This is a travel blog for desktop travelers and other ramblers who want to know the world just a little bit better.

Right now I am living in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala where I'll be settled for a while. Thanks for reading!

Friday, August 13, 2010

Almost Paradise - Perhentian Island

We leave Kuala Lumpur on Friday, August 6, fleeing from the hordes of Singaporean tourists that will descend on the city during their national holiday. It is my critical mistake thinking that they also will not be on Perhentian Island, our next destination. We have a night bus so spend the day researching hotels. The few we call are full. Our hotel clerk tells us that many places say they are full even if not, preferring walk-ins so there is hope. The night bus is uneventful – absolutely freezing from air-conditioning like every night bus in South East Asia.

There are not too many tourists left on the bus at the final stop so I begin to think getting a hotel room may not be so bad. Naivety. I do not realize that many more public buses and tourist shuttles are arriving from other cities. It is suddenly very busy. We are herded into a holding area on the jetty for boats to the islands. Everyone is carrying all their belongings on their backs. It is Ellis Island.

Pulau Perhentian is made up of two islands, Besar (Big) and Kecil (Small). Perhentian Kecil has more budget hotels. On Perhentian Kecil there are two main beaches Long Beach and Coral Bay with a few other small beaches and a small fishing village. There are no vehicles on the island. There are a few brick pathways through the jungle for walking from one beach to another and water taxis to the few remote places and for those who do not wish to get sweaty. We ask the boat driver to let us off at Coral Bay, the smaller of the two beaches to try our luck.

A home on the island's fishing village
We get off the dock and walk on the sand from place to place looking for a room. I am carrying my suitcase on my head. Nobody in Coral Bay has a room. I leave Mika and our luggage at the lobby sofa of a nicer hotel, and head out alone to find accommodation in Long Beach. During the 15 minute hike across the island I see backpackers heading in the opposite direction. I tell them as they tell me that the other beach is full. Some travelers look despondent sitting on the beach. I hear a tale of two girls who slept on the floor of a dive shop last night. Two hours later around 9:30 AM it does not look good. I keep seeing the same homeless travelers walking around. More will arrive with the 12 PM boat taxis. Worst case scenario, we sleep on the beach one night. I get a tip from a local to ask hotels around 10:30 AM if anyone is checking out. I do it and get a beach chalet right before a German girl could ask.
On Perhentian Island they all use the term "chalet" to describe the beach accommodation. This is a bit of an overstatement. For most places, “shack“ is more fitting. We pay RM 90 (US $30) for a shack, er.. I mean chalet, with a private shower facing the beach. Just happy to have any room, we settle in and decide to take our first swim in the South China Sea.

Like “chalets”, Coral Bay is also an overstatement. Dead Coral Bay would be a more apropos. Ashore is lots of broken coral. In the sea here a few lonely fish are looking for signs of life as hard as we are. I get tired of seeing dead coral in all these places knowing that human activity - including ours and thousands of other tourists like us - is a major part of the problem. After the swim I take a nap while Mika tries her luck at Long Beach. Dinner is delicious grilled mackerel on the beach. The snorkeler’s paradox -- complain about dead coral and depleted marine life populations while dining on yummy fish at a tourist restaurant on a small tropical island that cannot sustain more tourism. Hey, at least I know I am a hypocrite!

Early the next morning I go to Long Beach to snorkel. Passing aluminum cans, I do see more fish. I really wish I knew the names of any of them. There is a school of what must be hundreds of medium-sized, silver fish hanging out directly under the dock. No fisherman would think to look for them there. After a quick shower and breakfast, Mika taxis our luggage, and I walk to Mira Beach. It is a small place with eight chalets and, most importantly, a small private beach. It is much cheaper and quieter. People are friendly. It is the most sociable we have been during travel. The restaurant has a library. The English selection is limited, but I am excited to have something to read on the beach. Do I choose Agatha Christie, some Robin Cook schwag, a book on Pol Pot? I decide to stay current and read Eclipse, the third installment of the insanely popular teen vampire love story. Too far in to stop, I realize the book is missing the last 70 pages. I guess I will have to go see the movie.

We grab our books, some reed mats and lay on the sand under a tree. Mika says that after being on the travelers’ road for two months this is the first time she feels like she is actually on vacation. We plan to stay here as long as our cash will last. There are no ATMs (or banks for that matter) on the island.

Our shack just a few short rocks away from the beach
The next day we do a snorkel tour. It is a five stop tour offered by all the dive shops. The first stop is Shark Point. I will admit, I am a little apprehensive to snorkel somewhere named “Shark Point“ with the sole purpose of seeing one of nature’s greatest carnivores. After a few flesh eating jokes, our guide assures us they are scared of people and harmless. Plus thousands of tourists have done this and lived to tell the tale. One French woman in our group does not go in. Black tip sharks are much smaller than the beasts of ocean lore, but I am still glad that when spotted they are swimming away from my general direction.

Next stop, the less scary named Fish Point. The lovely named Coral Garden was our advertised stop, but the guide tells us that two years ago a fishing boat ran into Coral Garden and essentially killed it. So Fish Point it is. The star of the area is a plump, colorful parrot fish who is not at all bothered by me swimming close enough to grab and fillet him.

Third stop and highlight of the tour is Turtle Point to see, you guessed it, turtles. We spot a boat people abandoning ship. I jump in with the others and catch a brief glimpse of a very large, oval object at the bottom of the sea. My mask goes askew, too many people are splashing around, so I give up the chase. Visibility is not great. Our guide is trying hard. At one point he is searching with his head and body in thewater and driving the boat with his left arm on the wheel. We spot another guide close by excitedly pointing in the water. We pull close. As our boat is still moving I jump in. I immediately see the large round shape of the Green Turtle. This time I am leading the chase. I am now swimming directly over the reptile who is at the bottom of the sea. We are synchronized for what feels like a minute, but in reality probably only 20 secs. The turtle does not tire, but I do. Getting back in the boat I find out that Mika missed the chase. She unfortunately jumped out the wrong side. Mika's photo of our 1st turtle sighting just before it got away.
We have lunch at the island’s fishing village. We happily find a non-touristy place selling cheap local food. Two more stops to jump from a light house and one more place to see stingrays and communities of clown fish. Finding Nemo was easy. Stingrays, however, are more elusive and we did not see any. I will say this, for what limited living coral there is out here the fish do have an amazing ability to find it.

This evening we have dinner again at the beach. This time it is grilled stingray. Maybe this is the reason we did not find any under the water.

One Guaranteed way to see a stingray
The story continues: Follow this link to read more about the Perhentian Islands

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