Where better to spend a few days taking it easy than at the beach? Normally I'd be full of smug answers – 'up a mountain', 'in the pub', 'in bed' or maybe even something witty – but the next logical stop after the Cameron Highlands was Pulau Pangkor, a popular little island off the west coast of northern Malaysia, and we took it. It's a tourist spot, sure, but Charlie and I had decided to see the rest of the year out with some real relaxation before the rigours of the New Year's travels. And where better to relax than at a beachside resort?
The bus journey was simple – getting around Malaysia is child's play, even easier than getting around the UK – and we boarded the ferry to Pangkor with plenty of time to spare.
On the Beach
Beaches are beaches wherever you are, and Pangkor is no real exception. The water is murky, the sand is lightly dusted with litter, and the jet skis and power boats are as annoying as anywhere else, but there are some interesting differences between the little village of Teluk Nipah and similar hotspots on the Costa del Sol.
For a start, the place is totally Muslim, as is most of Malaysia. Sure, there aren't any loud mosques blaring out the call to prayer – indeed, Malaysia is a lot quieter than Indonesia, even in the unfortunate hotels that sit next to the mosques – but every woman here wears a tudung (a scarf covering the head, also known as a hijab), and there isn't a hot dog stall to be seen anywhere. Even on the beach the Malay tourists observe the modest values of Islam; male and female adults bathe in T-shirts and long shorts, exposing a bare minimum of bare skin, and non-swimmers laze on the beach in jeans, long-sleeved shirts and, for the women, hijabs. There are a few westerners with their slinky Speedos and suntan lotion, but they look totally out of place among the well-covered locals.
There's also a distinct lack of alcohol in Pangkor; it's available, but only from a few places, and then it's only between certain hours. This is a serious bonus; it prevents the resort turning into a drunken orgy of beer-and-beach proportions, and makes the behaviour of tourists pretty acceptable, with few late nights and drunken rampages.
The fresh fish available at the restaurants along the beachfront more than makes up for the lack of beer, with the charcoal smell of ikan bakan (barbecued fish) lilting across the sea breezes, thankfully masking the smell of the choked streams meandering down to the beach from the village. If it weren't for the savage attitude of the mosquitoes, Pangkor would be a pretty pleasant spot; it's certainly a good spot for recharging the batteries.
Perhaps it was because of the peace and quiet, but I noticed something on Pangkor that has been driving me silently potty ever since I landed in Indonesia. The most common piece of Southeast Asian footwear is the sandal, whether it's the professional leather-bound version, or the tacky rubber-and-plastic flip-flop; only businessmen seem to wear proper shoes. But there's one thing about the prevalence of flip-flops that drives me stark, raving mad: Malaysians, and indeed Indonesians, drag their feet, making their flip-flops slide along the ground with a scraping noise that's constant and infuriating, and given that most floors are concrete, the sound's loud and grating. The problem is that once you've noticed it, you notice it everywhere, and much like a tap dripping at night or a window rattling on the bus, it's torture. But, like much of Asia, you have no choice but to accept it, so I've learned to live with it, whether I like it or not.
At the same time, Charlie and I both discovered that we'd lost the art of conversation. After such a long time learning to make small talk, both from travelling and, in Charlie's case, his career1, we both felt a bit sick of making polite conversation. So we sat around, studiously ignoring everyone and exchanging glances every time someone mentioned their travels. People can be so repetitive; I know I'll sound monotonously boring when I return home and keep saying things like, 'Well, in India they do this...' and 'That's not half as big as the spiders in Australia...' but I didn't think I'd ever get bored of talking about travelling. Everyone needs a break every now and then, I guess.
Another reason for our lack of interest in conversation was the collection of Time and National Geographic magazines lying around our guest house (or should I say campsite, as we stayed in an A-frame hut rather than a room). We spent hours each day devouring news and real journalism; I signed with relief as I read articles written in flowing, informational English, as opposed to the propaganda prose more common in the Southeast Asian media. Good journalism is like a lemon sorbet – refreshing, bittersweet and with a lingering aftertaste – and after the stodgy staple of pidgin-English pandering I've been reading in the Southeast Asian papers, this was truly a taste sensation.
Even with all this lethargy, we hadn't lost our interest in walking, so we spent the second day plodding round the island on the one road available. We also included a bush-bash up to the top of Bukit Pangkor, the hill in the centre of the island, but unfortunately the path was overgrown and the views at the top hidden by trees, so it wasn't one of the most successful jaunts of all time. It also included a fair amount of ripped flesh from the evil plants in the local bush, and plenty of bites from clouds of mozzies (though at least they're malaria-free here). Whatever happened to the pledge I'd made after Taman Negara never to bash through jungle again? I guess I didn't really mean it after all...
1 Charlie used to work for the Ministry of Defence, under contract from GEC Marconi, so we've both signed the Official Secrets Act. As a result he got used to talking about his job at cocktail parties without ever saying what it was he actually did, so his small-talk skills are second to none.