Ko Mook

Another day on the islands. Relaxing!

After the big tsunami in 2004 that washed away entire villages on the western coast of Thailand, they installed an earlty warning system, including signs on the islands that show which way to run when the tsunami approaches.




Ko Mook

The beaches on Ko Mook aren’t quite as white as on the Parhentians, but the place is more authentic. Accommodations are more basic, and the locals live just around the corner in, for Thailand, very simple wooden houses. These people do not have much money.

Otherwise it’s another tropical island paradise. They run long-tail boats to all the neighboring islands, with good places for snorkeling or just exploring the jungle interiors. Ko Kradan has a so-so coral reef, but so many fish that one gets rear-ended all the time.

Ko Mook has a long cave with a very low ceiling one can swim through at low tide. It opens up to a kind of cenote, a small beach and some trees completely surrounded by towering vertical cliffs. Very impressive. The screaming boatloads of school children they drag through the place takes away from the wonder a little.



Detours

Kota Bharu is very close to Thailand, there is a border checkpoint just west of it and the Thai city of Hat Yai is not far. Trouble is, using that checkpoint would take me through the southernmost three provinces of Thailand, where some crazies have decided that they’d like to re-establish some old Sultanate, and the best way to accomplish that is bombs. Thailand is governed by the military, and they take a rather dim view of such ideas. So we have a quite brutal war of terror there, one that has completely escaped world attention.

So I had to go the long way around, first from the east coast of Malaysia to Alor Setar and Kangar on the west coast, and from there across a safe border checkpoint to Thailand, and from there to Hat Yai. Several more connections brought me to Ko Mook, a small island in the Andaman Sea, sufficiently far south of Phuket and the other tourist epicenters to be quiet and peaceful. All the connections worked perfectly, not because someone had worked out the timetables to perfection, but because everyone in this part of the world is so friendly, helpful, and intent on making things work.

BTW, the Malaysian restaurant photo below is perfect. It ticks all the boxes. Open to the street, tiled floor, corrugated metal roof, cold and much too bright fluorescent lamps, colorful plastic chairs, fans, TV sets (imaging sugary Thai pop music videos), and some counters where the menu is negotiated.




Leaving paradise

My last day on the Parhentian Islands, spent not doing very much at all, sampling the local cuisine, and trying to remember where I put the shoes that I am going to need off the island.

Kota Bharu is an old Malay town on the northeastern tip of mainland Malaysia. It’s not a major tourist destination and never will be. It’s museums and Malay row houses are nice enough, but putting a huge monolithic 23-floor hotel, the bottom 10 of which are a parking garage, was not a very bright idea. Right next to it is another huge parking garage, and then the promenade ends. Clearly parking is an overriding concern in this city.




Barefoot paradise

The Parhentian Islands are the sort of place where shoes are just a forgotten artifact left behind in a cupboard. It is just natural to step out of the door onto the beach barefoot. My hut is at one end of the long curved beach and the Quiver dive center is at the other, no problem, and there are plenty of stalls on the way to have a fruit juice or lassi before getting kitted out with dive gear.

This is my diving day. The first site, called T3, is on the opposite side of the island. Unfortunately the sea was rather choppy there and one of the divers described the underwater visibility as “vodka with milk”. The second site, just off the beach, was much better.

One nice thing about diving is that there is always lots of time between dives to sit together, chat, have lunch and dinner together, compare notes on where we have been and which dive sites we like most, and generally having a good time. In fact, our dive computers keep track of our blood nitrogen levels and have very clear opinions on when one can go diving and when one can’t. And the island is just made for relaxing.



Tropical islands

It’s a long way by bus north along the coast, and I had to connect several times. All connections between different buses and the ferry worked like a Swiss clockwork, so I found myself looking at the lesser Parhentian Island from a speedboat in the late afternoon.

The Quiver dive center is strategically located at the end of the island’s ferry pier, and friendly dive masters hang out there and give advice on accommodations and restaurants. I’ll be seeing them a lot during the next few days, but for now all I needed was a shower.

Unexpectedly, the island is almost fully booked, but I got a nice beachfront “chalet” at the Senja resort. The island is more of a laid-back backpacker destination so it’s not anywhere as grand as the name chalet suggests, but the nights are cool and the sound of the surf comes through the open windows, and the variety of fruit smoothies is endless.


Kuala Lumpur

Time to say goodbye to Borneo. I had booked a flight to Kuala Lumpur on the Malaysian mainland the day before. Kuala Lumpur is Malaysia’s capital, and Kuala Lumpur airport is one of the main hubs is southeast Asia. Kuala Lumpur is polluted and Kuala Lumpur’s traffic is terrible. But I like Kuala Lumpur because I like the sound of “Kuala Lumpur”, so I might have used the name Kuala Lumpur in this paragraph more often than Kuala Lumpur deserves. Kuala Lumpur.

My destination for the day was Kuantacn on the Malaysian east coast. I had been to the west coast before but never here. The bus east was a huge double-decker rust bucket with a badly slipping clutch, but I got the big front panorama windows upstairs all to myself. The countryside is green and pleasant, but no rain forest. On the other hand, there is no rain, the sky was bright blue all day.

Kuantan is a big city, but it has a very pleasant waterfront promenade and park with fountains and art, and some open restaurant stalls with good Malaysian food. Cheratin, a little up the coast, is more laid back but it’s awkward to reach and I will see better beaches soon.



Rain forest

Bako National Park is close to Kuching. A regular city bus brought me to a boat pier; the park can only reached by boat. They are not the kind called Flying Coffin but felt like one – the sea was very rough, and the boat went airborne a few times when crossing wave crests. The pilot knew what he was doing, except that one time when the boat nearly rolled over.

They don’t call them rain forests for nothing, it had been raining all morning. But shortly after the boat arrived, the rain stopped. Signed in at the ranger station (so they know if you get lost) and followed one of the marked trails through the forest. Most of the time, the trail is just a mess of roots, big rocks, and beds of small creeks, constantly going up or down. Good thing I brought sandals and could wade right through. The trail ends at a beach.

Due to the rain, no animals could be seen. Only after returning to the ranger station, on a narrow bridge, a few gibbons sat grooming one another. They didn’t even run away, just looked at me briefly as if to say “may I see your tickets please” and kept on grooming. No respect for the food chain.




Malaysia

Most of Borneo belongs to Indonesia, except the northern coast which belongs to Malaysia. Went first to Pontianak, which sits right on the equator. It’s so good to be in a place where the satellite dishes point up vertically… First time I crossed the equator on the surface.

After the rather unpleasant 11-hour night bus ride over potholed dirt paths, and after all those mid-range Asian hotels that think they’ve done their job if the white tiles are clean and the roof doesn’t leak and the fluorescent tubes flouresce, and after those picturesque but primitive boat heads, I checked into the upscale but very reasonably priced Batik Boutique hotel in Kuching. You can really tell if a hotel was designed, built, and managed by the owner; the place feels like a home. The big granite bathtub in each room alone is a reason to stay here. And I was invited to watch a movie too; they have a beamer. Also got a lot of useful information.

Such as how to get to the “cultural village”, which is a small lake where all the local tribes were invited to build a prototypical ancestral home for their entire village; a little like the longhouses of southern Borneo. It’s like an executive summary of the widely scattered home villages of these tribes, which have of course modernized. Some of these homes are huge – four floors on stilts 12m tall, and the one the tribe still lives in today is four times as large on 18m stilts!




Fooling birds

There are huge concrete bunkers all around Pangkalan Bun and elsewhere, emitting loud birdsong. The birdsong comes from loudspeakers, with the intent to attract shallows to nest in the bunkers. When the young have left the nest, the nests are collected and sold to China, where they are eaten as an expensive delicacy.

The nests are made of bird spit. The most expensive ones are almost transparent. Think of it as the oral version of Kopi Luwak (look it up on Wikipedia, this post is weird enough as it is), or, if you like Monty Python, lark vomit. The Chinese eat everything.

Initiation rites

Pangkalan Bun has an original wooden palace, the kraton, three centuries old. I went there for a look. Turns out that they were in the last day of the traditional Initiation rites. The main hall was covered in golden drapes, and everybody wore yellow or traditional tribal costumes made of tree bark. The son of the last sultan, a very old man,
came and shook my hand, had his photo taken with me, and invited me to the party. Perhaps as an additional ornament? Sweets were served, I got a tour of the entire palace, and I was given a place in the middle of the hall.

The ceremony started with a group of eight women chanting and drumming, followed by a performance of the young men wearing tribal costumes. Then the children were circling the central altar before they were led off to a back room, something they knew would happen and that put an apprehensive expression on their faces. They knew they’d enter as children and leave as men and it won’t be easy.

So there they were, the leaders of society in their traditional finery and gold trim, their tribal costumes and rituals, holding monkey skulls, boar’s tusks, porcupine spines, and bird feathers and wearing body paint, enacting tribal rituals many centuries old – and snapping photos with their cell phones and DSLRs as fast as they could. Unsurprisingly I became part of that particular ritual too.The women found it amusing that I was on eye level with them if I kneeled. One of the drummers found time to answer her pink cellphone in the middle of her performance. Yet the whole event was quite serene and very moving.





Children!

I was walking down the waterfront boardwalk of Pangkalan Bun to the market, enjoying chatting with the locals. One of them was an English teacher at a primary school nearby, and he asked me if I wanted to visit his school and let the children practice some English. Sure!

The school had a large yard and the children were out playing. All heads turned our way when we came through the gate, and they all came running and screaming. No tourist had ever come before. They brought me a chair and stood around me and sang an English song. Twice. The headmaster came out and had her photo taken with me.

The children had lots of questions and they had to ask them in English, with a little help by their teacher. Name, hobbied, sports, motorcycle or car (they were delighted when I answered, bicycle), favorite color and why, favorite Indonesian food… All shouting at the same time and having fun. A little girl ceremonially gave me some water and a chocolate bar. It was quite hot. I enjoy this kind of thing far more than visiting yet another temple.

Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world – 250 million people, 80% Muslim. None of the pictures in our heads about Muslims apply here. There is no gender discrimination and no oppressive religious leadership at all. They are pretty r. If you see a burka it’s probably a tourist. All our mental pictures of Muslims are really pictures of Arabs, a completely different culture.

Eat more butter

There’s a village across the Sekonyer river, just outside the national park. People there used to be farmers, but there is a palm oil Plantation nearby and the fertilizer runoff and the extremely high water use for Palm oil production has poisoned their soil, so no more farming. When the villagers protested, the farm oil workers came and burned the national park ranger’s house to make clear that opposition to the palm oil industry is not welcome.

55% of Borneo’s rainforest is already lost to palm oil plantations, and also gold and coal mining. When you fly over Borneo, you see the large swaths of countryside with the regular grids of palm oil trees, where rain forests used to be.

So, next time you think about buying that highly processed palm oil product we call margarine (and my grandmother called war butter), protect the environment and get butter instead.

Camp Leakey

In the 1950s, Professor Leakey sent out three researchers out to Africa and Indonesia to study primates: Jane Goodall, Dian Foster, and Birute Galdikas. Galdikas still lives in Pangkalan Bun on Borneo and runs a hospital. Her research camp can be reached by boat up the Sekonyer river from Pangkalan Bun, and a little hiking over very rough paths through the rainforest. The camp has a feeding station.

Only the Orang-Utans here are not content with feeding on a platform. They are not shy and there is no reason why they should be. They are crashing through the woods, and walking right down the paths. One was walking past me just 20cm away while I was crouching to get a better view. They completely ignore those harmless three-eyed bipeds that make clicking noises.

They also have wild boar at the park, and they are dangerous to Orang-Utan babies while on the ground. One attacked a baby and would have killed it if the park rangers hadn’t come running and beaten it away. I also watched a gibbon stage a quick raid on the feeding platform, carrying away as much as he could carry in his hands, feet, and mouth.