Though the vast majority of Peninsular Malaysia's population lives on the western side of the peninsula, it's the east that unquestionably has the best beaches. Even discounting the breathtaking postcard-perfect beaches on the islands of the Perhentians, Redang, and others off the east coast, the actual coast of the mainland itself has beaches that surpass almost any to be found on the west coast.
|Looking north along the beach towards the headland|
(taken from Impiana Resort)
The small town of Cherating, in Pahang state, an easy three-hour drive from KL, doesn't have the best beaches, not by a long shot, but the beach is still quite nice. Clean water, gentle surf, and a charming, laid-back atmosphere in the village all lend themselves to the appeal of this long-established backpackers' spot. In three years of living in Malaysia, I had yet to venture across the peninsula over to the east coast, which at KL's latitude is only 145 miles (235 km) across. One of my friends from Singapore was up in KL visiting for a week, so we decided awhile back to take a few days and check out Cherating.
|From bottom to top: Pineapples, durian, and longans|
We left the haze and congestion of KL after a midday dim sum meal and headed east, hoping for clearer skies, which we found! The drive over was easy enough, using the seamless tandem of the Karak Highway (which can be dangerous owing to crazy drivers trying to negotiate the hairpin curves too quickly as the road crests the spine of the peninsula's highlands) and the East Coast Expressway (Lebuhraya Pantai Timur). One cool thing about driving on the highways here is the R&R plazas (that doesn't stand for "rest and relax," though it stands for Malay words that roughly mean the same thing, rehat (rest) and rawat (recreation)), most of which have a fresh fruit stand or two. Look at these pineapples... so big! Anyway, tolls for the whole one-way journey totaled RM31, which is about what I expected.
|The suitably grand lobby at Impiana Resort|
We stayed at the Impiana Resort, right on the beach. It was a nice place, though showing its age a bit. However, for the price (RM189/US$63++ per night, including breakfast buffet for two), it really was quite okay... I'd give it a 7 of 10 overall! The room was comfortable and clean, the food at the restaurant was pretty good, the pool was nice (although it inexplicably closed at 7 pm each evening), and the service was... well, you can't expect too much, right? It's still Malaysia, after all. On that note, I read something recently that a former Malaysian prime minister said. He lamented the fact that while Malaysia can afford first-class infrastructure, it remains mired in third-world mentality when it comes to understanding things like planning, service, and maintenance. Obviously this great truth is manifested spectacularly in the epic traffic jams of KL and Penang, but the service component is a major factor, too. In restaurants, in hotels, in shops and stores, there is simply a near-total lack of service. It apparently isn't expected, isn't demanded, and isn't provided. Here we were in a supposedly classy 4-star resort, and we weren't even escorted to our rooms, nor greeted upon arrival as we drove up under the porte-cochère. As for maintenance, I see the absence of that even here at my condo. Even though it's a reasonably nice, upscale place, there are numerous lights burned out around the grounds, and one lamppost that's perilously close to toppling over altogether. I think someone ran into it with their car. It could easily be remedied, but I can guarantee everyone that it won't be. And honestly, how hard is it to replace light bulbs? So the Prime Minister nailed it. But if the head of state can see such things and not effect change, obviously it's far beyond my power to do so... and so, like most Malaysians, I just tolerate it.
|Waterlilies seen from the lobby of Impiana Resort|
At Impiana, I never even had an inkling of expectation that we would be accompanied to our room. I figured they'd hand us the key and we'd head off ourselves, schlepping our own luggage all the way... and I was right. Since I have no such outrageous expectations of this supposed 4-star resort (and it's not), I wasn't disappointed at all. In fact, I thought Impiana was perfectly fine... but only by Malaysian standards. I wrote a review of the resort on TripAdvisor.com. I'll add the link here once it goes live on that site. Meanwhile, here are a few photos from around the resort, showing the room, the grounds, and the pool. In the first picture, take a look at the waterfall just to the left of the center. It's a nice touch, but the background is appalling. It's just the facade of the building, and not an attractive one at that, with the sad vertical blinds behind the glass, and the lone air-conditioner compressor sitting off to the right. It's one of those things that, with a little more effort in the execution (rocks, etc., to give a more natural, inviting look), could have been grand. The waterfall could easily have been the focal point of the pool, elevating it to a really nice resort-like experience. Instead, it just falls flat and almost looks industrial. Unfortunately, this is the case around here more often than not. Even painting the expanse of white concrete wall behind the waterfall to a darker color would really improve things, I think. Note the swim-up bar to the right... a very nice touch.
|The inviting waters of Impiana's pool|
|The covered sunloungers by the pool|
|And here's the room... nothing opulent, but|
clean and comfortable... very satisfactory!
|And here's the view from the balcony of our room|
|Kailan with Oyster Sauce... yum!|
Unquestionably, the highlight of the trip was the first night. We ate dinner at a small cafe in Cherating Lama (literally, "Old Cherating," the original village, which retains a whole lot of charm). We had ikan bakar (grilled fish -- we had white snapper) and assorted veggies, my favorite of which was kailan (one of the many marvelous Asian greens) sautéed in oyster sauce. After that, we popped into a little shack promoting various tours and activities, arranged or co-brokered by a man named Hafiz. The beaches of Cherating are one location in Malaysia where sea turtles come every year to lay their eggs. So we left our number with him with the understanding that if the rangers spotted turtles that night, they'd give us a call. Sure enough, around 10 p.m., we got the call, so we headed off to the designated rendezvous point to meet our guide, who we then followed to the beach.
|There's nothing in this photo for scale, but the turtle's head|
is roughly the size of a large cantaloupe
Using only dimmed flashlights, the rangers led us to one female green sea turtle who was busily digging in the sand to lay her eggs. Green turtles never lay eggs in consecutive years, but typically will lay eggs 2-3 times during one mating season. A single clutch of eggs can contain between 100-200 eggs. The female spends about three hours on the beach, the great majority of that time spent digging. There was no actual egg-laying action taking place here yet, so we walked quite a ways down the beach and found another female who was just completing her egg-laying. These turtles aren't as huge as the giant leatherback turtles, but they're nowhere near small. These females were nearly four feet (1.2 m) in length, and a cursory bit of research suggests they probably weighed around 300 lbs. (136 kg) each. Their front flippers are enormous, and though they are well-suited to propulsion in the sea, on land, the turtle is quite ungainly.
|The telltale path of a green sea turtle|
No sooner had she finished depositing her eggs in her nest (and gotten a barnacle-scraping, with the ranger slicing off two of the parasitic organisms, one from her head, one from her left front flipper) than she lurched back towards the sea, leaving a distinctive trail in her wake. Unfortunately, poachers are all too familiar with this trail and can easily find sea turtle eggs, which must remain in the sandy nest for 45-75 days, giving unscrupulous people plenty of time to find and steal the eggs, which are prized in parts of Asia. Since the green turtle is an endangered species, the rangers (who were from the local turtle sanctuary) promptly dug up the eggs to take them to the sanctuary for protective incubation. Upon hatching, the baby turtles are returned to the same location from where they were removed, and released, where they instinctively head into the waiting sea. This affords the hatchlings a doubly increased chance of survival over just leaving the eggs where they were laid: First, even if the eggs aren't poached by humans, they can fall prey to any number of maladies during the incubation period and fail to develop. Second, the trek to the ocean after hatching on the beach is the most dangerous time in the turtle's entire life. Many baby turtles never make it to the water, getting picked off by birds, monkeys, lizards, even crabs. Released under the supervision of conservation-minded people, the turtles stand a significantly improved chance of initial survival.
|Me with two of the hours-old hatchlings. The turtle|
on the right is particularly eager to be released!
One of the most remarkable things about sea turtles is that many undertake epic migrations to return to the exact same beach they hatched at decades earlier in order to lay their own eggs as adults. So the two females we saw, in all likelihood, had been hatched on that very beach many years ago. Green turtles can live up to 80 years in the wild, and don't start breeding until they're 20-30 years old, so how they find their way back to the same beach they were born at, often well over 1,000 miles (1,600 km) away all those years later is a great mystery.
|Time for a beach ping-pong marathon!|
The second turtle we saw left behind a clutch of 108 eggs, which look almost exactly like ping-pong balls, and even feel similarly, for the shell is semi-soft at the freshly laid stage. The eggs were collected rather unceremoniously in a plastic grocery bag and taken off to the sanctuary later. I mentioned to my friend that, really, these "rangers" could actually be poachers, and we'd never know... not only stealing eggs, but taking money from unsuspecting tourists, too! The only way we could really know would be if we saw them actually releasing newly hatched turtles back into the ocean. In a great stroke of providence, a batch of baby turtles had indeed just hatched that night, and they brought them (in a shopping basket, which was amusing)... probably a hundred tiny hatchlings, only a few hours old. So after seeing the adult turtles and a big clutch of ping-pong egg balls, we even got to release baby turtles into the South China Sea, all under a big full moon. It really couldn't have been scripted any better and we paid only RM30 to the guides for this remarkable experience, about the cost of seeing the latest crappy movie at the cinema in my hometown. As I learned not too long ago, a great maxim for living life is, "Buy experiences, not things." So we did just that. The second night, we did it again... this time, trading turtles on the beach for fireflies on the river.
|For these baby turtles, an 80-year journey begins with|
a moonlit 20-meter dash into the sea
The tour guide mentioned earlier, Hafiz, is also an expert on fireflies and leads a boat tour down the Cherating River at night, so we did that. I think we set off at around 8:30 pm, into the inky darkness of the river. The boat was full, with six adults, three small children, and Hafiz, who had given a short, but remarkably educational pre-departure lecture on fireflies in general, and on the specific species we were to see. He also (to my amusement) asked us not to swat or smash the fireflies, as they would be flying to us and landing on us and the boat. I grew up chasing fireflies (not much of a chase, really... fireflies are among the easiest bugs on Earth to catch) and know that they're harmless. Obviously there are no photos from the firefly river tour; it was far too dark. However, suffice it to say it was well worth the RM15 we spent. The tour lasted a little over an hour, and we saw plenty of fireflies, many of who paid up-close and personal visits to us in the boat. Now I really want to go to Kuala Selangor, which is not far from my place (maybe a 30- or 40-minute drive) and see the fireflies there. It's a different species and those fireflies actually synchronize their flashing, which I'm sure is an amazing spectacle.
|Tong Juan's famous stuffed crabs|
For dinner on the final evening of the short holiday, we drove the short 15-km distance north to the town of Chukai, just across the state line in Terengganu. One of my friends in KL is from the nearby town of Kuantan and recommended this place in Chukai called Tong Juan for their stuffed crabs. Located right by the river there, the ambiance-challenged restaurant serves up stuffed crabs for RM8 each. Now, perhaps it's because I was born and raised on the Gulf Coast in the US, but to me, stuffed crabs are nothing new, nor anything fancy. But this place is famous among Malaysians (who consider RM8, nearly US$3, for a single stuffed crab, somehow, to be a bargain), so we had to try it. We got the last remaining table and ordered four crabs, a couple of vegetables (kailan and kangkong), and two young coconuts (to drink). The crabs are stuffed with a mixture of crab meat and filler (breading, herbs, etc.) and to me, weren't seasoned enough. The resultant product was almost devoid of any real flavor, although it was certainly fine to eat. Then the whole thing is dipped in an egg mixture, I think, and fried. Our total bill came to about RM60 and honestly, the meal was not worth that price tag. In KL, two people can eat good food and a lot of it for that price. And I know with certainty that I could make stuffed crabs at home that taste better. The ones at Tong Juan were fine, but bland. Naturally, there was no hint of gracious service whatsoever, which is, regrettably, to be expected. So to recap... rubbishy service, a total lack of ambiance, and good, but unexceptional food. Though I think the overall meal was certainly okay, this is not a place I'd patronize again, especially having to drive out of the way to get to it.
|It's not often you get to walk along a multi-level beach.|
Here, the upper level was a good two meters higher than
the lower level... all courtesy of the monsoon
On the same day, before we went to Chukai, we went back to "Turtle Beach" to see it during daylight hours; there were some really nice rock outcroppings and right-on-the-beach jungle I wanted to see. It's really a nice stretch... and curiously, the size of the beach increases and decreases significantly with the seasonal monsoon. Six months earlier, the beach extended 100m further out to sea. Each year, though, as the monsoonal flow shifts, the sea consumes the beach. You can see clearly in this picture the different places the water reached as it reclaimed the sand, resulting in a dramatic two-level beach.
We also got to see a beach monkey! The little bugger was probably casing the joint for a future raid on a clutch of freshly hatched turtles. I'll toss in a few more pictures from the walk here, captioned accordingly.
|Monkey on the prowl... I think it's a macaque|
|Walking along a desolate beach as the day's light wanes|
|Less than 50m from the sea, the sand gives|
way abruptly to dense foliage...
|The biodiversity of the jungle so close to the ocean was amazing|
(Click to enlarge and you'll see)
|This is a good one to enlarge as well. I'm not sure what these|
are (a species of barnacle, perhaps), but they were all over
this rock, particularly along the crevices
|More turtle tracks|
|Deep water- and wind-eroded striations in a massive rock formation|
that's likely been there for hundreds of millennia
|Small flowers on a beach-bound vine|
Overall, the trip was just really nice. Like I said, I've lowered my expectations here to the point where the things I've mentioned don't even ping my radar until I evaluate the experience later in my head. By local standards, this was a really enjoyable holiday and I'd definitely recommend a few days in Cherating to any KL resident wanting to chill out and enjoy some time on a beach without having to board a plane or spend a fortune.