Even when you tell people where Tioman Island is — that it's a patch of jungle off the east coast of peninsular Malaysia — you'll still get no glimmer of comprehension. Fine with me, because that makes Tioman everything I want in a castaway island, especially when seen from the perspective of a chilly Southern California winter's day.
I came here while traveling around Southeast Asia in October because I wanted to crash on a beach for a few days without spending a fortune. I'd read that Tioman is a regular Bali Hai, rimmed by beaches and a handful of villages — or kampungs — whose budget digs are colonized by divers and backpackers.
It has a single police station, airport and ATM, about a mile of paved road and just one large, self-contained resort that caters chiefly to package vacationers from Singapore and Malaysia's capital, Kuala Lumpur.
The otherwise undeveloped island is a Malaysian national park. Think thriving coral reefs, strangler plants, giant palms, flying squirrels, monitor lizards; don't think king cobras and reticulated pythons, but know they are here.
October seemed the right time for Tioman, just before the monsoon season essentially closes the island to visitors from November to March. So I booked a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Tioman for $70 round trip and reserved a beachfront chalet with air conditioning for $100 a night at an isolated eco-resort known for its natural setting and sea turtle breeding program, then took it from there.
Sometimes I like to travel without a lot of information. You can go wrong, for sure. Or you can have an adventure.
The little airport on Tioman sits beneath long-extinct volcanic peaks in the main village of Tekek, an agglomeration of mom-and-pop resorts — to use the term loosely — cafes and dive shops splayed along the waterfront. The Malaysian government recently completed an oversized marina in Tekek, vacant when I was here, and made the island a duty-free port, meaning cheap cigarettes and beer.
After landing, a couple of kids headed north on foot toward the backpacker hamlet of Air Batang and a bus from the big Berjaya Resort (a favorite, it appeared, of honeymoon couples) picked up everybody else.
I waited at the dock for my transfer to the Melina Beach Resort, which eventually arrived in the form of a small, sea-worn vessel with an outboard motor known as a bumboat. It took me south from Tekek, past villages with traditional Malaysian houses on stilts and government piers built hundreds of feet into the surf to ensure access during low tides. The scenery got wilder as we rounded the coast, a scalloped pie crust of sandy coves bounded on both sides by apparently impassable headlands.
Melina Beach, which gets a star in the Lonely Planet guide to Malaysia, is marked by a burgeoning beach almond tree and mounds of huge, surf-modeled boulders. The resort, whimsically designed and built by hand to avoid disturbing the natural environment, has no dock. I got my skirt wet walking about 50 feet from the boat to the beach, a carpet of coral shards, some shells and the occasional plastic bottle, washed ashore, perhaps, from the Texas-sized "Great Pacific Garbage Patch."
Also posted are hand-lettered signs that say "Falling coconuts." Although most of the signs had fallen down, even upright they seemed superfluous. Who in the world would be unlucky enough to get beaned by a coconut?
The maitre d' — again using the term loosely — an ageless Malaysian named Cheng Siong Suan, interrupted his sandbagging of some surf-eroded steps to give me a glass of frothy, freshly squeezed pineapple juice. He introduced me to the house cat, the hugely pregnant Marco Polo, pointed out treetops where macaques hung out and showed me the pen where endangered baby sea turtles, bred from locally purchased eggs, were kept before their launch into the ocean.
The resort's previous owner, a German named Peter, had started the hatchery, Cheng told me pointedly. The Irishman named Patrick Hedderman who had taken over a year ago would be there shortly, he added with a dour expression.
Remote little inns like Melina Beach often have their own stories. This one was "The Tempest," with Hedderman as the lonely wizard Prospero and Cheng as the doleful slave Caliban. They played an engaging tug-of-war.
Hedderman, who came to the resort as a guest for more than a decade before taking over, later explained that he bought it with his sister who runs a Singapore-based ecology field trip company for private school children. Even more than eco-tourism, exposing kids to nature is the Melina Beach mission. Part of the open-air dining pavilion is given over to a classroom with tropical fish charts and specimen jars, and bungalows in a tight semicircle at the rear of the camp-like compound serve as student quarters.
My room was in a dark and creaky cabin on the beach, so drably decorated that I kept wanting to hang new curtains. It had a feeling of tropical desuetude along with a porch, a net-swathed double bed and a private bath. The wall-less shower got everything wet when in operation and was irresistible to mosquitoes. I tried to kill as many of them as I could every time I went in; it was swat or be eaten.
I'd been hoping for a Malaysian Post Ranch Inn, so I was mildly disappointed. But I loved sleeping under mosquito netting and the AC proved effective. Besides, the resort's raison d'etre is the natural environment — mosquitoes included, I guess.
And what an environment it is.
I immediately pulled on my bathing suit and waded into the surf, snorkel mask at hand. As the shallows deepened, I swam, eventually finding the reef, a garden of staghorn, brain, table and tunicate corals so brightly colored you'd swear they were fake. It was like the backdrop for an underwater opéra bouffe made of mauve, chartreuse, cherry and sulfur yellow coral mountains with a cast costumed as tropical fish. Later I used the resort's natural history booklet to identify some of the varieties: golden damsel, banded butterfly fish and red-breasted wrasse.
I'd never seen such a flourishing reef. Two hours flew by while I snorkeled, plunging deep to inspect groves of long-spined, silver sea urchins; huge, phallic sea cucumbers; and orange clownfish foraging in pink-tasseled sea anemones, their symbiotic partners. Sometimes I felt a nibble at my feet and jackknifed to catch sight of a snapper in speedy retreat.
After that there was no flashy tropical sunset. The pale pink and blue of the sky just got softer and softer until it was night and the lights in the dining hall came on. Over barbecued tiger prawns and vegetable stir-fry, accompanied by a glass of Australian Sauvignon Blanc, Hedderman described the reef's vulnerability to great and small dangers, including bumboat anchors and a new international airport planned on reclaimed coast in front of the resort but postponed when conservationists protested.
Given the construction that has turned much of mainland Malaysia into South Florida, Tioman's relatively pristine state seems miraculous. It has escaped intensive development, Hedderman said, not so much because of environmental concerns but because of the country's bumiputera laws, aimed at keeping land in the hands of ethnic Malaysians. On Tioman they live in ramshackle houses with jerry-built utilities. There's little incentive to change. Even for stray cats, living is easy and lush.
I wanted to explore the nearby villages of Genting and Paya, connected to the resort by an overgrown path through the jungle, presumably creeping with giant millipedes, lizards and snakes. After inspecting the trail head at the back of the resort, I decided to stay put until I started talking with one of the eco-field trip teachers from Singapore. Her students were so pampered and citified that some of them didn't know how to make their own sandwiches when they got there. But after a week at the resort, they were identifying briny sea creatures and thrashing, dauntlessly, through the rainforest.
So I tagged along with them the next morning on a walk to Genting, about half a mile south of Melina Beach. The rocky path was steep but well-worn, with dilapidated bridges over ravines. The group stopped to observe a long-tailed macaque in a jackfruit tree and listen to the call of a tailor bird.
When we arrived at the village, the kids took out their cellphones to call home and bought postcards in little variety stores. But I went on, passing the waterfront volleyball court and mosque, a monitor lizard on a tree in someone's backyard, a group of village men playing poker.
At the last resort before the path petered out, I met a Malaysian couple breakfasting on fried fish they caught that morning, sat down with them for a taste and talked about their recent trip across Asia on the Silk Road.
Every morning after that I found resort guests to join me on field trips — a bumboat cruise to Asah waterfall south of Melina Beach and a hike across the island to the village of Juara, just as dilapidated as Genting but smaller. Cheng lightened up marginally. When I told him I was scared of snakes he caught a baby python and displayed it at breakfast.
Hedderman told me about his plans to build new bungalows, grow herbs and hire a biologist to take guests on nature walks and snorkeling expeditions.
Every afternoon I went back into the fish bowl for another episode in the continuing saga of "As the Reef Turns."
On my last morning I was lying on a wooden chaise waiting for my bumboat transfer back to the airport when I heard a thud and realized a coconut had dropped about 2 inches from my shoulder.
I was shocked at first, but then I laughed.
Truly, it's as Caliban says in "The Tempest":
The isle is full of noises,
Sounds, and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not.