Island Hopping Malaysia: Pulau Tuba

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Anything you could possibly want to do, eat or see as a tourist is available to you on Langkawi. We passed on the parasailing, jet skiing, boat tours, and banana boats, but did have our share of Mexican food and Pizza and more than a few Tiger beers.

Beach tourism can get a little monotonous, and even after moving hotels to one right on the beach with a pool, we were itching to DO something.

So we boarded a boat for Pulau Tuba, a nearby island where we had located a tiny little beach resort that looked beachy and inviting.  We met our taxi boat at a floating pier near the main ferry terminal, and paid 10 ringgits for Mark and I each (about £2), and Austin was free. We skidded out from the harbour among the giant car ferries and luxury yachts, and were soon passing little cone shaped island paradises with white sandy coves, karst cliffs and green jungly mountains. Now we felt like we were actually doing something, or at least going somewhere, and with the islands opening up before us, we again felt like adventurers.

We were greeted at the ferry port on Tuba by a smiling little man in a four seater golf cart. We piled on our bags and he took us to the  beach village a few minutes away that was home to our secluded resort, the Tuba Beach Resort.Tuba Beach Resort

As cosy island properties go, it was relaxed, quiet, clean, and breezy. It sat at the end of a little cove with green cliffs surrounding it on one side, and a long narrow pier stretching far out into the water. We saw monkeys playing on the beach under the cliffs, and fish jumping in the water.  Colourful little wooden cabins sat on stilts among tall mangrove trees, and a raised wooden path led to a small private beach and a cool blue pool that overlooked the water.

Our cabin had wide porch that overlooked the garden and across the pool and the beach, with a wide view out over the water.

We felt miles away from everywhere.

After a swim to cool off, Mark and Austin went off to explore our cove, while I stayed back at our cabin to relax. They were gone for ages, so I took a walk out on the pier. So far I haven’t seen one person actually walk down a single pier since we’ve been in Malaysia. Nope. Motorbikes are king, and that includes taking your motorbike wherever you’re going, even if that means driving it out over the water on a long narrow pier!

The tide was starting to come in, and the flats out in front of our hotel were quickly being swallowed up by the water coming in gentle surges. The pier must be about a km long, and as I went further out, two tall ships with three masts each came into view from behind some nearby islands. This scene could easily have been the 18th century, and they could have been pirate ships raiding the treasures of the islands, or burying their hordes of rum. Instead, I learned they’re maritime university ships that run their classes from those boats.

When I got out near the end of the pier, the hotel manager and his staff were enjoying the evening with a little fishing. They had caught a couple of little brightly coloured tropical fish, when one of the women let out a big whoop and swung a puffer fish onto the pier. Terrified, the fish puffed himself up, one pump at a time. He sounded exactly like a bicycle pump airing himself up until he was the size of a football and looked exactly like an Angry Bird! He was spiky and dangerous to touch, so all she could do was cut her line, and wait for him to audibly deflate himself until he just looked like a fat jiggly blob.

The staff at our hotel made us feel like honoured guests, and seemed to have a sense of what visitors might find fun or different. They invited me to try fishing with them, so I threw a line out in the water and held it in my hands, waiting. I’m not a very good fisher woman in Malaysia, and gave up after about half an hour, and started heading in to shore.  

They later taught Austin how to fish for crabs under the piers of the hotel when the tide came in, running around chasing crabs until he had enough for a hand caught crab feast – which they cooked especially for him in the middle of the morning. 

Back on the pier, the late afternoon light was playing against the building storm clouds, creating spectacular colours, evolving from pastel pink to bright fuschia, fiery gold and sinister looking black clouds. The water was so still that the clouds reflected in the water and you lost sight of where the sea ended and the sky began. It all merged into a smooth mirror – the sky reflecting the water and the water reflecting the sky.

Over one of the little islands in the distance, a partial rainbow came into view, and even it reflected into the water creating an odd sideways crescent effect to the rainbow. The entire effect of the sky and the water together was otherworldly, and I stood there just watching them both until, in an instant, the sun dipped, erasing the bright colours into eerie shades of golden grey and deep blue, and the winds stirred the water so that the reflections dissolved into nothingness.  

The storm that had been rumbling in the distance was whipping itself up, and it was time to go in.

Mark and Austin had just returned from their excursion when I got back, and the wind was really starting to howl. We hurried up to change clothes and find a restaurant in our little village before the storm hit.

We had become accustomed to the daily deluge that built up during the day and poured its heart out into massive heavy wet downpour for half an hour before petering out, the skies clearing once again. It had rained like this every day since we landed in Kuala Lumpur, and Mark assured us that this was the way of things in Malaysia, having experienced it for himself when the worked here.

But this storm was no afternoon shower. We raced to the one little open air restaurant in the village and got there just as the thunder and lightning took centre stage, clapping and booming right on top of us. The drum solo lasted for a full 15 minutes before the rain started. And my god, even after growing up in Houston, I have never seen such heavy rain in all of my life.

We were dry under the little tin roof of the restaurant, and without a menu, the friendly owner offered us chicken rice, which we devoured.

Half the little village turned up – at least the men – armed with umbrellas and headlamps, and it was a fantastic community atmosphere to pass the night. A big homemade wooden checkerboard came out on one of the tables, and two men – one old one young, both dressed in tartan sarongs — went head to head over a series of fierce games played with red and white bottle tops as checkers.

We had brought a pack of Uno cards on our trip and have now racked up hundreds of games, including many played in the common rooms of our mountain lodges with guides, porters and other trekkers. Tonight, though, we had brought a regular deck of cards, and we taught Austin to play Gin. He loves identifying patterns and sequences, so we thought it might come pretty naturally to him.  We all played with our cards out on the table to illustrate what we were doing until it was clear that he got the gist if the game.  

He managed to beat us – he spanked us, really – by a wide margin, and without us deliberately throwing any hands! So our hunch was right, and if he ever asks you to play gin, be prepared to be hustled!

Island exploration on a scooter

We’re now addicted to scootering around islands, and on our second day on Pulau Tuba, we rented a motorbike – the only one available in the village to rent, and all three of us piled on and went exploring, island style.

Tuba is actually two islands, Pulau Tuba and Pulau Dayang Bunting – connected by a bridge across a narrow channel. We went as far as we could go on both islands, following the “roads” that were basically paved motorbike paths along the water, into the jungle, and through vast shady rubber tree plantations.

We explored every paved inch of those two islands, and some unpaved inches as well. We rode out onto piers, chased monkeys into the jungle, dodged sacred herds of cattle, and even stared open mouthed as two big scary looking monitor lizards crept across our paths! We can attest that they really do run as fast as Planet Earth documentaries say they do.

The rubber treee plantations smelled like balloons, and were cool and shady on an otherwise hot and windy island. Each tree was equipped with a little bucket at the bottom of a long diagonal slice in the bark that channeled the gelatinous rubber sap to be collected and hauled off to the nearby factory for processing. There were acres and acres of these trees, and without looking like a big industry, it clearly was, with islanders quietly harvesting the rubber, one little pot at a time.

For our lunch, we stopped at a little shop and bought some pot noodles and fruit to make a picnic on a little beach we were hoping to discover. It didn’t take long before we found a perfect little stretch of white sand punctuated with shady palm trees and big black boulders next to a jungly cliff. The perfect little corner of paradise.

I poured water into the noodles and set them onto a rock in the sun to “cook” while we went exploring. We found seashells, interesting bits of rock, and a big green coconut that we took turns bashing against a rock until we got it opened. We even tried out or survival skills, and tried to start a fire with bits of glass, coconut fibres, and the insides of lighters that had washed up on the beach. Two things we learned from that: 1. A hell of a lot of lighters wash up on beaches, and 2. We’d starve if we were marooned on an island.

We spent a couple of hours in that little beach paradise all by ourselves, before returning the bike and cooling off in the pool at our hotel. We settled in to do some school in the shade during the hottest part of the day, and relished the silence and sunshine – so close to civilisation, but so far away.

Pulau Tuba turned out to be a delightful surprise. We didn’t know what we’d find when we got there, and the hospitality of the staff at our resort, together with the sense of discovery as we explored on our motorbike, went together to create a really special diversion from the over-developed touristy island of Langkawi.

Taking the road less travelled – or in this case, the island less travelled to – has its risks, but also huge rewards.  Tuba was a welcome diversion, and on that island, we reconnected with nature, with each other, and felt part of a family that reached beyond ourselves.

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