Island paradise, sir. Golden beach, sir. Blue, blue water, sir…” When and how did tour operators – and don’t you sometimes feel like thumping the nearest one? – turn some of the world’s most stunning islands into clichés for their brochures?
I pondered the issue underwater, while a couple of small parrotfish swam past disinterestedly in search of food more exotic than I. It was an issue worth pondering. After all, here I was, somewhere off the coast of Tioman Island, in the South China Sea off the east coast of Malaysia, wondering how I would ever be able to describe this perfect moment to friends and neighbours back home. Sure, images of parrotfish from a cheap vacuum-sealed disposal underwater camera could help in some way. But what words could I use to describe this, except the tired ‘island-paradise’? Rubbing my chin in gravity-induced slow motion, I managed to scare away a jellyfish; a good thing, considering they could sometimes sting.
But let me rewind, to before I jumped in for an afternoon with parrotfish, to the crisp morning on which I flew into Tioman. I had arrived via a 45-minute Berjaya Air flight from Kuala Lumpur. The experience had been a little nerve-racking at first. Minutes before take-off, smoke had poured rather suddenly from the overhead racks when the air-conditioning kicked in. This was no way to die, I had thought, panicking even as my co-passengers – and there weren’t that many in an airplane that seated 48 – read pulp fiction with studied nonchalance. When the smoke cleared, and things began to cool down, I settled in to watch Tioman swoop into view in less time than it took to travel from one end of Mumbai to another by train.
The locals called it Pulau Tioman. A tiny island just 39 kilometres long and 12 kilometres wide, it had stayed the way it had simply because – unlike, say, Goa – the place was still largely uninhabited. I was told this could change soon, considering the government was planning a marina project with a huge cargo jetty. For the time I was there though, the parrotfish swam undisturbed.
A short cab ride took me to the Berjaya Tioman Beach Golf & Spa Resort. Sitting in the massive lobby, huge wooden beams high above, a cool drink before me, the sea stretching into blue nothingness on my right, I began to place tired adjectives in neat alphabetical rows in my head: Astonishing, Beautiful, Charming, Divine, Exquisite, Gorgeous…until the vodka did what vodka is wont to do, leaving me to simply sit and stare.
I could see why Tioman had been used as a setting for the mythical island of Bali Hai in the 1958 Hollywood film, South Pacific. How did I find that out? Easy: Every second tourist brochure insisted on mentioning it. After a third local alluded to the film, I wouldn’t have been surprised to find DVDs sold at kiosks across the island.
Escorted to a mini-chalet allocated for my period of stay, I noticed palm trees everywhere. Shrouded in fog that survived the force of the sea breeze, the island’s lush, tropical jungle rose in the distance. Done almost entirely in wood, my room had two large windows that opened onto the beach. And, every five feet or so, lay wooden deckchairs in the sand, shielded by dried palm fronds. At that moment, reader, who could blame me for never wanting to leave?
Lying on one of those deck chairs the next bright morning – and totting up the possible benefits of more vodka at 9 am – I thought about how all the world’s islands really were magical, paradisiacal places of wonder. Or, at least they were until members of our species dropped in to visit.
Though still breathtakingly lovely that morning, Tioman must have been even more amazing at the time the famous dragon princess lived there. I was introduced to the tale of the latter by my guide, Jamil, aboard a motorboat that jumped – literally, with little bunny hops – across the blue waters surrounding the island. We were on our way to a cluster of rocks somewhere out at sea, where the variety of fish was supposedly mind-boggling. As I struggled to stay on the boat, Jamil yelled out the legend. Apparently, Tioman was the resting place of a dragon princess. She was beautiful, obviously – not many fairytales begin with the words ‘There was once an ugly hag …’ – and had been flying from China to Singapore to visit her prince when the crystal-clear waters of the South China Sea caught her attention and held it. Charmed to bits, she decided to stay permanently, conveniently assuming the form of an island so she could offer comfort to passing travellers.
As I plunged into 40 feet of water and saw the rocks Jamil had spoken of with a tone of near-reverence, I mouthed a word of thanks to the princess. You would, too, in that colourful, alien world. I didn’t know what any of the fish were called, of course. All I knew was the markets of Mumbai had never held any like them. A notice board on the beach later informed me I had swum alongside shoals of Fusiliers, Golden Striped Trevally, Napoleon Wrasse and Bumphead Parrotfish, with Staghorn corals and sculptured sea sponges staring up at me.
Later that afternoon, we headed out again to one of several villages around the coastline. This one had more sights to offer underwater, and a large number of monitor lizards on shore. The lizards were pretty much everywhere on Tioman, actually. Some walked calmly across the Berjaya Resort golf course; other 2-metre-long monsters sunned themselves by little inlets; one even rushed me as I tried to retrieve a backpack I had left by a fallen log.
For three days, I plunged from one paradise on earth to another underwater. Noticing the smile plastered on my face through all my waking hours, Jamil promptly added that the island’s inland rainforest area (a strictly enforced nature reserve) was home to fauna as diverse as the Black Giant Squirrel, Brush-tailed Porcupine, the Frigatebird and something called the Tioman Walking Catfish.
Flying back to Kuala Lumpur eventually, I took a lingering look at what I leaving behind. If I were a dragon princess, Prince be damned, I’d stay back too.