We had a 20 hour train ride from Bangkok to the Thai/Malaysian border at Su Ngai. The town has been the location of regular terrorist attacks by a disgruntled Muslim minority, for the first time on our trip, we regretted the route we'd chosen. Our plan was to simply get over the border as quickly as possible.
Our train arrived 2 hours late (we now call this "on time" for Thai trains) and in our rush to get to the checkpoint we agreed to jump on the back of a couple of mopeds. Jan's backpack was taken from her and put between the driver's legs , I kept mine on my back for the short journey. We both felt like we were going way too fast and we got off at the border full of nervous giggles.
The passing from Thailand to Malaysia was thankfully uneventful and we soon found ourselves in a taxi, speeding to Kota Bharu a 'leap-frog' town for us to the Perhentian Islands.
Our hotel was on the outskirts of town in an area called Tesco. We hadn't made the connection that Tesco is called Tesco because there's a huge Tesco there and we ended up spending an hour and a half inside looking at all the delicious food and longed for somewhere that we could cook.
The ferry pier was an hour or so's drive away and our taxi driver did his best to cover the distance in as short a time as possible (was it a coincidence that the Malaysian Grand Prix was the day before).
Finally a fast boat to the islands.
Ten minutes before arrival we saw a sailfish jump clear out of the water, an indication of things to come. As we approached the islands the excitement on the boat rose as the fellow passengers darted to the sides to get a better look. The two islands are barely a couple of hundred metres from each other, the smaller island, Kecil is known for its backpacker atmosphere, the big island, Besar is a little quieter and has beaches that are 100% perfect.
The boat docked at the pier and we had a 20 metre walk across a white sand beach to our chalet, a simple raised hut with running water, electricity and a fan and best of all only 15 steps away from the beach.
We wasted no time in getting into the sea and we were amazed at the variety and numbers of animals that were living just a few metres from the shore. A moray eel, fully exposed from its lair, was having a spruce up from cleaner wrasse, clownfish darted in and out of their anemone home and damsel fish aggressively defended their territory against trespassers both big and small. Every so often something a bit bigger swam through , a large parrot fish that looked liked it had had a fight with an artist's paint palette or a crocodile needlefish that paused long enough in front of us to show us its long snout of hypodermic teeth, causing either a flight or fight instinct in the other fish. The plucky damsels fought off all comers, the neon coloured lunar wrasse took off like their lives depended on it.
In other parts of the beach, the coral grew like a dense forest, layer upon layer of brittle branches entwined to make an impenetrable fortress for anything lucky enough to fit through the gaps. There was enormous orange boulder corals that resembled cow sized pumpkins into which incredibly coloured clams had taken up residence. Blue and yellow sergeant fish harassed us for food, literally swimming into our faces as we floated over the reef, occasionally a damsel fish nipped at our legs or arms if we didn't move on quick enough. Hovering motionlessly just above the spiky fingers, schools of brown batfish huddled together for safety, a family of grouper, black with orange or red spots swam by each one a slightly smaller but a perfect copy of the preceding fish. It was like being in an interactive aquarium.
The sun set as we sat on our verandah with a couple of rum and cokes and some cool tunes and did our best to not let the heat get to us. The night time temperature was barely a couple of degrees lower than the day, at 2am it was still 34 degrees. Each time we think we've acclimatised, we seem to end up somewhere hotter and the sweats start all over again.
We couldn't come to the Perhentians and not do a couple of dives, we found a great dive shop just along the beach and booked ourselves in. Both dive sites were over sand and coral, the conditions were perfect, the sea was so clear (we were told the "viz" was about 20 metres) it looked like we floating in mid air. Then came the fish, a huge dustbin-lid sized trigger fish glided in from the hazy distance, a pair of foot-long angel fish pecked at the morsels living in the coral and graceful blue spotted rays flew across the sandy bottom. A shoal of small barracuda cruised passed to see if we had anything for them and disappeared into the blue.
Almost every nook in the coral played host to the anemone dwelling clownfish, we saw a feathered sea star that resembled magnified snowflake beside a miriad of brightly coloured coral fish all perfectly designed to blend into their equally colourful habitat.
From the Perhentians we are headed for a 1 night stay in Kuala Lumpur to drop our broken iPad off for repair, then catching the night train to Penang and the island city of George Town.