We’re less than a month from our return to the US, and we can’t deny that the nomadic lifestyle is starting to wear on us a bit. While we still have a handful of really neat places to go, and are still making great discoveries every day, travel days have become a nuisance, our bags get packed sloppier every day and we find ourselves making excuses to stay put just a bit longer…
It was in this spirit that we headed for Tioman Island located 30 miles off the coast of eastern peninsular Malaysia in the South China Sea. Having spent the first half of the month in city after city, we figured that an island might be just what we needed, a break from the motorbike traffic and 24 hour everything. We were both tired of sightseeing and ready for outdoor activity, though we anticipated Tioman, which opened only two weeks ago (it remains closed during the monsoon season), to offer little aside from lounging on the beach as there are few roads (thick jungle covers most of the island) and boat transport is unjustifiably expensive.
We boarded the once-a-day ferry and two hours later were deposited, along with a handful of other foreigners, on “ABC,” a beach that reportedly had the majority of the ‘budget’ accomadation. The place was nearly deserted but very pretty with plenty of wooden bungalows and cafes along the single path, surrounded by palm trees, blooming flowers and views of beautiful blue water with a backdrop of rugged tropical rainforest.
We spent the afternoon indulging in one of Tioman’s greatest draws – the duty free shop! Alcohol is incredibly expensive in Malaysia due to high taxes that the Islamic government places on it (Muslims do not drink), but the small airport on Tioman and a half mile stretch of road have been designated tax-free, and beer is sold cheaper than water while good liquor can be bought for next to nothing. After several weeks of near-abstinence, it was a welcome sight and we stocked up!
The next day was hiking. Gabe rented snorkelling gear and we headed off to Monkey Bay, which was an hour hike through thick rainforest, devoid of people but full of monkeys, massive monitor lizards, ants the size of cockroaches, vines the diameter of telephone poles that strangled anything they touched – amazing! The sapphire blue water and absolutely empty stretch of white sand at Monkey Bay was wonderful after the sweaty climb. What we originally thought were a couple of people snorkeling turned out, with a closer look, to be black tipped reef sharks! Gabe couldn’t get his mask and snorkel on quick enough before diving in! We were beyond hungry by that point and had another hour until we reached an inhabited beach, so we pushed on.
We staggered onto Salang, a well-groomed northern beach that was also nearly tourist-free and stuffed ourselves at an eatery with spicy chicken sambal, rice and samosas. The snorkelling was incredible here! Giant parrot fish, schools of barracuda, clown fish, and many other colorful fish make their home in the shallow coral reefs just offshore. The highlight was a sea turtle Gabe had the chance to swim along with until it ventured out in the deep…amazing! It hit 4:00 and we knew that we had to turn back in order to make it ‘home’ before dark – the jungle is not a place for people, especially not at night and certainly not while wearing flip flops and swimming attire. The bugs would eat us alive! We were both drained but managed to make it, taking frequent monkey-watching breaks when the mountain got too steep. We thought that we had found a great island, but we had no idea what lay ahead…
We’d heard rumors of a place called Juara, the only beach on the eastern side of the island and one that could only be reached by boat taxi (for a very steep price), an expensive 4×4 taxi on a crude road, or a two hour jungle hike up and over the mountain. It was said to be, hands down, the most beautiful place on Tioman, and of course there was no stopping us then – we love things that are hard to get to!
The next morning we silenced our aching legs, left our big bags behind and headed to Juara with one change of clothes, books and cameras. The rainforest in this direction was like something out of a fairy tale – gorgeous butterflies, unbelievably tall trees, monkeys and exotic birds everywhere, palm leaves 12 feet wide, vines growing around anything and everything, really an entirely different world. We took it easy and soaked it all in, marvelling at this magical place that, again, was completely devoid of any human life.
Around lunchtime we caught a glimpse of the sea. We passed an Australian couple huffing up the hill who confirmed that we were close, and that it was well worth the work. We got a second wind and finished out the hike, arriving on the most pristine stretch of sand I’ve ever seen, backed with jungle-covered mountains, facing crashing turquoise waves (the sea is rough on this side of the island) and lined with palm trees, brightly colored flowers and cute bungalows. The only thing missing was people – it was empty!
We found a place called Rainbow Chalets and knew that we wanted to stay there – multicolored bungalows with great porches spilling right onto the sand and windows opening to the sound of the waves. Reception was deserted, so we decided to eat. Bushman’s Cafe was right next door, and there were two people eating, the first sign of life! Sitting on their deck facing the sea we ordered food and struck up a conversation with the great couple from Portland, Oregon who were finding it hard to leave Juara. We had an excellent meal, found a sweet old lady to rent a bungalow out to us and moved right in.
The days that followed consisted mainly of waking up early to either run or watch the sunrise, strolling down to “our” restaurant for an incredible breakfast and real! coffee, reading on the porch, taking a nap with the window and door open to the sea breeze, strolling down to our “other” restaurant for an even better lunch, then reading on the even more secluded next beach over. As the tide came in late afternoon the waves formed nicely on sandy beach break which is ideal for surfing. Gabe rented a board for next to nothing and played in the water. After that we would head to the cendol stand(a heaping bowl of shaved ice covered in sweet coconut milk and palm sugar syrup) for an afternoon snack then shower and spend the remaining daylight hours taking photos or reading/writing on the porch. Dinner would usually be social, as the five Rainbow Chalet residents who made up the populace of the beach were all extremely cool people and the affordable alcohol made things even better – after we’d exhausted ourselves, we’d fall asleep to the sound of the surf right outside our window.
In short, this place was paradise. The beach was flawless, the water crystal clear. The residents were impossibly friendly (Gabe was loaned a guy’s personal fishing pole, given a bag of bait and then offered free use of the school’s computers by the headmaster, since it was the weekend and no one was using them), and someone seems to have forgotten to tell the restaurants and guesthouses that they’re supposed to double the prices of everything on islands. We were eating fresh seafood every night for less than $2 a plate and sleeping, beachfront, for $4 each!
There was no shortage of activity – surfing, fishing, and excellent hiking were all at our doorstep. One of the locals even showed us where there are quality bolted climbing routes that offer spectacular views of the bay. Reading on the porch with views of the sea could never get old! There was no traffic, really not even a road, and we didn’t put shoes on for three days straight. The tiny group of fellow travellers were all wonderful, and all finding it impossible to leave. There was really no concern for time, or anything at all – our biggest decision of the day was whether we wanted fish or crab for dinner!
We stretched it as much as we could, but the time came to leave. We will be back on that incredible island someday, and we will make sure to go in that tiny slice of February between the monsoon season and high season when it can be our own little piece of heaven. A surprise like this was enough to reinvigorate the traveller in each of us, and we will finish out this trip with the enthusiasm that it deserves!