Life's a Beach on Tioman - days 11 to 15

Trip Start Apr 07, 2010
Trip End Ongoing

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Where I stayed
Mokhtar's Place; Panuba Inn Resort; Salang Indah Resort

Flag of Malaysia  , Pahang,
Saturday, April 17, 2010

We paid the ferry fare, as well as a compulsory donation for the benefit of the national park waters, and entered the holding area.  The ferry from Mersing to Pulau Tioman ('Tioman Island') would take one and a half hours, with drop-offs being made at each of the main beaches on the west coast of the 39km long island, from south to north.  What we had gathered so far was that the island is inhabited only along the west coast, save for a single beach on the east coast, and populated in the mostpart by native islanders.  The dense jungle forest and steep terrain mean that the only places inhabitable are the patches of land between the small stretches of beach and the foot of the steep hillside, and the only way to cross the island is by 4x4 in one area, by foot on a trail down the spine of the island, or otherwise by taxi boat to get from one beach to another.  It has been rated as one of the most beautiful islands in the world, and is a favourite with scuba divers.  As we contemplated all this anticipated isolation and tranquility whilst waiting for the ferry we became more and more excited.

The ferry pulled in and dozens of tourists sprang up and rushed to the gate; queueing did not exist, with groups of Asian teenagers and Western travellers, young and old alike, all too eager to get to the paradise awaiting us.  We squeezed through and out onto the quayside, and dashed onto the boat.  The early part of the voyage was uneventful, but excitement grew as we neared the hour mark, as we began to close on a succession of increasingly bigger and more beautiful islands, not knowing whether each one would be Tioman or not.  Then we saw what had to be Tioman.  Reminding us of something seen in pictures, perhaps a scene from Jurassic Park, from the sea the island was a huge crest of unbroken lush green rising from the water.  We neared and the boat passed several beaches, none of them our destination, but could happily have been.

After ten minutes of travelling along the coastline, we pulled upto the wooden jetty of Ayer Batang beach (or 'ABC', in reference to the name of one of the first businesses to setup there).  We hauled ourselves and then our bags from the boat, and began to walk down the 50m jetty.  Our pace slowed and our smiles grew as we took in the long stretch of golden sandy beach bisected by the jetty and the palm trees lining it, the romance heightened by glimpses of old wooden chalets dotted just behind the trees.  At the start of the jetty we turned right, Mokhtar's Place signposted.  We found that this place really was as promised, highlighted by the fact that the only visible infrastructure was the 2m-wide concrete walkway running alongside the beach.  After passing a huge monitor lizard just feet away from us, and then a monkey playing in an open shed, we arrived at the 'reception'.  An elderly Scandinavian woman ambled over from a nearby wooden chalet, to advise us that 'they have just gone out on the boat, but will be back soon'.  Clearly this healthy-looking pensioner was enjoying the good life living out retirement in an enviable way, a glance at the adornments to her chalet indicating that she was well at home here.  Only a few minutes later a small wooden boat scored into the beach below us, and the husband and wife owners came to greet us. 

We were pleased to find that our wooden chalet with verandah was set only slightly back from the walkway, and we had a clear view of the beach and sea.  We entered the simple room, to find a mosquito net for the first time, and a 1950s-looking old fan hanging from the wall (air-con was not an option here).  We found that we would be sharing a room with columns of ants and a bathroom with a few small spiders, but hey, it had to be expected.  We couldn't wait to explore the rest of this wonderland, and so ventured out soon after we had put our bags down.

We decided to head south, towards Tekek Village, which is the largest inhabitation and where all the administration for the island is located, including the only ATM.  We climbed a trail up and over an outcrop of rocks at the end of ABC beach, descending to the beach on the other side.  The walk took us past many of the islanders' huts and shed buildings, giving us a glimpse of their basic way of life.  After sweating through a thirty minutes walk in the blazing midday sun, we passed a standalone tree from which a large number of birds were twittering.  Upon closer inspection we realised that these were not birds, but dozens of huge bats staring down at us clicking away.  Absolutely fascinating.  We eventually prised ourselves away from this spectacle (unfortunately our photos didn't come out well) and carried on towards the brick buildings making up the village centre.  As we did so, a heard an increasingly thunderous roar approaching us; turning, we saw a propeller plane crashing into the hillside!  After hearing no explosion and seeing no balls of flame, we went to investigate.  We soon found signs for an airport, then the mesh fence and the tiny one-storey terminal building, with the plane parked and a small number of passengers coming from it.  We had no idea that there was, could be, an airport on the island, and were amused at the size of this 'airport'.  Also at Tekek was the small police station, and a marina for a few visiting yachts.

We returned, exhausted, and spent the rest of the afternoon on the beach in front of our chalet, having our first encounter with the hundreds of coin-sized crabs which dominate the beaches of Tioman, continually scooting around and scooping out holes in the sand to form a home before the next tide.  All the beaches are pitted with these tiny holes.

It was in the twilight that Lauren first realised the sunburn on Ross' scalp; the trek to Tekek in the midday sun without sunblock or a hat.  It was only painful to the touch, but the next day the top of his head was covered every inch by dozens of small blisters, which over the coming week dried-out and then peeled away.  A lesson was most definitely learnt.

Ross' discomfort was outweighed, however, by Lauren's increasing sufferance of insect (presumably mosquito) bites, despite regular applications of 50% DEET.  The first few had come at Singapore Zoo the week before, and had rapidly grown in number during Kuala Lumpur, but arriving at Tioman had taken the total to over a hundred countable bites, mostly on her legs.  It was not a pretty sight, but the itching was the terrible thing for Lauren.  Ross, on the other hand, was unscathed.  We had heard that some people were more tasty to insects than others, but the difference here was preposterous, as our locations over the days had been identical.  Maybe the blood coursing through Ross' veins is pure poison, we mused.

We ate in a restaurant on stilts above the beach, looking out to sea.  The pitch darkness of the night sky started to be lit up by never-ending strikes of lightning in the clouds on the horizon.  No thunder, just a magnificent and mesmerising light show across the expanse of the horizon.  The mainland must have been taking a beating, we thought.  It was in the early hours that the storm met the island, and we were awoken by heavy rain slapping down on the roof of our chalet and the noise of the previously calm sea waves being whipped-up by the wind.  The storm rains lasted throughout the next day, and so we were chalet-bound.  There was nothing to do but sleep through the heat and humidity.

The morning after our second night at Mokhtar's Place we had to pack-up and move onto Panuba beach.  The middle-aged owner (the son of Mokhtar), wearing only shorts and no flip flops, took us on his boat (for a fee, of course, such we came to find the mentality of the money-grabbing islanders) for the few minutes it took to pass the northern headland of ABC to Panuba.  He bypassed the wooden jetty and 'dropped anchor' in one foot deep water at the beach.  Having waved him off, we brushed the sand and water from our feet and took the few steps up into the open-plan and open-sided restaurant-cum-reception.  We were sent off to our rooms, and to our dismay found that the only available room was a chalet on stilts at the other side of the rockface making up the foundations of Panuba Inn Resort, with many steep and uneven steps up and across the rocks.  Lauren had operations on her feet last year, and we were both unhappy with the likelihood that at some point a mis-placed weakened foot would suffer, and so returned to reception.  Although the lady had previously been adamant that it was the only room available, after suggesting we would have to leave Panuba, as if by magic another chalet became available.  It was much closer and lower on the rockface, though not devoid of a number of steps to get there, and we decided we should give it a try for a day. 

The wooden box on stilts offered great views from the single window, though we were a bit daunted by the view of the ground below which we could see through gaps in the floor boards.  We were desperate to get to the deserted 'private' beach; we set up camp with a couple of wooden sunloungers which had seen better days.  Ross went in search of a snorkelling kit whilst Lauren cracked open another book, and before long we were both in our element.  For the rest of the afternoon we had the beach to ourselves, and stayed until the beautiful sunset.

In the evening we were treated to really great service at Panuba's only restaurant.  Whilst the staff (all generations of a family we guessed) sat glued around the TV in the middle of the restaurant, the few captive guests had to go up to get their own menus.  Eventually each would come to the realisation that the waiters were too interested in the TV show and were not going to come over to take any orders, and so had to get up again and approach the clearly irritated waiters.  The food, unsurprisingly, was terrible, and the management found it hard to understand our complaint about several ants Ross had fished out of his soup.  We had come to expect laid back service and that was no problem in other places; this was sheer ignorance and laziness, and it pervaded every aspect of our stay.

The night sky was again filled with lightning, and again we were awoken by the storm in the early hours.  What truly scared us this time, however, was the realisation that we were on stilts that appeared unsteady (some looked like they had shifted over time and were at precarious angles not flush with their adjoining supports), and the strong winds and rain lashing the area as we peered out of the window gave us the thought that a landslip might happen above us or the stilts might collapse.  It was difficult to relax back to sleep.  What knocked our confidence further the next day was the sight of a couple of locals repairing supports of other chalets throughout the day.  We figured that Malaysia's equivalent of the Health & Safety Executive probably never bothered with the long trip to Tioman.

After a poor breakfast service, we decided that we would curtail our seven-night stay at Panuba to just one more night, and after another stint at the beach used the internet terminal to investigate what was offered by the next beach north, the busy Salang beach.  So, the following morning we got our refund and then paid the water taxi fare of five pounds, and went to the jetty to wait for our pick-up.  A guy at the jetty asked us what we had booked, and he made a call on his mobile.  Minutes later a speedboat turned up with passengers for scuba diving already onboard, and we realised that we were just hopping on for a short journey en route to the boat's dive site; the resort managers were getting a favour from a friend and pocketing the extortionate taxi fee.  There was no point in arguing, the guy switching to Selective English; it confirmed the right decision to move on.

The jetty at Salang was bigger and made of concrete, and we could see immediately that this beach area was much more built up and would be less quiet.  We were hassled by a couple of accommodation touts before we had even left the jetty, but having nothing reserved and the heat of the sun bearing down on us we went with one lady.  She took us past open pools of stagnant water and sewage to her chalets about 20m back from the beachfront, the smell not disappearing once we arrived.  We moved on.  Salang was decidedly busier than ABC had been, and much the worse for relative overcrowding (there doesn't seem to be formal rubbish collection facilities on the island; bags are just dumped, not far enough away from the tourists trying to enjoy the beauty of the island).  After viewing a few more places, we realised that the budget options everywhere were delipidated and overpriced, and so in the end settled on a dirty lop-sided chalet at the Salang Indah Resort costing almost 50% more than the kept and clean Mokhtar's at only nine pounds per night.  

We were enjoying a couple of evening beers in a cafe on the beach when the entire island lost its electricity supply.  Music, TVs and startled people were silenced, and pitch darkness was broken only by the moonlight illuminating the sea.  This blissfully serene moment was ripped away half a minute later by our cafe's generator being brought into action.  Looking forward to the unique prospect of having to spend the night without all the amenities afforded by electricity, 'normality' resumed with the supply returning ten minutes later.  Apparently it is a fairly regular occurrence for Tioman.

Bored of Tioman, or rather, tiring of the people running (or should that be 'ruining'?) the show, we decided that we would not be able to relax enough amongst the annoyances and the extortion of captive tourists, and so should carry on in search of somewhere, something, else.  We had the owner book us on the ferry for the next morning, and were reliably informed to be at the jetty for 10.20am prompt for a 10.30am departure.  

The next morning we picked-up our washing that we had given to the owner's sister the night before, and carried on towards the jetty.  It was already 10.10am, so we had to get a move on.  Ross dipped into the reception to check-out, but caught sight of the Bluewater Express already docked at the jetty; Lauren had started to haphazardly jog whilst pulling her bag along.  Ross remarked to the same lady who the night before had advised us the time to be at the jetty that the boat was already there.  She just shrugged.  We got to the boat to find that it arrives at 10.00am and leaves around 10.15am everyday.  The cynicism developed during the stay made us wonder whether it had been deliberate mis-information so that we would have to stay another night, and so potentially more money for her.

We looked back and bid a fond farewell to the beautiful island tragically diseased by a money-hungry overpopulation, who in turn we were glad to see the end of.  We then settled into our seats and thought about our return to Mersing and what our next destination might be.  

If we were to ever go back, then it would have to be to the haven of Mokhtar's Place at ABC.  We did not experience the southern or eastern beaches, apparently more tranquil but far more remote and with nothing to do other than enjoy the beach and waters.  ABC had a good blend of a relaxed atmosphere, an element of friendliness lacking elsewhere, and something more closely resembling a paradise setting.  The jungle really encroached there, and its residents were everywhere.  Lauren nearly stepped on a snake basking in the sunshine, and 5ft monitor lizards regularly roamed the streams and walkway.  Gangs of monkeys presented themselves a few times, exploiting opportunities for plunder.  We enjoyed watching about a dozen monkeys only feet away from us picking through rubbish sacks by the walkway, unphased by our presence.  Perhaps the underwater wildlife we missed this time around will draw us back one day, once we have fulfilled our intention to get scuba-qualified.
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