Sometimes when I look back through my photographs, I realise I miss the crucial ones. Usually there is no shortage of sunset and sunrise snaps, or even stunning scenery, but the images that eventually help me to tell a story, I may not have thought relevant at the time. In the case of my visit to Pulau Dayang Bunting, it was all there, full in the face, but overcome by a sense of shyness, I hesitated to take out my camera to take the shots that could accompany the story. The story of have and have-nots, the story of how little we really need to be truly content and happy…
Shade was waiting for me at the quayside, as arranged. Wiry and strong, he hoisted my suitcase up the steep and slippery steps on the way to his car. From the pictures and description of the airbnb I had chosen, I was certainly not expecting to be collected in a luxury car, but Shade clearly lived modestly. My suitcase comfortably fitted into the car boot, precariously fastened with a piece of string. Rain was kept at bay by a large sheet of plastic covering the back windscreen and fresh air pierced the taut tarpaulin stretched over the side passenger window. But the engine was running fine, and on an island that mostly basks in sunshine, who needs windows anyway when natural ventilation keeps everyone cool.
On our way to the house, Shade offered to give me a quick tour of the island. Much smaller than the main island of Langkawi, Dayang Bunting did not take long to explore by car, especially as one side of the island is uninhabited and only accessible by boat, or on foot of course… armed with a machete to hack a path through the jungle. A pity really, as that part of the island is home to the ‘Lake of the Pregnant Maiden’, a freshwater lake formed after the surface of a large underwater cave crumbled and the cavity filled up with water. Unfortunately, attempts to forge a hiking trail through the jungle had long since been abandoned, the thicket too dense and fast growing to turn it into a viable tourist attraction.
The island itself was divided into two parts, connected by a narrow, seemingly sturdy bridge, but barely wide enough to allow motorbikes or bicycles to get past each other, let alone accommodate the width of a car. At least this bridge was still intact, because the smaller one that we needed to cross to reach our final destination had recently collapsed and was under repair. The bridge had been in a dire state for some time, and although all island dwellers had expected its imminent demise, it had not stopped anyone from using the bridge until it finally gave way… ‘Just so you know,’ Shade clarified, ‘We now have to go through the school grounds…’ as he veered the car onto the school premises, passing through the school gate, skirting the playground and exiting through another gate at the other side, before turning into the last stretch to his home.
My accommodation was comfortable, clean and with all the essentials: my own private bathroom, a whirring fan to keep things cool, a TV and ample WiFi access… plus a spectacular view over the bay. As the main aim for this part of my holiday was relaxation, I spent plenty of time lounging in the hammock outside watching life at the seashore. Local fishermen set traps to catch crab; others washed and rinsed their fishing nets after hauling in the early morning yield and the local ferry service was running smoothly, like clockwork. Every morning, just before sunrise, the village water buffalo lumbered past my chalet, slowly submerging into the cool of the sea, looking for food.
Intent on not lazing about all the time, I borrowed Shade’s bicycle and ventured to the other side of the island. Not where the lake was, but just over the hill… Unfortunately, the bike was not exactly in best shape lacking gears to get me up the hill, and brakes to make it safely down again. I pushed the bike along on foot, not wanting to risk life and limb. ‘Take the motorbike,’ Shade had recommended, but with vivid and recent memories of e-bike rides in China, I much preferred to give the bicycle a go. Shade looked sheepishly on my return, and agreed that maybe the bike desperately needed a decent overhaul before he would lend it to another visitor… ‘Although,’ he added, ‘most of the guests happily use the motorbikes..’
Walking seemed to be the best way for me to check out the island and I do enjoy hiking. But even this exploit came to an abrupt end when a well-intending local insisted on giving me a lift home on her motorbike… So much for my endeavour to get in some exercise. As we approached the entrance of Shade’s home, she stopped abruptly, motioning being frightened by the dogs which freely roamed the premises… Malaysia being a predominantly Muslim country mostly adheres to Muslim rules and dogs are a big no-no. Shade had needed a special dispensation from the local imam to be allowed his dogs. ‘Well,’ he had argued, ‘living at the end of the road, the dogs are here to protect my home and property…’
His Airbnb accommodation consisted of a few beach-fronted huts, a spacious indoor dining room for entertaining guests, and a romantic, secluded area for al fresco meals by candlelight. In his younger years, Shade had been a chef in a renowned hotel but had since made playing host to foreign and local patrons his purpose in life, leaving the cooking and kitchen duties to his wife. Whilst his father scoffed at the way Shade lived, ‘Look at your brothers in Kuala Lumpur… One a pilot, the other a flight attendant. They lead a comfortable life…’, Shade relished in greeting his English speaking guests in an accent polished to British perfection. His father had been employed by the British military when Malaysia was still under British rule, so mastery of English had been a must in the household, and something Shade took great pride in. Visitors from far flung places, as well as Malaysian tourists, have become regulars at his airbnb, and rather than quenching his thirst for knowledge by travelling himself, Shade’s international guests and neighbours are his window to the world.
Would I recommend the airbnb on Dayang Bunting for a break? Definitely!! The food was sumptuous, the hospitality unrivalled, the relaxation real. So much more Malaysia than the touristy stretch of Langkawi.
Life in a hammock, simple and uncomplicated. Quite tempting. I think I could do it, one day … just not yet…