La Vida Isla

May 17, 2007

Back to la vida isla. The splash of waves on the shore. Seafood barbeques. Water like glass. Bugs everywhere. The constant coconut smell of sunscreen. Double-priced sundries. Quadruple-priced internet.

This time we’re marooned on the Perhentian islands. Comprised of two islands, Besar (Big) and Kecil (Small), they are compact, idyllic, and very unlike their Thai counterparts. Shockingly, tourists actually come here to unwind, rather than to get drunk. This is due mostly to the conservative Muslim bent found in the Terrengannu state where the Perhentians are located; alcohol is rarely served and even when on offer, is expensive. Families – both foreign and Malaysian – flock here for good, wholesome fun: diving, snorkeling, canoeing, and swimming in the gorgeous ocean. Although there is a generous sampling of teeny, weenie bikinis on Kecil’s Long Beach, more often than not, Malaysian women swim fully clothed, sometimes even with makeshift headscarves for the water. At night, the only entertainment is eating. After dinner, it’s good, old-fashioned reading or conversation.

After much deliberation on which island to base ourselves, we decided on the western shore of Besar. Perhaps I’ve been traumatized by Bob Marley constantly on loop in every restaurant, bar, and bungalow reception area on every island in the Andaman sea, but I wanted to escape the reputed backpacker scene on Kecil. I still don’t know if I made the right decision.

Pros for the western shore of Besar: it’s quiet and development here is organic. There are no gaudy restaurants or beach umbrellas lining the shore. You can read a book and not be bothered too much by the buzz-saw of motorboat engines. The best beach on the Perhentians, the beach in front of the Perhentian Island Resort, is a short, easy ten-minute walk away.

Cons: there’s not much going on before or after dark, food tends to be slightly expensive, the bay in front of our hotel is littered with broken coral and shells, redering it unswimmable.

On a day trip, we cruised over to Kecil to see what we were missing. The atmosphere was definitely different.

The pros of Long Beach were: great beach, with, shallow, aqua waters and no coral. Cheaper food. More things to do – plenty more restaurants and mini marts, a batik-making class, movie nights, etc.

Cons: The development on Long Beach is pretty ugly. There’s not too much of it (especially compared with Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta), but it’s just haphazard and in various states of completion. A more heterogeneous crowd of young, white Westerners.

Finally, we visited Aur (Coral) Bay on Kecil’s west coast, a ten-minute walk from Long Beach. This would probably be the happy medium between Besar and Long Beach. The bungalows weren’t as obtrusive, the scene more laid-back. The half-dozen restaurants and shops were cheap. The beach wasn’t as great, with broken coral lining the shore, but the snorkeling off-shore wasn’t bad either.

dsc02973.jpgOverall, I’m glad we stayed at Besar for one reason: access to some stunning beaches. Firstly, the beach at the Perhentian Island Resort. I thought that this was the best beach on the entire island. Pristine, powdery sand, 100% crystal clarity water, and only mildly crowded. Plus, a quick swim only fifty yards offshore brought us to a living coral reef where I saw a plethora of fish and where Shin even saw turtles, stingrays, and sharks. About a thirty-minute walk in the other direction from our guesthouse, Mama’s Place, was a relatively deserted and very pretty beach, the name of which escapes me now. (It was the bay closest to the west from Flora.) A quick hop away on a water taxi or longer paddle via sea kayak was the dazzling Turtle Beach. Deserted when we arrived, we were given free reign of the cove’s turquoise waters and good snorkeling. There’s even a freezing, fresh water stream that cuts down the east side of the beach. For one hour, we indulged in Robinson Crusoe fantasies, before four other boats pulled into the bay and our solitude was ruined. Still, it was a beautiful beach.

Our guesthouse, Mama’s, was okay, but the disorganization and overcharging involved in getting our onward transportation arranged left a bad taste in my mouth. Speaking of bad tastes, the food wasn’t great either. Watercolors Resort next door picked up the slack in that department, especially with the yummy pizzas and pasta, but I’m not sure what their chalets are like. The barbeque at the Coral View Resort was nice and a good value for two people at 30 RM for fish and squid, including drinks. Word to the wise: bring insect repellant. None of the rooms that we saw anywhere had mosquito screens or mosquito nets, which leaves you with only two choices: keep the windows shut and swelter in your room, or open them and live with the mosquitoes, ants, spiders, and palmetto bugs.

Tomorrow, we have a dreaded night bus ride before arriving at our last stop in Malaysia, Tioman Island, better known to musical buffs as South Pacific’s Bali Hai.

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