By Sweep 7 Comments
Over the last few months
I tried repeatedly to write about my travels in Asia, and repeatedly these plans were discarded. Whenever my pen touched the paper the words felt tired and stale, and I was unable to read my own work without feeling a deep disgust at my own literary mediocrity. It was an effort to begin and it was a trial to endure; why sit and write about my adventures when I could be out finding new ones?
Travel blogs are an underrated, yet invaluable companion to anyone setting out to a far-flung corner of the planet. Lonely Planet can only take you so far - often outdated, or attempting to appeal to such a wide audience that for many travelers the advice is misplaced. While abroad the best source of information is word of mouth - it needs to be! On the Perhentian Islands electricity only runs from 7pm until 7am, unless you're paying a bit more for a hostel with a generator, and wifi is limited beyond that to a few specific locations. Sharing advice with your fellow travelers is backpacking 101.
Before I left for Malaysia (And India, but we'll get to that later) I spent a long time cruising around travel blogs. You can't rely on a single blog because, hey, every experience will be different, but reading about the collective adventures of other backpackers was by far the most constructive and informative source of information. Consequently it should seem only fair that I contribute. And so;
Here are The Adventures Of Sweep, Summer 2013 edition.
I flew from Mumbai (Unhelpfully still called Bombay by most of the locals, with the acronym BOM) on a 5 hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. I had a connecting flight from Sabang airport to fly to Kota Bharu on the opposite coast. It is possible to connect directly from KL but Skyscanner decided it would be cheaper for us to change, so that's what we did. From KL airport you can grab a taxi from one of the street level exits that will ferry you over to Sabang airport. The woman driving our taxi was perhaps the friendliest person I have ever met, despite the fact her taxi was completely saturated with mosquitoes, and during the hour long journey I was completely ravaged by the little fuckers. Unhelpfully I have completely forgotten how much the journey cost but it was about 150 ringgits (30 quid). Once we got to Sabang airport we sat in Starbucks for an hour and tried not to fall asleep while waiting for our gate to open, the local airline refusing to let us check in any less than an hour before our flight was due to leave. After some laughably vague security checks ("Yeah you can take that vodka in your hand luggage, just don't drink it on the plane") we boarded a tiny aircraft and scooted over to Kota Bharu within the hour. It wasn't until I got off the plane at the other end that I actually felt like I was somewhere tropical; Walking out onto the tarmac was like being immersed in a wall of heat. After being pissed on by Mumbai monsoons for two weeks, it was a welcome change of climate.
Having read some of the aforementioned travel blogs, I was expecting the next chunk of the trip to be the most complicated, dicking around with taxi drivers and speedboat prices - but the entire exchange was pleasantly streamlined. Almost as soon as our bags had been collected we were approached by a small Malay lady who, I assume having eyed up our backpacks, asked if we needed a taxi to the pier at Kuala Besut, and then a boat over to the Perhentians. My spidey-sense kicked in and told me that I could probably get a better price if I negotiated directly with a driver, but the quote she gave us (30 ringits for the taxi, 70 each for a return boat ticket) was what I had been told to expect, so I figured fuck it. I hadn't slept for almost 28 hours at this point so I was inclined to accept whatever option was easiest. The taxi took an hour, the driver lazily cruising along at his own pace, completely unconcerned with the departure time of the boat we were expecting to catch. I've heard from others since that the time between the airport and the pier can vary dramatically based on your driver, and the journey can technically be completed within about 35 minutes. Technically.
Once at the pier we were abandoned in a small cluster of shops and hostels, each boasting scuba trips and the usual travel nonsense. We were hailed by a Malay guy who took us into his shop, inspected our boat tickets and, after we had signed our names and passport numbers into his book (still not sure why we did this?), escorted us to the pier around the corner. At this point we had to pay 5 ringgits as a toll for entry to the nature reserve - technically it was 5 ringitts for 3 days, but this was never enforced by any authority and nobody seemed to care whenever it was brought up. Having paid, we were shepherded into one of the skinny little speedboats that serve as water taxis across the south china sea. I'd read that these boats were only supposed to seat about 12 people, but the driver refused to leave until every spare bit of room had been occupied, so we eventually departed with 23 passengers and their assorted luggage. And a baby. Nobody seemed too concerned about this, least of all the driver, (turns out "Health and Safety" isn't really a thing in Malaysia) and the hour long journey over to the island was completed without any cause for concern.
The Perhentian Islands are actually split into Kecil and Besar (more commonly known as Little and Big islands, respectively). Besar is where the larger, more family friendly (read: expensive) resorts were located, and Kecil is where the bars are. Guess which one I picked? There was a bit of faffing about while the driver tried to figure out which stops people needed to get off at, but eventually we found ourselves on the shore of Long Beach. Home Sweet Home.
There's a well known scam on Long Beach where, instead of using the pier at the end of the beach, the speedboat will perch just deep enough that you are required to pay a local child 2 ringgits to ferry you to the shore in a smaller boat - despite the fact that every other boat on the beach has no trouble driving right up to the sand. It's only 2 ringgits (20 pence) but it still stings a bit, admittedly mostly on principle.
We arrived on the 3rd of August, with Ramadan in full swing - Malaysia being an Islamic country - which meant several things: firstly, many of the Malaysians had left the island to go home and be with their families. Secondly, the beach was absolutely rammed with travelers. We had been warned by a nervous looking German couple at Kota Bharu airport, also heading to Kecil, that their friend had told them there was no rooms available. I knew from my research that most of the hotels didn't accept reservations, so we decided to risk it. If push came to shove we would sleep on the beach, then grab a room early the next morning when the current residents checked out.
We actually had no trouble finding a place to stay - Moonlight Chalets, right at the end of the beach - though we had asked around a bit first and had also found several alternatives. For 150 ringgits (30 pounds) per night we had an air conditioned room with a double bed, en-suite bathroom, and an extra mattress on the floor. Ten pounds each for our group of 3 (this was in the high season so prices were considerably... well, higher) was pretty good, and we didn't appreciate it at the time but air-con was a luxury on the island that few would experience. There was also a mosquito net but we abandoned that after a few days; there was no malaria and we were getting bitten regardless, so it seemed more trouble than it was worth. We settled in with the intention of shopping around for alternatives over the next few days but, after a week we decided we were comfortable and so simply stayed there for our whole trip.
I need to give a shout to the guys working at Moonlight because they are all, without exception, wonderful human beings. Welcoming, friendly, always offering to take you exploring or out on their boat, show you around the island or playing music in the bar. They are the most chilled out group ever; once I was nursing a hangover in the cafe at the front of reception and a french couple walked in and asked what time breakfast would be served. The waiter just shrugged lazily and replied "Uh... when the chef wakes up?"
My kinda place.
We hadn't slept in almost two straight days but successfully getting to the island gave us the boost we needed to venture off down the beach. Though it's called Long beach, you can walk from one end to the other in less than 10 minutes, and before long we had stumbled into Beach Bar, one of the two bars on the beach blaring out music, with firespinners on a makeshift stage at the front of the bar. We sat in the sand and drank inadvisable amounts of Monkey Juice (the local rum, exclusive to the Perhentian Islands, that you can mix with literally anything), smoked a shisha, and before long were thoroughly shitfaced. When it started raining at 2am we didn't even notice. My last memories of that night are raving around a towering shisha, blowing smoke at each other and precariously throwing the pipe back and forth - all the while the other travelers around us looked on placidly, clearly mystified as to how we were enjoying ourselves so much when it was only 9pm in the evening.
And so ended our first night in Malaysia.
I'm planning on writing a bunch more of these, maybe another about my time actually on the island and perhaps a blog about working in a film studio in Mumbai. I was on Kecil for a month, which is much longer than most people who only seem to stick around for a few days, so I got to know it pretty well. I know this blog isn't about videogames but it does go some way to explaining my absence on the site, and I hope you enjoy reading it regardless.
Lastly, here's a video we made of our time on the island. We swam out to this fishing jetty off Coral Beach and there were these two Australian girls sunbathing on there... so obviously we asked them if they wanted to film a Harlem Shake. What? Don't look at me like that. They played that song every fucking night for a month. We couldn't not do it.
Anyway my mate Keir edited a bunch of the other footage he took on his GoPro into the video. Spoiler: there are sea turtles. Enjoy!