Friday, 17 July 2009

Fremantle to Singapore via Penang, Phuket, Langkawi, and KL.

Eleven days at sea: Fremantle to Singapore, via Penang, Phuket, and Langkawi.

As regular readers of my blog will know I travelled from Fremantle to Singapore on a freighter way back in 2006. This was an experience, rough and ready, but fun. Now, three years later I have traveled a similar route, but this time on the opposite end of the comfort scale, this time I travelled on a ship from one of the world’s premier cruise lines: the Princess line, and the ship -- the Sun Princess.

The specs:
The Sun Princess was manufactured in 1995, it displaces 77,000 tonnes (making it twice the size of my freighter) is 260m long, 30m wide, and has 13 decks. (Interestingly enough, there is no number 13 on the ship, this means that there is a deck 12 with a deck 14 immediately above, but no deck numbered 13, nor do cabin numbers contain the ill-omened 13. The baleful 13 is totally skipped. This seems a little archaic to me, hopefully it is a nautical tradition and not a belief that the ship will capsize or hit an iceberg if ’13’ is mentioned.) The crew compliment comes in at 1,000, and the ship can carry 2.000 passengers. I was told that on this occasion the ship had 2,200 passengers. I cannot verify this number, but the ship was certainly full.
As you can imagine, the demographic of the ship was towards the older end of the spectrum. I would say the average age was in the 50s, maybe 60s. Because of the school holidays there were a larger number than usual of 'younger' people on board.

One thing I certainly noticed, it was far harder to chat to the crew on this trip than on my freighter.

The passenger area of the ship serves two purposes: cabins for sleeping, and the rest for entertainment. This latter category includes restaurants, night clubs, cafes, shops, library, an art gallery, bars, internet cafes, open areas, and lounges. The centre of the ship is a large, 4 story open area where the entertainment facilities are found—very elegant. The passenger cabins are radiate outward from this centre, with the crew cabins discreetly located behind doors with signs saying ‘no entry’.

Navigation (around the ship, not the ship itself) was a little tricky at first, but keep in mind the deck number you are on, the deck number you want, and whether you are or want the front or the back of the ship, and you are ok. I am sure that the single largest duty of any passenger crew member is directing new passengers to their intended destination.
For me, the trip was a fantastic experience: pleasant, new, and fun. The food, the range of facilities, and the change of scenery, were all very enjoyable. There is a slow and comfortable languor to the process. I quickly fell into an easy routine. Awake around 7.30 -- which was facilitated by my eastward (on the outbound leg of our journey) facing balcony -- and on to breakfast at 8.00. There are two principal means of consuming food on the ship. The first is to sit in a dining room and be waited upon. Each passenger is assigned into one of two dining rooms on the ship, and further assigned into one of two dining times. In the dining room each passenger sits at his assigned table and is waited upon by his waiter, with selections from a menu. The other alternative is buffet dining. From a large, constantly varying, and well stocked selection the interested patron can chose his own food. Each has its benefits (the plates in the buffet are larger).
There was one major change from my past travel practices, previously, I have always travelled alone, but this time I was accompanied by two families. The first that of my brother Brian and his family (wife Janine and his five year old son Connor), and his brother-in-law (another Brian) and his family (wife and three young daughters), in addition Janine and Brian’s mother Maureen (that is Brian number 2) also accompanied us. This was a fun experience for me, meals became playgrounds as I was constantly assailed by the children.
The trip began in Fremantle with an annoying amount of confusion. I was left standing and waiting for two or so hours in the embarkation lounge before I was able to board the ship. Then, I discovered that I had been assigned to a new and different cabin. This was an upgrade, pleasant in itself, but my luggage required several hours to found me.
That first night the ship seemed very crowded. The lifts were busy, the corridors filled with wandering people, and the restaurants crammed to capacity. Over subsequent nights things seemed less busy—people found their place on the ship—they sat and read, chose in cabin dining, made more use of the buffet, and generally were less of a nuisance.
There are a few minor grievances on the ship. There is the petty practice of ‘nickel and dimeing’-- charging for minor services. For example, to buy a lanyard with which to carry ones ship board ID card (which also unlocks one’s cabin and performs double duty as a currency card) cost $7.95. To my way of thinking, each passenger, who pays several thousand dollars for the 16 day cruise, should receive a complementary lanyard. Similarly, there is the practice of charging for photographs taken by the ship’s photographer, charging for speciality coffees and the like. My thinking is that, if these services were provided free of charge to passengers there would be a greater sense of economic reciprocity increasing the likelihood that passengers will spend more money while on the ship, and look more favorably at the prospect of future cruises.
The catering crew
The catering staff came largely from the 3rd world. Each staff member wears a badge with their first name, position and nationality. The catering staff originate from the Philippines, Thailand, and such European states as Bulgaria and the Ukraine. I did talk to several staff and found that their working conditions are challenging. Their work contract is long: 6 months for European staff, and 10 months for Asian. Each shift is approximately 12 hours in length, and involves working at several stations throughout the day, without a day off for the entire length of the contract. I did not ask about the pay, but I suspect that it is not overly high, at least not for the junior staff.
Ports of call
While I was onboard the ship visited four ports: Penang, Phuket, Langkawi and Singapore. Initially, I was planning to disembark in Phuket and travel to Pattaya via Bangkok, however, I decided to remain on board until it reached Singapore -- the last Asian port of call before returning to Australian waters. I had visited each of these destinations before, as such at first I was not overly eager to disembark, however, after a few days at sea I was feeling a little confined and the prospect of a day ashore gained great appeal.
I would not recommend a cruise as a way to see a new land. The ship’s visit is only a few hours long, which does not allow sufficient time to see more than a few ‘big’ sites. If you journey by cruise ship it is the journey, not the destination, which is important.
Penang was as I remembered it from my visit of 2006, a relatively quiet and small town. I spent most of the my time in a Starbucks cafe sipping a mango smoothie and surfing the net, catching up from a week offline. I then wandered around the town on foot for an hour or so and then headed back.
I had been to Phuket before, it is a busy tourist beachy place. Myself and Brian’s (#2) family took a mini-bus to Patong beach (return 2,000b). This of course necessitated a stop at a diamond shop where I did buy one item. From there we went to an elephant park where everyone except me went for an elephant ride (me being an old hand at elephant riding I preferred to do other things.) These other things were air pistol shooting and a snake display. The snakes were v scary and the guy who played with the snakes was very skilled, and braver than me.
I only spent an hour in Lang. Essentially, one more beach resort. Ok if you like that thing, but I am not a beach person. I did try and catchy up with my brother Brian and his family in the WaterWorld, but did not.
KL and Port Klang
I had been to both of these places and did not want to go again, so I stayed on the ship.
I can add that the Malaysian authorities had us ozzies sign a health declaration stating that we had no symptoms of swine fly. So like, we are going to bring sw to Malaysia?
Finally, on the 11th day of the voyage we reached Singapore, the ship was returning to Fremantle via Geraldton, but I was going elsewhere, returning to Thailand. Leaving the ship with my family was a bit of tug, mixed feelings, but here I am. The first half of my day in Singapore was a WWII tour lasting approximately 4 hours. We visited the military cemetery and the British command bunker. A sad experience, the defeated suffered greatly during the Japanese occupation. And of course, the sheer incompetence of the British military effort.
On to Thailand ----->