From the Cameron Highlands we left early in a van headed east, our destination was the Perhentian Islands, Malaysia’s diving paradise. Down the hill we drove super fast through heavy rain. We passed some amazing rock walls that I hoped to come back to climb someday. The culture became more and more Islamic with most signs written in Arabic and few women without hijab. In Kuala Besut we were left at the jetty where the boats to the islands leave. Our boat was included in the transportation price but we had to pay 30 Ringgit each to enter the islands, a conservation fee. We loaded our stuff onto a boat after about an hour of waiting then moved everyone’s stuff around again a couple more times because no one took charge of telling us where on the boat to put the luggage. (Culture=no one likes to show authority.). The boat ride was overloaded and a little sketchy but we made it just fine. There are two islands, one with the resorts and an older crowd (Pulau Besar) and one a little smaller with the backpacker/diver folks (Pulau Kecil). We chose Long Beach on Kecil Island, a paradise with white sands and blue blue water. We stayed in a bungalow seconds from the water at the Lemongrass Guesthouse. The friendly owner explained the snorkeling options and we were excited to see some sea life. The area was a mecca for divers with amazing coral and sharks and sea turtles but we haven’t gotten into that whole scene yet – we are still stoked about snorkeling (for now).
From Long Beach you can hike to many other beaches on the island, the closest of which being Coral Beach, not as nice but having some cheaper (better?) food options. When we find decent food we usually will go there a bunch of times over a few days. Our spot was Ewan’s Cafe, midway on the trail from Long Beach to Coral Beach. They had a large menu of cheap Malaysian food and western favorites. We ate there maybe 6-7 times and it was all pretty good. Our absolute favorite spot though was at the end of the trail just onto Coral Beach, a guy with a sign Fatimah’s “Best Roti Canai” and it really was the best. Roti canai is a folded flat bread with bananas or egg or tuna inside and is served with curry sauce for dipping. You had to get there at the right time though because they would sell out rather quickly when the bread was ready.
The island was pretty relaxed during the day but at night several beach bars would open up and after 11 there was always a DJ playing electronic music that turned pretty clubby. The highlight was the fire spinners who would post up in front of each of the popular places. They were really talented, rivaling the best spinners we’ve scene at Burning Man. We watched them for hours and I talked to them about how they built their sticks, looking forward to making one myself. The beach was the only spot to be at night besides in bed under your mosquito net as the bugs got bad the further you strayed from the sea breeze.
Snorkeling was definitely the best thing we did on the Perhentian Islands. We payed for a tour through the Lemongrass where we were staying and left a little after 11am on a boat with another American, one French girl, and a group of Malaysians. They took us to several spots around the island – Shark Point, Turtle Bay, and a few others. I saw a two foot shark at Shark Point, small but cool, and at every spot there was amazing coral of all sorts. We saw beautiful schools of parrot fish, a green and blue sting ray, and the star of the show was a giant sea turtle. The turtle was so impressive and I was able to swim underneath it when it surfaced for air.
We took a pit stop for lunch at a local village near the Silver Mosque which was in the middle of the call to prayer when we arrived. The scene seemed surreal with the beautiful shining building and the village and the perfect blue sky reflecting in the water.
The sad part about snorkeling in the Perhentian Islands was the lack of education that the guides gave the tourists. Many of the local people couldn’t swim and would stand on top of the coral, breaking it with their fins. It was heartbreaking to watch, mainly because of how avoidable it was. With coral dying all over the world, it is more important than ever to take care of what remains. Elsewhere in Malaysia, we had started yelling at people when they threw trash on the ground because it ruins my world and your world and everyone’s world. I think just having the fear that some white dude is going to come yelling at them might keep them from doing it again. However, I didn’t feel right trying to tell the snorkeling guides that they needed to instruct these coral standers, and I don’t think it would have changed anything. Like I said before, in Malaysian culture no one likes to give directions or show authority over anyone else. But if I see a western person standing on coral I’m going to show you my scary side and it best be the last time you do it.
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Another interesting thing on the island was the giant monitor lizards. They would eat your kittens if you let them stray and our guesthouse host spent most of his day making sure his little kitties didn’t wander around the wrong corner.
We spent four lovely days in the Perhenthian Islands and it was a little sad to leave. But we were headed to Penang and we were so excited for the food. We carried our backpacks all the way across Long Beach to the pier, passing all the silly kids who had shown up with rolling suitcases. Seriously, why do so many people bring those things to the beach? We waiting around the pier watching a young Malaysian couple snorkeling in the water below. They were so different from us bare-it-all westerners, trying to swim while holding hands, the girl covered in hijab and a head-to-toe conservative swimming outfit. Even the men were nervous about taking their shirts off, always replacing them for pictures. Eventually we were shuffled onto a boat and made the rounds collecting people from other beaches before heading back to the main land.
We took a taxi from the pier to the bus station where we got a local bus to Kota Bharu. We stayed at Zech’s Guesthouse, owned by a super friendly older couple. Zech, a faithful Muslim, was excited to share a name with me. As I remembered from Morocco, when people hear my name it brings about many questions. I feel like there are more Muslim Zecks than Christian Zachs and the name seems to gain me instant respect. We talked a little bit after being shown all the room options and they told us about a great night food market where we got the blue rice which is colored with a flower and famous in the region. In the morning after his pre-sunrise prayers, Papa Zech drove us to the airport because it was too early for taxis. He told us of his recent trip to Mecca, a pilgrimage that he was proud to have finally completed. We arrived early like good travelers but most people didn’t get to the airport until 40 minutes before their flight. There were only six other passengers and our “private” jet was the easiest flight we have ever taken. At least it wasn’t Malaysian Airlines, which has a nasty reputation for disappearing into thin air. Next up… Georgetown, Penang!!!!