Monday, June 1, 2009


Having escaped a caution for wearing an unironed shirt in Singapore, I'm happy to be on a bus heading up the east coast of peninsular Malaysia. We stop off at Kuantan and Kuala Terreganu, two sleepy towns with not much of interest except for the day-to-day life of Malaysia. We're heading for the Perhentian Islands just off the north-eastern coast for some beach time. If we're going to be hot we might as well be somewhere where we can jump in the sea. We get off the boat at Coral Bay and feel slightly underwhelmed by the view - a small bay littered with beach cafes, boats, bungalows and dominated by a huge concrete pier reaching out across the view back to the mainland. It's not too busy or noisy but I groan when someone's sound system starts cranking out the old Bob Marley. It's not quite the haven we were looking for. Undeterred, we head along a path in the jungle to a smaller beach with just a clutch of primitive beach huts on stilts where a motley bunch of people are hanging out. Everyone looks like they've been here a while and we understand why - it's quiet and relaxing and there's good swimming off the sandy beach.After a few days here I'm beginning to think the place would be a great location for a sitcom. The place is run by a Thai-Malay couple with help from three young Thai men who, when not mooching about on the restaurant veranda, appear to be relocating half the beach to a garden at the back. At meal times they also help Madame Zee in the kitchen. Mister Ahar meanwhile spends a lot of time going back and forth to the mainland in his little boat. On our first day here a crew appear to do a catalogue photoshoot. The considered collective opinion is that it's a cheap do - but it keeps everyone amused for a while. The highlight of the afternoon occurs when the model tips over off some bamboo contraption into the sea.
Then there's the other guests. Hanke & Antje look like they might live here, and have got to the point of naming the different cabins. ( Eg. 'The waiting room' - the new arrivals take this one before switching to something better when it becomes available.) We get chatting to Jessica & Calum, a lovely couple from Edinburgh, on a short holiday here. After they leave, Per asks us "Are they posh?" and we say, yes they are, but nice posh. Per is a huge friendly American with a dodgy achilles heel. He regales us with fantastic tales of goalkeeping in Pakistan and coaching in Bhutan. He just might be the first American we've met who not only plays football but calls it by its proper name. He demonstrates his skill with his hands to a young German who keeps prodding Per's achilles heel. Every day he works on rehabilitating his ankle by treading water and going for walks along the jungle paths, inviting everyone to join him. There's also jittery Adrian, who seems to swallow the ends of his sentences like a Hungry Horace, and always looks a little nervous. Now and again others arrive, but don't stay long, in search of a little more comfort perhaps. The huts come with 'residents': large colourful geckos, squirrels that chew through bags to get at food, soap-eating rats. One morning I disturb a long thin snake sunbathing on the rocks. Another day a large monitor lizard lumbers across the beach before sliding into the sea and swimming off around the rocks.
Sadly all good things come to an end, and we have to move on before a block booking of 60 schoolkids and 20 teachers turns up. By this time there's only us and Phillipe, a very funny Frenchman, left to enjoy the surroundings.
Back at Coral Bay we meet Alice and Daniel who have been travelling for a while too. Our last day on the island is a rainy one spent with them in the shelter of a beach cafe talking about Indonesia, novels, conspiracy theories, food, films and everything else (not) under the sun.
we were too timid to ask what they were selling

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