Island Life

Trip Start Aug 21, 2003
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Thursday, September 11, 2003

After Kuala Lumpur we left for one of the world's oldest rainforests, Teman Negara, in central Malaysia. This particular rainforest is about 130 million years old; it never endured an Ice Age. Supposedly there are animals like tigers and elephants in this forest, but due to the amount of tourists you would have to trek deep within the jungle to catch a glimpse of any of them. However Jack did narrowly escape an attack by a crazy monkey, who wanted to steal his camera! We stayed for only one day - we were staying on the side of the river opposite the park, and here we were able to glimpse the stark contrasts between real Malaysian life, and the life that is constructed by the tourist industry for Western visitors. The National Park side of the river had one resort, which was beautifully landscaped and impeccably clean. On the other side of the river was Kuala Tahan, a small town littered with garbage. We stayed in some chalets here. The town had not had water for 3 days, which was not much fun after a 4 hour hike through the jungle. It was a little depressing being here, in a beautiful natural setting, but surrounded by trash and poverty. It is hard for us to understand why anyone would want to live like that. The Malaysian government desperately wants to achieve developed country status, but they still have trouble supplying their people with trash cans and clean water.

From Teman Negara we hopped on the "Jungle Train", which took us on a steamy ride to northeastern Malaysia. It is the jungle train because it literally goes right through the jungle; in fact, pieces of the jungle often fly through the windows into your laps. The ride was accompanied by beautiful scenery, but after 7 hours we couldn't take the heat anymore (much less the soot and smoke coming through the windows,) so we hopped the train and got a taxi with some Germans for the remainder of the trip to Kota Bharu (the transit center to Perhentian Islands.)

After a violently rough hour boat ride, we arrived at Pulau Besar of the Perhentian Islands. There are two islands, one known for its backpacker party scene and one known for its capacity for relaxation. We opted for the relaxing one. The Perhentian Islands are stunningly beautiful, jungle-covered islands with palm-fringed white sand beaches and impossibly clear turquoise waters. We had pre-arranged PADI open water dive course packages, and we had homework to do our first night there. The course lasted 4 days, during which we were inundated with the technical details of diving. We were lucky enough to have probably the best scuba instructor in the entire world, Peisee, an ethnic Chinese Malaysian. She was so knowledgeable and incredibly good at explaining things through body language. Our only problem with her is that our masks were constantly full of water due to laughing at her underwater antics. The first time we took our equipment in the water, we had a real open water dive. From this point on, we loved it. Besides that, we did 3 other open water dives and a few shallow water confined dives to exercise our new skills and rescue procedures. The Perhentians are a great place to dive, if you want to get certified, you should come here! It is so cheap, the water is like a warm bath, you can swim with the evening's dinner, and you see the most amazing things. Some of our sightings - huge sea turtles (3 or 4 feet in diameter), blue-spotted stingrays (mating!), bamboo sharks hiding under rocks, tons of parrotfish, clownfish, angelfish and triggerfish, moray eels, schools of barracudas, and our favorites, goby fish and partner shrimp. Here's how these guys work - the goby fish range from about 1 inch long to 5 inches long, they live in little houses under the sand. But they don't build these houses themselves. Each goby fish partners up with a blind, translucent shrimp who, in return for protection, constantly fixes up and cleans the goby's house. We hovered above the ocean floor for a while watching these guys. When you first see them, all you see is the goby fish, who sits right outside the hole to the house, like a bouncer at a nightclub, and surveys the surroundings for predators. He sends messages to his shrimp with vibrations of his tail to let them know whether or not it is safe to come out or not. If it is, you see the shrimp scurry out pushing a big pile of sand or maybe a little shell to place next to the doorway. As long as you don't move too much they let you watch, but if you get too close then the goby whips around and dives into the hole. Thereupon the house crashes and the poor little blind shrimp have to start their work all over again.

So, you can tell we liked diving. Now we are certified scuba divers! We also did one dive after our course was completed, to a site called the Temple of the Sea. It is considered to be a 4 star dive site. We went deeper than we had during the course, and our divemaster told us that he was very impressed with our skills. Overall, we had such a relaxing time at the islands. All of our meals and our accommodation was included in our dive package; the restaurant was maybe 30 steps from our chalet and we were allowed to order anything we desired! Great food too, Asian curries, fresh fish, banana milkshakes. Needless to say we ate and slept very well during our time at the islands.

Reluctantly we left the Perhentians, and hopped on an 8 hour bus to Penang Island, located on the opposite coast of Malaysia. We arrived at 5 in the morning, and spent a few hours sleeping on benches in the bus station! Penang is not a tropical paradise like the Perhentians; it is way more populated and is one of Malaysia's economic powerhouses. Yesterday we rented a motorbike and drove it all around the island. The driving on this island has so far been the best that we have seen; that is, it is slightly manageable. Jack drove most of the way, as I still don't feel comfortable driving one, especially here where you drive on the left and anything goes, like driving on the right and on sidewalks. He did a great job and I felt very safe. The motorbike cost us less for an entire day (including helmets and gas) than did the 2 beers we bought that evening! It was great getting out there on the road, able to stop or turn around anytime we felt like it. We stopped at a tropical fruit farm, where Jack tasted his first durian (I won't try it, they smell like rotten garbage), and we drank some jackfruit juice! They have the craziest fruits here! We also stopped at Kek Lok Si temple, the largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia which incorporates Chinese, Burmese and Thai architecture. Very expansive and ornate with humungous Buddha figures.

Tomorrow we are off to Thailand!
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