PLYING THE PERHENTIANS

Bob surfaced after tying off the bowline, spat his regulator out of his mouth and shouted "there must be hundreds of sharks down there!" I exchanged a nervous glance with Helen, my dive buddy, half-hoping that either our divemaster was joking or the dive was called off. He wasnít joking (just wrong), and, since he no longer had the line in his hand, we knew the dive was not off. Helen and I somewhat reluctantly finished pulling on our scuba gear and, after a quick buddy check, back-rolled off the boat and into what we thought were shark-infested waters. I am a gentleman. I let her go first.

I was diving off of Palau Perhentian, located 13 miles off the northeast coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The small island group consists of Perhentian Kecil and Perhentian Besar, known locally as the big and little island, respectively. I had spent the past few days visiting Kuala Lumpur, Malaysiaís bustling and ultra-noisy capital, and the hot and steamy jungles of Taman Negara National Park, in the interior of the peninsula. After dodging the motorscooters of the city and the mosquitoes of the jungle, and nearly in the middle of my four-month-early-mid-life-career-crisis-therapy trip, I was ready for a few days of lazing on a deserted white sand beach and diving in warm tropical water.

I canít remember where I had first heard of the Perhentians, but they had been recommended as an alternative to the popular islands of Southern Thailand, primarily Koh Samui and Koh Tao, that had been reportedly overrun with hordes of backpacking youth. The Perhentians were said to be what these idyllic island paradises had once been, before the advent of cybercafes, Lonely Planet guidebooks and internet chat rooms, where the latest hot travel spot is revealed to the masses, and thus tainted in some eyes, at 56K. It was true that I was carrying a backpack and, at 32, could yet be considered a wise old Generation X sage. Still, having seen in other travelers graphic displays of odd tattoo art and piercing of body parts it hurt just to think about, I didnít think I could fill my rightful place in that demographic. I had also heard that increasing tourism was "ruining" these islands as well, and we had all better get there soon before it just wouldnít be worth it.

And, I was right on time. It was July, well within the roughly April to October high season. The rest of the year, I am told, torrential rains make the islands an unpleasant place to be, and low visibility makes diving downright dangerous. During my stay I experienced a seasonally incongruous downpour in which I couldnít see more than ten yards offshore and 50 mile per hour gusts turned anything not nailed down into lethal missiles. Prior to this experience I never thought it possible to get killed by a styrofoam cooler. I was told it was nothing, "compared to off-season." So, the Perhentians it was, and now.

First I had to get there. I had originally planned to ride the so-called "jungle train" up the interior of the peninsula, but passed upon learning that the service hadnít been updated since its origination as the first passenger line in Malaysia in the 1930s. Horror stories of sharing a 12-plus hour train ride on wooden benches with chickens and goats didnít do much for my enthusiasm. Plus, I just wanted to get to the beach, so in this instance, it was the destination that was important.

In Taman Negara, my campmates and I had spent two evenings fleeing from an insect that continually buzzed the communal eating area and was so large we dubbed it the flying lobster. Thatís where I met Jurgen and Anna, a honeymooning Dutch couple who happened to be heading to the Perhentians on the same day as me. They had already arranged for a cab to drive them to Kuala Besut, the jumping off point for the ferry to the islands. So, over the course of two days, I convinced them that I was neither an axe-murderer nor a third wheel, and they agreed to let me ride along. That their fare would be cut by a third didnít hurt either.

The 200-odd kilometer drive took us first through date palm plantations and then beautiful jungle terrain sprouting limestone monoliths. As you move northeast up the peninsula, the increased Islamic influence is unmistakable, and there are fewer and fewer signs in English. I will never forget, however, the young schoolgirls in their white veils walking home from school carrying a DKNY handbag. It seems, as an American, I am never far from home.

Although you can show up on the islands without a room, the odds are good that the first night will be spent under the stars. While that sounded romantic, I was traveling alone and decided to follow my new friends and stay at the posh Perhentian Island Resort, the only upscale accommodation on either of the islands. We booked our rooms from the ferry office on the mainland, and at about $38, it seemed like a good deal. As we approached the islands through the early evening haze, I could feel the stress of Kuala Lumpur and the lingering sweat of the humid jungle beginning to leave me. My initial anxiety about the short one-hour boat trip on a shabbily converted fishing boat captained by a boy who couldnít have been more than 15 (and who in fact ran into the reef and left us stranded, floating in the South China Sea for about an hour, but thatís another story) was easily overcome by the growing anticipation of plunking my tired body down on the bleached white sands of my first real tropical island.

By the time we reached the Resort, the sun was fully down. That, however, did not discourage our enthusiasm and I joined the honeymooners for a nighttime swim (OK, so now I was officially a third wheel). But there, swimming in the 85-degree water and watching as bats, illuminated by a lightning storm passing over the Gulf of Thailand to the north, gorged themselves on insects, I had finally found paradise.

The Resort is situated on a stunningly beautiful bay and has its own beach, touted as the best on the islands. I didnít dispute that claim, but superlatives such as "best" on these islands just seem to lose their meaning. It seemed to me that, unless you live in Fiji, the worst beach here makes the beaches back home in Los Angeles look like the Mojave Desert. Capitalizing on its location, the Resort caters to an upscale clientele, happily leaving the growing backpacking crowd to the numerous huts popping up all over the other beaches. It is a place, according to the brochure, "where reality is like a dream."

Well, I wasnít sure if I was dreaming or not when I awoke at 3 am and saw a rat scampering across the floor, but I knew I was awake when the cold shower hit my skin the next day (no hot water). The staff was not particularly helpful, either. For example, when I asked the front desk for a map of the island, they showed me a plastic laminated hotel copy that did not show the walking trails from one beach to the next, and they couldnít describe them with any accuracy. On an island where the only transport is a boat and your feet, such things become important.

That night, I joined Jurgen and Anna for a passable buffet dinner in the Resortís upscale restaurant. The restaurant offers a fixed price buffet for about $11, which was steep for what was offered, but still cheap by western standards. If not particularly well cooked, the food was a good representation of Malaysiaís cultural mix, combining more traditional Chinese dishes with spicier Malaysian fare. Ultimately, however, the effect of the cold Tiger Beer removed any complaints that I may have had.

The next day, convinced that I could get a rat and cold showers for considerably less somewhere else, I decided to go shopping for new accommodation, as well as check out the dive operators on the islands (which was, after all, the primary reason I had come). The big islandís dense tropical forests that slide down to the waterís edge are broken up by numerous beaches and bays, some of which are developed, most of which are not. There are three main population centers on the big island. Besides the Resortís private beach on the northwestern side of the island, there is Teluk Dalam, nicknamed Flora Bay, on the south, and, on the west, a series of small bays broken up by granite headlands facing the narrow channel between the islands. Other than a steep jungle path between Flora Bay and the western beaches, the only way around the island is just that, around the island.

I walked south from the Resort and passed several groups of huts and dive operators before I had to cross a small headland, half-scrambling over granite boulders and half-wading through the receding tide. I eventually arrived at Abdulís, the last group of chalets on the beach accessible by foot. I knew immediately that this was it. The way that I always thought my beach paradise would look. Two rows of simple huts with bathrooms and fans, a restaurant and electricity from 6 to 11 p.m. Unfortunately, none of the beachfront huts were available, so I settled on the only open hut, set just back from the oceanfront units. It wasnít perfect, but I was happy in the knowledge that I had scored my own little piece of paradise with an ocean view (a "peek" in real estate vernacular) from the porch while I read my book, and all for the un-princely sum of $9 per night.

I also chose to dive with Watercolours Dive Centre, a small eco-minded operation run by Anke, a German ex-pat and her Malaysian boyfriend Mike. Although they were the most expensive operation that I looked at, I negotiated a volume discount so that by the end of my stay each dive, with equipment, was only costing me $14.

I soon settled into a blissful routine and was quickly (and quite voluntarily) stricken with that affliction known as "island rot." Because of the geography of the islands, most dive shops will send their boats to pluck you off the beach in the morning, and drop you off at the end of the day. Which is how I ended up spending nearly every day of my three-week stay either plopped on a towel in front of the dive shop (actually, more like a kiosk) or rolling backwards off one of their boats into the South China Sea.

The diving was fantastic and varied, ranging from shallow reefs fringing the islands to pinnacles arising out of the sea. Diving the aptly named Temple of the Sea, or Tokong Laut, was a special treat and was like swimming in a saltwater aquarium. The sheer number and variety of fish was mind numbing, and my log book was full to brimming by the end of my stay, helped along by the congenial post-dive debrief in which all the divers gathered to share their experience and compare notes. Many times Bob, my favorite divemaster, rather than pointing out specific fish, would simply lean back in the current and hold out his hands, his gesture suggesting that his work was through there and that it just didnít get any better than this. You dive this pinnacle starting at 80 feet, completing a rotation at successively shallower depths, taking in each distinctive "micro-climate" on each pass.

Bob even took us to his so-called secret "Spot X," or Batu Kocing, a deep reef in 100 feet of water kept hidden from the local fisherman by way of a submerged mooring (although, by the presence of a lobster trap at depth, we knew it wasnít that secret after all). Which is how I found myself descending into the shark-infested water, my heart pounding under my wetsuit, expecting to be torn to pieces at any minute. Despite Bobís insistence, neither Helen nor I could see any "sharks" from the surface, but as we slowly descended, the once murky images became clearer and, indeed, it looked like we were entering a shark pit filled with at least 100 vicious maneaters. However, we soon found ourselves amid a school of cobia (also called a ling or lemon fish), a fish that looks much like a shark, especially from above, but is decidedly not a shark. That dive produced, by Bobís count, about 60 cobia, several lionfish, lobster, bamboo sharks, and a massive six-foot marbled reef ray.

In addition to taking a rescue diver course, I logged 20 memorable dives. At Terumbu Tiga, we paused at clownfish city, a small ledge literally (and liberally) covered with swaying anenomes and their protective little guests, and swam around the backside and grabbed a seat to watch the trevally swoop through thousands of baitfish looking for lunch. We also dived the Vietnamese shipwreck sitting in 70 feet of water, a World War II-era transport used by Vietnamese refugees in the 1970s. When the Malaysian government denied their entry into the islands, the occupants of the transport intentionally scuttled the vessel, forcing the Malaysians to rescue them, leaving a nice home for resident lionfish. Other great dives include Seabell Reef, with its schools of juvenile Chevron barracuda and baby sand rays, De Lagoon, a long, slow, shallow dive with turtles, and Tanjung Besi, my first post-one hour dive. My log book reveals that the regulars included titan triggerfish (mean mothers), white eyed morays, mappa puffers, scribbled filefish, bumphead parrotfish, several species of nudibranchs, black tipped reef sharks, great barracuda, blue spotted rays, blue-ringed and six-banded angelfish, cube boxfish, cleaner and slingjaw wrasses, and (my personal favorite) a juvenile emperor angelfish.

There was ample wildlife out of the water as well. I vividly remember bobbing on the surface of the water in a protected cove during my rescue course and watching the monkeys swinging from tree to tree on shore. And the evening entertainment was no less magnificent. After a sunset swim and dinner in the restaurant, my favorite activity was sitting in a plastic chair on the beach and watching the huge bats come and go from their roosts in the trees overhead while enjoying the nightly tropical lightning storm lighting up the Malaysian mainland.

The big island is not the best place to stay for a solo traveler, as the idyllic setting primarily attracts couples on holiday or honeymoon, and the low costs attract families. As a result, after a week on the big island, I needed a change of pace and decided to test the waters on the small island. Like the big island, there are few accommodation centers on the small island. Directly across the channel and visible from Abdulís is the village, where many locals live and from whose mosque you can hear the nightly prayer call in this devoutly Muslim part of Malaysia. The local hospital and school are here as well. The two main places to sleep are Coral Bay, on the far side of the island and facing the mainland, and Long Beach, the new destination of choice for backpackers seeking a party alternative to the crushing crowds of Thailandís infamous full moon parties.

I entered the fray on Long Beach and secured a room at Chempaka Chalets at $11 per night, run by the family of one of the dive instructors at Watercolours. I quickly learned that Long Beach is dirtier, louder and more expensive than the big island. It is possible to find cheaper accommodations than mine, but they do not measure up to similarly priced chalets on the big island. Long Beach also has something else lacking on the big island, as well, and that is a vibrant nightlife. Long Beach is studded with restaurants offering seating on cheap plastic chairs on the sand and virtually identical menus, but the best deal by far was the barbecue. For about $2, you can get barbecued fish or chicken, baked potato or rice, and a piece of fruit. The Tiger Beer will cost extra, but it is plentiful (and still cheaper than at the Resort across the water).

When I had announced my original intentions to stay only two or three days, the "old-timers" (that is, those that had been there a month or more), all chuckled and said theyíd see me next week. Three weeks later, we were still greeting each other a good morning. On the Perhentians, days and weeks are not measured by clocks or calendars, but by sunsets and docking cruise ships. Before you know it, a sun has set on another day, and you really canít remember how many days ago you intended to leave. And, every Tuesday, when the cruise liner from Singapore offloaded its massive human cargo to descend upon the Resortís beaches like D-Day all over again, you knew another glorious week had passed.

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