We ended up travelling with an American couple we met on Ko Mook (in south Thailand) since they
were going the same way as us. We made our way back to Trang, then to the
Malaysian border, with a night in Phattalung on the way. We walked
across the Malaysian border in mid-afternoon and the place was pretty deserted.
We encountered no problems with the notoriously difficult crossing, and are now
Here, they speak a language that is almost exactly the same as in Indonesia, so
we arrived already knowing a bunch of words. They write in the same letters as
us, rather than an indecipherable script. And the language is not tonal, which
means we can again attempt to speak a few Malaysian words and maybe be
It is a bit of a shock to arrive in a Muslim country again after several
Buddhist countries. Almost all the women here wear long clothing and head
scarves, which means I am conscious of covering up.
~ * ~
If we had to choose one place we visited to return to for a vacation, we would
choose the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia. The two islands, Besar (big) and
Kecil (small) are little slivers of jungle in clear blue seas. We arrived
before the high season was fully in gear, so there were enough people to make
an interesting community, but it wasn't too crowded. (My brother Mark tells me
that during peak season, it can be hard to find an available room!)
The beaches were clean and pretty, and the landscape was beautiful, but far and
away the best part of our stay was the snorkelling. All you have to do is put
on snorkel gear and wade into the water to enter a colorful, otherworldly
wonderland full of fish and coral. The fish were of the tropical variety you
might see in an aquarium, and came in all sizes and rainbow colors. It wasn't
unusual to swim through a school of fish.
We enjoyed it so much that we snorkelled for a few hours every day. One of the
most striking fish we saw were giant parrot fish - scary looking fish that were
almost as big as we were, who had fierce-looking, beak-like mouths. I was
afraid of them until I realized they eat only coral.
One day, we went on a snorkelling boat trip and were taken to different spots
around the islands. We
saw several sharks, mostly small ones, although I did see one as big as I was.
Another memorable experience that day was the chance to swim with a sea
turtle (in the wild). Our boat driver rode around until he spotted a turtle,
then our group jumped in and swam around behind it for five or ten minutes.
~ * ~
While we were on Perhentian Kecil, I saw a thunderstorm I'll always remember.
The flashes began during dinner. Heat lightning, the kind that doesn't strike
the ground, occasionally lit up the sky in the distance. I enjoyed it, but we
had seen the same thing the night before. This storm, however, did not
dissipate as the previous one had.
After dinner, we went for a night swim with some friends to enjoy the
phosporescence in the water. We ran our hands through the dark water, and
hundreds of tiny sparkles trailed behind as microscopic creatures were
disturbed and gave off light. Every so often, our hands and the magic sparkles
would disappear as a bolt of lightning flashed and the surface of the water
momentarily became a blinding gleam. As the storm moved closer and began
striking our island, we prudently left the water and made our way to bed. We
slowly fell asleep while our window panes were sporadically illuminated.
I awoke briefly at 2 a.m. to find the storm had not abated. At 3:30, an
especially loud clap of thunder woke me again. Surprised to find that the storm
seemed fiercer than before, I quickly donned a couple of sarongs (for bug
protection, mostly) and ventured out to watch the storm.
I sheltered on the porch of a dive shop on the beach nearby and sat to watch
the spectacle. Lightning raced through the sky every few seconds. After a
while, I was ready to declare this the best thunderstorm I had ever seen.
Regularly, the sky would open up with such a magnificent stream of brilliance
that my jaw would drop. It would only be a few moments later, as I blinked away
the after-image, that I would remember to close my mouth. The storm illuminated
the whole sky in a way I had never seen. It was like being in a dark room with
your eyes adjusted to the dark, and having someone suddenly switch on a
flourescent light. The lightning flickered in just that way, and was just as
Most of this lightning was still cloud-to-cloud, meaning the thunder was fairly
restrained. Every so often, though, a tremendous bolt would expand to the whole
height of the sky and strike something just across the water. The after image
from these radiated in my vision long after the sky-shattering thunder was
finished shaking the earth.
Eventually, my absence drew Steve from bed and he joined me on the dive shop
porch. We marvelled at the storm together for another twenty minutes or so
before it finally slowed a bit and fatigue pulled us back to bed. We fell
asleep with lightning still flickering in our windows.
~ * ~
Just before we left the Perhentians
We liked the Perhentians so much that we stayed an extra day, leaving ourselves
only two days to get across Malaysia to Kuala Lumpur (KL) and onto our flight
home. This didn't worry us since we'd been booking last-minute train tickets
our whole trip. When we got back to the mainland, though, we encountered a
hitch: it was a school holiday in Malaysia and everyone was going somewhere.
We went to the train booking office, only to be told the train was completely
full. No first, second, or third class seats available for two days. Okay. We
walked next door to a bus company office and enquired there. No dice. We tried
all four other bus companies to no avail. Slightly panicking, we headed back to
our hotel to regroup.
The nice people at the hotel's front desk called the train office again, but
got the same answer. Next, we called Malaysian Airlines, but all seats were
sold there as well, even first class. Our plane tickets out of KL had been
cheap, and were therefore completely unchangeable. We needed to get to KL. I
was considering hitching or renting a car when the hotel concierge suggested a
At first, it sounded pretty ridiculous to take a taxi four hundred miles
(roughly the distance from Seattle to the California border). But desperate as
we were, it was our best option. And it didn't turn out too expensive: with
air-conditioning, it cost $68. The driver was a nice, quiet man who left us
alone during the ride and stopped at opportune times for breaks. We rewarded
him with the last few packs of cigarettes we had been carrying.
Seven hours later, we arrived in KL at one o'clock in the morning. The area
near the "Golden Triangle," where we stayed, was very glitzy. Some streets had
twinkly lights strung across the road from one end to the other, making for a
sparkly blanket of light and color suspended in air. As far as we could tell, it
was a year-round decoration and not just for a holiday.
We spent the next day wandering around the city and its many malls. We
marvelled at the Petronas Towers (the tallest buildings in the world) and saw a
movie in the mall underneath. Since it was the last night of our trip, we
treated ourselves to a fancy dinner in the KL tower, a structure along the
lines of the Space Needle, but much higher. The city revolved below us as we
enjoyed a pan-Asian buffet.
After dinner, we picked up our bags and grabbed a few hours of sleep in an
airport hotel before beginning our 26-hour marathon trip home. We had spent
only eight nights in Malaysia because we hadn't expected it to be so beautiful
and interesting. In retrospect, we would have stayed two or three times as