>Summer colours of Tioman.

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If I could recite the colours of June, they would be for me: ochre, azure, teal, aquamarine, mauve, emerald, sand. Then again, this was in Tioman, where it is presumably summer year-round. But yet, when the tropical squall hits and steel grey skies cloud overhead, the colours of summer vanish, replaced by white tip waves and a grey forbidding sea. The lightness fades into a heavy dull tones.

Writing about this now in December, Tioman seems like a lifetime away. But we had such a good time there that unanimously, we all decided that we would be back next year.

I had hesitated for years about going to Tioman. I was worried I could not take the 2hour ferry ride from Mersing since I was so prone to motion sickness. But Rita’s stories were too persuasive and we were also looking for something different beyond the Malacca-KL route, so it seemed like a good time to try Tioman.

We paid about $800+ for two beachside doubles at the Paya Beach Resort which included the return ferry fare as well. Rita had opted to take the bus from Singapore but we opted to drive from Malacca down to Mersing, cutting across Johor’s midsection via the hilly rubber plantations and pineapple groves of the Kluang district.

The drive itself was something new since this would be our first time but it proved surprisingly easy – just take the NS Highway from Malacca towards JB, turn off at Kluang and go straight (only one road) towards the east coast. The ride was picturesque and curvy at times, bumpy too. Traffic was light except for the occasional lorry. Neat orderly rows of rubber and pineapple stretch into the horizon.

We arrived at Mersing and spent the night at the Hotel Havanita, just off the main Mersing-JB road. The family suite was generously sized with a sitting area and two bed rooms with a smallish chaise-lounge which Owain took. It stormed really badly the whole night which left us apprehensive for the boat ride the next day but luckily, the next morning was clear and sunny!

I dosed myself with anti-sickness meds before the ferry ride. But the ferry left later than expected – almost an hour late! The ride to Tioman did not feel very long and along the way we passed some pretty small islands with a glimpse of of some tantalising white sand. The ferry stopped at Pulau Rawa about half an hour into the journey. We loved the clear blue waters and the little chalets perched on rocks but later found out that these were so expensive that they did not seem worth the money when we had had such a good experience at Paya Beach.

We finally arrived at Tioman around 2pm only to find the Tans already there and lounging around at the Sunrise Cafe. Lest you think this is a swanky place, it really is just a wooden warung just next to the jetty and along Paya Beach’s main and only drag. But with cheap and good food, who cares! It really fits the laidback island atmosphere to a T and we have several fond memories of eating there. The kids lived on the Ramly burgers for practically the whole trip and Owain loved the chicken Maggi soup noodles. I tried to tell him these were no different from the instant noodles we get at home but he insisted these were better! Must be the salty sea air!

There was a bit of a commotion when we checked in though – the Front Desk did not have enough rooms for us. Seems like some overbooking was going on. They could only give us one of the beachfront rooms instead of the two that we booked. There was a deluxe suite available and we insisted they upgrade us to this one. Moral of the story – come in on the earliest ferry to secure your room, even if you already have a booking.

Deluxe suite was great – king-sized bed, king-sized bed/sofa in the living room, big jacuzzi and outdoor shower – all elicited wows from us. Until we realised there was a distinct smell of sewage coming in from somewhere nearby.

But that detail didn’t bother us because our time was mostly spent outdoors in the water or on the beach. From this point on, the hours just rush past in a blue-green-ochre blur.

This is a tiny island within wading distance of the resort’s beach. There was a sliver of white sand beach. The waters were crystal clear but the barnacle-encrusted rocks were a hazard and the cuts and grazes on the kids were testimony to this. Just a little offshore was the fast-fading remnants of a once colourful coral garden. While some still maintained their colour, most were already bleached. Sadly, it seems this is the situation all around Tioman, the island being just another victim of the relentless tide of global warming and warmer seas.

Island sunsets are often memorable. The ones on Tioman were no exception. Interestingly enough I thought the colours were muted instead of showy – no bright blazing orange balls, just a dull bronze that slowly sank into the sea, leaving a bronzed trail over water.

Dinner was sea food cooked in various ways, all of them palatable. Was the food really good? Or was it the company, the pink glow on the faces of the children amid the chatter of friends that made it so? We don’t really care. Dessert was the incredibly cheap stick of Magnum ice-cream from the mini-mart down the lane, made even sweeter by the fact this was RM4 instead of SGD$4! Hanging out with ice-cream and friends, peering into the darkness of the sea and knowing the next day was another to be filled by more sun and sea… that was a really good feeling.

Morning belonged to the beach. Later in the afternoon, as the sky turned a bit grey with the promise of rain, we headed inland to the waterfalls and a lovely private pool carved out of rock. We had to cut through another smaller resort to get there, this was a more budget, laidback version of the Paya Beach.

You certainly don’t see laundry lines like these anymore. They really brought back nice memories of a different, slower pace and time.

A short trek over a murky creek, upslope on a gentle jungle trail and there it was. The pool could fit us all in – 10 kids and 4 adults from both the Tan and Chong broods and another family, friends of the Tans. The rock pool was great! Water was clear right through to the sandy bottom on the pool, but icy cold and took some getting used to. Occasionally a crab or two would come out from under the rocks and give a good nip as punishment for us invading its sanctuary. There were other pools further up but these were deep and not suitable for the younger kids.

The day ended with another visit to the rocks of the tiny island adjacent to the resort. Striding on the sandbar with water pushing against my legs, the sun on my shoulders, my body unused to exercise felt sore. Still, I had the satisfaction of knowing that at least here I was getting more exercise than I ever would back home where it was so easy to just revert to my slug-like existence.

With the younger kids on a kayak pushed by the men, the older kids and adults had life jackets on as they snorkelled and swam around the coral garden. At least that’s what most of them did. I was just busy flailing my arms about trying to flip myself over like a turtle on the wrong side and alternately clutching KH in a panic trying not to drown.

Poor man, on his part he was trying NOT to drown since I was using him as a life preserver. You can tell by now that water is not my best element and that it has been years since I actually swam and not just splashed about in the baby pool keeping an eye on the kids. Add that to the fact that on a good day, my hand-eye co-ordination could be said to be only ‘developmental’, and you can imagine the panic I was in to be floating (a) in the open sea and (b) with nothing but a life-jacket to keep me afloat and not fish food.

Still, when I did manage to get my gears in order, the glimpses that I caught of the coral garden revealed a world of pink, purple and blue, with flashes of yellow, silver, black, teal and orange occasionally darting past my line of sight. Sometimes these were glowing and luminous. Petrified though I was, I had to concede it was fascinating and very pretty. Just amazing. Who knew that life under the sea was really so colourful and lovely? And all this while I just chalked it down to snazzy cinematography in documentaries and skillful lighting in aquariums!

So, yes it was beautiful and pretty and all that, but it still felt a bit surreal to be floating in what seemed like a giant aquarium tank to me. It occurred to me, rather uncomfortably, that here I was at the bottom of the food chain.

The others loved it though and there was non-stop chatter about all the discoveries they’d made, chief of which was the sting ray they’d seen half hidden beneath a rock. Ivan found a dead baby black-tipped reef shark and that ended up on our dinner table that night as sambal shark – yummy!

By day’s end, there was a pleasant soreness in my body, and despite the use of sunscreen, my shoulders were dull pink from the sun. But it felt good. It felt a bit sad to know that this was our last night and we had to leave the next day.

But leave we had to. Good to know that we all decided, pretty unanimously, that we would be back in 2011. There are still plentiful green nooks we have not fully explored, unknown coves to be kayaked to and just the sheer green-blue waters to plunge into.

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