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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.