‘Spice Route’ Cruise, Chennai to Singapore
Tuesday 15th and Wednesday 16th November 2016
We‘re getting the hang of these long eastwards flights – after all, it’s the third time we’ve done it this year!
It’s very difficult to find anything about Emirates to criticise. They have superb modern aircraft (Airbus A380-800 and Boeing 777 for our two part journey to Chennai via Dubai) and excellent cabin staff, all attentive and immaculately dressed. I think that our only minor criticism would be that they take away your headphones when you’re still half an hour from your destination. Mind you, we both have our own headphones; I’d left mine at home and Gill’s were hiding in her cabin bag!
Today’s flight left Gatwick at 1.30pm, arrived in Dubai seven hours later for a two hour stopover, followed by only three and a half hours to Chennai, where we arrived at 2.30am UK time. Not bad at all. Getting through Immigration was tedious and tiresome, which left us glad that we won’t be coming back here for our return trip!
The drive to our hotel was interesting. India has a huge and growing economy, and yet you suspect that the chaos on the roads, with mopeds and motor bikes whizzing in and out of slow-moving traffic, hasn’t changed in decades. For such a large and well-respected city construction standards seem a bit third world. Still, an interesting journey – Gill saw lots of this last year when she came to India with Liz.
There were two other English couples on our bus, plus a pair of American women, and we had a pleasant chat with them all while waiting in the hotel reception hoping that our rooms would be available quickly; we were exhausted from our journey, having barely slept, and were itching for a snooze.
We did get our room without much delay, and decided to have a quick lunch before getting our heads down; Gill had had to leave much of each of her meals on the aircraft since they weren’t gluten-free and was understandably peckish by now. We went to the hotel’s restaurant and had a light meal – soup for Gill and a sandwich for me – before crashing out at about 1pm for a couple of hours. At 2.30pm she went to the rooftop pool, but I slept on until 5pm.
This evening we’ve had a buffet in the hotel’s restaurant, eating lots of items with Indian names and no English explanations – a sort of culinary Russian Roulette, because both of us have a low tolerance of Chili ;o)
Thursday 17th November
We must have been exhausted - we didn’t surface until 9.20am. We had to be packed and in reception with our luggage at 10.45pm, so breakfast was a bit of a hurried affair.
After yesterday’s dreadful passage through Immigration we’re getting more used to appalling, bureaucratic administration in India. They seem utterly fixated on paperwork, even though they manage it with enormous inefficiency, and it’s hard to see why most of it is even necessary. Still, I suppose that we bequeathed them our Civil Service and things have gone downhill from there.
As for Chennai itself, it didn’t seem worth visiting as we drove through it yesterday, and the hotel was a little oasis in the middle of scruffy urban sprawl, so we didn’t think that a walk from the hotel last night would be worthwhile. We did feel a little uneasy at not at least giving it a try, but we were there for such a short time that we didn’t have much choice. However, talking this morning to fellow guests who’d already had two full days at the hotel, we learned that there is very little to see in Chennai and that they had spent their days by the hotel’s pool.
At least we got to the ship fairly quickly and saw our luggage on board – always a relief. Indian Immigration were everywhere on board, seemingly getting under the feet of Azamara staff, but by midday we were checked in, had picked up our glass of bubbly each, had our ‘Welcome Onboard’ photo taken and were in the buffet for lunch.
Since our last Azamara cruise both ships have been extensively refurnished, and we’ve yet to see an improvement we haven’t liked. In fact, it’s a bit unkind to speak of the ‘buffet’ since that has canteen overtones; the ‘Windows Café’ has been smartened up with sleek new tables and chairs, and the old-fashioned paintings on the walls of 19th century rustic scenes have simply been painted over, giving the place a lovely fresh feel.
A member of the Entertainment Team gave us a quick conducted tour of the ship, which helped us to see the improvements, and we found ourselves pleasantly reminded of what a small vessel it is. With a maximum of only 686 passengers on board the theatre’s capacity of 450 is ample to contain every passenger spread over two nightly shows. P&O’s Britannia, on which we sailed to Norway this summer with Mali and Ana, with its capacity of over 4,300, has a 936 seat theatre, so it can’t even accommodate all passengers in *three* nightly shows. That’s why the Azamara ships seem so spacious.
After the mandatory lifeboat drill in the main restaurant at 5.30pm we were wondering how to pass half an hour before returning for dinner when Gill suggested that we go straight back for the start of service, so we did. She had arranged a meeting with the Restaurant Manager to discuss her gluten-free requirements. However, the extensive menu is already marked ‘gf’ against all gluten-free items. When he came to our table he had good news, which was that if Gill could select from the menu for the following night she could also choose non-gf items and they’d endeavour to make them gluten-free. Now, that’s customer service! Together with the nice complimentary Sauvignon Blanc that they were serving this made a very pleasant evening!
It got better with the 9.30pm show in the theatre. There were scarcely a hundred in the audience, many of whom seemed to be British, which can often be a real dampener for performers since we’re less demonstrative than the Americans and Canadians and do far less whooping in response to requests for reaction from entertainers. Nevertheless, the audience was enthusiastic. As usual on cruise ships the resident 7-piece band was excellent and incredibly versatile. The Cruise Director, Eric, is excellent – we’ve seen him before – with a dry sense of humour and a superb singing voice. Even *I* am looking forward to our nights in the theatre, and I don’t say that lightly!
Friday 18th/Saturday 19th November
Chennai to Port Blair
Two successive sea days to start with – excellent! It gives you time to settle in and get to know the ship. Mind you, we were already pretty familiar with this one (Azamara Journey) as we’ve been on it before as well as on one of Oceania’s that is identical.
We’ve had two successive days on deck as the ship plods across the Indian Ocean to the Andaman Islands. The skies have been hazy, so we’ve been spared some of the heat. One nice thing about Azamara ships is that hot and cold drinks are freely available all day from machines in the buffet on the top deck.
On Friday I went to a lecture about Rangoon and Burma, or, rather, Yangon and Myanmar, and very depressing it was too. It was described as, ‘probably the poorest country you’ll ever visit’, if only because North Korea is closed to the outside world. The British left in the late 1940s, and then forty years ago there was a military takeover that is only now slowly unwinding as Aung San Suu Kyi and her party gradually democratise the country, with the military watching from the shadows.
We’ve had shows in the theatre both nights, with an eccentric pianist on Thursday and an impressive young female singer last night. There’s also been the Captain’s Welcome Party; Azamara’s captains seem to be either British or Norwegian, (this one’s Scottish) with most other companies opting for Italians or, usually, Greeks. Mind you, Azamara’s market tends to be the English-speaking nations, and all on-board announcements and communications are exclusively in English. It’s unlikely that many British captains are multi-lingual.
The restaurant continues to make things easy for Gill with its clear flagging up of gluten-free options. As a result, she’s had little trouble in selecting ‘safe’ dishes. She’s logged on the ship’s system as requiring a gluten-free diet. When we ask for a table at the restaurant entrance and quote our cabin number the ticket that’s printed off to tell the staff which table to take us to. It also flags up to alert the table waiters that Gill requires gluten-free food. It’s all very reassuring, really.
Sunday 20th November
We arrived at dawn at Port Blair in the Andaman Islands, an archipelago that is part of India.
We were slightly apprehensive about whether we’d be allowed off the ship because we had E-visas for ‘single entry’, and not a full visa stuck in our passports. However, Indian Immigration having checked that we had had our passports officially stamped at Chennai Airport, we sailed through and boarded a shuttle bus into town.
This could be an idyllic place. The land around us is wooded down to the water’s edge in many places and the sheltered waters look ideal for sailing, but there’s not a sailing boat to be seen. The shuttle bus was very old indeed, with heavily worn and, sometimes, torn upholstery. There was graffiti on the seat in front of us reading, ‘I Kill You’ – nice! ;o) The roads were in fairly good condition and were packed with mopeds, scooters and tuk tuks.
Port Blair itself was scruffy, looking as if no one had done any infrastructure maintenance or improvement since the British had left. There was rubbish everywhere, including in streams and drains, and lots of black goats grazing where they could.
Gill hired a tuk tuk for an hour to show us around. He took us to a craft centre where Gill found some nice jewellery but couldn’t buy any because they wouldn’t accept dollars, only rupees. We also saw the town’s former jail that is now open to tourists - it was the eastern equivalent of a concentration camp. It was established in the 1850s when the British filled it with leaders of the Indian Rebellion and treated them with enormous brutality. It was even worse when the Japanese turned up during WW2. It was built from 1896 onwards, is called the ‘Cellular Jail’ and has six long, three-storey wings radiating from a central point in star-fashion. Each of its 693 cells was designed to hold a single prisoner in complete isolation.
We’d left the ship at 9am, and at 11am we were back on board again, having had a fairly good look around. I kept thinking that surely it would be a good move if the Indian government supported substantial investment in the area’s infrastructure, with the building of hotels and other amenities to attract tourism and cruise ships – not many stop here, it seems. The injection of foreign currency into the local economy would surely raise the standard of living of locals and transform it into a little paradise like some of the West Indies.
We had another afternoon on deck reading, followed by cocktails (Mai Tai this time!), dinner and the evening’s show featuring the Cruise Director’s solo performance singing West End and Broadway numbers. The band really is amazing – Eric (the Cruise Director) said tonight that they sight read a lot of the music that they play and they never seem to put a foot wrong.
Tomorrow we finally reach the eastern side of the Indian Ocean when we get to Yangon (Rangoon as was).We’re doing an evening tour, which promises to be interesting!
Monday 21st November
We weren’t due to arrive at our berth in Yangon until 6.30pm this evening, so today was pretty much another sea day.
However, our arrival was delayed by heavy river traffic and some sort of obstruction in the water that we could only sail over when the tide had risen sufficiently. At the time of writing (7.30pm) our latest ETA for docking is 8.15pm and we’re still ploughing upriver in utter darkness, with the ship’s siren being sounded again and again. The bridge must be seeing small craft on the radar because the view in front of us is completely black.
The lack of 20th century technology in this part of the world means that there is virtually no light pollution, and the stars are all on show. Venus is incredibly bright, almost like a spotlight in the sky. I read once that it reflects so much light in our direction that it actually casts a shadow.
It’s now past midnight and we’ve just returned from seeing one of the most remarkable sights we’re ever likely to see.
It was after 9pm before we boarded our coach for a one hour drive to Yangon and the Shwedagon Pagoda. On the journey the tour guide did his very best to pass on information about Burma, its history and its current status, but his accent was so very strong that it was very difficult to understand him.
Given that it’s so very late and we have to be up in only a few hours for a morning excursion I’ll save some of tonight’s detail for tomorrow. Suffice it to say that the Pagoda isn’t just one large building but rather a whole site with a succession of shrines huddled together. What took our breath away was that all of them were covered in gold leaf. Under the site’s lighting they all glowed quite remarkably to the point where they almost didn’t seem real. The very best bit was that, because we’d docked so late, the ship had contacted the tour organisers ahead of our arrival and site had been kept open just for us. Normally it would be heaving with locals, but we could wander around in peace and quiet.
In the morning we’ve got a five hour excursion to the nearby former trading port of Thanlyin. We also get to see another pagoda (hmmmm!), have a ride on a horse-drawn cart and take a boat trip to an island on the river. At least we’ll be ‘home’ by 1pm, giving us a chance to relax before the ‘Azamazing Evening’ back in Yangon.
Tuesday 22nd November
We had to be in the theatre at 7.45am ready for our tour this morning, which meant a quick and early breakfast.
The drive to the first point on the tour was only 30 minutes, and our guide was into his stride straight away, with really interesting information delivered in excellent English. He said his name was Michael, but we’ve now got used to the Burmese using a Western name when they’re with foreigners. He said that they don’t have family names, simply the one that they’re given at birth. When asked if this caused problems, with many people having the same name, he said that it didn’t, because parents use a combination of factors to choose a new-born’s name. They start with the day of the week and the time of the day that the child was born and the remainder of the name is down to the parents. This means that it’s rare for two people to have the same name.
There’s also a hierarchy of acceptable and non-acceptable days of the week for one’s marriage partner to be born. Michael said that he was born on a Friday, and that ideally his future wife should be born on a Sunday – luckily, she was ;o) Monday would have been a very inauspicious day. You can imagine some first dates ending quickly when the two parties exchange birth details!
Our first stop was at the morning market in Thanlyin. There’s a covered marketplace with an enormous number of small stallholders offering a wide range of fresh foods and non-food items. There was virtually no pressure on us to buy, which was nice. Gill only had dollars with her, but our guide helpfully gave her 20,000 Kyat and another 1,000 later, and later she gave him back 20 dollars worth about 26,000 Kyat, so the difference was his tip.
We then boarded horse-drawn carts that took us about a mile before we re-boarded our coach and carried on to the Khyaik Khauk Pagoda. If we hadn’t seen the Shwedagon Pagoda last night we’d have boggled at this smaller one, again covered top to bottom in gold leaf and shining brightly in today’s glorious sunshine against a clear blue sky with swallows wheeling about it. As last night, we all had to remove shoes and socks and make sure that legs and shoulders were well covered.
Then it was off again to the river, where we boarded a boat that took us to an island in the middle that was completely covered with yet another golden pagoda complex – the Kyauk Tan Pagoda. On today’s pagoda visits Gill borrowed my camera several times and politely asked locals if she could take a photo of them – they always agreed, seemingly in delight. Once back on shore again we enjoyed fresh coconut juice straight from the source – mine was so large that I couldn’t finish it, so I gave it away to a small boy who immediately accepted and started drinking it himself. The local children were hustling like mad for money in a fairly charming way, and Gill bought some sweets and some little necklaces for a couple of dollars.
The final stop on the excursion was a brief visit to Padagyui village, where the guide had seemingly pre-arranged with a local family that we could call and see how they lived. They obviously have very little in material terms, but seem to be happy with their simple life in a bamboo and corrugated iron two room shack that stands a metre off the ground in a lightly-wooded setting. They have an outdoor ‘toilet’ set apart in the trees that doesn’t seem to be connected to drains at all. The guide told us that the couple have eight children, “and no television”, said a fellow passenger next to me, under his breath ;o) It could all have been a bit patronising and awkward, but the guide had taken with him a carrier bag of foodstuffs for the family in apparent payment.
Then it was back to the coach and the ship, where we arrived at 1pm in time for lunch in air-conditioned comfort. We do live in a little, privileged bubble, really, compared with the people who live here. However, they do seem genuinely content and have a public healthcare system that they value. Democracy is seeping back into the country under ‘The Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi. The military hasn’t gone away but is slowly retreating. It retains 25% of the seats in their parliament, so the threat of their return remains. Japan and China are starting to invest in the country, which will surely improve things gradually’.
Tonight we have the cruise’s ‘Azamazing Evening’ at a ‘Burmese Festival at the People’s Park alongside the glorious Shwedagon Pagoda. We’re promised a ‘rollicking evening under the stars during an al fresco celebration of local art, music, culture and cuisine’. We’ll also ‘stroll through the city’s Night Bazaar and shop for handcrafted mementos’. Right up Gill’s street :o)
What a cracking evening!
The bus trip back into Yangon took forever, with considerable traffic delay, but once we arrived at the People’s Park there was an incredible festive atmosphere. It looked as if all of the passengers had come, and most of the ship’s officers too. Even entering the park we were welcomed by lots of youngsters in elaborative Burmese dress, all bowing with their palms together Indian-style to greet us with obvious pleasure. It wasn’t until later that we realised what a huge event this was for them and Yangon generally.
There were lots of stalls offering Burmese traditional snacks, and it took quite a while to get around and see everything. Having just had dinner on board we weren’t dreadfully hungry, but that was just as well because, as you’d expect, the locals aren’t too well up on ‘gluten-free’ so we chose conservatively. The darkness was broken by floodlights placed at intervals around the grassy field.
After a while everyone moved off to another field where a large open-air stage had been set up with seating for everyone. Eric, the 6’ 6” Cruise Director, introduced the entertainment but first he introduced the government’s Minister for Hotels and Tourism, a diminutive 5-foot-nothing lady. She spoke warmly and movingly to welcome us to her city and her adorable country, making it clear that it’s tourism that will help to set democracy in place. Her welcome was obviously heartfelt.
As the next hour’s entertainment progressed it became increasingly clear that the whole event had been made possible by government involvement, such was the scope of it. The evening consisted mainly of traditional dancers in gorgeous costumes, accompanied by Burmese musicians. One performer was a young woman who played ‘keepy-uppy’ with a football while she did acrobatic tricks with rings and skipping ropes (one of them on fire!) and balanced precariously on a single upended brick and then on glasses. And she only dropped the ball once at the end of her act as she tired.
The show ended after an hour, leaving us feeling genuinely uplifted by the clearly happy performers. It seemed to typify the feelings of hope and optimism that are spreading through this country as democracy tentatively feels its way forward.
Our return to the ship by coach was superbly organised, and when we arrived at the quayside just after 11pm we were welcomed back with glasses of bubbly and the band playing us back on board. What an absolutely superb evening!
Wednesday 23rd November
We left the ship at 7.30am heading for Bago. This was the ancient capital of the Mon Kingdom, with its ‘golden age’ between 1385 and 1635, and was supposed to be a two hour drive away from the ship. In the event the journey took three hours due to intense traffic either side of Yangon.
The first stop was at the Kyakhatwine Monastery, where we arrived just in time for the monks’ second and last meal of the day at 11am. There was quite a crowd of visitors watching the monks, some of whom as young as seven or eight, filing silently to receive a large ladleful of rice plus a few other odds and ends donated by fellow Buddhists. All very Oliver Twist, really. As usual, there were a lot of expensively gilded structures and statues, with parts of the monastery in need of care and maintenance. Priorities, I suppose.
Every time we enter a religious establishment we have to remove our shoes, and when we leave the soles of our feet are filthy and we have to clean up with wet wipes handed to us by the coach driver beforehand. After the second pagoda this becomes tedious. And the monastery, with hundreds of resident monks, had the dirtiest floors of all.
Then it was off to the Shwe Mawdaw Pagoda. There’s no two ways about it – a golden pagoda in brilliant sunshine against a clear blue sky is an incredibly impressive sight, and this one was no exception. But once you’ve seen the Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon everything afterwards is a bit of a come-down.
By this point, the guide was panicking a bit about falling behind schedule, so we only walked part way around the pagoda before turning back to the entrance to save time. Given that convention demands that visitors circle a pagoda clockwise-only this was a dreadful sin in Buddhist terms, and we attracted dark looks from a passing monk!
We then had a 20 minute visit to another street market where, again, Gill took the camera and got some excellent shots of the stallholders, their children and their wares before it was off to lunch at the Kyaw Swar Restaurant where we had an excellent Chinese-style meal. By the way, I keep mentioning the names of places that will mean nothing to our readers almost entirely because when we get home we look it all up on-line to refresh our memories :o)
As we left the restaurant I think most people were thinking that soon we’d be setting off for ‘home’ to allow for a probable three hour return journey, but no. Next stop was another pagoda, this time with a reclining Buddha (Shwe Tha Lyaung). Shoes off again and dirty feet. This statue is 165 feet long and 48 feet high, so it’s BIG! Hilariously, the site’s blurb says, ‘Originally created in 994 AD it was lost in the jungle undergrowth. Only in the 1880s were the remains rediscovered during the construction of a railway line’. Right. It’s 165 feet long and no one knows it’s there. I’d call that ‘implausible’ ;o)
While here we were taken along a country lane on foot to a small crafts centre where weavers were hard at work, making cloth on looms entirely by human effort. You had to admire their skill and dedication.
Now time for the return journey? No, sir! *Another* shoes-off pagoda, ‘where four gigantic Buddha images sit against a massive stone pillar’. By now people were shrugging and coming straight back to the bus, as we did.
The final stop was a very moving and emotional one, at the WW2 cemetery at Htaukkyant. Here, in pristine grounds laid out and still maintained by the utterly wonderful Commonwealth War Graves Commission 27,000 Allied soldiers are buried and commemorated. As you wander through the gravestones it’s so striking that the dead are mainly young men in their 20s, and that the majority of the deaths were in January and February 1945. The war might have ended shortly after in Europe, but the Japanese fought on until the second atomic bomb finally forced them to their knees in August. Exactly - the very people bleating ‘poor us’ in Nagasaki. You really do need to be a very tolerant and forgiving person to feel that a grovelling post-war apology from the Japanese nation wasn’t needed.
It was now after 4.30pm and finally time to set off for the ship. The 32 kilometres took almost two and a half hours! When we got back to the ship at 7pm we were worn out, having spent almost twelve hours away! So, it was a quick change and shower then off to dinner. Waiting for a table for two to become available we were joined by Cruise Director Eric and the lady who will be the ‘comedy magician’ tomorrow night – we’ll be there! It gave us the opportunity to congratulate Eric on last night, and he willingly conceded that the local government had been crucial to the whole evening.
During dinner the ‘Journey’ set sail for Thailand. We’ve had a simply wonderful times in Burma, sorry, Myanmar, mainly because of the people. They’re friendly, happy and optimistic about their country’s future in a way that’s inspirational and very moving. As we left the bus this evening, Zaw, our guide, implored us to tell our friends and families what a lovely country Myanmar is. We said we would :o)
Thursday 24th November
Sea days are obviously much quieter than usual, but that’s really the point of them; they give you a chance to recover from days spent ashore and prepare for those ahead. Our Japan cruise had no sea days until just before the end, by which point we really needed one.
A couple of days ago we received an invitation to breakfast this morning in one of the speciality restaurants with the captain in attendance. We felt it would be rude to turn him down ;o)
‘Captain Magnus’ is a Scot from Edinburgh with a surprisingly quiet, self-effacing manner for someone in his position, but with an endearing charm. We saw him again later in the day in an informal Q&A session where he spoke of what had attracted him to Azamara. Having had a career in the Merchant Navy he moved to the Royal Caribbean group for a time, mainly in the Mediterranean and Caribbean. After a while he found it a little tame to be running around the same circuit of ports all the time, and he transferred within the group to Azamara where its two ships really do cover the world. Nice man.
We also went to a talk about future cruises. It’s always the case that excellent deals are available if you book ahead whilst still on a cruise. We’d already decided not to book anything extra before the end of next year, so we’ve been looking with interest at the 2018 programme!
As for these updates, I always try to write them before turning in for the night because we’ve found that even by the next day we’ve already forgotten some of the detail, especially if it’s another excursion day. Last night I must have been more tired than I thought because there was a big error in our update. Of course, I should have written 1945 as the year in which the soldiers in the cemetery had died, and not 1940. Gill always proof-reads what I write - she often suggests changes and additions. She spotted the error amongst several others, but she was probably just as tired as I was and forgot to mention it. Nostra culpa :o)
Tonight’s entertainment was the ‘comedy magician’ we met last night; Mandy Moon. She’s said to be one of the few female members of the Inner Magic Circle. Her act is at least as much stand-up comedy as magic, and she very quickly had the audience eating out of her hand. Quite apart from some stunning tricks, like holding up a sheet of paper with ‘Bowling Ball’ written on it which she then whipped away leaving a real bowling ball dropping to the floor and rolling across the theatre, she had some great gags.
She had an old guy from Sydney who she’d brought out from the audience holding a playing card in front of him. “An inch higher, please, Gary” she requested. Gary raised the card. “Well, if that’s an inch I’m moving to Australia!” she exclaimed. She set up a small collapsible table. “It’s from IKEA’s suppository range”, she explained. “You put it up yourself”. Great entertainment – I hope she does another show before Singapore!
We arrive in Thailand at midday tomorrow and will be on an excursion until early evening. According to the weather forecast there’s a possibility of isolated thunderstorms :o(
Friday 25th November
Another LONG day!
We didn’t arrive at Patong Beach on Phuket Island until midday. It’s pretty much just a beach resort without docking facilities, so ‘Journey’ had to drop anchor and then tender guests ashore. Getting on to the tender was a bit of a challenge, because it was bucking around quite a bit and we had to step down to board.
By 1am we’d boarded our coach and set off for Phang Nga Bay. As it negotiated Patong Beach’s narrow street the guide, Sally, was explaining how wonderful the night life is, with endless bars, restaurant, massage parlours and ‘lady boys’ – nshe said that she can only tell them from females by their Adam’s Apples. It sounded rather dreadful, but it seems that quite a few European ex-pats like it enough to live here.
As we left town we started to pass extensive rubber plantations, where we could see little cups attached to the trunks from which sap is gathered each morning. Thailand used to have a thriving rubber trade, but China has undercut this with a much cheaper synthetic product.
Phang Nga Bay is a two hour drive from Patong Beach and is described as, ‘one of the most unique and inspiring spots on earth’, which is a description to live up to! On arrival we switched to motorboats and headed for, ‘a surrealist landscape of limestone stacks’. I think if we hadn’t previously seen Halong Bay in Vietnam we might have been much more impressed, but it was certainly worth the long coach trip.
Huge piles of rock protrude from the sea, rearing sheer-sided several hundred feet in the air. They’re covered with mature trees that much be disrupting the terrain that they stand on since limestone’s a relatively soft, porous rock. Sure enough, every now and then there’s been a major collapse where the rock below has been exposed to the elements, and here you can see the many strata in various colours. There are also massive stalactites resulting from heavy rain eroding the rock. But after a while it does become a bit ‘samey’, unlike Halong Bay.
One ‘attraction’ that the Thais are quite proud of is Kao Ping Gun Island, popularly known as James Bond Island. It was here that the closing scenes of ‘The Man With The Golden Gun’ were shot in 1974, with Bond (Roger Moore) in a duel with Scaramanga (Christopher Lee). It’s one of the smaller stacks split in two with a small beach in between. I’m really not sure if it was worth the long hike to see it.
This was the further point on the trip. The motorboat re-traced its path, and on the way we stopped at Koh Panyi, a ‘water village’ with more than 200 houses built on stilts with attached wooden walkways. The inhabitants are Muslim descendants of Indonesian migrants who settled here over 200 years ago. We had a 25 minute look around that left no time for Gill to investigate their little market. It seemed a bit rude just to march through their village without buying anything, and we’d have cheerfully foregone the Bond location in order to spend more time here.
The motorboats took us back to the Phang Nga Bay Resort where our coach had dropped us off and where we now had a delicious buffet dinner of Thai dishes before returning to Patong Beach, which we reached at 9pm. Luckily, a tender was waiting and we transferred quite quickly back to the ship.
Tomorrow we’re in Georgetown in Penang, but don’t arrive until late morning, so we can recover from today!
Saturday 26th November
It was 8.30am before we stirred this morning, but then again we’d put the clock forward another hour last night. We’re now eight hours ahead of the UK, compared with five and a half hours when we started this cruise in Chennai.
Once again, we weren’t due to arrive in port until midday, so yet again we went on deck with our books, Gill desperately trying to finish hers before we docked. We let the rush die down while we had lunch and eventually left the ship at about 3pm.
The weather was hot – 95F! – but very humid. In his daily address to the passengers the captain had warned that there’d be rain later. The Cruise Director then said that, in view of the forecast, tonight’s ‘White Nights’ event would be transferred from the main deck to the theatre and other places within the ship. These events are usually good fun, with passengers encouraged to dress in white and enjoy food and entertainment under the stars.
Gill was keen to source some nice fabric ahead of an important family occasion next summer ;o) and had found two places that she wanted to visit in Georgetown – the Chennai Silk Palace and Sam’s Batik House. I found the latter on Google Maps before we set off, eyeing the gathering clouds.
We steered a course that took us through the ‘Little India’ quarter and, completely by chance, stumbled over the Chennai Silk Palace. It was good to get out of the humid atmosphere and into an air-conditioned shop. Gill quite quickly found a fabric that we both loved, but they didn’t have a suitable lining. However, they recommended another shop further along the road that came up trumps. Then it was off to see Sam.
Gill had found some excellent on-line reviews of Sam’s Batik House that said how incredibly patient the staff were when dealing with customers. And it was absolutely true – Gill spent ages there, going through different garments in various fabrics. I sat on a little stool near the door, and after a while, with Gill deep inside the shop and obviously giving every impression of being a very good customer, a member of staff brought me a sealed cup of chilled fresh water.
Then the rain arrived; really tropical stuff that comes down vertically and violently, driving pedestrians off the street. It was pounding on the roof and giving neither us any incentive to leave. A member of staff came and invited me to take a comfortable chair near to where Gill was looking at garment after garment. Clearly, they wanted me to be relaxed and not hassle Gill into leaving too soon! And their strategy worked ;o)
We left with a Sam’s Batik House-branded canvas bag that Gill was given to take away her purchases. Luckily, the rain had stopped and we made our way through a different section of Georgetown’s UNESCO World Heritage-rated district on our way back to the ship. An hour after our return the heavens opened again with another torrential downpour accompanied by thunder and lightning. We dodged a couple of bullets today!
Tonight we headed for the buffet so that we could have a quick meal before the evening show, but there were hardly any gluten-free options, and I wasn’t wild about the choices either, so we went down to the restaurant. “Why would you want to eat in the second-best restaurant anyway?”, asked Restaurant Manager Daniel with a smile when we saw him :o) He’s been superb with gluten-free options for Gill and we really appreciate it.
The older couple next to us at dinner were French and had real problems with the thick Jamaican accent of our waiter. We sympathised because we can barely understand him either, which started what could have been a nightmare conversation. He wanted to talk about other cruises they’d been on, but his English wasn’t all that good. I could barely hear him, let alone understand him, and his hearing was iffy too! His wife seemingly had no English and was anxious that he was talking to us instead of eating. He seemed happy, though. We parted with, “Bonsoir. À bientot” :o)
Then it was off to the White Nights party. It was such a shame that it had to be held below decks, because these events are such amazing fun in the open in the sort of warm night weather we seldom get in northern Europe. The music ranged from 1950s Elvis to 1970s Disco, which was perfect for the audience on this ship, and the dance floor was packed from the time we arrived just after 9pm through to the close at 10.30pm. The band was superb, yet again, and Eric led the young singers like the experienced professional he is. Thoroughly enjoyable.
Sunday 27th November
Georgetown, Penang – Day 2
Up and off earlier today. At 9.30am we caught the City Sightseeing bus that covers the city area – there’s another route that goes to the beaches.
Everywhere we went you could see the impact that Victorian Britain had on this part of the world, just as in the other places we’ve visited on this cruise, with lots of civic buildings in architectural styles that are entirely familiar.
The objective of taking this tour was to ‘hop off’ and take the funicular railway to the top of Penang Hill, 600+ metres above Georgetown. The queue didn’t seem too bad and it took half an hour before we boarded the train. It whizzed up the very steep track so quickly that it surprised quite a few of our fellow passengers and reached the top in only five minutes or so, passing the ‘down’ train on the short two track section halfway up.
The views from the summit were breathtaking and we managed to pick out our ship in the far distance. There seemed to be whole families of locals and groups of uniformed children enjoying a day out in the sunshine. Gill took the camera again to take photos of small children, most of whom looked at us in amazement. Even my usually-successful ‘peep po’ routine fell on its face as they looked away in fear!
The queue to come back down was fairly short, followed by a rapid descent with a hairy moment halfway down when the train speeded up on a steeper section. Our luck was in as we left the railway building as there was a bus waiting.
We left the bus near Sam’s Batik House and retraced our steps back to the ship via ’The Purrfect Cat Café’, which was exactly as advertised, i.e. it was a café with resident cats that you could stroke. After nearly fortnight away we’re feeling a little cat-deprived! They had about a dozen cats, most of whom seemed to prefer being left well alone to doze, thank you very much. There was one who ran around on a high shelf/walkway and who loved being teased with a drinking straw. When he caught it he kept in in his mouth as a trophy and dared people to take it from him. There was a ginger Persian cat who was a dead ringer for Hermione’s ‘Cruikshanks’ in the Harry Potter films and none of the others were what you’d call, ‘moggies’. There was a Bengal, a British Shorthair and several other named breeds.
We got back to the ship at 2pm, fortunately just ahead of a massive thunderstorm that was right overhead. Chatting to the HR manager this evening we learned that she had been caught in the torrential downpour but because the rain was so warm she hadn’t really minded.
Earlier in the cruise the captain had said that Georgetown was his favourite place on this route and that you could simply walk ashore and explore. He was absolutely correct, although he possibly did some damage to excursions bookings! Gill could easily have managed another day here, relaxing on one of the beaches, but the town was quite an attraction in its own right.
After half a day in intense humidity it seemed a good idea to shelter in our cool cabin and have a refreshing shower. At 5.30pm we had invites to a cocktail party in the theatre for anyone on their second Azamara cruise or more – this is our fifth. There was a special award for a couple who’d now clocked up their seventeenth! On the way in we had the traditional photo with the captain, and told him that his tip about Georgetown had been spot on. It seems that we weren’t the only ones to say this as he referred to it a little smugly later in his address.
We had an early dinner ahead of the evening show, featuring Clara Helms, a young Australian soprano with a simply incredible voice for one so slender. She sang , ‘Hallelujah’, as a tribute to Leonard Cohen, which took Gill by surprise and reminded her of her loss :o(
Tomorrow we’re in Port Klang further south in Malaysia. The captain joked at the beginning of the cruise that this wasn’t referring to the sound of the ship ramming its left side into the jetty but to the port that’s closest to Kuala Lumpur. You might remember references to Kuala Lumpur in Tony Hancock’s, ‘The Radio Ham’. At the time this sounded like an improbably exotic location, and before we booked this cruise I’d never even thought that I might visit it. Well, tomorrow I do, and I can cross off yet another country on the World Map that Sarah gave me a couple of years ago :o)
Monday 28th November
Port Klang/Kuala Lumpur
Port Klang is one of Malaysia’s main ports, sited 23 miles from Kuala Lumpur. However, the cruise terminal is to one side, with mangrove swamps all around, so it doesn’t feel at all industrial.
Today’s tour was ‘Classic Kuala Lumpur, i.e. a bit of everything. Quite early on our guide said that she’d re-arranged the day’s itinerary because rain was (again!) forecasted for the afternoon and that would therefore be the best time to be sheltering indoors in the National Museum. Having seen how heavy the rain is in this part of the world we all thought this was a good plan.
The first stop was Chinatown, which we entered via Petaling Street – everyone except me seemed to have heard of it :o) The stalls were still opening up for the day, and unfortunately for Gill she was given very little free time to explore it properly. However, we saw an impressive range of fresh fruit, including the revolting Durians – the locals love their smell but Europeans find it offensive. Here it’s called, ‘The King of Fruits’, with the queen being Mangosteen – we don’t think we’ve ever seen either of them in the UK. A short walk took us on to the Central Market, which has shops rather than stalls and is therefore a bit pricier. Here there was more browsing time – I left Gill to wander on her own as these places don’t attract me much.
Then it was back on the coach and off to Independence Square, where Britain handed over control to Malaysia in 1957. Appropriately, it has a cricket pitch and a mock Tudor pavilion to one side! On the other side are rather nice administrative buildings put up by the British in the early years of the 20th century in a sort of Indian/Islamic fusion style. The temperature was in the mid-90s again with the sun blazing down, but there were clouds gathering in the distance.
We spent an hour over a buffet lunch in a nice hotel, with a wide range of nice Thai/Malay dishes to choose from. A notice in reception warned guests that they are not allowed to take Durian or Mangosteen to their rooms! We left for a short coach trip to a nearby park that provides an excellent view of the 88-storey Petronas Towers, which are described as ‘the pride of Malaysia’, but it was obviously a huge national vanity project costing well over a billion dollars. The two identical towers were put up in the 1990s, with each contracted to a different company with the intention that competition and rivalry would result in early completion. That part seemed to work, because the buildings were opened in August 1999 after only four or five years construction. I recall hearing that the race to be first resulted in needless accidents and deaths amongst the construction workers.
The penultimate stop was at the ‘King’s Palace’, which is a comparatively recent building. Every five years the leaders of the thirteen provinces of Malaysia meet and vote for which of them will be the ‘King’ for the next five years, so it’s not a monarchy as we know it. But, for the period of his appointment the King has to move into this palace. It has mounted soldiers stationed outside, a bit like Horse Guards in Whitehall. Unsurprisingly, we couldn’t go in but merely took photos from the perimeter.
We’d barely re-boarded the coach when the thunderstorm arrived as we drove to the National Museum a short distance away. The rain was still hammering down when we got there, but there was no point in waiting on the bus for it to ease off. So, we made a dash for the entrance, or rather, two thirds of us did, with the remainder chickening out, staying on board and sitting in a car park for an hour. At least the rain was nice and warm!
The museum was fairly small, but quite effectively told the country’s story from pre-historic times through to the present. It’s a sad tale over the past 5-600 years, with a succession of foreign nations invading and dominating the country until they were thrown out by the next lot – Portuguese, Dutch, British, Japanese and then the British again, who at least granted independence. In between there have been scraps with other south-east Asian nations as well, but these came to an end with a peace agreement signed with Indonesia.
In the entrance area there was an exhibit on the effect of global warming on Antarctica. This was aimed at young children, and several groups were being entertained while we were there by a man dressed up in a penguin suit. The delighted reactions of the children who were throwing themselves at him were possibly the best thing about the whole museum :o)
The rain had stopped when we emerged after an hour, and the return to the ship was quick and uneventful. At dinner this evening a lovely Japanese couple at the next table drew us into conversation, and it was a real pleasure to tell them how much we’d enjoyed our trip to Japan in September. Interestingly, they’d lived for a while In Cardiff (he works for Panasonic) and had picked up a love of rugby. Luckily, I remembered that Japan had beaten South Africa in the World Cup, which clearly had been enormous news in Japan.
This evening’s show in the theatre was the usual, ‘Magic of Broadway and the West End’ compilation that, for me, always shows the ascendancy of London. Eric, the 6’ 6” Cruise Director, has a fabulous voice and a complete willingness to make a fool of himself that endears him to any audience. Tonight he turned out in an Ugly Sister outfit and HIGH HEELS, for heaven’s sake! He also roller-skated at speed around the small dance floor – it’s fairly clear that, like us, most of our fellow passengers have seen him before and love his style.
So, two more nights aboard and then we disembark in Singapore on Wednesday. We arrive there tomorrow at midday, and Gill’s booked a ‘Night Safari’ in ‘the world’s first nocturnal zoological park’. Sounds amazing!
Tuesday 29th November
‘Journey’ arrived in Singapore at about 11.30am, so, after a quick breakfast we left the ship to explore the city. As we’ve moved eastwards on this cruise the towns and cities that we’ve visited have steadily risen in quality and general standard of living – even Yangon was a step up from Chennai. Penang and Kuala Lumpur showed that Malaysia is rapidly advancing, but Singapore must be the standard that the others should be aiming at.
The cruise centre opens into a nice shopping centre that has a Metro station. Gill bought us two-day travel cards and we set off into a system that’s awfully like those in Shanghai and Tokyo. All stations have platform-edge doors that have to open before you can board your train and the platforms are at the same height as the floors of the trains, so a wheelchair-user can simply roll in. At every station there’s a ‘Mind The Gap’ announcement, even though the gap is never more than an inch or two, and on every line air-conditioned trains arrive every three to four minutes. It makes you realise that the London Underground is desperately out of date and in urgent need of modernisation.
We went to Chinatown first and then took another train to Little India. Gill was really disappointed that in neither place could she find the sort of items she was looking for, so, after a quick but unsuccessful look around another shopping centre we went back to the ship to start packing.
At 6.30pm, after a quick Moroccan meal in the buffet, we set off again, this time to meet our coach for the Night Safari. Our destination was only twenty miles away, but the evening traffic was so heavy that the journey took an hour. It’s hard to account for the traffic on the roads when you hear that even a modest car will cost £30,000 to buy, but before that you have to buy a driving permit for another £30,000! On top of that, cars are compulsorily scrapped after only ten years.
It was nicely dark when we arrived at the Night Safari Park, and we boarded a small road train that would take us around. I was confident that we would see few or no animals, but was very quickly proved wrong. On the route, individual glades on either side of the path were picked out in low lighting and in nearly all of them groups of animals were quietly grazing or watching us with curiosity. There was a pre-recorded commentary that said things like, ‘And now, on your right, you will see …’, followed by the names of various creatures, and, as if on cue, there they were. I suspect that they’re only fed after dark and that their food is placed close to the route that the vehicles take.
We saw water buffalo, zebras, wolves, wild dogs, elephants, rhinos, giraffes and hippos, amongst others, in such natural surroundings that it wasn’t immediately clear in the gloom what was stopping them grabbing a few tourists for dessert. However, it gradually became clear that there were deep ditches and, sometimes, electric fences keeping them in.
The drive around took about 45 minutes and was one of the most interesting excursions we’ve ever done. As the road train returned us to our starting point we were told that in half an hour there’d be a special show that was really worth seeing. We were led to a small amphitheatre in the woods where keepers brought a succession of animals for us to see, sometimes up close. The rules were hammered home; no flash photography and no touching the animals.
The star of the show was probably the ‘Bearcat’ or Binturong, which was brought in on the shoulders of its keeper, which was a bit of an achievement given that it was the size of a medium-sized dog. It seemed genuinely fond of its keeper. A couple of owls were brought in, and seeing them up close reminded you how incredibly beautiful they are. An otter swam across the little pond beyond the stage and started doing tricks, picking up cans and dropping them into the correct recycling container. A raccoon ambled in from the wings, tipped over a waste bin, checked unsuccessfully for food and just ambled off again, disappointed. Mali, Ana, Leon and Reuben would have loved it – children their age in the audience certainly did.
This was possibly a unique experience, although Gill thinks that something similar might have started up at London Zoo. At any rate, it was a delight to be out after dark in such warm weather – you can’t often do that at home, even in summer!
Back at the ship we put out our suitcases for collection. We leave the ship at about 9am tomorrow (1am UK time) and transfer to a hotel for the day before being taken to the airport in time for our 9pm flight home via Dubai. I expect we’ll pop our heads around the door at Raffles at some point – it’s very close to our hotel – as well as having a last look at the markets.
We’ve had a lovely time and seem to have been away for ever, but we’ll be glad to get home on Thursday morning.