Malaysia and I had got off to a strange start. I knew of Melaka City and its colonial past; of Kuala Lumpur and its exceptionally tall towers; and, of course, of the orangutan of Sarawak and Sabah. But all that would have to wait. Having crossed over from Singapore, on a spluttering coach, my Malaysian adventure was destined to begin with a lesser-known destination: the Perhentians. On my first morning on Perhentian Kecil — the smaller of the two islands — I’d overslept and stumbled out of my beach hut into a scene completely devoid of people. I’d expected breakfast hour to be buzzing with sizzling woks, whipping up meegoreng (spicy noodles), and a chorus of blenders mixing fresh coconut water with fruit. But the tables were empty, the plates and cutlery discarded. Where was everyone?
The answer lay out to sea, where I could see the local fishermen bobbing on the horizon, the occasional boat transporting visiting divers. Beyond them, our larger neighbour, Perhentian Besar, seemed to emerge like a verdant boulder from the still waters. Having strolled the beach, I finally found a local man called ‘TP’, who was neither a diver or a fisher. My attempts to find out more about him were met with an animated hand-dance — and an instruction to climb into his chalky blue boat. I jumped in. The engine chugged as he pulled on the cord, and the ocean began to ripple out from beneath us.
As we pulled out into the water, I looked back at the higgledy-piggledy lines of wooden shacks that seemed to tumble down the bay towards the sea. We swerved round the first rocky promontory and chugged around from bay to bay, trying to find a favourite, before settling on a gleaming sandy stretch bordered with boulders. The fine white sand, made up of crushed coral, crunched under our toes.
TP headed into the jungle while I donned a snorkel and joined the schools, darting round the sun-dappled waters. And suddenly I understood the deserted breakfast scene — it was a real kaleidoscope of colours down there. Later, back on the mainland, at the colourful port town of Kuala Besut, I tried out satay stalls while I waited for the coach. It was a whirlwind journey but it had paid off. It looked like Malaysia and I would get on after all.