Our 6 Days 5 Nights ‘Spice of Southeast Asia’ cruise called at Pork Klang, Penang and Phuket (coincidentally all starts with ‘P’!). Here is the itinerary:
Hubby and I are generally thrifty travellers. But don’t get me wrong, we are no rough-it-out backpackers. We are DONE with those backpacker days ever since we had a kid and have reached the ‘golden age’ where we would rather spend some money to make ourselves comfy because, well, we’re on vacation. But we still keep to a budget so that we can travel more often or travel longer. Because if we stayed 5-stars for 5 nights, for the same money we can stay 3-stars for 10 nights. But we still want to enjoy, so we will be like okay, let’s stay 5-stars for 1 night and 3-stars for 8 nights. Give and take.
So in our vacations, you would find that we tend to splurge occasionally, but we always have means to TRY to keep to a reasonable vacation budget. In this case, we have already splurged on the cruise itself (Have I mentioned that cruising is expensive??), so we tried to save on the shore excursions.
When we cruised in Greece in 2010, I did tons of research into each port-of-call to see how we could get around on our own instead of joining the cruise excursions (which cost a bomb) and I must say we really saved a LOT of money. But this time round, with MF and my in-laws around (扶老携幼 as my hubby calls it), we took the easy way out: We hailed a cab at each destination and asked the cabby to bring us around for the day. Of course, cabs in Southeast Asia are MUCH cheaper than in Europe, so we still managed to keep to a tight budget. (Plus, we maxed out the cab capacity, making our money worth!)
Voyager was the very first cruise ship to use Singapore’s new International Cruise Terminal (ICT) at Marina Bay.
I love the design of the cruise terminal.. When the Voyager was docked there, the terminal building looked like it was part of the cruise ship (I believe it was deliberately designed that way), really cool!
Well, we weren’t exactly tourists, so we didn’t do what many tourists did as the ship sailed away: Snap photos of the skyline from the top deck. We were busy doing what Singaporeans did: Eating. But I did manage to take some photos from the dining room.
As swanky as it was, cruising from a brand new cruise terminal did pose some inconveniences for passengers. Getting there, many passengers said they were brought to the wrong place by the cabbies. They were brought to Marina South Pier, which is not too far from the ICT thankfully. From the Marina South Pier, they could see the huge Voyager being docked at another building nearby and they simply pointed it to the cabby and off they were to the correct place. Getting back, the queue for cabs at the ICT was terribly long, and there wasn’t exactly a steady stream of cabs coming because the ICT is in a pretty isolated spot and cabbies weren’t that familiar with the place yet. We decided to hop onto the free shuttle bus connecting the ICT to Marina Bay Sands and Marina Bay MRT station. We took the shuttle to the MRT station and took a train home. My advice is that if you need a cab, hop onto the shuttle to Marina Bay Sands, there are many more cabs there.
Once we arrived at Port Klang, there was a counter at the first floor of the terminal building that offered taxi service. Prices were fixed, so there was no need to negotiate with the drivers. We requested for a Chinese driver which we felt more comfortable with.. Paid him RM 250 to go sightseeing in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and off we went! Really convenient.
The first place we visited was Bukit Bintang for shopping. The shopping here was pretty upscale, not exactly the kind of shopping we were looking for in KL.
At one of the shopping centres, Pavilion, they were having a Madagascar carnival – much to MF’s delight! We spent all the time we had here, since we weren’t exactly interested in the shopping.
Our next stop was the famous Petronas Twin Towers. It was just a short stop, for us to take photos and go. But if you are a shopaholic, you can spend more time exploring the KLCC. From the Petronas Towers, we also caught a glimpse of the KL Tower.
MF was clearly not the least bit interested in the sightseeing. He would probably have been happier if we had let him play for a bit at the wading pool located at the foot of Petronas Towers. But we were on a tight schedule so he missed out on the fun.
Moving on, we went to our last destination: Jalan Petaling a.k.a. Chinatown. Now THIS is our kind of shopping: Street stalls where you can haggler and get really cheap clothing, and food stalls touting local fare in every corner.
While hubby was busy shopping for his sports wear, I saw an interesting stall selling colourful muah chee and bought a box to try. Not a fan.
After we were done shopping, I insisted we take a hike to A&W for root beer float. I miss A&W’s root beer float so much!! Was so sad when they pulled out of Singapore. So when I spotted it in KL, I just had to go there. The root beer float was simply classic – served in the frozen A&W mug. MF took one look at it and clearly wasn’t very impressed. I call this generation gap.
Well… That was it for KL. The A&W root beer float was the highlight, as far as I am concerned. I know it should be Petronas Towers. But still… A&W it is for me.
The only research I did for this cruise trip was where to get good food in Penang. I LOVE Penang food! Penang char kway teow, Penang laksa.. Just the thought of it makes me drool! So I spent some time researching on where to get the best Penang food.
The ship docked at Swettenham Pier. From my research, there is a coffee shop nearby (Eng Loh coffee shop) that served pretty good breakfast. At the pier, there were many cabs touting for business, but I dragged the whole family for a walk to the coffee shop, despite the fact that we just had buffet breakfast on the ship. But because we just had buffet breakfast, I only ordered coffee and a chai kueh. They were delicious nevertheless.. Good coffee in the morning makes me a happy girl!
After eating, we visited the Peranakan mansion that was just across the road from the coffee shop.
I kind of enjoyed checking out the exhibits within Peranakan Mansion, but can’t say MF enjoyed it. Not exactly a place for kids.
There was nothing else around the vicinity, so we got a cab along the road (hubby made it a point to find one with a Chinese driver again) and asked him to take us around for 4 hours. I can’t remember what was the price we agreed on. The first place he took us to was Kek Lok Si Temple.
We had to queue pretty long to get onto the Funicular that brought us to the top of the temple. When we reached the top of the temple, we realized that we could have asked the cab to drive up! What a waste of time and money. At the top of the temple, you get a pretty good bird’s eye view of Penang.. But it was simply too hot and sunny to hang around to appreciate.
When we were done viewing the temple, I told the cabby to bring us to the famous Penang laksa place at the foot of the temple. He knew exactly where I was talking about, so off we went!
And lunch was served! Just looking at the photo is making me drool! I love the flavours of Penang assam laksa, it’s something you can’t find in Singapore. But not everyone loves it.. My father-in-law couldn’t appreciate it at all and kept complaining that there was no ingredients (no prawns, fish cakes, eggs etc.) *roll eyes*.. Whatever. I loved my laksa and finished drinking all the soup and could easily finish another bowl!
Our next destination was Penang Hill. The queue to go up the hill was simply too long (I suspect our cruise may have contributed to it). We didn’t want to risk missing our cruise. So we passed.
Since there wasn’t any other interesting sights in Penang, plus traffic was simply terrible there, we decided to head back to town and continue my food trail. I told the cabby to bring us to the famous Penang char kway teow at Lorong Selamat and he immediately knew what I was talking about.
The name of the coffee shop for the famous char kway teow was called Kafe Keng Huat. Just in case your cabby isn’t as pro as mine, here’s what it looked like.
We had some oyster omelette from the same coffee shop while waiting for the char kway teow. It was good!
And the star… Penang Char Kway Teow. Omg. I will come back to Penang just for this.
After that, I told the cab driver to bring us to the famous chendol place at Penang Road and again, he did not disappoint us and brought us right to the front of the stall.
That was all we had time for. I really wanted to eat the famous Rojak that everyone raves about, but traffic was absolutely crawling and we didn’t want the cruise ship to leave without us. When I asked the cab driver whether traffic was always this bad in Penang, he said traffic is bad, but it is made worse by the arrival of the big cruise ship. Oh well.. I guess Penang was not built for 3000 tourists pouring onto the island and combing the city over a few hours.
Phuket was an absolute nightmare to visit via the Voyager. Upon arrival, we had to go through a makeshift immigration process at the dining room. The process took FOREVER, as we had to queue up, collect our passports, let the immigration officers see our face and chop our passports, return our passports before we could continue queueing for the tender boats. Getting back was worse, I will talk more about it later.
Once we FINALLY got to Phuket (we were tendered to a place called Makham Bay, which if I remember correctly is on the South-East part of Phuket) and there were many taxis touting for business as usual. However, the taxis here were pretty nasty and most would only take you if you followed their itinerary and visited places nearby. It took a while for us to find a driver who was willing to take us around all day and all the way to Patong beach.
The first place the driver took us to was the cashew nut factory. Not much of a factory, more like a cashew nut shop with two machines set up to show you how they extract cashew nuts.
Next, we were adventurous enough to go elephant trekking – with MF. As expected, MF was totally freaking out on the elephant and I was so worried he would fall off. Ended up showing him Barney on my iPhone to keep him still for the whole ride.
And because I’m me, I have to insert a photo of the elephant dung we saw along the way to prepare you for it.
Before you get totally grossed out, let’s move on to food. The cab driver took us to a seafood restaurant where we had lobster and prawns.. Shiok max.
And since we were in Thailand, of course we had to order some classic Thai fare like pineapple rice, pad thai and tom yam soup.
After the sumptuous meal, it was time to hit the beach! We visited Patong Beach.. And MF LOVED it there!
After MF had enough fun at the beach, we decided to go shopping. The driver dropped us off at a huge shopping centre called Jungceylon near Patong beach. MF clearly preferred the beach.
There were some pretty cute elephants around the mall, other than that there wasn’t much interesting. Unless you are into cheap spa, facial and manicure / pedicure.. There are plenty of parlours here.
We ventured out of the mall to the street stalls across the road to do our shopping and went home with tons of cheap clothes and souvenirs.
We returned to the mall and had dinner at one of the Thai restaurants there for more superb Thai food. And when in Thailand, never forget the ‘Number 1 Most Delicious Food’, Massaman Curry!
After dinner, the cab driver took us back to Makham Bay to catch the tender boat back to the Voyager. The ride back was a TOTAL nightmare. We were on one of the last few tender boats going back. There were still many people on Makham Bay trying to get back to the Voyager. Royal Caribbean had outsourced the tendering to a ferry company in Phuket, and they did what they were infamous for: Disregarding safety regulations and overloading the tender boats.
Our tender boat was so freaking crowded! The Thai guy kept shouting at us to move in so that they could pack more people onto the ferry, but after a while, people just refused to move anymore and they let us go. The water was pretty choppy that evening and the whole ferry swayed from side to side precariously.
If that was not scary enough, the tender boat was so heavy that it had difficulty reaching the Voyager, because the current kept pushing it away! We were stuck at sea for more than an hour (until the sky became dark), the ferry went round and round, tilting from side to side, and it simply couldn’t get close enough to the Voyager. Passengers started freaking out and screaming to the Voyager for help. A fight nearly broke out between two passengers when one of them couldn’t take the other’s screaming anymore. When the ferry started rocking from side to side, someone shouted for everyone to move with the ferry to tilt it back.. But thankfully someone else shouted at him to stop giving stupid instructions because that is EXACTLY what you do if you want the ship to capsize!! (I was thinking, “C’mon Idiot! Don’t you watch Pirates of the Caribbean?? What you’re asking us to do is exactly what Jack Sparrow made the crew do when they wanted to overturn the pirate ship! Are you trying to get us all killed?? SHEESH!”)
Okay.. I was freaking out. We were actually very close to the Voyager already, I knew if anything happened, I could thread water long enough to be rescued… But what about MF?? There weren’t enough life jackets to go around, and he’s a goner if we hit the water!
As time dragged on, more people started to panic and I was absolutely annoyed that the crew on the Voyager was just standing there watching the show instead of trying to calm the people down. At one point, our ferry finally managed to get close enough for them to tie the back of the ferry to the Voyager.. But the water coming out from the front of the Voyager kept pushing the front of the ferry away so we couldn’t get off safely. Some passengers were so desperate they just jumped off the ferry onto the deck. You can imagine how desperate and scary the situation was. When they told us they had to untie us so that the ferry can try to dock at the back of the Voyager instead, I wanted to cry. People screamed at them to please don’t let us go, but they didn’t have a choice. But at that point, someone from the Voyager was finally giving instructions for everyone to just sit down and stay calm. Also, one of the Voyager’s engineer had hopped onto our ferry to help the skipper.
Eventually, after a few more tries, this time with everyone sitting down calmly, we managed to dock safely. I never felt more relieved when I stepped foot back on the Voyager. After that, I felt somewhat angry over the poor management of the whole ordeal by Royal Caribbean. Being such a big and experienced cruise company, I wondered why they didn’t take more prompt action. Perhaps they could have told the ferry to head back to Makham Bay and unload all the passengers and load only the safe number of passengers on before coming back. Going back and forth would have taken less time than what we ended up spending rocking around on the water!
Also, I was upset that there was no Royal Caribbean staff at Makham Bay itself to oversee the tendering process, nor any staff on the tender itself in case of emergency. And that they just outsourced the tendering process to some Phuket ferry company, and a quick google will tell you that Phuket ferries are infamous for overloading and sinking. Not funny. To me, that was a huge oversight on RC’s part. Even the tiny (and MUCH cheaper) cruise company we sailed with in Greece had cruise personnel on every tender boat and at the port.
I have written a looooong feedback to Royal Caribbean with suggestions on ways to improve the tendering process at Phuket. They never replied me, but I sure hope they take the incident seriously before an accident really happens *touch wood*, since they do have plans to continue cruising to Phuket.
Cruising in Southeast Asia?
Overall, I still think cruising is a great way to vacation. But if you ask me, I would say avoid Southeast Asia for the time being. The region is still very new to cruising, and from what I experienced, many ports-of-call are not quite prepared to receive huge crowds from large cruise ships. (Lack of taxi at cruise terminal, massive traffic jam at Penang, horrible immigration process at Phuket plus dangerous tendering process.) I experienced none of these when I cruised in Greece, a place that is used to receiving cruise passengers. I say stick to the tried and tested routes.. I definitely do not wish to be a guinea pig again at some new destination and put my life in danger.
Read about activities for toddlers on board Voyager of the Seas…