I did. Looking back I can recall the usual tourist activities, and the expected tourist sites, but that still leaves a lot of time unaccounted for. The first day I slept, the second I planned to do my own site seeing but the day began with heavy rain which only got heavier, so I spent most of the day either at Starbucks (with coffee and wireless internet) or in hotel reading and sorting my photos. After that I decided to accept the offer of assistance from a local, a man by the name of Ahmed, who offered to show me around town for a day.

I want to say two things about public transport in Malaysia (this applies to Sing and so far to Bangkok). Everywhere I went, and everyone I spoke to warned my about taxi drivers: they would overcharge, take me on scenic routes, and generally try and scam me. My experience was the total opposite. Every taxi driver, everywhere I went, was curtious, helpful, and honest (mostly). Taxi drivers gave me advice on sites to see, places to visit and where to (and not) to buy things. After my first week abroad I came to rely on these men (so far no female drivers) as my most valued sourse of information. Even when walking past a taxi stand I found that asking a taxi driver gave me the information I needed. So, while I am sure there are unscrupulous drivers out there, this must be a small minority.

The second form of transport I want to discuss is rickshaws. Most people know or have seen these devices, a human powered cart which carries one or two people. In Malaysia (and in a small way Sing) these are tourist attractions, hop on board and a man will pull you around the town. To cut a long story short, after some thought, I decided not to partake of their services. My thinking is that it is undignified and disrespectful to use a human in this way. I realise that this is their job, and they can potentially make a fair sum, but that is my opinion and I will stick to it. Suffice it to say, I did not ride a rickshaw.

More advice:
For those contemplating a trip to SE Asia (or at least the countries I have visited so far) don’t feel a need to bring my travel stuff with you. You buy most items (if not all) much cheaper in Sing or Malaysia. Get off the plan, go to your hotel, and then wander the streets looking for the suburban shopping centres/Malls (not the tourist places): cameras, electronic stuff, bags, etc, will all be cheaper. Of course, if you already have this junk, then no need to worry. Two more but smaller items of advice: carry small denomination US notes ($1 & $5), very handy for tips and small purchases. Second, carry with you a small notebook, to jot down notes and to write instructions for people.

I would recommend a few days for the weary traveller in Penang.

Onwards to Thailand!

Sunday, 25 June 2006

Malaysia—Kuala Lumpur & Melaka

a. KL from the KL tower, one of those big and famous communication towers.
b. Condos which are everywhere in KL.
c. The Batu caves and steps.
d. Me with a new friend (it was strong, heavy, and did not like me)
e. China Town

I left Singapore and arrived in Malaysia on a train. This journey began with a comical pass through customs at the Sing train station. My passport was scanned by a Malay woman hidden behind a glass screen, who said something through a speaker grill which I could not understand, and then waved me on. Next three uniformed customs inspectors, without moving from a reclining position, declined to inspect my luggage. My personal feeling is that border control is a joke and merely gives lots of people make work.

The train trip was uneventful, as was the arrival at the hi-tech KL Sentral Train Station (with a wireless, broadband Starbucks—class). All this was soon to change: In Singapore I had stayed in a 5 star, but had I decided to go down market in KL, get closer to the ‘real’ city! I had consulted that repository of knowledge ‘The Lonely Planet (if I had $1 for every LP book I have seen so far...) cheapo guide to SE Asia’ and found the New China Inn in KLs China Town: it is cheap, clean and has the basic amenities (and at a mere RM80 (Ringgit) ~A$30 hard to beat for price). So I booked a room from Sing.

After a 10 minute drive the taxi pulled up in front of a seething mass of humanity. There were stalls and shops filling the streets, people were shouting, bustling, buying, selling, running, walking, but not standing still. A constant melange of sight and sound, with zero free space (or at least that is how it looked). Then the driver informed me that he could go no further as the hotel was located inside China Town, which was not accessible by car. Yikes! This innocent young boy from Perth was immediately seized with the thought that his body would be found (if he was lucky) in a few days, stripped of any valuables and thrown onto a rubbish heap. However, nothing ventured nothing gained. I strode from the taxi into China Town with only a minimal sense of where I was going.

I did not get get very far: I was lugging a heavy backpack and a big bag, there was no walking space, and I was too stunned and busy looking at everything around me. However, after a few minutes of emulating a guppy out of water I realised that most people were ignoring me, most of those few who were not were (politely) waiting for me to move out of the way, the few people who were actually interested in me were screaming: ‘sir, sir, watch, a watch, a rolex?’, ‘T-shirt sir, T-shirt?’, ‘DVD, DVD sir?’, etc. I slowly began to move, and in the fullness of time found my hotel, and the manager of my hotel, James, who proved to be a font of useful information about KL and Malaysia.

I spent a week in KL, it is a fascinating place: noisy and vibrant, varied and traditional, exciting but never quiet. In some ways it is not a single city, different areas are so dissimilar that it is more a series of small towns clustered close to each other. I spent the first two days in KL simply looking around. This meant for me wandering the streets, riding back and forth on the monorail and the elevated train (KL has an excellent public transport system), and browsing through shops. What was surprising was the contrast between people, some were dressed in semi-traditional garb, others in suits, some women wore Muslim dress, others western. This meant that sometimes a daughter would dress like Britney Spears while her mother walking next to her would resemble the Ayatollah Kohmeni.

A word on personal safety. There was no danger, I wandered everywhere and never felt the slightest risk. My worst concern was being able to answer the innumerable soccer related questions I was often asked. However, I was warned by several locals against financial scams. Several people did stop me in the street, ask where I was from, and then ask if I could talk to their uncle who wished to work or immigrate to Australia.

This does lead into my one KL adventure. On my second day a woman (Amy) stopped me and started chatting. It then came out that she had an uncle who wanted to immigrate to Australia and could I fund time to come to her house and talk to him about the Big Island? Needless to say I was a little doubtful. I asked the manager of my hotel what he thought, his conclusion was that it was some sort of investment scam—get the isolated tourists to sign something. Amy had given me her mobile number, and after a few more days, after I had concluded that I was an experienced KL adventurer, I decided to give her a call and arrange a meeting. What made me a little doubtful was her refusal to meet in a public place, and her increasingly implausible reasons for refusing to do so. James, my hotel manager and confidant, advised me not to go, however, nothing ventured... At worst, any nefarious plan would merely involve an attempt to extort money from me, so I only took a RM 100 with me, and no credit cards or ID, and I left Amy’s number with James with a request to call the cavalry if I was not back within three hours.

To cut a long story short, Amy did have an uncle, an electrician by trade, who wanted to visit Australia and look for work with a view to immigrating. The reason that Amy wanted me to visit her house was that she was proud of it and wanted me to see it for myself. Overall, a pleasant two hours of chit chat. As her uncle wanted to live in Brisbane I could give only general advice, however, I assured him that Australia was safe and was looking for experienced workers.

At this point I will divert from my autobiographical ranting and address some advice to ‘the Ladies’—when in KL wear sensible shoes. The reason that I mention this is that the streets of KL are not the best. The footpaths are smooth and dirty, when wet they become muddy and slippery. I saw several backpacker chicks wearing thongs or sandals slip and slide. The footpaths are also often damaged, uneven, and sometimes have the odd big hole. So, no heels or open shoes—sensible shoes.

This leads me to another digression. Most Malays speak several languages with varying degrees of proficiency. My hotel manager can speak five languages. In contrast the average native English speaker can speak precisely one language. This means of course that each and every Malay is embarrassed by their low proficiency in English and apologised for their inability to speak English as well as an idiotic American reality TV show participant. As a native speaker of English I can only say one thing about this self-imposed inferiority complex—fan-tas-tic!

One of the highlights of KL tourism is a visit to the Batu Caves. These are located a mere 13kms from KL and consist of a main cave set into a rock face, plus a few smaller caves close by. In days past these caves have been turned into a Hindu temple area. To reach the caves one must ascend 150 metres, via 272 steps. Needless to say, while there are a number of true devotees in the caves, the overwhelming number are tourists busily photographing everything in sight. As one of these camera happy tourists I climbed the steps, wandered through the cave system, looked at the statues of the gods, gazed at the cave structure, had my photo taken holding a snake, and looked at the art gallery. Lots of fun. I travelled there and back on a public bus for the princely sum of RM2.40 (about Aus 80c).

It was after my return from the Batu Caves, my fifth day in KL, that I saw a most comical sight. In the early evening I was sitting outside the China Town Swiss Inn, enjoying a refreshing Pineapple juice as had become my custom, when I saw two lanky lads stumble down the street overburdened with possessions in search, one presumes, of their hotel. They looked totally lost and confused. Honestly! Have these people never been out of their home village?

There was one other minor annoyance I came across—financially stringent backpackers. On more than a few occasions I walked past backpackers arguing with street vendors over the price of a meal, a matter of a few cents either way. The same thing in cheap hotels. Come on guys, no matter how poor you are by western standards a few cents (or even a few dollars a night) is going to make a big difference to your travel plans, but it is a big deal to the locals you are bargaining with.

Melaka is a city and region reeking with history. In days past empires battled and pirates raided over its shores. It lies about 150 km south of KL, and is easily reached by two hours on a bus. I decided to take a day our of my busy KL schedule and check it all out. The bus ride was uneventful, but the city was fascinating. There is a surprisingly large and well designed museum in the town square, along with other buildings left over from the old days of empire. I spent a day wandering around Melaka, looking at its large range of touristy things, and buying a few souvenirs. Well worth a visit. It is the quietest place I had visited so far.

A few more insights into life as a traveller. I have found my ipod an invaluable companion, travel involves a lot of hurry and wait. To pass the time the pleasant voice of podcaster describing some esoteric feat of science, technology or culture is an excellent anodyne to the ennui of life on the road. One minor annoyance was airconditioning, many places, even those which catered to the locals had their aircon set to frosty. I would walk out of a hotel or bus and my glasses would fog over. Such are the problems of the traveller.

I left KL with a certain amount of regret, something I did not experience when departing Singapore. KL is city everyone should see at least once. Onwards to Penang!

Monday, 19 June 2006

First Stop—Singapore


I write this in a seedy (but not sleazy) hotel in Kuala Lumpur’s bustling China Town, however, that is another story for another day. Here is my account of my few, but interesting days, in Singapore—

To describe my experiences I will first have to make what many readers will believe to be a digression, however, as you will soon see there is a point to this excursus, one, which, I am sure you will agree, is both necessary and educational. Picture, if you will, in your mind’s eye, yourself, walking the streets of Perth, going about your everyday, lawful affairs. As you progress through your activities you will from time to time glance around, and occasionally view a peculiar individual. This stranger has a hagged and worn mien, is clearly deficient in sleep, and has a look of permanent bewilderment upon his befuddled face. With closer inspection you will also see a backpack slung uncomfortably over one shoulder and a camera clipped to his belt (I am visualising a man, feel free to do as you will). To complete your identification of this person one needs to merely glance at his hands, if they hold, tightly clutched, a handful of bedraggled maps, which are continually and hurriedly folded and unfolded, opened and closed, read and then put aside, you have all you need to clarify the identity of the person espied—that most pitiful of individuals—a Tourist.

Many is the time I gazed at these folk, wondering why they came so far to photograph so much of so little worth—I mean how many photos of kangaroos does the world need? As the kind and generous person I am, I have even, from time to time, offered a measure of assistance to these people, helping them hurry through their ever repeated journey from landmark to landmark. But it is now time to end this digression and return to the topic of this journal, me. Into every man’s life there comes a time when he must confess his sins, acknowledge his faults, and pay his dues. Humble reader, at this moment the fundamental dynamic of the voyeur/tourist relationship has changed, the scales have been turned, the chicken has come home to roost, and the trap sprung. Return to your mental image of the befuddled tourist, remove him from the streets of Perth and place him onto the busy thoroughfares of Singapore. Then (mentally) remove the face of this generic stranger, and, and, and, replace his face with that of mine, for the tourist we are now discussing is me!

Yes, for a week I wandered the streets and crossroads of Singapore as a tourist! What can I say? It was me. I ambled about, I stood on footpaths, I gazed, I even stopped and stood in the middle of roads when something caught my eye, I even got lost! The daily environment of Sing was fascinating to me! So now listen, gentle reader, to my thoughts, deeds and actions on that fair jewel of the far east, Singapore (to the north of Perth, closer than Sydney).

As you already know I arrived in a freighter. As I suggested in my previous post, leaving the ship was a bit of a break. Strong bonds are made between people in the closed confines of ship board travel, fortunately these bonds are both quickly made and then quickly broken. As soon as my feet hit the gangplank I was ready to go (of course I had not slept in the previous 24 hours, I remained awake all night to view the fascinating experience of a big ship approaching, entering and docking in Sing harbour). Here begins my first humorous experience on land. The agent from the freighter company drove Christine and myself from the ship to my hotel. Before this a couple of customs flunkies came on board, asked if we had any cigarettes or alcohol, and then stamped our passports with our visas (only 14 days if coming by sea). We were then to be more rigourously inspected on land, however, when we were driven to the customs point there was no flunky on duty, the agent sounded the car horn, looked around, then shrugged and drove us through check-point charlie into Singapore! So, at last I am a fugitive from justice.

I spent a week in Singapore, and enjoyed it all. I will not bore you with a detailed account of every activity nor explain each and every tour I went on, suffice it to say I had and did a lot of each and found them all fun. I even simply wandered the streets to see where I would end up. Singapore works hard to make sure that its tourist visitors have lots of things to do, and opportunities to spend their cash. So I will do no more than make a series of observations of my experiences and let you be the judge of their worth:

English tourists
For some reason the tour people at my hotel stuck me with a bunch of retired, but not retiring, English folk. Now, I do not mind the English, but I have to tell you that I found the entire day a drag. These guys complained about the weather (yes, Sing is hotter than the UK, really, and that will not change), the food (!), the price of beer, and probably other things I have managed to successfully suppress, however, at our evening meal one of my co-tourists said something beyond belief. We were eating at an outdoor restaurant on the waterfront where the meat (steak or fish) was served raw on a ‘hot rock’ and the consumer of such things cooked his or her meat to his or her own individual taste. This chappie looked at his (to my inexperienced eyes) fine piece of meat and said (in essence) ‘this is not cooked, I did not come all this way to cook for myself, my wife cooks for me at home’. Upon my return to my hotel I told my tour guy that I would prefer a new group of people for the following day, any group of people. Yet, I am sure there are lots of really nice English people in the world.

Singapore and Tourism
I first came to Sing three decades ago. A lot has changed since then, I am better looking, slightly taller, and more wittier. Sing has changed also, back then one came for the cheap clothes and shoes, but, to state the obvious, this is no longer the case. Even one of my tour guides confessed that Sing was no longer a haven for cheap shopping, except, he hastened to add, for electronic gadgets. If you are looking for bargains look further north, however, more on this in my next blog entry.

I suspect that tourism is not as important to Sing as it once was. Even though the entire city is still organised to pleasantly extract money from its visitors there is not the same emphasis or importance attached. Sing makes a huge amount of money from its position as one of the world’s big freighter ports, and also from its role as a financial hub, plus general wheeling and dealing. I have no idea of the stats, but I am sure tourism is no longer the big ticket item on the economic agenda. Having said this the Sing government is not abandoning the tourism biz, the opposite in fact, it is making plans to expand the range of touristy things available. Principally, there is a big, big, casino, hotel and shopping (surprise) complex under construction, plus upgrades and expansion of existing facilities. Clearly Sing is sticking with a winner.

After a day or two at looking at an ever increasing number of exhibits, all of which exit into exhibit shops, I gained the impression that the Sing tourism experience is just a little contrived. Evidence for this conclusion came came from one of my guides who told us that every old building was either to be demolished or converted into a museum (or other touristy thing). Everything that can be used for tourism is or will be used. Santosa island, for example, which one reaches via cable car (exciting) consists of a museum displaying Sing’s history (in a rather superficial fashion), plus other diversions (including another ride which carries people up into the air—fun, but just how many of these things are there in the world?). There was nothing intrinsically significant about the island, but for the price of S$60 you can spend four hours there via yet another tour.

I also gained the impression that Sing is trying to corner the market on Asian tourism, or at least stay a step ahead. Signs of this are the increasing number of tours which include aspects of other Asian countries. One can visualise the future slogans, ‘Don’t bother going to China/Malaysia/Cambodia etc., just come to Singapore and see the best of each’! Perhaps in a decade there will be a replica Great Wall of China in Singapore?

One amusing insight into the tourist mindset was provided to me by the Night Zoo Safari—this is a tour through Singapore’s zoo, on a ‘safari’ bus, where one views various Asian animals, at night. There is also a display of Asian cultural activities (dancing, fire eating, dart blowing, and spears). In summary it was great: smoothly managed, and entertaining. I would recommend, but the amusement came from a Perth couple who I later bumped into who had been on this tour and who told me how much they had enjoyed. I immediately asked them ‘Have you been on the Perth zoo night safari?’, to which they replied ‘No’! People will travel 1,000s of kilometres to do things they do not do at home!

In my peregrinations I did visit the backpacker area of Sing. In days past the Sing authorities frowned upon the humble, mendicant, backpacker, but now, possibly because the world tourism biz has belatedly realised that BPs do spend the cash (but over a longer stretch of time) these folk are now welcome. I saw a half dozen or so Backpacker hostels ranging around S$20 (my shipboard pal Christine emailed me to say she found a place at $10 with breakfast!). They all looked neat, clean and tidy (as one would expect in Sing). I did not see a huge number of backpackers, possibly I was there too early in the morning? If you fancy yourself a BP do not cross Sing of your list of countries to visit.

A few more thoughts. You cannot really get lost in Sing, the taxi’s are cheap (S$5–$10 for most trips)—just raise your arm, wait a minute or two, and one will appear (in fact I cannot see how the taxi drivers make a living?), there are also several cheap (S$6–$25 per day) tourist buses continually making their way around the tourist circuit, ready to whisk you where you will. Sing is also a safe city, you can walk anywhere without trouble. One amusing aspect of my travel itinerary was my status as a sole traveller. Personally, I did not find this a problem, there were always people to talk to, both locals (‘where you from’, etc.) and other tourists. However, when going or doing something I was often asked ‘Are you alone?’ with an accompanying look of surprise. Some ticketing people even automatically charged me the price of two tickets. In my time in Sing I found only one other person who I was sure was also enjoying the freedom to travel as you will. Even the intrepid backpackers invariably moved in pairs or groups. Another item of note, the weather, yes it is the tropics, so humidity reins supreme, but it did not seem that bad to me. Also rain, June is the ‘off season’, due apparently to heavy rains. During my stay in Sing there was no rain. The good thing about the off season is the lower prices and the opportunity to get discounted accommodation. I found the hotels reasonably priced. My hotel, the Miramar, was the hotel the freighter crew (officers) stayed at while in port, it was S$100 per day, with a full range of services (4 or 5 star, never checked—enough for my simple needs). Other hotels range both up (towering edifices of stone and steel) and down to worn and small (at around S$50).

I will finish with one last piece of wisdom—Ian’s quick guide to tourist spotting:
English tourists: they ‘come from the nOrth’, complain about the weather, and are 60+ in age.
Americans (USofA) have the best cameras, but don’t talk to anyone else (or at least not to me).
Japanese girls travel in groups of 3–4, photograph everything possible, but one of them must be in each frame.
Australians seem to quietly hang at the periphery of each group and not say much.

On my last day in Sing, I gathered all my possessions, thought of the other things I could do in Sing if I was so inclined, and then headed to the train station for the trip to Kuala Lumpur. My stay in KL will form the subject of my next blog entry.

ps my friend Grant, who is looking after my house, has told me that my cat, the cat I rescued from a life of penury and poverty, cared for, fed, and whose medical bills I have paid, is not pining away during my absence, rather he is happy and frisky, and clearly misses me to the sum of zero.

Here are a two snaps. I did not take many pics in Sing, perhaps I did not find it as interesting as my journey on a freighter?

The first is the ride in the Sing hot air balloon! The second the ride on the cable car to Santosa island. Both were fun.

Tuesday, 13 June 2006

The journey from Fremantle to Singapore on the ANL Esprit

To start with some images (a picture tells a thousand words—but not if you are a philologist). This blog site does not allow individual notation of images, so I am adding a few notes right at the start:

a. loading of the ship in Fremantle.
b. At sea looking forward
c. At sea looking back.
d. The Bridge
e. Bridge GPS map display
f. Plan of the ship
g. The engine room (the chief engineer and Christine)
h. Our luxurious facilities
i. Pirate attack precautions
j. Deck plan
k. Stairwell from the top
l. Me at the bow!
m. Me at the controls !!

short version:
Great fun, an interesting and dirty ship, which rolled a lot but no sea sickness, crew friendly, learnt much, would do again.

long version:
Arrived! Safe and sound in Singapore after 7 days at sea!

The journey began in the port of Fremantle on the afternoon of Tuesday the 6th of June. I arrived at the shipping terminal eager and ready to depart on my bold adventure—and also carrying far too much luggage. A few moments later the Capt. also arrived at the terminal, climbed out of his taxi, along with my fellow passenger Christine from the UK (who has spent 2 years travelling! young people these days! no responsibility!), and introduced himself. We briefly chatted and then boarded the ship via the gangplank. I immediately hit my head on a low slung metal thing. A point I will mention again is that the ANL Esprit is a working ship, you will bump into things (and for those who do not know: a vessel under 12m in length is a ‘boat’, while anything larger is a ‘ship’, i.e. a lifeboat resides on a ship, also right is starboard, left is port, the sharp part of the ship is the bow, the blunt bit is the stern). After clambering on board I was then conveyed up a long stairwell, nearly to the top of the ship, to my cabin, and proceeded to settle myself into place.

To jump ahead I will tell you that the trip was fun and enjoyable. Travel by freighter is something everyone should do at least once in their life, however, it is a more challenging and markedly different mode of travel than that found on a luxurious cruise ship. A freighter is a rough environment. The engine is powerful and there is little attempt to make its operation pleasant to experience, it fills the peopled area of the ship with noise and vibration. Also a freighter is not concerned with a smooth voyage. Even in calm waters the ship yaws (side to side) and pitches (back to front) noticeably. Add all these factors together and the journey itself is not always the most pleasant part of the experience. If someone is prone to motion sickness I would not urge you undertake the long voyage across the Pacific.

For myself, I found the ship’s environment tolerable, and even a little bit of fun. During the first day we were shielded a little from the full force of the sea by the west coast of Australia, however, by the morning of the second day (8th June) we were sufficiently far from shore that the ship experienced some serious sea-induced movement. At first I found this motion ok, in fact, being rolled around my cabin, having to grab handholds and step lively, was fun, but by the second day the cumulative effect was beginning to take its toil. On the second and third day I was tired and sleepy most of the time. One of the crew told me that this was the first stage of seasickness, however, by day four I had returned to my customary good humour. Overall, it was not motion sickness which concerned me but a feeling of clumsiness—I felt compelled at times to grip both handrails while using the stairs, while crew members would zip (politely) past me at flank speed. I also had to think a little before moving around or picking things up—it was a little like being a teenager again (as a side note, for 2–3 days after landfall I kept unconsciously swaying in time to the non-existent ship. Even seasoned sailors need time to get their landlegs back).

It would be interesting to experience the full force of a wild sea. Just how much movement is there? Several crew members surprised me by revealing that they became seasick in very rough seas. I was also told that the trip between Fremantle and Singapore was relatively smooth, but across the Great Australian Bight (Adelaide to Perth) look out for storms and wild seas.

The most exciting part of the trip for me was the departure from Fremantle. While still in harbour I moved aorund the ship watching the loading of the cargo: big cranes, big trucks, big containers, lots of noise and action, all under bright lights—Great Stuff. At about 02.00 on the 7th June the ship was slowly turned by tug boat and pointed towards the harbour entrance. As we sailed away from Fremantle I could see the lights of Perth to starboard, and briefly see the island of Rottnest pass us by. All my life I have seen ships leave Fremantle and sail to ports unknown, now I was on one of those ships (though, I knew where I was going).

The ship itself, as I have already said, is a working ship—the doors are heavy, there are no lifts in the crew area, the exterior of the ship is covered with diesel soot, there is rust, the fittings are serviceable and also a little worn, the outside air is filled with the faint aroma of diesel fumes, there are areas where an unlucky slip and slide could carry someone off the boat into the deep, dark sea. There is also little in the way of onboard diversions: some old deckchairs, an indoor salt water pool, and a poorly equipped gym. The crew tend to work long hours and are diverted by their duties, passengers must make their own entertainment. I did try the pool, it is approximately 4m x 4m, filled with ocean water (which is very salty) and, as it is close to the engine, very noisy (in fact, if you put your head under water it is very, very noisy, with thumbs, bumps, and rattles). Not the best pool I have ever been in, but for the crew, after a hard days work, a good place to relax.

The ship is designed to carry cargo, the crew and passengers seem to be almost an afterthought. The front 4/5 of the ship is the container storage area, from hull to sky there are containers stacked on top of containers (each container has its own unique number). At the back of the ship is the people storage area, eight decks also stacked on top of each other. There is a hierarchy of placement, the bridge is at the top, the deck below has accommodation for the Capt, chief engineer, and the owner (in this case me!). Below this the cabins become smaller. There are also storage and workrooms. At the bottom is the engine room. My cabin consists of two main rooms: a lounge area with a couch, desk, table and chairs, TV, CD and DVD, plus a bedroom with an adjoining shower and toilet. All very comfy. To go between decks one must enter a stairwell and make one’s way up or down a often sometimes rolling set of stairs (14 steps per deck x 8 decks).

This ship can carry approximately 2,000+ containers, while the largest freighters can carry 8,000+ containers. A short lesson in ship economics: the Capt. told me that the daily rental (lease) charge for the Esprit was US$25–30k. This works out at less than $15 per day per container, thus to move a container from Perth to Singapore is less than $100. Freighter transport is economical (and with the bigger ships even more so).

Us passengers were given a tour of the engine room on the 9th of June. The ship’s engine is your basic diesel design, but big. It has 6 cylinders (the biggest ships have 14) which drive the propeller shaft. There is also a host of ancillary equipment, water purification, aircon, steering gear and so forth. One distinctive feature of the engine room is its temperature, it is hot, one temperature gauge read 50 degrees! Great if you are cruising the arctic circle, not so good in the tropics. One compensation is that the engine room, being at the bottom of the ship, experiences the least movement (while my cabin, being near the top, experiences far more). Some stats on the engine: it consumes 70 tonnes of fuel a day, the 28 day journey Singapore–Singapore requires ~1500 tonnes of fuel; the engine cylinder is 74cm x 2.5m (the biggest ship cylinders are 94cm across).

The other important area of the ship is of course the Bridge. It is here that the Capt. and the watch officers control the ship. From here you can see the ship’s surrounds and catch the latest info on the ship’s course and position. I went to the bridge several times a day to find out what was happening. The bridge consists of a control area, a navigation/chart room, a communications room, plus a look out area. The instrumentation on the bridge is not as hi-tech as I suspected it might be. There is a radar screen, a GPS based map display and lots of buttons and dials which control and indicate the myriad details of the ship’s operation. There are always two officers on duty on the bridge, though often one is below and ‘on call’ in case of need.

The crew is composed of Germans and Filipinos, in the main the officers are German and the enlisted personnel are Filipinos. I was told that to become an officer one must undertake an apprenticeship and then a four year University course. If one is a German citizen then the German government pays the bill, if not, then not. So Filipinos tend to take a 6 month course which allows then to carry out various support duties. The crew is not as ‘swasbuckling’ as the uninitiated might think. Most of the crew are married or have girlfriends, and are saving for something (remaining on a ship for 6 months is a great way not to spend money). One crewmember has been married only a few months and has so far spent very little time with his wife. Even though he does not talk about it, it is easy to see that this is difficult for him. The crew also change over with some frequency, at each port a few crew leave the ship and are replaced. One thing going for the crew is the demand for ship’s crew. There is a boom in shipping. The Capt. told me that his shipping line is adding 20 new ships to its existing fleet of 80. Most of these are destined for the far east.

I was surprised to learn that passengers on a freighter were not as rare as I had thought. The trip from Europe to Asia is the most common journey, with most freighters carrying a few passengers. I imagine that we provide some amusing diversion for the crew. The Capt. told me of one option for retired folk. Upon the payment of 25,000 Euros you become an ‘owner’ of the ship, this entitles you to rent the owner’s cabin for a mere 25 Euros a day. Many older European couples do just this and spend several months of the year sailing the world.

One pleasant surprise was the quality of the food on board, while not 5 star, it is good, varied, and plentiful. There is also a planned regularity to some of the ship’s diet. Certain days see certain foods served. For example, Thursday is icecream day, while Saturday has a tasty vegetarian soup. Part of this is to help keep the crew aware of the day of the week. Life at sea can easily become an unchanging routine, with each day the same as the previous and the next. On Sunday the passengers and officer’s gather for drinks. The Capt. told us that in days gone past the Capt. read from the good book, but now Sunday exists for a recreational drink.

Life on ship is not as exciting as romantic tradition would suggest. Most of the work is repetitive, and the ship sails a fixed route for extended periods of time. The big change over the last generation is the speed with which ships handle freight, it is now much faster than before. The downside (at least from the crew’s perspective) is the resultant short stay in port. For example, the Esprit was in Fremantle for only 12 hours or thereabouts. If a crew member has an 8 hour shift while in port there is little time to go onshore. It is possible to go for months without spending any lengthy time off the ship. As compensation for this the crew do have a sense of camaraderie and a rather jovial approach to their life at sea. It was in fact this camaraderie that made the trip worthwhile.

What made the single largest impression was the informality of the crew. The Capt. and officers wore shorts and T-shirts, and frequently got their hands dirty. The Filipinos were equally friendly, and asked me about vegetarianism, Australia, and Australian working visas (the obtaining of).

The main diversion on each trip is a BBQ! On this voyage it was the evening of Friday the 9th. The principal component was a pig on a spit, along with squid, prawns and other nautical niceties. For Christine and myself the cook kindly prepared skewers of veggies (which looked rather lonely surrounded as they were by stacks of dead and eviscerated animal). The BBQ lasted until 23.00, fairly late for the hard working ship’s crew.

Pirates: something out of Hollywood and history, but still present in some parts of the world. As we journed through the straights between Java and Sumatra, there was a possibility that some enterprising free-market entrepreneurs might decide to redistribute the wealth by boarding our ship. On the bridge there are lists of pirate activities, and warnings of potential problems, there is usually one or two a day, however, while there is a possibility of an attack it is slight. To protect against this threat we will be locking all exterior doors and unused cabin doors, ‘projectors’ (hoses with holes) will be strung along the side of the ship to deter pirates, and deck lights will shine down onto the water.

The last day on board was spent twisting and turning around the islands big and small which lead to Singapore. In these confined and shallow waters there are small fishing boats and huge supertankers. At this stage of our journey the officers on watch are just a little busier than on the open sea. Our approach to Singapore harbour began at around 04.00 on the 12th June. A pilot came on board and in conjunction with the Capt. docked the boat. On land again! After one last breakfast on the Esprit I left the ship, with some regret, for the last time and began my time in Singapore!