Malaysia: Discovering Asia's secret shores

By Sholto Byrnes

The islands of eastern Malaysia are home to crystal waters and endless coral gardens in which you might find yourself snorkelling alongside turtles and baby sharks. Photo / Thinkstock
The islands of eastern Malaysia are home to crystal waters and endless coral gardens in which you might find yourself snorkelling alongside turtles and baby sharks. Photo / Thinkstock

After a dinner of crispy buttered prawns, I fell to reading Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim. Very soon, I concluded that I had stumbled upon the novel's fictional Malay state of Patusan, so little sign of change was there from the time when Conrad visited these parts over a century ago.

This awakening happened on the small island of Gemia, part of a land- and seascape that is so overlooked by most tourists that it might as well be imaginary.

Malaysia's dazzling capital, Kuala Lumpur, has long boasted numerous luxury hotels; and, more recently, its northerly neighbour, Langkawi, has been developed as a destination for indulgent tourists. Yet the capital has not left the past entirely behind in its headlong rush to the future, and the spice island of Penang is as rich in history and nature as it is in beachside hotels.

The port of Melaka is firmly on our mental maps, too - perhaps because of that indispensable part of the Edwardian gentleman's wardrobe, the Malacca cane.

Yet few have discovered the string of pearls on Malaysia's east coast. These islands are best visited between March and October but should be avoided from November to February, when the eastern monsoon prevails and many of the resorts are closed.

The state of Terengganu has an enviable share of the eastern coastline, augmented by half a dozen islands lined with coral reefs and white sandy beaches. Here, you can explore crystal waters and endless coral gardens in which you might find yourself snorkelling alongside turtles and baby sharks.

The difference from Malaysia's cosmopolitan west coast is apparent the moment you land at Sultan Mahmud airport in the state capital, Kuala Terengganu.

This is the Malay heartland. It came under British control only in 1909, much later than the rest of the peninsula, and was a focus for sometimes-violent resistance.

Europeans are welcome these days, but as I looked around the airport arrivals area it was clear I was the only outsider. And the Chinese and Indians who make up around 30 per cent of the country's population were also notable by their absence.

Ethnic Malays constitute 95 per cent of this sleepy, conservative and religious state. Almost without exception women wear the tudung (headscarf). But not Arab-style: often it is pink or beige, studded with sparkling gems, complemented by T-shirt and jeans.

Local traditions remain strong here. Kite-flying, batik-weaving and even traditional boat-building can all be found where the Terengganu river meets the sea. A road stretches the length of the coast, lined with stalls selling keropok lekor (the chewy, deep-fried fish sausage which is an eastern speciality) and punctuated by jetties offering ferries to the islands. The pace is perfect for relaxation.

I asked a taxi driver if he had been to Kuala Lumpur. He had, but shook his head at the recollection: "It is too busy," he said, sounding weary.

Kuala Terengganu has grown from a fishing town into a modern city, but it shares little in common with the national capital apart from the first part of its name (Kuala means "river mouth").

Though it has none of the bustle or excitement of Kuala Lumpur, there are a couple of worthwhile sights.

One is the "floating mosque", Masjid Tengku Tengah Zaharah, a simple but spectacular combination of modern and Moorish design on a platform surrounded by a lake; it lies four kilometres south of the state capital, and close to the sea; the other is Kampong Ladang, where smithies still forge the Malay keris, or dagger. But after one night in "KT", I headed for Marang, 20 minutes' drive south.

This small port is the departure point for Gemia - the first island on my itinerary, just 15 minutes away in a speedboat. Situated a few hundred metres off the larger island of Kapas, Gemia is so small that you can circumnavigate the island's rocky outcrops in a quarter of an hour.

It is almost the sole preserve of the Gem Spa and Island Resort. Forty-five wooden chalets line the south-western shores, flanked by two beaches. The other notable residents are turtles; there is a hatchery on Gemia, and a mother deposited eggs on Kapas one night when I was there.

On my arrival I was welcomed by Hizam, the cheery, laid-back resident manager. A long awning stretched from the white-painted promontory next to the jetty all the way to the airy, lattice-windowed restaurant, office and games area. As I sipped a juice beneath it, I learned that business was not exactly booming: I was one of only 15 or so guests.

Thick vegetation covers much of the island. The resort's wooden rooms are built above the rocks that fringe the jungle, and my room was simply furnished but comfortable.

At the end of a gangway sits the spa, where an oversized bath overlooking the sea is available for post-massage relaxation. One of the pair of beaches is kept pristine, without even a lounger in sight (one morning, I almost burned my back lying on the sand).

At the other, kayaks and snorkelling gear can be hired from attendants whose smiling, easy-going demeanour suggests that the concept of the rat race or high-pressure living has probably not occurred to them.

There is none of the formality of chain hotels - nor are there any regimented, liveried staff. If you want something - be it a boat-trip or a snack - you ask anyone. They'll find the person who can arrange it for you soon enough.

Rising at dawn the next day, I could see why Lord Jim didn't want to leave Conrad's creation of Patusan. I breakfasted on dahl, chicken curry and roti canai - the Malaysian pancake bread. Nothing disturbed the view of the mirrored sea from my veranda... apart from the fins of a few reef sharks.

Hizam explained that these visitors were nothing to worry about.

"We call them yu bodoh, 'stupid sharks'," - on the grounds that they are harmless to humans.

Gemia and Kapas do, however, have other inhabitants of whom some locals are wary. Hizam explained the story as we sat next to a pool where 10-month-old turtles were swimming. Gemia used to be called Pulau Rajah - "island of the king". The story goes that the spirit of a princess exiled here is still present.

"One guest saw her floating past his window in a white dress," recalled Hizam. He said that some suppliers will bring their wares to the shore but not step foot on the island.

And over on Kapas, which can easily be reached by kayak, jungle trekkers are supposed to have been led astray by the orang bunian.

These are tiny, invisible people who don't intend to harm humans but who can object to being disturbed.

The Gem Resort, with its small spa and excellent chef, is a cut above much of the accommodation on Terengganu's islands, but hotels of similar design are plentiful (and cheap) on the other five islands.

They are usually centred on a reception/dining/games area, with a scattering of chalets that offer hot water, ceiling fans and half-hearted air-conditioning. Some resorts have pools, but they seem an irrelevance when you're right on the beach.

On other stretches of shore, rainforest spills precipitously over the cliffs, plunging into the South China Sea.

The reason to stay on these islands is to take in nature's pleasures: to enjoy the beautiful waters in the baking sun; to sit by the shore as the sky cracks pink and vermillion at sunset; after a day spent swimming, to sate your hunger with freshly cooked local food (try nasi dagang, the east-coast fish curry); to observe the terns, monitor lizards and other wildlife; and above all to venture into the coral gardens that run right from the shore.

Each of the islands has been designated a marine park. Clown and angel fish, grouper, sharks, stingrays and turtles can all be seen by snorkellers. Some divers consider these waters second only to those around Sipadan, off the coast of Borneo.

A speedboat whisked me back from Gemia to Marang, on the mainland. From here, you can drive south to another port, Dungun, and take another 45-minute voyage to the island of Tenggol.

Rising steeply to 800 metres at its centre, Tenggol has just one beach - which is also home to a rustic, tiny resort. But within the long arms that encircle the bay are to be found stunning coral gardens teeming with fish, and a dramatic drop-off where the cliffs meet the sea.

Back on the mainland, I checked out the east coast's only real high-end beach resort: the YTL chain's Tanjong Jara. Make sure you end a trip to Terengganu here, because anything else will seem down-at-heel by comparison.

Tanjong Jara was designed to emulate a Malay sultan's palace. It has 99 spacious rooms plus a spa. Set alone on the South China Sea, with no neighbours for miles, its restaurants - one over a river, the other by the beach - and peaceful atmosphere draw wealthy locals, visitors from the Middle East and China, and the odd celebrity, such as Kiwi actor Sam Neill (a fellow guest when I stayed).

Its appeal is hardly surprising, when the only sounds that echo through the colonnades and landscaped, low-rise grounds are the gentle tinkling of gamelan players of an evening and the slow gongs of the Mandi Bunga, a royal bathing ceremony, as the water urn-bearers process to the spa each morning.

Arriving back in Kuala Lumpur, the capital did indeed seem "too busy" by comparison with the tranquil east coast.

To paraphrase the title of the old Anthony Newley-Leslie Bricusse musical: if you'd like to stop the world, then this is the perfect place to get off.

- INDEPENDENT

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