Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Malaysian Castaway

My greatest fear about Malaysia was that it would be Indonesia Redux. As I write this from a tiny beach called Salang on the island of Pulau Tioman in the South China Sea, I can say with confidence that Malaysia is nothing like Indonesia. All I've seen is a bus rise through the countryside and an isolated island surrounded by turquoise waters, but there's no hard sell here, no sense of desperation in the population, no urge to run and hide. I was greeted by one travel agent when the bus dropped me off in the port town of Mersing, and one tout waited at the end of the jetty when I arrived in Salang, but they throwing softballs, easily deflected with a smile and a no thanks.

The trip from Singapore was delayed 24 hours because both direct buses leaving Monday morning were booked solid. I boarded an air-conditioned coach on Tuesday at 9 a.m., seat 10A, and with sadness said goodbye to Singapore. Backpackers listen up: Singapore is more than a layover en route to Thailand or Australia.

A quick stop at immigration, my passport stamped with a purple ninety-day visa, and I was in Malaysia, country number four on my Asian adventure. Only four countries, you cry! Haven't you been traveling for months? Well, yes I have. If you read Newsweek magazine you'd know that the latest trend in travel is slowing down and seeing more.

Welcome to Malaysia

The drive to Mersing passed through countryside dotted with villages and the occasional small town. There's nothing of note in Mersing, just ferries to the Seribaut Archipelago, a collection of islands of which Tioman, 50 kilometers from Peninsular Malaysia, is the largest. I chose Tioman because I wanted a few days of desert-island isolation.

However, unless you book yourself into a private resort there will always be others around. On Tioman that means a lot of Malaysians, Singaporeans and a sprinkling of westerners. It’s a tiny place – you can walk from one end of the village to the other in about five minutes – so the sense of isolation is still complete. Also, there are no roads; all transportation is by boat. There are a few hiking trails into the interior that I hope to explore in the days ahead.

On the ferry to Tioman, I met a Canadian, Mike, who had decided on a whim to cut short a two-week trip to Japan and fly south for some scuba diving. When we arrived in Salang, I found a chalet two steps from the beach, complete with patio overlooking the small bay, and we decided to split the cost. The afternoon was absolutely scorching and I spent most of it in the shelter of the air-conditioned room. The temperatures dropped in the evening and Mike and I camped out for a few hours at a beachside café eating curried fish and drinking Tiger beer, lightning illuminating the distant clouds to the west. The idea of a beachside cafe may sound cliché, but drinking ice-cold beer on a beach in the South China Sea trumps cliché any day.

Pulau Tioman

Unfortunately, the new day brought pouring rain. The wet weather was bad news for Mike, whose scuba outing was canceled. Good news for me, though: I finally had the time I needed to finish “Special Topics in Calamity Physics.” This brilliantly written piece of literature is trying at times but I found it ultimately rewarding. It’s been criticized for dropping cultural references in every other paragraph. I ate it up, proving how much of a A) intellectual) B) bibliophile C) smarty pants I am. It’s rare that I feel strongly for a fictitious character. But if the snarky know-it-all teenager Blue van Meer were flesh and blood I’d fall hopelessly in love with her, her protective anti-establishment father be damned.

Pulau Tioman

If you want to see what Pulau Tioman looked like in the 1950's, rent "South Pacific." I'm sure it looks quite different today.



Blogger Giovanni Del said...


Happy to hear that you're back to travel and get out of nice, mellow, organized, plenty of good food and boring Singapore ;-).
I'm in Metz and going to Bruxelles and then Big Apple! I'll say hello from you, but no Starbucks for me.

continue having fun,


10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Matt,

Glad to see that you're still out and about in Asia. That's too bad that the islands north of Tioman weren't up to all the hype.
I'm back to work in Vancouver and missing the traveling life. Tioman was a great time.
Keep in touch and I hope that you continue to enjoy your travels buddy!

Take care,


5:13 PM  
Anonymous said...

Tioman isn't quite so pretty. Try Redang. It's quite a bit further from where you are, but on the way if you're planning to go up north to Thailand. It's like diving in a swimming pool! I'd say it beats the Great Barrier anytime.

2:18 PM  

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