We have decided to jack in all this Overlanding nonsense and become backpackers: no need to find somewhere to park every night; no more cooking; no stresses over truck permits; no fuel costs and frequent air conditioning – perfect …..Just joking! But we have had a little three day break from the truck to explore the Perhentian Islands.
We kept on reading and seeing pictures of Malaysia’s amazing beaches but all the way up the east coast we had only found OK beaches. We were being a bit picky but the water although gorgeously warm was rather cloudy; they were very busy; and there was a lot of rubbish both in the sea and on the beach. Just where were these beautiful white sandy beaches lapped by gentle turquoise waters we had been tempted over to the coast for? With a little research we found they were mostly offshore. So we booked a room, securely parked the truck and jumped on a 40 minute boat ride out to Besut, the biggest of the two Perhentian Islands. At the port we quickly realised it wasn’t going to be our deserted desert island fantasy, as it was the weekend just after a national holiday. But the other holiday makers, mostly Malaysian university groups seemed a relaxed lot. Being a mostly Muslim country, it’s not like we needed to worry about too much boozing and partying from the 18-30s set. We had also decided to stay on Taluk Dalam Pulau, a smaller beach with just a handful of small chalet complexes on it. In fact it took us a while to find the one restaurant on the beach that served beer to the few westerners, ethnic Chinese and Singaporeans. I know beer isn’t essential but is nice occasionally to sit and watch the sunset with one.
What impressed me with the islands was that although many of the beaches had little resorts or beach huts on them, the rest of the island seemed to be completely untouched. It looked like it was all thick jungle on its steep hillsides. There was a small village with a mosque on the smaller island but that is it. Everyone uses boats to get around the island.
It was a very relaxing 3 days, the sea was a crystal clear, turquoise colour. And the sand was soft, almost white and fine. Mmmmmmm….a perfect beach, just what we were looking for
The snorkelling turned out to be excellent as well. Although we hadn’t really seen that many people since we left the mainland port, as we had all been ferried in small boats to different parts of the islands, lots of them were out on snorkelling trips. It turned out to be fine though as many of them weren’t very confident swimmers so stayed close to the beach. Swimming just a few metres out there was pristine corals, multitudes of coloured fish and even a massive Green Turtle grazing calmly on sea grass. I actually enjoyed it far more than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia as the waters were so calm and clear. Without the threat of deadly stinging jellyfish, the girls relaxed and they stayed in the water for ages.
I thought there was none as irritating noise than the whine of a mosquito at night but I was wrong, the noise of a 50cc motorbike issuer as bad. On our way up the East coast it had been unexpectedly easy to find spots to boondock in the week before the islands. Arriving on the coast from the jungle, we thought we would struggle with places to park at night as there are very few proper campsites. Although finding suitable spots might have been easy, what hadn’t been easy to gauge early on in the evening, was the number of motorbikes that will use the spot as a racetrack between midnight and three. Our usual plan was to find a likely looking quiet spot on the map, perhaps a beach or by a river. Trundle down there in the late afternoon; see if it looks suitable; then ask around if it is ok to park for the night. So far in Malaysia, the answers has always been a resounding “Of Course.” People are very friendly, hospitable and helpful here. We even had the police stop by one night while we were cooking tea, after a polite chat and a quick photo, they wished us a good night and went on their way. Brilliant, however what happens in the wee hours is another matter. What seems like hordes of teenage boys congregate to play silly on their bikes: wheelies, donuts, no helmets, horizontal riding, comparing just how noisy they can rev their bikes etc. It’s not exactly a recipe for a good night’s sleep, thankfully the girls are dead to the world once they fall asleep. To be fair to the teenage boys, I don’t think they realise they are waking us up and we are parked on their nighttime playground. One night, I jumped up in a sleep-befuzzled fug and caught my bum on the mosquito net, it opened with a very loud bang. The boys quickly then took themselves off to the far corner of the parking spot and melted quietly into the dark. All the Malaysians we have met couldn’t be more kind or hospitable, so none of the nighttime motorbike shenanigans feel like they have any sinister threat about them, especially as there is no alcohol involved, it is just rather tiring.
In the small village of Cherating Alisha wanted to try out making Batik, she had been fascinated since we visited the Textile Museum in KL. We found a tiny shop with a little workshop on the side which offered a course. The girls and I, applied the molten wax to our designs with a special pen. We then painted the cotton with bright dyes, the wax stopped the dye from reaching the material leaving a white line. It was good to be creative for a change and we all enjoyed it.
As we headed northwards along the coast, we noticed that it gradually became more Muslim. As we crossed over to the state of Terengganu, we noticed that the signs were in both Malaysian and in Arabic and nearly all of the ladies were wearing the hijab (scarf over their hair). It felt absolutely fine not covering my hair as Malaysia has a mix of ethnicities, only 61% are Muslim, and everyone was very friendly. But I did make sure I was otherwise well covered. We spent several nights beside beaches on the mainland and every evenings families would come down to enjoy the cooling evening breeze. They were lovely family scenes, with the generations hanging out together. If the ladies swam, they did so fully covered in long loose trousers, tops and headscarves. Men tended to swim in t-shirts and long shorts too. On the islands and beaches where they are used to foreign tourists , it was more relaxed with ladies wearing anything between bikinis and fully clothed including headscarves. Back in Kuala Lumpur, I was very surprised to see signs at the hotel pool banning ladies from clothes that fully covered their bodies, they had to wear a swimming costume. It seemed very unfair to have such a rule, especially as so many people are Muslims here.
We spent several days checking out small seaside towns and their beaches. We then headed inland for a night by the man made Lake Kenyir. There is a great overlanders app called ioverlander in which people share good spots to camp but they are rather thin on the ground in Asia but there was a good sounding one by the lake. The other reason was that it was Malaysian National Day, we had seen the preparations in several towns in the week before and didn’t want to get caught up in horrible traffic anywhere. We had already, inadvertently, got caught up in someone’s picnic that morning. We had woken up late (after a motorcycle filled night); started school and looked out to find ourselves trapped in our beachside parking space by hordes of haphazardly parked cars. A big group had decided to have their National Day picnic just beside the truck, even though the rest of the huge beach area was empty. We excused ourselves when a space in front appeared and took ourselves off to the other side of the grass for the rest of school, while Steve kept us abreast of the shockingly bad parking going on, as the place filled up. So we headed for the hills, cringing at the motorcycle-boys holiday antics on the almost empty motorway. I know it wouldn’t be our fault if they killed themselves by doing a wheelie with two people on a bike; at top speed; in amongst big groups that are riding far too close just in front of us but still I don’t want to see it. Some of them look no older than twelve too. The lake turned out to be bliss – cooler, backed by thick jungle and very quiet. We parked up in on one of the many parking areas overlooking the lake and went for a walk. On the way back it started to rain, a couple stopped their car and offered us a lift back. We declined thinking it wasn’t that bad, a few seconds later the heavens opened, the couple now many metres away reversed their car back up the road and urged us to get in and dropped us right at the truck’s door. See what I mean about how nice Malaysians are. That night as Steve and I were enjoying the cooler temperatures, and the lack of motorbikes, we heard a rustling in the jungle and a big wild boar popped out on the road and trotted away in the opposite direction.
Back in the Perhentians, our time as backpackers was over. It was well worth it to enjoy the amazing beaches but we missed truck-living, our own beds and our independence. It was time to go “home,” as the girls alway call the truck.