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Tuesday, 6 November 2012

March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2


This story continues from: March Madness 3- Pulau Sibu 1

As told, the sea journey was relatively short. Surprisingly, none of us got sea sick. As the ferry slowed its approach to the Sibu Island Resort, we noticed something unusual. There wasn't a jetty in sight!

Instead, two resort workers were seen pulling pontoons out. We could ride on these with the rest of our 'barang-barang' or simply jump into the sea to wade ourselves in. Most of us opted for the latter. It was a great invitation to immediately start our new beach holiday! Besides, with such clear waters and white sand, who could resist?

The front of the resort looked to be in a lagoon. The beach itself was surprisingly short even if covered with alluring white sand. Beside it was a raised verandah that led to the main Admin Building - a dark wood construction that reminded me of resorts in Bali and elsewhere. Not cheap, not expensive, just typical. The large verandah gave a 180-degree view of the sea and beaches. We found out later that below the verandah were the rooms for karaoke and storage for canoeing and windsurfing equipment. How convenient that they were right by the sea!

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After deciding who to stay with whom, we checked into our chalets. The ones we had booked were essentially Couple affairs. Each had a bedroom, a verandah with coffee table and chairs, an attached tiled-bath with instant hot-water heater and a flushing seat-toilet.

We noticed that there were indeed few chalets on the island, just 22 of them; they were all standalone affairs. The bigger units could be found on the back beach, a short 5-10 mins walk from the Admin Building. The path to that place was not paved but natural and surrounded by shrubs and short coconut trees. We were told we could request for fresh coconuts every morning, a novel idea to us young folks then!

The beach at the back turned out to be just as pristine as the one in front. But it was much, much wider. There were corals too, but sadly, all of them had died. It was all quite the pity because there was a wide swathe of them all along the beach front. There was even a path cut in between to wade through.

During low tide especially, it was a sight that could make a grown man cry. If these corals had not suffered from White Coral Death - a cancer of the ocean, this part of island would have been wondrous to behold. . Now, it was just a graveyard of porous stone. White as skeletons and just as eerie.

We quickly put away our things in the chalet and changed into our swim gear. The sun was still burning and the sky cloudless. By dinner time, we had all gotten wet and burnished with a tan. But just.

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Dinner was a strange affair.

Unlike the kind of cheap, fast-to-cook food one typically got from seaside island resorts, SIR actually had a menu typical of a Malaysian mainland Chinese restaurant. There was hor fun, mui fan, steamed fish, sambal kangkong, venison meat with ginger, etc.

We were pleasantly surprised and hungry after having just arrived and exerted somewhat. So we ordered what each of us liked. A couple did not have any preference and ordered just to see how good the cook was.

That done, we put the menu aside and chatted as we sipped on our soft drinks and fruit juices.

Half an hour passed. Then one. Then one and a half.

All the while, we turned to check the kitchen hole, if food was coming out. None. Oh, we could hear banging and clanging in there alright, but to what end we were mystified.

Finally, when the food did come, we were all relieved. But no explanation was given. The staff were locals and did not seem to comprehend English very well. We decided to not pursue the issue. We told ourselves that we would order in advance the next time if such was the case.

Interestingly, though the wait was tough, the food was excellent. It really tasted like what our favourite restaurants back home could dish up. None of us had so much pleasure gobbling up our food on an island before. The only setback was wondering whether to order more and wait another eternity.

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Just after dinner, as we were lounging in the dining area (which was next to the main verandah area and with a sea view too), the owner of the resort turned up.

Up till then I had not met anyone up-close who owned a resort, let alone an island, so I was rather intrigued by this person. He was a big-sized Malay chap around fortyish with an air of a 'datuk' about him. In other words, he radiated wealth and connections. He was dressed casually in khaki shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.

The owner, let's call him Mr Hassan, had dropped by to say hello to Kim. He and Kim had become telephone friends through the many bookings Kim placed on behalf of her expat colleagues... she being the department secretary and all that. Even Kim's boss had been to SIR too. So Kim was a VIP in Mr Hassan's eyes.

After the obligatory introductions, Mr Hassan asked how our dinner went. We confessed it was surprisingly good and then politely mentioned the rather tardy serving time. Mr Hassan apologised and said his staff was still coming to grips with what was expected of them. He also confided that he had spent considerable effort in hiring a good Chinese chef to whip up both Chinese and Western fare. His reasoning was that a good resort should be matched by good culinary experience. On that note, he was on the money. I mean there is little point in setting up a four-star resort just to serve up crummy food.

I was curious what was before SIR and asked him.

"Oh, it was just a rock. I bought it from the government and spent money developing it," he said, sounding more like a technocrat than businessman.

"It wasn't just building these chalets. That was the easy part. The difficult part was making sure the island had a good source of water and could handle the future sewerage. We couldn't run this place with mineral water alone."

Inside, I found that funny. To many Singaporeans, bringing mineral water on an island trip was as essential as bringing toilet paper. In fact, probably more important, especially for the girls. To some, taking care of the hair was paramount, not to mention the face too.

We boys who had been through National Service was less bothered. We just made sure we didn't imbibe anything unclean and catch diarrhoea  Swimming with a weak stomach is definitely a no-no. Dark pools could form unwittingly.

Through further conversation with Mr Hassan, we found out that he had spent more than half a million Malaysian dollars buying and redeveloping the island. It didn't seem like a small sum nor was it a an astronomical one. Monies involved in island purchases typically ran into the millions at the time, or so we thought.

A couple of us wondered how much more under-table money he had to pay to smooth things with the Malaysian Government (often perceived to be corrupt then) but we decided to be polite and not to open that can of worms. I doubted he would even tell us!

Before Mr Hassan left, he joked with Kim that she should have her honeymoon on SIR; he would give her a special rate. Kim, who was unattached, turned red and gave an embarrassed laugh. With that, Mr Hassan bade us good evening and wished us a memorable stay.

Later, when we got up to pay, the staff told us Mr Hassan had halved our dinner bill. It was to make up for the long waiting time. We thought that was rather decent of him to do that. He didn't have to but he did. He really did want to make the resort work at another level.

Suitably fed, we then sat around the verandah a little longer to discuss what we would do the next day. Some wanted to laze around, while others wanted to learn to windsurf. An instructor was available on the island free of charge. We simply paid per hour - or per day - for equipment use.

Later that evening, the girls went and entertained themselves in the karaoke room. They found it equipped with the latest song management system and had a blast till late. I sat and read a book by Robert Ludlum by the verandah and listened to the soothing sound of the sea lapping.

All through, I could tell that the resort was rather absent of people, just as the owner had intended. I thought how wonderful that was for a change. SIR might just turn out to be the resort game changer Mr Hassan had wanted after all.

This story continues with: March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 3

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