Sunday, May 2, 2010

20. To the islands

Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia
When I booked my flight with Malaysia Airlines from Auckland to Delhi return, I was told there would be a stopover in Kuala Lumpur. Perfect, I thought. I figured I would need a few days on a beach with lots of sun and good eating to recover from my month in the mountains of India. I could extend my stopover on my way home by a few days and head to an island somewhere in either Malaysia or Thailand.
When I first came to Malaysia in 2002, one place I didn’t go due to the monsoon season was a word of mouth destination my travelling buddy Steve had recommended – the Perhentian Islands. So I hit ol’ Steve up on the ol’ email to ask him what he thought:
Hi Steve, long time no hear. 
I’m off to India for a month on Friday, my first time there.
On the way back I’m stopping over in Malaysia, and I decided to stick around there for a few days. I remember back in the day when we were in Thailand you told me about the Perhentian Islands in Malaysia – sounded nice, worth a visit? I decided to extend my stay in Malaysia to 5 days based solely on a hazy recommendation from you to visit those islands!
Refresh my memory – what’s your opinion on the Perhentian Islands? Hmm, maybe I’ll just catch a cheap flight up to Phuket and go hang out at Koh Phi Phi in Thailand.
Hasta luego, Matt
And Steve’s response:
hey matt! good to hear from you!
the perhentian island are well worth a visit. possibly the most beautiful place i went in malaysia. we went snorkling and swam with giant turtles, sharks, and all kind of wonderful sealife you could think of. no need to scuba dive there. the waters are shallow and crystal clear! there were loads of small, uninhabited beaches to get away from it all too. maybe different nowadays, although it is a national park cos of the turtle breeding beaches, but you never know. the locals are muslim, so yeah the rule is no alcohol. however when i was there the locals drank more than the tourists! once their off the mainland they change the traditional muslim garb for beachwear and drink for their lives! that said, i have heard rumours that the police had cleaned the place up (not that it was that messy for a westerner, just the religious police). when i was there the police used to come every now and again and urine test the locals for drugs and alcohol.
they sell hard alcohol by the bottle, but its pricy. you're best visiting a chinese shop on the mainland to stock up before you go. the booze isn't on show in the chinese stores, but if you ask for it they have it in the back out of sight. respect for the local religion, etc. all in all, if it were me going back i'd deffo choose these islands over thailand any day!
All right, so with Steve’s recommendation confirmed I booked an Air Asia flight from Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bahru. From the Kota Bahru airport it was a 70 ringgit (NZ$30) 1 hour taxi ride to the town of Kuala Bessut, and from there a 35 ringgit speedboat ride to the islands.
malaysia map
There we are, right at the top of Malaysia on the east coast. Very close to Thailand.
The speedboat ride was probably the fastest I’ve been on the water. The young guys who drive them sometimes let the testosterone get to their heads and start racing each other. Listen to the 2 x 200Hp V6 engines scream:
Let me quickly insert here that my month in India wasn’t as difficult as I’d expected. After all, I didn’t do that much travelling around and I was lucky enough to stay in family homes with Bruce for most of it. Sure, the last few days getting to Agra to see the Taj had been rough and I’m glad I didn’t spend my entire month travelling around like that. I’d lost a little bit of weight due to the constant diarrhoea one expects in India (I probably had the shits for about half my trip) but I was feeling pretty good and already had a suntan going on.
But I already had the trip booked in and I was looking forward to hitting the beach before going back to the start of NZ’s winter. I stayed at Long Beach on Perhentian Kecil Island, which was rumoured to be the party beach. On arrival it was just what the doctor ordered:
Perhentian - 06 -
White sand, crystal clear water, temperature about 32°C. If anything the water was too warm, so warm that you’d never cool off. But that’s just being picky! It was lovely. The surf on that first day was completely flat and I assumed every day would be the same.
That night I went out and got talking with an English barman – quite a lot of Westerners work on the island for a season as waitresses or dive instructors – and he told me that that night (Saturday) was a big party and that quite a lot of Malaysians from KL had come over just for that night. I was keen to stay out but was too tired from all the travelling.
Perhentian - 07 -
The islands are in a marine reserve so fishing etc is banned, as is new building which has kept development low. There’s no power to the island – each hotel runs its own generator, usually only at night. So sleeping in gets hard when the power cuts out at 7am – no power means no fan so the bungalow gets damn hot by about 8am.
Accommodation is expensive by SE Asian standards – 45 ringgit (US$15) for a tiny bungalow with bed, mosquito net, fan and power 12 hours a day. I’m not sure what the going rate in Thailand is these days, but I’d expect it to be around US$5 for something similar.
Perhentian - 08 -
Bungle in the jungle

Well that night a storm blew up and it was cloudy and windy and the sea totally rough the next day. Completely different from the previous day. Local surfers were out catching waves.
Perhentian - 02 - Surf
The next day was even worse – it rained non-stop til about 3 in the afternoon. I didn’t mind too much though, since it was cool so I slept in til after lunch.
Perhentian - 01 - Rain


By the fourth day the weather had cleared up enough that we could go on a snorkelling trip. A boat takes you around various snorkelling spots and everything about it was great. Good masks, warm water so you never want to get out, and lots to see. First stop was shark point where we saw a whole bunch of reef sharks from 1m-2m in length. I dived down to try and swim with them but they’re quite fast moving. That was the first time I’d seen a shark in the water.
An Indian guy I met, Nikhal, later told me a great story about his snorkelling trip. The guide took a piece of bread down which he’d hold in his hand and small fish would swarm. He’d catch one of them and swiftly snap it in two. Then he’d dangle it in front of the sharks. The sharks would circle around and around them waiting for the fish. The guide seemed to know what he was doing though and would act aggressive enough to keep the sharks at bay.
Next stop was turtle bay, and our boat circled around until the driver spotted a turtle. We found a huge one – more than a metre long and a metre wide. I dove down underneath him and saw him swimming along with a couple of cleaner fish clinging to his belly. He even did a poop in front of us.
Perhentian - 03 - Lena Anna Lou Charlie Emilie Anna Antony
After that we went to like 3 more spots. At one of them there were heaps and heaps of tropical fish like you’d see in an aquarium, which were going nuts swarming us looking for bread. I got bitten like 4 times with little nibbles which were fine when you’d seem them nibble your fingers, but it was rather alarming when you’d suddenly feel a bite on your back which you didn’t see coming!
Of course the coral formations were amazing too. Charlie, one of the guys on our trip was a really good swimmer and I’d follow him when I could. My lungs weren’t as strong as his and I couldn’t equalise very well though so my ears would get sore with the pressure. But because of the relaxing temperature of the warm water I could stay under longer than I can in the cold water of NZ. At one point Charlie swam down and found a bunch of clownfish (aka Nemo) nestling in anemones. I dove down and joined him, and they’re very docile – you could easily coax them into the palm of your hand.
It was so far the best snorkelling I’ve experienced, and great value too at 40 ringgit (US$12) for the entire trip, including gear.
Perhentian - 04 - Antony Anna Emilie Matt Charlie Lena Lou


There’s quite a good party scene on the island too, although it’s more restrained than the islands of Thailand - no Full Moon bucket parties then. Mostly because alcohol is so comparatively expensive in Malaysia. A small can of beer was 10 ringgit. Hip flasks of spirits were available for around 20 ringgit. The local drink of choice was “Orang Utan”, aka Monkey Juice. At only 25% alcohol it goes down quite nicely straight from the bottle, or on the rocks.
Perhentian - 18 - Monkey juice
We had some great nights partying on the island. I met up with some Chileans and some Spanish guys and got to practice my Spanish again. After a night on the piss with them I woke up the next morning dreaming and thinking in Spanish. The Chileans moved on but the Spaniards stuck around so I hung out with them a fair bit.
After the snorkelling trip I got my “baby guitar” (as Coco from Madrid called it) out and Charlie had his guitar out and along with the four Swedish girls from the snorkelling we had some great singalongs. As well as some great old school metal jams. Man, this one Spanish guy, Javier, absolutely shredded. We played One by Metallica from beginning to end, with me doing rhythm on the baby guitar and him cranking out the solos note for note. Likewise for Fade to Black.

That’s all folks

So that was it. I was sad to leave the island after five fun days and nights and having made a few friends. It was a fitting end to what has been an awesome, memorable trip.
Hope you enjoyed reading about it
2 May 2010
 Sunset on the Perhentian Islands

Saturday, May 1, 2010

19. The Taj Mahal

Agra, India

Many of you probably already know the story of the Taj Mahal. Back in the 1600s, emperor Shah Jahan’s 3rd wife Mumtaz Mahal died while giving birth to their 14th child. So grief stricken was he that his hair was said to have turned white almost overnight. He commissioned the best architects and craftsmen in the land to work on her mausoleum. The result is one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.

What many of you may not know is that as construction of the Taj dragged on and its costs spiralled upwards, Shah Jahan’s son Aurangzeb overthrew him, so Shah Jahan spent the last 8 years of his life under house arrest, looking out the window at his monument to his love for his dead wife. Which is why it’s known as “a monument to love”.

From that first glimpse of it from my hotel I was amazed. Everyone knows what the Taj looks like, it’s one of the world’s icons like the pyramids in Egypt. So it was cool to be seeing it with my own eyes.

Taj Mahal - 04
The 4 entrance gates to the Taj are impressive buildings themselves. This is the south gate. 

Bhang bhang

My plan for that first afternoon was to find a hotel (check), find a rooftop restaurant (check), find a bhang lassi, and with my lassi enjoy the sunset over the Taj Mahal.

A lassi is yogurty milkshake available in a variety of fruit flavours, mango, banana, etc. A bhang lassi is a lassi which contains bhang, which you might know by its more common name of marijuana. Back in the 60s when the hippies started coming to India, bhang lassis were the cocktail du jour, but I’d never had one and never seen them on the menu. But I’d heard you could still get them at the cafes in Agra near the Taj Mahal.

My lassi quest was cut short though, when a money changer told me that the Taj Mahal was closed on Friday, the next day. I couldn’t believe that the taxi driver and the hotel staff hadn’t told me that already, since I’d told them all I was planning on visiting the Taj the next day.

It was already 4pm so I headed straight to the Taj Mahal complex to get inside. There were hundreds of Indians queuing up to get through the usual security checks – metal detectors and vigorous pat-downs.

Once inside the place was crawling – mostly with Indian tourists.

Taj Mahal - 06

Still, the complex itself is huge so it’s easy to find some space and even a quiet patch of grass to relax on and enjoy the scene. I spent a couple of hours there, mostly staring at the Taj Mahal and admiring its details and its symmetry.

Taj Mahal - 10

I stayed there until sunset and watched the Taj change colour from white to yellow to gray.

Taj Mahal - 25

Taj Mahal - 20
The long queue to go inside the Taj Mahal

I joined the crazy long queue to go inside the Taj itself, but inside there’s not much to see. It’s really dark inside and in the center is Mumtaz’s cenotaph.

Taj Mahal - 16

Taj Mahal - 17
The west gate 

One funny thing about the Indian tourists is that they all line up for a photo but no one smiles. My friend Barnaby wrote an article about this. His hypothesis was that Indians keep it real. I dunno. They seemed to be having a good time at the Taj, but the smiles would erase and they’d look extremely bored when they’d pose for a photo.

Taj Mahal - 18
C’mon, smile! You’re at the freakin’ Taj Mahal!

I really enjoyed my visit to the Taj. Despite being crowded I still found it peaceful. The hassles from vendors selling crap souvenirs outside the gates melt away when you’re inside. I love how symmetrical the design is, and marvelled at the attention to detail and the amount of work that went into it 400 years ago.

Bhang on

I left the Taj and walked back towards my hotel. Along the way a waiter beckoned me into his restaurant, and I asked him if he had any special lassis. “Sure my friend, of course, anything is possible ha ha”. And there they were on the menu, “Special Lassi”. When I sat down and ordered one, the waiter made sure I knew what I was getting - “You want a bhang lassi?”. It took an eternity to arrive, and I downed it and knew that it would probably take an hour or two to kick in. Well about 3 hours later I felt a slight twinge, but that might have been the beer I was drinking or the sleep deprivation of the previous night. By now it was about 10pm and I fell asleep anyway. Verdict: a dud. So next time I’ll have to ask for an extra strong special lassi.

Agra Fort

The next day I went to Agra Fort, which was the palace of Emperor Shah Jahan while he reigned (and his father previously). My favourite part was the fountain around which the ladies of his 300 strong harem would bathe - “topless concubine ladies” as my guide put it. Adjoining that was the royal bedroom, naturally.

Agra Fort - 01

Agra Fort - 04
The royal bedroom
Agra Fort - 03
Translucent marble glowing yellow

After Shah Jahan was overthrown by his own son, he was kept under house arrest in another part of the palace, from where he could mournfully see the Taj Mahal 2km away. Presumably it wasn’t as smoggy back then.

Agra Fort - 10

Back to Delhi

I needed to be back in Delhi by about 6pm to catch a 9pm flight. Unfortunately there were no AC buses and the trains didn’t leave til 4 or 5pm so I wouldn’t make my flight on time.

I also didn’t have 2000 rupees to spend on a taxi, as I had a little bit of rupees left but I didn’t want to change another US$100 bill because that would leave me with way too many rupees and it’s not easy to change them back.

So a travel agent had a unique solution – we’d share the taxi to Delhi as he also wanted to go, but we’d first do a bit of shopping in Agra along the way. i.e. visit various shopping malls, where I would feign interest in the wares, and the taxi driver would get commission for taking me there, which would help pay our fare to Delhi. I was a bit reluctant as it can be difficult to say no to the salesmen, but I gave it a go.

Well, the plan backfired on me in the end, as the 3rd place we went to accepted credit cards so I went a bit nuts buying a bag and a shirt at ridiculous tourist prices, simply because I could use my plastic rather than have to change rupees. Oh well.

The rest of the trip back to Delhi was a blast. Cruising in the AC taxi talking shit in the back with Ravi (not his real name), stopping for beers and smoking up a storm. He was a really funny guy and had a ton of stories, unfortunately I can’t remember many of them now.

Indian family life

A recurring question here is do you have children? No? Why not? (Is this guy gay? is what they are thinking). Here having children is very much a part of being a man.

As Bruce explained it to me, the typical way of life is to have an arranged marriage in your early 20s but keep living in your parent’s house. Have kids quickly, and your parents will help raise them. Many of the guys in their mid-20s still act like they’re 18 or 19 – they still go out drinking and partying.

Finally, when you’re actually ready to have kids yourself, say in your 40s, well by then your children will be having kids under your roof, so you can have a hand in raising them.

The whole system is quite efficient if you think about it – you get to have your kids when you’re young and fit and virile, but you don’t really have to bother raising kids until you’re older, wiser, and richer, when you raise your grandchildren.

So when I usually say that I’m not ready to settle down with one girl for the rest of my life and that I want to have a few girlfriends first, the answer is “ah ok”. But after a few beers, the unguarded Indian response might be “So what? I have my wife, but I also have a couple of girlfriends.”

Ravi (from my ride back to Delhi) is separated from his wife, but they still get on as friends. But what she and no one else in his family knows is that he has a girlfriend, and they’ve been trying to get pregnant for the last while. Why? Cos they really love each other and he doesn’t have any kids with his wife so his girlfriend wants to give him one. And now, thanks to IVF, they’ve got triplets on the way! But it’s a big secret which he’s been trying to get off his chest to the rest of his family! Good luck with that mate.