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PHOTO ALERT: South China Sea Crossing!

Posted by Keith on August 13, 2007 at 5:00 am | Leave a Comment

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VIDEO: South China Sea Crossing — Life Aboard & Ship Tour

Posted by Keith on August 13, 2007 at 4:48 am | 1 Comment

Please view the East Malaysia Photo Album on this site!


Kota Kanabalu, the small Malaysian city on the west coast of Borneo, and Sabah, the lush Malaysian state in which KK (everyone’s affectionate name for the city) is located, has stolen our hearts.

What an absolutely delightful place this is! Our ship is securely docked at the beautiful new marina here at Sutera Harbour – a resort that features not only the marina, but golf (including fully-lighted nighttime golf, until 9 PM), a country club, a spa, and two world-class hotels.

I am writing this from my eleventh floor room at The Pacific Sutera, a luxury resort that rivals the best Maui has to offer. I overlook the lush, sprawling hotel pool area, the marina and our ship, and KK’s spectacular bay as I avail myself of both WIFI and fire-wire high speed internet on my two computers.

An easy walk around the Marina, past tennis courts covered by a huge canvas canopy, and past the massive club house for the Country Club, is the Magellan Hotel. I would rate it only a small notch blow the Pacific Sutera, yet larger and perhaps more fun for families.

I watch as jet skiers, scuba, paragliding, and water-skiing boats crisscross the beautiful harbor here. The sun is shining, the water is blue, the hills are covered with rain forests and lush jungles, the streets are clean and safe, and the largely Islamic population is enthusiastically tolerant, well educated and genuinely friendly.


Malaysia, home to about 26 million people – most of them on the Malay Peninsula – was once a group of petty kingdoms. There are about three million people living in the State of Sabah here in East Malaysia, including about 300,000 who live in the City of Kota Kanabalu.

All Malaysians victims of Japanese occupation during WWII, and became British protectorates after the war. They overcame regional differences sufficiently to pull together as the single nation of Malaysia, gaining full independence 1957. The island of Singapore initially joined the nation, but two years later it declared itself an independent city state. Regardless, it remains the financial center of the region. On August 31st, Malaysia will celebrate 50 years of remarkable progress under their constitutional monarchy.

The Malaysian Ringgit is their currency. The average family earns about $1,500 Ringgits per month – or about U.S. $500 per month – approximately U.S. $6,000 per year.

Their goal is to eradicate poverty here by 2010; and from what I’ve seen I would say they are well on their way, at least in East Malaysia. They apparently define the hard-core poverty income level as about $500 Ringgits – about U.S. $165 – per month for the average family of five.

It may appear they are being a bit too easy on themselves in setting as a goal the elimination of family incomes of less than about U.S. $2,000 per year. That’s not much for a family of five.

But U.S. $2,000 per year is positively opulent when compared to the 36 million people nearby in, say, The Philippines who live on less than U.S. $2 per day. Also, it is especially comfortable (relatively speaking) thanks to massive government subsidies for everything from fuel to bottled water. These keep the cost of living modest, in a country that is expected to grow economically at a rate of 5.5 percent per year between now and 2020.

That growth fuels Malaysia’s plan to become a “first world” country by 2020. Based strictly on what I’ve seen in East Malaysia, on the Island of Borneo, I would not be at all surprised if they succeed.

I have not formed an opinion yet on whether or how best to invest in Malaysia, and will reserve judgment until late September when we have our first opportunity to visit the Malay Peninsula, where most Malaysians live.

My Tour With Mr. Ibrahim Tamanan

When you arrive in KK call tour guide Ibrahim Tamanan at 013-858-6018, or ask Jack, the head bellman at the Pacific Sutera, to contact him for you.

Ibrahim and his wife (they have six children) own Borneo Full Force Tours. Ask for Ibrahim specifically as your driver. In a late model air-conditioned KIA mini-van, he will take you on the local tour of your choice. You pick the itinerary, or change it along the way.

Ibrahim is an excellent tour guide and the consummate entrepreneur. One suggestion: Ask him to turn off his cell phone at the start of the trip.

Be sure to set aside a full day to visit the Kinabalu National Park at the base of the 13,000-foot-high spectacular Mount Kinabalu. Enjoy the amazing scenery as you ascend the Crocker Mountain Range, driving from sea level to an elevation of nearly one mile at the visitor’s center.

Incidentally, Kinabalu National Park is 750 square kilometers in size, and there are vast additional tracts of protected rain forest, jungle, river and wilderness areas within Malaysia’s boundaries on Borneo.

If you are the eco-hiker type , and enjoy a rugged but not particularly dangerous (unless you blow out the old aorta along the way) two-day outing, arrange for guides to assist you up the mountain. You will pass through magnificent strata of rain forest, spend the first night at a lodge half way up, and enjoy the view from thousands of feet above the tree line at the summit.

If you are less ambitious, enjoy the relatively tame and very beautiful park rainforest trails in the vicinity of the visitor’s center, and the exhibits at the center itself.

I learned many interesting things about Sabah and East Malaysia in particular, and about Malaysia in general, from Ibrahim during our full-day tour. And, of course, supplemented by some homework of my own, I had the opportunity to observe and form impressions as we embarked from the Pacific Sutera Resort to the visitor center at Mount Kinabalu.

Head Hunters and Pirates!

There are two dominant peoples in Sabah, East Malaysia: The Baju and the Kadazan Dusun.

The Baju traditionally lived near the sea, fished, and were often pirates. They were particularly receptive to British systems of government when the area was a British protectorate.

The Kadazan Dusun lived in the surrounding mountains. They were excellent farmers – and headhunters.

These days, according to Ibrahim, the only thing either group hunts is money.


Center Point Mall, and the upscale Heritage Square attached to it, comprises the primary shopping area in downtown KK. However, street-front shops also abound, and a new “hyper-mall” is being constructed just outside of town. You won’t find traditional Asian-style market areas here, however. The stores are nicer, cleaner, and more spacious. The place has much the feel of a rapidly growing mid-size U.S. city – Malaysian style.

The Malaysian Flag

The Malaysian flag bears a striking resemblance to Old Glory. Instead of thirteen alternating red and white stripes (for our thirteen colonies), it has fourteen such stripes – one for each Malaysian state.

While the blue rectangle on the upper hoist side of our flag contains fifty five-pointed stars in nine horizontal offset rows, theirs contains one large star with fourteen points (again, for their states) and Islam’s crescent moon.

Race and Religious Relations in Malaysia

Malaysia’s population is about 86% Muslim, and while I know of no non-Muslims who hold high elective office here, the government adamantly promotes harmony and tolerance. I saw several large and beautiful mosques here, and also some Christian churches.

The local papers seem to acknowledge that some friction does exist between various ethnic and religious groups, but the government insists that intolerance and extremism is unacceptable.

Not-Such-a-Fantasy Island for Budding Terrorists

According to Ibrahim the government employs a very popular law called the International Security Act to contain budding extremists of any persuasion. Here’s Ibrahim’s unofficial explanation of how it works:

The law uses a system of bottom-up reporting and enforcement. There is a strong sense of community in the villages and neighborhoods here so that people tend to know each other’s business.

If local citizens become concerned by someone’s comments or activities, and if they believe that person represents a threat to others, they report their concerns to the village chief or to local officials. The local officials investigate, and if the activity persists, they attempt to take videos or recordings of the offending words or actions.

If the local authorities believe the matter is sufficiently serious, they route the evidence though state officials who will likely route the matter to the appropriate national ministry. If the suspect activity or speech seems to represent a violent perversion of Islam or of any other faith, the ministry will consult with applicable religious leaders for their evaluation as well.

At each step of the process, the offending individual may be counseled by local, state, national or religious officials, and encouraged to desist.

But if the behavior persists, and appears dangerous to others, the individual will be sent – without trial — to an unidentified Malaysian island where he will spend two years under close scrutiny.

The prisoner will be kept safe, treated with respect, and fed well, according to Ibrahim. However, no communication with the outside world is allowed. No letters, internet, newspapers, magazines, radio or TV. Prisoners may visit with clergy of their faith, and throughout their stay they are counseled on, for example, the precepts of peace and tolerance that are the cornerstones of true Islam.

After two years, the prisoner is sent home. If he behaves, that’s the end of the matter. If he persists, he will again spend time on the island.

Human Capital

The Malaysian government is making a major effort to develop the nation’s “human capital.” The beautiful 14,000-student University of Malaysia, Sabah, is an example of the strong emphasis on higher, and continuing, education here.

In particular, during a visit to East Malaysia contemporaneous with my own, Prime Minister Abdullah Bin Ahmad Badawi, and several of the ministers accompanying him, repeatedly emphasized the importance to all Malaysians of becoming proficient in information communications technology (ICT).

While the government is currently awash in oil revenues, they appear to be taking the long view toward developing a self-sustaining economy replete with light clean commerce.

Goodbye Logging, Hello Eco-Tourism

While logging is not banned throughout Malaysia, it is now, according to the government, closely controlled in a “sustainable” fashion. According to Ibrahim, logging is, however, now banned entirely in East Malaysia. And there is an effort to replant logged areas.

Unfortunately, East Malaysia shares the island of Borneo with Indonesia. Indonesia has made far less progress at protecting the island’s rain forests. Brunei is also located here, but I am unaware of any significant forest depletion problems emanating from that incredibly oil-rich nation of less than 400,000 people.

East Malaysia at least has seen the future, and it comes in the form of tourists who will pay dearly to walk in rain forests, climb their mountains, and dive in their waters, to see remarkable marine life, orangutans, elephants and a seemingly endless variety of plants and other animals.

Here’s an example of their eminently sensible approach to conservation: The Kinabalu National Park is owned and administered by a non-governmental organization precisely because, according to Ibrahim, the people don’t trust the politicians to properly protect the place. In addition, all of the park rangers are given shares in the entity and participate in the profits it generates from tourism. This keeps them highly motivated to protect the park.

The entire region here is also incredibly clean; and you feel safe virtually anywhere. In sum, the people here have worked hard to make East Malaysia a highly desirable, world-class tourist destination.

In my opinion, they have largely succeeded.

Real Estate and Business Ownership in Malaysia

Many Pacific and Asian nations prohibit foreigners from owning real estate or businesses. Not Malaysia. Here they employ more eminently sensible approaches:

Foreigners may not own Malaysian real estate valued at under $350 Ringgits (about U.S. $120,000). But foreigners may buy all the real estate they want if valued above that amount.

This brilliantly simple approach prevents foreigners from speculating in the local housing market of the vast majority of Malaysians. It prevents foreign-capital-driven inflation in that market.

However, by permitting investment in more expensive condos and homes, Malaysia not only adds billions to its local economy, it creates jobs in its burgeoning construction industry for Malaysians. Those jobs are not limited to the construction of high-priced homes. They include the construction of the offices, shopping centers, and infrastructure that support a more affluent population. Everybody wins.

Meanwhile, foreigners may own up to sixty percent of any Malaysian company. Obviously, foreign companies may easily avoid even this requirement by incorporating elsewhere while opening branches in Malaysia.

Our Departure

Our weather routing service has told us to get out of Dodge in order to avoid some weather later this week. We are therefore shoving off immediately after we broadcast our radio show tonight:

We had wanted to stop in Brunei, but when driving a small boat across the South China Sea, you do what the weather dictates; and the weather says, “Get thee to Bangkok.”

Please view the East Malaysia photo album on this site!


i. Eco-Hikers may be identified by the following characteristics: Heavy boots, short pants, beige shirt with lots of pockets, bandanna (cap optional), REI collapsible walking stick, modest back pack with carefully selected contents, no makeup, a vague bewildered look when embarking up the path, and an exhausted “this was the dumbest thing I’ve ever done” look upon return. May also belong to the Sierra Club, thinks they are liberal (until they pay their taxes), and are probably registered as Democrats.

Click here to view photos

Plan B: East Malaysia and The Kingdom of Brunei

Posted by Keith on August 8, 2007 at 3:47 pm | 1 Comment

August 9, 2007
07:00 Local

We were two thirds of the way across the Sulu Sea, on a westerly course from Cebu to Puerta Princessa, on the island of Palawan, The Philippines.

That’s when Captain Wolf mentioned that many cruisers used the port of Kota Kinabalu, on the west coast of East Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, as their jumping off point to cross the South China Sea.

Twenty-four million people call Malaysia home. However, most of them live in West Malaysia on the southern half of the Malaysian Peninsula that extends down from the western portion of Thailand. About 600 miles to the east of the Peninsula – back toward the U.S. — is the large island of Borneo. Borneo is not a country, just a large island. East Malaysia occupies a large portion of Borneo, along with the tiny kingdom of Brunei.

I used to confuse Malaysia with Indonesia. Indonesia is a vast nation to the east of Borneo. It is comprised of more than 8,000 islands, and has a population of 247 million people.

Kota Kinabalu is about 270 miles south-southwest of Puerta Princessa on the northwest coast of East Malaysia.

When Wolf mentioned the place, I went online and discovered that (a) there was a fancy new marina there; and that (b) the place was surrounded by offshore oil wells. This gave me hope that diesel fuel will be especially inexpensive there.

So we stopped in Puerta Princessa only long enough to get our passports stamped for exit from the Philippines. We were there for less than five hours, and a chance encounter with an uncharted sandbar in the middle of its harbor notwithstanding, our visit was uneventful.

I have posted a video I took from the ship as we entered Puerta Princessa’s harbor. It’s sobering to see how thousands of people live there, and frankly I was very glad to be on our way.

From Puerta Princessa we charted a southwesterly course down the east coast of Palawan Island and through the Balabac Straight that separates The Philippines from Malaysia. As we exited the straight we entered the eastern portion of the South China Sea.

The oceanic shelf along the northwest coast of East Malaysia and Brunei is dotted with oil wells. It is a busy sea lane, filled with tankers bringing Malaysia’s and Brunei’s black gold to market.

Brunei is a tiny kingdom about 150 miles south of Kota Kinabalu, also on the west coast of the island of Borneo. It is the home of the world’s richest man – the Sultan of Brunei.

Unless fuel is much less expensive in Brunei than in East Malaysia, we’ll most likely travel to Brunei from Kota Kinabalu by ferry or car. This helps avoid the fees and paperwork of processing the ship in and out of yet another country.

We hope to stay in Kota Kinabalu for no more than three nights, including our visit to Brunei. Seas are extremely calm right now – especially for this time of year – and we would not want to lose this weather window for our 6-7 day crossing to Bangkok across the South China Sea.

We will take a final stab at finding a way to land near Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) on our way to Bangkok; but unless we can find an agent who assures us hassle free entry, we’ll avoid taking the ship there. However, one way or another I will visit Vietnam. The plan currently: Unless we find the aforementioned agent, I’ll fly in from Bangkok.

We’re about 45 miles north of Kota Kinabalu at this moment. There are mountains to starboard, islands to port. Seas are calm, the sky is blue. Life is beautiful.

East Malaysia here we come.


Crossing the Sulu Sea!

Posted by Keith on August 6, 2007 at 2:14 am | 1 Comment

August 6, 2007
17:00 Local Time

The Past 24 Hours

We departed Cebu City yesterday afternoon bound for Porta Princessa on the Philippine island of Palawan. Palawan is located about 300 miles west of Cebu Island, away from the main Philippine island group.

We spent all of last night on a south-southwest heading along the eastern side of Cebu Island. Then early this morning as we cleared the southern-most point of the island Negros we were finally able to steer westerly, on a heading of 280 degrees across the Sulu Sea toward Palawan.

All morning we dodged the lines of tiny one-and-two-man fishing boats. The boats were nearly impossible to see until we were almost upon them; and the small white floats holding their fishing lines that they strung together across many hundreds of yards were even harder to see.

But it was important that we avoid them if at all possible. Unwrapping nets and fishing lines from our propeller or rudder is a royal pain.

As we headed further into the Sulu Sea, the fisherman slipped farther behind us, but winds from the west-southwest – almost on our bow – picked up and have provided quite a chop. There is little swell action — just small choppy waves a few seconds apart.

Relieved to Be On Our Way

I can’t express how pleased I am to be out to sea again. Cebu, for all its wonderful people, was depressingly dirty and poor. While there was growth and economic activity wherever I looked there, there was also grinding poverty. It deeply troubles me that since World War II, and despite The Philippines close political and economic affiliation with the U.S., so little progress has been made in lifting the living standard of the average Filipino. Thirty-six million of them live on less than U.S.$2 per day; and 14 million of those people live on less than a dollar a day.

Even the highly-skilled technician we hired in Cebu to resolve some computer issues on the boat made it clear that wanted to come with us when we left. He was entirely serious. He even brought his wife and children to the ship for us to meet, I believe in an effort to convince us that they supported his desire to travel with us.

Hiring him was out of the question, as we are fully staffed, and we never discussed his compensation. But all indications are that this Microsoft-Certified technician would have jumped at the opportunity to travel with us for far less than, say, U.S. $12,000 per year.

I wish that man, and so many millions more like him, every success as he works to make a better life for his family and for himself.

But that is behind us now. I realize we’ll see even more poverty ahead; especially in the Indian sub-continent. But for now I look forward to enjoying a quick stop at picturesque Palawan Island before crossing the South China Sea for Bangkok.

Here’s the Plan

The plan for now – unless we succeed in our continuing efforts to obtain landing clearance near Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam – is to head directly across the South China Sea for Bangkok from Palawan, and to explore Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam by land and air.

Our approximately 1200 mile voyage from Palawan to Bangkok should take about seven days, subject to weather.

We’ve already been in touch with the beautiful Ocean Marine Yacht Club near Bangkok. They’ve promised to keep the light on for us.

All hands are in good shape and good spirts. We are all equally glad to be underway, and we all look forward to whatever lies over the next horizon.


FROM CEBU, THE PHILIPPINES: Keith’s Aug 5 Radio Show

Posted by Keith on August 5, 2007 at 2:27 pm | 1 Comment

Farewell to the Philippines: Our New Near-Term Itinerary

Posted by Keith on August 2, 2007 at 11:13 pm | 2 Comments

The crew and I have made some executive decisions regarding our stay in the Philippines and our near-term itinerary:

We’re Departing the Philippines As Soon As Possible

We’re going to depart the Philippines the moment the weather permits. Originally we planned to head from Cebu north to Manila, with a possible stop on along the way.

But, frankly, we’ve seen enough of the Philippines. The people are wonderful, the countryside is beautiful, but the population centers are a mess. Flanked by occasional pockets of walled wealth that is protected by armed security guards, the streets are jammed and dirty, with every conceivable form of ramshackle structure along them. People hang from busses, building and bikes.

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