Tuesday, 6 November 2012
March Madness 3 - Pulau Sibu 2
When I woke the next day, it was still early and the sun had yet to rise fully. I took to the footpath and walked that short distance across the island to the beach on the other side. It was strangely still and deferential Looking at the dead corals again reminded me of the killing fields of Cambodia. Here, instead of piles of bones, were piles of dead coral. I wondered what it would take to revitalise the whole zone.
I skipped a few stones into the sea and retraced my steps back to the footpath. The kitchen should be serving breakfast soon and the rest of the guys and gals would be up and waiting.
The second day was all sand and sea. A few of us tried canoeing and windsurfing. I either laid on the beach or dipped into the sea. I had canoed quite a bit in my youth and so had no more interest.
But windsurfing was catching on in Singapore then and so I was keen to try it out. However, the winds that day were not very cooperative. I decided to just laze about and get tanned. Later, we all got together and played volleyball on the beach.
Around late afternoon, we went on an excursion to Big Brother Island (i.e. Pulau Sibu Besar). In size, it was about six to seven times larger than Pulau Sibu Tengah (aka SIR) and about 2km away. We visited one of the five resorts there. Unlike SIR, they were the rough-and-tumble sort and each was served by its own flimsy jetty.
Some guests we saw there were sun-bleached, wiry and wore headbands. They looked very much like the seasoned hippies of the '60s. I remember thinking they were no different from "harm yu" or salted fish laid out in the sun too long. It made us wonder if these over-tanned folks had lived on Pulau Sibu Besar all their lives!
On the second day, we learnt from those who canoed that there was a sea eagle's nest around the left side of the island. It was nestled in some rocks quite near to the beach below. The cliffs on our island were not high, roughly six to eight storeys tall. Only the top of the right cliff was accessible via a narrow footpath.
From up there, we could get a good panorama view of the ocean as well as the sea route our ferry had taken in to approach the resort. Although the cliff was small, its stony facade somehow injected a natural sense of ruggedness and adventure to the place. They bear an inscrutable testimony to an outdoor life.
The reason that the eagle's nest was so low is that the place was isolated and free from human encroachment. The nice beach there could only be accessible by boat.
We knew it was nice because Mr Hassan had told us during that first night conversation. He was describing the new kind of clientele he was targeting at and related the story of a well-off Indian couple who were there for their wedding anniversary.
Wanting a private spot to celebrate, the couple had approached him for help. Mr Hassan then picked out that spot of beach where the eagle nest was, knowing full well that no one else could get there on foot.
"That Indian couple had a late night picnic with champagne and stuff. We picked them up later. Much later," Mr Hassan said, ending with a wink in his eye.
I saw the beach the next day, not by swimming but by windsurf canoeing. That's when you use sit on a windsurf board and canoe with a paddle. I was bored and wanted some adventure and so off I went on my own.
The beach was indeed nice: White sand with clear waters walled in by some rocks which gave it a private, lagoony feel.
The waters were surprising shallow for a long stretch and colorful. There were many big rocks that somehow gave off colors of the inside of an oyster's shell. That made me wonder if the same seascape stretched for 2km to the bigger island. I had seen the same thing before between two islands off the shores of Sabah. Over there, I could even wade through coral-filled waters to get to the other island during low tide.
The sheltered bay of 'Eagle's Beach' made the island feel near and safe. But once I got to the turn, that's when the sea really opened up. It made me feel as if I was in a paper boat bobbing in a large ocean. In such a situation, it is hard to keep faith with a flimsy surfboard, but I held fast to the conviction that it will not sink.
With a canoe, I alone could not right a capsized one. Trust me, I've tried that during my canoeing days. You would need a buddy in another canoe for that. With a surfboard you could even paddle without an oar! That's the reason I went sightseeing with it.
Now facing the open sea, I began to think about sharks. Are there any around? A Big White has been known to taken a chunk out of a surfboard, so in the end, my smart idea wasn't so smart after all. I decided to paddle on and watch out for them just in case. Big Whites had been known to roam the Gulf of Thailand which was many miles away from where I was. Still, one should be wary. Stories of rogue sharks attacking swimmers in coastal waters surface from time to time - kind of like how car park wardens turn up from time to time to remind motorists to behave.
Having made that turn, I was now paddling past the back of the island. The familiar sight of chalets and those dead corals (undersea) gave me comfort. I didn't go too near to the beach though, but stayed a comfortable distance out to see if I could spot any still-alive corals. There were none.
As I paddled on in this little adventure of mine, the island became bigger. I guess the reason was that much of it was inaccessible and hence not factored in. Also, that short footpath through its middle between the beaches also gave the false first-impression that the island was small. I mean you cannot judge a woman's assets by her small waist alone. Look at Dolly Parton.
And just like Ms Parton's curvaceous outline, I eventually reached another turn and come up against a big lump rising into the sky. It was the same eight-storey high rocky precipice I had seen arriving on the first day. Looking at the same cliff now up close and from a flimsy surfboard, my feelings were different. It's not so much awe-inspiring as bleak. It was a cliff no one could climb. It was simply an absolute obstacle.
That thought reminded me of one of my favourite movies, Papillon. It is a 1973 movie about a man of the same name (Papillon is French for butterfly) who refused to surrender to the harsh prisons he was sent to after being convicted of a revenge killing he claimed he was wrongly accused of. After several near deaths, escapes and recaptures, he was eventually sent to Devil's Island, a place ensconced by cliffs, rocks and strong waves that no one was deemed able to escape from. But escape Papillon did and quite ingenious too.
So, in view of all that Papillon went through, my own round-the-island adventure was really child's play.
From the cliff, it was a matter of minutes before I paddled myself back to where I had started: the front of the resort. But not before battling some strong currents.
I was hoping to just slip unnoticed into the verandah and sit down for a drink, but some of my friends rushed out to ambush me. One of them was pretty livid. "Where the hell were you? We thought you were eaten by sharks or something! We looked everywhere for you!"
I felt sheepish then. Going out on an adventure on my own was fine but taking my friends' concern for granted was not. I apologised to them and explained that I had gotten carried away. It was true in a sense - I had wanted to see the Eagle's Nest. Fortunately, the matter was soon forgotten. The guy who had made the most noise was Yew Meng, my OCS platoon mate during NS. I thought he should have known better that I could take care of myself. I wondered then if he would have approved if I had first told him of my plans to circle the island on a surfboard. Probably not. But Yew Meng was a mother hen like that.
But for an hour or two that morning, I felt like Robinson Crusoe or Tom Sawyer going on a grand sea adventure. Sometimes a guy gotta do what a guy gotta do in order to experience new things; or else you wouldn't be reading this story!
Next story: PR Tale 1 - Bangkok
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!
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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