Lonely Planet calls Pulau Perhentian Besar, the island on which I’ve spent the past two days, a real-life “Fantasy Island,” but I would have to disagree. At least this late in the season, with most of the facilities on the island scheduled to close in two weeks until March, and the beginnings of the monsoon already upon it–with incredible storms both nights I was there from 7pm until late at night–there wasn’t much of a crazy party scene going down. The island is beautiful, though: the surrounding water of the South China Sea a deep turquoise, spotted with purple splotches were the coral lies below the surface, the coconut palms abundant, the buildings the most rustic I’ve experienced on an island vacation but perfect for the setting.
Once I took a taxi from the Kota Bharu airport to the jetty at Tok Bali and caught the fast ferry across to the island, I went for a quick sunset swim and met up with my friend A., her boyfriend J., and his friend J.U. We ate at my hotel: hot and flaky roti canai (similar to the parathas of Singapore’s Little India), fish pineapple curry, which was terrific–the kingfish freshly hooked, the pineapples super-sweet, and the curry itself perfectly spicy–for dessert a fried banana with honey, and all accompanied by what would prove the first of many glasses of orange-pineapple juice. (Since it’s in a heavily Muslim region, the island isn’t exactly a bastion of alcoholic reverie…this late in the season, only one bar-restaurant even had any beer left in stock, Tiger and Chang. I had Tiger, it was just as A.F. had described it, “like Heineken but less bitter.”) After dinner we played poker and then made it an early night. They headed back to their overpriced resort, while I tucked myself in to a small bed under a ceiling overhung with lizards (that’s a good thing, since they eat the things that are bad) at Paradise, my cheap island hostel.
The next morning, I made a startling discovery. I thought I had been snorkeling before (once, with turtles and a family friend in Barbados), but that was nothing compared to this. I floated above thousands of fish feeding from the small coral reefs just offshore in the bay for almost an hour before lunch, entranced by the beautiful colors and patterns of their bodies and overwhelmed by my entrance into this entirely new world. It inspired me to inquire about diving certification at the dive shop, but I wasn’t going to have enough time on the island to finish the course–it will have to wait for another vacation, perhaps to Thailand.
Still, snorkeling satisfied me for the rest of the day, after a lunch of local noodles–kue tiau goreng, which were thin and broad and mixed with chicken, egg, and cabbage and other good vegetables. With my friends, I swam across the entire bay twice, the first time to reach the cove with all the terrific fish I’d observed that morning, the second to backtrack to where one of them had earlier spotted a giant sea turtle. It was a successful mission, and I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was hovering for almost fifteen minutes right above this tremendous sea turtle. It was at least eight feet across, and below its giant flippers it actually sheltered two small sharks, a purple one and a yellow one. I tried the entire time to untangle the complicated relationship that was clearly at work, but I’m still not sure whether they were protecting or hurting the turtle, whether their interactions were symbiotic or antagonistic. I guess I should look it up somewhere.
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