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Paradise in the Perhentians

I’m in paradise. Clichéd? Yes, but this is the stuff clichés are made from. As we approach the Perhentian Islands on a noisy chug-boat, the water visibly changes from a dark murky dirty olive to blues, then turquoise, and finally bright green. It’s so clear, when we’re transferred from the big boat to the little water taxi, I feel like we’re getting on a toy boat floating in a bathtub filled with green inked water. I’m glad we’ve been upgraded to the little water taxi because for an hour we’ve been on the big boat, dropping groups of people off at various beaches on the island.

The Perhentian are basically comprised of 2 islands, Kecil (small) and Besar (big), for obvious reasons. The boat we are on drops off groups of people at various resorts dotted around the island’s beaches, and we have to wait our turn simply because there’s no way of traveling between beaches except by water taxis. When I say undeveloped, I mean undeveloped. The interior of the islands are untouched and the various beaches are completely unconnected except by thick, wild jungle. At night, you negotiate price with the motor boat to take you to Kecil where all the parties happen. You tell him to come back at a specific time to pick you up. If he doesn’t, you sleep on the beach.

We spend the night at Tuna Bay Resort, a lovely maintained resort on the upper end of the price scale. The first thing we do is go for a little swim, with our snorkels, and the coral there is exquisite. We enjoy a nice meal later, in the open-air restaurant facing the beach. Next to us, a chef barbecues fresh seafood and steak (which for some reason we can’t order because no one told us about requesting the ‘buffet’). We decide to stay in tonight instead of venturing over to the ‘party’ island next door, settling instead for chocolate sundaes at the resort bar, watching the Discovery Channel. Disappointment sets in slightly, as we think about all the fun we’re missing on the next island.

Next morning, up early to find accommodation for the rest of the trip. Tuna Bay is kicking us out and we spend the entire morning trudging under the intensely excruciatingly hot August sun going from resort to resort looking for a room. We try Kecil first, thinking it would be fun living on Long Beach, where all the parties go on. But it turns out to even more packed than Besar. At points we bump into fellow travelers looking for rooms, and we get all down and dirty running to each resort ahead of the other groups so we can get there first.

We give up on Long Beach, and feeling dejected, we decide to try our luck on a less popular beach called Flora Bay, where we’re informed there are rooms available. Unfortunately, this beach is twice the distance from Long Beach which ruins our hopes for beach parties even further. The first resort turns out to be a grotty little hole with no air-conditioning nor mosquito repellant. We tell the guy we’ll take it, but I go off on a ‘walk’ to scope out the rest of the beach, and lo and behold! I find an air conditioned room. We tell the dude at the resort that we prefer air conditioning and he, being a good-natured sort, shrugs it off.

Flora Bay, however, turns out to be brilliant. It has a lovely restaurant with a 1001 choices at dirt cheap prices. I’m not sure why, but it has every single western dish you can think off, perfect for the homesick, all prepared to home-cooked goodness. There is a diving school attached to it, and we sign up for a snorkeling trip the next morning.

Here I’d like to point out that I have never been in water any deeper than 2 metres. I silently hyperventilate on the boat the next morning, and as it takes 12 of us to the other side of the island where the coral is meant to be amazing. We arrive at the spot, where it turns out there are 2 other boats packed with people, which makes it about 40 people in the water at the same time. I figure, if any shark is intending on grabbing a couple of legs, the chances of them being mine are slim. I put on my snorkels and jump. So far, so good. Then I dip my head into the water. And I scream. Except it kind of comes out like this muffled warble, like, ‘aaaawwfff!!’. I am in shock. The seabed is well, majestic. It’s a totally different world, thousands of little fish darting about everywhere, the coral is humongous, and everywhere, and everything just seems to be going by in slow motion. It’s beautiful, and I’m transfixed. I watch as fish start to gather around my legs because I’ve been so still. I quickly jerk my body and they scatter as fast as they arrived. I’m amazed at how serene and flat the sea looks from land yet underneath there’s so much colour, movement, variety. It’s art.

After about 30 minutes, we get back on the boat and head to our next spot. This time the aim is to see turtles. But something nasty happens. As I sink my body into the water, something starts stinging me all over! I look into the water to find the culprit, but there’s nothing there! Upon a group conference, it turns out the place is swarming with sea-lice. Not too pleased, I get back on the boat and wait. Bad decision. I realize that the size of the boat, combined with the rocky conditions of the sea, has made me seasick. In fact, I notice half the boat going a bit green. One girl throws up over the side. We are not a happy crew.

We head to our last destination. Shark point. The boys quiver with excitement. I feel slightly apprehensive. I said I’d go into deep water, no one said anything about visiting sharks! But I go down anyway, and the seabed is even more amazing this time. I yelp with excitement when I see a school of squid ramble on by. I watch in wide eyed awe as a massive lion fish glides on, oblivious of us humans. Imagine a guppy, times a thousand. It is truly magnificent. Everyone else is darting about looking for sharks but I stay close to the boat. Our guide suddenly points to something and I realize with a mixture of shock and delight, that it’s a little baby shark. It disappears as quickly as it came, but I realize I wasn’t as fascinated as I was by the lion fish. Nevertheless, I get on the boat and gloat to all about being the only one who spotted the shark.

We konk out for the rest of the afternoon but just before sunset I come up with a brilliant idea of going out to sea in a kayak and watching the sun set over the island. I thought it would be romantic. As we’re paying for the kayak, the guy tells us it may not be such a good idea at this time since the tide is going out. I tell him my brilliant sunset plan and he concedes, just telling us to make sure we return through the boat channel, where the coral has been cleared away. He warns us that otherwise we’ll get stuck over the coral and be unable to pedal back. We set out slowly, enjoying the sound of the pedal swishing through the water. We go further and further until the sea bed disappears and we’re surrounded by nothing but water. We steer our boat to face the island and wait. It’s deadly quiet, so we strike up a conversation. I notice a huge grey cloud forming above the island and comment on what a beautiful emerald green the water has turned because of it. My mate silently thinks, oh shit. She doesn’t say anything, but suggests we head back. I don’t want to, but decide not to argue back. As we’re pedaling back, out of nowhere, a huge gust of wind blows at us, and the kayak starts moving in the wrong direction. Pedaling becomes useless. The ground swells up at me like acne on a seabed. The coral here isn’t colourful, its grey and sinister looking. Paradise darkens.

My heart jumps to my throat and I start to freak out. If we don’t head to the boat channel we could get stuck over the coral. I start shouting at my mate in a blind panic, and she forces me to calm down, instructing me to pedal left, than right, at the same time as him. I repeat after her in a daze, “left..right..left..right” pedaling with all my strength. We manage to make it to the boat channel eventually, and when we reach shore, as much as I’d like to claim I fell down onto the sand and kissed the ground in relief, I don’t, but I am, nevertheless, very shaken. We return the kayak and head to the diving school’s shelter, where the instructor tells us that ten more minutes and the wind could’ve turned our kayak over or pushed us towards the rocks. We believe him when a storm unleashes on the island and we sit there and watch the lightning light up the entire sea every time it strikes. I watch quietly and listen to the instructor, Harry telling us why he came to the Perhentians 3 years ago and has never been able to leave. The sheer simplicity of the sea’s power and the magical world it hides under the surface makes me understand why.

We spend the evening sitting at a barbecue held on the beach by the dive school for its new graduates. We watch as they celebrate by drinking non-stop shots through a snorkel. They call this a rite of passage. I call it torture! We watch underwater videos of the 20-odd students completing their diving course, fooling about on the sea bed. I regret not being able to take diving instruction this time but I do make a promise to return here someday. I leave the party and head to the restaurant which at 10 p.m. is lit up by dim lamps, and some of the resort’s more long-term guests sit and watch football on TV. I chat to a young American girl who’s been here for 3 months now. It all feels so close-knit and I realise the family who own this resort have embraced their guests as part of the family. A part of me wishes I could stay on too, but I realise that once one makes that decision, it becomes impossible to leave or let go, like a drug. Life is simple, and earning money as a diving instructor brings on no dead-ends, as there’s no end to the beauty of the sea. Funnily enough, it strikes me that the whole time we’ve been here, we haven’t considered even once joining the parties on Long Beach, let alone moping over it!

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