Friday, May 30, 2008

Backpacker Culture and the Perhentian Islands

It's been a while, as the last two weeks have involved quite a bit of travel. From Khao Sok National Park, Naj and I made a last minute decision to attend some time in Malaysia to our trip. In particular, we wanted to visit the Perhentian Islands, a paradisical setting ~20 km of the coast of Northeast Malaysia. We hopped an early morning bus through Southern Thailand, and traveled through an area of the country for which the US State Department has actually issued a travel warning. In brief, Southern Thailand sees a slow transition from Thai culture and Buddhist religion, to Malay Muslim culture. In truth, the region probably should have been part of Malaysia, but as is so often the case in colonial history, the British did not include in Malaysia when carving out the latter. And so, since 2004, a shadowy insurgency has taken place, with the major players, and their motives unclear. It's likely part separatism, part terrorism, and part simple criminality. Whatever the motivation, thousands of innocents have been killed in a number of bomb blasts, and the ensuing government crackdown. Currently, the area is under martial rule, which is very evident. Every 30 minutes or so, we were stopped at a roadblock, where miliary personnel would peer through the windows, checking each passenger. Of course, seeing Naj and I, two bearded, Muslim-looking men, there gaze would linger with us, until the driver would explain we were simply idiot-tourist from India. I also had a Mexican-style mariachi hat I had bought, which by it's sheer absurdity served to defuse any doubt as to our harmlessness.

We made it out of Thailand just fine though, and walked across the border to Malaysia, spending the night in the coastal town of Kota Bahru. Later the next morning, we departed for the Perhentians.

The appeal of the Perhentians is two-fold. The obvious reason to visit is that they're simply gorgeous; neither features any paved roads, and electricity is only available for short periods of the night, preserving some degree of desert island atmosphere. Moreover, to move from one beach to the next, you have to take a water taxi, as the islands are clothed in thick jungle. Add to the isolation electric blue water, teeming with coral, fish and turtles, and you more or less have paradise. But the second facet of the Perhentians lies in the backpacking community one finds there.

I realize I should probably discuss backpacking culture somewhat, both to ground my experiences on the Perhentians, as well as on this trip. My earliest experiences with backpackers did not leave a favorable impression. As a young boy, I visited North India, and I remember the sight of mangy, European travelers hefting giant packs around ancient ruins as they peered out from under greasy bandanas. I regarded them with the same uneasy trepidation I reserved for stray dogs. 10 years later, and I find myself in their shoes.

Backpacking is simple in terms of details. Buy a large pack, fit in your toiletries, maybe 3 or 4 sets of clothes, a good pair of shoes, and little else. Then choose a destination where whatever money you've saved will stretch the longest (e.g. SE Asia), and travel for as long as you possibly can. And people do. I've met more than a dozen people who are traveling for one year. 6 months is average, and 1 month is a short hop.

Backpacking, and its accompanying mode of travel is not about vacation either. It entails putting yourself in less-than-comfortable situations, traveling as locals do, staying in grotty places, and eating street food. As such, it can actually be incredibly tiring. But it is also incredibly eye-opening. The benefit is two-fold. It is a departure from one's own routine, as well as exposure to radically different cultures. On this trip, I have learned to ride a motorbike, to enjoy a cold shower and how to play a didgeridoo.

As for an itinerary, probably the greatest beauty of an extended trip is the sheer freedom. To plan a trip down to the day in advance is inane. Rather, you might pick a few countries, a few historical cultural sites (e.g. Angkor Wat and the Grand Palace) or a few activities (e.g. surfing and motorcycling), and string those together over a few months. But the real delight is waking up, deciding you want to move, opening a map, randomly pointing a location, and thinking "There....that's where I go next." And it really can be that random. We heard about the Perhentians while in N. Thailand, and that's all it took to decide we would go.

Finally, backpacking in places that are hotspots for this style of travel means that an easy fraternity is always available. Moreover, it's not that you make friends because you're forced to. I think the selection bias inherent in deciding to make a long term trip ensures that backpacker trails are populated largely by interesting, laid-back, open minded people. In Bangkok, I spent my first two days with a gregarious French Canadian. In Chiang Mai, I drank whisky with an English expat. In Ko Phangan, I swam with New Zealanders. And in the Perhentians, I shared my room first with a Swedish girl (strictly platonic, we just needed to save money), and then with a Norwegian man. So there really is no need to be a lonely traveler. In fact, if you travel alone, you actually have the freedom to choose when to be alone, and when to buddy up for a days, or even weeks with another traveler(s).

And therein lies the second attraction of the Perhentians. They were only "discovered" by backpackers in the last 10 years, and are only now being slowly targeted for large-scale commerical development. For now, they offer a cheerful community in the middle of paradise. Staying on the beach just four days, we got to know four Norwegians who shared a snorkel trip with us, as well as myriad other characters. The beach was only 300m long, and by the end of the trip, we could reconize and even name a good number of the other travelers there. If I went to dinner alone, I usually ended up eating at someone elses table, having made new friends.

As for what we actually did on the Perhentians:

The islands are famed for their snorkeling and we spent many hours exploring reefs in the vicinity. The sea life was astounding! I swam with sharks, turtles, and countless fish. Some of the finned residents of the reef were reminiscent of South Beach drag queens, improbably shaped and dressed in neon colors. Also, I found Nemo. There were lots of clownfish, which have a charming habit of swimming up to you when you approached their sea anemone residences (I was greeted several times by entire families of clownfish when I hovered near an anemone).

When not snorkeling, I was usually busy playing beach volleyball or soccer with other travelers, and in the evenings, the entire community would congregate at one central bar, directly on the beach, and while away the hours to dance music until 3 or 4 AM. The bar was particularly fun, as almost every night, the moon was out, and you could spot thunderheads flashing in the distance while Europeans, Canadians and Aussies would get their dance on at the beach.

Oh, and of course, the seafood was brilliant. Every night, I had barbecued marlin, tuna, barracuda, squid or something similarly enticing.

1 comment:

Naveen said...

Another great read Arsalan, thanks for the various study diversions that actually allow me to picture where you are!