Perhentain Islands

Trip Start Apr 30, 2004
Trip End Jan 28, 2005

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Saturday, July 31, 2004

Sat 24 July - Day 83
The coach was driven like a bank robbers get away vehicle, which got us to Jerteh fast, shaken and sleep deprived. Jertah is a small town just short of Khota Bharu, it's a half hour drive from there to Kualar Besut, a small fishing village where the ferries depart for the Perhentian Islands. It's normally quiet in Jerteh and at 4.30am it's silent. There is always though, a taxi driver lurking around bus stops and tonight was no exception. The ex demolition derby Datsun Sunny delivered us directly to the ferry pier for 15R.

We booked ourselves a seat on the 7am, 60R return fast boat, which is a long narrow speedboat with a canopy cover and two huge outboard engines. It covers the 20km in 30 minutes.

The reason we travelled from SW to NE Malaysia was the reputation of the Perhentian Islands. Throughout our trip we have been told they are the best islands in Malaysia, with crystal clear aqua marine water, white sand beaches and world class diving and snorkelling. The words crystal clear and aqaumarine had us packing our swimmers and factor 50 coconut oil in a flash.

There are 2 islands, Besar is the bigger, quiter and more expensive, while Kecil is geared up for backpackers with plenty of basic accomodation, especially on Long Beach.

As the speedboat skimmed closer to the islands the water became bluer and bluer, until it was a deep, compelled to dive into blue. The boat drops passangers at which ever beach thay want and as we approached the first stop on Besar, the deep blue of the sea took on a turquoise translucence which only occurs with a white sandy seabed and crystal clear water.

It's peak season and accomodation can be hard to come by. We'd phoned many places to try and book a room, but were told to turn up and see. Most places are dealing with backpackers who having booked, often don't show up and when they do show, have no idea how long they're staying. So if a place is full and check out time is 11am, the owner has no real idea till then whether they have all, half or no rooms available, it seems a bizarre way to run things but as it's so busy the owners aren't bothered.

There is upmarket accomodation, especially on Besar, which you can book by leaving credit card details, but it's way out of our league.

Most grunge monkeys head straight to Long Beech on Kecil, so we followed Lonely Planets advice and tried Besar first. We had to transfer to a smaller boat and finally paddle ashore with our rucksacks. I had won the previous nights sleep deprivation contest so Rene trudged off through the sand in search of a room, while I sat on the bags. 45 mins later Rene reappeared wet through to the waist and roomless. A slight misjudgement of water depth on a rocky headland between beaches the reason for her soaking. Cheaper rooms taken, other rooms available but too expensive. We had no choice but to take a boat taxi 20R to Long Beach on Kecil.

It had been cloudy so far, but as we land on Long Beach the sun has broken through and it's scorchio. It's still only 8.30am. By 10.30am we've checked every place, everywhere is full and we're sat outside Sypfony's bungalows office (shed) in the hope that someone checks out at 11am.

The accomodation on Long Beach is basic and often shabby and run down. It's fairly expensive with the cheapest rooms about 30R. It's Saturday (never the best day to look for a room) and unsurprisingly nobody checks out. We order a cup of tea and have a team meeting, a very tense meeting, the sort couples have when they're very tired, hot, slightly whiffy, frustrated and only have each other to take it out on. Thatcher v Scargill. We have 3 choices:-

1. Spend another 20R, head back to Besar and pay in excess of 100R for a room.
2. Use up our return ferry ticket back to the mainland, stay the night in Kuala Besut and pay another 60R to return. Symfony would allow us to book a room for Sunday night as three people were checking out.
3. Give it up as a bad job, cut our losses and head to Singapore.

After we'd calmed down and amicably weighed up the options (Thatcher / Reagan) we chose option 4, sleep on the beach. We'd travelled all this way to snorkel and weren't going to be drowned by the small maatewr of no accommodation.

A friendly German called Judith allowed us to leave our rucksacks in her room overnight which was very kind as the room was tiny. We put all our valuables in our day sack which was padlocked and kept with us.

A bit of lunch was followed by a lot of beach. I was swimming, Rene was sunbathing and dipping to cool off. The water was incredible, so clear and warm. As soon as you step foot in the sea there are fish darting about. Long beach is a stretch of white sand with rocky headlands at either end. The sandy sea bed (reef) extends out about 200m from the beach before it drops off. When you walk into the sea it's fairly shallow for the first 30m or so, then it quickly gets deeper and deeper all the way out to the edge of the reef.

I spend an hour wearing my poor mans snorkelling gear of no flippers, no snorkel and no mask. The sea is so clean that swimming under water with your eyes open is no problem. I see hundreds of fish, it's just that none of them are quite in focus, it's like being in a huge acquarium with bathroom door glass sides.

Rene's horizontal, half under a large beach umbrella canopy thingy, reading her 150th book of the trip. She's perfectly content to lie, read and sleep all afternoon on a beach, whereas I get restless after 5 minutes. It's working well today, because Rene can watch the bag while I'm in the sea. I put some more suntan lotion on her back, turn her 45 degrees and then hire mask, snorkel and finns at 10R / day (1.40).

Back in the water it's like switching from a black and white Alba TV with portable aerial to a state of the art home cinema system. In no time at all I'm over by the rocks, it's a warter wonderland of coral, sponges and every shape and colour of fish imagineable. I'm not well up on names of fish but rainbow, parrot, tiger and zebra would describe a large percentage. Three hours superb snorkelling later, I emerge from the South China Sea, and only then because I was absolutely knackered and had blisters on my big toes from the fins. It's not like home where the water temperature makes your ankles hurt when you paddle and a five minute swim gives you blue lips and shrivelled bits. Sunburn and wrinkled fingers are your only worries here.

Normally after an afternoon on the beach, you head back to your room / hotel / home, with a warm, sandy, slightly tired, fresh air and sea induced glow, and have a hot shower. We stayed on the beach, watching the local fishing boats return and drop anchor in the bay as the sky glowed orange then pink before dusk.

The fishing boats are small wooden and very colourful, covered in tiny flags. We were told to be wary that a number of fishermen come ashore for a drink and often sleep on the beach. fortunately for us, one of the beach front bars is having a party night, which basically means they are staying open late, so after a meal we head over.

The night turned into a version of an SAS sleep deprivation test. We were both knackered from the night before and an afternoon on the beach, and the last thing we wanted to do was sit and listen to loud continuous dance music. But if safety was in numbers, the beach was partially lit and there were lots of people sat about. At 11pm a big bonfire was lit, we moved as close as we could and tried to get comfy. I was sat with the day pack containing money, passports, camera etc. between my legs, the music was thumping and sandflies on my feet were driving me to distraction, sleep was a million miles away. Unbelievably, Rene was stretched out next to me sound asleep. How? How does she do that? When she closes her eyes her brain must automotically soundproof her head from any outside distractions.

At 5am the music stopped and the DJ announced the electric was being turned off. The fire had burned itself out and thunder rumbled overhead. We moved off the beach and sat under cover at Symfony's. Rene got her sleeping bag liner and went back to sleep. By 5.30am it was raining and we had a spectacular hour of thunder and hammer house of horror sheet lightening.

Expenses (7ringit / pound): boats 154, milkshake 5, taxi 15, lunch 23, snorkel 10, vodka 25, beer 14, dinner 20.50, accomodation - FREE!
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