After an “overnight” bus from KL, Erik and I arrived in Mersing at 4am. A short walk to the pier led to disappointment as we learned that the ferry for Tioman Island didn’t leave until 11:30am that day due to the tides. Along with another couple, we spread out over the waiting area chairs and tried to catch a few more hours of sleep, until we were disturbed by the morning noises of the pier coming to life. Over the next few hours the area rapidly began to fill up as tourists and locals materialized from who-knows-where to pack the waiting area, with many more people than I thought could fit on one ferry. I was continually aware of a terrible accident in 2007 in which one of the ferry boats sank and several people died as the ferry was over crowded and there weren’t enough life jackets.
Tioman Island is a popular vacation destination, especially for Singaporeans, and has several different beach areas spread mostly over the western coast. After a very bumpy ride and a few stops at several previous piers, the boat was practically empty and we wondered if everyone else knew something we didn’t about our destination, Air Batang (ABC). We soon learned that ABC was beautiful to be sure, but less developed than we were expecting. Although there was power, there was no internet other than a few shops that had satellite dishes set up, and no roads, just a narrow paved path that ran the length of the beach.
Ironically enough, all the tourists use this path for walking and all the locals use it for their motorbikes. Scattered along the lane were a few family run mini marts, water sports rental shops, bungalows for rent, some dive course operators, a few restaurants and a handful of beach front bars.
It was quiet, stunning and fit right in with our idea of paradise. The plethora of abandoned boast along the shore give the impression that over the years families have been shipwrecked here and then decided to never leave. Our stretch of paradise was quiet but not too sleepy. Several reggae themed bars (what else?) were set up right along the beach with happy hour specials: 3 beers for $4, just in time to sit back and watch the beautiful sun set.
We saw all kinds of wildlife while we were on the island, but perhaps cats were the most prevalent. From day one we had a particular cat who was convinced we would share our breakfast or lunch with him as we enjoyed it on our deck. We affectionately referred to him as Sam after he attempted to squeeze into our room through the window for our food and attentions.
On our first full day, we decided to walk the 3km to Tekek the next beach over and the main hub of the island to see if we could find a more reliable internet connection as well as some larger and cheaper food marts. In the end, we found neither; however, we did find the peace that comes with the absolute certainty of having chosen the right beach. Tekek was busy, unsightly and touristy. The beach was wide and golden, but couldn’t hold a candle to our small stretch of snow white sand, and shady trees.
After a few lazy days on the sand of ABC, we decided to venture slightly farther afield and hike the 3km in the other direction to Monkey Bay. It was a fairly arduous climb with ropes in some places, and we passed some resorts in very secluded and magical locations.
Not two minutes later, we learned how the bay got its name. A very tricksy monkey crept out of the jungle when it was sure that we couldn’t make it back in time, somehow grabbed one of the sandwich bags out of Erik’s backpack and loped off into the jungle with his prize, discarding the plastic bag along the way. For a moment we were too stunned to speak and just looked at each other, as if to ask, “Seriously?!” Returning to the beach, we soon gathered that the groups on either side of us had suffered a similar fate.
Erik and I grumpily shared one sandwich, on our guard with rocks in hand, but now with no food left we were free to leave our things unattended and enjoy the beautiful bay and its clear waters which allowed one to see the bottom even in deep water. That day we learned our lesson and later when a troop of monkeys descended upon the porch of our bungalows with our lunch in mind, we were prepared and successfully scared them off.
Intrigued by the crystal clear waters, Erik and I returned a few days later to the same beach with rented snorkeling gear. This time the monkeys almost took Erik’s entire bag so we had to go snorkeling one at a time so one person could stand sentry. During my guard duty, I apparently missed out; Erik recounted how he was “slightly startled” by a passing sea turtle.
That day we decided to also venture one cove further to a white sand beach we’d read about, and after doing some bushwhacking upon somehow losing (or never finding) the trail, we arrived at a very shallow cove with beautiful snowy sand and aqua waters. It was apparently a very popular spot and several snorkeling tour boats paused here that afternoon.
Without our curious friends, we were both able to go snorkeling and enjoy the abundance of sea life together. Although the coral was not as brilliantly colored as those I remember in Hawaii, there seemed to be many more fish, and at times I was surrounded by them.
The whole way we were surrounded by noises and I couldn’t help but pray that we didn’t come across one of the 25 snake species that have been found on the island including the King Cobra and Pythons, eek!
Unfortunately, his journey took him right into a stinging nettle bush and he was quite miserable for the remainder of the day as this invisible killer caused his arm and leg to sting and ooze. We later learned through research that he had been lucky enough to get friendly with a “Stinging Tree” that is covered with hundreds of thousands of silicon needles that inject a neurotoxin into any attacker. The toxin can apparently take months to completely dissipate and leave its prey in peace and the only slightly effective treatment is to hot wax the affected area to remove some of the remaining spines; a procedure I’m sure that I am looking forward to much more than Erik.