Category Archives: Malaysia

A Heart Stopping Journey

Our journey from the Perhentians back to Bangkok (and for me, back to New York) was fraught with drama and hilarity, perhaps starting with the fact that Mark had lost the only pair of flip flops that he brought on the trip and therefore spent the 700 mile trip either barefoot or wearing a pair of my size 6 sandals. That pretty much set the tone for things.

It started with a small motorboat ride from the island to Kuala Besut, made difficult by the fact that my return ticket was at the bottom of the sea and I had given a fake passport number on the receipt. In a scuffle of confusion I somehow avoided paying twice, but only after I had envisioned myself rotting in Malaysian prison for falsifying documents.

Perhentian Speed Boat

From the jetty we found a couple to share a sweaty cab ride to the conservatively Muslim state capital of Kota Bharu, and we again lucked out as the other couple uncomplainingly paid the majority of the cab fare when they were dropped at the airport. Arriving at the bus station, we had a few hours to kill and I spotted a Western style mall in the distance.

I think I’ve beat the point to death on this blog, but I am not an adventurous eater. However, options are limited in Malaysia and I choked down many unidentified dishes to stave off starvation. So try to imagine the sound of the angel’s chorus as we stepped into the blissfully air-conditioned mall and were met by the sight of Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and A&W. Mark watched our enormous backpacks as I sprinted between the three, fondly reading the menus and trying to make the ultimate comfort food decision. While mulling over the options, Mark revealed he HAD NEVER TRIED ROOT BEER. I apologize for the excess capitalization, but I’m having a hard time finding any other way to convey the shock of this confession. Obviously the decision was made for me and A&W it was.

Malaysia Malls

Thus begins one of my mother’s favorite stories from my entire time in Asia. In the two months that Mark and I had spent together, he had only seen me pick aloofly at my food. While he knew my little secret about my picky eating habits, he just assumed that in addition I must also be a light and dainty eater. After all, I had been eating like a bird for two months.

That illusion came crashing down the minute the rootbeer float hit the table in front of me. To say that the spoon did not stop moving between the glass and my mouth until I was finished scrapping the sides is an understatement. Mark watched mouth agape before timidly tucking in. My cover was blown.

Once that fun Malaysian-culture soaking opportunity was up we were back on the road for the seven hour bus trip to Penang. Penang is a major metropolis and island on the West coast and also where our flight departed from the next morning. We were jolted out of our bus slumber by a stop and the vast majority of the passengers departing. I scrambled to grab our things while Mark ran to get our backpacks from under the bus. Yet I had a sinking feeling something was off. It was the middle of the night and with no signs, English or otherwise, to alert us of our destination, I wasn’t entirely confident we were where we were supposed to be.

“Excuse me, is this the Penang bus station?” I asked the bus driver. He looked directly at me, smiled and nodded. I paused. “Is the next stop the Penang bust station?” He smiled and nodded again, pleased to have been of help. I looked around at the remaining passengers, all of whom were Malay. “Does anyone speak English?” I called out. I was met by rows of eager smiles, but no response. Meanwhile Mark appeared at the doors, wondering why I wasn’t off the bus yet. I felt my stomach drop as the bus driver started up the engine again. Decision time. “Get back on the bus!” I cried, and Mark threw our bags up the steps and climbed back on and looked at me bewildered. I admitted there was a very good chance we were lost forever in the Malaysian bus system, doomed to travel from one concrete edifice to another, never correctly identifying our location, for the rest of our miserable lives. He told me it probably wasn’t that bad.

Yet again, luck was on our side. After fifteen heart stopping minutes we arrived in a much brighter and larger bus station swarming with cabs competing to take us to our hotel. After a too short night of sleep in a seriously swank $60 hotel room (Penang is the place to splurge) we were en route to the airport.

Amazing flight attendant uniforms

We woke up in Palau Perhentian and a boat, a cab, a bus, a cab and several heart attacks later we were in Palau Penang. Transportation through Malaysia can be challenging, frustrating, and sometimes even a little fun. The best part is arriving in your destination, looking back at the journey behind you, and knowing you not only survived it, you made it into a memorable part of your trip. Maybe even blog worthy.

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Thoughts On A Very Small Island

It may not be the smallest island in the world, but Perhentian Kecil is certainly the smallest island I have ever traveled to. I can’t find the square mileage anywhere, perhaps it has never been measured. But it was dwarfed by our beloved island of Koh Tao, a mere 13 square miles in size.

perhentian kecil


Not only is Kecil small, it is also isolated. I remember arriving in Koh Tao and thinking it was the final frontier of humanity, and that island has a chain of 7-11’s and a paved road revving with motorbikes! How my perspective changed throughout the trip when I arrived on an island with no roads, no motorbikes, no ATMs, no internet café’s, and no tour agencies. Just two main beaches lined with simple accommodation, one fisherman village, and a dirt path between them. When we told a friend back in Thailand of our recent trip, she was shocked to hear the island had gained electricity since her visit two years prior.

In addition to those stark departures from my western idea of normal, I was confronted with smaller, more eccentricities of small island life.

1. Rum or Beer?
In Thailand, if you can dream it, you can drink it. The hard partying reputation of the Thai islands means there are as many bars as guesthouses and there is never a quiet night. On Kecil there was definitely a small party scene, but it was confined to one or two dance parties spilling out of beach bars, and they were few and far between. On one of our first nights we walked up to a “bar” that consisted of bamboo mats and squat wood tables strewn about the stand, a fire thrower entertaining the patrons and a bartender holding court behind a small makeshift bar. When we approached we were given two options: rum, or beer. We went for the rum and were delighted to be handed a bottle of Orangutan, two cans of coke, and two plastic cups. Quite a reminder that we were after all in a Muslim country on an island with limited deliveries from the outside world.

alcohol perhentians


2. Fido Free
I suppose I did not too long ago come off a stint working at an animal shelter in Thailand, but I was struck by the lack of canines on this island. I suppose they were never introduced and the locals wanted to keep it that way. In their place, the island was overrun with kittens, to the chagrin of our guesthouse owner who was constantly picking up the knocked over trash cans they scampered out of, but to the delight of backpackers missing Fluffy back home.
perhentian cats


perhentian kittens


3. Volleyball Nation
Much to my indifference, sports are a huge part of life across the globe. However, on an island this small there’s no room for a stadium let alone that the small location population would have a hard time populating two teams and an audience to watch. So the area’s sports fix came from a daily beach volleyball game, a surprisingly organized affair that was as welcoming to newcomers as it was competitive. A mix of locals, expats and backpackers would gather daily for a game that sometimes raged long beyond when I had closed my beach reading and head home for the day. While I’m a long way from ever joining the game, it was fun to see such camaraderie and community form.
perhentian volleyball


4. No Zagat Guide Here
With the exception of one or two fancier western style places like that we had visited the night of the storms Kecil has a decidedly local dining scene. On Long Beach, where we shacked up, there were three restaurants. The unusual part? They all sat side by side on the beach, so close together that it was often impossible to tell which one you were actually seated at, and the menus were near identical. It at least made for some entertaining fake “where shall we dine tonight?” conversations.
perhentian restaurant


5. Down Below
On a more serious note, it was impossible not to notice the difference between the diving in tourism soaked Koh Tao and the more laid back Perhentians. Of course thousands of factors could go into determining the health of the reefs, but by heading somewhere with a lower tourism capacity, it meant the dive sites stay a little more fresh.
diving perhentians


6. On the Surface
I can easily say that the beaches on Palau Perhentian were the most beautiful I have ever seen. Even the main public beaches were clean, clear, and not overly crowded. Heading off the main drags and the vistas were beyond what I thought magazines could only create with photoshop. Again, I believe it all comes down to small population and small tourism industry.
perhentian beach

While change is coming and coming fast to South East Asia, I hold out hope in my heart that the Perhentians keep their small Island charm and resist the siren song of mass tourism. Because all these little charming factors add up to one very special place, one that I will hold in my heart long after the first inevitable ATM makes it to the island.

Diving in the Perhentian Islands

After days of eye problems keeping us above sea level, we were finally ready to take the plunge. After all, we had come to the Perhentians in part for the virgin reefs fringing the islands.

Diving Perhentians


We dove with the in house dive shop at our bungalow, making it easy to roll out of bed and wade out to the dive boat. On our first diving day we headed out for a two tank trip, hitting two of the island’s most famous dive sites: Sugar Wreck and Terumbu Tiga, or T3. As we headed out my eyes were still a bit sensitive but I was determined to dive!
diving perhentian


Sugar wreck was my first ever wreck dive and I was required to complete a PADI “Adventure Dive” in order to do it. The cynic in me says this was a ploy to get me to do my Advanced Open Water course, as it basically consisted of paying more money and pointing to the buoy line a few times throughout the dive. Descending down the line, I was awestruck by the amount of life. Nurse sharks, lionfish and barracuda lurked around the sunken ship ominously, and we swam through the swirling, inky evidence of squid or octopus.
Diving Perhentians


Heading into the wreck, we swam towards an air pocket the divemaster had told us about beforehand. At the time, this was only my seventh ever dive, and my buoyancy control was lacking, to say the least. In my excitement I started to shoot up towards the air pocket, not seeing the metal beam directly in the path of my head. Luckily my dive buddies were a bit more keen than I, and Mark and the divemaster simultaneously yanked me away before any damage was done. Embarassing? Yes. Better than being med evaced off the island? Also yes. My shame evaporated quickly as I marveled at being able to breathe with no air tank, 50 feet under water.
Diving Perhentians


Our next dive was to T3, a favorite site amongst divemasters for its swim-throughs, caves, and microlife known as nudibranches. This was a big day of firsts for me, and lacking any experience with swimthroughs I was so focused on getting through the tunnels and trying not to knock into everything and kill anything, that I have almost no other memories of the dive!
Diving Perhentians

Showing off the island's dive sites


Diving Perhentians


On one of our last days on the island, we headed out for our final dive and what would become one of our best memories of the trip. Tokong Laut, or Temple of the Sea, is the superstar of Perhentian Island diving. Its topography alone would be impressive, an undersea mountain emerging at the surface as only a small blip on the horizon, but below there was more untouched marine life than I have ever seen. I only regret that I didn’t have the diving experience to remember the names of what I was looking at or the camera skills to capture it! (All underwater photos in these posts are taken with the borrowed camera of a friend, and we really didn’t know how to use it very well.) What I can remember is Mark and I looking at each other underwater, seeing the excitement in each others eyes, and signing frantically to each other over the magic of it all. We were even lucky enough to see the resident three legged turtle that we had been briefed on! It was my first time seeing my blog’s namesake underwater, and it was love at first site. Even with my limited technical skills and inexperience, to this day this is one of the best dives of my life.
temple of the sea perhentian

In front of the tip of the temple


Keeping with my recent video clip theme, I put together a short video of our boat ride back to the dock. My camera skills weren’t what they are today, but you can get an idea for the amazing topography of the Perhentians. At the end of the video we pull right up the bungalows we were staying in. Enjoy!

Malaysian Skies

I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite as pretty as a Malaysia sunset. After a lovely day of exploring the snorkel spots of the islands Mark and I hiked through the overgrown path to Coral Bay, on the other side of the Perhentian Kecil. No roads or street lamps here, so we brought along the small flashlight that my mom had stuffed in my bag back home while I rolled my eyes.

Malaysian Skies

We found a restaurant with a nice deck raised off the sand and laughed at we flipped through the menu. Promises of Euro Bliss, Savory or Unsavory choices and oddly, a Nemo fish salad were all on offer.

Malaysian Menu


Malaysian Menu

While we indulged in a rare delicious western meal, we watched the sky turn from orange to purple to blue behind a landscape of clouds and islands in the distance. Boats docked up, fisherman pulled in the day’s final catches, and the sea was quiet.

Coral Bay Perhentian

This is one of my favorite photos of my entire trip to Asia. Someday I’d love to have it canvas wrapped, though with my vagabonding lifestyle I don’t know where I’d hang it.

Coral Bay Perhentian

But the peace did not last for long. Soon a storm began to brew in the distance. Throughout our journey to Malaysia I had been awed by the landscape again and again but what we were about to witness was truly the most amazing natural wonder my eyes have ever seen. Through the clear sky and total lack of light pollution we watched a lighting storm percolate and erupt, enclosed within a cloud system perched on the horizon.

I regret that the camera we had with us was woefully inadequate to capture what we saw, but I put together what footage we did have to give you some sort of idea. I apologize for the quality, and I wish it was a better representation of our experience, but I hope you’ll watch anyway!

Sea Lice and Black Tip Sharks, Oh My!

Like yesterday, this is a backlogged post of my halfway-through-abandoned 2009 Malaysia trip coverage. You can see the earliest posts in the series, including tales of nearly sleeping on the beach, searching for the world’s biggest flower, and eating McDonald’s in Kuala Lumpur here

Eyes still feeling a bit wonky, we weren’t ready to dive yet but did want to get back into the water. So we signed up for one of the many cheap snorkel trips being offered on the beach. Suspicious of what would be on order, we signed up for the 3 stop trip rather than the longer full day outings. We boarded the small boat with a mixed group of travelers from across the globe, from a Scottish girl to a Canadian boy (that told us of an island in Honduras called Utila) to a group of bulked up Armenians that looked a bit out of place with their tribal tattoos and expensive sunglasses.

Perhentian Snorkel Tour

Our first stop was a channel between Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar where turtles often stop to graze on sea grass. Malaysian boy running the tour would stand on the bow of the boat, yelling to the captain which way to go when he thought he had a sighting. Turtles are rare in Koh Tao, so both Mark and I were eager to catch a glimpse of one. Mark was so eager in fact, that the moment the boy at the bow made a slight gesture Mark donned his mask and jumped straight in the water. However it was a false sighting and the boat captain just kept following the next turtle- leaving Mark in the wake! At first I laughed but grew concerned as the gap between boat and boyfriend widened. I didn’t want to turn into the Ugly American but I was about to have strong words with the boys in charge (though there may have been a bit of a language barrier, when blissfully, the boat stopped. In we all jumped, the group in the direction of an elusive turtle and I in the direction of Mark. Treading water, we laughed and realized it was fruitless to chase the creature that had likely long been scared off by then. Putting on my mask to swim back, I looked down and -right below us!- was an sea turtle covered in algae. And we had her all to ourselves.

Perhentian Snorkel Tour


Perhentian Snorkel Tour

Swimming back to the boat we started to itch and it quickly turned to a burning sensation. Sea lice, one of the others confirmed as we pulled ourselves back aboard. As we dried off the Armenians came jumping back on, complete with water wings, shrieking over the lice and vowing not to get back in the water. Turns out tough guys are no match for the irritation of sea lice!

Perhentian Snorkel Tour


Our next stop was a cove frequented by black tip reef sharks. I considered staying on board with the pouting boys, but decided to instead employ the “turtle method” I had perfected earlier on the trip when sharks were a factor. I simply lay on Mark’s back like a turtle shell, so that were an attack to take place, he would be my Shark Shield and I would have enough time to make it back to land or boat. I’ve used this method several times now with a 100% success rate at not being eaten by sharks!
Perhentian Snorkel Tour

Our final stop was a shallow reef with soft corals and the beloved nemo fish. While it didn’t have the big draws of the first two spots, I enjoyed swimming around without fear of attack by invisible sea pinchers of sharks. Afterward, we stopped at the nearby beach to take photos and bliss out.

Perhentian Snorkel Tour


Perhentian Snorkel Tour


Perhentian Snorkel Tour

All in all a lovely trip I recommend to any visitors to the Perhentians. Sometimes divers can be a bit snobby about snorkeling but I think in the right conditions it can be fabulous and you get to see a different side of the underwater world than you would see a bit deeper. But that wouldn’t stop us from eventually getting down there…

Perhentian Snorkel Tour

Finding The Beach

So… remember when I went to Malaysia? Nearly two years ago? Yeah that was fun. So fun that I totally abandoned all illusion of blogging and just… traveled. It was great at the time, but I now regret it as I find myself grasping at those memories as they fade slowly from my frazzled mind. So I’m tacking that “upload” folder on my desktop and recording what few memories I do have of our time in the Perhentian Islands. Disclaimer: In the two years that have passed this has emerged as one of the most idyllic, beautiful and happy places I have had the fortune of visiting. Expect gushing ahead.

Kayaking Perhentian Islands

Blame travel fatigue, blame the lack of sterile plumbing, but Mark and I both felt a bit ill when we arrived and were suffering from a little eye infection [Note: ah, the clarity that time brings. That “little” eye infection amounted to massive corneal and eyelid damage and later surgery, which I am currently recovering from. Ha.] Since even the sun was causing extreme eye discomfort, we decided the pressure of diving would be too much and rented a little yellow kayak from a man on the beach instead. In a moment of comic confusion we dragged the wrong little yellow kayak into the sea and the two respective owners got worked up for a moment before shrugging and splitting our four-dollar rental fee. Island life and cutthroat business practices do not a perfect match make.

Palau Perhentian Kecil

Mark paddled while I got down to the important business of documenting our adventure and navigating. Of course our map was a tad basic and lacking any space perception skills or understanding of tides and currents I reckoned we could circumnavigate the island in no time!

perhentian map

Perhaps an hour later (so that’s what a current is) we came across an abandoned spit of sand shouldered by rocky outcrops. Pulling the kayak in, I actually felt a chill run down my spine. A lush island background, water as clear as glass and not another human being in sight. We were sweating and breathless from paddling and the only things I could hear other than our panting was the sound of the slight breaking waves.

Palau Perhentian Kecil

You know that scene in the movie The Beach when Moby starts signing and Leonardo DiCaprio is somersaulting down the beach with joy? That’s kind of what it felt like. See the photo below? You can see Mark in that picture. He’s underwater. That’s how clear it was.

Palau Perhentian Kecil

Palau Perhentian Kecil

We floated in the water, played in the sand, and did all the other self indulgent things one does on a carefree beach day. Only there was no loud music playing, no volleyballs bouncing overhead, and no one getting in the way of the sun with a beach umbrella. We did eventually find one downside to being the only ones on the beach: no one to hand the camera over to. Self portraits: always a bit awkward.

Palau perhentian
Perhentian Islands

I think we might have never left if not for the snorkeling couple that approached and told us about the resort just one beach north that they were staying at- the furthest out on the island. We decided to check it out, both to grab a snack and to give these two a go at playing Celebrity On a Private Island.

d'lagoon resort

The resort, D’Lagoon was basic and remote and gave us the perfect place to refuel before our paddle back to return our chariot of the day’s adventures. But first, nothing tops off a day of bicep plasting paddling like a little high ropes climbing! I sat this one out to document, naturally, but Mark went all out. Clearly, this was back in the early days when we were trying to impress each other (like that crazy pants scuba thing I tried).

d'lagoon perhentian kecil

Those were the days. Now we just sit around and lazily plan moves to other countries! Oh, to be in Malaysia again.

Is There Room at the Inn?

the heavy bags that would come to haunt us

It was a complicated journey. There are no regular buses that run the Cameron Highlands-Perhentian Islands route. So instead we take a van with a few other tourists to the Kuala Besut jetty where we were issued tickets for the speedboat and had to write our names and passport numbers in a large book. Mark didn’t want to rummage through his enormous backpack for his so he told me to make it up. I hesitated but scribbled something random down, a decision that would come back to bite us. As we went to pay a man mumbled something to his wife about visiting an atm on the island. With alarm, one of the ticket workers told his there was no atm, not on either island, or the town we were in, for that matter. After much cursing and disbelief the couple finally left in a taxi to go to the next town over, missing the boat and delaying their trip a day. I smirked at Mark. I had warned him to go to the atm earlier for this very reason. My guidebook addiction was paying off!

Our boat approaching

We approached the pier picturing the huge ferries that shuttled us to and from our island in Thailand, only to be met by a speedboat with a two person crew handing out life jackets. We were grateful for Mark’s dry bag as people transferred things into plastic bags, anticipating a wet ride. As we were pulling away from the dock, one of the crew walked around collecting half of our paper tickets. As he took mine, the other half flew from my hand into the water. Oh well, I thought. Wrong! They started turning the boat around! For a piece of paper! My face turned red while they tried to catch it with a net but it just floated away. Then the tried to take my other half of the ticket. But I need that to get back, I argued. It’s a round trip fare. They basically grabbed it from my hands and told me to sit down and deal. It was not a cheap fare and the thought of spending another 70 RM to come back did not sit well, but I tried to remember that those ticket stubs were probably how they got paid, and it was likely worth a lot more to them than it was to me.

Its never a good sign when lifejackets are required

As we pulled up to the island all thoughts of paper and tickets and anything other than silky white sand evaporated from my mind. We just looked at each other and laughed- that’s how beautiful it was. Once we were on the island, instead of rushing to a guesthouse we put down our packs and adjusted back to island life with a long and leisurely lunch. After lunch we moseyed to the next door dive shop. The laid back divemasters looked alarmed when one asked where we were staying and we said we didn’t know yet. They exchanged glances and one went to check the adjoining bungalows, but came back empty-handed. “You better sort out your accommodations,” he said, “Now.”

Still not really realizing the gravity of the situation, we walked the rest of the way down the beach, hearing no after no. Then we went back to where we started and walked the remaining length. No vacancies. Okay, so this had been our first choice beach as the quieter side, but the other beach would be just fine. We walked the ten minutes down an overgrown footpath to the other side of the island, where the other beach was. The sun was still beating strongly and our bags, oh my, the bags, did I mention we were still carrying our thirty pound backpacks on our backs?

We started right down at the southernmost bungalow, barely bothering to walk all the way to the up to them, just shouting “Vacancy?” and walking on like some kind of drive by bungalow search. Halfway back up the beach, a dive shop took mercy on us and gave us water and told us to put our packs down while we searched. It was going on hours now. Mark went on for a while I sat around sweating and strategizing worst case scenarios. The divemaster told me the next boat left at 8am the next morning, so we could probably find a room then. But for the next 14 hours, we were stuck on the rock. Mark came back with a development. There was a room available! Too bad it was at the ONE RESORT on the island that was above our budget and would cost for one night what we had budgeted for accommodations for the whole trip. I weighed the options, which appeared to be using the emergency credit card and begging my parents for forgiveness later, sleeping on the beach with absolutely no camping equipment whatsoever, or finding someone who we came in on the boat with and begging them to sleep on their floor. Why had we not booked ahead? It was high season in a place with limited transportation to and from and limited accommodation! Damn this fly by the seat of your pants style of travel! I longed to go back in time and spend twenty minutes on HostelBookers.com

The Moonlight Chalets

“Did you check the Moonlight Chalet? The last one past the expensive resort?” In Mark’s excitement to report back he had missed it. We couldn’t bear the thought of one more rejection but trudged ahead anyway. What a surprise, they were full. No, wait, said one of the staff. There’s that one room, the one the couple refused to stay in. “WE’LL TAKE IT” we spat, practically throwing our ringgits across the counter at them. We sprinted to it, eager to throw down our bags and claim our space against any other wayward backpackers that might still be wandering the beach.

Um, yeah... the room no one wanted...

Once inside the room, which to be fair was maybe only half a step above sleeping on the beach, we cheered and went out to the balcony. Thoughts of being eaten alive by sand gnats, our belongings being washed away in a storm, and being maimed by beach bandits as we slept melted away and I looked out at the most clear water, soft beach and beautiful island I had ever seen. The journey was worth it.

...and the view!