There was engine trouble on the way to the coveted Perhentian Islands; our van was losing water so we had to pull over. The driver found a creek nearby and began running back and forth with a small bucket. The other tourists and I attempted to help but the driver smiled and waved us away. The ride out of Tanah Rata was long and rough, and in a way that set the stage for the last stretch of my Malaysia adventure.
Later we stopped in an interesting town in Jerantut to have our permits checked and to change buses. There was a mosque across the street, its megaphones were echoing an Islamic prayer. I wandered up the shophouse path made up of purple-blue-red buildings. There was a bicycle workshop, and another shop of unknown purpose. Within the latter were unusual pigeons in cages. Veiled women and children on bicycles moved along the street.
I boarded the next bus and after ten minutes we passed a sign: Taman Negara 45km. There was immense deforestation on the hillsides. We passed a lumber yard and palm plantations, and crossed a river so brown and full of sediment that it seemed to bulge above the banks like jelly. One of the palm plantations continued for at least forty kilometres, probably a lot more in every other direction. The bus dropped us in Kuala Tahan, a village established at the crossing of the Tembeling and Tahan rivers. I could see where the motorboats carried passengers across the river to the park headquarters. The town was quiet due to Ramadan — during the final days of Ramadan, most people close their shops and visit family or rest.
Many of the local people were wearing ceremonial costumes of solid colours. I assumed that they wear these outfits around Eid al-Fitr (a holiday marking the end of Ramadan).
It was hot, humid and cloudless in the village, I walked in sweat-drenched clothes to the river to see the many canoes and motorboats docked there. There were power lines and strings across the sand banks that didn’t seem to serve any purpose. Vines grew on the cables. There was a boathouse set sideways on a hillside, abandoned and ruined but embraced by the jungle. It was dry season and the rivers were low, boat-restaurants idled along the banks. I continued my walk down to the Durian Chalet, a comfortable guesthouse in the jungle. There were siphoned rubber trees along the path.
There wasn’t much accommodation left in town. I was lucky to find an open bunk in an air-conditioned dormitory. That was at a cheap guesthouse on a hill by the river, and the clientele were quite old. They were the types that only wanted to sit around and talk about all the things you can’t do once you’re old, and having no interest in that I went out for dinner.
I ventured into a boat-restaurant called “Mama’s Kitchen”. The entrance had a big “closed for Ramadan” sign over it and the people who lived there were lounging and watching Bollywood movies, but they obliged to cook some coconut chicken for me. I had my lunch as flies buzzed around and Bollywood hits and Islamic prayers crackled through the restaurant speakers. The sun fell into the jungle and the sky was alight with fireworks. A prayer was whirling out from a mosque somewhere. In the streets children played with firecrackers that popped, fizzled, sparkled and exploded in clusters. The celebration went on past midnight, and it’s been happening every night for almost a month. The adults didn’t take part; they were famished and irritable from all the heat and fasting.
The following morning I learned that all of the beds in the guesthouse had been pre-booked, so I had to search the village for a new place to live. It was incredible luck that I found a place down a small road away from the river, where the house family warmly invited me to sample some of the local cuisine. The father told me that they only gather together a few times a year like this, and when they do, they always invite their guests to take part in the festivities. A giant rhino beetle anchored itself to my shirt and I couldn’t take it off. The family’s daughter said “you’re doing it wrong!” and then removed the beetle without trouble. “The insects are huge out here,” I laughed.
My bedroom was cave-like with a washroom that smelled of ammonia. The bed was draped with a mosquito net that was full of gaping holes. I opened all of the windows and Islamic morning prayers wafted in. Someone was singing in the distance.
I decided to only spend another day in the jungle before moving on to the east coast. I took a motorboat across the river to the park headquarters. There were many birds overhead that were very similar to those in Thailand. I’m not great with the names; there were birds with dagger-tails, and brown puffy-looking birds, then there were the occasional ravens or pigeons. I caught glimpses of green, orange, or bat-like animals high up in the branches as well.
It was a thrilling day in the park area. I hiked up to the canopy walk, which climbs high up into the trees of the jungle. The bridge was dangerous, unstable and completely worth it. There were a lot of screaming Chinese tourists however, and I’ll confess that I wanted to throw them over the ropes at times.
From the canopy walk it was the long way to the Bukit Indah viewpoint, where one can get a great view of the jungle and the surrounding mountains. The rush of trekking and being soaked with humidity, cicadas singing in the trees and the unusual foliage all around me made for an enjoyable and genuine trip. From the Bukit Indah viewpoint I descended to a popular swim hole, but the water looked foul and there were too many bellowing tourists, so I continued on.
Along the way I saw all sorts of fascinating creatures. Millipedes as long as my forearm, giant and radiant-orange centipedes that bolt like a bat out of hell when spotted, bony spiders larger than my hand suspended along the trail. Cicadas with a dozen different songs, ants the size of peanuts, and places where the earth churned with armies of termites. I spotted a monitor lizard almost as long as I am tall. There were so many types of trees. Many were enormous, and it was difficult to know where they began and where they ended with the way the roots climbed, descended and climbed again in a complex webwork. The root systems reminded me of neurons and synapses. According to the small information centre in the park headquarters, there were also bears, tigers and leopards, but I didn’t see any (likely in part due to the terrible noise made by some of the tourists).
The following morning I had a negotiation of charades with a non-English-speaking local in order to secure a motorbike to the bus stop, where a vehicle was supposed to be collecting the last round of tourists before heading off to Terengganu.
Our bus passed through huge clearings; plains of gnarled grey stumps and palm saplings, and that became enormous stretches of palms. Vegetables grew underneath some of the palms, and I spotted many free-roaming cattle.
We stopped in an empty town in Jerantut to change buses and use the ATMs. It would be our last chance to withdraw money past that point, as there were no ATMs in the coastal villages or on the islands. On the way to the coast I was struck by the unbelievable size of the palm fields. We crossed bridges over muddy rivers, passed mountains, karsts and villages with yellow and green mosques, and multicoloured houses.
Traffic was frozen across Malaysia due to all of the people visiting family for Eid al-Fitr. Because of the delay we ended up in the town of Kuala Besut just before dark and there was only one boat left. All of the tourists were spirited away and I lingered behind – I wasn’t on the agent’s records. I had an argument with the staff (and apologised later) and in the end had to buy a new round-trip ticket to the Perhentian Islands and back.
One of the staff drove me to the boat by motorbike. “I’m sorry for what’s happened,” he said. I told him I understand that it’s not in their control and that I’d been cheated by an shady old man in Tanah Rata.
The boat was just about to disembark when I arrived so I hurried on. After a few minutes the mainland began to disappear. We passed small islands made up almost entirely of karsts and hills. It was nearly black out there. Under the roar of the engine and the spray of saltwater on my face, I began to feel calm. I breathed deep and let go of some angry emotions, then a wide shore with many canoes and incandescent lights came into view.
We docked on Long Island, one of the several islands that make up the Perhentians. It was a relatively quiet night on the island due to Eid al-Fitr, and there was nowhere cheap left to stay. Even basic accommodation was running for eighty ringgit. I opted to camp that night in a rented tent beneath a sports bar.
Though it was a quieter night than usual, there was still plenty of music and crowd. There were a few local fire-spinners on the island who were faster than any I’d ever known.
That night an important football game was going on, but the only problem was that it didn’t broadcast in the Perhentians until three in the morning. The sports bar made terrible noise until daylight. Rather than sleep, I laid face-up and imagined ways to chop down the foundations of the building, or sabotage the electricity. Or maybe I could just throw in the towel and join them. I didn’t. Stepping out for some fresh air, I was frozen by the sight of two enormous monitor lizards.
I was on the island for just a few days, so I had to make the best of it. And what better way to tackle the sting of being swindled and a sleepless hangover than to go snorkelling in the Perhentians?
We had a late start, but then everything on this trip has been a late start. I was in the company of a guide and a few travellers from Sweden. They turned out to be great company, and the whole day was swell. We spent it boating around to different snorkelling spots, having lunch halfway through the trip at a resort area on another island. There was a silver mosque on the seaside. Hymns projected from the mosque as the restaurant staff lazily strolled between the kitchen and the tables outside. It wasn’t a hot day and there was some cloud cover, but I was about to discover that ultraviolet rays are almost unaffected by clouds, and water intensifies the rays. That meant that I was getting the full blow of the sun without any sunblock, and I’m still feeling the effects almost a month later.
“We’ve been waiting for more than an hour,” the Swedish girl said. “I think they’ve forgotten us.”
“Nothing else is open, they’re overwhelmed,” I replied.
The staff weren’t worried at all. They would make money either way. It was the travellers who had the short end of the stick. To me it was a terrible waste of opportunity on the part of the locals, but I was there to snorkel, not practice economics.
In the end we did get our food, and we moved on to the next snorkelling spot. It was a magical thing, swimming through those reefs, schools of fish all around me. Most of the coral was dead, bleached white and nothing but a skeleton. That was a sad thing to see and there seemed to be nothing in place to protect what remained. I was annoyed to witness many people snatching up, squeezing and clawing at the fish.
The surviving corals were beautiful, and living among them were sea cucumbers, fat green fish lurking alone on the sea bottom, and schools of small silver fish circling the motorboats. There were long waving tufts of seaweed and giant clams nestled within the complex colonies of coral and sea urchins. Among the anemones I saw clownfish, and occasionally small sharks and long, sword-nosed fish lurked by my field of vision. Some of the fish were striped, others were as blue as the deep sea.
That evening on Long Island I joined my snorkelling partners and a diverse group of other travellers; we enjoyed cheap rum drowned in soft drinks. Ramadan was officially over and all of the bars were open. That night there were more fire spinners and spectators, and a bounty of things were on fire in general. The entertainers spilled gasoline everywhere until the coastline was a wall of flame. The spinners danced among it, flinging their spears high into the air and catching them with ease and bravado.
The following morning I missed the boat to Kuala Besut, but convinced a boatman into steering me out to meet the other vessel at sea near the next stop from Long Island. Fighting a hangover and torturous sunburn, I stomped around in the sand like a madman and then flopped into the motorboat. The boat was so fast that the front tip never touched the water, and at times we hit a wave and would crash hard on the sea. I was going cross-eyed by the time we reached the other boat and pulled up next to it, and I awkwardly tumbled on board. The captain of the boat made jokes. I was hung over and annoyed, and when I opened my mouth to explain myself the captain cut me off, “Haha yes! You see? Drinking!” Everyone on the boat laughed. I don’t think he had a clue what I’d said, nor was he very interested.
When I arrived in Kuala Besut I was informed that the next bus to Kuala Lumpur would depart at eight-thirty, so I rented a room in a rundown guesthouse for the day at a discount. Mine was the dirtiest room of all. Direct sunlight sliced through the spiderweb curtains that revealed the ashtray filth on the awning below. The bed was faded, dingy and dried up. I pressed my hand against it and could feel all of the springs, like the ribs of a long-dead animal. The pillow was weak, almost nothing at all. There was a dead and gnawed chair in the corner by the bedside table. Underneath was the carcass of a green, mossy-looking mattress. The room stank faintly of human skin and cigarettes. The walls were a peeled, yellow-stained white. The first detail I saw after being hit with the sum of the place was the chicken-scratch graffiti on the wall that proclaimed “shit hole”, accompanied by all the other almost indecipherable graffiti of past travellers. I turned on the fan, it was stuck to one speed, weaker than asphyxiated breath.
When the sun weakened I left the room to try to do some street shots. I returned to the park where festivities of Eid al-Fitr had just cleared away, and down to the jetty. It was a scene of stray cats and putrid smells. Black pipes came out of the water like slugs overtop a storm-break of harsh geometric boulders of reinforced concrete and broken scales of brick. I watched the sunset over a dirty beach, children were playing with plastic swords on the dunes of a construction yard behind the jetty facing a restaurant that sold Malaysian and Indian food. The day grew old and men who had arrived on motorbikes to watch the scene and smoke, returned to wherever they came from.
The bus was late and there was a lot of confusion with very little explanation. Many passengers had the same tickets, and the station resorted to calling in a substitute driver to handle all of us. What followed was a very long ride in a dirty old bus with innards like that of a cheap motel on wheels. The bus had a musk that can only be created by years of hundreds of people occupying a place without much upkeep. It smelled of overused and uncleaned furniture. I was fortunate to fall asleep after we left town.
I woke up past sunrise with neck pain, as if my head was too heavy on my shoulders. The bus had stopped at a rest place, traffic was almost at a standstill all the way from where I’d started to Kuala Lumpur. It was the worst traffic jam I’ve ever seen. The driver had parked indefinitely. Ours was not an official bus, so there was no formal schedule. We were already several hours late, and our expected arrival at five-thirty in the morning had become nine. I got up from my seat to get the bus going. Everyone on the bus was laughing at the conversation between the driver and I, but my attempt was successful and we got moving.
We made it to the city by ten-thirty and was on a plane within a few hours. We ascended from the runway, revealing an endless expanse of palms in various stages of growth, and some small sections allotted to mixed crops. The palms seemed to go on forever. The airplane curved over sprawling suburbs and patches of forest that were slowly being taken down and transformed into a deforested grassland that could have been clawed by a giant tiger. In the suburbs were sometimes mosques, factories and rivers that were tamed and clotted with mud, some so straightened out as to no longer resemble anything more than a canal. There was another river that was long and beautifully winding but tragically brown. The scene bled again into the endless sectioned landscape of palms and unruly rivers until all I could see were clouds, sky and a distant, contouring shore.
Chiang Mai was unidentifiable until we were really close, then I could see the temples rising up like friends waving “hello”. I arrived in heavy rain and quietly said, “Yep, this is the Chiang Mai I love so much”. I went to work at the university first thing in the morning and slowly reorganised myself into Thai life. My back was a deep red and the skin crawled with sun blisters. I was tired. But I’d never appreciated Thailand as much as I have after that day.
To my readers, friends and the people of Malaysia and Thailand, I thank you for all of your hospitality and support. It’s a great learning experience living among you.
Until next time,