Swapping bikes for beaches
(Em) At the end of our little road trip from Kuala Lumpur across the Malaysian Peninsula with Henry, we arrived in Kuantan on the east coast at lunchtime. Henry had parked up at the Hyatt (very flash) where he was having an afternoon meeting but his appointment wasn’t until 2pm so we sat down for cup of tea at the beachside veranda café (trying, but in all probability, failing to blend in!) It was exciting to see the sea and know that the next day we’d be sailing out to a tropical island for a few days… However, Henry then received a call that threatened to put a big spanner in the works – it was his colleague from Crown Relo who was currently being told by customs at Port Klang that the crates with our bikes in wouldn’t be permitted on the ship because our carnets weren’t valid. What?! There must be some sort of mistake: the carnet is an all important document that acts as a temporary import/export for the bikes in each country and we knew for sure that they didn’t expire for at least a month. As it transpired, it was the entry stamp to Malaysia that customs had a problem with; apparently the counterfoils in each of our carnets hadn’t been signed and stamped correctly by the overseeing official when we’d entered the country two weeks previously. Again, what?! We really couldn’t believe it. The irony was that the Thai-Malaysia crossing had been our most straightforward and simple yet and, unlike most countries, customs had asked for the carnets themselves, seemingly 100% familiar with the procedure – at some borders James has to help border officials fill them in because they’re not sure what they are! (James: although this was clearly a customs mistake I couldn’t help but wonder whether this was something I should have picked up on – maybe we’re getting a bit blasé?!) From the sound of Henry’s conversation on the phone, things were not looking good – customs wouldn’t budge and were saying that we’d have to get the slips signed before they would release the bikes from the country.
We were stunned. After all the stress of sorting out the shipping over the previous ten days, we felt that our elation at having found the right agent at the last minute and just getting our bikes booked on the next sailing was now being mocked by the fates. The ramifications of this small oversight were pretty far-reaching: it would mean making our way back up to the border post where we’d entered Malaysia, a real pain, especially without the bikes to ride, and in doing so we would wave goodbye to our island getaway. (James: it wasn’t guaranteed that we wouldn’t have to un-crate our bikes and ride back up to the border!) Worse, the bikes would have to wait until the next sailing a week later when already we were really cutting it fine with the short period of time we’d given ourselves to do North America. The lack of cooperation by customs at the port was exasperating – all they had to do was ring up the border post where we’d come through and they’d be able to confirm we were legit as they would have the counterpart half of the form which is always retained by the border when you enter – but they refused. Henry’s colleague, Rudi, was doing everything he could to sort the situation out but we knew only too well how officious officials can be. By this time, Henry needed to go for his meeting so we gave Rudi our number and stayed put at the hotel, crossing fingers (and everything else!) that somehow the situation could be resolved.
Several nerve-wracking hours and many phone calls later, Rudi – hero of the hour – rang once more, and this time with good news! We were on! With customs at the port still refusing to be proactive, Rudi had taken it upon himself to contact customs at the northern border who had agreed to fax a copy of the counterpart form down to Port Klang and luckily, the customs chief had finally accepted this as proof we weren’t faking. Phew! With that all sorted we were back on for a few days of island living, so we parted ways with Henry (who ended up having serious car problems on the way back to across to KL, poor thing!) and went to find a place to stay in Kuantan, ready to take a bus further down the coast to Mersing for the ferry across to Tioman Island the next morning. It wasn’t exactly ripe pickings, and I was pretty appalled by the state of the some of the places on offer at the cheaper end of the scale – stale, cobwebby rooms with dirty linen that the owners (in a similar state to the rooms) seemed to have no shame about as they happily showed me what was on offer. Perhaps our standards had risen again after staying at Andrew and Henry’s lovely homes! In the end, we got somewhere that, while still pretty grotty, at least had clean sheets and had seen the business end of a vacuum cleaner in the last decade. We went out for tom yam (fast becoming the new ‘noodle soup’ ) and when we checked our emails that evening, we were surprised and chuffed to discover that we’d won a travel photography competition we’d entered (and had forgotten about) with Nomad Tents – so thanks to Harry W. for putting us onto that one!!
Making our way to Tioman the next day was a simple affair – a three hour bus ride down to Mersing, a couple of hours wait, then the ferry over to the island. It was all a bit vague as to where we should disembark – despite having an open air deck, passengers were not permitted outside and were instead stuffed into the hold, making it impossible to know which beach we had arrived at. James and I elected to jump off at Salang beach at the top end of the island (our arrival only made obvious by a deck hand yelling the destination down the stairs) as from what we’d read, it seemed to have a good combination of amenities and solitude. We made our way down the pier with a handful of other backpackers and started to systematically work our way down the beach to check out accommodation options at the various chalet clusters. We’d taken a relaxed attitude towards booking – i.e. we hadn’t – but it soon became apparent that this could have been a major error. Everywhere was fully booked! Unbeknownst to us, we had arrived at a peak bank holiday weekend so all the world and his wife had pretty much reserved the whole island! Ah. Feeling a bit foolish, we continued in our quest, hopeful that there might be somewhere for that evening at least (it was Thursday), and were rewarded (sort of) at the penultimate resort on the beach: all their cheap end, basic chalets were full (40 ringits, or about £8) but they did have an air con chalet on the beach for 120 ringits! Oh well, there wasn’t much we could do and it was my birthday weekend (James: Emily doesn’t have birthdays anymore, she has birthday weekends! This could be a slippery slope….) so it gave us an excuse to splash out a bit!
The four days we spent on Tioman were great; very chilled and luckily, despite the ‘full to the brim’ accommodation, there really didn’t seem to be many people around. Tioman is a picture-perfect beach destination: hammocks swinging under the palms, soft pale sand, and the clearest, bluest water. The only problem was the damn sand flies. Pesky little buggers, they’re small and hard to spot so I was only made aware of their existence by the small red bites I noticed on my legs the first evening. Seasonal sandflies are well known in the area so I knew immediately was the tiny dots were from and was relieved that they appeared to be fairly innocuous. Oh how wrong I was – they worsened considerably over the following days and became an itchy, unsightly nightmare!! (James: they’re way worse than mosquitoes and last for several days! Not ideal.)Thank goodness after that first day on the beach, I elected to stay on the chalet deck, a hammock or in the water which served as sufficient damage limitation (I cannot say enough how horrible the bites are, and how plentiful when you don’t take precautions – back in KL the next week, we kept spotting sandfly victims with tens, almost hundreds, of weeping angry bites all over their legs!) Anyway, bites aside, it was a lovely break and a fantastic setting in which to celebrate my big three-oh. James surprised me with a bottle of white from the duty free shack and we supped it out of plastic cups whilst sitting on a rock watching the sunset. What more could a girl ask for?! (James: I’m all class as you know – the wine also served to soften the blow of moving out of nice chalet, and into a more shabby little hovel which had become available at the end of the beach to save some much needed money!)
Once back in KL, we were all set for our US visa interview at the American embassy, thoughtfully scheduled for 7.20 am on the Tuesday morning: we’d filled in the online applications, which had frustratingly kept freezing so had taken hours, and which asked all kinds of bizarre questions like ‘What tribe or clan do you belong to?’, ‘Have you ever committed genocide?’, and ‘Are you a spy?’ (well, let’s see, now you mention it…); obtained some over-priced ‘special US size’ passport pictures (we always carry a stash of standard ones with us but, oh no, if you’re coming to America you need to be on a 2 inch x 2 inch square or computer says no); gone to a Standard Chartered bank to pay $140 each (ouchio, especially when most Brits get in on a free visa-waiver); and booked our interview online using the code from our bank receipt. We also made sure we had all sorts of other documentation with us – bank statements, letters from employers, our carnets etc – as recommended on the website. Our booking form outlined the process step-by-step (30 minutes for security clearance, 45 minutes for finger printing…and so on) to an expected total of 2.5 hours – blimey, we thought, we are in for a real grilling!! As it turned out, it was indeed a long old stint at the embassy but most of it was spent waiting around. When we were finally called up to a booth for our ‘interview’, the guy simply said something along the lines of ‘What a cool trip! I have no problem granting you visas, enjoy the US’! (James: After having spent so long giving my work and education history as well as listing the countries we’d been through I almost wanted more of a grilling – at least enough to make this all worthwhile!) And just as one final act of madness, rather than be asked to return to the embassy a few days later to pick up our passports complete with visa, we instead had to get them returned by courier and pick them up from the ‘depot’. Hence, two days later we could be found out in the middle of nowhere on an industrial estate 20 miles out of the city centre wandering around trying to find ‘Unit 8B’ or whatever it was! Still, we had our visas so a big weight had been lifted, that’s for sure (not much point our bikes currently being on a ship to Vancouver if we wouldn’t be allowed to use them!….)
After all that palaver, we were ready for a another break! Well, not really, we’re not quite that pathetic but we did have almost a week before our flight to Melbourne (we were making the most of the time the bikes were spending ‘transpacific’ by visiting James’ family in Australia – it was after all, just round the corner…) and we knew that sticking around in Kuala Lumpur would no doubt prove expensive. There were a few options: we could go back to Tioman (not an unappealing choice, and budget friendly if we went back to the cheap huts at the end of the beach), try another island (perhaps the Perhentians, further north of the east coast and somewhere I’d been before) or simply go across to the east coast but stay on the mainland. In the end, we went for the third option as it saved the cost of a ferry, and we found ourselves in Cherating, a beach resort town popular with the locals, but overlooked by international visitors. It turned out to be a great choice, not least because the accommodation (which I’d found recommended on the internet) was absolutely beautiful; raised wooden chalets set around a lake amidst lush green lawns and just a minute from the beach. There was a great little bar just up the beach (called ‘Don’t tell Mamma’ – love it!) where the super chilled barman served up freshly squeezed orange juice in big jars and, one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen, there was a little black kitten that liked to go swimming in the sea!! We couldn’t believe our eyes! And that wasn’t the only cool creature around – the area is famed for its large monitor lizards. We saw quite a few of them wandering about the grounds of our chalet and James caught some great shots by following the biggest into the undergrowth! We also had a troop of cheeky monkeys living in the trees above our chalet who seemed to revel in chucking fruit on to our roof – which had a tendency to scare the life out of me in the middle of the night!
Eventually, our time in Cherating drew to a close and we headed back to KL for the last time. We had a day to wander round (for James this meant one last visit to the huge Nikon shop in one of the many mega-malls for some obligatory drooling and sighing!…) before heading off to the airport for the budget flight to Oz. We knew we hadn’t really done justice to Malaysia – it would have been great to have spent more time exploring the country on our bikes – but at least we’d sampled (a lot) of food and made some new friends! (And evolved from the cricketers tan to a more even spread!…) The journey to Australia was remarkably comfortable – maybe our standards have dropped, or maybe it was the difference from the usual mammoth flight time from the UK?! We were excited about the prospect of being ‘at home’ for a while after so long on the road but weren’t exactly looking forward to the weather – our warm tops were in our hand luggage for easy access as after thirteen months of almost constant heat, we knew we’d be in for a bit of shocker arriving in Melbourne in winter time!….
Photos here (a bike-free zone this time, sorry!)