“I’m headed to the jetty if you need a ride.”
[What jetty?] “Sure.”
“Great. Throw your luggage in the trunk.”
If you stumbled off a plane at 7am — alone, sleep deprived, hungry, in an unfamiliar airport, in a town you knew nothing about — you would probably take a ride with a middle-aged woman to a jetty too…
She was a blonde Canadian, my mother’s age. She was missing a molar. The void it left behind peeked out from the right corner of her mouth. She wore a long bright yellow and orange Malaysian dress, offset by a deep teal silk scarf that covered her shoulders. She taught English in a village one hour outside of Kota Bharu, and if the taxi driver didn’t hurry she would be late for her first class. She had travelled the world on her own. She made sure to tell me all about it — and by the time we got to the jetty I wanted to be a like her a little bit.
Anyone who has travelled alone understands the differences from touring with a partner. A fellow traveller can be an anchor and the social scaffolding for an adventure. But, for this trip, I decided to explore Malaysia unanchored and without much of a framework for company.
The pair of Perhentian Islands is the pearl of the oyster that is Malaysia. And, apparently in January this proverbial shellfish is closed tight, as are the islands’ businesses due to the rainy season. Had it not been for my Canadian fairy godmother, I never would have ventured to the jetty, and then naturally onto a boat. It sped for 45 minutes toward Kici — the smaller of the two islands.
The boat periodically launched itself over swells of seawater. Airborne, I gasped as it landed on what could have been concrete.
Here on the Island
Then the island appeared on the horizon. It grew quickly until it was a fully developed mass of paradise. It consists of a jungle sandwiched between two miraculous strips of sand — one on the east and one on the west. These twin coastlines are connected to each other by a narrow brick path that navigates from one end of the jungle to the other. The western beach is dotted with bungalows and has a white and blue luxury resort on the northern edge. The eastern beach has better water for swimming, but its bungalows were still closed for the winter.
After we disembarked, I wandered from the boat into a shady patch of trees. Six newly built bungalows were lined up like soldiers in blue and yellow uniforms, standing empty. I picked the first one, paid a woman who was feeding an infant, and went to my bed where I fell asleep immediately.
I lived a hermitic existence that day, most of which was spent reading in my bungalow, and swimming on a closed beach. I tried meditating. The fish was delicious and the sunset was beautiful. Perhaps travelling solo — anchorless allows us to be more aware of what we are looking for, and also what we are looking at.
The Perhentian Islands are off the east coast of West Malaysia. They can be reached by flying to Kuala Lumpur then either taking a bus or an Air Asia / Air Malaysia flight to Kota Bharu. Boats to the islands leave from Kuala Besut jetty and cost from RM40 (VND275,000) return.