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

Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

January 18, 2019

On Friday, January 18, the ship laid anchor at the port city of Trincomalee on the northeast coast of Sri Lanka.  Portuguese, Dutch and others colonizers had long preyed upon this ancient, natural harbour so that by the time the British took it over in 1795, it had changed hands seven times.

The ship offered a choice of excursions: a full day tour to Polonnaruwa, a UNESCO site, one of Sri Lanka’s best-preserved archeological cities dating to the tenth century AD or a half-day tour around Trincomalee itself.  The Polonnaruwa trip meant a three-hour bus ride each way. I turned that one down in spite of the promised view of “lush countryside” from the coach windows. The rocking movement of the bus would inevitably have put me to sleep and I wouldn’t have seen a thing in any case.

I opted for the half-day excursion to Fort Frederick, once the largest European fort in Sri Lanka. Portuguese invaders built it in 1623 (they called it Fort Triquillimae) only to have by the Dutch wrest it out of their grasp in 1639.

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Vendors line the roadway leading to Koneswara temple

We got off the buses and climbed into waiting tuk-tuks, which conveyed us to the base of the sacred site. The temple sits atop Konesar Malai, a promontory overlooking the Indian Ocean.  The tuk-tuks let us off at the base of a hill and we walked along a road, lined on either side with vendors that service just about every religious site up to the temple.

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Worshippers write down wishes and place them in the small wooden boxes to ask for Lord Shiva’s intercession

Although the Koneswara temple site is one of the oldest in Sri Lanka, the temple which exists today was built in the 20th century. The original structure (founded around 400 B.C.) was destroyed by the Portuguese in the early 17th century. Built in the classical-medieval style, it is dedicated to Lord Shiva.

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A detail of the Koneswara Hindu temple near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

After an hour we climbed back into the tuk-tuks, into the bus and sped to the remains of an ancient Buddhist temple complex.

We were welcomed to the ruins of the two-thousand-year-old Velgam Vihara Buddhist temple by the saffron-robed monks who live nearby. According to information provided by the monks, the ancient complex was abandoned in the 11th century when the Sinhalese people were compelled to migrate southward.  “Within twenty years, the premises of this Vihara was covered with heavy jungle which was full of wild elephants and leopards.”

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The remains of the Velgam Vihara temple (built around 300 BC) near Trincomalee, Sri Lanka, historically a place for worship for both Sinhala and Tamil Buddhists

We were the only people walking among the partially-excavated site that day. (The pace of excavation depends on the generosity of worshippers and visitors.) The tranquility of the place came as sweet respite from the bustle and hurry of getting from place to place.  A hidden peacock screeched in the background.

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The ancient site of the Buddhist Velgam Vihara temple in Trimcomalee, Sri Lanka provided a quiet respite from the hurly burly of touring

After that it was back to the ship for two unhurried days at sea until our next stop:  Port Blair (Andaman Islands) India. Good, old bureaucratic India, where it takes six to eight people (sometime in groups of three) to examine and stamp your passport before they’ll let you out of the harbour terminal.

 

Colombo, Sri Lanka

January 16, 2019

Our visit to Sri Lanka took us to the spectacular Kelaniya Buddhist temple compound, one of the most sacred in the country where tens of thousands of worshippers flock annually. Buddha is said to have once visited the temple site to stop a war from erupting between two brothers over a jewel-encrusted throne.

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Inside the grounds of the Kelaniya temple

 

Walking along its expansive grounds, a sense of peace settled over me in spite of the number of people in attendance.  Worshippers sat on the ground praying, meditating; they lit incense sticks, they placed food offerings at the feet of statues. And if you happened to catch their eyes, they smiled.

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Worshippers sitting on the warm sand around image house of the Kelaniya temple 

The temple site lies some twelve kilometers outside Colombo on the banks of the Kelani river. The original buildings went up around 350 B.C. Only the stupa (a white 90-foot structure resembling a heap of rice) remains.  The others were destroyed by invaders again and again only to be rebuilt by locals after each and every destruction. The last big blow was dealt by the Portuguese in 1510. Since then many, many major renovations have taken place with the last big reno undertaken in the early 20th century.

The pièce de résistance is the image house. Every wall and ceiling inside this elegant, yellowish-cream-coloured building is covered with sumptuous murals depicting scenes of the life of Lord Buddha and historical events of ancient Sri Lanka.  You could spend a week looking up and down and all around and never get your fill of the beauty in every detail. The murals were done in the early 20th C by an artist called Solias Mendis.

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The image house in foreground with white stupa in the shape of a heap of rice behind it
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Murals cover the interior of the Kelaniya Buddhist temple
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A mural scene near the ceiling in the Kalaniya Buddhist temple image house

As we walked out the gate and back out into the street, the hypnotic sound of chanting monks followed behind us.

Next, we climbed back on the bus and headed to Colombo’s National Museum, where we spent a couple of fascinating hours looking at everything from royal regalia to antique demon masks to textiles.  Child that I am, I was especially taken with the life-size recreations of ancient communities.  The museum had a really good souvenir shop, unfortunately, we got no time to browse because we had to get back to the ship in time for lunch. (Really, I could do with fewer meals…)

Next stop: Trincomalee, Sri Lanka

Galle, Sri Lanka

January 15, 2019

We left the Maldives on the evening of Jan 13 and spent the next day at sea, wending our way toward Sri Lanka.  The ship-board itinerary included a morning lecture about Nehru, India’s prime minister from 1947 to 1964, and another in the afternoon about the mammals of the Indian subcontinent. I attended neither, preferring to catch up with this blog, go to the gym to work off some of daily post-dinner dessert I can’t seem to walk away from, and to nap instead. I did, however, catch the Nehru lecture in my cabin later on closed circuit TV (I’m not a complete philistine).

Three excursions were available when we docked in Colombo, Sri Lanka, on Jan 15: Kandy (it held out against colonial takeover for two centuries before falling to the British in 1818); a visit to the Pinnawala elephant orphanage or a trip to the town of Galle on the country’s southwest coast.

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Fishermen in the Galle, hoping to catch dinner from the Indian Ocean

(Those of us taking the Grand Journey, traveling all the way to Malaga, Spain, went to Galle since we’ll be coming back to this way after visiting Thailand. We’ll get the chance to visit both Kandy and Pinnawala in February.)

It was a hot, beautiful day and I enjoyed the 2.5-hour drive to Galle comfortably seated in our air-condition coach as we cut through the city of Colombo and sped past rubber, cinnamon and tea plantations.  (Yes, I nodded off now and then. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to getting up at 6 a.m. to get ready for these excursions.)

The ride from the pier to Galle took almost three hours. Our first stop was a “short” visit, as advertised, to the former house of Sinhalese author, Martin Wickramasinghe, which is now a folk museum. True, it’s a small museum, but we got a mere fifteen minutes to walk through it—literally in and out.  Why?  Because organizers had made reservations at a fancy hotel for lunch. It was hardly worth the time to get us all off and back on the bus.  I’d rather have spent more time at the museum and none at the fancy hotel that followed.

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The hotel in Galle where we had lunch had a most unusual bannister

(When I asked excursion staff why we always go to these five-star hotels instead of local restaurants I was told local places don’t often have the facilities to accommodate such large groups, including for the seniors with minor disabilities among us.)

After lunch we motored to the old part of the city, to Galle Fort, built by the Portuguese four centuries ago, and later modified by the Dutch. Its ramparts and alleys are something to see.

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A model posing  in front of  a store in Old Galle during a commercial photo shoot 

Shopping was good, too, especially for semi-precious stones.  I bought a pair of small silver earrings with a blue topaz and bargained so hard the sales clerk, who wouldn’t let me leave when we couldn’t agree on a price, ended up calling the store owner. After yet more smiles and shakes of my head and many attempts to leave,  the owner let me have my price. (The earrings dangle prettily from my ears as I write this.)

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A peculiar store sign on a Galle street

The ship remained docked in Colombo that night, and we got a tour of the city itself the following morning.  When we come back this way on the way to Burma, my new friend and fellow Grand Voyage passenger, Felicia, and I have decided to wander around the city on our own.

 

 

Uligan, Maldives

January 13, 2019

After Cochin we spent a day sailing the Indian Ocean (it covers about 20 per cent of the Earth’s surface) toward the island of Uligan in the Maldives. The ship stopped there for a few hours so passengers could enjoy the beach. The island, however, isn’t a tourist destination. It has few facilities and its inhabitants are strict Muslims, which meant modest dress and no alcohol could be taken ashore.

But the promise of wriggling my toes on the Island’s beautiful, tranquil beach, which is said to be full of coral reefs and tropical fish did not induce me to get off the ship. First, I don’t swim, and, second, I’m allergic to the sun. Don’t judge me too harshly, okay? It would have meant spending a couple of uncomfortable hours stewing inside my clothes, covered up from head to toe to prevent itchy blistering from exposure to the tropical sun.

Those who went said they had a wonderful time in the scorching heat.

 

 

Uligan Island, Maldives (picture from scorpio.com)

I stayed on the ship and spent a pleasant morning reading.