East Coast Malays

Saturday, April 05, 2008

It was April Fool’s Day when we left Taman Negara, the dark beating heart of Malaysia and one of the world’s oldest rainforests. Coincidentally, it was the name of the book I was reading at the time, a book by Bryce Courtenay (authour of The Power of One, which I’d thoroughly enjoyed). This was not a work of fiction however, it was the story of Courtenay’s youngest son, Damon, and his life growing up with hemophilia. Hemophilia occurs in different degrees; Damon’s cases was ‘classic’ or full-blown, meaning he had no blood-clotting Factor VIII whatsoever and required on average three transfusions per week. It was an enlightening book, I’d always assumed it meant that cuts and scratches were the problem here. Really, it’s the fact that small capillaries burst all the time, especially in joints, almost randomly – and of course bruises, which are essentially internal bleeds, are no picnic either. As a result of one of these many, many life-saving transfusions containing HIV, his life is forever changed and, ultimately, ended. It sounds gloomy, and certainly it doesn’t conjure images of hand-holding and skipping in the park, but there is, in spite of it all, hope, love, and the struggle for life, however tragic a life it may have been, which all conspire to produce a life-affirming and heart-warming read. I don’t expect this blog to have any such affect, dear reader, but nevertheless, let’s get out of the dark brooding forest to the sunny, warm, east Malaysian coast.

Kristoffer and I grabbed the 9:30 AM bus out of the jungle to the town of Jerantut. Thus we’d escaped the jungle. Not very epic, now, is it? In Jerantut, we discovered there was no bus out to the east coast, or Kuantan, our next transfer point, until 1:00 that afternoon. See, while my original plan and most itineraries travel up through the rainforest on the jungle rail, the fact was that I had done the best section of that already and also wanted to get off the tourist trail a bit to, hopefully, some hidden east coast gems. So we waited, or rather, Kris did while I spent a bunch of time on the internet getting FrankBlack.Net up to date. A new podcast, a new album, some singles, a news release, and my battery was soon depleted. We grabbed lunch, which was pretty good actually (I had a chicken noodle soup and the broth was terrific) and hopped back on the bus for Kuantan. We were trying to make it to Marang, up the east coast halfway to the back-on-the-trail destination of the Perhentian islands. It looked nice on the map and was nearby to an island a local had recommended to us, Pulau (Island) Kapas.

Unfortunately our arrival in Kuantan was just a little too late to catch the last bus up to Marang. We might have made it, but I had a craving for substantial quantities of beef and, for some reason, a root beer float, and there was an A&W laying in wait for us on arrival. By the time we walked to the bus station it was 20 minutes after the last bus had left. We quite liked Kuantan in its way, and weren’t too upset to stay here. We’d passed a pretty mosque on the way from the national to the local bus station, we’d found the people friendly and, for a big city especially, surprisingly excited to chat with westerners. Our excitement dipped somewhat when we found our Lonely Planet recommended hotel, a not-really-so-cheap dive that smelled faintly of urine and could’ve used a Lucille Ball style washing machine in every room. Maybe two. Still, it was the only place around for miles so we took our room and got exploring anywhere else.

We had a beer at a Chinese restaurant, found out where a disco was, and, heading in that general direction, stumbled across a bar. Here, we were hustled pretty quickly. A couple girls outside, certainly of no interest, were flagging us in and we were looking for another place to have a drink more lively than a Chinese restaurant. We thought that one beer here couldn’t hurt and soon we had a bucket in front of us. Fine. A few beers wouldn’t hurt either. The waitress poured our beer and then hers. Fine. A small glass of beer won’t hurt. They stood by us and pretended to be interested, for which I was both uncomfortable and grateful. First of all, we weren’t remotely interested. They were basically prostitutes in dress and action. Uncomfortable. Secondly, it was all an act calculated to make some other demographic, such as the guy sitting at a table near ours, continue to drink and patronize. For this I was grateful as it eased the discomfort.

We found our way out of there very quickly and found the disco which had a pricey cover and was dead. We also checked out the nearby swing club, equally dull. Our filthy bed awaited. First thing the next morning, we were out of Kuantan. I found an entry about Cherating that struck my interest and we made our way there. It was a quiet town, almost looking deserted perhaps because of the time of year. The beach was pretty nice though, and I had some fantastic roti canai (flat bread and curry sauce). We’d thought to stay but, while quiet and devoid of tourists, the town had nothing more to offer than solitude. I felt sure we could do better. We had lunch and read on the beach for a spell then headed up on the 2:00 bus to Marang. It took just about three hours and we stopped in the market for some delicious satay crab and fish. There were no boats left going to the island of Kapas that evening so we tried to catch a ride on a laundry skiff to no avail. It did, however, net us a ride from a local heading up in that direction though we paid full price (15 RM) for it.

And suddenly, we were in paradise. Pulau Kapas, stretching out before us as we left the Malaysian coast was exciting before we made landfall. On arrival we negotiated a dorm bed for 15 RM per night at the Captain’s Longhouse, right on the beach. Dinner with the captain and his crew was around 9:00 and cost 10 RM. Our beds were equipped with mosquito nets (which we’d discover to be essential), the place was clean, and our host was very hospitable. And, did I mention, we were his only guests? The island is very very quiet at this time of year, as they’ve only been out of monsoon season for 2 weeks. And both Kristoffer and I love it. We explored the island a bit before it got dark and had a drink on the beach as the stars came out. We joined the captain and some other locals for a delicious dinner and it felt very much like being a guest at his home, dining with family friends such as the dive shop crew, the chef, and some helpers, more than going to a restaurant. Dinner was fried whole fish, rice, curry, veggies, and is probably the most home-cooked thing I’ve eaten since I don’t know when. The whole fish in particular, which I’m not usually a fan of, was amazing and I went through a half-ocean worth.

We were up early the next morning, had breakfast (more roti canai, disappointing compared with my last exposure to this dish) and sat on the beach reading and waiting for the tide to come in to do some snorkeling. The captain took me for a tour and to meet the others on the island and I discovered another bar on the island with some great board games, particularly Settlers, which I’ve always wanted to try. Kris and I snorkeled part of the north side of the island though the sun was very strong and we cut it a bit short, then went back and played some Settlers until around 6 when the mosquitoes came out. He won every time, but I quite like the game. We went back and had dinner with the captain again, then returned hoping to find some company.

There were some other Danes and Dutch around, but they were, for want of another word, complete rejects. When we cracked open Settlers while they ate they made fun of us for playing it as a two-player game as though we were deaf or spoke no English. When I interrupted to explain that they were having dinner and we’d be quite happy to have them join us afterwards, they were dumbfounded and one of them recovered enough to say they’d played the game to death. Too bad, we’d been looking forward to playing the game properly, as it’s meant to be played with at least three players. We did invite them another time and still no. Eventually, as we played our fourth game, one of the girls came up and quite abruptly asked how many more games we were going to play, as though we’d been hogging it all night. Again, would you like to join us was a swing and a miss. Three strikes and we were out. They would not, they’d just been waiting all night (approximately one hour) for us to finish. OK, I understood. They wanted to play amongst themselves and didn’t want us in the game. Sure, we had it first, sure, we’d invited them to join, but now she was coming up and demanding that we stop so they can play and no, we weren’t invited. And how dare we be so rude as to play their game!? The last person this bitchy I’d met was a Swedish girl named Hannah that I worked with in Perth. But at least she had the excuse of being the only short, dumpy brunette in a country of beautiful tall blondes (who were mostly nice, I might add). Kristoffer still didn’t quite get it and asked if we could join them. Of course not. We could play chess. And we did; yet again I lost.

April 4 and our third day on Pulau Kapas brought the rain. Not torrential, just enough to discourage heavy exploration. Snorkeling would still be no problem, after all the water temperature is 30 on the surface and 28 not far below. It’s almost too warm. The sun came out soon anyway, and we made our way to the southern side of the island, hoping for some shark and turtle sightings. The visibility was pretty poor but it was a nice walk and we did spot some eels and the usual plentitude of fish. Back to the lodge, back for a game of Settlers which - finally - I won, and back for our goodbye dinner. Captain Sharrif Abbas and his staff went all out. We had sweet and sour and fried fish (both great), chap chai veggies, steamed veggies, rice, two different curries, and it was easily the best meal I've had in a long time. We stayed up late chatting with the captain before finally going to sleep.

The next morning we caught the 9:30 boat back to civilization, specifically Marang. We were hoping to catch a boat up river to a small fishing village, but with only two of us the cost was 100 RM to get there. Nope, we'll pass, thanks. So up to Kuala Terengganu we went on a public bus, packed like sardines, where we were greeted by a friendly local who 'loves tourists'. What he loves is getting money for giving them rides, it only took a couple minutes to get there, but that said he was happy enough to point us in the right direction and admit it was too close to worry about a car. One McDonalds sundae later (I said before, it's hot!) and we checked into our hostel. This town is famed for its cultural wares, arts, and foods. Kristoffer and I split up as my internet requirements were much steeper than his after several days in isolation. But I did get a bit of exploring done before we reunited and trekked to the south end of town for the food markets. It was a little late by the time we got there and somethings weren't available and others quite quiet. When there's nobody eating it can be hard to guess which places are good. We took a chance and failed. Horrible food. We didn't come all that way to have horrible food, though, so we found another place and tried again. Bingo! The food was great (though I was stuffed) and the waiter sat with us and taught us a bunch of Bahasa. Way to salvage the night!

Another day, another island. The following morning we boarded the bus to Kuala Besut and from there grabbed a ferry to Pulau Perhentian Kecil (literally, small Perhentian Island). We didn’t quite literally get a ferry to the island, however, much to our anger. Instead, after an unannounced park fee, a departure that was 30 minutes late, and a trip time that took 1.5 hours instead of the 30 minutes it was supposed to (meaning that we would’ve made it there faster with the cheaper slow boat) we arrived in the middle of the sea. From here, again completely unannounced, we had to pay for a water taxi to take us to the mainland. Now, when you buy a ticket for any other form of transport, you get taken to the place you paid to go. Otherwise, what did I pay for? In Malaysia, and I’d soon discover Thailand as well, they take you most of the way and somewhere that could only in the vaguest sense be described as your destination. Imagine boarding a plane and flying over the destination city and being told you had to pay $2 million for a parachute to actually GET to the city. Quite what you would otherwise do is beyond anyone. Jump? Sit stubbornly on the plane as it returned to where you started? Thankfully for Malaysian air travelers, it is impossible to pick up new passengers without landing.

I should mention I almost didn’t pay except that it occurred to me that my departure would require the water taxi all over again. Heaven forbid I get trapped in paradise! And it was a paradise. We had to walk the whole of Long Beach to find accommodation of a budget-nature but our last stop was a success. We stayed at a place called Rock Garden (known to locals as Rock Bottom for its price and probably the shanty hut accommodation as well) for 10 Ringgit per night each. It was a shanty hut, but it had a view to more than offset that, perched as it was up the hill. This also afforded a nice breeze, all too important in a room with limited hours of electricity and even then only to turn on a small light. Not by switch, mind, not in this establishment. To activate the light in Rock Garden, you got on the bed and screwed in the bulb. Or you got your quite-tall friend to do so. Still, the view! The view! Sitting on our balcony and reading was a thing of beauty.

We had dinner at a café called Daniel’s, which is sandwiched between two other lesser cafés, and wondered where everybody was. The Perhentians were hard and fast on the Malaysian backpacker circuit and there should be plenty of people here to hang out with. A couple girls did sit at a nearby table and after their dinner and ours, we asked to join them. So there was some other company to be had on the island, just not the amount we expected. We sat around the fire at a nearby bar and drank a few brew before retiring. I’d booked a dive for first thing in the morning, even before Kristoffer started his classes for his diving cert. It was to be my first wreck dive, called the Vietnamese Wreck, which went down when ferrying Vietnamese refugees. The visibility was poor but the dive was pretty cool in spite of the fact that I decided to join another group by accident going into the cavernous hull.

That afternoon I dove another wreck, one much more famous. It is a wrecked sugar ship, and while the circumstances surrounding its sinking are foggy at best, the water surrounding the ship was anything but. We had great visibility and saw schools of barracudas and all manner of creature. You could see the wreck from the surface and we descended the 24m to the large screw sitting idly since that fateful day in 2000. Coming down on the wreck I felt as though I was watching a documentary or something. The wreck sat there, rust red on a dark blue backdrop and as we descended we cleared the ridge created where the hull meets the deck in a largely intact railing and looked straight down the deck into the deeper blue below, as though doing a flyby. This dive, as you probably guessed, was excellent.

When we returned to land, I met up with Kristoffer who’d just done his first day learning to dive. He was pretty excited already and I suppose I was reminded of how lucky we were to be able to do what we were doing. I waited at Daniel’s where I met the owner, Amin, and chatted with him for some time before Kristoffer returned. Amin was telling me about his younger days bartending in Kuala Lumpur and how he still makes the best Long Island Iced Tea. Unfortunately, he can’t sell alcohol at his restaurant as the land is owned by the government, so I never did get to verify this. He also told me that even if he wanted to open a bar, because he’s a muslim, he would not be allowed ownership by the government. Nevermind that his interpretation of things are different from the official muslim stance of the nation, nevermind that he is supposed to be able to practice any religion freely, if he’s muslim, the laws for him are the old ones. Were he to have been born any other religion, however, no problem at all. An interesting double standard to say the least.

Amin whipped us up a BBQ that was delicious and really looked after us now that we knew each other a bit. I had squid and king fish, Kris had shark, and it was all delicious. The cost was basically $5 and we got drink, rice, veggies, and fresh catch from that day. You can’t beat that! I took a break from diving the next morning and went on a snorkel trip instead. 40 RM ($12) for an all day boat trip to six sites and a stop in a fishermans’ village for lunch. We had a good crew going out and saw some sharks, barracuda, blowfish, clown fish, and turtles. One poor turtle was unfortunately chased around the sea by 9 snorkellers for 10 minutes, a scene that must have looked hilarious from the air but decidedly less so from below. I made friends with two English girls on the boat, Sophie and Sara, and Kristoffer and I met them for dinner along with a rather aloof and unusual San Francisco native named Noah. And again, we stuck with our choice of Amin. Apparently Kristoffer had shown up in the morning with only 10 minutes to eat and asked for something quick. 2 minutes later, Amin was back with some rice and chicken that must have been for someone else, wrapped in foil and ready to go. And again, the food was excellent – in honour of all the barracuda around, I decided to try it and I must report it is quite a beautiful fish.

The five of us sat around at the nearby beach bar until Noah finally disappeared and then the four of us got along famously and had a great night chatting and watching fire dancing and looking up at the stars. They’re quite clear here, incidentally, and finally, finally, I saw the Big Dipper. It has been a while. It really was a special feeling when I looked opposite and saw the southern cross at the same time. What a feeling, to see both at once. I truly am at the equator, at the centre of the world, and for some reason I felt larger than life when I should have felt very small and insignificant. Orion was hunting around between the two constellations, ever hunting, and perhaps I felt something like that. We watched the sunrise (it was a late night, I told you) and I definitely slept in until about noon. I did nothing today but relax around the beach. And eat. I had lunch at Amin’s and he brought me what he considers his favourite shake, something he asked me not to divulge, essentially chocolate-banana with a secret twist or two, without my even asking. I should also mention that every newcomer to this island inevitably argues the merits of the various shakes and their superiorities. Mars, Snickers, or M&Ms? It turned out to be Mars, but Amin’s is a close second.

We did have dinner elsewhere my final night, a restaurant up on the hill with a nice view. We were stuck in the middle and a movie was on (300 – it still amazes me that such a small number of men could change the course of the world forever), so no view but for some Brits masquerading as Greeks. On top of that, the food was expensive and not especially great. We went down to the beach bar afterwards and had a couple drinks, Kristoffer and I, and swung by the English girls to say bye to them too. I had been traveling a long time with Kristoffer, and now again I was traveling solo. I had one more dive booked before I caught the noon ferry back to shore to do first, however. The kind people at Matahari dives had actually rearranged their dive schedule to accommodate me since I’d been trying to get to the most famous dive in the area, Temple of the Sea. That’s how people are here, very helpful and friendly. Although the girl that made it happen, really, was a Canadian I’m proud to say.

So it was that I was on a boat at 9AM racing for Temple. We saw any number of things there, more barracuda, sea pillows, fish feeding on other fish, nudi branches, and we had great visibility. I was also impressed with my air supply. There were two of us with Hugo, our dive master, and the other guy went up pretty early while I waited at the bottom. Hugo and I spent another 20 minutes down there. I signalled that I was down to 50 bar as we were nearing about 8m, so we swam around at 5m for our safety stop and then just kept swimming. I was fine with it. At 5m, even if I ran out of air, I could do a straight ascent without a problem, assuming I didn’t want to grab Hugo’s octopus. 40 bar, Hugo asked if I wanted to go up. I waved him off and he laughed, or bubbled I guess, underwater, and we continued to watch big fish devour small until 30 bar when finally I thought, okay, we should ascend. We were the first two in the water and the last out, which is definitely a first for me, and I was smiling ear to ear at this and also all the things we’d seen underwater.

I got back to land and ran to Daniel’s for a quick brunch and to say bye and thanks to Amin. I had some Mee Goreng (fried noodles and veggies) and ran back, as it was ten minutes to 12. I quickly packed up my sleeping bag, which was laying in the sun to kill off any bed bugs that may have made it a home and other things, said bye to everyone at the dive shop, and ran to the beach to find I’d missed the boat. Amin came down from his restaurant next door seeing me all laden up and convinced the guy to speed me over to the big island to catch it before it went for the mainland. So it was that me and a Frenchman who, in a hurry though we were and with a much greater distance to go, was insisting he should still only pay the regular price. I told him we had further to go, no time to do it in, and to get in or catch the 4 o’clock, so he jumped in. I think he didn’t understand the situation at the time. The driver was asking us to pay him so I grabbed my wallet and out flew my ferry ticket. We circled back quickly, time eating away, and I managed to pluck it from the surface just in time. Back around again and towards the big island. The ferry was there and other boats were just finishing dropping off their passengers, but they must’ve seen us and waited.

Whew. We made it to the mainland. Talk about a busy morning. From there, I shared a taxi with a Dutch guy and two Irish backpackers to the border of Thailand. Our cabbie was pretty funny and interesting and the trip went really quickly. Share taxis are great in that they cost the same as a bus but get you there in 1/3 of the time. We crossed the very hot border without issue and grabbed four motorbikes to take us to the train station. With 10 minutes to spare, we boarded the train north to Hat Yai. Every step of the way, it was like the trip was pre-ordained to maximize efficiency and reduce waiting. We were now in Thailand, speeding north. At some point, a young girl, whom I thought was meant to be where I was sitting put her bag beside me. Then she walked down the aisle behind me. The Thai man across explained she was going to sit with her friends. Meanwhile, I had a bag that wasn’t mine beside me and when I looked back, she was nowhere in sight. This made me nervous, and with good reason. The Thai border is where most of the country’s muslims live, many of whom want independence, and already a few bombs have gone off. She seemed innocent enough, but who knows. It could be drugs or something else I wouldn’t want to have look to be mine. Drug dealers, by the way, are shot on sight in this country. But this story will continue next time. Take care until then!

East Coast Malaysia Photos

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