Southeast Asian route offers a grand view of past and present

February 20, 1994|By Judi Dash | Judi Dash,Special to The Sun

To our east, the craggy coastline of Malaysia played hide-and-seek in the mist; to our west the distant shores of Sumatra beckoned hazily; and 650 miles to the north Thailand awaited with sun-drenched beaches and gilded temples.

Cruising along the Malay Peninsula between Singapore and Thailand's Phuket Island, we were following a maritime route used for centuries by Asia's great shipping powers. But while ancient vessels carried lucrative cargoes of silk, spices and gold, the four-masted Wind Spirit bore a body of 148 paying passengers -- who shelled out extra for casino chips, dinner wines and shore excursions.

Our predecessors sought to dominate the Far East. We just wanted a neat place to vacation. Our late November sailing was aboard the 6-year-old Wind Spirit, the youngest of the Wind Star Line's three motorized sailing ships.

We were not alone in choosing Southeast Asia as our destination or Singapore as our jumping-off point. The region has become cruising's hottest new location, with some 67 trips on 20 ships operating in 1993, up 34 percent over 1992. Singapore, already the busiest commercial port in the world, is rapidly becoming a pleasure-cruise capital as well, with its new $20-million cruise terminal for luxury liners bound for Thailand, Indonesia, Vietnam, Australia and India. Its popularity is all the more striking since getting there certainly is not half the fun; the journey is a grueling 20-some hours from either U.S. coast.

Our weeklong round-trip journey was a voyage from the new to the old and back again. Beginning in skyscraper-studded Singapore, with its cellular phones, designer European clothes, and shiny BMWs, we sailed back in time to ancient Malacca, where ornately carved colonial wooden houses, delicate temples and dusty antiques shops lined narrow streets traversed by rickety trishaws (Malaysian three-wheeled pedal-powered rickshaws), and where old Malay ways still prevailed.

In between, we spent long, languorous days at sea, interspersed with an eclectic collection of port stops:

* In Pinang, we visited a fishing village perched on stilts, snapped photos of the 108-foot-long gilded reclining Buddha at Wat Chaymankalaram, and queasily explored the aptly named Snake Temple, where tourists pay photographers $4 a shot to have their picture taken with incense-drugged pit vipers wrapped around their anatomy.

* In Phuket, Thailand's largest island, we took a day trip in converted trawlers up tranquil Phang Nga Bay, where we lunched on prawns in coconut milk at a waterside restaurant, gazed at mammoth limestone outcroppings 100 feet high, and watched fisherman cast their lines into the glassy water.

* Langkawi Island offered a break from touring; we spent the day lazing on the powder-sand beach, stoked by barbecue and icy drinks served by the ship's crew at mangrove-shaded picnic tables.

The Wind Spirit was an ideal vehicle for navigating our historic route up the Strait of Malacca into the Andaman Sea -- a passage that links the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, and that was once the main thoroughfare of the lucrative spice trade. True, ours was no reproduction Tall Ship, with authentically cramped berths and creaking decks, but rather a modern cruise liner, with all the amenities from whirlpools and a casino on deck to VCRs and minibars in the cabins. And our captain was no peg-legged tyrant hoisting tankards of brew, but an affable young Norwegian with a penchant for crisp Chardonnay. Still, the Wind Spirit was a sailing ship, a 440-foot-long gleaming white vessel, with our masts towering 204 feet, and six huge sails that made us feel a little less like cruisers and a bit more like sailors -- albeit very pampered sailors.

When the sails were out, dispatched by a complex computer system that determined the ratio of motoring to sailing based on wind and sea conditions, passengers flocked to the decks to feel the wind in their faces and watch the six white triangles dramatically billowing out against a backdrop of wooden fishing junks, heavily laden freighters, and the dark forms of low-lying islands and hulking rock formations. At times, the captain even held navigation workshops on the flying bridge behind an auxiliary steering wheel, where all comers could play Admiral Nelson -- in bikinis and flip-flops.

Most of the passengers were veteran cruisers looking for a seagoing experience far from the traditional tourist traps of the Caribbean and Mediterranean, where giant ships queue up, depositing their passengers en masse to buy trinkets.

Not that we were averse to a little shopping. Singapore was a treasure-trove of swank international fashions, old Malacca offered tempting antiques stores selling hand-carved wooden crafts from Malaysia and Indonesia, and Phuket's exquisite cultured pearls beckoned seductively from shop shelves.

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