Back Into the Wild
20.07.2012 - 27.07.2012 32 °C
After not getting to spend any time on Thailand's beaches I instead decided to seek out the solitude and better weather of Malaysia's east coast Perhentian Islands. But before that there was the small matter of a stop in the culinary utopia of Penang. This island off Malaysia's North West coast was founded by the British in the 19th Century and became an important trading hub attracting people from all over the world and thus created a multi-cultural mix of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Burmese, European and many others. This diverse history can be seen in the UNESCO heritage area of George Town which is packed full of colonial buildings. I spent an enjoyable day just wondering around the sites taking in the British town hall and Fort Cornwallis, the crumbling Chinese shophouses and the loud and colourful streets of Little India.
However the real splendour of Penang's diverse culture is found in the food. I would get seriously fat living here as the food is so good - from Malay specialities such as freshly barbecued chicken skewers with satay sauce, Nasi Goreng and Hokkien Char, to Chinese Dim Sum and fantastic Indian curries with Malay style Roti Nan. As this is South East Asia it's all cooked fresh at dirt cheap prices at street stalls and eaten by the side of the road - even the occasional rat running past couldn't spoil my enjoyment of the food. The other great thing is that this is backpacker central so it's impossible not to meet people while you eat. The only slight downside is that being a Muslim country alcohol is a lot more expensive here - about £2 for a small can of lager - so my time in Malaysia has been nearly, but not quite, tea total. I am also happy to report that any misconceptions that a Muslim country might not be as friendly as the incredibly hospitable other countries of SE Asia is totally unfounded.
So with a full belly I set off across to the other side of Malaysia to the Perhentian Islands. This was quite an impulsive decision as I hadn't even heard of the place before arriving in Malaysia, but I read a couple of glowing reviews about quiet white sandy beaches, cheap rustic accommodation, lush jungle and crystal clear sea. Basically I got an image in my mind of a secluded paradise island where I could spend a few days completely chilling out. After 6 hours on a bus, half an hour on a speed boat and a tiny little taxi boat ashore (nearly ashore - still had to wade through the sea a bit) I arrived at Long Beach on Kecil (the slightly smaller of the 2 Perhentian Islands). My idea of a secluded paradise was slightly shattered at the sight of rows of parasol for hire, quite a few dive centres and loads of adverts for snorkelling / boat trips - it was a lot more tourist than I had been led to believe. But despite those little things the beach was long, white and powder soft, with tropical jungle bordering all along. The sea was crystal clear and full of little boats bobbing up and down. There are no roads, cars motorbikes etc, just one path leading across the island so I came to find it a pretty cool place to spend my days laying in the sun, swimming, snorkelling and eating good sea food.
I called this blog 'Back to the Wild' and part of the reason for that was the accommodation on Kecil. I was expecting rustic but if my 'chalet' had been any more rustic it would have just been a pile of wood. At night there was very little protecting me from the various insects all around and the animals scuttling about below, but that I could live with, what I couldn't live with (for more than 2 days at least) were the toilets!!! So after 2 nights I move to a dorm which was also quite a lot cheaper, however ... I think/ hope this is the worst place I will ever stay in my life, everything was damp, dirty, smelly and covered in ants, at least the toilets were slightly better. The problem with the Perhentian Islands is the budget accommodation fills up fast and nothing can be booked in advance - there are some beautiful resorts if you have the money but I didn't.
Despite this, the food was again amazing - seafood BBQ's on the beach for dinner were great with the King Fish my favourite, and the Malaysia curried fish was to die for. In addition to the food I had an incredible snorkelling experience. In a tiny little boat we set off around the Perhentian Islands several different sites. The first was Turtle Point where I was instantly rewarded with the site of a huge sea turtle. Next was Fish Point where there was an abundance of tropical fish, I don't know the proper names but I saw Nemo (front Finding Nemo), some zebra fish (small black and white striped fish) which would swim up to about 10cm away from my mask and just looked straight at me, an old man fish (huge fat thing with an grumpy old man’s look on his face), and my favourite - the rave fish (luminous colours which wouldn't have looked out of place at a Happy Mondays gig). The next stop was Shark Point and after 40 minutes in the water I'd given up on sighting Jaws when a reef shark swam right past me. I gave chase and was rewarded with the sight of another of his mates. They were about 1.5 meters long and had sly, menacing looks about them - however they must have known better than to mess with me! Finally we visited the Blue Lagoon which had the most brilliant blue water but was unfortunately full of little jelly fish which gave me a few horrible stings - luckily the nearby beach was a stunningly beautiful place to escape from the water.
While discussing vicious animals I should mention my encounter with a real life dragon/dinosaur. While lying on the beach reading a book and minding my own business I heard a rustling coming from within the jungle just a couple of meters away at the top of the beach. As I looked round a huge beast burst out of the tropical shrubs as if to attack me. I didn't have a clue what it was at first - if anything it was the size and shape of a crocodile ... After a few seconds I realised it must be a big Monitor Lizard and I could relax a bit as it probably wouldn't rip any of my limbs off, however I moved away and made sure to sun bathe further down the beach after that.
After 4 days of relaxing I started getting a bit restless (I couldn't be a beach bum who spends weeks on the beach). So with time to spare I made another impulsive decision about were to head next - this time it was to the very centre of peninsula Malaysia and the world’s oldest rainforest at Taman Negara. Having not had a jungle adventure in over 2 months I decided to go on a 2 day, 1 night trek deep into the mighty rainforest. I was in a group with 2 French lads, a Korean guy and a family of 5 Dutch. To start with we had to travel an hour and a half up the Tembeling river (which made it feel incredibly far away from the nearest civilization which is the already remote village of Kuala Taman were we started) and the views from the shallow boat of the river flanked on either side by towering rainforest was quite epic. We did have a lucky escape when the boat driver manned to break the engine mid-way through a rapid!
The guides for this trek were by far the most informative of the three treks I've done (giving really interesting information about the trees plants and animals we encountered) and despite there not being the adrenaline rush of the gibbon experience or the mighty mountain top views as in Thailand, I got the feeling this was the densest jungle I'd been in and there was certainly more wildlife than anywhere else.
On this trek there were to be no huts or tree houses complete with food and water to sleep in. Instead we made camp in a cave, and therefore had to carry everything we needed - loads of water, food, utensils, sleeping bag, sleeping mat etc. So carrying this load we trekked 8km each day through thick jungle, up hills and down ravines, across streams and through muddy bogs, scrambling over mighty tree roots and under fallen tree trunks.
We were rewarded for our very sweaty efforts with sighting of marquee monkeys, toucan’s, giant millipedes, a scorpion (dead) and bats in the cave at night. We also came across elephant track but unfortunately the elephants were long gone, fortunately we didn't have to deal with any tigers or deadly snakes which call the jungle of Taman Negara home.
On the second day of the adventure we stopped for lunch by a small stream were we could swim and use a rope swing to launch into the deeper part of the water. At the end as we emerged back out onto the banks of the Tembeling river there was time for another refreshing swim in the murky river waters.
That brings me pretty much up to date. I’m now safely back in civilization in Kuala Lumpur where I have a few days before a quick visit to Singapore and then my Asian adventure will be over ... but my Australian adventure is now getting very close!