Leaving the beach is emotional business. It’s like saying goodbye to a good friend who is always happy and makes you tan. We stayed a whole week at Bushman Chalets. Bushman is one of those places from Travel + Leisure magazine with the palm tree out the front door and the beach and ocean just beyond. It’s a place where the biggest concern is that palm tree dropping a coconut on your head. And yes, it is a serious concern (but, thankfully, our tree was short). There is a definite mental switch that flips when you have to go back to making decisions and not being a deadbeat.
Anyway, the next plan was to more or less travel north along the eastern Malaysian coast and see what there was to see before getting into Thailand in ten days.
At the bus station in Mersing, the town just outside of Tioman Island, we asked about the options for getting to the next town up the coast. Nothing. What about the town after that? Nothing. Not wanting to spend another night in Mersing, we decided to take the overnight bus the entire way up to the border to the city of Kota Bharu.
While I’m sure there would have been worthwhile things to see in the towns before it, there was something that a guy on the ferry said that stood out when we asked about suggestions for where to stop. He said something like, “they’re towns – you’ve got them in your country too.” That’s one of the things I’ve learned on this trip – you’re not going to see every place and not every place is worth seeing.
We got there early and arrived at Zeck’s guest house, a well known backpackers stopover. Mama and Papa run the joint, and all of their guests are their temporary children. So warm and welcoming. It was the first place we actually had quality conversation with several travelers – and spent a nice day exploring the town with an older German guy named Mike. Kota Bharu is sort of the cultural hub of the north.
They have a “Culture Show” they put on three days a week. A local MC type guy runs it for the handful of tourists who wander by. We got to drum, watch some martial arts, and spin some giant tops. Pretty nifty. The next day we hopped on some higher end bike rentals and rolled towards the countryside.
Coming off the island there was a noticeable shift in the weather. Specifically, a shift towards it being hot as hell. The bikes were the best way to be outside and cool down, with the breeze making the day bearable. Of course if we stopped for any length of time we looked like we had just come from swimming. There are lots of Buddhist temples (Wats) around the city to peer at. We stopped over at the sleeping Buddha temple and the Dragon Boat temple (both lovely) with a bit of swimming in between.
From Kota Bharu we had two options. One was to continue west by train and visit the national park with the largest waterfall in SE Asia.
The other option was to head back to the beach – onto the Perhentian islands – which frequently share the same sentence with the word perfection. We fought back the urge to re-beach ourselves and took the “Jungle Train” to the small village of Jerawang. To lower the fees for the required guide, we latched on to a group of 17 University engineering students to do an overnight at the top of the waterfall. It could be the love of their smoking, but we destroyed those kids on the hike.
At the top, we were treated to a stunning vista overlooking the hot as hell village. We quickly set up the loaner tent and hit the swimming hole. There are two problems with camping with a bunch of Muslims. I don’t know that they’re problems, per se, so we’ll just call it a different kind of experience. First off, there’s the conservative attire. We Americans like to strip down and get in! These guys? Long pants, long sleeved shirts on the women, and the hijab (in the cities we see half and half with the hijab, but in the countryside it’s near 100%).
Okay fine, so we wear t-shirts swimming. The other part that was different from virtually all our prior camping trips, though, was the lack of drinking. I’m sorry, but beer and camping is like bread and butter! Needle and thread! Shampoo and conditioner! You drink, naturally get tired, and go to bed. Well not these guys. We tried to go to bed early but it was hours and hours of them walking around to each other’s sites, yapping and smoking.
At one point we looked over at the fellow adjacent to our site to witness some very technical head torch lit procedure. Maybe he was building something tiny. We don’t know but it was really different and REALLY not your typical camping trip. Our camp friends offered us all sorts of food and snacks – very generous. In the AM we awoke at the buttcrack for a splendid sunrise followed by some more wholesome waterfall fun before returning to town.