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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 1


Another March/April long-weekend public holiday, another island adventure. This time, Pulau Sibu. There, I engaged in a death-defying act and met Death. Death? Yes, eerie. But if you were there, you would feel the same.

Back then, Pulau Sibu was a newly minted four-star resort. The first isle besides Pulau Tioman to offer true First Class facilities. First class as in a seating toilet with flush, air-conditioned bedrooms, and a hot shower. In other words, honeymooners can go there without the new wife complaining how cheap the new husband is.

Or be bothered by mosquitoes and sandflies when making out on a beach. A place they can take snapshots of themselves singing karaoke, windsurfing or buddy canoeing... not just play the usual carrom, UNO or Scrabble in a leaky and smelly thatched lounge.

The Sibu Island I am talking about was where Sibu Island Resort Version 1 had been, that is. The current SIR has changed beyond recognition after a complete makeover.

That makeover added a star to its former rating. Five stars now, it has the obligatory cocktail pool for those too lazy to walk that 20m to the beach.

Pulau Sibu was small then and still is. Very small. You can throw the proverbial stone and have it land on the other side of the island. A crab walking on the beach over can get stoned! Or a coconut could fall and everybody would know. It's that small!

If it is so small, where's the charm then?

Well, I remember the island being surrounded by sparkling waters and white sand. Plus, the resort had few chalets. Meaning as a guest, you didn't have to fight anyone for beach space. And if no other guests turned up, you could jolly well be the only ones on the island. Wonderful, wasn't it?

I first heard of SIR from Kim, my tennis partner. During a break in a game she had told me and our two other tennis kakis, Julie and Pauline, about this newfangled resort her German expat colleagues had been raving about.

"Oh, they say it is really nice and cozy," she had cooed.

"Sibu Island Resort? Isn't that in the Philippines?" one of us noted.

"Sibu, not Cebu," said Kim. "Apparently it is part of an island chain called Pulau Sibu. Sibu Island Resort is actually the smaller, middle one. And the best part is, it doesn't take long to drive there. We can spend more time on the island."

Er, drive there?

"I mean drive to the ferry terminal. Apparently Pulau Sibu is very near to the mainland unlike Tioman," said Kim.

At the time, Pulau Tioman was the most famous island along Malaysia's East Coast. But the ferry journey was long and 3/4 of the day would have passed upon arrival. With SIR, we could be there by 11am. Enough time to unpack and still catch a tan.

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I might not have known of Pulau Sibu but I knew of the other islands nearby like Pulau Tinggi and Pulau Aur. They were rustic and visited mostly by people who liked to fish. One of them was my NS staff sergeant, Francis Lee, who went there often to spear fish. He invited me once but I wasn't keen on punching holes in anything, let alone fish that I could easily get from a supermarket. I do wonder where Francis is now. Last I heard, he was very into Christian mission work.

"Wait, how many days are we thinking of for this holiday?" I asked. I hate to feel comfortable at a resort and then have to leave.

"Well, over the Good Friday hols. Four days?" suggested Kim. "The best part is my boss is also on leave. He has left me use of the company car!"

That was good news indeed. One transport problem solved.

Just as I was thinking how unusual it was for a guy to go on an island holiday with three girls, Pauline chimed in. "We could ask Kum Fatt and Yew Meng."

Both these guys were my buddies from NS (both BMT and one OCS). In fact, I had gotten to know Kim and the rest through Kum Fatt. All these friends were from St Andrews Junior College. I was from CJC, a sister school. Our colleges at the time were better known for sports (rugby and badminton respectively) and boy-girl relationships than academic excellence. Well, for the first year at least!

In the end, Kum Fatt couldn't make it but Yew Meng could (he and his girlfriend). With two other guy friends, we managed to round up a total of four guys and four gals; quite the neat pairing for a trip, I thought.

With the two cars, these folks went round Singapore to pick up the rest in the early hours of dawn and then headed over to Malaysia via the Causeway. There was no Second Link then. I was staying next to the Customs at the time and was the last to be picked up. That's one thing I liked about living there: Proximity to Malaysia.

The road journey to the ferry point for SIR was smooth and uneventful. I remember we driving along curvy kampong roads and passing villages that harked back to the '50s and '60s. It was really a pleasant drive except for a couple of instances when we had to overtake some road-hogging lorries that were packed to the brim with oil palm fruit or pineapples.

Of course, since we hadn't been to the island before, we had to rely on information from Kim's colleagues. They in turn had to rely on information provided by the travel section of a German executive magazine, now translated for Kim's benefit. Kim, at the time, had only a rudimentary grasp of the German language and was undergoing lessons at the Goethe Institute.

The instructions to get to SIR were thankfully straight forward. There weren't many unfamiliar detours and we could simply follow the major road signs. But once we neared the coast, we had to turn off onto a rural farm road. That was the only time we felt kind of creepy. It always was back then when in remote parts of Malaysia. Still is, actually.

The road we were on was a dirt track with grass growing out in the middle. By the sides were fenced-up grazing grassland with no animals in sight. In fact, the simply wired fences looked kind of neglected. Sections of it were weighed down by wild shrubs and fallen trees. It seemed as if the farmers had found some other thing to do than plough land or nurse animals.

Malaysia's economy was booming then and tourism was on the rise. Folks like us (and expats working in Singapore) were making a beeline for their island resorts, star or no star rating. So many of the locals there joined the tourism industry for a change of economic opportunity.

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As we drove along the farm road, I was looking out for coconut trees, a sure sign that the coast is near. I did indeed see them and before long, our cars had to come to a stop. The road ended in a small opening right next to a ramshackle hut. We could also just see the sea over some rocks and shrubs.

A skinny young Malay chap then arrived on a Honda Cub motorcycle. Young men like him all over Malaysia all seemed to like riding these 70cc auto-gear two-wheelers from Japan. I was told they were affordable and very fuel economic. A bike was indispensable riding to and fro between a kampung and town. Besides, public transport in Malaysia were notoriously inconsistent then, unlike in Singapore.

After an exchange of pleasantries, the young Malay chap instructed our drivers where to park their cars. He pointed to a squarish grass patch that was fenced up rather flimsy like the rest we have seen driving up. It was also gated by two hastily nailed-together planks that were chained to a post. It looked OK for fencing in goats but certainly not cars with superior horsepower and value.

Kim, who had large eyes, rolled them even bigger. "Er, he is not serious, is he?"

She did not appear to want to park her boss' expensive Audi in that make-shift parking space. Frankly, I wouldn't too. It was not even sheltered! The pressing concern was, What if the car went missing? Kim would have to spend the rest of her adult life paying off her automotive folly. Lose her job even.

But what choice did we have? Turn back? Unlikely.

Seeing Kim a little upset, the girls gathered round her to give comfort and make conference. I didn't think it was a big deal because quite a few expats must have done the same thing in the recent past. So why should we even worry?

That was as much what I told Kim and the rest. The girls picked up on the logic and mollified Kim further with their sweeter voices. I could tell Kim was softening to the rationale. As added insurance we decided to pay the young Malay chap $20 to look after the vehicles. That made Kim feel better and so the matter was settled.

The young man at first refused our offer saying it was his duty to his uncle. He only accepted after some persuasion. $20 at the time wasn't a small sum and he didn't look the greedy sort. But it was better to have bought his allegiance than not. Back then, Johor had not picked up the reputation as a place where one could easily lose a car, be shot at beside a busy kopitiam, or even have a purse snatched. All that would come a decade and a half later, when young men would actually ask for money to do something.

With the cars safely 'locked up' in the car park, we picked up our belongings and followed the young Malay chap towards the sea. He led us down a rocky slope and onto a backyard jetty just as a small ferry was arriving and sidling up to get us aboard. To those of us accustomed to formal ferry points, this backyard affair was quite surreal, but it was not totally unexpected. Some kelong launch-off points were the same. Makeshift jetties all along the coast were used mainly by local fishermen.

We were not the only ones boarding the ferry. A couple of locals were bringing fresh produce to the island resort. We half hoped and joked that it included fresh lobsters and crabs.

The ferry that came was a wooden one with a small cabin typical of the many that plied between the islands in those days. It was painted in green too. Back then, no one worried about life jackets and such. We got onboard, kept our belongings away from getting wet and found a corner at the bow to sit in. A place free from trailing exhaust and where one could enjoy the fresh sea breeze and spray upfront. The kind of things that told us we were finally on our way to an island resort and far away from the noxious atmosphere of city life.

Story is continued here: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2

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