Wednesday, 6 June 2012
May 27 - May 28, 2012
After so much city trekking we were both in need of some tranquility. We sought out the advice of the KL tourism centre who advised us to head towards the east coast where we would find exactly what we are looking for; to experience the way of life for Malaysian people.
Off the main train route which runs up the west side of the country into Thalland we took the bus heading east towards Kuantan which appeared to be the first sea side location; hopefully diverted from the main tourist track, a place where we could rest, write and edit photos.
A three hour ride later and we were taken through the outskirts, then into the main centre of Kuantan; building after apartment block after shop and to the bus terminal was all it took for us to decide that this was definitely not the experience we were looking for.
The east coast of Malaysia is predominantly Muslim which was evident. Despite the heat women were covered head to toe; heads draped in patterned materials, sleeves 3 quarter lengths or longer and full length skirts or trousers with closed toe shoes or alternatively some in full black burkas exposing only their eyes. I was the only western women in sight and consciously used my pashmina to cover my otherwise bare, tattooed shoulders out of respect for their culture as I hoisted my bag onto my shoulders.
Deciding on a new location we were informed that the only means of transport to Teluk Chempedak is by taxi which dropped us off an a sandy corner in front of couple shops selling beach paraphernalia, cold drinks and tacky souvenirs. Smelling the salty air of the coast with its shores lined with coconut and palm trees was immediately refreshing. The next most noticeable establishment on the parade were a McDonalds and KFC; still not quite the Malaysian culinary experience we were hoping for.
It turned out we had arrived in the sea side retreat for the residents of Kuantan on a public holiday. All the hotels had promptly raised their room rates by 30% reflecting those fully booked accommodations and limiting our options. Julian searched for about 45 minutes until we finally settled on the cheapest option which was still outrageously overpriced; RM70 ($23CND) got us a room with 2 beds and private bathroom, with a lovely view of a brick wall two feet away and questionable cleanliness. My hunger got the best of me resulting in a slightly grumpy demeanour which didn't take long to satisfy with a plate of chicken and rice curry from vendor whom we ended up sitting with for a good hour. A happy, well travelled Malaysian chef enthusiastically shared his photos of his work experiences abroad through Europe.
The South China sea was beckoning as we cross a boardwalk towards a quieter sandy bay, away from the main beach, when we were confronted unexpectedly by a troop of monkeys lead by a fearless alpha male. He was strutting along the boardwalk and intimidating the tourists whilst the younger ones chased each other from handrails to trees and back again and the remainder made their way towards the rubbish bins which provide thier evening meal. Having never come in contact with monkeys in the wild before, fear would not have been my first instinct. I was thrown off by the young girls in front of us who over-reacted with screams that did nothing but inflate the primates ego further; uncertain how to react, Julian and I lead the way through the group as I used my wide brim hat as a shield from waist down - just in case.
Coming from a part of the world where we swim in glacier fed lakes (for about three minutes before we return, shivering to the banks) the warmth of this endless body of water was baffling. The sea is a bit of an unknown entity to me and admittedly and what lies beneath makes me wary. Julians suggestion to jump in from a rock point into water slightly fiercer than the rest of the beach was not appealing; baby steps in from the beach suited me just fine. I soon eased into the comfort of the salty waters and was becoming more comfortable with the feel of current and waves, when Happy Pete approached; the only westerner besides us around these parts so far. The three of us chatted for about 30 mins whilst languishing in the warmth and made that connection that the travelling community relies upon so often. The extra bed in our room soon was offered and then became occupied by this 6'8" smiling giant from Manchester who turned even more heads than I.
As evening fell the beach grew crowded. The Malaysians tend to start their day late and continue long after midnight to avoid the worst of the heat. Whilst temperatures are still quite warm enough for T-shirts and shorts after dark, the oppressive and energy draining tropical heat of the day abates and quite often young families may be found eating their evening meal after 11pm.
Chempedak that weekend was playing host to trials for the SE Asian games and boxing matches had been going on all afternoon. These gave way to an insanely loud PA system and an area was cleared for the evenings holiday entertainment. Choreographed performances ranging from 16 children performing a playfully innocent provocative dance, young adults danced in elaborate outfits reminding me of peacocks, five teenagers obviously near the start of their careers as breakdancers and ripped young men contested for bragging rights in a body builders competition. I found this last one quite interesting in such a reserved community of Muslims who swim fully clothed at all times.
We sampled some bite sized pieces of banana stuffed grilled dough; still warm and gooey which would have gone perfectly with the maple syrup we are travelling with, laughed and applauded at the appropriate places and generally joined in with the party atmosphere. The air was constantly filled with bubbles from the many kids around floating on a light sea breeze and our new room mate was another constant source of fascination for the locals.
The next morning the three of us shared a cab with the only other westerner whom we had met the previous evening. Roy is a young Dutchman who had come to Malaysia on a field trip as part of his degree. Not wishing to waste an opportunity he had finished his obligatory time and decided to stay on for a further three weeks to travel around the country. The four of us piled our luggage into a long suffering Proton and headed back to Kuatan where we could catch our next bus.
Pete was heading south but Roy and the two of us were all going north to Cherating so after some initial disagreements with ATM machines, we exchanged the usual contact details, bade our jolly giant farewell and boarded our luxurious ride for the one hour journey up the coast.