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Copyright © 1995-2003 
Linda Coffman

Seabourn Spirit
December 2000
Singapore - Thailand - Malaysia

by Bob Benton

Included in this nine day cruise (at least for the U.S. passengers, about which I'll comment further a little later) was a three day land package in Bangkok, Thailand, provided by Seabourn. Arriving very late at Bangkok airport, we were met by the Seabourn representative and whisked (and 11:00 at night, the highway was very, very empty) to the Shangri-La Hotel where we had a room in the new Krungthep wing. We asked the representative about others on our tour, not knowing how many were involved, and found that there were only seven of us; three U.S. couples and a lady from Naples, Italy. We were delighted that it was such an intimate group.

The package included two morning tours of the city, the first of which began by chartered boat and proceeded to the Grand Palace, a beautiful compound of Buddhist temples decorated in gold leaf and jewels. Though it was hot, the sky was a brilliant blue and made photography, a great hobby of mine, an exceedingly easy matter. We spent most of the morning in and out of the buildings, and into the Royal Temple where the Thais' beloved King appears, and viewing through the fence, the Royal Palace. In the afternoon, on our own, we took Bangkok's new and glitzy Skytrain to the Jim Thompson house, owned by a reclusive but wealthy U.S. postwar intelligence officer, who amassed a treasure trove of Thai historical antiques, and then suddenly disappeared, never to be found. His family donated the house(s), because there are three put together, to the country and it's now a famed tourist attraction.

The next morning the group opted for a tour of the klongs, Bangkok's famous canals, on which many of the citizens live and thrive by water. We found the life along the klongs fascinating and totally surprising to us. It also included the amazing Temple of Dawn, with its Reclining Buddha and towers made of Oriental crockery fragments pressed into the cement of the buildings' exterior. Just before the tour's conclusion, we stopped at the Museum of the Royal Barges, which annually make a processional down the Chao Praya River and carry the King and other dignitaries to the people. The barges were stunning, and the procession, with the oarsmen rowing in martial style, must be a true sight to behold.

That afternoon my wife and I selected, on our own, a tour of the Rose Garden, which is what the area once was, but now was a museum of Thai culture. Proceeding in a mini-van through the horrendous Bangkok traffic, and thorough the fascinating, crowded streets of Chinatown, it took over an hour to reach the park. There we walked through the areas where old-style Thai ways of farming and milling grain were being practiced and wound up in a theater where we saw a show featuring Thai kick-boxing, dancing, and a real, live parade of Thai-costumed groups, including elephants. The show was approximately a half hour, after which we went for our first elephant ride, a very unusual phenomenon. Then it was back to the hotel for the last part of the Bangkok stay.

The last inclusion in the package was an authentic Thai dinner, but with only a group of seven of us, the head of the agency which handles Bangkok touring for many of the cruise lines, including Seabourn, invited us to her home, a villa on a lake on the outskirts of the city. Arriving at this marvelous home, we were treated to displays of Thai creativity, with two women carving fruit into amazing flowers. There were others showing us how Thai appetizers, using flour and coconut milk were made into pancake-like wraps for minced and spicy pork dabs, then folded. A five piece band played authentic instruments, and then dinner was served. We had Thai spicy soup, rice, and an assortment of toppings, and then a traditional sweet Thai dessert. Following that, we were an enthusiastic audience for a dance troupe, costumed and made up to show us some of the historic stories from which the dances originated. And to finish, we were shown the Krafthong ceremony, traditionally held on the November night of the new moon, where small boats were made of banana leaves, and into them were placed a coin, a lit candle, an incense stick and flowers, then released into the river (or lake in our case) to float away with the evil spirits and bring good fortune. Finally, there were fireworks to close the unforgettable evening. And the next day the group boarded a flight for Singapore to begin the actual cruise.

We proceeded directly to the dock from the airport, and after the luggage was taken and dispatched, we proceeded to the embarkation area and I got my first look at our ship. We'd sailed Seabourn before, but previously on the Legend. Today, the Spirit didn't look like I had remembered. But there was indeed a reason for that. She'd just emerged from a few weeks in dry-dock where she'd had some cosmetic surgery. Her sister, the Pride, had pioneered the process almost six months before, and now that the procedure was refined, the Spirit was just out and the Legend was just entering the yard near Florida for her turn. The ships were receiving "French Balconies," encompassing about one third of her suites. It consisted of cutting a hole in the side of the cabin, including the window, and replacing it with a large, sliding, patio-style door with a small teak step and railing. This allowed the three sisters to compete with later ships utilizing real verandahs. We were fortunate enough to have one of the new balcony cabins, and I immediately tried out the new door, and found what the officers with whom I spoke on the cruise told me to be quite true. In Asia, where she winters, the doors are totally extraneous, because when you open them all the air conditioning is immediately sucked out of the room. In the Med, where she summers, the doors would be a real asset for a sunny day to take in the air and read a book or while having a breakfast in the suite.

The balconies weren't the only part of the work, however, because she got new fabrics, carpets, and other touches while in the yard. Some things worked better than others at the outset. The Staff Captain told us that he'd much rather face a storm at sea than to stay with his ship while so many people were tearing it apart. It was torture, he told us. We found that the glass cover on the mounted barometer in our room was broken, as was the one near the Purser's Desk. "Not to worry," said our smiling stewardess, "We have a list that's growing longer for the Hotel Manager." And we found that all the fresh water pipes had been replaced, so the systems were shut down, and it took a few days for the hot water to truly get hot. But the biggest surprise was for the ladies in the Spa, who were covered in muds and lotions, and who found that there was NO water to wash it off. The few passengers who saw them skulking back to their own cabin showers in their bathrobes said it was really an amazing sight. And it was corrected quite quickly, so there was little harm done, other than to a few delicate psyches.

The Seabourn sisters are truly resorts on the oceans. Small (208 passengers) and luxurious (all suites), they are intimate and informal. The Restaurant has no set dining times or seatings, and you can dine with whomever you choose, whenever you choose. The chef d' cuisine takes advantage of his local ports to journey to the markets to buy fresh fish, vegetables and spices and it gave the cruise a wonderful local flavor, but of course there were classic European and American dishes as well. The Verandah Cafe, always open for marvelous buffet breakfasts and lunches, is now open for themed buffet dinners, offering an alternative to those who want less formal or more native flavors. The Sky Bar always has American grill specialties available for lunch, like hot dogs, hamburgers, and grilled steaks. The main Lounge, Amuundsen in our case, has the regular show, but there are not highly staged revues as in the case of larger ships. The Cruise Director, Lindsay Hamilton, and her two very talented assistants alternated each evening and performed very well. We also had a tremendously talented and interesting magician, Rich Bloch, who had the crowd in stitches for his two shows. And there was dancing both in the Club, the lounge located at the stern, and in the Horizon Lounge at ship's bow and above the bridge, which also featured a cigar bar and ports and cognacs.

We had a very interesting passenger manifest on our trip, which was a nine day cruise from Singapore up to Phuket, Thailand and then along the Thai and Malaysian coasts back to Singapore. There were only seventeen Americans aboard, quite unusual, with a Mexican couple, a few British, an Italian and most of the rest were from Belgium, in various groups, some escorted and some on their own. English was the mother tongue on the ship, of course, but the Belgians were split between French and German, depending on where in the country they were from. It made it more difficult to really mix and mingle, as we are used to doing, but we found some great and good friends both among the English-speakers and among the Europeans. The hot and humid Asian temperatures sent the Belgians up to poolside each day to bake until they were, at trip's end, beet red enough to light the ship in the event of a power shortage. It's something we gave up long ago as health concerns about skin damage mounted.

I'm one passenger who loves days at sea. With only nine days to cruise, we had only one full sea day, which I really regretted. But the ports were interesting enough that I was very anxious not to miss any. And by the way, we found that the three day pre-cruise package which we utilized, was not available to any of the European passengers. Apparently it was designed to lure Americans to the cruise, which it certainly did for us, but the full consist of the ship ably demonstrated that it wasn't necessary for the Europeans.

After the first and only sea day, which included the first of our two formal nights, we docked in the morning at Phuket, the well-known Thai resort city. As is often true in Asia, many of the ship's excursions were complimentary and this was one of those offered. Of course the buses at pier side were separated into English and German (the French speakers opted for either and didn't need their own). We found the tour very complete and quite interesting. The Thai guides, as all of the Thai people (and the Malaysians later in the itinerary) all spoke excellent English, which is a mandatory subject all through their schooling. One of the guides told us that failing any one of three topics could block their graduation-- Math, Thai and English. We were shown how rubber trees were tapped (and of course the background of this fascinating industry, both before and after the discovery of synthetic rubber), how Batik is made and colored, and how cashews are grown, harvested and processed. And in the latter two cases, given the opportunities to buy some of them, as is customary in almost all tours. We also stopped at a beautiful and thriving Buddhist temple complex, which again provided wonderful photography. 

The best experience, in our estimation, was when we went to the elephant farm and once again took the opportunity to ride an elephant. This time we rode off on a trail, beginning in a river and lumbering through some moderately rough terrain. We climbed up an embankment (or rather, our 41 year old "vehicle" did) and paused for our riders to trade our cameras with their counterparts to photograph each couple. On the way back, we scrambled back down the embankments, and notwithstanding the "safety belt," a rope across our laps, my wife flashed a look of terror that was a wonder to behold. She stayed on, however, as I suspected she would, and we finished the trip without incident. They also provided a show with two of the baby elephants, ages two and three, whose good luck pats are supposed to bring you back. On the return trip to the ship, we got a good look at the town and its vitality as well as stop at a Thai shopping mall. And we were shown the areas where the first James Bond film was made, featuring a speedboat chase and crash at what is now called, informally at least, James Bond Island.

The next stop was at Langkawi, an island under Malaysian rule, which is rapidly developing into an international resort destination. We saw the new airport, which can handle European charters, and some of the new hotels, one of which hosted us for cold drinks and cookies. In the town, there is a square named for the island's namesake, Langkawi Square, and the name means reddish-brown eagle. My wife opted for a nature tour, which went into the swampy areas where the guides put out fish for the eagles and watched the birds swoop down to pick it off the surface. They also saw bats (sleeping, fortunately) and went on elevated wooden paths over mangrove swamps.

Following Langkawi was Ko Hong, a very small and uninhabited island where local "long-tailed" boats served as our tenders to show us where natives scaled rocks to capture sparrows' nests, attached to the rocks by their saliva, to hold their eggs safely from predators. When vacated, the nests are highly prized by the Chinese who use them in Bird's Nest Soup, which carries a high price tag. We were also shown some of the beautiful lagoons hidden among the islands. Some of the other passengers used nearby beaches to sun and swim.

Our next port was Penang, Malaysia. We arrived at 1:00 P.M. and departed at the same time the next day. Our first day's activity was a city tour through this very bustling city where Chinese, Malaysians and Christians all coexist happily together, participating and sharing each others' holidays. They're even celebrating Thanksgiving now, but they don't have a clue as to why. It's just another excuse to eat and drink, which they do almost continuously. Highlights of the tour were a butterfly farm and a local cultural museum where we were shown more batik, Malaysian games and music, and a short display of local dance. That night a special tour took us back to the museum where we had a wonderful Malaysian dinner, followed by a much more complete dance show which featured the amazingly beautiful Malaysian women, who are so very graceful and spirited. We found it a fantastic and inspiring evening. In the morning we chose to sleep in and spent the remainder of the day shopping at the dockside until sailing.

On we sailed to Port Kelang, our next stop, which is the port for Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. We had a driver and guide here, to maximize what we could see in our one day stop, and set off immediately from the pier to the Blue Mosque, not to be confused with the one in Istanbul, but decorated in the same color. We could not enter it, but prowled the grounds and viewed this beautiful facade. The Malaysians are very competitive, and this was brought home by the construction of the Petronas Towers, which dethroned our own Chicago Sears Tower for the highest building title. The KL airport was built to be bigger than the one in Singapore, widely known as the world's best, but it's so far out of town and so isolated (only Malaysian Airlines is permitted to fly long international flights in and out) that it's quite unsuccessful. So while everything has to be the biggest or the best, it's not always a good choice. But the downtown part of this capital is indeed thriving, and we immediately decided not to follow our itinerary and lunch at the terrace of the Regent Hotel in favor of a short and more native stop to maximize the time available. And so it was that we wound up at the food court of the Petronas Towers shopping area at Christmas time, eating native cooking. My wife opted for roti, a fish and egg dish wrapped in a pancake, while I chose nasi lempurya, saffron rice with beef on top. Our guide warned I should remove the little pieces of chilies, but by the time the beef was put on top, I no longer could find them. I think I perspired out every germ I ever had that lunch time. But it was a wonderful experience.

Then we moved on the Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine, but chose not to challenge the 272 steps to the cave. Instead we stopped at a local food shop to try Durian, the strange fruit that is said to taste like heaven and smell like hell. It's not allowed in hotels or on the ship because of the horrendous odor, but ours had been cut, so we really didn't suffer as perhaps we should. We found the fruit soft and custardy and pleasantly sweet. Following that stop we went to the center of the downtown and to the Botanic Garden, National Mosque and Central Railroad Station. We also saw their statue honoring the soldiers who fought the Communists. Of that, their president had been to Washington and saw the statue commemorating the soldiers on Iwo Jima, and impressed, he called the sculptor and commissioned him to do a similar one, but of course, bigger. And so they have a very similar work, but all of the faces are of westerners, because the sculptor had never met a Malaysian. And by the way, the Petronas Towers are only 88 stories high, with an observatory not at the top, but at the bridge between the towers on the 43rd floor. The top of the buildings are architectural and antennas, not offices. But maybe that's a Chicagoan's sour grapes.

We walked along the street in front of the Supreme Court and visited the confluence of muddy rivers for which the city is named (Kuala Lumpur means confluence of muddy rivers) and then tried to get to Chinatown, but abandoned it when traffic looked like it might prevent a timely return to the ship. A typical KL rainstorm accompanied us back to pier side, but we got a wonderful idea of the pulse, the planning and the pace around the city. It has well-planned highways, an elevated railway (bigger and better, of course, than the one in Bangkok) and if they get their act together, could become a real challenge to the economics of Asia.

We were off to our last port before conclusion, the city of Malacca, quite far down the Malaysian coastline, near to Singapore and gives its name to the straits through which we sailed. Because of a small and congested entry to the public pier, the ship had to anchor out and tender passengers in for the tours. It was one of the few glitches, albeit through natural causes, that caused some irritation in this mostly carefree trip. We were at in the lounge to board the tenders well ahead of the time posted, and we were told that the ship's two tenders would be supplemented by a local boat. The first two passenger groups got away more or less on time, but then the word came that the trip was taking much longer than expected and instead of fifteen minutes, it might be about forty five before the rest of us could get underway. Of course that caused concerns about the buses, which were to leave while we were still waiting. Not a concern, we were told. They'd wait for us. Problem was that the seas, which certainly looked calm to us aboard our stable ship, were really heaving at tender boarding level, and to make matters worse, one of the ship's tenders apparently pulled up lame, victim of an engine problem. So another local boat had to be secured. When the one working tender from the ship did come alongside after the first trip, we saw just how huge the swells had become, and the sailors strained to try to hold on. Three of us, myself included, got on the moment things stabilized, but immediately thereafter, we broke away and tried for another landing. That alone took almost twenty minutes. Once again secured, we put as many people on as the small ship would safely hold and we were off, but we realized on leaving our "mother ship" how far out the Captain had to anchor due to currents. Once in the harbor, our tender picked its way gingerly through a horde of Indonesian small and precarious boats filled with lumber to finally reach the dock.

Note--there is understandable concern for the Asian forests and their effect on the ecosystems of the area, and it is genuinely of concern to those involved, but we were told that the horrendous conditions in Indonesia and the frequent fighting in almost all of the regions, for different reasons, are causing the starving natives to find any means of sustenance for themselves and their families. Thus they are logging any areas available and putting the timber on these frail little craft and sailing across the Straits of Malacca to sell their cargos to the Malaysians for their expanding economy. There is little that can be done, and due to conditions little will be done, but it's amazing to see all the logs on these small boats awaiting unloading.

The bus seemed huge navigating the very narrow streets of the city, and we had some anxious moments wheeling through the native areas, separated by religion and background, but living harmoniously with other citizens. We first stopped at a historical area, where the original Malay homes are now owned by a sort of historical trust and have occupants who tell visitors just what living in these structures are all about. The one we visited had souvenirs of the occupant's family history including a letter from the King of England who had once visited, as well as old family photographs. After a short stop at a Chinese temple and some views of the Chinese cemetery (whose occupants find it of great fortune to be buried on the slopes of the numerous hills) we went to the town square, a heritage of the Dutch culture which once was a strong presence. There is a small Dutch church and a windmill they donated along with other buildings and it is indeed a center for tourists, including large groups of Japanese visitors, with all of the requisite hawker stands and food carts.

One of the most interesting stops was at the house of one of the wealthiest Chinese families which is again a historical museum. Guided by knowledgeable Chinese women, we were shown the house, its design was fully explained, and the family's furnishings and treasures demonstrated. This family had a great collection both of Chinese and English clothing, furnishings, crockery and books, which showed the truly worldly nature of the area as it developed. There was even a peephole in the floor, slightly off-center to the home, so that the owner could determine quietly and unobtrusively who was at the door when company rang. We finished the tour at a beautiful park near the one piece of the Dutch fortification that remains, where we transferred to tri-shaws, a sort of combination rickshaw and tricycle, for the picturesque pedal to the pier. And this time we had a large, local boat as our tender, and a quieter and more subdued landing alongside the Spirit. And yes, to the passengers' concerns, we did arrive in good time for lunch, which was quite special. It was a buffet served in the galley, at the various areas where the food is normally prepared, and featured many wonderful Asian dishes. That night was the final night on board, and involved the Captain's Farewell dinner and the inevitable and sad packing up.

As I wrote about Malacca, I realized that I'd omitted one of the most interesting portions of our stay in Penang. The particular trip which we took in the evening, and included the full show of Malaysian dancing combined with dinner, started out with a trishaw ride. It differed from the short ride in Malacca in a number of circumstances, not the least of which was that here, the driver pedaled along from the back of the trishaw and not at the side as was done in Malacca. We worried that, among the heavy traffic including motor scooters in profusion, trucks, taxis, and cars, we would be clipped by the faster-moving vehicles. We shouldn't have concerned ourselves, because, as our guide told us, "Here the trishaw is king of the road. If you hit one, you pay. If one hits you, YOU pay!" Therefore, ALL of the vehicles give them a very wide berth. And these little conveyances are adorned with gilt, jingles, cute license plates and all of the other gewgaws that the driver can find. On the night when we took them, one to a trishaw, it was starting to rain so the driver had an umbrella, and we had the kind of folding hoods one finds on a baby carriage. We were also draped with a sort of tarp lap robe so that in the worst of it, only our eyes were exposed. As the rain abated, we uncovered, little by little, until at the end, we were back to the state we'd started. The route was planned out to take us through the most interesting parts of the city, and so it did, making great photo opportunities throughout. The most interesting was the few blocks of Little India, just coming to life with the evening starting and the Indians flocking to the shops for Friday dinner. The smells of the tandoori ovens and other spicy delicacies were delicious. The trip ended at a beautiful Chinese home, which had a temple as a portion. The detailing was exquisite and we loved being around it.

We arrived in Singapore on the final morning, and true to the relaxed nature of a smaller ship, disembarking was an informal affair, although groups were waiting to be called off as their vehicles arrived, for the airport, for the hotels and for independent travelers, which included us, because we had booked two extra days in this unusual city-state. Disembarking is always bittersweet because it means leaving the cocoon in which you are ensconced for the duration of the trip. It means also that, at some point in the evening, you realize that YOUR ship is going to sail off with someone ELSE in YOUR room and all of those wonderful staff members will be serving THEM and caring for their every desire instead of yours. And so it was with us.

There are things about Seabourn that we like very much. In each suite there is a mini-refrigerator and each suite is allowed initially two bottles of whatever spirits they might desire to stock the fridge. Wine at lunch and dinner is complimentary, from a limited list. Of course, more prestigious vintages are available at additional cost. Gratuities are included in the cruise fares, so the traditional solicitation and envelopes are not present here. And that is consistent with the range of dining options available, including en suite dining where your meal is brought, course by course to remain warm and fresh, and the "coffee" table in the living area of the suite magically rises to become a dinner table. Spirit and Pride also differ from sister ship Legend in that the lovely bathroom has TWO basins, not one (although on Legend, the additional counter space is quite nice) which allows joint primping before formal dinners or other occasions. The wonderful fluffy duvets now used in place of conventional sheet and blanket combinations are much approved of by most passengers. And there's always the possibility to ask your waiter or maitre 'd for any dish you fancy (for the next dinner, of course) if you like. One group of passengers asked for a bowl of caviar to celebrate a birthday one afternoon around the pool, and brought the Champagne provided by their travel agents so they could properly wash it down. It was delivered promptly and properly. A nice way to live.

If you shop carefully, you may well find that, with the combination of discounts (the line's frequent cruiser, early booking, on-ship booking, etc.) and comparison of on ship prices for services here included, these ships are not as expensive as one might at first consider. We had that benefit from a previously cancelled cruise and then some. And we just as carefully shopped our air to find a wonderful bargain to and from the cruise. Overall, it was a great experience, even with a nit or two we might find, but we recommend it to anyone with a cruise and travel wanderlust.

Bob Benton is the Associate Publisher of Travel Today, a supplement to 
Chicago Sun-Times
and New York Newsday

Copyright © 2000 Bob Benton

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