Saturday, 19 November 2011

Tioman Island – The legendary paradise of Bali Hai

26 October  – 1 November 2011
After previously always diving with an instructor on what are referred to as discovery dives, Rob wanted to finally get his PADI Open Water Diving Certificate which would open up many more underwater opportunities. On the basis of very good Trip Advisor reviews, we selected B&J Dive Centre on Tioman Island as the first stop on our travels north  up the Malay Peninsula. Described as a quiet, but beautiful island featuring towering mountains covered in dense rainforest and surrounded by numerous top quality dive sites, the island virtually selected itself. The wrecks of the British warships Prince of Wales and Repulse that were sunk by Japanese aircraft during the battle for Singapore lay nearby but are unfortunately at a depth only accesable to more qualified divers.

Tioman Island is as close to Bali Hai as you'll find

Tioman was actually used as the mythical island of Bali Hai in the 1958 blockbuster musical South Pacific which added a little further interest for us. It turned out that most of the movie was shot in Hawaii but Tioman does still feature heavily.
The island is located on the east coast of Malaysia so getting there involved a two and half hour bus trip from Singapore and the island a further two hours on a high speed ferry. Development is restricted to five small bays on the western side and one on the east.
Click on any pic to see larger version
The ferry stops at each bay as they are mostly only connected by walking tracks. B&J Dive Centre is locatedat the second most northern stop, ABC Bay, which proved to absolutely beautiful.
The sand beach is coconut palm lined and book ended by two jungle covered, rocky headlands. Sitting on the beach you would have no idea there's anything else on the island providing a fantastic, isolated atmosphere where you can't help but relax. At low water rock pools are revealed for most of the length of the bay and just beyond them, quite a nice reef is home to a good range of live coral and plenty of fish including some that are quite large. Fortunately for them the whole area is a marine national park so there is no fishing allowed. After the huge areas of marine devastation we witnessed in much of Indonesia this was such a wonderful contrast.

As close as you'll get to a traffic jam at ABC Bay
The bay has no streets and no cars. A concrete path (the main road) runs along the beachfront from headland to headland and is just wide enough to accommodate small number of motor scooters with sidecars that are used to transport goods about the place. Unlike some of the other bays which have major resorts, multi-story buildings, golf course etc, ABC Bay has only a very thin strip of flat land between the sea and the very steep, dense jungle that rises very high to provide a stunning tropical backdrop to the beach. The jungle quickly reclaims any ground that is not constantly cleared of growth.

G&T's drunk from a coffee cup, Karen HAS learnt to rough it
Virtually all the accommodation is comprised of fairly simple, timber bungalows, none of which is further than thirty or forty metres from the beach. The dive centre had arranged our accommodation for us in a bungalow right next door to the their shop and only separated from the beach by the main road - ie: the little concrete path. The bungalow was quite new, air conned and in the perfect location with lovely gardens and we enjoyed many pleasant sundowners sitting on our veranda watching the world go by. Very nice for the equivalent of $35 Aus a night. Click to see where
After having spent most the day travelling we decided to have an early dinner at one of the beachfront restaurants closest to our  bungalow and turn in early. First lesson learned – it’s a very Muslim Island so (A) Most of the restaurants close from four to seven for evening prayers and (B) They don’t serve alcohol. 
 There are actually signs up warning that any Muslim convicted of serving alcohol was liable to up to two years imprisonment and twelve lashes of the cane. Scary stuff.

We became regulars at our favorite dining establishment

Never fear though, a couple restaurants were owned by westerners who employed non-muslim staff and at one place that turned out to be our favourite, the owner had conveniently converted to Christianity. Therefore he was able to sell and serve beer while his Muslim wife cooked the absolutely best food on the island, (but not between four and seven o’clock). We ended up eating most of our meals there including the most amazing barbecued spicy marlin steaks for the equivalent of $6 Aus. Huge, savory omelletes and toast were also a great way to kick start the day for $1.60.
We spent our first full day on the island exploring and even walked over the steep path at the southern headland to the next bay and two kilometres to the southern end where the main town was located. It is much bigger with normal roads, cars, the airport and a very nice well protected small boat harbour with the cleanest, clearest water we’ve ever seen in a marina. A number of yachts had made the place home and were enjoying long term, very, very cheap berthing.
The other bonus of Tioman Island is that for some tourist generation reason dreamed up by the government, like Langkawi Island on the north west coast,  it is a duty free haven. A can of beer at the duty free shop was 80c Aus. An 1125 ml bottle of Bourbon was just under $15. Seeing the temperature was now up into the low thirties and we didn’t want to walk all the way back carrying our 1125ml Jack Daniel’s, 1125ml Absolute Vodka, four bottles of white wine and 2 litres of Coke, we paid a local to run us back around to ABC Bay in his boat. How good is this place?

Multi-national naval fleet inc Aus ship anchored of Tioman

Rob spent the next day watching the PADI instructional videos, going through his pool dives and a dive on the reef out of the beach. As it was very near the end of the tourist season and the wet season was just starting to ramp up with thunder storms common each night, the dive shop was quieter than normal and Rob had the huge advantage of one on one instruction rather than being in a group. His instructor, Andy from Sarawak in Borneo was extremely experienced with perfect English making the course extremely enjoyable.

Just another excuse for sundowners

Meanwhile  while Karen caught some sun one the beach and had swim before heading off for a traditional Malaysian massage she’d booked for the afternoon. Following the narrow dirt path off the main road, she wound her way towards the steep jungle, climbed up two sets of stairs cut into hillside before finally reaching nirvana a tree house high above the beach looking out over the turquoise waters surrounding Tioman. The masseuse sat Karen down in a big fluffy bean bag style chair to quietly explain his methods and discuss the massage along with what therapeutic results could be achieved to cure whatever ailments she had. She explained that she simply had massages to relax and looking out over the bay half the job was already achieved before a hand had been laid on her.
Rob was done diving and relaxing on the veranda when Karen floated down the main road and into the bungalow singing the praises of Malaysian massage.  Twenty bucks well spent.  Just to loosen up after such  a big day, we shared a bottle of our duty free Sav Blanc and watched the tide go out.

Very happy times at B&J Dive Centre's beach front bar.

A plus of the B&J Dive Centre is the fact they have their own bar adjacent to their shop. It’s a fantastic atmosphere of an evening with all the students, instructors and other divers gathering for a few relaxing drinks after a day under the water. As we couldn’t get dinner until after 7.00pm we headed the seven or so metres over to the bar to join in for a pre dinner drink.  An additional plus, or minus depending on your view, is that the local Malay bartender, very clearly not a Muslim, likes everyone to be happy – so happy in fact that he threw away the nip measurer long ago and a typical Gin and Tonic consists of four shots of Gin, half a glass of ice, a slice of lemon and an inch of tonic in the top of the glass.  A bourbon and coke, being a man’s drink apparently, warrants about five nips of Jim Beam, ice,  a splash of coke, hold the lemon and looks much more like an ice. At $3 Aus a drink the bar clearly must make its money out of beer because duty free or not, the economics of their spirits sales is akin to the Greek Government’s fiscal management.
Two hours in the bar at the pace, stumble seven metres back to our door and all thoughts of dinner were lost in a G&T- Jim Beam haze as we fell into bed sleeping for over twelve hours. Thank goodness the boat didn’t leave until Nine for the following day’s dives at a nearby island.
Dive five with Andy, about to go down 25m
Karen didn’t join in diving on Tioman as her asthma had played up a couple of times on the rally and she didn’t want to risk any problems until she can consult a dive doctor when we return to Australia for Christmas . The dive centre however invited her to come out on the boat and go snorkelling while Rob did his dives and would not accept any payment.
Once again all we could think was ‘How good is this?’ A PADI course for a small fraction of the cost of doing it in Australia, one on one instruction diving on pristine coral reefs with great aquatic life including big rays, turtles, reef sharks and abundant fish, great, fun loving people and no charge for Karen. Even after Rob had completed his course they insisted that while we were on the island we could just grab gear from the shop anytime we wanted to go snorkelling on the reef off the beach.  Anyone in Australia wanting to do a PADI course would be well advised to fly over and do it here. The savings would almost pay for the airfare and you’d have a much better time.
The mask wasn't as scary as the drinks he poured
And so passed our six days on Tioman Island. Great diving, great snorkelling, fantastic food and heaps of fun with new friends from all over the world. Our last night coincided with B&J’s fancy dress Halloween Party at the bar. Despite our best intentions to just call in and say our goodbyes before having a quiet evening as we had to be up early for the first ferry, it just didn’t work out that way. The people were just way too much fun and the drinks were still supersized.
WE LOVED ABC BAY TIOMAN ISLAND.   We’re still not sure why we left.

The B&J Dive crew in full swing for Halloween
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