After getting married in September 2010 we decided to do the opposite of settling down; so we packed up our life, stuffed it in our parent's attic and hit the road for what is essentially an extended honeymoon! We started our trip on 29th December 2010 spending 4 months travelling overland through Europe, Russia and Mongolia to China. After many a train and bus journey we caved-in and flew from Western China to Malaysia, and worked our way north to Thailand and Cambodia. The time came for us to replenish our bank accounts, so we headed to Western Australia for work in July 2011 and lived in Fremantle until February 2012. After a couple of months back home seeing our families and friends, we headed back down-under. This time we headed for New Zealand and we are currently living in Wellington. Our blog started as part of an elaborate wedding present from two of our very good friends. The idea was that on our trip we should blog from every country we visit, detailing the sights, sounds and smells and most importantly, the beer. We have certainly had fun writing it - but moreso, living it!

Friday, 17 June 2011

Kota Bahru & Pulau Perhentian (6th - 18th May)

Charlotte rocking the diver look.

To travel from Pengang to the Perhentian Islands the easiest way to go was via Kota Bharu. We only had a late afternoon and evening there, but managed to visit a 'Thai festival' (a few stalls selling bits and bobs, and some awesome Power Tea - amazing Thai ice tea which I'm sure we will discuss at length in the Thailand blog!) and the recommended night market which had so many rats and so little atmosphere we ended up cutting our losses and going to Pizza Hut.

The following morning we took a minibus to the tourist port of Kuala Besut, stopping for far too long on the way to pick some other people up from the airport. The driver then proceeded to drive the rest of the journey like a madman possessed who had watched too much Dukes Of Hazard, flying over potholes and bumps in the road. After our white knuckle ride we got to the port and went to the resorts mainland 'office' (a local families house with a shop out the front) and were shown to the pier by a frankly very rude lady (the joke was on her though, as in her rush to get us on the boat and out of her sight she forgot to make us pay!). Skipping across the still blue ocean in a 15 person speed boat for about half an hour we arrived at the smaller island (Perhentian Kecil) and started dropping other passengers off at various resorts, the sea so clear and turqouise it was as if your brain was photoshopping your vision. The resorts were a little overcrowded though, with lots of wooden huts and concrete hotels (although nowhere near the scale you would expect on some Thai islands) built right out onto the beach. After stopping off at various bays and having our fingers crossed that it wasn't where we were staying, we were the last people on the boat and we finally rounded into what looked like a deserted jungle-backed bay on Perhentian Besar, the larger of the two islands, wondering why we appeared to be heading inland. As we came closer it became apparent that the resort had just made an effort to be discreet and not build directly on the beach, and so the resort itself was just behind the trees. We were welcomed to Bubbles Resort by a friendly English girl and an Australian kid and checked in and were shown to our rooms. The resort itself was no frills, just simple concrete bungalows set back in a cluster from the beach. The rooms were nice enough and clean, although we took the cheapest option and baked ourselves for the duration of our stay in the fan only rooms. The first day we spent on the beach, deserted as the resort had it all to themselves and there were only a handful of guests staying. It was a very hot day and despite suncream and efforts to stay in the shade of the beach, we were both lobster red by dinner. The staff had a good laugh at us and our sterotypical Brits abroad look! The next day we took a snorkelling tour by boat around a couple of different reefs, saw lots of shoals of colourful fish and a couple of huge turtles. At the end we were taken to a freshwater creek to cool off and rinse off the salt water. Charlotte managed to burn her back despite wearing a t-shirt, when floating around snorkelling her t-shirt had ridden up, bad luck!

We decided to do a 'Discover Scuba' day course and were taken out by the resort's friendly South African Dive Instructor, Chris. We liked it so much we decided to carry on and get our PADI Open Water qualification, a course to learn the basics and technically allow you to dive without supervision up to 18m, although we won't be doing that anytime soon! But it will mean we can go on dive trips with Dive Masters to show us the sights at any Dive resort in the world. There were some patronising and tedious videos to watch (PADI is an American organisation - 'nuff said!) and some quizzes to fill in, but it was mostly logical common sense. We did 4 dives and some skills practise in the shallow water at the beach. There are a couple of 'house reefs' at the resort, so all we had to do was wade out from the resort to dive. We also did a couple of boat dives where they took us out to two different reefs (Gadom & Tiger Reef) and we jumped in and dove down to some beautiful reefs and saw some interesting creatures (including big bumphead parrot fish, boxfish, angel fish, batfish, stingrays and another whopper turtle). We passed the final quiz and Chris was happy with our skills so we were issued with our temporary PADI ID cards. Whoop!

The rest of our 5 day stay at Bubbles was spent relaxing the hammocks in the shade of the trees by beach, snorkelling on the house reef at the beach (saw a Black-tip Reef Shark!), swimming and kayaking in the sea and eating in the canteen. The food was OK but nothing spectacular, it all has to be imported from the mainland so it is fairly expensive and it was canteen style food cooked up by some non-Malaysian guys so not exactly authentic cuisine! But it did the trick, and I even enjoyed some tasty, locally caught, breaded fish and chips on a couple of occasions. Beer in Malaysia is very expensive so we only treated ourselves to a can each on one occassion, because of the high tax on alcohol in Malaysia (as it's a Muslim country) and the fact the beer was shipped in from the mainland. The price is just over £2 for a small can, so you easily bankrupt yourselves at those prices. Also the fact was that the cost of two beers would have upgraded us to an air-con room, so we held onto our precious Ringgits (Malaysian currency). The resort also operates a turtle conservation project, which originally we had thought about doing, but in the end the dates didn't work out and it was a little too expensive (we actually spent a little less as paying guests in total than in would have cost to volunteer!), The guy running the volunteering gave us a little talk about the turtles and how their nesting is being disturbed by tourism (especially resort building on the beach, and too many lights, which is why they had taken a more subtle approach). He took us out one night to see a couple of pretty huge turtles (a good metre in length), digging holes in the sand to lay eggs. Underwater they are quite graceful but on land they are very slow and cumbersome as you can imagine, dragging themselves across the sand, before quite energetically scooping the sand out with their flippers. A truly amazing sight. The volunteers also keep the turtles tracks hidden to stop poachers digging up the eggs for sale, apparently they are considering to have health-giving properties. The turtles don't breed until they are on average around 25 years old and many of them die before reaching maturity, so their existence really is in the balance in places such as the Perhentian Islands.

We had also planned to visit the smaller island, Perhentian Kecil and so headed off by boat to a resort we had booked by email a few weeks previously. Chris (dive instructor) kindly came with us to make sure we got there and that the boat guy knew where to pick us up from (our final dive had been called off because of bad weather so we were doing it the next day). We turned up at the resort to find that our reservation had been cancelled, because Paypal had held the deposit payment. The lady explained that she had emailed Paypal (but inexplicably not me, despite me having had booked via email!) and my account had been suspended. I had known this but hadn't worried, as I had received the email the day after I had transferred the deposit, and had an email receipt confirming my payment. Paypal wanted all sorts of bank details that I didn't have on me to unlock my account so I had left it. Now we were stood on the beach, watching our boat disappear back to Bubbles wondering what to do! Another resort we had been originally booked into but had been cancelled due to crossed wires and then told they were full (lesson learnt: don't book accommodation in the Perhentians by email!) was only a 15 minute walk away so we decided to dump our bags and go and see if they had any free rooms. Thankfully they did and we came back and collected our bags, and tramped through the hot and humid jungle (admittedly the paved path made it a lot easier!) further up the coast and checked into our wooden hut on stilts, a stones throw from the beach. It was located in a small, picturesque bay with a beautiful beach and great swimming, with a collection of wooden huts just back from the beach. The accommodation itself was basic to say the least, but what more does one need in paradise other than a bed, mosquito net, fan and a toilet? It wasn't particularly clean but we wouldn't be spending much time in the room. We also had a little balcony with a hammock and table and chairs, the perfect spot to chill and out and read, with a lovely view of the beach and out to sea. The people working there were a crazy couple of guys, a young guy with a pet otter (very cute, it even followed us all the way to the next bay when we were collecting ours bags) and an older bloke who liked to sing and exclaim 'OH MY GOD!' a lot. They both made for some light entertainment most days! Although with only 2 staff, great patience was needed in the restaurant if there were a few other guests in there, one day I had to wait an hour for a cheese sandwich! We soon discovered that the resort we had supposed to have been staying at had a very good restaurant with good food and a nice atmosphere so we tramped on over there a few nights for dinner. Each day they did a special dish and we enjoyed some great locally caugh Snapper fish in Thai curry sauce, and a delicious Chicken Korma on our last night. Their generator had given out so one evening they closed their kitchen early, although very kindly whipped us up some sandwiches as we had walked all that way in the dark. But it made the restaurant even more atmospheric eating by the sea by candlelight.

We would have loved to have stayed on the Perhentians longer and chilled out in the sun reading and swimming, but we dragged ourselves out of the hammock as we were due to arrive in Thailand at our volunteer project. We got the boat back to Kuala Besut and waved goodbye to Perhentians. Truly paradise!

We ended up spending another night in Kota Bahru after returning from the Perhentians and enjoyed it much more this time around. We asked the hostel guy where we could get a beer (it being a Muslim province most restaurants and shops don't sell beer - only the Chinese restaurants) and he jumped at the chance of showing us to a place nearby. Because he is of Muslim origin (although non-practising) it is frowned up for him to drink in public, but apparently it's acceptable if he is with foreigners. He still got some funny looks from the Chinese patrons though. He seemed to enjoy meeting travellers and questioning them on their philosophy on life. He took us back to the rat-infested night market but this time it was surprisingly rat-free and there were a fair few more people milling around. We bumped into a German guy who was staying at the hostel, who had also bumped into an American guy he had met at some other point in Malaysia (even when travelling to far off destinations, the world can still seem small!) and we got some amazing tasty treats. Grilled chicken, blue rice with curried anchovies, really great food. It changed our perception of Kota Bahru a lot. I had a chat to the German guy about beer (he was a Bavarian) and despite being un-stereotypically slight for a Bavarian he really loved his food and beer, and was waxing lyrical about the grilled chicken and bakery products he had bought (made me chuckle as he sounded a lot like Uter the sterotypical German boy in the Simpsons). The American was from Gainsville, Florida so I chatted to him about The Fest which is punk rock festival there I have also wanted to go to. The night ended with a failed attempt at watching Shutter Island on the hostel TV (dodgy pirate copy, it skipped so much we watched the 'entire film' in 40 minutes!) and we hit the hay in preparation for our journey across the border to Thailand.

Perhentian Islands & Kota Bharu, Malaysia

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