Our route to the Malaysian coast was via the 'Jungle Railway' which is renowned for its sights, sounds and smells as you travel the ten hours from Gemas to Wakhaf Baru. The first thing we saw and smelt after boarding the train was the Durian fruit someone had brought along to sustain them on their journey. The smell of Durian is so pungent that it is banned from many public places but seemingly not trains. The smell has been variously described as rotting flesh, garbage, even 'road kill wrapped in sweaty socks'. Not quite the sensory experience we were expecting or hoping for!
The railway is remarkable in that it runs through dense jungle for almost its entire length although much of the rainforest has now been replaced with rubber and oil palm plantations. The train trundles steadily along the track with the journey taking the best part of ten hours. Interestingly (to us at least!) there is a link back to the 'Death Railway' in that the Japanese removed 240km of track to use in constructing the railway line from Thailand to Burma
Our stop was Kota Bharu, a fairly non-descript town that is the jumping off point for the Perhentian Islands, our next destination. We took a taxi from the train station to the hotel, it was difficult to tell who was older, the driver or the taxi, both must have been approaching 75 years old! One constant amongst taxi drivers is their seeming inability to take you where you want to go and so it was in Kota Bharu. It's a toss-up whether this is down to ignorance or laziness but given the 'experience' of our driver and the size of the town I'm inclined towards the latter
Being a Muslim country, alcohol is not readily available and for once 7-Eleven couldn't deliver. Fortunately we discovered 'Golden Kingdom', a Chinese restaurant/bar run by Lee and Joanne, a Malaysian couple both of whom studied engineering at Bath University. Wine was also on the menu although this wasn't as appealing as it sounds as the maximum alcohol content is 5% and the price per glass is £4.50!
Travel to the islands is via bus and water taxi (aka speedboat). After a bumpy ride on both we arrived at Perhentian Kecil. Perhentian means 'stopping point' in Malay and the islands were given their name as they became a staging point used by traders travelling from Malaysia to Thailand.
Perhentian Kecil is the smaller, more laid-back of the two islands however the topography of each is more or less the same with white sandy beaches flanked by rolling jungle covered hills. We're staying at the Senja resort. So far we've been here three nights and we're already on our third room! The first two had problems with the plumbing (yet more examples of poor maintenance!) but fingers crossed it'll be third time lucky
To date this is the closest we've come to paradise. Days start with a leisurely breakfast on the hotel verandah looking out over Coral Bay. After an hour or so of lying on the beach it's time to go for a swim or snorkel in the bay. Afternoons are taken up with more of the same with the occasional 15 minute walk across the island to Long Beach for a change of scenery, or a jungle trek for the more adventurous (something we've yet to try). Watching the typically tropical sunsets is the perfect way to unwind even further after doing very little all day!
Dinner takes the form of a fresh fish BBQ at Mama's cafe, washed down with a couple of beers which are slightly easier to get hold of than they were on the mainland. That said the customs officers were on the island last night so none of the restaurants were selling alcohol!
Snorkelling day trips are a popular activity on the island and we're planning to go on one in the next couple of days. Some provide you with an underwater camera so hopefully we'll soon be posting some photos of marine life!