Southeast Asia Cruise – January 2016




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On January 22, 2016, my wife and I went on our sixth cruise – a cruise promoted as a taste of Southeast Asia. We had never been in Southeast Asia before, except for a brief stopover at the Kuala Lumpur airport on our way to Perth, Australia. But it has always been a popular destination for Canadians with many visiting Thailand, Viet Nam, Singapore and Malaysia among others. So it was another part of the world that needed exploring.

I’ve already posted about all our ports of call as well as about our stay in Singapore. So this post is about the cruise itself. Cruises are a destination in themselves, even if you never get off the ship. In 2009 we took a fourteen day trans-Atlantic cruise and were at sea for seven straight days, as long as this entire cruise. There is always something to do and to keep you entertained.

The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.
The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.

This cruise was with Royal Caribbean aboard the Mariner of the Seas, a huge ship, one of five Voyager class ships. We have cruised on its sister ship, the Navigator of the Seas twice before. But each has its own distinctive style with unique art work for each.

Sculpted fruit and ice are traditional on first days to welcome guests aboard.
Sculpted fruit and ice are traditional on first days to welcome guests aboard.

We had pre-boarded online so everything went smoothly when we arrived to board. Right away we went for a meal and everything was decked out to welcome people, and to hail the upcoming Chinese New Year.

The gymnasium on the Mariner of the Seas.
The gymnasium on the Mariner of the Seas.

The time between boarding and setting sail is a great time to explore the ship and find out where everything is. It’s also a great time to check out the many facilities which are all open for inspection. We checked out the health and beauty salons where you can get your hair done or have a massage or work out in the extensive gym. We entered a draw to win a spa treatment. At the draw my wife won a $100 coupon towards a treatment and she used it later to get a stone massage.

You can get a stone massage on the ship.
You can get a stone massage on the ship.

We also confirmed our dinner reservations and at 5:30 went for dinner where we met our dining companions for the trip, a couple from Melbourne and their 13 year old son. We also met our wait staff.

Our dinner companions, Ned, Annie and Josh, were always fun to talk to and we spent an evening together at the karaoke bar as well.

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Our dinner companions and our wait staff. Left to right: Myself, Janis, Assistant Waiter Albert, Josh, Waiter Rodriguez, Ned, Head waiter Jamal, Annie

As with all cruises, there is entertainment every night in the theatre. The MC is usually the Cruise Director for the trip. Ours was a fellow from mainland China who went by the name of Fang. He started by introducing some interesting facts and figures about the makeup of guests and crew. There were guests from 53 different countries and crew from 43.

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Looking down at some of the swimming pools and hot tubs on the ship.

He started by saying, “There is one guest from each of the following countries…” and listed them by name – around twenty or so. Then he went on to list the countries which had two guests aboard. And then three and so on. The top five were Singapore and the United States with about 200 guests from each, Great Britain with around 500, China with about 500 and Australia with over a thousand people. Total was around 3300.

The number of guests and crew from mainland China is a good indication of how much China has changed since the rigid days of Maoism. Nobody could leave the country then. It was a veritable prison. And those caught flirting with capitalism could be shot. But here were 500 guests from China enjoying the good life.

Many cruise ships have large theatres and provide nightly shows.
Many cruise ships have large theatres and provide nightly shows.

The entertainment on this trip was below par compared to the other Royal Caribbean cruises we have been on. One of the downsides was the the usual complement of staff singers and dancers boarded the same time as us and so did not make an appearance until the last day after they had done extensive rehearsing. But the nightly talent was lack lustre as well. We enjoyed some of it, but it lacked flare.

 

There were light flares going out from the top of the stage that made it look like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty.
There were light flares going out from the top of the stage that made it look like the crown worn by the Statue of Liberty.

The first night featured an Australian male trio called La Forza. They were pretty good – sort of like the Three Tenors but they did more pop than classical music. The second night featured violinist Venus Tsai who was a finalist in China’s Got Talent. We weren’t particularly interested but popped in at the back of the audience for a few minutes part way through to check her out. She was very talented, but the audio mix was terrible. She was drowned out by the ship’s orchestra. But people who went enjoyed her very much.

The third night had Australian comedy magician Duck Cameron. I’m a huge fan of magic and looked forward to the show, but we were both disappointed. The magic was ordinary, nothing we hadn’t seen before. And the comedy was lame. The fourth night featured Australian singer Tamara Guo. She had a good voice but her presentation was horrible. She said she was suffering from a sore throat and was constantly apologizing for it. And she spent more than half of the act telling her life story instead of singing. People were walking out of the show in droves.

I didn’t save the calendars for days 5 and 6, but I believe there was no show on the fifth because we were in Phuket for two days so people could seek entertainment ashore if they wanted. Day six was an Australian comedian who was so-so. And day seven featured a production extravaganza with the ship’s singers and dancer called Center Stage. The Royal Caribbean cruises always have a very talented cast of singers and dancers and this show was no exception. An enjoyable evening.

These clowns were among the entertainers in the ice show - Ice Under the Big Top.
These clowns were among the entertainers in the ice show – Ice Under the Big Top.

But I must put in a word for the very best show on the ship. The Mariner of the Seas, like her sister ships, has an ice rink. Guests could skate during designated hours, but there was also an ice show. There were several showings and we went on the afternoon of the last day. And it was fabulous. The show, called Big Top on Ice, had a circus theme. Brilliantly coloured costumes and fabulous skating.

Some excellent skating in the ice show.
Some excellent skating in the ice show.

It so happened that Australia Day happened during the cruise and with such a large contingent of Aussies aboard, the ship celebrated as well.

Fruit carved for Australia Day!
Fruit and decorations for Australia Day!

On the last day we also took advantage of an opportunity to tour the ship’s galley for a nominal charge. This tour included a complementary Royal Caribbean Recipe Book and a champagne lunch. The book alone was worth the money.  And the behind-the-scenes look at the galley was very interesting. They churn out a lot of meals with three decks of fine dining restaurant as well as an almost constantly open serve yourself buffet style restaurant, the Windjammer.

One of the chefs preparing chickens for dinner.
One of the chefs preparing chickens for dinner.

Of course, there were a lot of amenities we did not take advantage of – basketball courts, miniature golf, rock climbing and so on. But we did use the swimming pools a lot.

Miniature golf was one of many amenities on the Mariner of the Seas.
Miniature golf was one of many amenities on the Mariner of the Seas.

One of the great pleasure of each Royal Caribbean cruise is the singing waiters and chefs. Once and sometimes twice on a cruise, the wait staff will march around the room waving white towels as they congregate on the staircase. Then the head of the dining department gives a little speech praising their work and they then sing for their guests. We had our wait staff entertain us twice this cruise and it was great fun.

I’ve written about our ports of call already but here are links to my blog posts on each in case you missed them. Note that some have links at the end of the articles to additional photo galleries.

All in all, this was a interesting and exciting cruise. Not the best cruise we have been on, but memorable all the same.




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The Sea Caves, Phang Nga Bay, Thailand




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James Bond fans may remember 1974’s The Man With the Golden Gun, starring Roger Moore as 007. Not one of the best Bond films, but memorable in part for the spectacular scenery of Phang Nga Bay in Thailand which served as the setting for villain Scaramanga’s hideout.

The movie drew attention to the area and put pressure on Thai authorities to preserve this natural beauty. In 1981, much of the area was designated as Ao Phang Nga National Park, including the many islands in the area. It has become a major eco-tourism destination.

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The archipelago at Phang Nga Bay is breathtaking in its beauty.

On our second day in Phuket we booked an excursion to explore sea caves in the area. We boarded a bus near the pier in Patong Bay for the hour long drive to Laem Sai Pier at the northern end of the island. There we boarded a motor launch for the hour boat cruise to Hong Island and the surrounding area.

A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.
A tour boat similar to the one we were on. There were quite a few on the bay. Eco-tourism is a booming business here.

The scenery was, indeed, like that in the Bond movie. Spectacular islands densely covered in vegetation with deep pitting in the exposed limestone, particularly at sea level.

Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.
Eroded limestone created some spectacular hongs or sea caves.

We dropped anchor offshore from one of the islands and a myriad of small three person canoes were launched – two tourists and a guide in each. Janis and I and our guide followed some other craft into a cave and out the other end into a sheltered area surrounded by steep cliffs, limestone rock formations and lush greenery.

We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side.
We entered a sea cave and our guide steered us through to the other side. Some of the rock formations looked like dollops of melting ice cream.

An island near the end of the channel looked much like the island in the movie that had the solar power unit atop it, though it was not the actual island. One of the other excursions did go to that island, now actually called James Bond Island.

This tall pinnacle is similar to the one in Man With the Golden Gun.

We paddled around, occasionally drifting in to shore to see the rock formations up close and on one occasion, we lay back as our guide paddled us into a deep low-hanging cave and back again.

Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.
Inside a sea cave illuminated by the flash. We had to lie back to make our way under the low hanging rock face.

The entire area was spectacular – stunningly beautiful with streaks of red sandstone interspersed with grey and yellow limestones.

Steeaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands' natural beauty.
Streaks of red in the limestone cliffs accentuate the islands’ natural beauty.

We paddled around taking in the scenery for a good half hour before paddling around an outcrop and back to our ship.

We were allowed to swim in the bay, so I gave Janis the camera and went over the side, swimming behind our kayak to the mother ship. The water was very warm.

Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.
Yours truly taking a swim in Phang Nga Bay.

Once aboard, we tootled off towards another island – destination: the bat cave. Not that batcave! No Batman and Robin in sight. But we once again took to the canoes and went into a much deeper cave system. Here we entered total darkness, only the guides’ flashlights providing illumination. We saw dozens of bats hanging upside from the ceiling as we paddled deeper into the cave, then we turned around and paddled back. Unfortunately it was too dark for my camera to take pictures.

Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn't want to scare the bats.
Inside the bat cave looking back to the entrance. We saw many bats in the cave, but it was too dark for the camera without a flash and I didn’t want to scare the bats.

From there we headed off to another island, the crew serving us a very tasty lunch along the way. At Lawi Island we dropped anchor again and were able to go ashore to a nice beach. Janis took a canoe but I just jumped in and swam ashore. We enjoyed a pleasant swim and soaked up the sun for an hour and then back to the boat again.

The beach where we stopped for an hour.
The beach where we stopped for an hour.

Back on Phuket Island we took the long bus ride back to Patong, stopping at a cashew stand that I’m sure must give kick-backs to tour operators because almost every excursion available included a visit to the “cashew factory”. It was not a factory. It was a shop. I don’t know if these additional stops add anything of value to a tour. I could have done without it.  But some people were buying so I guess it pays off for them.

The sea cave adventure was by far our favourite excursion on our cruise – and the most expensive at US$149 a person. Sometimes spending a little more pays off in a big way.

At 5:30 PM the cruise ship weighed anchor and we headed off back to Singapore. All in all, a great end to our voyage. You’ll find additional photos of our sea cave adventure linked below.

I’ll be adding an overview of our cruise as a whole next, with links to all ports of call and our extended visit to Singapore. Stay tuned!

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Photo Gallery: Sea Caves at Phang Nga Bay, Thailand




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Here are some more pictures from our sea cave adventure.

As we left the dock, we passed this vintage ship which looked alot like the one Scaramanga used to escape in The Man With the Golden Gun.
As we left the dock, we passed this vintage ship which looked a lot like the one Scaramanga used to escape in The Man With the Golden Gun.
Most of the islands featured steep tree covered cliffs with eroded limestone near the bottom.
Most of the islands featured steep tree covered cliffs with eroded limestone near the bottom.
Sometimes there were patches of eroded limestone higher up the rock faces.
Sometimes there were patches of eroded limestone higher up the rock faces.
Entering a sea cave.
Entering a sea cave. This one went right through the island to the other side.
Big glops of rock dripping down from the ceiling of the cave.
Big glops of rock dripping down from the ceiling of the cave.
The scene that awaited us after we went through the cave to the other side.
The scene that awaited us after we went through the cave to the other side.
This long boat with tourists disturbed the quiet of the location with its noisy outboard.
This long boat with tourists disturbed the quiet of the location with its noisy outboard.

Steep cliffs streaked with red limestone.
Steep cliffs streaked with red limestone.
Interesting rock formations everywhere.
Interesting rock formations everywhere.
We came across a couple of wild chickens as we explored the archipelago.
We came across a couple of wild chickens as we explored the archipelago.
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Back aboard, we bid adieu to this amazing landscape as we headed for a bat cave.
Entering the bat cave.
Entering the bat cave.
We passed a few fishermen on our trip.
We passed a few fishermen on our trip.
The crew served a delicious lunch along the way.
The crew served a delicious lunch along the way.
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The beach where we stopped for a swim.
Janis and I - happy travellers!
Janis and I – happy travellers!

 




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Phuket, Thailand – Sunshine, Shopping and Sleaze




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Note: some of this travelogue includes discussion of the sex trade in Thailand. If that may offend you, after the picture of the masseuses, skip to three paragraphs past the picture of Patong at night. 

Our fourth port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Phuket, Thailand. Our ship anchored out in Patong Bay for two days giving us ample opportunity to explore on our own and to take an excursion or two if we wanted. We opted to explore on our own the first day and take an excursion the second day. I’ll write about that, a motorboat and canoe adventure in Phang Nga National Park in another post. Today I’ll look at the town of Patong, the largest on Phuket Island.

The Mariner of the Seas at anchor in Patong bay.
The Mariner of the Seas at Anchor in Patong bay.

Because we were anchored in the bay, access to the city was by motor launch – a regular ferry service from ship to shore and back that ran every fifteen minutes to half an hour, depending on the time of day. We stayed on the ship for breakfast and avoided the crush of people leaving the ship by waiting until noon to go.

The beautiful beach at Patong Bay, Phuket, Thailand.
The beautiful beach at Patong Bay,Phuket, Thailand.

The shuttle craft took us to a long pier at one end of the fabulous beach at Patong Bay. We walked up the pier where hawkers were promoting various tours and activities. Moving along the sidewalk, we saw many small mini-cabs and three wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks, sort of a motorized rickshaw.

The busy thoroughfare that parallels the beach. Lots of scooters and motorcycles as well as small open air taxis.
The busy thoroughfare that parallels the beach. Lots of scooters and motorcycles as well as small open air taxis like this yellow one.

Patong Bay was heavily damaged by the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004. Around 250 people were killed on Phuket, including tourists. But today the town of Patong has largely recovered, though we did see some new construction along the busy street that borders the beach.

The beach itself is fabulous. We left the sidewalk for a while, took off our shoes and walked along the beach before heading inland. Along the shore near the pier were many long-tailed boats for hire, as well as a lot jet ski rentals. The long-tailed boat is a common in Southeast Asia. It consists of a wide canoe like body with an upswept bow and powered by an old automobile engine connected to a propeller by a long shaft.

Long-tailed boats for hire wait for customers along the beach at Patong.
Long-tailed boats for hire wait for customers along the beach at Patong.

Patong is a major tourist center and many western fast food brands were apparent including a MacDonald’s and a Burger King along the shore road. Inland a bit we later came across a Hard Rock Cafe as well as  Starbucks.

One of the first things we noticed as we walked was the huge tangle of wires between power poles. Throughout the town – wires, wires, wires. More wires than you could shake a stick at. Some of them were hanging quite low. We wondered if all of them were live, and if so, how the heck would a repair guy find the right one if there were a power problem.

Unfathomable tangles of wires are everywhere in Patong, and indeed throughout Phuket.
Unfathomable tangles of wires are everywhere in Patong, and indeed throughout Phuket. Note the tsunami evacuation route sign. Patong was heavily damaged by the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami.

In any event, we wanted to find a shopping area so we thought we would head towards some tall buildings we saw not far inland. Walking along we came across endless numbers of small shops and a great many massage parlours, the masseuses sitting outside in uniforms that looked much like flight attendant uniforms.

Masseuses in their blue and white uniforms wait for customers outside their business.
Masseuses in their blue and white uniforms wait for customers outside their business.

We had heard about how prevalent prostitution was in Thailand, including child prostitution. We wondered if these massage parlour were all fronts for prostitution. Fortunately none of the ladies sitting curbside looked underage. They all looked to be in their late twenties to mid-thirties.

But the number of massage parlours was astounding. A dozen or more along a single street. There was one huge massage parlour the size of a small mall. It’s called the Christin Massage and is the largest “soapy massage” parlour in Phuket. Not sure what a soapy massage is? Neither was I until I googled it.

The Christin Massage Parlour in Patoing is huge.
The Christin Massage Parlour in Patong (the pink building) is huge. A little research online revealed that this place specializes in “soapy massage” and is the largest in Phuket.

One of the excursions available to us was described as a Sightseeing and Cabaret Extravaganza, which ended a day of sightseeing and shopping with a visit to “Asia’s biggest transvestite cabaret show performed by the famous lady boys of Simon Cabaret”. So we had an opportunity to explore the seamier side of Patong but we opted to stay on the ship in the evening. But we did take in the view of the town at night from the ship and were amazed by a giant LED screen that looked like it may have been the size of some of the signs on Times Square in New York.

Giant LED screen in the Patong night time skyline.
Giant LED screen in the Patong night time skyline.

Our dinner companions and their thirteen year old son did decide to explore the town after dark. They later told us that there were bandits in motorboats who would drive up close to the dock as people were heading to shore and snatch a purse if they could and then speed off. But they were particularly appalled that some of the sidewalk masseuses pawed at and propositioned their son.

The night before we had discussed our upcoming port of call at dinner and one of our companions asked if we had heard about the ping pong shows. We had not, but I remembered a few years ago a couple of strippers in Vancouver calling themselves the Chiclets achieved some notoriety in the press for an indecent show involving ping pong balls. A search online confirmed that the ping pong shows were exactly that. I won’t go into detail but you can follow the link if you must.

Much of this sordidness is officially illegal in Thailand, but the authorities tolerate it. Their relaxed attitude to such things appeals to me politically as a libertarian, but it is decidedly not a place for a family vacation, though there are many private gated resorts that are family friendly in the area.

But back to our daytime exploration. Besides massage parlours, the leading industry seemed to be medicine. Notably dentistry. We saw many many ads for and offices of dentists, way more than a small town could possibly need. We also passed a large office promoting plastic surgery. Medical tourism seems to be big here as well. And there were a fair number of tattoo parlours.

JungCeylon Shopping Mall
JungCeylon Shopping Mall

In any event, we wandered uptown until we came to an ultra-modern shopping mall called JungCeylon. It featured many western shops including The Gap as well as more localized offerings. There were a few booths promoting condo developments. One of them, Citygate, offered condos from US$64,000 which the company will rent out for you when not using it, promising a seven percent return.

Inside the JungCeylon Mall - three floors of shopping.
Inside the JungCeylon Mall – three floors of shopping.

After exploring the mall and savoring a coffee at Starbucks, we headed back down another street and came across a great many sidewalk souvenir shops catering to tourists. And more massage parlours. And a Hard Rock Cafe. After an entertaining day walking around Patong we headed back to the ship for the night.

One of many sidewalk shopping malls in Patong.
One of many sidewalk shopping malls in Patong.

The next day we were set to explore some sea caves by canoe. That would turn out to be one of the highlights of our trip and I’ll tell you about that in the next post!

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Photo Gallery: Patong, Thailand

Here are some additional photos taken in Patong, Phuket, Thailand.

Along the Patong Beach. Longboats waiting for customers.
Along the Patong Beach. Longboats waiting for customers. Lots of nice villas abound in the hillsides surrounding the town of Patong.
A Thai long-tailed boat.
A Thai long-tailed boat.

 

Tangles of wire along the busy street.
Tangles of wire along the busy street. Many western restaurants like MacDonald’s are here and many of the signs are in English as well as Thai.
A couple of tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws. These have been adapted as ice cream trucks.
A couple of tuk-tuks, motorized rickshaws. These have been adapted as ice cream trucks.
The JungCeylon Mall was decked out for Chinese New Year when we were there.
The JungCeylon Mall was decked out for Chinese New Year when we were there.
A replica of a Chinese junk and a pool and fountain were some of the features in the mall's open air courtyard.
A replica of a Chinese junk and a pool and fountain were some of the features in the mall’s open air courtyard.
Looking back across the plaza at JungCeylon Mall.
Looking back across the plaza at JungCeylon Mall.
Despite its suggestive name, the Sleep With Me Hotel is a legitimate four star hotel, not a rent by the hour joint.
Despite its suggestive name, the Sleep With Me Hotel is a legitimate four star hotel, not a rent by the hour joint.
Sidewalk malls selling tourist souvenirs are common in Patong.
Sidewalk malls selling tourist souvenirs are common in Patong.
You'll find popular western restaurants and hotels like the Hard Rock here as well. I had a burger at the Hard Rock in Singapore and it was one of the best burgers I ever had.
You’ll find popular western restaurants and hotels like the Hard Rock are here as well. I had a burger at the Hard Rock in Singapore and it was one of the best burgers I ever had.
Tangles of wire and masseuses - two common sights in Patong.
Tangles of wire and masseuses – two common sights in Patong.
Christin Massage - the largest massage parlour in Phuket.
Christin Massage – the largest massage parlour in Phuket.
A couple of open air cabs.
A couple of open air cabs.
I thought this broom seller was kind of interesting.
I thought this broom seller was kind of interesting.
Eleven years after the Boxing Day tsynami of 2004, there are still buildings being replaced in Patong.
Eleven years after the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, there are still buildings being replaced in Patong.
Once again, the Patong bay Beach with the Mariner of the Seas at anchor in the distance.
Once again, the Patong bay Beach with the Mariner of the Seas at anchor in the distance.

 

Port of Call: Langkawi, Malaysia




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The third port of call on our Southeast Asia cruise was Langkawi, an island at the northern end of Malaysia near its border with Thailand. The ship docked at the Star Cruise Jetty, the southernmost tip of the island.

The Star Cruise Jetty where our ship docked.
The Star Cruise Jetty where our ship docked.

We had seven excursions to choose from and, unfortunately, we happened to pick the worst one. It was promoted as an Island Overview. “you’ll visit a functioning rubber estate,” it read, as well as see “working paddy fields with buffaloes”, “quaint Malay Kampungs” and the “Mausoleum of the Martyred Princess”.  It sounded good. But it was more a dreary bus ride than anything. Luckily, the tour ended early enough for us to explore a bit on our own, saving the day.

Our bus took us inland to the rubber plantation where we stopped for ten minutes to watch a guy tap a rubber tree. Now this is interesting in itself. The tapper takes a sharp knife and cuts a spiraling line along the trunk of the tree. This forms a route for the rubber sap to flow along and into the collecting pail.

The tapper uses a sharp blade to form a conduit for the rubber sap.
The tapper uses a sharp blade to form a conduit for the rubber sap.

But to me, visiting a working rubber estate meant more than a ten minute road stop in the middle of nowhere to watch a guy tap a tree. I expected a tour of the plantation, seeing where the pails of sap are dumped, what happens to the sap then and so on. I expected a much more detailed tour. This was just lame.

Rubber sap flows into the collection pail.
Rubber sap flows into the collection pail.

We left the rubber plantation for a drive along some open fields and to the Mausoleum of the Martyred Princess. This was an interesting stop as we saw native entertainers doing traditional music, as well as some with a more contemporary repertoire.

Woman playing a native drum.
Woman playing a native drum.

We learned about the legend of Mahsuri. Her husband was away at war and a wandering poet received permission to visit and teach her the art of poetry. She became a popular hostess. A sister-in-law, jealous of her popularity, spread scandalous stories, and when her son was born, she accused Mahsuri of adultery. The slanderous lies were believed and Mahsuri and the poet were both condemned to death. She was tied to a tree and stabbed to death with sacred knife. White blood flowed signifying her innocence as she cursed the island to seven years bad luck.

The Mahsuri memorial site also has a reproduction of a Malay Kampung village. There were several buildings which you could enter and explore, all of them elevated on posts. One was a replica of a house similar to the one Mahsuri and her husband shared.

Reproduction of the native Malay house that Mahsuri lived in. These homes are on stilts because of occasional flooding.
Reprodution of the native Malay house that Mahsuri lived in. These homes are on stilts because of occasional flooding.

Behind this tourist area were large rice fields. We did not actually visit a rice paddy as such. We could see them out the bus window as we went along. And buffaloes were few and far between. The drive through the paddy area took us back to a major highway and we headed for the ferry terminal.

Large rice paddies.
Large rice paddies.

The ferry terminal is also a large shopping plaza, with some of the shops duty free. Nearby was Eagle Park, which we decided not to visit. We browsed through a few shops and found a Starbucks where we had a drink.

Eagle park. There are many wild eagles on and around Langkawi.
Eagle park. There are many wild eagles on and around Langkawi.

After the ferry terminal, the bus made one more stop – at a roadside stand that sold naturopathic medicines made from sea slugs. I don’t know why tours include such things. A later tour in Phuket had us stop at a cashew vending place. I strongly suspect that these businesses give kickbacks to the tour operators. In any event, it was lame – a boring waste of time, though some people bought some of the medicines, none of which had English labelling or instructions. Go figure.

The bus finally took us back to the ship and it was early enough for us to explore for a couple of hours on our own. There is a beautiful boardwalk near the jetty which passes a resort with some nice restaurants. We strolled along here taking in the sights and came to a small village.

Boardwalk at the jetty. An enjoyable walk.
Boardwalk at the jetty. An enjoyable walk. Our cruise ship is in the background.

The village had a lot of long boats on the beach. The boats were for hire but a bit pricey for just two of us. A group of four or more would have made this economical. One of the excursions we didn’t take was called island hopping. It had a tour on one of these long boats to various places along the way  including a stop for a swim on a sandy beach.

A village near the jetty. Many Malay long boats were docked here.
A village near the jetty. Many Malay long boats were docked here.

The tour was called Island Hopping because Langkawi is surrounded by many small islands including ones with mangroves. Mangrove trees grow in salt as well as fresh water and many of the islands are submerged at high tide. Our guide told us that Langkawi did not suffer much damage in the tsunami of 2004 because these islands took the brunt of the force.

Some of the long boats, like this one, were fishing boats. You can see the myriad islands in the background.
Some of the long boats, like this one, were fishing boats. You can see the myriad islands in the background.

After a walk through the village we went back to the boardwalk and spent our remaining ringgits on a couple of drinks. Then back to the ship.

Here’s a suggestion for Royal Caribbean, and any other cruise ships that include the Island Overview tour – take it off your available list of excursions. It sucks the big one. I asked a few others on the tour and they also thought it a waste of time and money.

But there was one good thing came out of it. Our next stop was a two day layover at Patong Bay in Phuket. We decided to splurge on one of the more expensive excursions and that turned out to be our best experience of the cruise.

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The Temple of 10,000 Buddhas – Penang, Malaysia




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The second port of call on our Taste of Southeast Asia cruise was Penang. More specifically, the city of George Town on the island of Penang. We opted for one of the ten excursions offered, a trip to the Kek Lok Si Temple, sometimes known as the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, which is the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia.

The Kek Lok Si Temple has many buildings and sits at the base of Air Itam Mountain on the outskirts of George Town.
The Kek Lok Si Temple has many buildings and sits on the lower slope of Air Itam Mountain on the outskirts of George Town.

We assembled in the ship’s theatre in the morning and disembarked as a group to catch a bus for the half hour drive through narrow residential streets until we finally got there. Our first impression of the city was that it was not as wealthy as Kuala Lumpur. Our bus took a route through a poorer section of town. But the city is fairly modern with a bustling downtown as well.

We found a long row of Buddhas in the parking lot and looked up to see the temple rising high above us. They could have called it the Temple of 10,000 steps because we then started a long climb to the top and it sure seemed like it!

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Parking lot Buddhas at the Temple of 10,000 Buddhas.

The walk took us through rows of market stalls at the beginning selling souvenirs and other goods. We then emerged at the turtle pond. Buddhists give turtles to their temples to ensure long life, but you have to feel sorry for the turtles. They appear vastly over-crowded. Sometimes they seemed to be crawling all over each other.

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Tunnel of market stalls on the way to the temple grounds.

Another hallway with more shops took us past the restrooms. Okay – if you’re going to visit this temple (or any other older tourist site in Malaysia), you should know about the unsanitary washroom conditions. They don’t use toilet paper.

The toilets usually are squat toilets with maybe one or two western style toilets, but no toilet paper. In the temple washrooms, each stall had a tap on the floor with a hose attached. The idea is you turn on the tap and spray down your butt instead of using TP. We had a previous experience and my wife carried a roll of toilet paper in her purse – a very good idea. Also, the washrooms have no paper towels or anything to wipe your hands after washing them. Frankly, by western standards, the toilets are gross. Be forewarned and carry TP with you. Maybe even a paper towel or two.

This hallway finally took us out to the temple itself, which is a large number of buildings of various designs, some of them exquisite in their beauty. One of the main attractions is the beautiful Pagoda of Rama VI, a seven story structure which apparently has 10,000 alabaster Buddhas inside. We did not have access to this building but only saw its exterior, which is magnificent. Interestingly, the pagoda was built in stages and has three different architectural styles. The lower third is in Chinese style. The middle third is Thai, and the top third is Burmese.

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The Pagoda of Rama VI with its three different architectural styles.

Along the way we encountered something we thought a bit unusual – a very lovely elegantly dressed Chinese girl posing for photographers. Some magazine or ad agency was conducting a photo shoot and we came across a half dozen models throughout the temple, cameramen in tow. We thought it an odd location for a fashion shoot.

A fashion model poses for photographers. There were around a half dozen spread around the complex.
A fashion model poses for photographers. There were around a half dozen spread around the complex.

We wandered through some exterior hallways festooned with lanterns for Chinese new year and on to another building. All the while we passed through beautiful gardens, rich with blooms and greenery.

Janis along a lush garden path at the temple complex.
Janis along a lush garden path at the temple complex.

We entered a courtyard which featured another long row of Buddhas. Each had a swastika on its chest. The swastika (svastika in Sanscrit) is an ancient symbol of good luck that has been used since the Second Century. It is widely used in eastern religions. Unfortunately it fell into disrepute when it was adopted by the Nazis. The Buddhist swastikas at the temple has arms trailing to the left whereas the Nazi swastika’s arms trail right.

Buddhas with swastikas on their chests. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol.
Buddhas with swastikas on their chests. The swastika is an ancient religious symbol.

Past the garden we walked a round another open air temple and then back through some passages to another building with three large Buddhas and then another with one large Buddha and some figures of warriors, all in glass cases. Finally a long set of hallways through yet more shops took us to a funicular tram to take us to the top level.

Three large Buddhas.
Three large Buddhas.

We exited the tram through yet another gift shop out to a parking lot. So there must have been a road leading there. We noticed something unusual as we emerged, a row of small statues lining the parking lot that resembled, of all things, Disney and other cartoon characters. There was Minnie Mouse, Donald Duck and Porky Pig among others. Whether these characters are revered by Buddhists is a mystery to me. I tried to look it up on the Internet and found no explanation.

Statues of Disney and other cartoon characters. Revered by Buddhists?
Statues of Disney and other cartoon characters. Revered by Buddhists?

This upper level formed the base for a 99 foot high bronze statue of Guanyin, the Goddess of Mercy. The pagoda surrounding it was built after the statue and there was some scaffolding on one side as work was still being done on it. On either side of the pagoda there were tall bronze statues of warriors.

The bronze statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.
The bronze statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.

Our guide told us the statue of the goddess cost around $8 million to build. My wife and I wondered why they couldn’t have sprung $100,000 out of that to build some decent washrooms!

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Looking down on the monastery buildings, the funicular tram and the city in the distance.

We wandered around this top level for a while, taking in yet another temple and a large fish pond well stocked with goldfish or koi. And some interesting park benches, one in the shape of a weiner dog. My friend Squire Barnes as well as Gary Larson would love this!

Yours truly and the weiner dog bench!
Yours truly and the weiner dog bench!

Finally it was back through the gift shop and the maze of trails back to the bus. We had an enjoyable visit despite the crappy washrooms. The bus took us back to town where we had lunch at a food court (New World Park) specializing in Asian dishes. We weren’t particularly hungry and were pleased to find a Starbucks nearby. After a short stay, it was back to the ship.

Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia.
Fort Cornwallis is the largest fort in Malaysia.

While we enjoyed our visit to the temple, cruisers who opted to explore on their own would find an old fort near by – Fort Cornwallis – the largest standing fort in Malaysia and open to visitors. There are other attractions nearby including the Queen Victoria clock tower. And it is a short walk to the bustling city itself.

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Photo Gallery: Temple of 10,000 Buddhas, Penang, Malaysia




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Here are some additional photos of the Kek Lok Si Temple in Penang.

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The Kek Lok Si Temple with its many buildings and structures.
The turtle pond. Every Buddhist temple has a turtle pond. People donate turtles to the temple to bless themselves with long life.
The turtle pond. Every Buddhist temple has a turtle pond. People donate turtles to the temple to bless themselves with long life.
Unfortunately, many of these ponds are overcrowded. Not a particularly pleasant place for our shelled friends.
Unfortunately, many of these ponds are overcrowded. Not a particularly pleasant place for our shelled friends.
The Pagoda of Rama VI
The Pagoda of Rama VI
Navigating a passageway bedecked with lanterns for Chinese New Year.
Navigating a passageway bedecked with lanterns for Chinese New Year.
Elegant fashion model on a photo shoot at the temple. There were a half dozen models with photographers in tow scattered throughout.
Elegant fashion model on a photo shoot at the temple. There were a half dozen models with photographers in tow scattered throughout.
Long line of Buddhas. Each was sporting a swastika, an ancient Buddhist symbol, on its chest.
Long line of Buddhas. Each was sporting a swastika, an ancient Buddhist symbol, on its chest.
Looking out over the city from one of the pagodas.
Looking out over the city from one of the pagodas.
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Two large statues, a musician and a warrior, in a large glass case.
One of the beautiful pagodas.
One of the beautiful pagodas.
Incense pots in front of one of the many temples in the complex.
Incense pots in front of one of the many temples in the complex.
The funicular tram leading to the upper plaza.
The funicular tram leading to the upper plaza.
Odd little statue of Minnie Mouse on the upper plaza.
Odd little statue of Minnie Mouse on the upper plaza.
Janis and some statues of cartoon characters and Buddhas.
Janis and some statues of cartoon characters and Buddhas.
A pagoda tower surrounded by a pool.
A pagoda tower surrounded by a pool.
The statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.
The statue of Guanyin, Goddess of Mercy.
One of the smaller warrior statues on either side of the Goddess of Mercy
One of the smaller warrior statues on either side of the Goddess of Mercy
The souvenir shop at the upper plaza with a giant figure above it.
The souvenir shop at the upper plaza with a giant figure behind it.
Another exotic model posing for pictures.
Another exotic model posing for pictures.
Overlooking the funicular tram and some monastery buildings.
Overlooking the funicular tram and some monastery buildings.
And we leave you with these sleepy heads. After a long tour through the temple, you may want a nap too!
And we leave you with these sleepy heads. After a long tour through the temple, you may want a nap too!

 




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Sentosa Island – Singapore’s Playground




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On our second full day in Singapore we decided to visit Sentosa Island. We had heard a lot about it as a must-see destination. We weren’t sure what to expect. The description we found on the Internet made it sound like a large amusement park. It is that, but a lot more besides. So hopefully our experience will give prospective visitors an idea of what they will find.

We made our way to Chinatown where we boarded the subway, the Purple Line to HarbourFront Station. Exiting the subway, you find yourself in a large shopping mall. There are a lot of them in Singapore!

Our online search led us to believe that the island was accessible by another train, the Sentosa Express. It is, but there is also a covered boardwalk across to the island as well as a cable car ride. We opted to save money and walk to the island. A very pleasant walk. It takes about ten to fifteen minutes to walk across.

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Metal scultures of a couple of jazz players part way across the boardwalk bridge to Sentosa Island. The picture looks back towards the Harbour Front station and mall. Cable cars in the background.

On the other side we found a ticket centre and looked over the various options. In retrospect you should know that you can visit many of Sentosa’s attractions without charge. If you just want to spend the day walking round and taking in the sights, you can do that. There is a lot to see and the island is easy to walk around. There are lots of plazas, trails, gardens, beaches and restaurants.

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There is a lot of greenery on Sentosa Island and lots of trails to walk.

But the island also has lots of paid attractions and you have an option of ticket packages at different prices. A $79 pass give you admission to twenty attractions. You can also get a five attraction pass for $59 and a 3 attraction pass for $44. Universal Studios also has a presence on the island and there is a waterpark with a dolphin exhibit. None are included in the passes and must be paid for separately. But there were premium passes that included the waterpark and the cable cars. Three attractions for $79.

We figured we never could visit all twenty attractions so we bought a five attraction pass. We had no interest in Universal Studios since we had seen the ones in California and Florida already. In the end, we only used four of our attractions but they were good ones. Some were must-see in our opinion.

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One of several fountains and plazas on Sentosa Island. There are lots of shops and restaurants as well.

We walked through a few plazas and up to the Merlion, a feature attraction and the symbol of Singapore. A merlion is exactly what it sounds like – not a mermaid or a merman, but a merlion – head of a lion with the body of a fish. The Merlion stands 37 meters tall or around 120 feet. It is one of the twenty attractions so you can use your ticket to go up to the top for a view of the island. We were content to see it from below and did not go up.

The Merlion, symbol of Singapore.
The Merlion, symbol of Singapore.

We looked at the map we had of the island and decided a cable car ride would give us a nice overview. Our tickets gave us a discount on cable car tickets and we bought all day passes for $24 each. There are two cable car rides – one goes across the island from the Merlion Plaza to Siloso Point.  The other goes from Sentosa Station to the Harbour Front complex and on to Faber Peak on the main island of Singapore.

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Singapore is in the background in this shot from the cable car. Sentosa Island, despite all the attractions, plazas, hotels, shops and restaurants, remains heavily wooded.

We took the cable car across to Siloso Point and disembarked. Nearby was the Shangri-la Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa, one of several hotels on the island. Also close by was Fort Siloso, one of the attraction we could visit but which we declined. It’s an old fort and museum and has a laser tag park. Instead we walked down to the nearby Siloso Beach.

The beaches have beautiful, white sand and there is no charge to use them. You can swim or sunbathe but bring suntan lotion. It is hot in Singapore and sunscreen is a must for the beach.

There are a few small islands across from the beach, one of which has a bridge to it. We walked across and watched some zip liners coming in from across the water. Zip lining is an additional cost, although our tickets did include a Parajump at the Megazip Lookout. We never got around to checking it out.

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A zip liner comes in for a landing on a small island off Sentosa Beach.

We walked along the beach a way and came across the Wave House. This is a wave riding facility. Our ticket included one try and though I had my swimsuit and was tempted, decided not to as one try would not last long. Better to pay for a fixed time period so you can actually get the hang of doing it.

Wannabe surfer trie out the Flo-rider wave machine on Sentosa Island.
Wannabe surfer tries out the Flo-rider wave machine on Sentosa Island.

We continued along the shore trail and passed the Skyline Luge. This was included in our ticket and it looked like fun so this was our first use of our tickets. The luge is a gravity operated go-kart with handlebars for steering and braking. We took a chairlift up and then raced down the concrete course. It was a blast!

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Janis passes me on a curve on the Skyline Luge ride. You can get up a pretty good speed on these things. The company has five locations worldwide including one in Mont Tremblant, Quebec, Canada.

After that we stopped for a light lunch and a couple of margaritas. Yum! Walking along further we saw people riding along on Segways. This was included as an option on our ticket but counted as two rides. We opted out.

Next we came to iFly Singapore – a simulated skydiving experience. Big fans under a grid generate enough wind to keep a person airborne. This cost extra but looked like a lot of fun and a good way to experience skydiving without risking going splat on the ground if your chute fails. Some experienced staffers demonstrated significant skill doing flips and rolls. We didn’t do it, but it or real skydiving is on my bucket list!

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Skydiving in a wind tunnel at iFly Singapore. Looks like fun! A bit pricey though.

We next found the location for an evening show we had decided to use our tickets for. A light show called Wings of Time. Our tickets gave us access to a grandstand on the beach where you could get a good view. We reserved for the 7:40 PM show. It was mid-afternoon and we had a lot of time so we headed back up to the Merlion, The walk took us along a long artificial waterway made of mozaic tiles. It looked like it was designed by Antoni Gaudi, the flamboyant Spanish architect. Very reminiscent of Gaudi Park in Barcelona.

Janis beside the mozaic waterway. Looks like something from Gaudi's Parc Guell in Barcelona.
Janis beside the mozaic waterway. Looks like something from Gaudi’s Parc Guell in Barcelona.

At the Merlion we boarded the cable car again and headed for the Tiger Sky Tower (sponsored by Tiger Beer). This was the third attraction on our tickets we would use. The revolving ride up gave us a panoramic view of the entire island and the city in the distance.

One of the options on our tickets was the S.E.A. Aquarium. We had enough time to do that and dinner before the evening light show, so we headed over there. The aquarium is world class. One of the best aquariums I have visited. The size and scope is enormous.

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Giant ray at the S.E.A. Aquarium in Singapore

The variety of ocean life on display is terrific. There was one tank that had a side open for viewing as large as an IMAX movie screen. It was immense and we watched schooling fish as well as numerous rays swimming by. There was a walkway to another part of the same aquarium where you walked underneath the passing rays. Marvellous!

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Many colourful tropical fish and corals were on display.

Near the end of the tour we came across something quite unexpected. The above ground dolphin show, which I believe you have to pay extra for, had an underwater viewing window. We arrived just in time to see some of the dolphin show from a different vantage point. I managed to get a greatr video of five dolphins breaching the water and re-entering again – twice!

I took so many pictures but can only put in one or two here. I’ve posted a separate gallery of pics for you. The aquarium is a must-see attraction in my opinion.

The aquarium tour took an hour and a half and we still had time for dinner so we headed for the Hard Rock Cafe. I had a burger and Janis had Nasi Goreng. The food was delicious.

After dinner we still had some time before the show so we hopped on the other cable car, the one to the main island. We didn’t realize that the first stop was not the terminus and the cable car continued on to Faber Peak. Here we discovered a hidden treasure.

On the stops, the cable cars bunch close together as they go through the station and we noticed one of the adjacent cars had a couple with a table between them eating dinner. When we pulled into the Faber Peak station, a waiter came and took their dishes and another waiter brought the next course and they continued on their way, dining in the sky. I quickly inquired of a platform attendant how one might order food for the tram ride. She said you had to book a reservation.

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Faber Peak – terminus of the cable car ride from Sentosa Island and home of Spuds and Aprons, a restaurant that will serve you dinner on the tram. A terrific idea for Valentine’s Day.

If we had the time and money and were in Singapore longer we would have taken advantage of it, but alas, we could not. But the idea of having a four course dinner as you ride around on a cable car is more than a little romantic. What a Valentine’s treat that would be. The restaurant has the unlikely name of Spuds and Aprons.  $288 per couple for a four course meal. Or you can have a less expensive rendez-vous for $59 a person.

We left the cable car after its half hour round trip journey to walk back to the locale for the Wings of Time show.

I’ve seen light shows, laser light shows, water fountain shows, fireworks displays and shows with blasts of fire. This one has them all. A tour de force. It starts with a couple of young teens, a boy and a girl running long the beach lip-syncing speeches coming from the P.A. system. They disappear off to the left and a short time later, a set of eight wooden triangles and a kite-shaped piece take to life with a dazzling light show, alive with pyrotechnics, fireballs, lasers and jets of spraying water. The boy and girl reappear in a hologram with a giant bird and narrate a story about the passage of time. The story is pretty lame but the show is dazzling. This show was the second must-see attraction.

That ended our journey and we headed back. We opted for a cab ride back to the hotel which cost us around $12. All in all, a fabulous day in Singapore!




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S.E.A. Aquarium on Sentosa Island, Singapore




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A maritime museum was part of the aquarium exhibit.
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One of the features in the Maritime Museum at the aquarium was this replica of Noah’s Ark.
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Sharks swim all around us in this walkway.
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Colourful fish and corals.
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Schools of fish, sharks and rays are some of the sea life seen in this giant tank.
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A school of jellyfish.
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Here’s a close-up of one of those guys.
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A nice looking jellyfish.
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Colourful tropical fish.
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More colourful fish.
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An eel says hello.
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This creature is called an Emperor Nautilus.
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This octopus was very active.
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The underside of a large ray.
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A dolphin performing for crowds above, plunges back into the water after a mighty leap.

 




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