Diving on the Dragon Island

tekkek Travel Blog

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I’ve always been a bit confused about Malaysia. It’s not that it’s a very confusing place it’s just that, as a country, geographically, I’d never really got my head round it. There’s the ‘peninsular’ bit that borders Thailand to the south…except for Singapore at the bottom, which isn’t part of Malyasia, but used to be. Then there’s another bit on the same island as Borneo, that isn’t Borneo, it’s Malaysia…..except for Brunei, that’s different. The there are loads of little islands dotted around the place that are Malaysian. I was going to one of those on this trip. But let’s begin at the beginning.
I flew into Kuala Lumpur or “KL” as it’s known locally. You should never ever call it Kuala Lumpur, that’s apparently totally uncool. To be honest, a couple of hours in KL is plenty. It’s pretty much non-stop shopping malls (Malaysians LOVE to shop) but one look at the melting pot of a population filling the shops does help to explain the Malysia’s broken geography. The whole place is a veritable hotch-potch of cultures- Indian, Chinese, Malay, Scottish, every kid of ex-pat under the sun. For the record, the most impressive mall was under the Twin-Towers- the most famous landmark in KL. They (it) used to be the world’s tallest building(s) until those pesky Taiwanese went and built a taller one and ruined it for everyone.
I was only in KL killing time. I was off to an island called Tioman that lies in the South South China Sea- sounds exotic huh? Well you’d be right. In the 1950s, Life Magazine called Tioman one of the world's ten most beautiful islands. It was also the setting for the paradise island of "Bali Hai" in the film "South Pacific." In the 1950s the, Tioman was riding high. Since those heady days, however, things have got quieter, a lot quieter. Paradoxically, unlike most “paradise islands” whose devotees dread being discovered. Tioman seemed to have had her big moment and then faded away. This sounded perfect for me. I was coming for the diving that I’d heard was magnificent. The news, when I tried to organise a rental car online, that the island actually didn’t have any roads was very welcome. This was going to be a proper escape. Maybe I’d finally found an island destination that wasn’t chock a block with honeymooners (what is that urge to go to an island on your honeymoon all about?). Maybe it would be stuffed with bong-smoking hippies? Not likely. You don’t see many hippies in Malaysia. This is predominantly to do with the draconian drug laws. Anyone planning to get stoned in a hammock or trip the light fantastic at a full-moon party has come to the wrong place. That’s no bad thing as far as I’m concerned. I’ve had it up to here with dull, annoyingly young and nauseatingly smug drug tourists. Mind you I went through KL rather than Singapore because my hair’s getting a little shaggy and I wasn’t sure whether the authorities there still stamped SHIT in your passport (Suspected Hippy In Transit). Best be careful.
I flew to the “capital’ of Tioman- Tekek in a tiny twin-prop run by the island’s only five star resort, Berjaya. The plane didn’t work at first and then, when we finally took off, had an engine explode in mid-air that forced us to return to KL in a more than slightly nervous state. When I finally landed on the island the next morning I was simply happy to be alive and the immediate physical beauty of the island didn’t hit me until a little later. Huge, tall ridges of thick rainforest sliding gently down onto virgin white sandy beaches bordered by an azure-blue sea. This would most definitely do.
The main attraction in Tekek is the afore-mentioned five-star resort that turned out to be a fairly soulless place and, having already been frightened by their air service, I decided not to stay with them. This was the best move I made all trip as I ended up at a hidden little gem called Swiss Cottage at the far end of the town. It is right next to the dive shop that I had booked in with and I had a sweet little beach hut with a panoramic view of the bay. When not diving, I’d sit in the shade of huge pine trees trees that framed a long pristine beach stretching off into a hazy distant sunset. It was heaven.
Most people leave Tekek immediately and take a boat from the jetty to whichever hotel or village they are booked into along the island. Tioman is only about twenty kilometres long from North to South and the interior is almost entirely covered in deep impenetrable rainforest. Most “chav-packers” tend to head straight for the main hangout of “Salang.” I took a boat over there one day. Not to put too fine a point on it- it’s a hole. A half –finished commerce centre scars the beachfront and it only gets worse as you follow a cement footpath past tackier and tackier restaurants and stores. I couldn’t wait to get back to Tekek. At first sight, Tekek doesn’t have much to offer. Tioman is a duty-free island and sells alcohol unlike the mostly dry mainland. There are several unattractive little shops selling cheap booze and cigarettes (I particularly recommend “Lite Ups”) for as little as ten pence a packet. This can make the place look a little tacky but, dig a little deeper and it’s an extremely unspoilt, mellow place to hang out in for a couple of weeks. I am a something of a Malaysian food connoisseur as I’ve been going to a little restaurant called Makan (which means “to eat”) in the Portobello Road for as long as I can remember. There can be little more exciting in life than their Chicken Sambal after a hard day’s shopping. Most nights I went to a little restaurant up the road called “Sarng” where I became addicted to a particularly fine mutton curry. Mutton is so under-used in the UK and I’m a huge fan of the stuff. It’s perfect for fantastically tasty stews and curries. Every night I’d munch my way through a huge bowl while watching the fascinating little fat man who ran the place. He’d always be sitting, shirtless and with a big smile behind his desk endlessly counting piles of money and smoking cartons of Lite-Ups. He was the spitting image of one of those Laughing Bhuddas that you see in tacky markets in Bangkok. It was Laughing Bhudda who informed my friend Kaj, a couple of days after I’d left the island, that the “mutton” they served was, in fact, goat. Ah well, it was delicious. Goat is so under-used in the UK…….
There was also the “Sate Man” who made the stuff out of his home five minutes up the road. We’d order a hundred or so sticks between six of us every other afternoon. We’d then go and pick them up in the evening and wolf down the whole lot with lashings of his homemade spicy peanut sauce and bags of fresh cucumber. If I had my way this particular delicacy should be given its own chat show immediately by the Malaysian TV big-wigs. This actually would be a marked improvement on most Malaysian TV that seemed to consist mainly of imams giving long and rather fierce looking sermons. It actually reminded me a little bit of Iranian TV- except that I was watching it in a duty-free shop.
The diving was superb- loads of fabulous stuff to see. We mainly dived around a smattering of little islands made of huge perforated boulders hurled up on top of each other in the dim and distant past by some unthinkable great force. I’d squeeze myself through tight caves chasing huge cuttlefish and turtles the size of cars. One particular “speciality” of the area are Nudibranchs. These are a weird type of sea-lug that come in all sorts of amazing colours and many divers collect sightings of them with the intensity of train-spotters. There is even the “must-read” book- “1001 Nudibranchs.” I found it difficult to get that excited by them. I’m still a fairly amateur diver and I like Big things.
One evening, as the sun was setting, we anchored off the tiny little island of Renggis. The entire island is covered in thick, thick vegetation in which fruit bats make their home during the day. We bobbed up and down and watched as a twister of Christmas Frigate birds arrived and circled the island. As they slowly tightened their noose on the island, the first fruit bat made a break for the shore. Within a minute, a vast, dark cloud of bats temporarily hid the last rays of the sunset from us as the Christmas Frigates took their place on the island for the night.
The air tattoo over, we slid into the warm sea and floated down to the seabed in the orange bounce light of the sunset. We spent a gloriously lazy hour drifting slowly past a huge coral circus performing in our torchlights. There really is nothing so good for the tired mind as scuba-diving, but I’m biased.
I loved Tioman. Sadly, I’m not the only one. If you’re going to visit this magical island then you need to do it fast. Her time suddenly seems to be coming again….and fast. The horrible five-star resort is about to build a huge airport into the sea off the island to attract more visitors. All this, despite the presence of an extensive Marine Park around the island. The damage that this construction will inevitably wreak on the island’s ecosystem will be awful. The good news is that the planes will be bigger and more reliable than the one I arrived on but, as the hordes start to pour into the place and they start building roads and resorts to accommodate them, another special little part of the world will come to an end. Tioman is a tiny and very special little part of Malaysia. Get there fast, oh..and definitely have the Satay.

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photo by: domjoly