Diving in Malaysia
Early in the summer of 2011, I overheard Cora discussing a possible scuba diving trip with a mutual friend in Hong Kong, Cecilia. I extended myself an invitation to join, and, along with another friend, Elton, crashed their girls’ holiday. I’d already traveled with Cora twice – once to Nepal the previous spring, and once to Vietnam just a few months before. All four of us attended the same church in Hong Kong, and all had either grown up or studied in Canada at some point in our lives. None of us had any scuba diving experience, however, and there wasn’t much enthusiasm to get our PADI Open Water in the murky seas around Hong Kong. After a bit of research we found a place in Malaysia where we could take the course and get qualified, while giving us space for a beach holiday as well.
The Pulau Perhentian are a group of islands just off the northeast coast of Malaysia, near the Thai border. There are two main islands, Pulau Perhentian Besar and Pulau Perhentian Kecil, and a number of smaller uninhabited islands belonging to the protected Marine Park. The two main islands are host to a number of dive shops and resorts, though Besar caters more towards families and Kecil is more popular with backpackers. We ended up booking Bubbles Resort on Besar as it was decently priced and got good reviews.
Getting to Pulau Perhentian is a multi-step process, involving two plane legs, a 1.5-hour car ride, and another 30 minutes by speedboat. We flew out of Hong Kong to Kuala Lumpur, staying one night at a nondescript hotel by the airport, before taking a domestic flight in the morning to Kota Bharu, the state capital of Kelantan. From Kota Bharu, we hired a car to drive us to Kuala Besut in the state of Terrenganu, and the gateway to the Pulau Perhentian. For the final leg, we boarded a speedboat that took us straight to Bubbles, located in the secluded bay of Tanjung Tukas and its impossibly blue waters.
We started our Open Water course the next morning under the instruction of a friendly South African divemaster. Normally, the course schedule would space out the instructional videos over the span of a few days, but he had us watch all of them in one morning in order to get them out of the way. After lunch, he led us through the pre-dive safety checks to familiarize us with the equipment, before going into the water for the first time. Over the next few days, he led us through a series of underwater tests – cleaning our masks, replacing our regulators, finding neutral buoyancy, reviewing hand signs, etc. – but his main method of teaching was to just go out and dive. For the written test, he encouraged us to write it all together and share our answers, reason being that those who dive together should write exams together.
Diving is as close as I’ll ever get to knowing the freedom of flight. Moving around was utterly effortless, and the experience of breathing underwater changed the way I thought about the ocean – a whole world of underwater sights opened up in front of me. I swam silently in the midst of swarming schools of bright, tropical fish, I hovered by a colony of sea anemones as clown fish darted in and out of the mass of tentacles, and I sat at the bottom and looked up at the strange sight of the bottom of our boat, bobbing on the waves at the surface. Regrettably, in the 4+ years since getting our Open Water qualifications, I don’t think any of us have actually gone diving again.
Life’s a Beach
In between our dives, we hung out on the pristine, white sand beach and went snorkeling among the shallower coral reefs closer to shore. One night, the resort staff got all the guests to lay down on the beach in absolute silence, and we watched as a sea turtle dug out a hole in the sand to lay her eggs. On another afternoon, we were able to release baby sea turtles into the ocean, as part of the resort’s conservation efforts. Besides the natural beauty of the location and the abundant wildlife, the smaller size of Bubbles and its relative seclusion also lent itself to community-driven experiences. There was a blackboard in the main dining area where people could advertise a group activity, and we spent a lazy morning doing yoga together with all the other guests. In the evenings, we chatted with more experienced divers, looking at their diving pictures and getting recommendations on other diving sites around the world.
Read Your Ticket Carefully
We had another day and a half in Kuala Lumpur after Pulau Perhentian, eating out at Jalan Alor Food Street and visiting the impressive Petronas Towers. We made a costly error, however, when we misread the departure time of our flight back to Hong Kong. As we had flown with a budget carrier, we were unable to get a replacement ticket, and we ended up shelling out a one-way ticket later that evening on another airline that cost more than our original roundtrip tickets.
The ticket fiasco put a definite damper on our holiday, but we were able to laugh/cry about it at the airport later. As it turned out, this would be the last time I’d travel with Cora until 2014, on another trip to Malaysia, and the only time I traveled with Elton. With Cecilia, I’d end up traveling with her again a few months later to ring in the new year on foreign soil.