In Search of Bali Hai

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August 19th 2007
Published: August 25th 2007
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Could This be Bali Hai?Could This be Bali Hai?Could This be Bali Hai?

An idyliic and - as yet - undeveloped beach north of Air Batang on Tioman's west coast. © L. Birch 2007
Rest and recuperation. Most of our friends back home probably thought that our trip was one long holiday... what on Earth did we need a period of R & R for? Long-term travel however - as anyone who has done it will know - is not like taking a holiday. Without realising it, the effects of heat and constant change; of switching time zones and cultures so often, of going without sleep and making do with a poor diet - could run a body down. Before you knew what was happening, you had opened the door for fatigue and illness to slip in. When you reached the stage where nothing seemed to touch you anymore and you wondered why you kept going, you had probably pushed things too far. Recognising the symptoms before you reached this point was crucial if you wanted to survive more than 6-months of intensive travel.

So what was the cure? The cure was simple - take a break. Go somewhere relaxing, sit still and get to know the neighbours. Eat well, catch up on your sleep, find a little job or do a yoga course, establish a routine and do ordinary things for a while.
The Beach at Air BatangThe Beach at Air BatangThe Beach at Air Batang

A coral sea lapped the sands just a few metres walk from our bungalow. © L. Birch 2007
We had 12 days to spare before we had to drop down to Singapore and take a scheduled flight to Australia. It seemed like a good opportunity to sit still and recharge our batteries but where to go? We were looking forward to Australia but there was a little corner of the Malay peninsula that we had not yet explored, a place we had long wanted to visit and which we suspected, might offer the relaxation we required.

South Pacific

The place in question was an island, floating enticingly off Malaysia’s south east coast - an island which had become almost inextricably linked with an ancient legend. For centuries, sailors have told stories of a mythical island called Bali Hai. It was said to be an enchanted paradise, a place of stunning beauty where all your dreams came true. For almost as long, historians have argued about which island first became the source of the legend. Tahiti of course, was an obvious contender. Some said that it was an island in the Vanuatu chain that was the original inspiration for Bali Hai, others that it was an island off the coast of Vietnam. For Hollywood however, it was
Kampong DoorKampong DoorKampong Door

The brightly-coloured door of a village or 'kampong' house at Air Batang. © L. Birch 2007
the Malaysian island of Tioman that became the setting for Bali Hai in their musical version of “South Pacific”.

Long before we got there, we had begun to think of Tioman as Bali Hai. Not only were we going somewhere pleasant to rest up but we were also going to become part of a legend (no doubt the Malaysian Tourism Authority would be very pleased to hear this).

It was raining with monsoonal ferocity when we arrived at the port town of Mersing and boarded a boat for the 2-hour trip to Tioman. Such was my excitement at getting to Bali Hai - sorry, Tioman - after all these years that despite the rain, I was on deck to witness the final approach as the island’s distinctive silhouette loomed large upon the horizon. Just the sight of Tioman’s iconic twin peaks rising above thick jungle, was enough for unseen orchestras to strike up within my head, the haunting melody of ”South Pacific’s” Bali Hai Theme rising in my imagination and drowning out the sounds of boat engines and pounding waves.

We were the only two foreigners to disembark at the rain-soaked village of Air Batang on Tioman’s
Bali Hai SunsetBali Hai SunsetBali Hai Sunset

Taking a last dip before nightfall at Air Batang. © L. Birch 2007
west coast. The other passengers were islanders and a small gaggle of Muslim women, their heads prudently covered with brightly coloured hijab. Because of its proximity to Singapore and popularity as a holiday escape, we had been expecting rampant development but Air Batang at least, was small and low-key. Clusters of simple wooden bungalows and restaurants lined the beach front giving the place the feel of a Malay Kampong, backed by thickly forested hills. We had not gone very far before a huge monitor lizard, lumbered across the path ahead of us like something from Jurassic Park. It was nearly 2m long and banded with black and yellow markings: not bad as a first introduction to our island getaway.

As usual, we had not pre-booked any accommodation and had to walk the length of the beachfront looking for somewhere to stay. But despite having been warned that it was the busy season, Air Batang looked deserted and finding something proved less of a problem than we had at first imagined. A couple of places were full but the third resort we tried had spacious wooden bungalows available that we bargained down from 35 to 30 Ringgit a night (about
Big Lizards!Big Lizards!Big Lizards!

One of two species of monitor lizard that could frequently be found sunning themselves in jungle clearings or on the lawns of Air Batang. © L. Birch 2007
£4.75GBP…a lot by our standards perhaps but certainly not expensive). The room had two beds, a fan, mosquito nets and an en-suite bathroom. A small veranda provided a place to sit and watch the monkeys that regularly appeared at the jungle’s edge, close by. As we soon discovered, we shared our new island home with lots of wildlife. Hill mynahs regaled us with their mimetic songs as the grey afternoon sank into an early dusk and bats began to flutter around the bungalow. And there were monitor lizards - of various sizes - almost everywhere we looked. If reptiles were not to your taste, then it could probably be a little disconcerting to see them walking about the kampong's lawns and pathways - their long, forked tongues tasting the air for any interesting scents (rubbish apparently fell into this category but hey, whatever floats your boat).

Relaxation was the first order of the day and was made considerably easier when we woke to rain again next morning. Fortunately, the Malay owners at our resort had a small stockpile of books left behind by other travellers. Many were mouldy from sitting on a shelf in the open sided restaurant where
Blue Seas and an Ocean BreezeBlue Seas and an Ocean BreezeBlue Seas and an Ocean Breeze

A small pier gives access to the reef's edge at Penuba Bay. © L. Birch 2007
fried rice, noodles and banana pancakes were served. But regardless of mould and the odd termite, there was an interesting cross section of titles - everything in fact from works by V. S. Naipaul and Albert Camus to Terry Pratchett and J. K. Rowlings. So, after grabbing a couple of books each, we spent the best part of that first day reading on our veranda - the rain drumming satisfyingly on the tin roof above our heads. The palms might have been rocking crazily and the sea whipped to a cold looking grey but it was still tropically warm and we were sure that sunshine - as well as showers - lay in store during the days ahead.

Sure enough, two days after our arrival, the sun returned. Not that it made much difference to our new routine.... eat breakfast, lay reading on the beach, take a swim, have lunch, return to book on the beach, talk with other travellers, take a swim, watch sunset and start thinking about what we would eat for dinner. It was a tough life being a travel blog writer.

Of course, you can only do very little for so long, even when
Snorkelling on the ReefSnorkelling on the ReefSnorkelling on the Reef

With a snorkel and mask, it was possible to swim amongst multitudes of colourful fish just a short distance from shore. © L. Birch 2007
you're doing it in good company. Barbara; a pretty, young Czechoslovakian, joined us for banter and snorkelling sessions - the three of us becoming a regular fixture on the beaches at Air Batang. When we tired of indolence, we would organise trips over the headland to the neighbouring village of Tekek, ostensibly for a spot of food shopping but often to buy beer from the duty free shop (this being Muslim Malaysia, alcohol was officially banned. The selling, buying or consumption of alcohol by Muslims could result in imprisonment or a public flogging - according to a sign in Air Batang). Tekek was undergoing something of a change. The Malaysian government called it “re-development” but it looked more like the slaughter of a large number of trees and the importation of huge quantities of cement and building materials. No doubt it would look better when it was finished and prove attractive to the many up-market tourists that the government hoped to lure here as a result. Despite being able to see roosting fruit bats, hanging like leather purses from the few remaining trees on the waterfront (jostling each other and squawking loudly), it was often a relief to get back to Air Batang. Could ‘Bali Hai’ survive all the changes modern Malaysia might impose upon it? Perhaps but it’s a sad fact that the development of an idyllic beauty spot often destroys the very thing that attracts people to it in the first place.

We did a lot of a snorkelling and tried several different locations, only to find that some of the best was to be found on our own doorstep. Swimming over reefs where giant, purple lipped clams closed with alarm at our approach and rainbow coloured fish swam curiously around us, was an experience that never paled. Tioman however, provided a few snorkelling experiences that would really take some beating. Like swimming among a school of blue-green, two metre-long pipe fish (with equally long snouts, filled with big teeth). And then there was Viv's never-to-be-repeated encounter with a hawksbill turtle which she followed as it swam lazily over the reef. It was so unperturbed by her presence that she got to within a metre of it and even managed to touch its shell as they swam along together. Memories to treasure indeed.

And when we wanted a bit of a change, there was always the jungle to explore. There was one, well known track crossing over to Tioman's western coast that featured hot, sweaty jungle and big, hungry mosquitoes. We opted for a coastal track heading north from Air Batang. An hour-long walk led to an - as yet - undeveloped beach where you could swim and wash off the sweat you had built up on the walk to get there. On jungle walks, monkeys, giant black squirrels and monitor lizards were your companions and you could sit, eventually, and look out over an impossibly blue ocean, marvelling at the good fortune that had brought you to such a beautiful place. It wasn't all breathtaking scenery and cocktail sunsets though. The 'Serpents in Paradise' were the sand flies - tiny flying insects that inflicted a surprisingly painful bite. They got you first on the beaches and later, squeezed through the mesh of your mosquito net for seconds. After nearly two weeks, we were covered in big red, itchy bites and looked like survivors from a chicken pox epidemic.

Despite the sand flies however, our island sojourn had done its job. We felt rested and ready to pick up the journey where we had left off. Had we found legendary Bali Hai? It would be nice to think so but I couldn't help thinking that it had somehow eluded us in the way that all dreams do. Bali Hai was obviously destined to remain just that, the dream of sailors and incurable romantics. The reality was that the moment you reached out to touch the dream - it was gone. For us though, Pulau Tioman would always be Bali Hai.... and one day, it was going to add a whole new dimension to the experience of seeing "South Pacific" again.

Bali Hai @ Wikipedia

Want to know what Wikipedia has to say about Bali Hai? Click on the link below and go have a look.

Bali Hai & South Pacific


31st August 2007

ahhh...I felt all relaxed after reading this entry..just what I needed!

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