11 August 2012

Itchy Islands

By Asrif

It was as timely as a Britney Spears comeback.

Work has been painful for us. I used to joke that I have a work-life balance problem — it’s heavier on the life side. Not anymore. I’ve been missing out on my daily workout routine and Azalia had missed two episodes of Glee already. We were trapped in the air-conditioned solitary confinement that is the office, devoid of any sunlight and contaminated by radiation from the computer screen.

So when my wife Azalia told me that she had some work to do in Kota Kinabalu (from hereon referred to as — that’s right — KK) on a Monday, I wasted no time booking a flight for us to spend the weekend there. We simply had to run away from KL and its soul-crushing noise.

It’s been more than a year since I was last in KK. Two years back, I was there with The Godbros (yes that’s how we identify ourselves) for what critics aptly called “The Saddest Sausage Fest Ever”. But we had fun. It was then that we fell in love with KK. Everything was there… lush green forests, majestic mountains, serene islands, great seafood, and Filipino bands who could play songs of the Black Eyed Peas better than the Black Eyed Peas.

Then again, who couldn’t?

We touched down KK International Airport at about 10am. Since we only had less than 48 hours, we headed straight to Jesselton Point after checking into the hotel. Jesselton Point is where you take speedboats to island-hop at the Tunku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, one of my all-time favorite places in the country (alongside Batang Berjuntai — though I’ve never been there).

The park is made up of five islands: Manukan, Sapi, Gaya, Mamutik and Sulug. Each about 15 to 20 minutes boat ride from the jetty. So what we have here are actually five islands, only a stone’s throw away from downtown KK. Five clean and practically undeveloped islands so close to the city, locals say that if you’re at the islands at night, you can hear Careless Whisper pumping from one of the clubs in the state capital.

And because the islands are nearby, you don’t have to starve to buy the ticket to get there. The system isn’t that straightforward though.

The standard charge for you to get from the jetty to one of the islands is RM17 round trip. For you to get from one island to the other, it will cost an additional RM10. There is then a one time tariff fee of RM7 that you’ll have to pay at the jetty before departing. Lastly, is the Environmental Conservation Fee of RM3 for Malaysians and RM10 per day for foreigners. There is also an RM2 Breathing Fee for the oxygen you consume there. Okay I made that one up but still, quite a mouthful even for an MLM agent. In a nutshell, it costs less than RM50 if you’re hopping to three islands.

Reps from the dozen or so boat companies will mildly mob you as you enter the ticketing area. But since the rates are standard, you don’t have to worry about being cheated. Unless they say you’re getting to the islands on Cruise Ship (that’s the name of their bamboo raft).

The first and last boat out is at 730am and 430pm respectively. The last boat back to the jetty is at 5pm so unless you plan to camp or get yourself lost, make sure you’ve allocated ample time at each island before 5pm. People usually arrange the duration of their stay with the boat drivers. They’re very friendly and some of them speak better English than most of our politicians.

We went to Manukan and Mamutik, two of the larger islands, on the first day. Azalia has been in her snorkeling gear even before we boarded the boat so I had to calm her down when she saw the waters. It was crystal clear and you could see groups of fishes swimming between each other in harmony. A bit like KL traffic, if the cars were driven by the fishes instead of curse-spewing humans.

It came as a bit of a surprise to me really, witnessing such a sight. The last time I was there the waves were quite strong, causing — if my Oceanology serves me right — the fishes to be shy. So all I could see when I snorkeled back then were my friends’ hairy legs. That said, if you plan to visit the islands, avoid the monsoon season or come with friends with less hair on their legs.

Azalia had the time of her life swimming with the fishes she called herself the Little Mermaid after being underwater longer than I could ever be. I thought it was cool to play along but calling myself “the Big Merman” sounded wrong after a while. Plus I didn’t snorkel much anyway. I thought the shallow shoreline waters were a bit too elementary for my liking as a seasoned diver. That and I had to look after her handbag.

To cover all the islands in one day was a bit of a tall order. It was already 2pm when we arrived anyway and time moves too fast when you’re having fun. The Sun was ready to retire for the day as boats began to surround the jetty while the drivers run around the island looking for their lost Japanese tourists. Azalia drags herself ashore after reluctantly leaving her party under the sea begging, I mean, demanding us to return again the next day. “Okay.” I said, her handbag still on my shoulder.

It wasn’t easy leaving Jesselton Point with the Sun gracefully setting itself into the horizon. It was a sight too precious to be left behind. We leaned on our backs against the wooden chairs, stretching our legs by the shops only starting their business at dusk; our frozen gelato on the table slowly melting. There wasn’t much to do but listen to the sound of kids giggling between the sea breeze with the smell of smoked fish filling the air. We could have just slept into the silence of the night right there on the creaking planks of the jetty’s floor. Alas, KK is a vibrant city. We made our way at the first beat of Ace of Base blasting out of a pub nearby.

We began the next day refreshed, not knowing what time we fell asleep the night before, knowing we had an awesome day nonetheless. Already pumped up for another day in the sea, Azalia dragged me straight into the ocean seconds after breakfast. Wait, it was during breakfast actually. My omelette at the Egg Station wasn’t even ready yet when we hopped into the first cab to Jesselton Point.

It was time to explore Sapi and Sulug, two of the more low profile islands among the four. They’re like the bassist and that other guitarist in Foo Fighters. They’re there, but nobody really pays attention. They’re still pretty good, though.

Sapi and Sulug are relatively smaller than Manukan and Mamutik. The other island Gaya is of a considerable size as well but it homes the Gayana Eco Resort so there’s a bunch of resort-esque things going on there. Good enough reason to avoid it unless you want an island offering hotel quality toilets for free otherwise exclusive only for their guests.

So there we were, beginning our second day much earlier on a perfectly hot sunny day. Azalia had already transformed into one of the many safety jackets floating on the waters before I could settle myself seaside. It would be our final rendezvous with the beach for a while. The thought of work looming the day after drove us to really make the most of our time there. For that few hours at least, all we wanted to do was nothing.

The sight of foreigners smearing sun tan lotion all over their bodies and laying on the ground inspired me to do the same. Considering my natural tan could already make Snooki look like Conan O’Brien, I retired to a shadier area under a tree to immerse myself, and be one with the sand. The spirit of a true beach bum was within me. Throwing my towel away, there I was rolling on the beach covering every inch of my (upper) body with gorgeous tiny grains of crystalline sand. It was not a sight pretty to the eye.

“Mana?! Mana?!”

The loud voices of the boat drivers broke the silence of my sleep and brought me back from slumber. They’re back at the jetty with the roar of their diesel powered motors filling the air. “Mana?! Mana?!” they shouted again, still looking for their lost Japanese tourists. It’s the routine there, I guess.

It was time to leave and I was recharged. I had a good few hours stranding myself on the sands and snoring to the ire of the island’s inhabitants. Azalia, on the other hand, was on the verge of tearing up as she bid farewell to her underwater friends. I could only witness the heartbreaking sight and offer my sympathy and advice, “Don’t worry. You can always watch Spongebob on TV.”

We left the islands full of hesitancy. The lack of enthusiasm was clear on our faces as we let ourselves free to the blowing wind on the boat going at full speed for no reason. Such is the feeling of a city dweller. Forlorn at the thought of leaving serenity to return to the endless cycle of hours surrendered to the hands of the corporate world.

I flew home two days earlier as Azalia had some work to do — the actual reason she was there. I had to rush out of town to the airport after slowly taking all the time in the world to pack up. I left KK not without a heavy heart. There was no time for me to even bring any souvenir back home.

Or so I thought.

As I boarded the plane, a burning sensation began to creep up my legs. “Stupid fire ants!” at first I thought, before realizing that an aircraft is not their natural habitat. It must have been the beach bugs from when I was rolling on the sands earlier.

I could feel the itch spreading to the rest of my body. Panicked, and slightly concerned about how I would look to other passengers, I tried to remain calm. I told myself that it was all a figment of my imagination; a monumental task when you’re covered in rash the size of a small country. I made a total of seven visits to the lavatory throughout the 3 hour flight for “scratch relief”.

After two days of medication and a friendly antihistamine injection to my rear end, I learned a valuable lesson: If you need to roll shirtless on the beach, bring your grandpa’s scratching stick so that you could scratch easily when you’re on the plane later and not make seven visits to the lavatory.

This article was also published in our travel blog, Busking Barefoot.