Why did I choose Malaysia? Well, I’m not entirely sure, but a significant part of my decision-making process was based on Google Images searches for “Malaysia beaches” and “South Africa beaches” for my tied-for-first-place choices of countries I could choose for my scholarship. I decided on Malaysia because geographically I can never be more than a few hours from the beach, so I thought I would get to go to the gorgeous beaches a lot. Now I haven’t spent much time at beaches, but I am still so happy I am here! And this week I got to go to the gorgeous islands that reminded me of why I came here in the first place!
I spent this week in Terengganu, a state on the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, for my two-week Short Term Exchange staying with Ying, a Malaysian host sister, and Anna, from Hungary.
We woke up early Monday morning and met the other six AFS students in Terengganu for STE at the bus station where we had arrived two days before.
We took the bus to a boat jetty about 40 minutes from the center of Kuala Terengganu. We rode on the small motorboat (about the size of the Baltimore Water Taxi) from a river out across increasingly beautiful turquoise blue water past green forested islands. The boat ride was about 40 minutes long, and the further we went the more beautiful the view became.
A note: I took photos of the beautiful water and islands, but of course they couldn’t capture the full beauty, and then the following day my iPhone met an unfortunate fate and all photos were lost.
We arrived on Pulau Redang and got settled in our rooms at the resort, which had a typical summer camp vibe, but with hammocks and a tiki bar and surrounded by gorgeous island views.
After lunch, we walked along the beach and went swimming! Pulau Redang (Redang Island) is a pretty big island, but the resorts are confined to one long stretch of beach. We were told that some native kampungs (villages) exist inland, but they are separated from the tourists and we didn’t see any evidence of them. One part of the island is home to a university sea turtle conservation center. The island looks like it is mostly forested, and there are only about seven resorts, all in one part of the island which is walkable in ten minutes.
Later, we went snorkeling! We took a boat to a cove on another side of the island, where we jumped off into the gorgeous water and were welcomed into an entire underwater world. Every time we went snorkeling I was awestruck by the entirely different world that exists under the surface of the water. Looking down from the boat, the water looked beautiful, but I had no idea that there was so much life under there until I peeked under with goggles (which leaked, unfortunately, but it was still amazing!). I was elated by the pure number of fish (which a few years ago would have scared me half to death combined with deep water) and the diversity that existed. (And I thought Malaysian culture was diverse!) The area was full of boulders covered in corals, anenomes, and aquatic plants. There were the most colorful fish I’ve ever seen, so many kinds and so many sizes. We followed one of the guides who pointed out a huge Moray eel! (Another thing that would have positively terrified me a few years back)
We took turns jumping off the front of the boat into the water. Once our hour was up and my goggles sufficiently filled with water, we got back on the boat and headed back to our resort where we had a typical Malaysian tea break.
Grace (USA), Matteo (France), and I had brought our ukuleles (mine wrapped in a t-shirt inside the case as extra padding— taking extra care since it is my host cousin’s ukulele) so we sat in hammocks and practiced playing songs while other friends sang along.
In the evening, around shark feeding time, we went snorkeling again. This time we were on the hunt for sharks— but don’t worry, they were vegan. (The guide said vegetarian, but I don’t think the South China Sea has a lot of dairy or eggs, so I’ll go ahead and say vegan.) Even close to shore, in a human swimming area, there were so many fish! We followed the guide around the coast into deep water and saw a baby shark! The shark didn’t notice us, but we did have to worry about the trigger fish which seemed to be circling us. This very large, very scary-looking fish is able of breaking human hands, and it was a bit frightening.
Later, we went back in towards shore and swam in the shallow water for a bit before going back towards the resort. We played ukulele more and then watched the sunset from the beach.
After dinner, some of us walked around the island and sat on the beach playing ukulele. There were so many stars and we had the good fortune of being there during the full moon, so needless to say, it was all beautiful. Later on, I walked with the other half of the group down to a restaurant where we got French fries, having fun together and listening to indecipherable Chinese music. Eventually we went back to the resort and met up with the rest of the group to enjoy fancy mocktail (juice) drinks.
The next morning, we woke up early to see the sunrise. The sunrise was phenomenal, and we took an amazing time lapse video on my phone, which luckily I had sent to someone else before the later drowning of my phone, but the quality isn’t nearly as good now; on my phone it had looked almost three-dimensional!
I walked down the beach by myself to look at tide pools and carefully tried not to trip on rocks. I laid in a hammock where I accidentally (but not regretfully) fell asleep to the sound of crashing waves and feeling of warm sunlight.
Once I woke up, I joined the others for breakfast, and then we got ready for our third round of snorkeling. I decided to bring my phone, which already had an Otterbox waterproof case that I supplemented with a clear waterproof phone pouch. We took the boat to a smaller island with a “marine park” (basically a beach with a roped off area for snorkeling.) I tested my phone barricade layers by dipping it into the water— all seemed good! We went to a shipwreck, where I took blurry (but still pretty) photos through the bag. The shipwreck was so cool! Judging by the part of the boat that was sticking out of the water, I thought it was a moderately sized fishing boat, but it was actually a huge ship! The coral, anemones, and barnacles attached to it were extremely colorful, as were the fish. I dove down to get better views and looked inside the ship.
We went back to the shallower section and I decided to take my phone out of the extra pouch so that I could get clearer photos. (I’m sure everyone anticipates what happened next, so Disclaimer: it was still in the waterproof Lifeproof Otterbox case. I did not put my bare iPhone into the sea; the case used to be waterproof!) And yes, then the case filled with bubbles of water, so I ran across the beach to our table and struggled to take the case off and dry the phone (which was showing the white screen with the Apple logo as what seemed to be its final goodbye and message of goodwill.)
I was fine with not having an iPhone anymore— good, I will waste less time on my phone— but thinking I had lost almost 10,000 photos from the most significant year of my life? That was rough.
I went back out snorkeling, determined not to let a little metal box distract me from the world-renowned beauty I could see in the water. (Malaysia has some of the world’s best snorkeling and diving!) But like all elephants in the room that we tell ourselves we Must Not Think About, I had trouble forgetting about it despite my best efforts to force my lost-photo worries out of my mind. Still, the fish were amazing, and if I had to feel sad and bummed about losing photos, there was no place I’d rather be.
Back at the resort, we put my phone in rice (easy to find, thank goodness for Asia!)
Spoiler: I didn’t lose all the photos! Most of them (except for October, which seems to have mysteriously disappeared) were backed up on my computer thanks to iCloud photo stream, but I didn’t find them till about a month later. I only lost the photos I took after we left wifi for the last time and went to the island, and then I couldn’t take any photos after that except by borrowing other peoples’ phones.
Later some friends and I swam out to an area where we were told there was a post box, a formerly functional mailbox that was knocked down in the last monsoon season. On the way out there, we saw amazing coral and fish, and we took photos with the GoPro that a friend had rented (after the accident with my phone). The guide took photos of us with a very fancy underwater camera.
Later, we went snorkeling again! Each place we went to had different types of reefs and aquatic life, and each was gorgeous. Here we saw clownfish (like Nemo), colorful sea anemones, more parrotfish, and huge schools of fish.
Unfortunately, it looked like environmental problems had really taken a toll on most of the reefs. They weren’t nearly as vibrant and colorful as we’d anticipated — evidence of coral bleaching– and we could see many plastic bags and bottles buried underneath rocks. Still, it was amazing, and it was a gift to witness this fragile ecosystem.
In the evening, we went searching for sharks again! I saw two more, having first missed some when my goggles broke and I had to swim a panicked 50 meters to catch up with the guide who was kindly able to fix them. We again were circled by a scary triggerfish.
Back on land, some of us attempted to play volleyball on the beach and then in the water. It was very fun despite our lack of skill.
Later, Grace and I spent a good 30 minutes or so attempting to untangle our hair, which had begun to form dreadlocks over the past few days. I used up an entire small bottle of conditioner and was met with moderate success, leading me to understand the appeal of island dwellers having dreadlocks.
Speaking of which, I have decided to someday be a scuba diving instructor on an island! (or snorkeling, since first I would have to learn to scuba dive). I absolutely love the beach, and living on an island is a major dream of mine. (I don’t want dreadlocks though.)
This was our last night on the island (out of two nights) so we were all a little sad to be leaving so soon. We walked around and I bought souvenir gifts for people back home (starting early!) We walked all along the island and then back to the beach near our resort, where we laid under the stars and played ukulele. Grace and I stood in the sea and yelled things out to the ocean, truly appreciating the stars, the moon, and the beauty surrounding us.
We woke up for the sunrise on our final morning on the island. It was beautiful with the huge red sun rising over the shimmering South China Sea.
I had wanted to go for a run on a trail through the island this morning, but with my foot still hurting and no one to join me, I decided against it. I guess I’ll have to come back!
I painted with watercolors while we watched the sunrise. Later two other girls and I climbed up the big rocks of a peninsula jutting out from one end of the beach. Everything was so beautiful, and even though I knew a photo wouldn’t capture it, I really wanted to take photos of the beautiful scenery (probably wishing so because I knew I couldn’t). (I used a friend’s phone to take the pictures below) But of course it was even more amazing in person, so I guess everyone reading this will just have to come to the island for themselves!
Later, everyone else went back to where we were staying, but I walked to the end of the beach. I picked up trash as I went (of which there was a surprising amount; once you start looking, litter is everywhere, even on well-maintained tropical resorts islands, but this doesn’t surprise me at all considering the ridiculous amounts of litter throughout Malaysia— and the rest of the world.) I also found some beautiful shells and coral skeletons. I realized that I really do enjoy picking up trash and decided that if my dream of being a scuba diving instructor doesn’t work out, I would also be happy living on an island spending every day picking up trash!
I found everyone else at breakfast, and then we packed up our rooms to leave the island at 9am. All of us were very sad, but I think I was especially so: Post-Island Depression is definitely a thing. We took the boat back to the jetty, and then back to Kuala Terengganu by bus.
We spent the rest of the day around Terengganu and shopping in the big supermarket and a bookstore where I bought a Malay chapter book to read!
Thursday we spent the day at the Terengganu Buddhist Association. We were dressed in traditional Han Dynasty clothing and had a photo shoot. Later, we had a tour of the association, including the meditation room, the library, a dance studio, and a large prayer room with a huge golden Buddha statue. We had a Chinese tea ceremony and learned about the significance of tea in Chinese culture.
Later, we went to a Thai steamboat restaurant for dinner.
We went to a large supermarket to buy ingredients for the next night’s potluck dinner in which each student made traditional food from our countries. In the market we met an AFS returnee and found out that two of our friends had also been there right before we arrived. We met Ibe there since she would spend the night with us so we could go hiking early the next morning. We had a surprisingly fun time walking around the grocery store and pointing out strange Malaysian ingredients as well as delicious ones from home— veggie burgers! granola bars! good salad dressing!
We woke up early Friday to go hiking up a mountain! It was a long, steep hike but it was nice to be surrounded by jungle (though there was deforestation going on in some parts). We stopped a few times to rest in between climbing up very steep paths and sometimes trekking through lots of plants. At some parts, the guide (another friend of Ying) had to use a tool to dig footholds in the dirt since it was so steep. We stopped at a big area which will soon become a hang gliding site, where we enjoyed the view and took photos. We could see a big part of Kuala Terengganu and although the day was a bit cloudy we saw the South China Sea.
Later we finished hiking to the peak of the hill. This part of the hike was much more dense rainforest, with tall trees, vines, and all sorts of shrubbery. Some of the trees had huge spikes on them, an adaptation I’ve seen on a lot of jungle trees throughout Malaysia. We went back down and rested again. I went off to a more jungle-like part and sat on a big boulder for a while, enjoying the nature I’ve longed for. Even though this country is home to incredible diversity in nature, I feel that I am usually separated from it and can’t enter the forest or nature. Many rainforest areas have been cut down for palm oil plantations, which would still be nice to go in, but entry is usually prohibited by big red signs showing an officer pointing a rifle at a trespasser.
We walked to a river and saw a great deal of litter on the path; I picked up as much as I could but barely made a difference.
Terengganu state is run by an Islamic political party, so the state has some particularly strict rules that aren’t found in the rest of Malaysia. The population is mostly Muslim (a larger percentage than most of Malaysia) with a small minority of Chinese and very few Indians.
On Fridays, the Muslim holy day, everything shuts down between noon and 3pm to encourage Muslims to go to prayers. All restaurants and shops are supposed to shut down, including the huge chain supermarkets and malls. Thursday nights all entertainment is banned, so the huge movie theater, the bowling alley, and karaoke shops are all closed. The movie theater and bowling alley were very recently opened (the movie theater opened while we were in KT) after forty years in which the town couldn’t have them due to rules about Muslim male-female interaction.
A note: remember, these rules are not good, not bad, just different; it is the job of neither me nor anyone else reading this to judge, only to observe.
I am not entirely certain of this, but from my understanding: Terengganu has a close proximity law that if an unmarried, non-related male and female are touching (even riding on a motorbike together) witnesses could call a certain official government department and have them sued. If a couple is caught somewhere (like on the beach or in a dark movie theater) they will be promptly be taken to be married.
Entertainment is closed down Thursday nights, including karaoke venues, the theater, and the bowling alley, since the Muslim holy day begins the next morning. The school week runs Sunday til Thursday, with Friday and Saturday as the weekend.
We went to lunch at one of the few open shops we could find and got mee goreng (fried noodles) and ABC — fancy ice dessert; it’s like shaved ice with various syrups and ice cream, topped with sweet corn, peanuts, red beans (kidney beans, cendol jelly strings, cincau black jelly strings (some of these are very hard to describe), sea coconut (small jello blocks), and anything else you wouldn’t really expect to eat for dessert.
Later, we went home and began cooking for the potluck dinner! I made apple pie— it turned out pretty good after four long hours of work. Anna made Hungarian goulash, which was delicious.
That night we had the potluck, with lots of good international food like Belgian chocolate mousse, American macaroni and cheese, French crepes, Italian spaghetti, Japanese rice rolls, and other such delicacies.
We had a fun evening full of lots of food and laughing with friends. It was Matilda’s birthday, so we had a cake for her.
Saturday, we spent the day around Kuala Terengganu. We met at Bukit Puteri (Princess Hill) where we dressed in the baju kurung (traditional Malay women’s dress) and sarongs and had a photo shoot. Some of our photos might end up as advertisements for Terengganu tourism. These two weeks involved taking a lot of photos of us students; we brought the Terengganu chapter banner almost everywhere we went and took several group photos a day. (And each time, took many shots).
We watched traditional dances— which seemed like a mix of martial arts and ballet— and learned about the history of Terengganu and about this former royal meeting place.
Mr. Long, the Terengganu AFS chapter president, is a former history teacher, so he taught us a lot about the history of the state and of Malaysia as a whole.
We later went to the Terengganu central market, where we first saw fruit stalls with all sorts of wonderful beautiful fruits. We got miniature mangoes and I got durian!!!! (Durian has somehow become my favorite fruit. I shared with the only other student who likes durian)
We walked through the wet market portion, where there was lots of seafood (it’s a fishing village, after all) and meat, as well as vegetables. Kuala Terengganu gets a lot of tourists (it’s a stop for everyone who wants to go to the world-class beaches of Pulau Perhentian or Pulau Redang) but we got attention wearing the baju kurung (and probably better deals when negotiating in Malay and wearing traditional clothing.)
Then we walked through the packaged food portion, which consisted of dozens of stalls selling almost the same things: keropok (fish crackers/ fries/ sticks), for which Terengganu is famous; candy; sambal belacang (spicy chile and anchovy sauce); and other various snacks and local delicacies.
Upstairs we entered the batik and clothing section of the market; here there were shops selling souvenirs like keychains and t-shirts, as well as Terengganu traditional games like gasing (spinning tops) and wau kites.
Malaysia is famous for batik cloth, beautiful cloths that can be used as sarongs (wrapped like a skirt) or anything else. The most expensive kinds are hand painted or hand-stamped, but many are printed in factories. The states of Terengganu and Kelantan are particularly famous for batik making, and there was a huge assortment of batik cloths and other handmade fabrics.
After the market, we walked around nearby Chinatown. We went in a beautiful temple and saw lots of murals along alleys.
Later, we went to a shop famous for its juice (dragonfruit + coconut, lychee+ mango + dragonfruit, plum, and mango + kiwi were among the favorites.)
We said goodbye to the other students and then Grace, Anna, and I walked around Chinatown more. We saw Turtle Alley, a famous alley with paintings of turtles, a story about turtle conservation, and information about turtles.
The islands around Terengganu are a nesting site for leatherback sea turtles, the largest sea turtle in the world, often reaching six feet in length. I love leatherback sea turtles, and Malaysia is one of only five places in the world that they nest! These turtles are severely endangered, even more so than the green turtles which also reside off of the Terengganu coast. I have dreamt of seeing a leatherback sea turtle (or any sea turtle!) ever since I did a project on them in fourth grade, but unfortunately I didn’t see one (not a surprise given their declining populations and this not being nesting season).
In the central market, nearly every shop sold turtle eggs, apparently a local delicacy. They looked like partially deflated ping pong balls with some sand still remaining. This was really upsetting because only one in 1,000 eggs makes it to adulthood and sea turtles are very endangered.
Later we went back to the Terengganu Buddhist Association so that Grace could interview the association president. This was really interesting, as he taught us a lot about Buddhism. I could share some of the basics but this post is already extremely long, so I might talk about it another time.
The Buddhist Association was having a camp for students, who gave us a special dance performance! We joined in and danced with them.
Afterward, we went to dinner at a riverfront restaurant and later went home.
The next morning, we met at a traditional Malay house that is now a museum. We got to paint our own batiks! Someone else (a professional) painted the wax outlines, and then we worked in groups to fill in the spaces with dye.
Inside the museum
Afterwards, we went to the Losong Museum, the largest museum in Southeast Asia! The museum had some beautiful art, along with lots of old batik cloths and other historical objects. It was nice to learn about the history of Malaysia and its role in world history as a whole. The buildings were huge and had beautiful architecture.
On the way home, we stopped at a street famous for its keropok (fish chips or steamed fish sausages). The nice women who worked in one stall let me try making keropok lekor, the fish sausages that are later steamed. The other variety is called keropok keping and is a thin slice which is dried in the sun and later fried.
Later, we had dinner near the beach. While we were waiting for the satay to be cooked, Ibe and I went to the beach and stood in the waves, which was beautiful.
We went to the movie theater but all tickets were sold out (the theater had only opened the day before) so we went home.
Also: At this time, the movie Beauty and the Beast had been banned in Malaysia because of a so-called “gay scene;” it has since been released uncensored.
And that was the end of a wonderful week of adventure in Terengganu!
Terengganu STE Week 2 to follow soon.