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Published: September 6th 2006
View from the hammock
This bay is a real Robinson Crusoe gretaway. No roads, no motorcycles, no 4WDs and no noise.
Next stop: Malaysia. Our first port of call will be the Perhentian Islands, two tiny specks off the coast of Terengganu Province on the eastern side of peninsular Malaysia.
The trip from Koh Tao is quite straightforward (in principle...). Back on mainland Thailand in the city of Chumphon, Alex and I catch another southbound sleeper all the way to the Thai-Malaysian border. The train leaves Chumphon at about midnight and is due to arrive in Sungai Kolok (the Thai border town) at about noon the following day.
After our night on the train I wake up and look out of the window in our little cabin, to find a Thailand I do not recognise, a Thailand many people don't know about. The natural landscape may not be that different, but the human one most certainly is. Wats
are almost completely replaced by masjids
(mosques), headscarves have appeared, place names no longer sound familiar (Yala
), and Arabic writing can be seen everywhere (although not to write Arabic, but Jawi
, Malay written in the Arabic script). This is Malaysia in all but name: the southern provinces of Thailand have had much written about them in the recent past (in English,
Bubbles I and Bubbles II
Bubbles has two dive boats - these carry only 6-8 divers each, as opposed to the 30-passenger monsters you find in places like Koh Tao ! It makes the whole experience so much more friendly and enjoyable. The tiny third one ferries guests from the Kuala Besut boat to the shore.
usually - almost always actually - with the adjective "restive" in the same sentence). Indeed, the provinces of Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat have been proving quite troublesome to the Thai government for some time. Isolated from Bangkok (geographically, linguistically, ethnically, religiously, you name it...), these regions have been left out of Thai economic development and, as a result, Islamic fundamentalism has found fertile ground amongst a population largely disregarded by the central government. Bomb attacks are frequent, and most travellers - like us - simply pass through. A real shame, no doubt, as the region seems to have a lot to offer, not least a very friendly population.
We get off at the last stop, Sungai Kolok. From here it's a 30 minute walk under a blazing sun towards the border crossing. The town is dull (anybody have an example of a nice, pretty border town ?) and the roads clogged with Thai and Malaysian traffic in transit. Stamp, stamp. We cross no-man's-land in a minute or so into the Malaysian town of Rantau Panjang. Stamp, stamp. Welcome to Malaysia.
It's now a race against time to get the last boat to the Perhentian Islands from the small
The beach at Bubbles is often used by turtles who crawl up in the dead of night to lay their eggs in large nests dug in the sand - often underneath guests' rooms ! The eggs are promptly removed - either by poachers or by the Fisheries Conservation Department that takes them to Terengganu Province's hatchery elsewhere on the island.
village of Kuala Besut, some two or so hours away from here on a bus. The rush is not helped by the fact that a shopkeeper reminds us that Malaysia is an hour ahead of Thailand (which we hadn't realised) - there goes another hour ! In the end we meet two other westerners (an Australian and an American - not very friendly but there you go...) who share a taxi to Kuala Besut with us. With four in the cab it works out nearly as cheap as a bus.
Driving through the rural backwaters of Kelantan and then Terengganu Provinces, ir is obvious that we have changed worlds. These two provinces are among the most fervently Islamic in Malaysia, and this is reflected in the cultural landscape, just as it was in southern Thailand. According to our guidebook, the long-ruling political party in Terengganu was recently voted out of office for proposing that the state follow Islamic sharia
law. Devout as the region is, this did not go down well with the local population.
We make it to Kuala Besut "on time" for the last boat of the day. The thing is, nobody seems to know when
The Dive Shop...
...consists of a small wooden building which some benches out at the front to kit up. It's wonderfully simple. The shop's staff set out your equipment in the morning ready for you to set up for the day's diving.
the last boat actually leaves for the Perhentians. Cue lots of umming and ahing as we wait to found out if we will stranded here overnight (not a particularly appealing thought...). After an hour or so waiting, during which nobody tells us what's going on (the most irritating aspect of delays here !), we are led to a small boat that will take us to Perhentian Besar - the two islands are called Kecil
(small) and Besar
(you guessed it - large). We have already, thanks to the wonders of email, booked a stay and some dives at the Bubbles dive centre on an isolated bay at the southern end of Perhentian Besar. The ride across from the mainland is by either "fast" or "slow" boat. We have learned to take these two terms with a bucketful or two of salt - we go for the "fast" option, not because we like the sound of "fast", but more because we don't like the sound of "slow" ! The boat ride across is pant-wetting (quite literally - with seawater naturellement
) - the boat, with its two massive outboard motors, goes so fast we're actually out of the water for most of
Gimme the blimmin
Dennis the menace tries to get his hands on the little torch I have in my pocket. He was endlessly fascinated by it. On, off, on, off...
the time. Neither of us has ever travelled so fast on water...it was fun though !
As we approach Perhentian Besar it already looks like we've made a good choice. Bubbles is the only operation on this little bay, which has no road access (there are no roads at all
on either island). The beach is long and dotted with small trees, the water a wonderful clear blue. And best of all it seems completely deserted ! We transfer to a even smaller boat belonging to Bubbles which takes us the remaining 50 metres to the beach. A welcoming party has assembled to greet us and take our packs to our room (looking good....!).
Well I have to say, the 6 days we spent on Perhentian Besar have been some of the most relaxing and enjoyable of our entire trip. The rooms and food are quite basic, but the beach is quiet, the water crystal clear and swarming with all sorts of interesting fishies (and the odd turtle !), and the only way to pass the time is to read a book while lying in a hammock or to go diving ! The staff at the dive centre
Getting into a wetsuit is like getting toothpaste back into the tube...The yellow and black pattern on mine was apparently very attractive to batfish, that kept swimming right up to me to have a good look.
are absolutely charming, and so laid back they are almost permanently horizontal. There's Peisee, the kooky manageress of the dive shop, Ronnie, the resident underwater photographer, not forgetting Eric, a long grey-haired Gandalf lookalike who moans and grumbles all day long (Woman ! What are you doing ? Pff....people !
) but makes a wonderful dive leader. He shows us around some of the islands' wonderful dive sites, from the sunken barge of Fish Heaven
, swarming with large shoals of fish and plenty of large barracuda, to the towering pinnacle of Tokong Laut
. The snorkelling off the beach is wonderful as well (and free) - just metres out to sea we spotted a turtle (Terengganu Province is famous for its turtles - green, hawksbill, leatherback....) and lots of beautiful black-tip reef sharks, from 1.5-metre mummies and daddies to cute 40cm long babies, miniature carbon copies of their parents. The diving and snorkelling sites are also full of sea anemones harbouring endless families of clown anemone-fish (now known as Nemos
by the diving community !). It's colourful, endlessly fascinating and a lot of fun.
When not diving, snorkelling or swimming, you can stretch out in a hammock and swing yourself to
This one goes here...
Alex connecting her octopus to her BCD...much simpler than the silly terminology sounds !
sleep (or be intellectual and read a book) in the shade of a tree. The absence of noise, from other people, restaurants, cars and especially mopeds, is wonderful and very, very welcome. We met a few charming other visitors, including Chloe, the 24-hour fitness fanatic who was endlessly dragging us out of our hammocks to go snorkelling (thank you Chloe we really did need to work off all those French fries !...). The cutest was little Dennis, the toddling son of one of the kitchen staff members, who took a very strong liking to our little pocket torch !
If only we could have stayed longer - we had a beautiful stay on Perhentian Besar. For the moment this little piece of paradise is still a relative secret. May it stay that way !
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