Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Island Paradise - Tioman

From Malacca we were headed to the island of Tioman, over on the East coast. It was quite a drive to get there, plus it is kind of impossible to book oneself onto a particular boat without turning up. Therefore, we set the alarm, dragged ourselves out of bed early, and set off in a hurry. The road was mostly easy, although the motorway ran out once we were around halfway there, making it necessary to negotiate the traffic of several towns. Thankfully this did not last long, and we soon found ourselves driving through a mixture of lush rainforest and palm oil plantations. Sadly, palm oil seems to be decidedly winning the land battle, making us wonder just how much natural habitat is left for any wildlife. According to the warning signs on the road the area plays host to elephants and tapirs. Whilst these creatures were evidently feeling shy, we did see a large troop of monkeys, who quickly disappeared back into the forest at the noise of the engine.

We arrived at the ferry terminal with plenty of time, as we wanted to ensure that we got on the 2 p.m. ferry, the last one that day, We needn't have bothered though, as the desk remained closed until an hour and a half before departure. Luckily it didn't matter, as although it was school holiday time, the fact that it was not a weekend apparently meant there was no danger of the boat selling out. The waiting area was chaotic, with children running around screeching, and the parents bringing so much luggage you might be forgiven for thinking they were planning a permanent relocation. We did wonder where so many people were going to disappear to on the relatively small island, and hoped it wouldn't be too hectic.

We needn't have worried. By the time the boat reached Salang (the last stop), it had emptied out considerably. We disembarked to see a stunning beach, fronted by impossibly turquoise water and backed by lush green mountains. Whilst not deserted it was far from crowded, and without a tacky sun lounger in sight. From the jetty we could see the outline of corals below, with bright flashes of colour suggesting plenty of fish. It was exactly what we were hoping to find, and we immediately realised we might have to extend our stay beyond our planned four nights.

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Salang is not a big place. In fact, it is quite easy to stroll from one end to the other in ten minutes. As there is only one path, it was not exactly difficult to locate our huts. We were staying at Ella's Place, and were not quite sure what to expect. Initially we had only booked it as our first few choices were full. It also turned out that it was Lonely Planet's top choice of digs, which would usually be enough to put us off a place. Furthermore, we had read on Tripadvisor that it was not on a nice part of the beach, so it is fair to say our expectations were not too high.

Surprisingly, we have been forced to conclude that for once Lonely Planet might have got it right (even a stopped watch is correct twice a day). The huts are undeniably basic. Fan cooled, bucket flush, cold shower, they are not luxurious. Ours didn't even have a working light in the main room. However, none of these things mattered to us at all. It was clean, one of the cheapest options around, had a lovely porch area from which we could sit and watch the sea, and was right at the end of the path, meaning that we didn't have people constantly walking past. Far from being poor, our part of the beach turned out to be beautiful, just a little rocky at low tide. The sand was literally less than ten paces from our front door. Location wise, for us this was hard to beat.

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We didn't do much that evening other than eat dinner. Oli tried the famous half roast chicken, which was apparently very nice but a little dry, easily rectified by the gravy provided. The next day however, was a lot more exciting. Waking up to see the brilliant blue sea sparkling just a few yards from our door was a truly thrilling. We had heard that Salang offered good snorkelling without having to take a boat somewhere, so were keen to try it out.

We started off on the furthest end of the beach from our hotel. Getting used to it took a little practice, as sticking your head in the water and taking a deep breath is not the most natural feeling. Oli had a bit of trouble with his mask, at one point asking me if the tube was supposed to get water in. I confirmed it was not, but once it was sorted we carried on with more success. Once we perfected the art of swimming in flippers, there was no stopping us.

It may be a total cliché, but it really is a different world down there. The glassy surface of the water obscures a calm and tranquil expanse of the clearest blue. Even though at first we were not near any rocks or coral, we immediately started to spot fish. They gleamed in a wonderful array of stripes, spots and jewel-like colours. Surprisingly most of them did not object to our presence, simply carrying on about their business, only streaking away if we got too close. It was addictive, and by the time we undignifiedly emerged on the beach in our cumbersome flippers, we had been in there over an hour.

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We decided to take a break for lunch, and headed back to our cabin for a quick pit stop. By the time we had finished with this the tide was all the way in, covering most of the rocks on our part of the beach. A local told me that the snorkelling on this part of the beach was excellent, going on to tell me that if I was “lucky”, I might see a shark. My definition of lucky evidently differed from his, so I asked him how big they were. He paused, then stretched out his arms as far as possible. He assured me that they had never attacked a person, and that they would probably be scared of us and disappear pretty quickly. Whilst this slightly assuaged my fears, I wasn't sure if I was entirely convinced...

In the end, it turned out he was right about the snorkelling. Thankfully the shark predictions did not come to fruition, and we saw nothing more threatening than what might have been a sea snake. Whilst these are venomous apparently they are not aggressive, and we have been told that they have badly positioned teeth which make biting anything other than a small fish rather difficult. We saw plenty of colourful fish, including several species that we had not spotted at the other end of the beach. Sadly our GoPro didn't seem too keen on focusing on small objects underwater, so most of the photos are of ourselves. Apologies for that!

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It had been an incredible day, but it came at a price for me. Having taken care to wear a t-shirt to protect from the sun, and dutifully having sun creamed what I thought were all relevant bits, it turned out I had underestimated the power of the rays on the water. Of course with the benefit of hindsight it seems rather obvious that the backs of my legs would be so exposed, and I ended up with proper sunburn for the first time on the trip. Oli was fine, but I was definitely feeling annoyed and a little sorry for myself. Luckily, the evening looked up, as we ended up getting chatting to two of the other guests staying at our place. We got dinner together and enjoyed a few beers back at home (well, one beer for Oli and I, several for the others).

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The next day I skipped the sea, wanting to avoid further sun burn. We filled our day with a tough regime of reading on our porch, pottering down to the other end of the beach for lunch, and watching some of the island's many giant monitor lizards. We had glimpsed a few of these from a distance whilst in Malacca, but the specimens we have seen here are enormous. They mainly hang out in the small river by the beach, and they seem to be thriving. We found them fascinating, as it was almost like seeing mini dinosaurs roaming around. Keeping the wildlife varied, the island also houses plenty of monkeys. They usually make themselves scarce, but as we stood watching the monitors we saw a few cheeky ones playing on the roof of a restaurant. We were quite pleased to be able to get a monkey and a (small) monitor lizard in one frame of a photo.

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After our spot of nature watching we came back to our beach to watch the sunset, joined by one of the resident cats. At first it seemed it would be nothing special, but as the sun dipped below the horizon, it completely changed. With surprising rapidity the colours shifted to become more vivid versions of their former selves. Everything was lit with the most vibrant shade of gold, which coloured the vast sweeps of cloud exquisitely. Slowly the gold faded and gave way to reds, blues and purples, eventually disappearing into the darkening sky. We have seen some incredible sunsets on this trip, but this may have been the best yet.

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We finished the day off with a trip to a BBQ restaurant, the same one in fact that we had seen the monkeys at earlier. Oli had heard that the steak was awesome, and I was pleased to see that they had plenty for vegetarians. It ended up being a brilliant meal, and even though Oli had eaten an enormous hunk of beef it was not too expensive. We went for a little stroll afterwards to walk it off, and I ended up buying some funky Aztec leggings, thinking they would provide good sun protection for further snorkelling adventures.

Armed with my embarrassing leg wear, we were eager to get back in the water the next morning. The visibility wasn't quite as great as our first day, but it was still pretty awesome. We ended up spotting fish that we hadn't seen before, including a group of them that seemed to shimmer in a rainbow of pinks, purples, blues and greens. Regardless of any waves on the surface, below always seems to be tranquil, calm and quiet. Watching groups of fish happily and slowly grazing at the rocks was incredibly relaxing, but we always got excited whenever we spotted colourful individuals darting about. Despite my irrational shark fear, we can both really appreciate how people get addicted to diving, as a way to visit this underwater world.

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The sunset that night was rather nice, but nothing like as spectacular as the previous evening's effort. We ended up going for food with Steve (one of the other people staying at our guest house), and ate the most delicious potato and egg curry. It may sound like an odd combination, but it really was a winner. It was so good, that we have actually ended up going there twice more to sample it further. We finished the day off with what was becoming a traditional beer back home. The takeaway beer shack is somewhat of an institution on Tioman, with the guy running it being a bit of a legend.

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Today is our last in Tioman before having to head back to Malacca to pick up a forgotten bag. The last two days have been not so great weather wise, but brilliant in every other sense. We haven't done much other than sit on our porch, watch the sea, eat good food, and socialise with the other guys staying at Ella's. Chris and Steve set off this morning, so our social life here is now limited to a very sweet and friendly (although slightly demanding) cat. Oli has definitely bonded with this creature, and it always seems very happy to jump on his lap and crash out. Attempts to remove it sometimes involve claws digging into his clothes, but otherwise it is a docile little thing. We did have a slightly worrying, but comical, moment this morning, where the little cat had gone up a coconut palm in pursuit of an enormous squirrel, but not quite thought about getting down. Thankfully it made it down safely, as there is definitely no fire department out here to come and rescue it!

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If Malaysia feels like a holiday from travelling, then Tioman goes one further and provides a holiday from Malaysia. Things are so relaxing and laid back here that we can totally understand how people come for a few days and end up staying for weeks. It is the perfect tropical island setting, with azure seas, green mountains and surprisingly little development. One traveller we spoke to told us that he has been coming here for twenty years, and that Salang is not much changed. We take this to be a good thing, as we love its island charm. Tioman does have some super fancy resorts on some of its other beaches, but we actually loved our basic place. Somehow our rustic hut gave us more of an authentic beach feel, and lent an unpretentious and enjoyable atmosphere. I'm not going to lie though, we are both very much looking forward to a hot shower tomorrow.

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