I like winging it most of the time, heading from place to place at the drop of a hat; it certainly feels good to be free. Planning too far ahead and buying tickets in advance is, quite frankly, a pain in the arse. Wake up in the morning bored of your surroundings? Pack your bag and do one.After diving for so long in the Philippines, I was quite excited by a change of scene, above and below water. KL is a pleasant city; there are not many sights, but after the Philippines, it was just good to be somewhere with decent infrastructure, fantastic bookshops, and food you could actually eat without wanting to cry; it was almost a culture shock, in reverse. There’s still the seedier underbelly, and I was offered “girls…very young girls” outside my hotel one evening. Obviously he got a frown and an invitation to fuck right off. And a nice old lady greeted me one evening with the glassy-eyed mantra “Suck you…suck you…I suck you” as I came back from 7 Eleven in the wee small hours. I waved my Toblerone and strawberry milkshake at her and shook my head, as if to say I only came out for these, love. A girl’s gotta make a living, I just think her approach needs some work.
So wing it we did, heading for the bus station one evening to catch an overnight service to Tioman island. Shouldn’t be full, this late at night, surely? It surely was. So we had to head back on the half-hour trip back into town and re-take our rooms at Comfort Inn. The loveably cheeky staff there found this very amusing, and I’d walked in saying “No laughing!” mock-sternly. They joined in, and as we headed for the lift, one of them chipped “Oh, and forgot to mention…welcome back to Comfort Inn” in a sing-song voice. Their giggles followed us into the lift.
When we finally arrived at Tioman, we were to be disappointed; not by the place, as the island is lovely, and peaceful. But the onset of the next Ice Age has increased the sea temperature by two degrees centigrade, and one is enough to cause coral to bleach. I came up off the first dive, spluttering “Fuck me, it’s like Christmas down there…” Two dives the next day, and we’d seen enough. Abandon island, and head up to Redang.
Where Tioman was peaceful and laidback (so laidback that it was almost impossible to get lunch if the locals couldn’t be arsed to open), and rough around the edges (the town dump was near our beach, and mornings saw monkeys and monitor lizards fighting over the scraps of food), Redang was a different story. The diving had been recommended by fellow divers, but the island is looking to dispose of its backpacker accommodation and cater purely for the richer weekend visits of Malaysians and Singaporeans. As a result, packages of transport, diving, accommodation and food are the only ways to visit.
Leaving the ferry, we were greeted by the sight of Chinese families with screaming kids: thousands of them. I saw four other honkies all weekend. This would mean karaoke, amongst other painful sensory torture. A slouching Chinese booked us in, and pointed out the daily itinerary.
“Breakfast at 7am, snorkelling at 9am, Lunch at 12pm, snorkelling at 2pm, Tea at 5pm, Dinner at 8pm.” Eh?
“We” peered Iain, over his spectacles “do not…snorkel.”
Quite right, too. Snorkelling to diving is like building a joint, and leaving the grass out.
This was going to be a painful few days. The food was shocking, and for a vegetarian like Iain, rather limited. The Chinese shuffled round the place in their flip-flops, shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff-shrrff, as if they were sanding the floor with their feet; the sound was a backdrop for every waking minute. I took a walk around the resort, and was horrified. A tractor with two trailers ferried fat tourists the 200 yards between beaches. The shops sold all sorts of trinkets and tat. Get me out of here. Between meals, a siren sounded, and queues of orange lifevest-clad Chinese queued for the boats waiting to take them snorkelling. Very amusing. I suppose different cultures enjoy their free time in different ways, so who am I to judge? The break had cost us a packet, and the sloping floor in our room testament to the fact we were being mugged over the course of three days. At least in London you just get a knife at your throat and it’s over in minutes.
The diving was marginally better than Tioman, ie. not everything was dead. But with the exception of one dive, we’d seen it all before. The jaded cynicism increases as the tally of dives rises, I suppose. And I’d been spoiled with Truk Lagoon and Malapascua.
Big Mount was the exceptional dive. An underwater pinnacle, it was late afternoon when we visited. Diving without a guide, we’d been briefed on the site and where to look. Dropping to 30m, we weren’t blown away at first. But as we rounded the pinnacle, a black-tip reef shark glided behind Iain, barely 5m away. Dropping deeper, we were treated to huge tuna, jacks and trevallies; a few of the black jacks fought amongst themselves as we passed through; barracuda hovered in the currents, silver against the darkening water. A great dive, but small recompense for the torture of three days as prisoners on Redang. I was truly glad to see the back of this polished Tourist Ghetto, which is a real shame as, with a backpacker crowd as the population, it would be a great island; it’s stunning. But that’s Progress for you, isn’t it? As Arnold Schwarzenegger did not say “I won’t be back.”