Pirates and ex-KGB bosuns: Freighter travel adventures

A freighter travel tale, with details on how to book

Freighter travel: Malaysia to India
Sunset from the bridge of M/V Tiger Breeze

When you begin and end a freighter travel trip it’s likely that you’ll find yourself in insalubrious surroundings. Port Klang was just such a place. It’s Malaysia’s main port and one of the busiest container ports in the world. The passengers on the train there from Kuala Lumpur seemed confused about why two backpackers were on this unlikely route.

We were confused, too, when we arrived, until we saw someone holding a sign with my name on. First we were taken to get our passport departure stamps, and then by car across the immense port to our ship. M/V Tiger Breeze (now called the Hong Yuan 02) was a 188m-long freighter that travelled back and forth across the Bay of Bengal.

Dressed in his white uniform, the captain greeted us at the top of the rickety gangway. We were shown to our cabin and told that someone would be along shortly to show us around.

Cabin and tour

Freighter travel: Malaysia to India
Loading up in Port Klang

Freighter cabins tend to be massive. At some point in our cabin someone clearly got bored of trying to fill the space with furniture, but it had a sofa, desk and double bed. It also had a spacious but basic bathroom (no tub). Two of the freighter crew had the non-stop work of helping in the kitchen and keeping all rooms clean and tidy, which ours certainly was. Although comfortable, the rest of the ship was more interesting.

The captain introduced us to a tall, thin man who was bearded, balding, and had unreadable eyes. Peter (not his real name) was the ship’s bosun and therefore responsible for deck operations, supplies and deckhands. Originally from Georgia, he was the only one out of the senior crew not from the UK or Ireland.

Peter took us along the side of the ship to the bow where we could stare straight down into the clear blue Andaman Sea. He told us what to do in case pirates attacked. Of course, we didn’t take this seriously until he then showed us the cages around the outside door designed to foil unwanted boarders. Apparently these busy waters are popular with pirates and, although surrounding nations have taken strong action, shipboard defence methods are still recommended.

Being in Peter’s presence was, however, reassuring. After he had shown us the noisy engine room he took us to his cabin for a friendly chat. He had once been in the KGB but, having been blown up, decided on a career change after he was discharged from hospital many months later. Dressmaking was his next chosen occupation, which he enjoyed until deciding to join the merchant navy. To say that this man was full of captivating tales would be an understatement.

Food and fun

By the time we boarded Tiger Breeze we had been travelling through Russia, Mongolia, China, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Malaysia for several months. Having mainly British and Irish officers, the food served in the officer’s mess was very much designed for our bland palates (with the exception of delicious borscht). It was a much-welcome taste of home.

Sadly I wasn’t able to enjoy the food on day two. The ship had sailed out into open waters and there was now a very steady, constant roll. Cruise ships have stabilisers to reduce the motion of the ocean, freighter ships do not have this luxury and, much to the hilarity of the crew, I was suffering as a result.

I was able to maintain my sea legs for long enough to visit the ship’s bar. Yes, despite only having about 20 crew, the Tiger breeze had its own lounge area complete with TV room and bar – fair enough, I suppose, if you spend your life at sea. This was a great opportunity to better get to know the crew, although they all mainly seemed interested in our travels so far. It seemed as though they only occasionally met passengers who had arrived here via the road less travelled.

Freighter travel: Malaysia to India
The pool, and the fastest way off the ship

At the stern, beneath the lifeboat, was a pool. It was a small pool, with not particularly warm water, and nowhere to rest your pina colada. It was also mainly occupied by the two people who cleaned our room and who did not seem to care for company outside of work hours. Anyone who expects freighter travel to be like a cruise ship will be sorely disappointed.

Unconventional booking

Purchasing a cabin on a freighter ship isn’t a case of picking a route and clicking a button. The general expectation is that you’ll be on board for weeks at a time. However, the few agents that handle freighter travel bookings are expert at what they do and can usually get you on whatever section you’re hoping to experience. These are, in my opinion, the best freighter travel agents out there:

Although the freighter travel prices aren’t particularly cheap, remember that you get transport, accommodation and food for that price.

Reluctant arrival

After living in pampered comfort for five days, we weren’t quite ready to step off into Chennai just yet. The captain graciously allowed us to stay on board one more night and so we watched as the derricks swung the massive containers off of, and then on to Tiger Breeze’s deck.

The following morning we were more than ready to continue the adventure. Thanking the friendly and welcoming crew, we disembarked and made our unconventional arrival into India. This had been an important part of the plan to travel from London to Nepal without flying and it had worked perfectly.

Here’s a short video of our Malaysia to India freighter journey:


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