THE LAST FARANG
1. Thai word for white people or Westerners, generally used in a non-derogatory connotation.
Example: Of course, drinks are expensive here, it caters mostly to farang.
Straits of Malacca, Siam and the Andaman Sea
In which our correspondent recounts his travels through the New Orient
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14th July, Singapore Harbour Locks
Spare a thought for your grandparents. Their stories of being whisked around the globe for an annual holiday sounds, like so much from that time, unbelievably extravagant. The convenient lack of hard copy photos or even letters gives the misty-eyed retellings a fantastical feel. Is Pop losing it for real, you think to yourself as he explains what a gap year entails. Your humble correspondent, just old enough to remember those days can inform you those stories are indeed true. My parents, who had travelled extensively by air in their youth, scrimped and saved for years to take my sister and I on a two-week holiday to what was then called Thailand. I was eight years old, and it was the first and only time I travelled by aeroplane. It was an overnight flight, and I still remember staring through the window at the twinkling lights of fishing boats underneath us, whilst behind me, the darkened cabin was full of ephemeral faces, reflected from a hundred flickering blue screens.
But most of all, I remember the people. People in cars on the way to the airport. People in line, shuffling through military checkpoints with shoes off, emptying bags under the bored gaze of an immigration official. People sitting in front and behind me on the aeroplane, so close that even my tiny eight-year-old legs felt constrained. Sixty years later, as I stand in the forecastle of this fine vessel, watching the steamy coastline of Java gliding past I remember that time. And I wonder what sort of society can take something so amazing and special as a trip across the world and turn it into a stressful ordeal.
They say it is not the destination, but the journey. I have taken passage on the MV Timbercoast, a steel hulled, schooner rigged cargo vessel that runs cargo and passengers between ports on the Malay Peninsula, West Siam and Ceylon. My agent assures me the MV Timbercoast is a sturdy vessel with well-appointed and comfortable cabins. In my bag, carefully protected in a plastic laminate, I have a photo from those old times. It is of my family, standing in front of a large Buddha statue on top of a limestone karst peak. Buddha is sitting cross legged and staring serenely into the distance. My parents are smiling as they grip my sisters and I shoulders to keep us looking at the camera. It is the only photo I have from back then and I plan to revisit it, and maybe find out if there is truly a difference between the journey and destination.
16th July, 25nm SW Malay Peninsula
The Captain has been anxiously pacing all morning. The gentle breeze and calm seas, so welcome to this traveller of leisure, are a costly luxury for a working ship like the Timbercoast. In Singapore, the crew was open and friendly. Loud jests, friendly insults and cocky banter thrown back and forth across the deck and amongst the rigging. After two days of wallowing in this feeble breeze, the crew is on edge and constantly casting furtive glances towards the steely-eyed Captain, ready to trim a sail or haul on a rope at an instant. No one wants to be held responsible if a moment is lost. I attempt light conversation and brevity with the crew, but after an ill-advised comment with the stout fellow manning the wheel, I quickly retire to my cabin lest another ill-advised remark cause me further grief. Travelling tip for my readers, do not cast any dispersions towards the appearance of a sailing vessel with its crew!
17th July, Dawn, Malacca Straits
Disaster averted, we are saved!
Hours sweltering in my tiny cabin had failed to yield any sleep so I stumbled outside to take some air. It was late, with no moon and dark. The only noise was a low murmuring from a group of sailors sitting around a lantern playing a game of chance under the forward mainmast. After a few moments, when my senses had adjusted, I could make out shadows in the rigging and hear the occasional creaks and groans as the Timbercoast struggled to make steerage way. Occasionally a shadow would move, pulling on a rope or line. Making minor adjustments to harvest every last breath of wind. Cautious, lest I provoke a harsh rebuke, or worse, a request to assist with some tedious nautical task, I crept to the stern and watched the ships mediocre wake bubble and froth behind us.
Time passed, I am not sure how long. A faint breeze bought welcome relief from the cramped and hot cabin. The constant bubbling beneath me, signifying at least some progress, was relaxing. At some point, I realised I was not alone. Sitting a few metres distant, back against the stern rail was a crewmember, apparently asleep. Glancing around, I wondered at the sudden improvement of my night vision. The parsimonious Captain elected to not switch the rigging lights on this night and yet I could now see as if the moon was present. Looking back, I saw that the ships wake was now glowing green and stretched out behind us into the darkness. I imagined looking from above and seeing our phosphorene trace cutting through the dark ocean.
The gentle tinkling of a nearby bell broke my reveries as I stared at our luminous wake. It was coming from near the sleeping crewmember. Close examination revealed a fishing line ingeniously tied up to a small bell. I tried rousing the owner, but she rolled over and continued snoring. Unfazed by this setback, I began to pull the line, hand over hand, myself. I could feel the shudders and jolts through the line as the creature attempted escape. I must have shouted in excitement as I was soon surrounded by excited crew, all of them eagerly offering advice, many in languages I didn't recognise. I understood none of them, but together the excited babble required no translation. Land that fish! I redoubled my efforts, hauling on the thin line when I felt the beasts’ strength flag, paying it out when it wanted to run deep. Slowly, I bought it closer. A call of excitement rose from the crowd as a silvery shape flickered in and out of the luminous wake. The sight of my prey unlocked new reserves of strength and I hauled it to the surface, just above the rudder. It was white with blue stripes and at least the size of a dog. We would eat well tonight! A crew member was carefully lowered over the railing in a sling, intending to hook the fish with a cruel looking spike and haul it on deck. Another shout from behind me, this time clear and in English.
I watched in horror as a vast shadow cut across the wake and engulfed the fish in a single bite before disappearing into the depths. The attack had lasted less than a second, but I will always remember the look of terror in the crewmember’s eyes, his feet just inches from the surface.
They dragged him back on deck, his skin pale and hands shaking. The excited shouts had stopped, replaced with an awe-struck silence. Then the Captain appeared, holding a mug of the foul liquor they always drank. He spoke for a minute. Pointing at me, the distant horizon and the shaken crew member. Then he laughed, slapped the kid on his back, handed him the mug and walked off. Somehow, I also found a drink in my hand. Everyone started hollering and laughing, each taking turns to retell this unusual event. Eventually the crew drifted back to wherever they came, the kid now had a smile on his face and wandered back to the forecastle to try his luck again. I stopped the stout wheelman, whom I knew spoke a little English, and asked him why everyone was so happy again. He said the Captain believes our sighting of such a rare, large fish was a good omen. Furthermore, our sacrifice of such a rare beast to the leviathan would be rewarded by the sea. The Captain also pointed out that maybe this strange white man might not be a Jonah after all and before the sun rises perhaps we will have our trade winds again. Sure enough, as the first faint rays of daybreak broke through the haze, I could see on the horizon towering thunderheads illuminated by the flicker of lightning. The monsoon had arrived, and with it the wind we needed to make a speedy (and profitable) journey.
Several hours later, the rigging hums and the Timbercoast is heeled over on a larboard tack. The crew darts about with an energised purpose, their on-time bonuses saved. I have been accorded a new level of respect, the victuals this morning were of a decidedly improved nature. I have become something of a minor celebrity, always being dragged about ship by a smiling crewmember, happily explaining some deeply complex nautical contraption to the slow-witted, strange white man. Eventually, I manage to retire to my cabin. I intend to get some well-earned sleep before the afternoon heat makes the cabin unbearable.
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July 18th, Somewhere in the Malacca Straits
Today we bade farewell to the comforting sight of land. Up until now North Sumatra had always been there, a dirty smudge of green on our port horizon, reassuring if not beautiful. The continued favourable winds are 'barrelling us up the strait', as Moko, the MV Timbercoast coxswain and apparently, my new best friend likes to say. This morning the straits finally opened and the sight of land disappeared into the hazy horizon. The Andaman Sea beckons!
July 20th, 73nm SW of Langkawi
We have all seen a ghost. Or, at least that is how the crew are acting after last night’s events, and I confess to also feeling a little unsettled. It all began a little after midnight, well after the moon had set. Several of us were at the stern, trying our luck at fishing again. As usual, the Captain elected to not turn on the running lights and the MV Timbercoast glided through the gentle swell, guided by compass and starlight. I cannot say I agree with the Captains choice to keep the ship dark, who is to say we won't collide with another similarly parsimonious Captain? He did at least always insist on keeping a full watch during the night and it was a garbled shout from one of those dutiful souls in the crows-nest which first alerted us to the strange vessel.
"Hull up, 3 points to starboard"
Down on deck we could not see the vessel yet, but a slight glow could be made out on the horizon. The Captain, looking un- characteristically nervous, climbed the rigging to get a better look. A few minutes later he returned, his face displaying a mixture of fear and disbelief yes. Before the others could see he composed himself, displaying the more normal look of stern disapproval. He whispered orders to Moko, who stood aside to allow the Captain to take the wheel himself. Ropes were hauled and sails trimmed in the true nautical tradition and I felt the Timbercoast heel a little more and the wake behind us bubbled a little more voraciously.
It wasn't long before the mystery vessel revealed itself. The orange glow on the horizon focused into an enormous steel ship, far larger than the Timbercoast, or even one of the new windjammers. It looked like our course would bring us close, maybe even within range of the powerful lights that that festooned the surface of that strange leviathan. As we drew even closer I could make out more details. It resembled one of the old merchant oil tankers, but had no smokestack. The massive hulk was a patchwork of hasty repairs and rusty steel plates, but here and there I could see remnants of the original colour, red. I now understood the Captains concern, this ship was once part of the Great Red Fleet!
Alongside the cursed vessel, a collection of smaller vessels were tied up, including a modest sized schooner similar to the Timbercoast. I could see no flags or identification marks on any of them. Closer, and we could now make out crew on the leviathan and smaller vessels, running about, hauling ropes and moving cargo. We were so close it seemed impossible no one would notice us. Yet somehow, miraculously we skirted the edge of their lights, dancing in and out of the shadows without incident and carried on into the night. The Captain stayed at the wheel for another hour, until the last remnants of that ghastly glow disappeared under the stern rail.
It wasn't until well after breakfast the next day that I was able to speak to the Captain. I asked about the radiation danger. It was obvious he had not slept, but he took me back to his cabin and open a locker under his bed. Inside was a small metal box, a analog numerical counter the only point of interest. Every few seconds it clicked as the Captain explained in broken English how he used to serve on a ship just like the one we passed. This was before the Hainan incident and the Amsterdam hijacking, back when ships of the Great Red Fleet were welcomed and celebrated in ports around the world. Before the rumours began of high crew turnover, dumping reactors at sea to avoid meltdowns, and the crippling construction and maintenance costs. Initial plans called for a fleet of 100 vessels. They would travel the world’s oceans, delivering Chinese goods to consumers and bringing back the raw resources the hungry factories required. The nuclear reactors never needed refuelling, precious oil could be saved for cars and air travel. As problems and costs mounted this was downsized to 20. Then 10. After the Hainan incident and the irradiation of greater Hanoi most ports with functioning governments banned their entry. The Captain resigned his commission not long after, taking the Geiger counter as a sort of severance package. The Captain says he is a lucky one, many of his former crewmates are dead now. Sail is much better, although he admitted an engine would have been useful last night. Wind and current forced him close. Thankfully the Geiger counter recorded nothing. I asked him if it still worked. The Captain shrugged with a look that seemed to say it made no difference either way now.
July 21st, Somewhere in the Andaman Sea
The mood was sombre the next morning. Running a sailing ship normally requires an excess of shouting, ringing bells and the constant stampeding of an enthusiastic crew back and forth across the deck. But today the crew was subdued, performing their duties with a minimum of fuss. However, I must already be a salty sea dog as instead of using this quiet to advantage and getting some well-deserved sleep I lay awake, my body already missing now familiar noises of sea travel. I rose at dawn and roamed the deck, talking with my ship mates about our brush with almost certain death the night before. I even tried my hand at fishing again, yet succeeded in catching nothing but the ubiquitous jellyfish.
As the day wore on, the Captain raised more sail and the mood lightened. I would like to think it was my philosophical conversation or witty banter that raised everyone’s spirits. But on reflection I think it is the journey itself that cleared our minds. Hour after hour of clear, deep water sailing. Blue sky merging seamlessly into the ocean at the horizon. Wind blowing clean and fresh across the deck, the ship heeled just ever so slightly and everyone’s troubles and worries bubbling away into the frothy wake behind us. Moko says I overthink things, everyone is happy because the Captain announced we were ahead of schedule and will overnight at Koh Phidon.
July 22nd, Dusk, Koh Phidon Floating Village
After two days of glorious blue water sailing we glided into Koh Phidon anchorage at dusk. Decades ago Koh Phidon used to be a global tourist hotspot, the small island actually consisting of two separate limestone peaks, Doi Don on the east and Doi Tonsai to the west, joined in the middle by a narrow strand of sand covered in resorts, hostels, restaurants and bars. As the ocean rose the town came with it, building up to avoid the waves. As it got deeper only the richest could afford a secure footing and a confusing jumble of old boats, floating piers and bamboo bridges began to coalesce around the more permanent structures. Today, the central spit of sand is covered by at least 20m of water, yet the two peaks remain connected by the floating village. On the taller peak, Doi Don, sits a spectacular and exclusive resort catering to those rich enough to reach the island by air. On the other side, Doi Tonsai holds the various square, utilarian storage units, power generation and water filtration facilities along with a small airfield for the launch and retrieval of guest helicopters and airships.
As the Captain fussed over the anchor placement for the Timbercoast I took in the island. Tonight, the resort looked busy. Hundreds of warm orange lights glowed between thick vegetation and on the summit, bright, colourful lights strobed in time with a deep beat that could be heard across the bay. I could three airships tethered at the airfield and as the crew began to lower our launch the distinctive heavy thump of an approaching helicopter announced the arrival of someone with riches beyond the imagination of anyone below in the village. The floating village was home to staff for the resort, the occasional fisherman, drug runners, gambling houses, brothels and suppliers of all manners of illicit goods. The wealthy guests often visit the floating bazaar, considering it almost an attraction in itself and a chance to experience a gritty adventure with minimal risk. Keen operators who can match the ever-changing tastes of the fickle visitor can and do make substantial profits. Which is why, even after monsoonal storms sometimes sweep away the entire village, it is quickly rebuilt.
The crew have drawn straws to determine who remains behind for first watch. There is some discussion to decide if the first or last watch is preferable but no one volunteers to go first. Moko beams at me, he has avoided any duties for tonight. As we begin rowing towards the ramshackle shore, fireworks are launched from Doi Don and the bay becomes alight with ripples of purple, red and green.
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July 24th, Krabi Harbour
The journey from Koh Phidon to Krabi was uneventful, at least as far as I can recall. How the crew managed to effectively function after such a night I will never understand, but it seems to be a skill that all mariners possess. We ghosted into Krabi Harbour on a fading afternoon breeze, passing over the sunken ruins of old Krabi and anchored 200m from the recently constructed wharf. A steamer, two coastal luggers and a windjammer were already alongside, men and cranes hauling crates and barrels onto the waiting trams. On the north-east side, in front of mangroves and coconut palms the harbour was shallow. The beached remains of rusted container ships fought for space between the skeletal ruins of old Krabi, some of the twisted rebar and steel poking above the water at low tide. Overlooking it all, on top of a tall narrow karst peak was the Buddha, the setting sun reflecting golden light from his serene face. The Captain seemed to think we would be at least a day and I should have plenty of time to ascend the 800 steps in the morning so I retired to my cabin early and fell asleep to the sound of harbour gulls and longshoremen curses.
Early the next morning, with a small dinghy personally loaned to me from the Captain, I found myself rowing towards the base of the karst mountain. I picked my way down channels between the dead ships, but the water was murky and it was sometimes difficult to make out the concrete reefs of the old city ruins. I gingerly picked my way through, taking care not to scratch or damage the Captains personal dinghy. Finally, I pulled the dinghy up onto a small sandy beach, dense mangroves hemmed in on both sides with a small path leading towards concrete stairs. A troupe of monkeys watched me from a tree, and looking steep sides I could make out the distinctive orange robes of two monks making the ascent. I placed my feet on the first step, faded paint announcing it was number 379, quietly thanked the rising seas for making this easier and eagerly began the climb, keen to set a good pace and maybe even catch the leisurely monks.
Within a hundred steps I had to stop, the sweat already thick on my skin and running down my arms and back. The heavy, humid air refused to absorb any more moisture. Wiping my face with a small towel, I looked back across the harbour. In the distance, I could see the Captain and Moko on the Timbercoast poop deck, gently guiding the ship towards the wharf. Below me, the unappealing murky green water was not enhanced by the rusting hulks or twisted ruins that resided within. A crash of branches above revealed the monkeys had followed me. Anxious to avoid their attentions, I resumed the climb at a more sedate pace, ignoring the chorus of mocking cries and hoots.
I passed the halfway mark, but several hundred steps still remained and my legs were like jelly. Sweat poured down my arms beading in long drops at the tips of my fingers. The monkey troupe could be heard crashing through the tree tops a little below me, so I took a chance to sit and rest. What little cooling I had from forward motion was removed and almost immediately a fresh burst of perspiration issued from my sodden skin, running down my forehead back and arms. I took a long draught from a water bottle, the tepid, slightly salty liquid still managing to be refreshing. From this height, the harbour looked a little cleaner, the murky green now a pale turquoise and patches of blue sky breaking through the haze. At the outer channel marker, a small tug nosily belched black smoke as it nudged one of the coastal luggers into the main channel. Raising sails to catch the freshening breeze, the lugger heeled over and began pushing into the turgid swell under its own power. Occasionally the odd shout or cry from crew in the rigging drifted across the harbour. Presently she rounded the headland and disappeared from sight. The Timbercoast was now at the wharf and I could the see the crew already working at unloading cargo. Ignoring the protestations of my legs, I stood back up and continued up the stairs.
The worn paint announced the final step number as 1237. For some reason, no one had corrected the mistake, perhaps not wanting to tempt fate that the rising oceans were finished. I stood at the edge of a large concrete floor, covered in red tiles and surrounded by a freshly painted white concrete railing. A smaller raised platform on the left held a modest stupa, painted gold. To the right was a collection of smaller statues, the two monks quietly making offerings of incense and arranged flowers. They glanced back at me, I nodded in acknowledgement and they went back to their worship. In front of me, towering over everyone was Buddha, sitting cross-legged and staring over the harbour. He was over 8m tall, the golden paint still gleaming in the morning sunlight. I thought back to my parent’s photo, the buddha had a different coat of paint back then. Red clothes, pale skin and black hair looking over old Krabi, the ocean safely on the horizon. And in the background of the photo, hordes of tourists milling about, recording everything with the ubiquitous screens. I glanced around, besides the monks I was alone, there was no one to photograph me. I thought about asking the monks to take the photo for me, but it felt wrong to interrupt them more than I already had. I thought about balancing the camera on the railing and using the timer function. The thought of such an expensive device falling, or more likely, getting pushed by the nearby monkeys was not a pleasant one. Instead, I walked to the edge, held the railing and shared the view with Buddha. From up here the harbour gleamed, none of the rubbish or pollution was evident. The sunken wrecks were blurred, their sharp edges already rusting away. In a few decades, there would be nothing left except an iron rich sand bar with scattered skeleton like keels preserved in the mud beneath.
It is the journey not the destination which matters. I think today, in the world we live in, I understand this now. For my parents, journeys back then tended to be short, yet somehow tedious and spirit sapping for all that. Cheap journeys means quick travel, rushing from one hotspot to another, locals crowding to earn their share from the economic heavy weights stumbling blindly through their country on a ten day cultural binge. The first leg of my journey has already taken longer than most complete holidays back then, and when I leave tomorrow on the morning tide I will have spent less time here then I did the last time then I did with my parents all those years ago. Yet, standing between Buddha and the blue harbour below, it doesn't seem to matter. I hurry back down the steps, the camera sitting unused in my bag. Ceylon awaits!