Disclaimer: I'm writing this on a bouncy bus while inhaling what I will call a “unique” odor diffusing from one of our fellow passengers. Apologies for anything that doesn't make sense.
Trekking north into Malaysia
Having already spent some time in Singapore prior to our departure to Indonesia, our second stay would be limited to one semi-productive day (Saturday), which as Jason mentioned in the last post, was managed on just a couple of hours of sleep. We did want to figure out where to head next, get bus tickets squared away, do laundry, and I wanted to check in with an eye doctor due to a repeat pinkening of my right eye after surfing in Indonesia (it had again cleared after removal of the contact lens.) Oh, and we wanted to check out little India. So the day would be a full one, especially given the somewhat late start to allow for a morning nap and blog update.
Lawton immediately got on the internets to scope out a coin laundry facility and bus options, while I leaved through the hostel copy of the Malaysia Lonely Planet. Ever since our trip to Cairns and the great barrier reef, I've been wanting to get my PADI Open Water scuba certification (18m), and although the original plan was to achieve this in Thailand, Tioman island in Malaysia suddenly sounded like a potentially good option. Since the Monsoon season there doesn't start until November, we decided to chance it and head to Tioman via Mersing the following day. With Jason having scoped out one of the few coin laundries in SGP, both of us having a destination to give a vendor for a bus ticket, and after a quick consult with the hostel staff regarding a medical facility, it was off into the humid heat with a backpack full of laundry and a commitment to achieving our mission.
What's up, Doc?
Although my symptoms of pink eye again disappeared 1-2 days after removal of my contact lens in Indonesia, a decision was made to visit the medical center (centre if you wish) first, in the off chance that my eye was about to fall out of its socket causing a longer stay in Singapore. Plus I would win the race for the first hospital visit. After arrival at the Raffles medical centre, the receptionist first apologized for the potential 45 minute wait to see a doctor (yeah, that's considered long here), and informed me that I wouldn't be able to visit an optometrist until Monday. We decided that I would just visit the doc, and if he had to refer me to a specialist, so be it.
About 40 minutes later, I sat across from the doctor giving him my full history of eye infections, starting with a nasty one I had in 2008 that led to a cyst and subsequent scarring of my cornea. I did not want to repeat that little feat, so I figured better safe than sorry. The examination took about 3 minutes, the dear doc used a common flash light to check for dilation, made me look up, down, left, right, then felt the pressure in my eye using his finger (very scientific, I know), and concluded that it was just allergies. “Just buy different contacts”, was his expert opinion.
Why I would only be allergic in one eye escaped me, so it did not give me much of a warm and fuzzy; neither did the SGD 48 bill for the 3 minute exam. I was hoping for at least some antibiotics in the event that I had a re-occurrence that my body could not fight off and I was stuck somewhere in BFE with bacteria having a go at my cornea. In the mean time, my old contacts and saline solution were tossed for the time being. I would try a new set of disposables with different saline solution to eliminate any other contamination sources.
It would be about 4 days later when we found out that you can buy most antibiotics without a prescription in parts of SE asia, which will probably be done in Kuala Lumpur (KL.) Faith – if you're reading this, expect an email shortly asking for advice on good eye antibiotics :)
Bus and dirty laundry
A 20 minute walk to one of the two recommended bus terminals allowed us to price out bus tickets to Mersing, which ran at SGD 25. Jason had found online that there was apparently 16 dollar tickets at a second depot about another 20 mintues away, so given my frugal (some would say cheap) nature and ignoring the full backpack and crushing heat, we decided to give that a shot. It turns out that information was not quite correct, and 45 sweat filled minutes later we were back to square one, where we booked our tickets with 5 Star bus-lines. Mind you, there are cheaper options, but the word on the street is that it involves quite a bit more hassle when it comes to border crossings.
We were informed that the bus would leave at 6:30 am (“please check-in by 6 am”), so the much needed Saturday night sleep was quickly vanishing. But we had a ticket, and leaving early would allow for plenty of time to get onto Tioman island and nail down lodging for the next couple of days.
Our last “chore” prior to dinner was to do some laundry, as we both were starting to run dangerously low on clean clothes. The coin laundry was to be found on the edge of little India, and calling it a true coin laundry would be like calling a me a true church going catholic. That is, yes, there were two washers and dryers sitting under a cover outside, and they did take coins (just like I'm catholic, and have been sighted at church on some occasions), but it was nowhere near what I had imagined, and the setup looked rather humorous.
Neither of us had change, and of course there was no change machine, so off it was to check with local businesses about getting dollar coins. I just asked, and was flat out denied. Lawton actually went through the hassle of purchasing some water and asking for dollar coins in return, also without success. Being already aggravated about my earlier eye examination ripoff, I decided to boycott the facility and head back to the hostel, while Jason went back to the MRT station to get change. I would count on my BO control and airing out laundry until a better opportunity would present itself. Perhaps the smelly guy on our bus had the same idea.....
Dinner was to be had in little India, where there was some kind of parade earlier in the day, and the crowds were enormous. I mean ENORMOUS. As we wiggled our way around cars stuck in nightmarish traffic jams in search of a place to spend our remaining SGD 6, we quickly learned that the neighborhood thrived on the supply/demand concept, and demand was clearly out-gaining supply.
We actually saw one restaurant that taped over all their food prices. We eventually found a nice little hole in the wall with some yummy curry, and worked a deal with the owner explaining to him our budget. For SGD 6 we got curry, rice and a piece of naan. It wouldn't be until the next day that we both got a little payback from that dish. But I will not elaborate.
The remainder of the eve was spent taking pictures, see below. Very cool setting.
Off to Malaysia
The trip to Mersing on Sunday morning was very uneventful. Given the early hour, we had to hail a cab which dropped us off by the bus depot. By 6:25 we were on the bus, on the road, and ready for the next leg of our trip. The customs/immigration routine involved getting off the bus, going through SGP immigration, getting back on the bus, riding over the bridge,
getting back off the bus, going through Malaysian immigration and customs, then getting back on the bus. Malaysia was very welcoming, with smiles everywhere. We also heard through the grape vine that entering Malaysia with a US passport is cake. I can't disagree. With the smoothness of immigration/customs up until now, I'm really starting to wonder how long it will take to have one of those classic immigration horror stories. Perhaps China?
The drive from the border to Mersing was about 2 hours, with a brief stop at a little restaurant/gas station for food and ATM. I had priced the PADI license to range between 1000-1100 ringgit (~$300 US), and since ATMs are scarce on Tioman island, I ended up with a hefty wad of cash in my pocket. Some might even call me a high roller given that you can have a meal for 1-2 USD in Malaysia.
Once the bus arrived in Mersing, we were hurried to get on the ferry, as they are somewhat bound by tidal conditions and wanted to get folks on the ferry by 10:30 am. Within 30 minutes of de-busing, we were 75 ringgit lighter and on the ferry to ABC with a return ticket for later in the week. The trip to the island would take around 2 hours.
It was on the ferry that I started to feel some of the more painful effects of the prior night's curry, a pain I was willing to fight given the on-board restroom facilities:
Ayer Batang (Air Batang) - ABC for short
I think it is here where I need to mention that lodging recommendations in Lonely Planet suck. Upon de-ferrying, passengers walk up a dock that runs east/west, at the end of which you have a choice to turn either left (north) or right (south.) B&J diving center, where I was looking to get my certification, was north. The top pick in lonely planet also was north. We both had heavy backpacks. And so north it would be. A quick check with B&J along the way confirmed that I could get my open water cert in under 4 days at a cost of 1000 ringgit, and they advised I find a place to stay and then head back.
So we kept heading north to ABC bungalows, the top pick. Yeah, I don't know if I would call it that. We decided to check out some other places, and quickly learned that it was a buyers market, with prices coming down as we negotiated from place to place. In the end we settled on Johans due to the larger size room where we each got our own bed and the bathroom seemed rather nice compared to ABC bungalow. They wanted 60 ringgit per night, we negotiated for 50 given the 4 night stay. There are cheaper places, but we wanted the space. No A/C, though, and no mosquito net (a mistake.)
What we didn't realize that the beaches on the south part of the island are a ton nicer, as are the food choices and there was plenty of lodging. Why lonely planet would have a top pick on the far north end of the town was somewhat perplexing, as the southern part appeared so much nicer and would have been our pick had we not wanted to drop off our bags ASAP. I should mention that the entire town of ABC can be walked south to north within 10-15 minutes, so I might be dramatizing this a tad too much. But we were finally settled in, Lawton was spent, and I was off to get diving stuff figured out.
As it so happened, a group of 3 girls had just started the course earlier in the morning, and Ben (nice German guy who seems to manage the place) informed me that Graham (my instructor) could get me up to speed on the confined water stuff over lunch, and I'd then join the 3 girls in the afternoon session. Goal would be to have everything wrapped up by Wednesday (it's Sunday at this point), which worked out perfectly. Oh, and I got a 50 ringgit discount, bringing the total to 950. Sweeeet. More on my PADI open water certification later.
I promptly started my course, and found Lawton sound asleep when I got back at 6:30 pm. Apparently he had slept the entire afternoon. Nice.
Tioman island turns out to be a very nice, idyllic little island off the east coast of Malaysia. We were definitely there towards the end of the season (Monsoon season starts in Nov), but it was very much relaxing and slightly devoid of people. The island is scattered with various resorts and a couple of villages, the largest being Tekek. We opted for ABC village due to the supposed variety of lodging options. A later trek by Jason to Tekek confirmed that sentiment, so I'd say that recommendation sticks.
The island is littered with various animals, ranging from 5 foot lizards to cats to monkeys to mosquitos at night. Most cats chill around the restaurants, resulting in a number of cat fights over territory and food. Also, the locals apparently cut off part of their tails, even though nobody could give us an answer as to why.
The only other honorable mention in the animal department should be the massive spider we discovered on the curtain above my bed on the first night. Including legs, it had a diameter of about 4 inches. Given our lack of spider species knowledge/handling ability (it was brown and had hairy legs, although definitely not a tarantula), coupled with Lawton's fear of spiders, I used a New York magazine received as a hand-me-down from a New Yorker we met in SGP to kill it. I wish I had taken a picture of the thing beforehand, but unfortunately all that remains is a picture of the blood spattered curtain. It really made us want to keep the screen-less windows open at night.
While not quite the metropolis of Tekek, ABC offers a variety of good eating establishments. Prices range in 5-20 ringgit bracket (USD 1.5-6), with some places offering alcohol and others not so much due to their Muslim religion. We enjoyed the Sunset cafe on the south island due to their great setting and tasty barbecue food. Mahwar's was a good lunch spot, and I'm sure dinner would be solid also. ABC bungalows also has dining right on the water, should you want to eat on the northern part of the town.
It was only on the first night, at a place who's name escapes us, where Jason accidentally ended up with a hellishly spicy dish without expecting it (we should have asked.) There were also a couple of spots right on the beach that offered 3 for 10 ringgit happy hour beers between 5-7, a good way to kill some time as most restaurants do not open until after 7. It's just soooo very stressful watching the sun set on the beach while enjoying a cheap beer. Not.
To summarize, the place is super chill and relaxing. While I was getting my certification, Lawton spent time on the beach in one of the many hammocks chilling, reading, and relaxing. We met various travelers from all over the world, all very nice. All the locals are super nice and helpful, in stark contrast to Bali where it seemed like we were constantly hassled for our money. Highly recommended if you're looking for a place to relax. We even found a book exchange, where they asked for a 1 ringgit donation to the local schools for every book exchanged. We also met a nice Japanese woman, Fumino, who informed us she would be on the same ferry as us returning from Tioman, so we were looking forward to picking her brain.
As I mentioned a bit ago, the main objective of this visit, for me, was to get my PADI (Professional Association of Diving Instructors) Open Water certification. What this basically means is that I get trained to dive to a maximum of 18m depth, in contrast to the advanced open diver, which peaks at 30m and requires an additional course and 5 more dives. Time limitations would keep me from doing the advanced on Tioman, but I'm shooting to get that piece done in Thailand.
I got a short one-on-one with Graham on Sunday to get me caught up on the first confined water dive, at which point I joined Tamara, Katerina, and Carolin who were also on the quest to get the open water cert.
B&J's turned out to be a great little dive shop with good equipment and a pool to cover some of the confined water dives. All the people there were super nice, and I recommend it to anybody considering getting their license. To get the license, you basically have to complete a bunch of confined water and open water dives, do some reading/chapter reviews, and finish with quizzes and a final exam. Being the nerd I am, I got quite a kick out of the scientific portions of buoyancy control and nitrogen absorption in higher pressure scenarios. It's really quite fascinating, and I was a bit bummed that I didn't have time to do the advanced portion after the open water.
Carolin ended up having some issues with equalization, so she dropped our group to get more time to figure out what was going on. The rest of us finished the confined dives and some open water dives off the island, and the big day would come Wednesday, when we headed to Tiger Reef and Labas for our two final dives. The first dive would be to 18m, the second one to 15m. Here's Tamara and Katerina on the boat before our first dive:
Tiger reef was off the hook, with tons of fish. They were too numerous to list completely, but included barracuda, angel fish, stingrays, clown fish, and even some eels. No pics due to my lack of underwater camera, but I'm strongly considering doing the underwater photography course as part of my advanced cert. The second dive was ok, and we successfully finished the skills portion (taking off and clearing mask, hovering, etc) leading us to the final exams. We all passed. Below is a pic of us after we were done, from left to right: Graham, Katerina, Tamara, and yours truly.
The last night would be spent chilling at the beach, knocking back some happy hour beers, and meeting some new people. As luck would have it, we met a super nice couple from the UK/Netherlands (Fran and Robert) who had been traveling for 6 years and had tons of advice. Lawton sucked up all that information, while I talked (ok, flirted) with Nienke, a dutch girl who was 6 months into a 9 month trip through Asia. It was then that we decided we would head to Melaka instead of KL, based on recommendations from Fran, Robert, and Nienke.
After happy hour, it was back to Sunset cafe for one last time, a quick check of email, and then back north towards our cabin. Nienke and I decided to have another drink at the Jetti “bar”, the place we had our happy hour beers earlier. The reason I put “bar” in quotes is because it was basically a stand with a cooler, and local guys run to a store to buy beer and stock it for re-sale. And they repeatedly play the same soundtrack with a mix of soft rock and Bob Marley, quite amusing and surprisingly pleasant.
Lawton went to bed, and Nienke and I had a great night conversing with some of the locals and other folks visiting the island, including a guy from the dive shop and a swede who was on my dive boat earlier in the day. So a drink turned into two, at some point a bottle of JD appeared, and the party was on. Around midnight, one of the guys started making “island burgers”, insisting I try, and they were absolutely excellent. It was a great way of wrapping up a full, wonderful day. Bedtime came around 1:30am, a tad late given that we had to catch the 7:30am ferry, but it was all good.
Heading to Melaka
Groggy from lack of sleep, we made it to the ferry where we met up with Fumino. During the 2 hour ride, she got Lawton up-to-speed on Japan activities. Plan is to meet up with her when we visit in March. After the ferry, we had to wait about 3 hours for the bus to Melaka, so I brushed up on my non-existant Japanese, and basically quadrupled Lawtons vocab (he had visited before) by learning that “Domo” is a casual way to say “Hello”, “Thank you”, “Excuse me”, “Sorry” and bunch of other things. In other words, when you don't know what to say, just say “Domo.” Score. We also got a nice lesson on Japanese culture from Fumino. She was heading to KL, so information was exchanged and we hope to see her in a couple of months.
We joined our flavorful friend mentioned earlier on the bus at 1:30pm for a 4 hour drive to Melaka, a pleasant ride with A/C, which was a welcome relief from the constant heat beating down on us. More on Melaka coming soon.