BootsnAll Travel Network

Paradise Found, and then Lost, and then Found Again.

The shuttle bus to the Perhentian Islands ended at a small jetty, where we were ushered out of the bus and brought into a small travel agency. Since it was the Malaysian school holidays, Ann and I were sort of concerned that we wouldn’t be able to find accomodation so late in the day, so the agent behind the desk called a few places to book a chalet for us. Only two islands make up the Perhentian Islands, called Besar and Kecil, or as most people call them, Big and Small island. Most backpackers stay on the small island as the accomodation is cheaper and there are more bars apparently, but Ann’s friends were staying on the Big island, so I decided that was fine for just the three days I would be there. I was told that the Big Island was “full of resorts” and “really expensive.” What backpackers consider resortlike and expensive is fairly laughable, as Besar was the most unspoiled beach area I have ever been on, and while some things were more expensive than mainland Malaysia, it was insanely cheap compared to any other island getaway.

There is only generator electricity on the Perhentian Islands, so many guesthouses do not have air conditioning, and the ones that do charge the Malaysian equivalent of an arm and a leg for it. Our chalet in our “resort” called The Reef did not have a/c, but came with a private bathroom, ceiling fan and mosquito nets, something that is a necessity here on the islands. The mosquitoes, as it turns out, were bigger than flies and the minute we stepped off our little boat at dusk they swarmed all over me. Ann seemed to be unaffected by them, but I had to stop what I was doing, open my pack and take out the cancer causing DEET bugspray I bought in Australia. Aside from just not wanting itchy bites all over me, Malaysia does have malaria in some remote parts, as well as dengue fever, another lovely tropical disease, so the key is to avoid getting bites. After checking into our bungalow, Ann wanted to go find her friends who were staying at the next beach over. What we didn’t realize, was that to get to the next beach, we had a 15 hike through the jungle, following the water pipeline. During daylight, this would be no problem but it was already getting dark and we had only one flashlight between us, so we opted to just have dinner on our beach and see her friends tomorrow. We decided to splurge on a fresh seafood platter of fish and squid, grilled over coals and doused in curry sauce and served with rice and fresh fruit and vegetables. While not expensive, it cost about US$20 for the both of us, quite a lot on a backpacker budget for one meal. Exhausted from our long bus ride, we turned in for the night, a slightly restless sleep due to the heat and getting used to sleeping under a mosquito net.

The following morning, it was a beautiful, bright sunny day, and all I wanted to do was lie on the beach and read my book. We took a water taxi over to the neighboring beach to find Ann’s friends. Since it was still a bit early in the morning, we ate some breakfast and waited on their beach for them to wake up. Their beach was slightly nicer than ours, quite empty and full of hammocks and shady trees. The water in the Perhentian Islands was crystal clear, warm and bright turquoise, some of the nicest water I have ever seen. We settled down on our towels with our books and water, and within about 11 minutes we were completely roasting, and went for a dip in the water. It was almost like bath water, completely warm with just a tinge of cool flows wafting past from time to time. There are a ton of coral reefs around the Islands and it is a well-known SCUBA diving spot. We decided we would do some snorkeling the next day, but it almost wasn’t necessary, as you could stand in the water, look down at some coral only a few feet offshore, and see tons of fish swimming about. The water was clear enough that you didn’t even need a mask, you could look through the surface and see the fish clear as day.

Within about an hour, Ann’s friends Mike and Charlie finally woke up, and joined us on the beach for some relaxation. They were going through their SCUBA diving certification on the Islands, and had another dive planned that day. I want to try and do some diving on my travels, but I didn’t have enough time on the Perhentian’s so I had to give it a pass. So the rest of the day was spent doing literally nothing except lying on the beach and reading, eating fresh fruit and sleeping. It was absolutely perfect, completely uninteresting and unexciting, but exactly what I was hoping for. We ate dinner on that beach that evening, realizing that for some reason the food was much cheaper on their side than ours. Since it was already dark, we got a water taxi for RM10 home and made our way back to our chalet, worn out from doing nothing.
The next day was more of the same, full of beach and sun and sleep. We decided to be somewhat productive, and hired snorkeling gear and a guide to take us out to a few spots off the beach for some snorkeling. Our gear rental was RM7 for a mask and snorkel and the boat and guide cost us RM15 each, totalling about US$6 for a few hours of snorkeling. Our first spot was a small inlet called Shark Bay, home to big pieces of coral, loads of fish and, more importantly, black tipped reef sharks. Reef sharks aren’t dangerous to humans, and can be seen on most coral reef beds. I didn’t see any in Australia surprisingly, and was excited to try and find some here. Though I consider myself a decently strong swimmer, I regretted not renting fins for the trip, as our guide zoomed through the water, past all the Japanese tour groups with life vests on, and quickly began pointing out a blurry shape in the water. I struggled slightly to catch up with him, but then I saw it cleary, a small shark swimming directly in front of us, making its’ way further down away from all the dangerous kicking legs above him. I thought it would freak me out more, but the shark was really quite small, about 10 feet long maybe, and seemed much more scared of us than we were of him.
We spent another hour snorkeling around and looking at fish, trying to spot more sharks but didn’t see anymore. We made our way back to the boat, and went to our next spot, what the local call turtle lane. The causeway between the two islands is a major transit route for turtles, and on any given day you can see their little heads pop out of the water and get their breath, trying to avoid getting run over by the tons of water taxis and small ferry boats shuttling people back and forth. Our guide kept his keen eyes peeled and we quickly spotted a few small turtles before seeing a big one, and in the water we went. We followed the big turtle for a few minutes before I felt the first prickle. Then again, and again and again, until I wasn’t able to concentrate on the snorkeling and just trying to swap at some invisible menace biting me in the water. The four of us were all now surfaced, and trying to figure out what was eating away at us, and our guide was still out searching for turtles for us. We signaled to him, and made our way back to the boat. We tried to explain what the problem was, and he just shook his head. “Sea lice,” he said, and we decided to head back to shore. The little stings felt like the little bites I got from the jellyfish in Western Australia, and while these didn’t leave any welts, they were no less annoying to swim around with. But for 6 dollars, I couldn’t complain at all, and finally got to see my shark.

Back at shore, we headed back to our beach to shower and change for dinner. There is something really unappealing about taking a nice shower, and then having to douse yourself in bugspray the minute you step out of the shower, but it was pure necessity. Though I was being really careful, I still had numerous bites on my legs and arms which were getting really uncomfortable. We walked back to the other beach, and had dinner with Mike and Charlie again, fresh seafood again with a few cold beers. Even though they were powered by a generator, this restaurant had a huge TV screen, and I kept that in mind for the next night, which would be the opening ceremony and first game for the World Cup. I was really looking forward to this, and had been slightly concerned that being stuck on the islands, they wouldn’t be able to show the games. I was stupidly mistaken, as the Malaysians were super excited about soccer, and for some reason, England in general, with English flags flown everywhere. As I was hanging out with three English people, this was bound to offer some entertainment.

The next day was my last night on the islands. Ann was staying another week, and when a chalet opened up at her friends’ place, she moved over there for the rest of the time. I decided to stay where I was as I didn’t feel like packing for just one night. I went over to their beach during the day, since it was much nicer on their side and on my beach the tide went out fairly early, revealing tons of dead coral and rocks. Because of the time difference, the World Cup wouldn’t be on until 10pm, and though I made plans to go back to their beach to watch the opening ceremony, by the time darkness came, I realized I was tired and didn’t want to spend the money on a water taxi there and back, which would be double the price after dark and especially that late after the game. So I found a restaurant that would be setting up a small TV to show the games, and was happy to run into Gavin and Michael, two Irish boys whom I had met on the bus to the Islands. They were planning on watching the Cup as well, so we settled down with just a few tourist and loads of locals to watch the opening ceremony, complete with two flasks of Malaysian whiskey. It was a fun night, sitting out on the beach watching soccer, drinking cheap cheap whiskey and Coke and a ton of Malays. The opening ceremony was interesting to say the least: What was with the big cow bells? And we even made it through the opening game, barely, and called it a night quickly after. Gavin and Michael had to make the 8am ferry back to the mainland, but I still had almost a full day as my ferry didn’t leave until 4.

After sleeping in a bit, I woke up and packed, as my hotel needed my chalet for new guests. I walked through the jungle again, knowing the path by heart now, to Ann’s beach, and hung out with them the rest of the day. The day passed quickly, and at 3 headed back through the jungle one last time to catch my water taxi to the ferry. On my ferry, I met a Dutch couple and we quickly agreed to share a taxi to Kota Bharu, the closest town to the jetty, as they were flying out to Kuala Lumpur and my bus to Penang was leaving from there. It was almost an hour away, and as they got out at the airport, I realized they gave me the entire fare for the ride, including my portion, maybe feeling generous as they were on a short vacation and knew I was backpacking. As it turns out, I would need that extra money to actually get where I needed to go. My taxi driver didn’t speak much English, but I thought he understood that I needed the bus station to go to Penang. After he dropped me off, I was approached by an older gentleman who asked me where I needed to go. My brain quickly switched back to city mode, and I explained I needed to the bus to Penang. My heart sunk as he said, “You are at the wrong bus station, this is local buses only. I’ll take you to the bus station you need for 5 Ringgits.” I looked around, and realized I didn’t have much of a choice. My hotel owner had told me that there as a big modern shopping mall at the bus station, and that was clearly not at this place. There were no taxis anywhere, and I was the only white Westerner anywhere, not dressed entirely appropriately in this bustling Muslim city. I also realized, I had no map, no idea where the other bus station was in relation to where I was, and needed to catch my bus. This is the point when traveling, where you just have to make a decision to trust someone, and go with it. I couldn’t decided about this man, and the slight twinging in my gut grew as I saw his “taxi,” just a regular minivan with no taxi insignia. ‘Shit’ But I didn’t have a choice, so I got in the van. I asked him how far it was, and he said just two or threekilometers. So I knew that any longer in the van and something would be amiss. As we drove, the conversation quickly turned sour as he started talking to me about Bush and the Iraq war. I quietly nodded and smiled during the conversation, but kept my mouth shut, as I knew nothing I said would really mean anything to him. He just wanted me to know what he thought, so I listened and nodded, watching as we turned off the main road onto a small back alleyway. ‘Shit, shit’ Where is this guy going? As we drove past local homes and small shops, and he kept rambling about politics and this and that, this was the first time I ever felt worried about what I was doing. Living in Chicago for so many years, I’m fairly streetwise. But it is a different story when you are in a foreign country, a strange city and completely different culture from your own. And here I was, a single American female with bare shoulders, being whisked through the back streets in a minivan with some random man. My parents would not be pleased. But then, as we turned around another corner, I saw a huge gleaming modern building in front of me. The shopping mall. He had taken me to the bus station, safely and cheaply. I got out, grabbed my bags, and he shook my hand, smiled and said thank you. And that was it. A heart thumping 6 minutes for no reason.

With over an hour to go before my bus, I headed into the mall for some dinner, ironically found a McDonald’s and slumped in my chair, more mentally exhausted than physically. The insanely smiley counter helper brought over my food and bowed as he put my tray down, a quick bend at the hips that they sometimes do here, sort of as a sign of respect and thank you. I looked around and watched a young couple quietly eating together, heads bowed and whispering, she in a headscarf but their hands touching. A loud family at the table next to me with empty Happy Meal boxes covering the table, the young girl dutifully staring at me as I ate, and hiding in her mothers back when I smiled at her. I finished my meal, and wandered around the mall, with Western and Asian stores lining the walls, and a huge supermarket on the ground floor. I headed back outside, and got my backpack from the bus station attendant she graciously watched for me, and sat on it while waiting for my bus doors to open. Finally at 9:30pm, half an hour before we were to leave, the driver opened the doors and began checking tickets, letting us put our bags under the carriage. I had opted for a “VIP” bus, which means you three large seats across instead of 4, and settled into my seat, I thought prepared for the long overnight bus ride to Penang, on the other side of the peninsula. I had long pants on now, my merino wool sweater, ear plugs and eye mask. I thought I was set. People had warned me about the air conditioning on overnight buses in Asia, but nothing could have prepared me for that icebox on wheels. Within 10 minutes, everyone on the bus was huddled in their seats, the few smart ones with blankets, but most literally shivering in their hot weather clothes. I tried to close the vents, but then realized that the air was coming from these huge open air ducts right about my head, and I tried to shove a Tshirt in the one that I was getting a direct hit from. The older man next to be was bundled up in his jacket until I could only see his eyes, and they stared straight ahead the entire night, as none of us got one wink of sleep on the entire trip. We were given a few minutes of relief as we got a bathroom break at 1:30, and relished in the hot humidity as we got off the bus. We finally reached the small port town of Butterworth, and had to switch buses here to another one that would take us the the island of Penang. This bus was just as cold, but it was only a few minutes across the bridge, and we were quickly deposited at the bus station in Georgetown, the main city on Penang. It was 5:30am, totally dark and I was miles away from anywhere. Taxis were lined up for miles, and I knew at this time of day that it would cost me a fortune, which it did but I didn’t care, and I realized I hadn’t booked a place to stay. I remembered people had recommended a hostel to my in my guidebook and told the driver that one, and he luckily knew where it was. And again, luckily, they were open. I happily paid for my own room, “with air conditioning” the owner proudly said, and I could only laugh inwardly at the sound of that. I quickly crashed in my bed, and woke up around noon, groggy and not knowing exactly where I was for a minute.

That day proceeded quickly and without incident, and I realized that I had no desire to do any sightseeing whatsoever. I had hit 5 1/2 months, and was feeling slightly blah about things. The overnight bus ride didn’t help matters much, and so I wandered around the waterfront and through a huge shopping complex and quickly got lost in the bewildering maze of buildings and shops. It quickly was dinner time, and I had a bite to eat in the mall of Thai food to get me in the mood for my next country. I headed home to my hostel, and sank into one of the chairs in the lobby and joined my fellow travellers in watching some World Cup games. I went to bed early, and the next day I forced myself to get up and go “do something.” The main sight in Georgetown was Penang Hill, and I waited for the bus to take me there. Staring at another hand drawn map similar to mine were two travelers who asked me where I was going, and we all happily realized we were going to the same place. We boarded this crazily disgusting loud local bus and paid our RM1.5 fare and rode on the bus for seemingly forever. Fortunately, a nice woman took one look at us and said, “you are going to Penang Hill? You need to get off at this stop.” If it hadn’t been for her, we would have just kept riding along and probably headed back to town.

Penang Hill is just what is sounds like, a large hill in the middle of Penang Island. We got off the bus, and paid our fare to ride the funicular train up to the top, and watched the increasingly small city of Georgetown beneath us. We wandered around at the top, where there was a mosque, a temple, a hotel and restaurant and a tea house. Most people go to Penang Hill for the views of Penang, but we picked a very cloudy day with a storm literally rolling over us. We couldn’t see a thing. But we sat down for an overpriced drink at the restaurant with a nice view over the hill, and enjoyed the cool breezes and nice company. As the weather quickly changed, we made our way back down on the funicular, and hopped in a cheap taxi to go a few kilometers to the large Buddhist temple, Kek Lok Si. The largest Buddhist temple in Malaysia, it seemed to take up the entire side of the hill, and we wandered around the grounds, which also offered great views of the city. Though I haven’t seen too many temples yet, without a guide or information booklet, it is kind of hard to know what everything means, and it was slightly disappointing to go from room to room and not have a clue what you were looking at. The three of us headed back to the bus station for home, and after a quick lunch of Indian food, I said goodbye to Nikki as she was leaving on a bus for Kuala Lumpur. Andreas and I went back to the hostel and I sank into my bed for a quick power nap. The heat was still getting to me, and the air conditioning was a welcome relief this time. I woke up and decided to pack my bag, as I had a very early flight to catch to Phuket in Thailand, where I was meeting my friend Chris whom I met in Singapore.

After packing, I ate a quick dinner and settled back in the lobby of my hostel to watch the US get their butts kicked by the Czech Republic in the World Cup. It was also now 2am after the game, and I debated not even going to bed because my taxi to take me to the airport was coming at 5:30. But I did sleep for a few hours, and the woke up to pay an outrageous fare to the taxi at that time. Since there were no direct flighs to Phuket, I had a short flight back to Kuala Lumpur, and then only 1 1/2 hours back up to Phuket. I was supposed to arrive before Chris’s flight, but was happily surprised to find him waiting for me at baggage claim, since he was able to get on an earlier flight from Bangkok. Chris had invited me to spend two weeks at his friends’ house at Kamala Beach in Phuket, and after a short taxi ride, we arrived at what most normal people would call a really nice resort, and what backpackers would call not real. His friend was letting us use her apartment for free for two weeks, and since it was low season, ie the rainy season, on the west coast of Thailand, we were two of only a handful of people at this property, and wandered around the grounds and looked hungrily at the huge swimming pool. As it turns out, it would be just what both of us would need to recuperate and prepare us for our next months of traveling.

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One response to “Paradise Found, and then Lost, and then Found Again.”

  1. Tim says:

    Hey Kirsten,

    Sawasdee! Are you in Phuket now? I’ve been here in Phuket Town for a couple of weeks, and will be here for a few more days before heading to Krabi and Bangkok. Drop me a line if you’d like to meet up.


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