Perhentian Paradise

Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
Trip End Jun 08, 2006

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Flag of Malaysia  ,
Tuesday, October 18, 2005

The Perhentian Islands are located about 20km offshore of north eastern peninsular Malaysia, not far from the Thai border.

We get to the departure port in Kuala Besut in an ancient Toyota Crown diesel taxi. When we arrived in Taman Negara I negotiated with an overy keen travel agent who slashed the price of the taxi from RM280 to RM100 (about GBP16) for us both for the 300km ride.

We jump into the taxi along with fellow Scot, Pete, who has agreed with the taxi operator to pay a further RM50 to join us. I remark that the cost of fuel in Malaysia is remarkably low at RM1.30 per litre of diesel (approx GBP0.20) and Rachel informs me that the government wants to stimulate the economy by subsidising fuel.

The journey is pretty uneventful apart from three things. Nearing Kuala Besut, the taxi swerves wildly and we look behind us to see the most enormous cobra in the road. Its head is raised and its hood extended; it must be at least 10ft long. Seconds later the monster snake is struck by a truck travelling some distance behind us and it writhes into the undergrowth. These snakes are feared in Malaysia as a bite can kill an adult human in around 20 minutes. I wonder if this one will survive being run-over by a truck.

Almost at our destination, the taxi driver suddenly and bizarrely decides to read an English leaflet on Taman Negara park whilst driving. As he peers closely at the flyer he swerves violently across the road and Pete catches the moment on his video camera. After a minute or so of erratic driving he puts the leaflet down and continues as normal. We all look at each other and scratch our heads.

The last incidident is most bizarre when the taxi driver and one of his friends demand RM150 from Pete instead of RM50. Pete is quite calm and tries to reason with taxi driver, but he becomes all the more insistent. Pete explains quietly that Rachel and I paid RM50 each, so why would he have to pay RM150? Feeling on the edge of loosing my cool, I drag Pete away from the timewasters to the ferry jetty. They dont follow.

We jump on the high speed ferry which is not more that a 20ft motorboat but with promising twin 200hp outboards mounted on the back. It seems good value to have a 30min blast across the South China Sea for just RM30 (GBP5.00) each. With the wind in our hair we speed towards the dark outline of the Pehentian Islands.

The boat will drop us off at the beach of choice on the island. We hear from the boat driver that the isolated resort we want to go to, called D'Lagoon, is now closed because of the onset of the monsoon period. Boat drivers also act as touts for the accomodation on the island, so knowing that I won't believe him, he hands me a cellphone where a barely audible wavering voice tells me that they are now closed for the winter. The skeptic in me wants to go there anyway, but Rachel, the voice of reason, suggests we go to Long Beach for at least one night, where there are plenty of accomodation choices. I agree - better not to be stranded on a remote beach with all our luggage.

We get close to the islands and pause to drop people off at various points. Even although its a dull day, the waters are a luminous green and I can see a coral seabed and darting fishes under the rippling water. Coconut palms fringe the bright sandy beaches and lush green vegetation covers the steeply sloping hillsides. It seems that this could be a textbook island paradise.

Reaching Long Beach we find that there is no pier, so we gingerly launch ourselves on to a smaller boat which is used to transfer us to the shore. We take off our sandals and roll up our trousers. Laden with all our luggage, we time our jump into the luke warm water to miss the incoming rollers.

Us and the bags on dry land, we begin our search for a place to stay. I head to Moonlight, closest by, and find the service the most dissapointing I've ever experienced in any accomodation ever (even Russia). I walk in to the gloomy interior and see three Malaysian men and a European girl playing Mahjong in a corner. I look behind the reception counter and, finding no one, I ask the group if they know where the owner is:
me: 'do you know where the owner is?'
malaysian man: 'no'
me : 'OK'
malaysian man: 'I work here'
me: 'do you have any rooms?'
malaysian man: 'yes'
me: 'can you show me one?'

He barks an order to one of the other Mahjong players who leads me along a path to a decrepid little cabin. The white bed sheets are stained grey, there are huge brown damp streaks on the walls, and the cheap linoleum on the floor is folding up and broken. I walk out without even asking the price and head back to where Rachel is patiently waiting with our luggage on the beach. The island paradise feels as though its starting to crumble around me.

I look at 2 or 3 other places which are all a bit disappointing in their own way and then, right at the other end of the 1km long beach, I find a tidy little cabin with sea view at Lemon Grass. We lug our backpacks down the beach and to my relief, Rachel is happy with the RM 20 (GBP3.50) per night choice.

Later that evening we eat in one of the restaurants along the beach front. To Rachel's delight they all have BBQs where they grill the local fishes. A meal, including drink, rice, vegetables, dessert, and the all-import fish costs RM 15 (GBP2.50).

We meet a French guy, Xavier, who has been travelling for 3.5yrs, and his Dutch wife Anna. Xavier regales us with travelling stories including being run over by a truck in Nicaragua, crashing a car into a flooded river in the Australian outback, and meeting his wife Anna in a Mexican bar 1.5yrs ago. We try hard but can't quite manage the same level of travel-story drama that he does.

That night we retire to our cabin and fall asleep to the sound of waves crashing on the beach. Four hours later we are awake trying to kill the mosquitos that are buzzing around inside our mosquito net. Not sure if we've got them all, we eventually fall back to sleep.

The next day we hire snorkelling equipment (fins, mask, and snorkel) and decide to walk to D'Lagoon and Turtle Beach. We heard from some other travellers in Taman Negara that D'lagoon is only a 20minute walk away. We ask some locals where the path is, and we are met by a variety of vacant expressions. Eventually we find one knowledgable chap who points to a barely discernable opening in the rainforest, behind some huts. We scramble upwards through the entanglement and find that the path is actually marked by red and white tape, making navigation easier. After about 30minutes of walking we are getting very sweaty and concened because we are only wearing flip flops. We don't want to stop moving though because an army of mosquitos is following us and is ready to attack. We push on for over an hour and eventually hear the distinctive note of waves crashing on a beach.

Its clear that we have arrived on completely the wrong side of the island, but the deserted beach is lovely, fringed by swaying coconut palms, and the water is enticing shades of aqua and emerald green. We quickly put on our snorkel gear and swim lazily in the luke warm water accompanied by thousands of tropical fishes of all shapes and sizes. The coral below seems to be very healthy and grows in wild shapes and formations like a rock garden on steroids. Huge clams are embedded in the coral and their interior shimmers in different pearlescent colours as I bring my hand close.

Back on the beach Rachel finds a coconut and, after shaking it to confirm it contains water, decides that we must drink and eat from it. She looks like a cave-woman as she wrestles the husk off using a variety of rock tools and pieces of dead coral. Finally with the husk off she cracks it open, drinks some juice and offers for me to share her prize.

After lazing on the beach for a while eating coconut, we see that the path continues to another unknown destination. Since its early in the day we decide to press on. After 20 minutes we unexpectedly pop out at D'lagoon, a cluster of ramshackle wooden chalets on a beach of crisp white sand with a couple of storm damaged coconut trees leaning out into the curved bay. We see a gigantic lizard plodding along the beach front, and it becomes clear that the resort is closed for winter with no-body home. I find a hammock attached to one of the outstretched coconut palms and enjoy a power-nap while Rachel checks out the snorkelling.

In a while a short friendly Malaysian guy appears and tells us he is the caretaker for the resort over the winter period. I can see that his job is perhaps a little boring but certainly stress-free. He shimmies up a palm and chops down a green coconut for us to drink, hacking it skillfully open with a huge machete.

We decide to visit one last beach we have seen signposted from D'Lagoon called Turtle beach. From the signpost its also clear that the beach we visited earlier in the day was called Adam and Eve beach, which seems apt given the absence of other human life. It takes only ten minutes to walk to Turtle Beach and we spend some time enjoying the gentle lapping of water on the sand and the strangely shaped clouds billowing in the sky. Given our overall walking time was 1hr30min we decide to head back late afternoon, well before it gets dark.

At long beach we make use of the snorkelling gear one last time on the Northern end of the beach. An excited German girl tells us that she has just seen a 'Nemo Fish' and sure enough we see lots of little clown fish gliding through the protective arms of sea annenemone. The snorkelling on the Perhentian Islands certainly is better than we expected.

I'm looking forward to a lazy day on Long Beach, but Rachel has enjoyed snorkelling so much that she signs us up for a one-day snorkelling trip, visiting some hard-to-get-to locations on Big Island (we are staying on Little Island).

That night, a storm moves through and we hear the wind rising and the sound of thunder from our little cabin. I can't work out if its gigantic waves or lightning thats causing it as I drift into and out of sleep in the early hours of the morning.

In the morning its pouring with rain, but we head off for the snorkelling trip anyway, accompanied by a couple of Dutch girls. I'm always amazed by how many Dutch people we keep bumping into all over the place.

We clamber on to a small speed boat and head off to the first destination, where the boat driver informs us we will see lots of coral and fish. Despite the rain, the water is crystal clear and visbility is very good, and we spot a turtle gliding along directly below us over a maze of coral formations. I am struck by how three dimensional everything is beneath the waves. On the surface almost everything we need to look at is located 360 degrees around us on a plane. Under the water we need to look around us, but also up and down to appreciate the multi-dimensional sub-sea world.

Our next stop is in a big sandy bay where we are 'guaranteed' to see a turtle. Rachel and the Dutch girls spot one fairly early on, and soon I'm swimming above one. I figure that by keeping above it, I should eventually get a closer look when it comes up for air. Sure enough, 15 minutes later, its starts its ascent towards me and I reach out and briefly touch its hard reptilian shell. After the briefiest gulp of air it descends again to glide effortlessly along on the sandy ocean floor.

Out of the water and into the boat. Its raining, and as we speed across the water in our bathing costumes the goose bumps are on maximum setting. Next stop is shark point, and despite the sinister welcome that awaits us beneath the surface, we jump into the luke warm water eagerly to warm up. Rachel and the girls are well ahead of me because I'm a poor swimmer, and soon I'm lagging some distance behind them. Out of nowhere a 4 foot long shark swims past lazily infront of my noze. I try to let the other girls know but in an instant its gone into the depths. Five minutes later I spot another one and try to force it to change direction towards the girls. With a flick of the tail it accelerates with lightening speed to prevent me cutting it off. Its easy to see how one never has any pre-warning of a shark attack. We surface, and I let Rachel know I've already seen two sharks - she looks at me surprised since I was lagging behind. Soon everyone has seen plenty enough sharks and we're eager to get back on to the safety of the boat.

We stop for a bite of lunch at the southern tip of the little island. The cafe owner drops a baby turtle on the table for us to take a look at. The energetic little geezer doesn't stop moving his flippers in a vain attempt to reach the ocean. Putting him on the ground we see he knows precisely which way to head. Just as he is nearing the edge of the pier the cafe owner retrieves him and puts him back in his watery prison to await viewing from the next bunch of snorkellers.

Last stop on the snorkelling trip is the 'secret garden'. We smim over a garden of coral feeling levitated by the gently rolling sea. The boat driver warns us about the currents and points to the headland letting us know not to go there. Swimming round a small rocky outcrop near the headland I feel the tow of the current and head back in towards the bay. Rachel and the two Dutch girls go further round as they are stronger swimmers. Soon I head back to the boat, but there's no sign of the other three. The boat driver and I quickly realise they have been swept out into the channel, and we can just make out three little blobs about half a mile away. We speed over and pick them up. Fortunately they are all relaxed, and Rachel is animated about how fast the current pulled her out. She describes swimming flat out, looking down at the coral, and seeing it moving backwards.

Back at Long beach, the rollers are really crashing in, and I decide to make the most of it by renting a boogie board for RM 5 (GBP 0.80) per hour. I have a lot of fun and swallow a lot of water trying to get on a wave, and I manage to fly a few times.

In the evening we head out for our last meal of barbequed fish and we are amazed to see that the tide is sweeping up the beach, lapping right up to the edge of the restaurants. We wonder if its the combination of the storm and the full moon tide. We hope that our little cabin won't get washed away in the night. At night we lie in bed thinking about the waves and wondering how easy it will be to get to Thailand the next day.
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