Archives: 30th November 2001

Friday 30th November 2001, Phuket Thailand.

It was pouring with rain when we left the hotel. Any hopes of getting some photos of the multitude of oil tankers anchored off the coast, were dashed. Our taxi driver chatted cheerfully all the way to the airport – we couldn’t understand a word he said, but we made appreciative noises and nodded approvingly from time to time.

Despite its short duration, the flight to Phuket was not our best – certainly from Brigid’s point of view. The ageing A-300 Airbus trundled from apron to runway, bumping over every minor imperfection in the surface.

The take off was smooth enough, but to Brigid’s all too evident distress, the seat belt sign remained on for the first 20 minutes of the flight. Brigid’s blood pressure climbed with the plane through successive layers of cloud. The seat belt sign was at last switched off as the plane (and Brigid’s blood pressure, no doubt) levelled off at 31,000 feet. Still the plane was completely enveloped in grey cloud, no hint of blue sky in sight. Eventually, seeing the cabin crew going about their business, Brigid released John’s hand, allowing the blood to flow back into his fingers!

One hour and twenty minutes after leaving Singapore, we touched down safely in Phuket, Thailand.

Unfortunately, the arrival of our plane coincided with the arrival of at least two charter flights. The Arrivals Hall was packed. We stood patiently in line for Immigration for about an hour before we were able to retrieve our luggage. We had a choice of transport to our hotel. We could either pay Baht 360 (£6) for a private taxi, or live dangerously and take the shared minibus for Baht 80 (£1.30). The minibus seemed much more fun!

We arrived at the Sinthavee Hotel in Phuket Town at about 1.30pm. It might not have been the plushest hotel in town, but at Baht 1130 (£18) per night we weren’t complaining.

After a snack in the On On Café nearby, we made our first foray into the local market. Brigid snapped up some 2m lengths of pretty batiked cotton. A little further on, we found ourselves outside one of those very cheap tailors shops for which Thailand is so well known. With Christmas nearly upon us, and no formal clothes to speak of (most of our clothes are in storage), we seized the opportunity to smarten ourselves up a bit. The first fitting was to be at 8.30pm the following day, and having made a down-payment of Baht 10,000, we strolled happily into the sunshine to finish our Christmas shopping.

All in all, John’s two bespoke suits (one a dinner suit) both in cashmere and silk, two handmade shirts in Egyptian cotton, and a silk two-piece outfit for Brigid, came to a grand total of Baht 16,700 (a little less than £280).

Even in the short time we have been here, Phuket is a wonderful city. The principal form of transport is a 100cc scooter. Everyone rides them! It is quite common to see three adults perched on the seat, and not at all uncommon to see three adults and one or two small children squeezed on to one bike! The streets are lined with stalls selling delicious-smelling food, sizzling appetizingly. Everywhere there are craft shops and fabric shops, and friendly faces. We walked for miles.

We had hoped to dine in the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, but it was being refurbished. Instead, we found a popular street side café. It was presumably only open in the evenings … it was sited on the forecourt of a shuttered motorcycle dealership.

Thursday 29th November 2001, Singapore.

Today was to be a serious Christmas shopping day, so having had a glass of orange juice, and a rather stale croissant, at one of the open-air cafes in Albert Street, we walked up to Arab Street.

Arab Street is lined with fabric retailers selling lengths of silk, tablecloths, lace and traditional printed cotton. Beautiful though they were, it was difficult to pick out a single ideal present. The lengths of silk would have needed to be made up, and we couldn’t think of anyone who would really appreciate a new tablecloth!

By the time we had walked up and down both sides of the road, John’s back was protesting, so we started back to the hotel with the idea of finding a chiropractor. However, and enquiry at the casualty department of the local hospital was met with blank looks. Perhaps they don’t use chiropractors in Singapore …

As we crossed Rochar Road, Brigid remembered that she needed to buy some saline solution for her contact lenses. Instead of heading straight back to the hotel, we called into the Praco shopping mall, in Victoria Street, in the hopes of finding a pharmacy. It didn’t take long to work out that there was no pharmacy in the mall, but there were a couple of opticians. Ian Optical not only had saline, but they had a Christmas offer on spectacles – S$48 for frames and lenses (including an eye test). It seemed too good an offer to pass up, particularly since Brigid had lost her only pair on the bus in Fiji. However, since she was wearing contact lenses, she would have to remove them and come back later for an eye test.

We found a coffee shop near our favourite fountain in the Bujis Junction Plaza, where we spent several minutes watching the ‘cabaret’ provided by young children running in and out of the fountain, trying to guess what the cleverly choreographed water cascades would do next.

More than once, a child would receive a direct hit and an unexpected drenching – but it didn’t seem to put them off!

Back in the opticians shop, Brigid received a first-rate eye test, which confirmed her existing prescription. With extra correction for astigmatism, and non-reflective lenses, the specs came to S$98, but we weren’t done yet. As a special deal, Brigid was offered a pair of prescription DKNY sunglasses, and John took the opportunity to have the scratched lenses in his RayBans replaced. All done, we were charged S$333 (£133) for two new pairs of specs, and new prescription lenses for John. All the items would be ready for collection at 7.30pm, leaving us free to continue our shopping.

John had managed to manipulate his back and was no longer in pain, so we ventured back into the market. Laden with carrier bags, we eventually arrived back at the hotel at about 4pm. There was just enough time to upload the pictures from the digital camera, have a quick shower, and grab a bite to eat, before going out again to collect the finished specs.

Wednesday 28th November 2001, Singapore.

We had a bit of a battle with the hotel’s ‘original’ plumbing this morning. John decided to treat himself to a soak in the bath, only to find that both taps supplied hot water! (I hasten to add that, after a certain amount of experimentation, we did get cold water, and the problem never manifested itself again …)

After faffing about in the hotel for a while, we set out on our first full day’s sortie into downtown Singapore. John was keen to visit a WWII museum, but none was mentioned on our freebie visitors’ map. However, various tourist information centres were listed, so we picked the nearest (in Orchard Street) and struck out purposefully.

Having traversed several arterial roads and building sites, we eventually found ourselves at ‘Orchard Point Shopping Centre’, where the tourist office was supposed to be located. We spent several minutes touring the centre before concluding that no such tourist office existed. By this time we were both feeling extremely hot and sticky, so we ordered a couple of iced drinks and rested our legs in Starbucks.

The next nearest office was the other side of town, in the Chijmes compound. We must have walked straight past it last night. By the time we arrived there we were feeling thirsty again, and we were beginning to think about lunch. To John’s great annoyance, the tourist office was closed. Unsure what to do next, Brigid suggested heading for the nearest shopping mall to buy a guidebook. “OK”, said John, thrusting the freebie map at Brigid, “find us a bookshop!”

Brigid gestured feebly at the mall the other side of the road. John (by this stage enraged) took the map and stuffed in the adjacent bin! We then noticed that the newsstand just behind us had a fairly comprehensive stock of maps and guidebooks, clearly displayed in a rack – not five feet from where we were standing!

Armed with an AA Pocket Guide, we set off in search of lunch. Thinking of her waistline, Brigid had in mind something like vegetable chow mien, and suggested we try Chinatown.
John, still in noticeably bad humour, stamped off towards the bridge. In the event, we weren’t overly struck by Chinatown – mainly because most of the businesses were … Chinese! We hadn’t a hope of understanding the menus, or (as we discovered when we finally settled in a popular-looking café) making ourselves understood.

The result was that Brigid ended up with a truly horrid soup called Fish Maw, in which unidentifiable fish parts, noodles, and cabbage floated in an unappetizing watery broth.

John asked for chicken and noodles, but ended up with an equally unappealing soup. However, it did clearly contain pieces of white chicken meat and cabbage. Instead of noodles, John was given a bowl of plain rice.

We ate what we could, and moved on. At least, with the help of the guidebook, we had identified Singapore’s principal History Museum, so we made our way there, arriving just in time for a 3D show called “The Singapore Story”. Although the 3D effects were few and far between, they were quite good, and we found ourselves ducking involuntarily as we watched a ‘dog fight’ between two miniature planes. They swept over our heads, then “BANG”! One of them sustained a direct hit and exploded in a ball of flames. We flinched as debris (including the plane’s propeller) hurtled towards us. Later, a Japanese soldier stepped out of the screen and pointed his bayoneted rifle menacingly at the audience, before singling out his target (somewhere over our left shoulders), and firing! It was all good fun, and went a long way to restoring our sense of humour. After the film, we toured the museum, filling in the gaps where the show’s commentary was drowned out by the rousing orchestral score.

We had a delicious curry at the Shish Mahal restaurant next door to the hotel, which we then walked off by making another tour of the market.

Tuesday 27th November 2001, Singapore.

The alarm went off at 6.15am, which was an unpleasant shock to the system, as we had not slept particularly well. Somehow we had it fixed in our minds that the airport shuttle was due at 7.15am – we were therefore still in the process of packing when we got the call to say that the bus was waiting. In our haste, we deliberately left behind a number of awkward-shaped items, which we could not find space for: pots of yoghurt, cans of beer, a souvenir mug from Hawaii, a box of tissues, etc.

The flight to Singapore was, quite simply, the best we have had to date. The air hostesses were the prettiest and ‘smiliest’, the service was the most attentive, we had the best food, and the landing was so perfect that we didn’t even feel the wheels touch down! Without a doubt, we would recommend Singapore Airlines’ business class above any of the others we have tried.

The Albert Court Hotel was also a nice surprise (especially with Brigid’s record on Internet bookings …). On our limited budget, it was easily the grandest hotel we have stayed in this trip, with its marble foyer and courteous reception staff. We particularly liked the intricately carved dark wood panelling and furniture that is used throughout the hotel. Our deluxe room cost us only S$140 per night (about £53).

We had a brief snooze, and then (when John had grown bored of listening to Brigid’s snoring) we asked at the reception desk for directions for an evening stroll.

We wandered through the night market, taking in the sights and smells of ‘the Orient’ – feeling the batiked cotton and silk, and inspecting the fake Rolex watches!

Eventually we found ourselves at the Raffles Arcade, a huge and exclusive shopping plaza, backing onto the famous Raffles Hotel, and built in the same colonial style.

After posing for photographs outside the hotel entrance, we treated ourselves to cocktails in the bar.

We rejected the pink and fruity ‘Singapore Sling’ in favour of a Manhattan and a Margarita!

Monday 26th November 2001, Freemantle Oz.

Suddenly our holiday in Australia was at an end, and we had a lot to do before flying on to Singapore tomorrow. We disposed of most of the left-over food from the van’s fridge at breakfast. Afterwards, we drove into Fremantle to get some more passport photos for PADI. (Despite a thorough search, we could find none of the photos that had been taken in Hawaii.) Having delivered the new photos to the dive shop, we drove to a shady car park in the middle of Perth, had lunch, and began to pack.

By 3.15pm, we had zipped our stuffed back packs closed, accumulating in the process, a heavy carrier bag full of clothes, shoes, maps, and guidebooks, that we no longer needed. (Needless to say, we also found the original set of passport photos!) Then it was time to return our trusty van to Britz.

We got a half-day’s refund for the leaking rear differential, and didn’t have to pay for the last day’s insurance. The Britz rep also kindly booked us into a comfortable hotel down the road, and arranged for a taxi.

Sunday 25th November 2001, Freemantle Oz.

We slept surprisingly well, despite the smell of wet scuba gear and dripping togs hanging from every available rail.

We didn’t bother much with breakfast, but spent an hour or so reading through the text book for the Deep Dive and Underwater Naturalist elements of the course. When, at last, it was time to leave for the harbour, Brigid was still ploughing through the last section.

It was a lovely sunny morning, and though Brigid had not managed to complete the reading, she soon cheered up during the dive briefing. However, for the deep dive, we had to complete a simple task under water to demonstrate the effects of nitrogen narcosis. Unfortunately, the task chosen was a maths exercise. John joked that they had better give Brigid an extra air tank!

Oops! Mathematics has never been Brigid’s favourite subject, and the thought of having to compete with John, against the clock, triggered another sense of humour failure.

So, before entering the water, we added up a column of numbers each. John took 15 seconds, Brigid took 23. Seeing Brigid’s obvious distress, ‘John DB’ tried to pour oil on troubled waters. “Don’t worry”, he said, “I’ve known people not finish at all underwater. They just give up after a few minutes.” “Oh, great”, thought Brigid.

In the event, the deep dive was a bit of a disappointment. The others on the crowded dive boat were mainly beginners, so the dive site needed to be compatible with their requirements. After swimming a fair distance from the boat, we eventually settled on the sand at a depth of just 20m or so. Out came the dreaded waterproof slate. This time John added Brigid’s column, and Brigid added John’s. Brigid took … 23 seconds, and John took … 11! So much for nitrogen narcosis. When we surfaced, we had recorded a maximum depth of 21m – hardly ‘deep’ by anyone’s standards, but enough to qualify.

The underwater naturalist exercise was much more fun. There were 3 dilapidated and scattered wrecks on the site, providing a wealth of nooks and crannies for sea life. There was nothing for us to do but swim over, through and around these structures, observing the different species.

Brigid even brought an underwater camera, and took several potentially great pictures of the other divers, and small shoals of fish. But don’t hold your breath waiting to see these pictures. After about 30 minutes, she gestured to John that she had lost the camera!

John looked around for a few minutes but, realising we risked losing the instructor, we had to abandon the search. Bummer!

It was a shallow dive so we were both quite pleased to surface after 56 minutes with over 90 bar of air still in our tanks.

The trip back to Fremantle was quite choppy, and at one point we were very nearly capsized by the swell – as all the passengers tried to shelter from the spray on one side of the boat!

Saturday 24th November 2001, Freemantle Oz.

We left Spearwood before Mary and Tony had surfaced. We had said all our goodbyes the previous evening, and didn’t want to disturb them as we had to be at the dive shop in Subiaco by 8.30am. Today we were doing our two shore dives for our Advanced Open Water qualification.

We piled all our kit into the van and followed our instructor, ‘John DB’, through the streets of North Fremantle to North Mole. He had said there was some ‘rock-climbing’ involved, but we thought he was joking … until we saw the entry point. Using a tethered rope as a belay, we scaled an almost vertical concrete harbour wall – in full scuba gear, it was truly a feat worthy of the Royal Marines!!

The plus side was that the water on the inside of the wall was warm and clear … and calm. For the next 40 minutes or so, we swam around under water using our compasses to navigate to and from buoys.

Then, of course, we had to haul ourselves back up the harbour wall – only our gear was heavier now, as it was wet! After a snack, and an hour or so on the surface, we were back in the water for our wreck dive.

The wreck in question is a sunken barge called the “Garenyup”. It is not nearly as big or intact as other wrecks we have dived, but has a much better established coral and fish population – and plenty of plump crayfish lurking under its broken hull. Perhaps the highlight of this dive was meeting a baby shark, only about 10” in length, but a perfect miniature of its adult relatives.

After the dive we went back to the shop to rinse out the gear, which we then had to load back into the van (dripping wet) for tomorrow’s boat dives.

Friday 23rd November 2001, Spearwood Oz.

We spent the morning with Mary Jenkins – Tony having left for work early – then we drove into Fremantle to log on to the Internet and have lunch.

As soon as we had eaten, we drove back to Spearwood and settled down in the sunshine for a quiet afternoon of reading and computer work.  Mary was quite surprised that we hadn’t done any sightseeing, but Brigid had been fretting about the website all morning, and neither of us are much into museums.

Tony was going to be late back from work, so Mary dug a delicious home-made curry out of her freezer, and we settled down to eat dinner before he had a chance to arrive home and complain about ‘spicy’ food. We didn’t get away scot-free though, as John had managed to buy the ‘wrong’ sort of beer.  Consequently, he got to drink most of it himself!

Thursday 22nd November 2001, Spearwood Oz.

Needless to say the first job was to take the scuba equipment back to the shop. At the store, we rinsed the equipment again, and took the opportunity to buy various useful accessories (Brigid being the most extravagant – of course!). John chose another new snorkel (and a rubber fastener for it!), while Brigid picked up some gloves, a wrist compass, and a mass of brightly-coloured clips for her BCD.

Then we popped next door to Oriel, where we ordered breakfast. In Perth, John located a camping shop who were able to confirm that the problem he was having with his new GPS, was a software problem. We logged in to collect our e-mail, and Brigid spent a considerable amount of time choosing postcards.

Having had such an enormous breakfast, we skipped lunch, and headed down to Coogee Beach, south of Fremantle, to make contact with Tony and Mary Jenkins, with whom we were meant to be staying.

Tony and Mary emigrated from Wales some 30 years ago, and had not seen John since the 60’s. In fact, initially there was a certain amount of doubt, on Tony’s part, as to exactly how they were related, though Tony’s brother, Terry (through whom Tony’s invitation was received), is frequently in contact with John’s Mum.

After an hour of getting the engaged tone, we set off to find their house. When we rang the bell, a surprised Mary explained that she had just logged on to the Internet for a moment …

Tony, a distant cousin of John’s, was disappointed to find that we were not Welsh – but once he had got used to our “English-ness”, we had an excellent meal and a very comfortable night in their ‘Granny Annex’.

Wednesday 21st November 2001, Perth Oz.

After breakfast, we left Dunsborough for the drive back to Perth. We arrived at about 3pm, having eaten lunch en-route.  We had short time to kill before we had to be at the dive shop in Subiaco (a pleasant suburb to the west of Perth).  In Fremantle, John collected his new bank card from the National Bank, visited Elizabeth’s second-hand bookshop in South Terrace to exchange some books (they don’t actually buy books off you, but they give you a voucher to put towards more books).  Then we quickly made our way out to Subiaco, where we found a quiet table at Oriel’s café in Hay Street to read up on ‘Night Diving’ before our dive.

The dive took place at ‘Bicton Baths’, on the Swan River. After reading up on the highlights that we might expect on a night dive, with its dramatic world of colourful coral and inquisitive fish, we have to confess to being somewhat disappointed to be diving in a murky river.  The only sea-life we saw were some sea-pins, urchins, prawns, crabs, and a mass of (harmless) jelly fish! Our navigation exercise was predictably disastrous as the current was strong, and we had had no time to familiarise ourselves with the equipment.  But no matter.  We followed ‘John DB’ in the gloom, between the yacht club piles, taking care not to blind each other with the powerful torches, or stir up the bottom with our fins.  Even so, there were a couple of occasions when one or other of us disappeared in an unexpected cloud of silt.

After 35 minutes, ‘John DB’ had caught enough crabs and prawns for a seafood dinner, and we clambered ashore.  John (Rynne) discovered to his fury that he had lost yet another snorkel (an event, I am ashamed to say, that would not have gone unnoticed, even above the clamour of the nearby water polo club)!

It was past 10pm.  We could not return the hired equipment at that time of night, so we had no choice but to rinse it off, and stow it under the van’s bed.