Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Going Solo

The question I’m asked the most is “Where are you from?” The second is “Are you traveling alone?” After answering this for the hundredth time, I got to thinking about the vicissitudes of being a solo traveler. Whether it’s better to travel alone or not is a debate I will leave for others -- the pros and cons are quite obvious, and neither method is "better." For me, however, going solo is the only way to travel.

Since visiting Kuala Terengganu, I’ve been to a few places where the pros and cons of independent travel were brought into stark relief.

But first, it must be said that no solo traveler is completely alone. Hostels are everywhere, and there is a transient backpacking population that makes interaction easy. Even a shy guy like myself, who lacks the ability to make small talk with strangers, can meet people in hostels. But hostels, while cheap, do not always offer the comforts a 40-year-old on the road craves. I stayed in a 17-bed dorm for two weeks in Singapore. Yes, 17 beds, co-ed, three showers, two toilets. It was a great hostel and the experience was memorable. However, since then I’ve been looking for a bit more space, some privacy and a higher level of comfort. Also, after months of mingling with twenty-somethings I wanted to meet some people my own age.

My first stop after Kualu Terengganu was the Perhentian islands. Many folks on the road have told me that the Perhentian islands are a must, a paradise on earth with white-sand beaches and spectacular diving. If they are so impressive, I deserved to do them in style.

There are two Perhentians. The big island, Kecil, is for backpackers, offering budget accommodation and parties every night. Besar is more relaxed, with an older crowd but not as many options for accomodation.

I decided to book a room at the Tuna Bay Resort on Besar after reading some posts on the Lonely Planet message board. The room was lovely, even if it cost more than any other room I’d stayed in since leaving the U.S. The resort was nice enough, but noise from the construction of a new jetty at the end of the beach was just plain unpleasant.

Boat, Pulau Perhentian Besar

In the end, being single and 40 and staying in a place like the Tuna Bay Resort might not have been such a good idea. I was the only guest who was not part of a couple or a family. I met a few folks at the bar one night, but for the most part people kept to themselves, even smiles were in short supply. Like a pedestrian on the streets of New York, I was pretty much ignored. I was among travelers older than the backpacker crowd, yet here I was, still an outsider.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a big difference between being alone and being lonely. Even at home I spend most of my free time alone; I have no problems keeping myself occupied. I spent two days relaxing under the sun, taking photos, writing, reading (two top notch mysteries -- Lee Child’s “The Hard Way” and Harlan Coben’s “Tell No One”) and swimming in the warm sea. I considered staying longer to get PADI certified, until I went on a snorkeling expedition and saw nothing but dead coral and polluted water. The snorkeling guide brought a loaf of white bread, which he would tear into pieces and throw into the water, sending the fish into a feeding frenzy and turning what could have been tolerable into a farce.

Environmental awareness is at a much lower level here than in other places I’ve visited. Perhaps I was spoiled by the immaculateness of Australia. But even the dirtiest beaches in the U.S., like Coney Island, are spotless compared what I've seen in Malaysia.

The most heinous example I witnessed of blatant disregard for the environment was on the snorkeling trip. Two young Malaysia couples in their early twenties brought a pack of cigarettes onto the boat, lighting up as soon as we left the shore. I was flabbergasted that they would chain smoke on a snorkeling expedition, floored and angry every time they tossed their butts into the water. Also, an afternoon walk down the beach was an exercise in avoiding garbage and dead fish. One solid day of cleanup would go a long way toward making turning Besar into a much nicer place. They’ve got a long way to go.

Beach, Pulau Perhentian Besar

But these pictures make it look so pretty, you might say. What the pictures don't show is the filth. See that yellow boat? There was a dead fish floating in the water just out of the frame. That white sand beach? About 25 large plastic bags lay in the sand in the distance.

My friend Elisa recently attended a conference in Malaysia on the health of the coastal waters in Southeast Asia. She told me that if people knew the level of pollution around here, they would stay out of the water altogether. Frightening.

I left the Perhentian islands with one more stop on the east coast, a city of nearly half a million called Kota Bharu, the capital of the state of Kelantan, near the Thai border. I again decided to skip the backpacker hostels and booked a room in an affordable midrange hotel. Kota Bharu, like Kuala Terengganu, is a conservative Muslim city, which means there’s not a lot for a Jew from L.A. to do other than eat and gawk. I spent a day and a half walking around – highlights were the night market, where I ate blue rice and befriended the young owner of one of the beverage stalls, and a morning at a bird-singing competition. The locals were uniformly friendly and gracious, and I was surprised by the number of times both men and women both offered sincere, generous smiles. I wondered if they would do the same if I were not traveling alone.

Night Market, Kota Bharu

Red-Whiskered Bulbul at Bird-Singing Competition, Kata Bharu

I have no great insight into the life of the solo traveler, only my own experience. I hate to come off as bitter, but sometimes I am. All I know is I’d rather be outsider among friendly locals than an outsider among impassive foreigners.

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Blogger Elisa Lurkis said...

Hi Matt!
It's been awhile since I've checked your blog and I am glad to see you are still alive and well and are enjoying Malaysia. What little I saw was wonderful, although I must reiterate that the ocean water is filthy and I hope you don't get tempted to go in. You could wind up with a skin rash, GI illness, or worse. Stay out of the water! But I found the people of Malaysia to be wonderful and I cannot wait to go back!



1:45 AM  
Anonymous Sea Monster said...

I think the water issue is over exagerrated. Especially with the thought that all oceans are connected to each other .. and " filthy " is a very hard word there - people might get confused.

I dont know about the industrial West Coast ( Malacca Strait aka world busiest shipping lane ), but the sea in East Coast of the Peninsula is considerably clean. Dont tell me that you went swimming in the Tebrau Strait ( the one separating Singapore with Malaysia ) - that is dirty.

Again, the sea water might be dirty RELATIVELY speaking - but I dont think that ppl would get rash, GI illness and that sort of thing by being in the water - unless if you have very delicate, ultra sensitive skin !

The locals aint complaining about skin rashes etc etc, the tourists too, and why should you ?

9:22 AM  
Blogger azmil said...

Hi..luv the info in our blog. Anyway, i just wanna share my experience in Perhentian Island. I also had a fantastic trip in Perhentian Island. Really love my stay at Perhentian Island especially at Tunabay Resort. I would like to recommend to anyone who is planning to have a great holiday in an island, please don't hesitate to come to Perhentian Island. For more info about the resort, visit www.tunabay.com.my

6:30 PM  

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