Saturday, 28 April 2012

044 Bounty Islands, Finding Nemo and Big Buddha's

In Real-Life Today is April 28th. In the real world, I have returned from my journey in Asia. I have flown from Jakarta back to the Netherlands, where I hope to spend the rest of my sabbatical travelling around in Europe again.

But not in this blog series. In this incredibly slow blog, we have kind of stopped for a while, we got stuck in the past. In this virtual environment, it has been the beginning of March for quite some time now. In the coming weeks, I am going to attempt to speed up time a bit, with the ultimate aim to synchronize it with the real world again. Bear with me, there is still a very real possibility that at some point in the near future, all will be revealed.

So where did we spend all this time, this near unending beginning of March, from which we only now awake? Not in the worst of places. Not bad at all. Indeed, if one would have to pick a place to get stuck in time, this one should be able to claim a top position on most people's short list.
Picture your favourite bounty island. You know, the one you involuntarily dream away to on those rainy autumn days in the office. Yes, that one. White beaches, crystal clear water, palm trees galore. You have just pictured one of the Perenthian Islands, your daydream having transported you to a small island half an hour off the coast of Malaysia. Admittedly, it is not completely uninhabited, but that also means there are people to run a bunch of pretty beach bungalows for you to rest in, and a couple of restaurants to fill your stomach, both well deserved after an intensive day of lazing around, dozing in the sun, reading a bit and, if one would feel exceptionally energized, a short swim.

It is the contrast with our last location which gives this little piece of heaven it's glowing halo. As you may or more likely may not recall, we earlier found ourselves in the midst of a thunderstorm in the aptly named rainforest, somewhere in the central (and much colder) highlands. On the swim back to the hostel, we unanimously decided that it was time for a bit of sun. We had heard good stories about this set of islands in the far north-east of Malaysia, so that was to be our destination for tomorrow. Inquiries at the local bus station revealed that a trip with semi-public buses would involve a ride back to the coast on the west side of the country, then back up to Penang where we had just been a couple of days back, and then another gazillion-hour-busride to the east coast. Wow, there must be an easier way to get down from the centre of the country to the east than by first going to the west, right? This being one of Malaysia's tourist hotspots, of course there was a way, so the next day we drove down the mountains straight to the east in a small van with a couple of other tourists and a driver who listened the whole way to music from System of a Down.
We booked our ride with the boat ticket included, so we were dropped off right at the boat office. Quite a lot of other backpackers, some chaotic procedure to write your name in the registry and the obligation to pay a national park entry fee, but after a mere twenty minutes we were in the boat, on the water, towards these two islands. A  'big' one with more upper scale accommodation, and a smaller one for low life backpacker scum like yours truly.

I am a sceptic person by nature. If you send me a postcard from a picture perfect island, part of my brain will assume that the image is photo-shopped. That someone made a decent picture of a pretty beach, and then cranked up the colour saturation. And I'm sure that they do this. But they wouldn't have to, they could just come to the Perenthians and save themselves a day in the office.

It was great. I am not very good at doing nothing for days on end, but I was happy to make an exception here. The restaurant that was run by the people who also rent us a hut was right next door. When we ate there the first day, right after coming off the boat, and the food was so incredibly good that we ate there three times a day, not seeing any reason why we should walk another 40 meters through the white sand to eat at the neighbours'. I would like to nominate them for a Michelin Star.

We went snorkelling, something Poornima nor I had ever done before. For a couple of Euro you rent a set of flippers, a mask and the snorkel, you walk right off the beach into the water, that's it. Once you're up to you knees in the water, you can already see how clear the water is. But what I am not at all prepared for are the six colourful little fish throwing curious looks at me the moment I dip my masked head below the waves. You're in an National Geographic documentary. So many different colourful fish, the whole crew from Finding Nemo seems to be invited to the party. I see big silvery fish, fluorescent green ones, a bunch of small bright blue ones, and dozens of other crazy coloured and shaped sea beasts, including those small funky yellow fish that your uncle keeps in his fancy heated aquarium. Technicolor corals and swaying anemones everywhere, its truly revelational. Just a pity my goggles keep fogging over.

We stayed on the island for four days, reading, doing nothing, swimming and sea-canoeing to some deserted beaches. But there was still more to see in Malaysia, so at some point it was time to get back to reality.
We took the speedboat back to shore, struggled our way through a bunch of persistent but eventually unsuccessful taxi drivers, and made our way to the main road from where we took the public bus to Kota Baru (or, in abbreviation loving Malaysia KB), the big city in this north-eastern corner. This part of Malaysia is more Muslim-conservative than the rest of the country, but so close to the Thai border there are also large groups of Buddhists. The city itself was not that exciting, and after a couple of days on a paradisical island, a big hot busy city is hard to love.
But our hostel (the KB Backpacker Lodge) was amazing, hands down the most funky and friendly place I've stayed in in South East Asia. The rooms are nothing special, but the older owner who runs the place is one of a kind. All the walls in the place are filled with funny and inventive home made posters of things you can do in and around the city. He also drives a cab, and when he comes back from that job he brings a bag of mangoes, or fresh bread for the toaster. And whenever he sees you, he will come up to you and ask if you need anything, or if you heard already about the free dance performance in cultural centre tonight.
He drove us around the country side for a day in his battered cab, showing us the big Buddhist temples. These Buddhist, they like it big. We saw a reclining Buddha as big as a row of houses, and huge sitting and standing Buddha's.

Our plan was to traverse the whole of Malaysia by night train, from KB to Singapore, our next stop. It was not to be. We went on an expedition to the train station, that is placed a convenient fifteen kilometre out of the city, only to find out all the tickets for the coming days were sold out already because of a public holiday. In the end we take the night bus, which might be quicker but is also endlessly less comfortable and lacks the travelling romance. After a short night being shaken around, we are dropped off in Johor Bahru, from where we board another bus to cross the Johor Straight, through two modern, airport like border control buildings and into Singapore.

No comments: