Returning Westward

February 6 to February 12, 2019

Port Blair

The ship left Yangon, Myanmar, early evening on Monday, Feb. 4, spent a day at sea then docked in Port Blair, Andaman Islands, at 8 a.m. on Wednesday

Throughout this 130-day journey, passengers left the ship and new ones boarded.  Only a small core of about twenty of us have been on the ship since it sailed from Piraeus, Greece, on December 9. We’d already visited Port Blair on our way to Malaysia so we skipped the formal excursion this time and Felicia and I went exploring on our own.

It was too far to walk from the pier into the market area in town. We hired a tuk-tuk, which required fine negotiating skills so as not to get fleeced by one of the hoards of eager tuk-tuk drivers that descended on us exited at the port. We’d been told by people who’d been there before the relatively short ride should cost no more than a couple of American dollars, the amount the locals would pay.

The first driver we approached wanted $10.  We moved on until one of them agreed to the fair price.

In the market area, the two of us ambled along in the blistering heat, going in and out of shops for hours. I bought a cheap watch since the strap of the one I’d brought with me had broken.  (True to the motto that you get what you pay for, this new watch lasted about a week and I ended up buying another cheap one from the ship’s gift store, which still works.

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On the way to the market area of Port Blair

After another long negotiation with the tuk-tuk driver we returned to the ship, damp as wet dig rags.

After the ship quit Port Blair we spent three days at sea for a return visit to Colombo.  By the third day I felt listless and bored.  We had good weather but I’m not one to sit by the pool, the hot shady decks held little appeal, and I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read, in spite of the ship’s well-stocked library.

We’d lost satellite connection so we there was no TV in our rooms, except for the daily roster of so-so movies.  Yes, we had daily lectures but the subjects didn’t always interest me (geology, in particular).  Our days revolved around food:  three ample meals, and  desultory conversations.

They gym saved me, and I went often.

Colombo

February 10, 2017

We arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in the early morning of February 10.  While the  passengers who’d boarded recently occupied themselves with the listed excursions, we Grand Voyage travelers spent three days, two nights on land, away vast expanse of water surrounding me, and the endless sound of waves slapping against the ship, even when I lay in bed in my cabin.  I wanted to get moving.

As the old saying goes, take care what you wish for because the universe could well give it to you. The next three days passed in gusts of frantic activity.

Pinnawala and Kandy

February 10, 2019

The ship docked in Colombo at 7 a.m., and we were on the coach for the 2.5 hour ride to the elephant orphanage in Pinnawala. The coach trip was advertised as taking us past charming, past colourful towns and villages. It’s possible that was the case but I didn’t notice. I was too busy worrying about whether we’d arrive in one piece. The driver of our coach, a real cowboy at the wheel, had us hanging on to our seats for our lives.

We got to the elephant sanctuary in Pinnawala (in one piece) at around 11 a.m. We were allotted an hour at the sanctuary, then came lunch and later a brief walk along the nearby shops. where Felicia bought a note pad made from recycled elephant poop.

The elephant orphanage was founded in 1975 by the Department of Wildlife conservation starting with a handful of baby elephants. It is now home to the largest herd of captive elephants.

The animals looked well-cared for but there is controversy surrounding the place, now that it has a breeding program—more like a zoo than a sanctuary.  Some of the males were chained as they can get aggressive with the other animals when they’re in musth, a time when testosterone levels are at a peak in musth males and probably regulate this extreme form of reproductive behavior.

We were told the sanctuary chains all the elephants in their pens at night, rather than letting them roam within the enclosures but got no satisfactory answer as to why this was necessary.

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This bull elephant tried and tried but got nowhere with the female, who wasn’t ready to mate. .Eventually, she just walked away, and since the male was chained he couldn’t follow her. 

By 2 p.m. we back on the bus and racing to the city of Kandy, a two-hour trek with the unrelenting cowboy at the wheel. (Kandy, situated in western Sri Lanka, is known as the “independent kingdom in the mountains” because it held out against colonial rule for two centuries. It fell to British in 1818.)

On the way to Kandy we stopped at a spice garden where one of the owners took us around to show us a variety of plants: sandalwood, nutmeg, cinnamon, and many more. Then he sat us down in a covered area to explain their various uses in cooking and for medicinal purposes. Naturally, after the talk he led us to the attached store.

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The New Paradise spice and herb garden  near Kandy, Sri Lanka

Soon we were hustled onto the coach and off we flew to Kandy for a stop at the Temple of the Tooth, home of the sacred relic of a tooth of the Buddha.  The temple complex once housed the palatial seat of Sinhalese monarchs.

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Entrance to the Temple of the Tooth, Kandy, Sri Lanka

Temples and mosques have strict rules pertaining to attire.  Both men and women must have shoulders and knees covered.  My friend, Don, was refused entry because his walking shorts didn’t ompletely cover his knees. Our enterprising guide disappeared and returned with some sort of sarong, which Don, a shy man, wrapped around his waist like a skirt and so was allowed in. (We’ve never let him forget that we witnessed him wearing “frock,” as Felicia calls dresses.)

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Devotees offer flowers to Buddha.  Though the gift is one of beauty it is also a reminder that  things of the world, like the flowers, also fade.  

On the heels of the visit to the temple came a traditional cultural performance at a local theatre, mostly dancing but also fire eaters and people walking on hot coals. Tired from the hours of jostling on the bus, we had another half-hour drive to get to our hotel.

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The cultural show  featured ethnic dancing, fire swallowing and walking on coals 

The buffet dinner was superb, particularly the array of local dishes, although the western fare was ample and good.  After dinner I fell exhausted into the big king size bed and passed out.

We were back on the bus by 8:30 the following morning on our way to the next stop: the exquisite Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya. We got there at 10 a.m., after a “panoramic” drive through Kandy.

The garden dates to 1821.  Among other things, it has a lovely orchid house, a spice garden, a medicinal plant garden, a fernery, an avenue of palms, cacti, and a bamboo collection on 60 hectares (147 acres). We were allocated a measly hour to enjoy all this bounty.

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The orchid pavilion had dozens of varieties of blooms
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The inside of this tree trunk in Royal Botanic Gardens in Peradeniya had room  for two people

We hauled ourselves on the bus at 11 a.m. en route to the seaside town of Negambo where, after a hurried stop for lunch, we arrived at our hotel, a beach resort, around 4 p.m. The hotel’s restaurant faced the white-sand beach, patrolled by guards with sticks to keep out dogs and other riff-raff.

Because Negambo is a beach resort, it’s tourist friendly.

Several of us strolled up and down the long main street, chock-full of shops, restaurants, cafes and hotels. It felt so good to be walking after so many hours on the coach.  (The only sustained walking I can do on the ship is the treadmill in the gym, which isn’t quite as satisfying as exploring a new city.)

I had looked forward to having high-speed internet that night so I could upload pictures to this blog. Alas, my room was too far from the router and they would have had to scare up a technician to fix it so I let it go.

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Sunset from my room in Negambo. Behind the palms i nothing but white sand and sea

We quit Negambo around 2 p.m. on Feb. 12, and after several near accidents (or so it seemed to me) we arrived in Colombo, where gridlocked traffic awaited.

I climbed the gangway up into the ship with a tired sigh of gratitude to be back.

Next stop:  Uligan, Maldives

 

Yangon, Myanmar

February 2 to 4, 2019

After Phuket we spent two days at sea before reaching Yangon, Myanmar.  The ship docked around two in the afternoon, where it remained overnight. Two hours later we climbed aboard coaches and rode through the city’s colonial centre on our way to the Shwedagon Pagoda, glistening gold on Singuttura Hill atop the Yangon skyline as sunset approached.

The Shwedagon pagoda, the most sacred Buddhist site in Myanmar, stands 100 meters tall (326 feet) on a six-hectare terrace, which the temple shares with other pagodas, shrines and a museum, among other things.  The pagoda culminates in a 22-inch orb encrusted with 4,351 diamonds having a total weight of 1,800 carats. The apex diamond weighs 76 carats.  (What an engagement ring that would make, eh?)

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The  apex of the golden  100-metre-Shwedagon Pagoda culminates is a 76-carat single diamond

We stayed a couple of hours, wandering around awestruck.  It struck me as somewhat odd to see flashing neon halos around the statues of so many Buddha statues, a bit Las Vegas.

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The 6-hectare terrace holds a total of three pagodas along with many shrines  

A cadaverous monk sitting in deep meditation in front of a shrine fascinated me.  He sat as inert as the Buddha in the shrine behind him, his eyes closed and not a flicker of life emanating from him.

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This meditating monk held me in thrall

I watched him for a long time, wondering whether spending long periods of one’s daily life with body and mind completely separated served any useful purpose other than to stop his own suffering. If we all spent our time that way, who would grow food? How would we attend to each other? Then the universe sent me the answer by way of a fellow passenger, an elderly gentleman, a former university professor of religion.  He told me action is not confined to bodily movement.  He said such monks serve as an example that existence extends beyond the body, and that accessing that realm can influence the physical world to the good while the rest of us stumble along on the continuum between very good and very evil.

According to legend, the main pagoda houses eight hairs of the Gautama Buddha brought by two traders, which the then king enshrined in a 66-foot temple. In the 15th century queen Shin Saw Pu had the temple raised to a height of 302 feet and donated her weight in gold.  Since then individuals and groups have donated the gold leaf which today covers the temple.  The temple reached its current height in 1774 when King Sinbyushin had it rebuilt.

Bright and early the following morning, a Sunday, we boarded coaches once more. This time we went to the newly renovated National Museum and its five floors of treasures.

The highlight was the 150-year-old Lion Throne, last used by King Thibaw, the last king of Myanmar, in his judicial role before the country was annexed by the British Empire.  It is constructed of gilded Yamanay wood.  This throne is the only remaining one of nine thrones remaining intact. The other eight were destroyed during WWII.

As anyone who knows me will tell you, since anything that glitters attracts me my next favourite exhibits were in the royal regalia and ancient ornaments showrooms. Objects fashioned out of pure gold and studded with jewels.

Our visit lasted only an hour, only long enough to zip through the national races, the epigraphy and calligraphy showrooms, and the art gallery.  I would happily have spent the day there.

On the way back to the ship, we stopped at the Bogyoke Aung San Market (once known as the Scott Market) where I only had time to check out a small percentage of the more than 1,600 stalls selling everything from antiques to clothing to lacquerware, jewellery (yes!) and street food.  In the end I ended up buying only one item:  a dressy royal blue cotton top with a lovely beaded front.  The cost $5 U.S.

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Bogyoke Aung San Market in Yangon has 1,641 stalls, selling everything from antiques of textiles

We had lunch on the ship then Felicia and I headed off to explore what we could of the city on foot. The part of the city accessible on foot can’t be described as pretty.  But the people are truly friendly. The street food looked luscious, but I do so much eating on the ship food is the last thing I’m interested in when I go ashore.

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A street restaurant in Myanmar offered enticing food

We walked and walked, drenched from the heat.  At one point we stopped at the British consulate to asked for directions to a non-profit store which sells goods made by impoverished local women.  Would you believe they gave us the wrong directions?

Towards the end of the afternoon, the pair of us ended up having a cocktail (yes, the teetotaler I am had a cocktail) at the gorgeous, century-old Stand Hotel.  We sipped the drinks in the hotel’s Sarkies Bar, named in honour of the Sarkies brothers, the original owners of the Strand, where such luminaries as Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Orson Welles hung out in days gone by.

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The Strand Hotel’s pristine lobby in Yangon
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Afternoon cocktails in Sarkies Bar at the Strand Hotel in Myanmar where the likes of Noel Coward, Rudyard Kipling and Orson Welles enjoyed a tipple now and then 

Next stop:  A return visit to Port Blair, Andaman Islands

 

George Town (Penang), Malaysia

January 29, 2019

(I am way behind on this blog.  The problem lies with the internet on the ship, which is supremely unreliable. Even when we do have an internet connect is often too weak for me to upload pictures.  However, I intend to post every single stop I’ve made on this wonderful four-month journey, even if I have to finish it after I get home.  Thanks for reading…. EC)

Earlier in this blog I’d written I’d had my fill of tramping through temples and mosques but I wouldn’t have missed the pair of Buddhist temples we visited in George Town (the city was named after then reigning King George III), capital of the state of Penang, Malaysia.

We began our excursion of George Town with another one of those “panoramic” coach tours of the city. (I don’t really get that much out of these drive-by trips.  Yes, the guides stand at the front of the buses and feed us all kinds of history and interesting factoids but I don’t retain much of the information.) I learn when I take my time in a museum or other site than the fifteen or twenty minutes alloted to us on an organized excursion. There’s something to be said for talking to the locals, too.  Still, the bus rides do provide a general sense of a place.

In Penang we drove along the “Road of Harmony,” a cultural pastiche of Christian churches, Chinese temples and Islamic mosques.  But since our visit lasted only half a day, we  visited only two temples, both Buddhists, which stood across the street from each other:  one Thai, the other Burmese—both truly stunning.

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The Queen Victoria Memorial clock town,  commissioned in 1897 by local millionaire, Cheah Chen Eok, stands 60 feet tall, each foot representing a year of the Queen’s reign.

 

The Thai temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram) holds a reclining Buddha that’s 108 feet long and 32 feet high, and covered in gold leaf.  It is said to be the largest in Malaysia and the third largest in the world. Impressive.

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This reclining Buddha in George Town’s Thai temple is  said to be the third  longest in the world

But I nearly fell over when I learned that a series of gold-covered statues of old men sitting in meditation in front of the reclining Buddha were not statues at all but embalmed holy men. The gold that covered them was put there by worshippers, one small sheet of gold leaf paper at time (which you could buy on site), on whichever part of the holy man’s body the worshipper himself felt pain.

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This golden figure may look like a statue but in reality it’s the dessicated corpse of a holy man 

 

The temple across the street (Dhammikarma Burmese Temple), the oldest on the island, had a vivid red and gold façade and beautiful grounds.

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Dhammikarma Buddhist Burmese Temple is the oldest in Penang 

We had time to visit the Chew Jetty, a village on stilts is one of six remaining Chinese heritage clan jetties in Penang.  Chew Jetty, which stands in the Weld Quay area of George Town,  takes the surname of the name of the clan living in the water village with wooden houses perched above the sea. Their Chews whose forefathers came from Fujian Province in China started building the village in 1918 and added to it over the decades. Today some of the houses are said to have as many as five bedrooms.  The long jetty’s wooden planks are lined not only with the entrances to the houses but with shops (yes, I bought a couple of little things…) and fast food places. It has a small temple, too.

A century later the village on stilts remains (they were hooked up to water and electricity in 1954), untouched by the development that has taken place around it. People have lived in the same house for generations now and sundry shops flourish along the jetty.

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Chew Jetty, in downtown George Town, Penang, one of six heritage clan jetties

 

We also spent a little time in the Waterfall Botanical Gardens, created by the British in 1884. The garden, home to cheeky monkeys that roam freely, came as a respite from the heavy heat.

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The island of Penang, a UNESCO world heritage site, appeared in Chinese trading documents in the 15th century. The first English ship stumbled across it in 1592 but two centuries went by before another Englishman, Francis Light, persuaded the island’s sultan to cede the island to the East India Company. Light established George Town as a free port to lure local traders away from the Dutch, and used the port’s location to try to curb French expansion in Indochina. Penang remained a British possession until Malayan independence in 1957.

Next stop: a second visit to Phuket, as we headed back west toward Africa

George Town (Penang), Malaysia

January 29, 2019

We began our excursion of George Town with another one of those “panoramic” coach tours of the city. (I don’t really get that much out of these drive-by trips.  Yes, the guides stand at the front of the buses and feed us all kinds of history and interesting factoids but I don’t retain much of the information. I take in and remember much more wandering around and have time to stop and take things in, talk to shopkeepers or women holding  babies, who are always delighted when you complement their children.  I admit the bus rides do provide a general sense of a place.King George III), capital of the state of Penang, Malaysia.

This day we drove along George Town’s “Road of Harmony,” a cultural pastiche of Christian churches, Chinese temples and Islamic mosques.  But since our visit lasted only half a day, we stopped at only two temples, both Buddhists, which stood directly  across the street from each other:  one Thai, the other Burmese—both truly stunning.

Earlier in this blog I’d written that I’d had my fill of temples and mosques but I wouldn’t have missed the pair of Buddhist temples we visited in George Town (named after then reigning

The Thai temple (Wat Chayamangkalaram) holds a reclining Buddha that’s 108 feet long and 32 feet high, and covered in gold leaf.  It is said to be the largest in Malaysia and the third largest in the world.

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The third largest Buddha in the world at 108 feet long found in Wat Chayamangkalaram, Penang

But I nearly fell over when I learned that a series of gold-covered statues of old men sitting in meditation in front of the long reclining Buddha were not statues at all but embalmed holy men. And the gold that covered them was put there by worshippers, one small sheet of gold leaf paper at time (which you could buy on site), on whichever part of the holy man’s body where the worshipper himself felt pain.   (It’s like praying to a saint, I suppose.)

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This  “statute”  sitting in meditation pose in front of the reclining Buddha is  the embalmed body of a holy man.  He is covered in gold leaf placed there by worshippers.

The temple across the street (Dhammikarma Burmese Temple), the oldest on the island, had a vivid red and gold façade and beautiful grounds.

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The Burmese Buddhist temple is the oldest in Penang .
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The Dhammikarma Burmese Temple has lovely grounds

We had time to visit the Chew Jetty, a village built on stilts, in the Weld Quay area built by Chinese immigrants starting in 1918. A century later the village remains (they were hooked up to water and electricity in 1954), untouched by the development that has taken place around it. People have lived in the same house for generations, the guide told us, building additional rooms out into the water as they needed more rooms. Some of the houses have as many as five bedrooms.  The jetty is lined with shops cheek by jowl with entrances to the houses.

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The Chew Jetty in Penang where generations of Chinese have made their homes

We also spent a little time in the Waterfall Botanical Gardens, created by the British in 1884, home to mischievous wild monkeys that roam freely.  The garden came as a respite from the heavy heat.

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Wild monkeys have the run of the Waterfall Botanical Gardens in Penang.

The island of Penang (a UNESCO world heritage site) appeared in Chinese trading documents in the 15th century. The first English ship stumbled across it in 1592 but two centuries went by before another Englishman, Francis Light, persuaded the island’s sultan to cede the island to the East India Company. Light established George Town as a free port to lure local traders away from the Dutch, and used the port’s location to try to curb French expansion in Indochina. Penang remained a British possession until Malayan independence in 1957.

Next stop: Back to Phuket as the ship heads westward towards Africa

Malacca, Malaysia

January 27, 2019

By the time we reached Malacca towards the end of January, I’d had enough of escorted excursions, enough of seeing temples and churches and remnants of forts built by conquering Europeans.  My friend, Felicia, and I decided to hop on one of tenders shuttling the ship’s passengers ashore every hour to wander around  the town on our own.

The sun burned hot, so hot it seemed to bore through my flesh right through to my bones. We walked under whatever shade we could find as we ambled through local covered markets, examining foods and spices we didn’t recognize until we stumbled on  a super-modern shopping mall.  We took respite from the heat for a half hour, strolling along the aisles of trendy shops and buying nothing.  For one thing, the clothes are not cut for the bodies of Western women of a certain age with little muffin tops to hide.  The average size for Malacca women seems to be two and under.

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Shopping mall in Malacca prepares show for Chinese New Year 

Eventually, we found our way to the old town and Jonker Street, a lively place full of antique shops and locally made souvenir stores, a place where shopping also entails delightful chats with shopkeepers. Talking to the people you buy from is a much more civilized way to do business than going to a shopping mall where you have to go searching around the stores to find somebody to help you (just like at home).

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Entrance to Jonker street in Malacca Malaysia

At an antique shop on Jonker Street I bought a small jade statue of a big, fat laughing Buddha at an antique shop. I’ve become quite attached to him.  Felicia bought a T-shirt featuring an eye-popping graphic made by a local artist.

I was quite taken with the bicycle rickshaws, which are decorated with flowers and stuffed animals and blare music as they drive past.

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Festooned bicycle rickshaws, music blaring, cover the entire old town in Malacca, Malaysia

Malacca, founded in the 15th C by the Prince of Palembang, is a state in Malaysia situated in the southern region of the Malay Peninsula next to the Straits of Malacca. At the time of its founding, Malacca’s nearness to the spice islands of Indonesia coupled with fact that the state had adopted Islam soon after its establishment and had extensive links with the Muslim trading world, which made it one of the most ports in Malaysia.

Then along came the Portuguese in the early 16th C.  In 1511 after a forty-day siege Malacca fell.  About a century later the Dutch decided they wanted it and launched several attacks during the first four decades of the 17th C.  The port fell into Dutch hands in 1641.

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Remnants of the old Portuguese fort in Malacca

But wait. The British weren’t to be left out and they got their hands on Malacca in 1824 as part of a treaty with the Dutch and remained under British rule until 1946, except between 1942 to 1945 when the Japanese occupied it during World War II.

Malacca’s capital, also named Malacca, is home to some half a million people.

Next stop:  Penang, Malaysia

 

Singapore

January 26, 1019

What can I say about Singapore after a mere “panoramic” half-day bus tour? To all appearances it’s a perfectly cut gemstone with its tall buildings piercing the sky, their facets gleaming and winking in the bright sun. You can smell affluence in the air, you see it in the way the busy people dress, in the shop windows emblazoned with the names of luxury brands.  Singapore is the embodiment of the old American dream, the poster child for business success, for money, and is itself the best example of the power of branding.

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Singapore preparing for the  arrival of the year of the pig, 2019

The Republic of Singapore lies one degree north of the equator, at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  Its territory, which consists of the mainland plus sixty-two islets, is almost a quarter reclaimed land.  Since its independence in 1965, Singapore has the distinction of having transitioned from a developing into a fully developed country in a single generation.

Our half-day excursion included a drive through Singapore’s Colonial District, the northern area of the city where Parliament House and the Victoria Theatre lie. We went to Little India, where we had a walking tour of the colourful streets on our way to the Sri Mariamman Hindu Temple (the oldest place of Hindu worship on the island,  lavishly decorated with seventy-two deities.  We also went to Chinatown and visited Thian Hock Keng Temple, the oldest Chinese temple in Singapore.

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Our last stop was the very best part of our visit.  The coach took us to the Botanical Gardens, home to thousands of lush tropical plants in a natural setting, including two thousand varieties of splendid orchids, the world’s largest collection.

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My friend  and fellow passenger, Felicia, hamming it up in the orchidarium in Singapore
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One of two thousand varieties of orchids in Singapore’s orchidarium.

But half a day on a bus and a bit of a wander along its streets weren’t nearly long enough to discover whether this wealthy city has a soul as well as a beautiful face.

Next stop: Malacca, Malaysia

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

January 25, 2019

One day at sea after Phuket and we landed in Malaysia at Port Kelang, the country’s main gateway, located about 40 km southwest of the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

On the morning of January 25, a Friday, we started filing into the coaches at 8:00 a.m. on our way to the capita.  Where excursions are concerned, the ship’s passengers are grouped by colours,  seven groups in total, with a coach for each group.  Because the same people always travel together it’s a good way to get to know the other passengers.  It makes it easier to invite yourself to sit someone’s table during mealtimes when you’ve commiserated over the infernal heat and humidity earlier in the day.

Kuala Lumpur, meaning “muddy estuary,” was established in 1857 as a trading post by Chinese tin miners and traders.  The tin mining rush of the 1860s and 1870s brought rapid growth and after the British took control in the 1880s and construction boomed it became capital of the federated Malay states, the youngest capital in Southeast Asia.

It’s a neat, pretty city. You have a sense of spaciousness, and order as you move through it.

The majority of the Malay people have inhabited the area of Malaysia and Singapore for more than two thousand years. The other two main ethnic groups are the Chinese and Indians who arrived in 19th and 20th centuries, although some of these residents trace their roots back several centuries.

The drive from Port Kelang to the capital took ninety minutes with the National Monument our first stop. It’s a remarkable tribute to their war heroes. In addition to the monument itself, the complex includes fountains, a pavilion, a war memorial all surrounded by gardens and occupies almost fifty thousand square meters.  It commemorates those who died fighting Japanese Occupation during World War II and the “Malayan Emergency” of 1948-1960.

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The National War Memorial in Kuala Lumpur

Next we visited the old colonial Railway Station (the city has a new railway station now) with its Islamic-style exterior located not far from the minarets of the city’s grand mosque; We drove by Independence Square,  where the Union Flag was lowered in 1957 to create an independent Malaysia, and the heart of the city’s colonial district where noteworthy structures, such as the Royal Sengalor Club, a private club built-in mock-Tudor style, still stand.

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The railway station built by the British during the city’s colonial era is now a hotel

The Petronas Towers were eye-popping: two parallel 452-meter towers resembling a pair minarets. img_0027-4

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur rise 452 meters

But my favourite view was the clock tower on Merdeka Square.

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The Sultan Abdul Samad building on Merdeka Square in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia It now houses the Supreme court of Malaysia

Then it was back on the bus and the one-and-a-half hour drive back to port.

 

Phuket, Thailand

January 23, 2019

After Port Blair, India, we sailed the Indian Ocean two days before reaching Phuket, Thailand.  During those couple of days at sea I fought the sloth that had overtaken me by going to the ship’s gym for an hour of rousing treadmill work and yoga. My vow to stay away from the desert table, however, met with limited success: I contented myself with one small sweet instead of two regular size slabs of fat and sugar. Thank heavens I have no interest in wine, which is poured with a liberal hand at dinner.

(Yes, in fact, I indulged so much the first couple of months I have put on some weight. But I’ll worry about shedding it once I got home. I’m on vacation, after all, no?)

The ship arrived in Phuket late on Jan 22, and since we would only be there for one day, our land excursion started at 8:30 the following morning.  The island of Phuket (population about 400,000, which swells to more than a million during tourist season) and another 32 smaller islands form the largest province in Thailand.  The area was among those hit when the tsunami struck in 2004, killing more than 5,000 in Thailand and two hundred thousand more throughout the Asian region.

The land excursion I chose took us to Phang Nga National Park area and Pan Yi Island, where we had lunch at a Muslim fishing village built on stilts. Other passengers opted to visit the Phi Phi Islands, another national park, to enjoy beaches, coral reef and three-thousand-year-old rock carvings.

With the ship docked in the southeast side of Phuket Island the coach took us northward to the top of the island and off the mainland to the Phang Nga National Park, famous for its limestone cliffs plunging straight down to the sea.

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Dozens of communications and electrical wires run from pole to pole in Phuket

On the way we stopped to visit the Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave temple, a holy place where monkeys and dogs roam freely. There I witnessed a silent altercation between a small monkey perched stubbornly on a boulder and a dog, ears pricked, tail on alert, staring it down.

The temple houses an immense reclining golden Buddha.  Ancient Buddha images and prehistoric artifacts have been excavated from inside the cave but the existing statuary dates to the mid-nineteenth century.

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A giant reclining golden Buddha takes pride of place in Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave in Phang Nga, Thailand
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The statuary Inside the Suwan Khuha Buddhist cave temple dates to the mid-19th century
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A Buddhist worshipper listens to a recorded prophecy after placing a coin in the box

After a lovely, peaceful wander around the cave (and spending much time admiring the tiny monkeys) we got back on the bus and drove to Phang Nga Bay where, clad in unwieldy orange life jackets, we climbed inside a traditional Thai long-tailed boat.  The boat was deep but we all managed to get into it with varying degrees of inelegance.

It was worth the long drive. Ahead of us lay some of the most glorious scenery on Earth.  As the longboat skimmed the surface of smooth, mossy green water, we saw mangroves and caves. But the sight of sheer limestone karsts thrusting dramatically from the sea took my breath away.  The sea breeze came as a blessed respite after the sweltering 35 degrees Celsius and steamy humidity we’d sweated through on land.

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Enormous granite karsts rise dramatically from the depths of Phang-Nga Bay

The ear-shattering drone of the huge engine attached to the back of the boat (handled by a gorgeous young hunk of a guy) did mar the experience somewhat. So, with fingers stuck in my ears to deaden the noise, I gazed slack-jawed as we circled the island of Koh Tapu, aka James Bond Island, where the climactic scene of Man with the Golden Gun was filmed.

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These karsts, are limestone or chalk formed by erosion. As rainwater seeps into the rock, it slowly erodes the chalk from the top or dissolved from a weak point inside the rock.

It took about an hour to reach Pan Yi Island where the Sea Gypsy Village is situated before we had to haul ourselves out of the longboat. (Somehow climbing up is always harder than falling into something, isn’t it?) At one time the residents of Sea Gypsy Village made their living exclusively from fishing.  Today the bulk of their income comes from tourism.

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Approaching the Sea Gypsy fishing village in Pan Yi Island 

By then it was lunchtime. From the pier we’d walked along a long, covered corridor, lined on either side with stalls selling all manner of goods.

We had a nice meal, buffet-style, (Pad Thai noodles, anyone?) at tables overlooking the bay. I ate fast so I could do a little shopping. However, the shopping was a disappointment. Except for those selling foodstuffs, the goods on offer were all much the same, mostly inexpensive jewelry featuring peals (said to be genuine local pearls), T-shirts and other cheap clothing.  Women wearing the hijab managed every one of the shops, which made me wonder whether the men were out fishing for local pearls to make more jewelry.

In spite of the paucity of quality goods, intrepid shopper that I am, I found a small glass ornament I liked.  The shopkeeper assured me her husband had made it—but I’m not convinced.

At one o’clock we returned to the longboat, returned to the waiting bus and got back to the ship around suppertime.

Next stop: Port Kelang, Malaysia.

 

 

Port Blair, Andaman Islands, India

January 21, 2019

After leaving Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, we spent two days at sea en route to Port Blair. With a population about 100,000, the town is the capital of the Andaman and Nicobar Islands situated in the Bay of Bengal, and is a union territory of India.  Andaman tribes have lived in close-knit communities on the islands for more than two thousand years.

In the 1830s and 1840s, shipwrecked crews who landed on the Andamans were often attacked and killed by the natives, alarming the British government, which then ruled India. As recently as 2018, American Christian missionary John Allen Chau was killed by the indigenous inhabitants of the North Sentinel Island (where all entry is prohibited by law) after his third attempt to get onto the island to convert the tribe. The islanders, estimated at about 40, are semi-nomadic and extremely hostile.

But the big shock of this excursion came we passed after we walked through the gates of the Cellular Jail, known locally as, Kala Pani.  The term translates as “black waters” due to the torture and debasement of political prisoners held at the hands of the British colonisers.

The Cellular Jail, built by the British between 1896 and 1906 confined Indian freedom fighters. By all accounts the prisoners were held in unspeakable conditions and their names are now engraved in stone on what remains of jail’s walls.

The prison once had seven, three-three storey structures,  each one radiating from a central circular tower to form a star. It held 698 prisoners in solitary confinement. Each block had three parallel, horizontal rows of tiny cells, facing the blank, brick back wall of the block in front of it, ensuring the prisoners couldn’t communicate with each other.

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A model of the Cellular Jail as it looked when completed in 1906. Today two wings remain 
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Today only two of the Cellular jail’s seven buildings remain, left standing as a memorial to India’s freedom fighters who suffered and died there

Prisoners worked in sheds, built between every pair of its radiating wings. A sign on the remaining shed reads: “Political prisoners were required to produce a daily quota of thirty pounds of coconut oil, ten pounds of mustard oil—targets that were beyond their physical capacity. Dire punishments followed for those who failed to meet the quotas.”

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A work shed stands between the two remaining wings of the jail as seen from the guardhouse at the centre from which the wings radiated 
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A figure representing a prisoner works a press

The site also has a small building used as gallows. I suppose for the sake of efficiency it contained not one but three nooses, which hung placidly above three trap doors waiting to swallow the unfortunate creatures condemned to death for trying to get their country back from the British who’d stolen it.

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The jail’s gallows.  A third noose is out of view. Those condemned to hang were placed in cells within view of their place of execution

 

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Floggings were a common sight 

I visited the jail in January, in winter, when the temperature was a mere 30 degrees C and the humidity something like 80 per cent. I can’t imagine what it must have felt like in those claustrophobic cells in the searing heat of high summer or doing hard labour with no respite in site—except maybe the noose.  The British have a lot to answer for in their colonial past, and not just in India.

Today only two of the jail’s seven wings remain, left standing as a memorial to the brutality endured by a people who fought for self-rule.

(Enough about that but it’s hard to forget what I saw.)

Our tour also included a visit to the Naval Marine Museum, which displayed colourful, local marine life in aquariums, the history of various tribes, and tribal art.  The Anthropology Museum provided more insight into tribal cultural history, including life-size recreations of various types of huts.

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After that we spent about twenty minutes at the Aberdeen bazaar, where it I bought nothing.  What can you find in twenty minutes when it takes that long just to get across the street? Buses, cars, tuk-tuks, motorbikes don’t stop to let you pass, not even at crosswalks.

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Crossing the street at the Aberdeen bazaar in Port Blair meant taking your life in your hands.

Next stop:  Phuket, Thailand