Cruising: Thailand and Malaysia on a small ship adventure

This isn't your normal cruise embarkation. No fancy terminal, no signposts, no grinning staff wanting to take your photo against a fake sunset. My taxi stops uncertainly amid the coiled ropes and rusting machinery of Phuket's work-a-day deep-sea port and, dragging my suitcase, I pick my way towards the diminutive Panorama II. The yacht looks like it ought to be afloat in a posh marina, not tied up against an unadorned concrete pier.

In two minutes, I'm up the gangplank, hallooed by the captain and ensconced in the lounge over a drink tinkling with ice cubes. We cast off without fanfare. A row of squid boats glowing with green lights sits on the horizon like an alien invasion. As we sail nearer, I see the boats are jauntily painted with orange roofs and yellow stripes. Fishermen's faces grin out of the twilight. Ahead, islands are humped on a silvery sea.

I'm off on a meander through the Thai islands and onwards to Langkawi and Penang in Malaysia. This is Peregrine Adventures' inaugural cruise, an interesting attempt to carve out a new niche in the competitive cruise world. It's nothing like mainstream cruising. Panorama II's nearest competitors might be Star Clipper, which carries more than three times as many passengers, and Coral Adventurer, which sails only in Indonesia.

This is a cruise pretending not to be a cruise. We set off on what is essentially a sailing yacht, with a flexible itinerary to remote locations at a languid pace. This is the first cruise, and only half full, so it's hard to judge who'll be on board, but this journey will appeal to active travellers in their 40s and 50s who are no longer enthused about backpacking, but not yet ready to surrender to big-ship cruising.

We don't see a big cruise ship until our last day in Penang. On our first day, we anchor off Koh Yao Yai, known for its lobster-fishing communities rather than the holidaying hordes of nearby Koh Phi Phi. A few days later, we're at Koh Krandan in Hat Chao Mai National Park, enjoying a beach barbecue of giant prawns and huge sausages. As we sail away there isn't another boat in sight. Clouds are puffed with orange. The sea is a placid, beaten silver, rimmed with pink on the horizon like an exotic cocktail.

Passengers lounge on the deck, subdued by the heat of the day, by the sea salt on their faces and the sunset's beauty. There's just a low murmur of admiration at the scenery, the clink of icy cocktails, the lazy turn of a novel's pages. The evening light erupts in a last moment of fierce red, and the day is gone. We eat dinner under a light breeze, far from the cacophony of Thailand's notorious resort towns.

This is expedition cruising of sorts, but you're never really in a remote place. Don't be surprised if a boatload of tourists from some town just over the horizon temporarily turns up on your castaway beach. Besides, Malaysian ports of call Langkawi and Penang are firmly on the tourist trail, and so is Ao Nang in Thailand's Krabi province. Ao Nang is a rollicking beach resort of unchecked development, looped with neon and tangled electric cables, and crowded with massage pavilions and fast-food restaurants.

What Ao Nang does offer, though, is varied options for shore excursions, such as rock climbing, Thai cooking classes and eco-cycling, plus a spectacular setting amid the glorious karst scenery for which Thailand's islands are famous. Many passengers opt for the simplicity of a long-tail boat to Railay Beach which, though crowded in places with Russians and prawn-pink Englishmen, sits between soaring, jungle-draped crags where monkeys leap.

Peregrine Adventures commits itself to small-group, responsible travel and local experiences. Even in Ao Nang, it does a good job at presenting more than just bar-lined waterfronts and beach amusements. We head inland by open truck one evening for dinner with a local family at Bung Ae House among the karst piles and mango trees. Head of the household, Mr Air, shows us how to hack open coconuts, and which parts of pineapples taste best, and takes us on a tour of his neighbour's palm oil and rubber trees.

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His shy, head-scarfed wife answers questions about cooking, and shows us how to roll sticky rice flour into balls, later simmered in coconut milk for dessert. Her tom-yum soup and chicken curry are pungent and spicy. We eat on the verandah as cicadas chirrup and children play.

By day five we're in Tarutao Marine National Park, a scattering of three archipelagos in the Andaman Sea. It's one of Thailand's more unspoiled regions, draped in rainforest and necklaced in healthy coral reefs. We anchor off Koh Adang and Zodiac across startlingly emerald water to a beach of blinding white sand. Rounded black boulders tumble into the sea. I don a snorkel and mask from the ship's supplies and duck underwater to find Nemo among the undulating tentacles of a green anemone.

Parasails blossom against the sky as we sail into Langkawi. The bay is rimmed with white sand and backed by a jagged outline of blue hills. Next day we're off with entertaining local guide Hisham on a tour of the island's highlights. We finish on a jungle trail guarded by mischievous macaques ("they love our Pringles and Kit Kats") that leads to Telaga Tujuh Waterfalls.

Water cascades down Mount Mat Cincang in a series of seven rock pools that provide the perfect antidote to the humid day. I plunge into welcome coolness and lie on my back as I watch a hornbill clatter in the trees. Water teeters and twinkles on the edge of the clifftop as it catches the sun. This might be cruising, but it isn't any sort of cruising I've done before, and it leaves me feeling rather joyful.

SMALL PERKS

The two-masted, three-deck, 50-metre-long Panorama II is scarcely a cruise ship, and more a large yacht. Such very small ships have pains and pleasures. It's hard to escape diesel fumes and generator noise and amenities are limited. Still, you don't have to worry about dress codes, camaraderie quickly develops and you'll never have to queue.

The greatest benefit is feeling not like a cruise passenger but like an invitee on a multi-millionaire's yacht. You can chat to the captain and flop on deck in wet swimwear. You're enveloped in the environment. Admire the sea's glitter, feel the deck tilt, taste salt on your lips and watch sunsets over dinner. Lie on loungers under taut white sails.

Panorama II is on charter from the Mediterranean, which explains the all-Greek nautical crew and rather jarring Mediterranean scenes on the walls. (Peregrine hopes to eventually have its own ship in south-east Asia.) Although carrying just 49 passengers it has decent public spaces including an aft deck that descends to a water-sports platform, a large fore deck beneath the masts and an air-conditioned lounge and bar. Cabins are a reasonable size. Double beds are rather cramped but the en suite bathrooms are larger than you might expect on a yacht.

The dining space occupies a shaded upper deck, with an indoor dining room only used during rare inclement weather. Seating is tight, so you'll have to control your elbows. Meals are served buffet style with reasonable choices considering passenger numbers. Expect good salads, a variety of generic Asian stir-fries (sweet-and-sour chicken, black pepper beef), and cake and fruit for dessert. Seafood is particularly good, especially the gigantic prawns and banana-leaf-wrapped curried fish.

TRIP NOTES

Brian Johnston travelled courtesy of Peregrine Adventures.

MORE

traveller.com.au/cruises

traveller.com.au/thailand

traveller.com.au/malaysia

tourismthailand.org

malaysia.travel

FLY

Thai Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Bangkok, with connections to Phuket and Penang. See thaiairways.com

STAY

For a pre-cruise stay, the all-villa Banyan Tree Phuket Resort in Thailand has a pool, excellent spa, restaurants and sporting facilities. Villas from $670 a night. See banyantree.com

CRUISE

Peregrine Adventures offers several itineraries taking in Thai and Malaysian islands, round trip from Phuket in Thailand or between Phuket and Penang in Malaysia. The writer was on an eight-day cruise between Phuket and Penang. Prices from $2586 a person twin share including transport, half board and most activities. See peregrineadventures.com

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