Monday, October 24, 2011

Through the Strait of Malacca to Singapore

Ships in the Strait of Malacca

Blog Entry #39: Through the Strait of Malacca to Singapore

Monday, October 24, 2011

Our position 1/2 way through the Strait of Malacca
View of the South China Sea
We left Penang Friday evening, and circled to the north and west of the island to reimmerse ourselves into the sea-lanes, heading south.  Our itinerary the past two days took us through the famous Strait of Malacca, the 500-mile long narrow body of ocean between the Indonesian island of Sumatra to the west and the Malay Peninsula to the east.

Cargo ship alongside the MV Explorer
Ships burning fuel in Strait of Malacca
Seen as a strategic area for shipping and trade since the first ocean-going ships and traders, over 50,000 ships pass through the Strait of Malacca today, carrying roughly 25% of the world’s traded goods and the world’s oil.  Piracy has been a significant concern in recent years, and we noticed both the occasional military ship traversing the waters, as well as our own increased speed to nearly 25 knots. 

Ships ahead of us passing through the Strait of Malacca
Breakfast with Ann Brinker in the Strait of Malacca 
The change was immediately obvious: whereas in the stretch of the south Atlantic from Ghana to Capetown we saw very few other ships, now there were usually at least a dozen – and at times several dozen – ships of various sizes accompanying us as we headed south, or passing us on their way north.

After nearly 24 hours of steady travel, we began to see land and islands on both sides of us, as both Indonesia to the west and Malaysia to the south came into view.  Our destination was Singapore, where we were scheduled to “bunker” over night for refueling.
Sunset as we arrive in Singapore harbor
Strip mine on Indonesian island near Singapore
We reached the massive oil refinery port area of Singapore just at sunset, after passing several beautiful Indonesian islands, one of which is scarred by a large open-pit mine.
Ships in Singapore harbor at sunset, October 23, 2011
Oilrig platform in Singapore harbor
Coming into the oil refinery port area of Singapore as night fell was surrealistic, as there were dozens of lit-up ships in the harbor area, as well as several brightly lit oil platforms, while on shore we could see many oil tanks and towers at the refineries. Singapore is one of the world’s top three oil-refining centers, and the world’s largest oilrig producer, and we could see evidence of both in the extensive harbor and oilrig center where we bunkered overnight.  Conspicuously missing from view was the downtown of Singapore itself – we wondered where it was as we gazed through the hazy light toward shore.

Skyscrapers & ships entering Singapore
The mystery was resolved the following day when, refueling complete, we left the industrial harbor area, re-entered the main shipping canal, and continued east.  At its narrowest point just south of Singapore, the Strait of Malacca is only about 1.5 miles wide, and we noticed the concentration of ships and boats – with several small fishing boats adjacent to large cargo ships – increasing as we went.

Singapore skyline from the Strait of Malacca
Marina Bay Sands Resort & Casino, Singapore
Suddenly as we went around one shallow island, there the skyline of Singapore emerged, looking like Oz’s Emerald City on the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula.  I confess I was not prepared for – and was stunned by – the collection of brilliant skyscrapers that crowd the shore, with some amazing architectural styles, including the Marina Bay Sands Resort, a set of three tall buildings with a ship on top of them (really!), next to a very large Ferris Wheel.

Sadly, just as we were passing Singapore, it was time for me to teach class, so I headed inside – but it was difficult to compete with Singapore for attention!

The Singapore skyline

This morning we awoke to stunning clouds over the South China Sea, as we make our way north to Vietnam – our destination tomorrow.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Malaysia Day 3: Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

Northern neighborhoods of Georgetown with high-rise condominiums

Blog Entry #38: Penang: The Pearl of the Orient

Friday, October 21, 2011

KOMTAR skyscraper over traditional 2-story buildings 
Following two days of largely driving through and around Penang on SAS trips, Pat and I were excited to finally have a leisurely day to ourselves to walk historic Georgetown.  First on our agenda, however, was a visit to the massive shopping malls beneath the 65-story KOMTAR building where I hoped to replace my tennis shoes that I inadvertently donated to the locals at the Taj Mahal.

Inside the KOMTAR shopping mall
This proved more challenging than I had anticipated: apparently there is very little market in Malaysia for size 12 running shoes.  Rather than drag Pat through 7 levels of this massive shopping center, I deposited him at the local Starbucks with an English language newspaper (headline: Gaddafi killed in Libya), while I scoured the mall for shoes.  I eventually found one shoe store that had exactly one size 13 pair of running shoes – success!  I am now breaking them in for our upcoming trip to the temples in Cambodia.

Penang is an ethnically diverse city with a fascinating population that has seen it mix together peoples from Asia and Europe for several centuries.  Wikipedia has an excellent overview for any of you wishing to read more about it (  Claimed by the British in 1786, Penang was an important link in the international spice trade through the strategic Strait of Malacca that separates the Malay Peninsula from the island of Indonesia to the west and south. 

Penang Town Hall
Penang City Hall
At the turn of the century Penang was a strategic center of planning by Sun Yat Sen, who carried out his successful 1911 overthrown of the Manchu dynasty in China following the Penang Conference in 1910.  Penang we attacked by a German ship during World War I, and invaded and occupied by Japan during World War II.  It was fascinating to see remnants of each of these and many other historic events recorded in the streets of Georgetown.

The 14 provincial flags in the Malaysian sun
Malaysia gained its independence from Great Britain in 1957 as the Federation of Malaya, following a brutal occupation by the Japanese during World War II and a subsequent armed insurgency by the Malay Communist Party against the British.  It was constituted as the current state of Malaysia in 1963.  The Malayan flag adopted elements of the US flag, with 14 red and white stripes and a 14-pointed sun to represent the 13 provinces and the federal district, and the crescent moon to represent Islam.

Kapitan Kelling Mosque, Georgetown
Kuan Yin Goddess of Mercy Chinese Temple
Yap Clan Chinese Temple
Malaysia is the second Muslim-majority country we are visiting on our voyage after Morocco, and is shows how Islam, like other world religions such as Buddhism and Christianity, has adapted to different home cultures.  Very different from Arab and Berber dominated Morocco, Malaysia has Islam as its official religion yet its constitution also guarantees freedom of religion.  Roughly 60% of the population is Muslim, though ethnically Penang divides almost equally between ethnic Malay (43%) and Chinese (42%), and 10% Indian.  Hence within blocks of each other in Georgetown are Islamic mosques, Buddhist Temples, Chinese pagodas, Hindu Temples, and Anglican churches.  It is a rich polyglot of ethnicities and religions, and tolerance is stressed greatly and seems largely to work.
Vendor at Kuan Yin Temple

Little India
Hindu Temple in Little India
After fleeing the KOMTAR mall, Pat and I headed to Little India, a several block neighborhood where Penang’s Indian population is concentrated.  Immersed in preparation for the Hindu Deepvali Festival of Lights, Little India is a riot of color, sounds of Bollywood blaring from DVD outlets, and wonderful aromas from restaurants.  We had a delicious Indian lunch, so that in our limited time in Penang we had sampled Malay, Chinese, and Indian food, all with a distinctive Penang style.

Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee Clocktower
Penang "Beetle Nut" sculpture & roundabout
By sunset we had to be back on the ship, headed north and west around Penang Island and then south toward the Strait of Malacca.  We are scheduled to “bunker” off Singapore to refuel tomorrow, and then two days later we reach Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam.  It will be hard to return to teaching classes again in the mean time!

Malaysia Day 2: Penang National Park and the Turtle Conservation Center

Sunrise over the Penang Harbor, 20 October 2011

Blog Entry #37: Penang National Park and the Turtle Conservation Center

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Sunrise over Penang Harbor
After so many days cooped up in either a ship or a bus, Pat and I were really looking forward to a day of hiking through the rain forest in Penang National Park.  Unfortunately Pat had too much University of Montana curricular work that had piled up while we were in India, so he took a day to get through it while I joined 14 others on this cross-island trek.

Map of Penang with its distinctive "turtle" shape

Penang is a small island off the far NW corner of Malaysia, and less than 100 miles south of the border with Thailand.  Our guide refers to it as a turtle with its head withdrawn; Georgetown is near the upper right of NE “leg” and Penang National Park near the upper left of NW “leg.”
Luxury Condos in Penang
Our drive to this NW corner of Penang Island took us across Georgetown, which seems to be in a mad race to put up luxury-condominium skyscrapers end to end across the island.  20 years ago the KOMTAR building was virtually the only high-rise on Penang Island, but the booming economy since then has changed that, and now historical preservationists are dueling with real estate developers in their efforts to preserve and restore many of the older buildings in their distinctive architectural styles.

Entrance to Penang National Park
Formed in 2003 and covering less than 10 square miles, Penang National Park preserves some of the island’s remaining native rain forest and turtle egg-laying habitat, and is considered to be the world’s smallest national park.  We had the good fortune of working with two guides who had grown up in this area and knew both the terrain and the flora and fauna intimately.

Budein, our guide
I had picked up one of my many “on-ship” colds in the days between India and Malaysia, but 4 hours of trekking through the rain forest up and down steep hills in the high heat and humidity seem to purge my ills from my body. 

Army ants with larvae from raid
Termite mound
At times hiking through this lush rainforest felt a bit like being in a National Geographic special.  On the ship we had watched a documentary on ants and termites featuring E. O. Wilson, the great Harvard biologist and ant specialist, and then there they were: lines of army ants carrying off larvae from another ant colony they had raided.  Around the next bend in the trail we encountered termite mounds, and then the carnivorous pitcher plant, luring unwary insects into its depths. 
Carnivorous Pitcher Plant
Rattan with spiral thorn pattern
Rattan grows here, a sort of flexible bamboo-like plant, from small flexible vines to large, long strands with a fascinating spiral pattern of its thorns on the trunk.  We sampled many different plants used for medicinal and spice purposes, from wild curry to cinnamon bark.

Kerachut Beach, Penang Island
After two hours and several liters of sweat, we arrived at Kerachut Beach, with some of the coarsest quartz sand grains I have ever seen, from the weathering of the underlying Jurassic-age granites that make up much of the Island.

White-bellied Sea Eagle
While lunching on these beautiful weathered boulders, I was lucky to watch a native White-bellied Sea Eagle soaring over the beach looking for prey.  It looks very similar to our native bald eagle, only with a white underbelly to match its white head.

2-day old Green Turtles
Baby Green Turtle at Kerachut Beach
Following lunch we visited the Turtle Conservation Center ( where they are working to protect the egg-laying habitat of the Green Turtle and the Olive Ridley Turtle at the three beaches on Penang Island where the turtles lay their eggs.  We were able to see several 2-day old turtles in a small tank where they are held until they can be released safely to the sea.  According to WWF Malaysia (, turtle populations in Malaysia have declined precipitously in recent years, with Olive Ridley Turtle numbers down by 95%.  Faced with threats from over-hunting, habitat loss, and climate change, their future is cloudy, but it is encouraging to see the conservation efforts being put in place by these groups.
Rainforest in Penang National Park
Beach at Penang National Park entrance
Mangrove roots along beach
We hiked back over the hills and through the rainforest (and through another few liters of sweat), and were happy to encounter our bus with several liters of water.  Pat and I enjoyed another wonderful dinner of Chinese-Malay food with friends from the ship, and then I slept the sleep of the dead that night; wonderful to sleep in the next morning!