Sail away to the inaccessible shores and hidden cultural delights of the East

The Sino-Portuguese government building in Phuket Old Town

The Sino-Portuguese government building in Phuket Old Town

Before the age of commercial flights, sailing the oceans to far-away destinations was an adventure enjoyed and endured by only a handful of intrepid explorers and merchants. It became a voyage of discovery; travellers visited remote islands and hidden villages inaccessible to landfarers, while far-flung lands drew bounty hunters in search of lost treasures and exotic discoveries.

A banyan tree frames the Star Flyer, anchored off the white beaches of Ko Similan

A banyan tree frames the Star Flyer, anchored off the white beaches of Ko Similan

In the late 19th century, Bangkok was a popular stop-off for adventurous Europeans exploring the colonies in the Far East. Decent lodgings were few and far between, but on the banks of the Chao Phraya river was a small seamen’s lodge which today is Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok – one of the world’s most magnificent hotels. And so it was that I found myself on one of its riverside terraces, thinking about how I could relive the experiences of those intrepid travellers.

Rather than flying directly from Bangkok to Singapore, I would embark on a voyage that would involve sailing for much of my journey – exploring unspoilt, otherwise inaccessible islands off Thailand’s west coast, through the Andaman Sea and the Strait of Malacca to Singapore, under billowing white sails.

Longtails moor on a secluded beach at the foot of Ao Phang-Nga’s limestone cliffs

Longtails moor on a secluded beach at the foot of Ao Phang-Nga’s limestone cliffs

A short flight from Bangkok took me to the tropical shores of the Thai island of Phuket, where I would start the water-borne part of my journey. Dusk at Patong Bay – Phuket’s busiest and most touristy beach resort – and the island’s throbbing nightlife was already in full swing. A few days of this would leave anyone hankering for tranquillity and relaxation, and there was the perfect antidote: the ocean, and anchored in the distance, a beautiful boat with sky-high masts lit up against the starry night. My jet lag faded as though washed away by the tide. For the next eight days we were to explore uninhabited islands with pristine beaches, snorkel in open aquariums, see sights and visit shores only accessible by boat. That night we set sail for the Similan Islands, our first port of call. From my cabin I listened to the hypnotic sound of the boat’s hull cutting through the waves.

The next morning the porthole view framed the sunrise, airbrushing the skies with purple, orange, yellow and blue; undulating waves splashed so close I could almost touch them. It was worth getting up early to catch the dawn on deck. There was no one about. Just me, the morning mist and the vast open seas.

We ventured around the island in little boats, past dramatic limestone cliffs and through mysterious caves to a remote fishing village on wooden stilts

KO SIMILAN
Soon we had anchored at Ko Similan, one of the nine Similan Islands (derived from ‘Sembilan’, the Malay word for ‘nine’). Nestled some 100km off the north-west coast of Phuket and spanning 128sqkm, they offer some of the best diving in the world and are still uninhabited, except for a few Sea-Gypsy villages. Once a hotspot for dynamite fishermen and commercial trawlers, the Similan Islands are now a treasured national park, and with fishing banned, the underwater population around the reef is flourishing once again.

The Dutch colonial Christ Church in Malacca

The Dutch colonial Christ Church in Malacca

From the tender, I waded through crystal-clear waters to the beach, a secluded crescent carpeted in flour-fine sand. A distinct feature of the Similan Islands is the granite rock formations and, sitting on the rocks at the water’s edge, I watched tiny crabs scuttle between the crevices. Nearby snorkellers were being dazzled by the coral reef with its community of richly coloured and exotic marine life. Across the beach banyan trees stretched out leafy branches to provide quiet, shady nooks and hideaways – perfect for a blissful nap. After making my way through a stretch of forest to the east of the island – on the way shinning up a cliff for a breathtaking view – I took a dip in the refreshing waters under a blistering afternoon sun.

AO PHANG-NGA & KO PANYI
The veil of early morning mist faded, and on the horizon emerged mysterious rocks shaped like sea serpents. These dramatic formations are the limestone cliffs that grace Ao Phang-Nga, a national park of more than 40 islands – most recognisable of which is Ko Phing Kan, the island rock that featured in the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun and consequently is now known as ‘James Bond Island’. It’s worth clambering over the rocks if only for a quick photo opportunity.


Mangosteen fruit

Mangosteen fruit

Venturing round the bay on small inflatables, we entered a world of dense mangrove swamps and caves with stalactites and stalagmites, then onwards to an isolated fishing village, built on stilts from wood and corrugated iron at Ko Panyi. Its 2,000 residents are descendants of two seafaring Muslim families that arrived from Java some 200 years ago. A stroll through a maze of wooden alleyways gave a glimpse of simple village life in this close-knit community, where school-children were playing and laughing. A mosque dominates the skyline where breathtaking panoramic views that could command millions of dollars in property in Europe and the US are taken for granted here.

PENANG
On to the Strait of Malacca where we were to call at Penang, Malacca and Singapore, the former Straits Settlements or territories of the British East India Company. Modern piracy is a very real threat here, especially in the narrow channel between Malaysia and the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Just lately two UN-chartered ships carrying building materials to tsunami-struck Aceh were attacked by pirates. Nothing much has changed over the centuries. But somehow I was too wrapped up in the romance of sailing under the stars to worry.

First stop, Penang’s capital George Town – a melting pot of Malay, Indian, Muslim and Chinese heritage. Penang was acquired in 1786 by Captain Francis Light, an English trader in the service of the British East India Company, in exchange for protecting the Sultan of Kedah from his enemies. Penang, known as The Pearl of the Orient, was then one large dense forest, and it’s said that the Captain fired silver coins from the ship’s cannons into the jungle to spur the natives into clearing the undergrowth to make way for his camp.

George Town is best explored on the back of a trishaw (a three-wheeled rickshaw) adorned in multicoloured plastic flowers. As well as being eco-friendly, trishaws are practical for weaving in and out of crowded streets and traffic, particularly around Little India and Chinatown. Drivers have no fear and will stand their ground with oncoming vehicles five times their size. The thrill of the ride is all part of the Penang experience.

Vibrant Chinatown in Singapore

Vibrant Chinatown in Singapore

Penang is home to all kinds of temples for different religious beliefs, like the sprawling Kek Lok Si, the largest Buddhist temple in South-East Asia, and the Temple of the Reclining Buddha, a gold-plated statue more than 30m long. Just off Lebuh Cannon, near the Malay Mosque, is the ornate and colourful Khoo Kongsi clan house, a meeting place for all Chinese with the same surname. The State Museum on Jalan Farquhar is dedicated to Penang’s rich history and heritage, showcasing native costumes, furniture and other artefacts.

A great escape from hectic city life is a visit to the tranquil sanctuary of Penang Butterfly Farm in Teluk Bahang. The farm is home to more than 120 species of exotic butterflies, including one rare type that has a male wing and a female wing – a ‘bisexual butterfly’, as our guide put it. A leisurely drive out of George Town revealed further evidence of the island’s laidback character. Long-tailed macaques can be spotted swinging through the trees along the coastal road, and at the Tropical Agro Farm we tasted exotic fruits – rambutan (like lychee), durian, mangosteen, pineapple, papaya, guava and mango. To see cinnamon, peppercorn and clove trees for the first time was a delight, and I could imagine explorers discovering these new flavours centuries ago.

MALACCA
The seventh and final day of my journey was spent in Malacca. Founded in the 14th century, Malacca was once a booming trading centre. It is considered by many to be Malaysia’s most historic town and is a stunningly preserved sleepy backwater. We were greeted at the dock by trishaws more lavishly embellished even than those in Penang. But I decided to explore this charming colonial town on foot to absorb its old-fashioned character and rich heritage.

Trishaws embellished with fake flowers in Malacca

Trishaws embellished with fake flowers in Malacca

Like Penang, Malacca has its fair share of temples. But it’s the opulent townhouses, all painted in vibrant shades, with their arched and shuttered windows and intricately carved stonework, that are awe-inspiring. Few signs of British and Portuguese colonisation remain, but many of the red Dutch colonial buildings such as the Stadthaus (Town Hall) and Christ Church have survived. Architecture is a curious mix of the European and the Oriental. Chinese influences abound, and Chinatown is a charming mêlée of mansions, temples and mosques. Private houses, their porches adorned with intricately decorated tiles, appear small to the casual observer but further exploration reveals that many go back as far as 50 metres and are brimming with Chinese antiques.

Myriad antique shops, art galleries and architectural gems line the popular Jalan Hang Jebat (formerly Jonker Street, ‘jonker’ meaning ‘junk’ in Dutch). Inside one shop I wandered along a hallway so deep and so dense that it radiated with memories of the past. The further I went, the more it felt like going back in time. Who once owned this furniture, these wardrobes, chandeliers and candelabras? What was life like in those long-ago days?

At the Jonker Art Gallery I came across the work of local artist Titi Kwok – evocative landscapes in delicate Chinese brushstrokes. I bought a simple black and white painting of a fisherman. Interior decorators, antique hunters and adventurous shoppers will find plenty here, from the quirky to the exquisite: first-edition Dandy comics, finely painted Chinese silk screens, Victorian crockery and old gramophones. I saw one merchant selling silk ‘lotus shoes’. It brought back childhood memories of seeing women sitting in doorways in Chinatown in Manila, their supposedly beautiful bound feet squeezed into three-inch-long lotus shoes. This cruel practice from the Sung dynasty (960–1279) was outlawed in 1911 but didn’t finally stop until the 1950s.

A rare butterfly at Teluk Bahang, Penang

A rare butterfly at Teluk Bahang, Penang

SINGAPORE
Day eight: Singapore. I looked up at the sails for the last time and it stirred a thousand emotions. This had been no ordinary journey, and it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that it had come to an end. But what an end! Though the city’s stifling humidity came as a shock to the system after a week of sea air, its cosmopolitan character was lively and exciting. I remembered Orchard Road from a previous visit as our car passed boutiques, shopping malls, restaurants and rows and rows of electronic shops, then along the harbour where the nightlife is centred. Chinatown has undergone a transformation, with vibrant outdoor markets, authentic food stalls and restaurants, the best of which are tucked away on the second floor, like Yum Cha Restaurant on Trengganu Street. Then into the midst of the shops and theatres and the business district to the final destination on my voyage of discovery: Mandarin Oriental, Singapore, newly refurbished and with fabulous views of the city’s skyline. It felt like home again.

 
THE HIGH LIFE ON THE OCEAN WAVE
Charter a crewed boat or take a luxury cruise for your own romantic voyage in the Far East
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