Saturday, May 12, 2007

A Day on the Road

Travelers move, that’s just what they do. The places in between get all the attention, but there is something to be said about the act of getting from one place to another. My route from Pulau Tioman to the beach town of Cherating is a good example of a day on the road.

I woke at 6:45 on my third morning in Salang, the tiny enclave at the northern end of Pulau Tioman, an island in the Seribaut Archipelago in the Malaysian state of Johor. There is not much to do in Salang other than scuba, snorkel or laze on the beach. Long-tailed macaque monkeys hide in the trees and monitor lizards, some up to six-feet long, swim in the stagnant canal behind the beach. Otherwise, it’s all cats and hammocks.

Catch of the Day

I’d been in Salang for two and a half days, one spent reading on the porch of my chalet while a steady rain muddied the town, another on the beach listening to the water lap at the shore and chatting with a smattering of Europeans. Nights were spent eating seafood and drinking Tiger beer at beachside cafes with new friends: Mike from Canada; Mei and Sean, two Malaysian women on a short break from work in Singapore; and a pair of English sisters on holiday, Gemma and Lea. As I mentioned before I left Singapore, it was time to be a traveler again. A few days of this and I was ready to move

There is regular ferry service from Tioman to the mainland, but it is infrequent and a little planning was in order. I bought a ticket on the 8 am slow ferry to Mersing, where I would catch an express bus to Kuantan, the crumbling capital of Pahang, and then a local bus to Cherating, a small village (kampung) on the coast. There are no services in Cheriting so I planned to spend some time in Kuantan to run some errands.

The seats on the slow ferry define a lack of legroom. A cramped cabin held about 45 seats, six per row divided by a central aisle. Each seat was about five inches behind the seat in front, leaving enough room only for small children or adults with no legs. Even in a seat on the aisle, twisted sideways, I was barely able to sit comfortably.

Tioman is 50 kilometers from the mainland, a direct trip of about 90 minutes. However, Salang was the first of six stops the ferry would make before heading west. The next hour was a slow slog from beach to beach. At each stop, Malays and foreigners would board the boat, look at the seats and wonder how they were going to sit comfortably; I witnessed head shakes and eye rolls and heard a few disbelieving chuckles.

As soon as the boat left the last jetty, a man turned on a television at the front of the cabin and inserted a DVD into a player. I prepared to play one of my favorite games: “Name That Movie,” a distant cousin to “Name That Tune.” Sometimes I can guess a film from the opening few shots or from the members of the cast. If I can’t figure it out by the time the title card appears, I’ve lost. This film started with the Marvel Comics logo and I immediately guessed “Spider-Man.” But it wasn’t Spidey, not even “X-Men” or “Daredevil.” It was a high-quality bootleg of “Ghost Rider,” in which Nicholas Cage plays Johnny Blaze, a carnival daredevil who sells his soul to the devil and is transformed into a vengeful motorcycle demon whose distinguishing characteristic is his flaming skull.

I couldn’t hear the dialogue and the subtitles provided an English translation that was not only grammatically incorrect, it often missed the point of the dialogue entirely. But “Ghost Rider” is not high art and I was able to follow the plot from the action alone. I’ve often said that if you can follow a film without the sound, it’s well made. Without sound, “Ghost Rider” is a well-made film. I’m curious to know how it ends, though, because about 15 minutes from the end we pulled into Mersing. I wasn’t going to sit in that cramped cabin and watch to the end. Ghost Rider/Johnny Blaze was in a graveyard – or was the ruins of a castle? – battling what appeared to be a boy band from hell. I assume he defeats the evil, reunites with his childhood girlfriend and learns how to live with his comfortably with flames engulfing his head. I also assume, based on the success of the film at the box office, that we haven’t seen the last of Ghost Rider.

Seagull Express

It was a quick walk to the bus station from the Mersing ferry terminal. A taxi driver offered to take me to my next destination, Kuantan, for RM150 (one U.S. dollar equals about 3 Malaysian ringgit) but I knew the bus would be much less, RM12.60. I wasn’t looking for the cheapest route north; I’m not one of those backpackers always looking for the best deal or the cheapest option, sleeping in mildew-encrusted rooms under creaking fans barely cutting through the humidity. When I travel short distances, I prefer to travel like the locals. It’s a way to mingle with the population and to get a bit of perspective on the culture.

The 11 am bus to Kuantan was running late, a delay I was willing to endure when I discovered an expert had been called in to fix the air conditioning. I settled into seat 8A at 11:30, directed the stream of cool air into my face and prepared for the three-hour journey. Most of the time these bus rides include any number of distractions, the most common being a movie, but sometimes loud music or loud chatter. To my surprise, this trip was silent, no movies, music or conversation, just the steady hum from the engine. The driver made up the lost half hour by speeding like a bat out of hell, swerving from lane to lane but always avoiding oncoming traffic. Still, it was the most peaceful bus experience I’ve had since leaving New York.

In Kuantan, I was again offered a taxi ride to my next destination. A private car to Cherating, about 40 kilometers up the highway, would cost RM50 and take 45 minutes. The local bus cost RM3.50 and takes 90 minutes. Again I chose local transport, for the experience. But first I had some business to take care of.

Kuantan is a hectic city of substantial size. At the center of town is Masjid Negiri, a beautiful mosque painted light blue and white. It towers majestically over the sun-drenched streets and the crumbling facades. Just behind the mosque was my first stop: the ATM at HSBC bank. Across Jalan Mahkota, I stopped at Hamid Bros bookstore to exchange my remaining Singapore dollars for Malaysian ringgit. Books were neatly laid out on table and logically sorted on the shelves lining the walls. If I spoke Malaysian, I would have been sucked in for an hour of browsing (one of my weaknesses is a good bookstore; if you’re ever in Singapore check out Page One in Vivo City). Two doors down, I popped into a phone shop and paid RM10 for a new SIM card (my Malaysian number is 013 940-9850, from the U.S. dial 011 60 13 940-9850). While waiting for the service to be activated, I ate lunch (biryani rice, steamed vegetables and fried chicken) at the restaurant next door, where a man behind a counter pounded dough for rotis and old men sipped sweetened coffee while smoking pungent cigarettes.

It’s a short walk to Jalan Besar and the local bus terminal. When taking local buses, you just have to ask for help. Sometimes the buses are labeled. Sometimes they have a number. Sometimes your stop is not included on the list of destinations. In Yogyakarta, the local buses had numbers that looked like they’d been painted on my pre-schoolers. Regardless of your destination, however, you are guaranteed a hot ride in crowded conditions.

I boarded the 4 pm bus at 3:40. By 3:43 I was soaked in sweat. By 3:52, all the seats were filled and space in the aisle was at a premium. At 4 pm, passengers were still boarding as the bus pulled out of the station. The first stop was directly in front of the mosque, across the street from Hamid Bros bookshop. Good thing I walked to the station and secured a seat.

As the bus rolled through Kuantan, I took in the sites: the football stadium, a tellecomunications headquarters, the BMW dealership (I don’t know if the 528i is available in Kuantan) and countless roadside restaurants. Beyond the city center, I spied housing developments that wouldn’t be out of place in Orange County. Outside of the city, the countryside was dotted with kampungs and seaside resorts. Passengers hopped on and off throughout the journey to Cherating, the bus conductor chirping “okay, lah” whenever passengers had cleared the doorway and it was okay for the driver to press on.

There’s a degree of trust that’s necessary when taking local transportation. I had asked the conductor to let me know when I should get off. I’d been seeing signs that said “Cherating” for about 10 kilometers when he suddenly looked my way and said my stop was next. He then pointed to a small road and told me to walk that way. I collected my bag and jumped off the bus, his “okay lah” mixed nearly drowned out by the sound of the revving engine.

Where was I? By the side of the highway in a strange country, no recognizable landmarks or street signs in English. I would have to trust the conductor and start walking down that road. But he was an honest man, and ten minutes later I was exactly where I was supposed to be.

Lonely Planet praises Cherating: “Effortlessly ranked among the east coast’s top spots, the travellers’ kampung of Cherating waylays visitors with a woozy concoction of sunshine, seaside charms and an infectiously leisurely tempo.”

Cherating is certainly leisurely; any place where you can count the tourists on two hands is bound to be mellow. There are plenty of places to stay, and I spent the first 45 minutes checking out the options. At one backpackers’ resort, the owner showed me a dank prison-cell for RM30 a night. I told him I wanted something else and he asked me if I was looking for something cheaper – the curse of the backpacker, forever being judged as a penny-pinching tourist. I said something about wanting to spend more, and a quick look of surprise passed across his face.

I settled on a chalet (the local name for stand-alone cabins) with hot shower and air-con, a comfortable bed and a private patio. In a quirk of timing, as soon as I dropped my pack, the sky opened up, drenching the area for the next hour with monsoon ferocity.

Cherating Storm

After two weeks in a hostel dormitory in Singapore, and a few nights of spartan living on Tioman, my RM90 room in Cherating was perfect. It only took eight hours, a ferry and two buses to get here.

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Blogger K Collins said...

Gorgeous photos of the silk!

2:56 AM  
Blogger Peggy said...

Yes, I agree with K Collins! Absolutely gorgeous pictures of the silk cloth and, once again, another great blog!

Trevor is now following in your footsteps; he landed in Australia today.

3:30 PM  
Blogger Giovanni Del said...

Hello Matt,

I'm in New York seeing some people and came to see your blog too. Love the Cherating Storm pic.

2:53 PM  

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