Malaysia Dispatch

Published 2006-10-04

We're back in Singapore after a couple of days in Malaysia, specifically Tioman Island. I have only the vaguest sense of where Tioman Island is (the east coast of Malaysia), and only two days' worth of observations about Malaysia, the nation. Our visit was brief, and focused on pretty touristy stuff: beaches, eating, scuba and snorkeling.

The bus ride from Johor to Mersing (where we caught the ferry to Tioman) was a trip through the Real Tropics™. Dense forest (punctuated by hateful clearcuts), tropical fruit plantations, monkeys on the roadside, palm trees.

Two afternoons in Mersing comprise pretty much my only exposure to Malaysian culture. It felt like Singapore, but lower-rent: a multitude of languages, religions, peoples. At the busy intersection where the bus stops, you can see a Chinese Buddhist temple next to a Hindu temple, within eyeshot of a blue-domed mosque.

Malaysia is like the Midwest of the Muslim world. The people are pious and conservative (as witnessed e.g. by the headscarves, conservative but casual dress, and our difficulties in finding lunch during Ramadan) but they aren't uptight about it.

We arrived in Tioman on Tuesday afternoon, but the beach (Nipah) where we had made arrangements proved to be not quite to the (not unreasonable) standards of some members of our party. We hired a boat to another beach (ABC) where we had a lovely day: scuba, snorkeling, four good halal meals, and witness to a fierce tropcial rainstorm, whose approach we literally watched from across the sea. While snorkeling we saw turtles and sharks and fish just like Nemo. A painful eustachian block cut the diving a little short.

Tioman is simultaneously touristy and down-at-the-mouth, but has a friendly feel despite. But we were visiting at the beginning of monsoon and in the middle of Ramadan, so I suspect all the empty businesses were simply closed until February.

Any rate, Jenny and I are back in Singapore for one more day. I wanted Jenny to take me around to her old haunts here, a tour that wasn't possible while she was at her conference this past weekend. Malaysia was nice, and maybe worth another (longer) visit. But we can do the tropical-beachy stuff (of which I can never get enough) any time; we kind of wanted to get all our Singapore visiting in on this trip. Neil and Liz are staying on Tioman through the weekend, the hedonists. Still, after two days of the minimal accomodation in Malaysia, Singapore feels weirdly homelike.