Tioman: Paradise (Slightly) Lost

Keep your baguette to yourself, please.

Why I Really Hate Tourists

 

I find that I’ve developed an almost irrational dislike of tourists – as opposed to travelers, who generally have more fun on holiday and in their daily lives in general. I won’t apologize for it, because, as any traveler knows, tourists are generally clueless, annoying, and far more likely to hassle service staff/ complain/ make asses of themselves on vacation. So if you’re a “traveler” of the Chan Brothers tour package variety, you should probably stop reading this right now, as you’re actually a tourist, and far more likely to do annoying and incomprehensible things like play golf on Tioman and insist on bringing instant noodles and your portable DVD player on vacation. I actually spotted a teenager playing World of Warcraft on his iPad on the ferry. Who the hell comes to Tioman to play World of Warcraft? Seriously? (By the way, he was Singaporean. Now you know why I avoid my countrymen like the plague when traveling.)

 

With that out of the way, I have to say this: I’m more than slightly in love with Tioman. Okay, so the water’s not as perfect as the Perhentians. However, the prevalence of adorable diver and/or traveler boys from all over the world is a sizeable bonus that makes me a little more willing to overlook this particular downside. Besides, with 20m visibility on a good day when snorkeling off the beach, one can’t really complain.

 

The real Eden moment in Tioman didn’t come when I was snorkeling (I didn’t dive on this trip, as I figured I could get some diving in when I visit again in August). My paradise was found at a small waterfall on the Tekek-Juara trail. Okay, so we cheated and hired a 4WD to take us to Juara. It was a good thing we did, too. Just the 10-minute trail from the paved 4WD road to the waterfall with a half-empty backpack was , shall we say… good exercise. The 7-km hiking trail? Great, if you’re fit enough.  Not great, if you’re carrying a heavy backpack, like I was. Even during the dry season, the ground can be a bit damp and the trail is steep heading down to the waterfall – the strenuous part of choosing to hike isn’t so much the trail itself; it’s picking your way carefully so as to avoid tumbling and cracking your head on tree roots.

Imminent death by concussion/tree root aside, once I arrived at the waterfall, I was in love. Cold, cold  love, because that waterfall was freezing. It was delicious, but it was icy. It was small, about 15m wide, but got quite deep once you waded in past the rocky shallows. Small black and orange striped fish were the main inhabitants of the waterfall, and I was happy to see that they weren’t aggressive or in any way curious about the clumsy humans splashing about in their waterfall. So I flipped onto my back, floated (while attempting to keep my slippers on, which is a lot tougher than it sounds) and voila – Eden.

 

Imagine the sun on your belly, warm and soporific, while cool water encases the rest of your body. You look above, right into the sun, and you see bright, blue sky, framed by translucent green leaves from the foliage above. Far, far up, almost to far to see, are tiny, winking spots of bright orange, red, and blue – butterflies, jewel-bright, weaving in and out of the lattice of lambent green above. Birds zip in and out of the trees, chirping faintly, from high, high above.

 

At that moment, everything flies out of my head – work, boys, work, work…. everything vanishes, leaving me in my own private Eden, if only for a little while.

 

That waterfall wasn’t the only reason I’m still in love with Tioman. Also, adorable fellow travelers are great, but they don’t make or break a vacation. Having said that, my friend and I were serenaded by a trio of very nice-looking traveler boys who were singing a capella at the next table during dinner. I’m pretty sure this doesn’t happen at the sort of resort where people play golf instead of snorkeling – for one, they’re too busy golfing.

 

So if it’s not the amorous fellow diners, and it’s not just my Eden moment at the waterfall, why do I love Tioman? I think it’s because I see what Tioman could become, and I want to spend as much time there as possible before the Tioman I know and love disappears.

 

I was upset when I saw the extent of the coral damage – off Salang, at least – in 2009. So I was pleasantly surprised when I went snorkeling at the very same spot off Salang this July and saw that the coral was slowly recuperating. It’s difficult to express exactly how I felt about the coral regrowth, but it seems to be a pretty apt analogy for every beach paradise that’s been found, raped, and lost by excessive commercialization and eco-stupidity (yeah, I just made that term up). And after that? Left on its own to pick up the pieces. There are a couple of things that any self-respecting traveler should know:

 

1. Paradise, once lost, is not going to regenerate. No more Eden moments, period.

2. Guess what? We depend on the oceans for life. And I’m not just talking about sushi, either.

 

Sooo… let’s look at #1: Paradise lost.

 

 

Tioman: Paradise (Slightly) Lost

 

Whenever I see things that should not be in the reef, like candy wrappers, I try to retrieve them so I can toss them in the trash when I’m out of the water. But Paradise, well and truly lost, goes well beyond a few errant wrappers picked up by conscientious snorkelers/divers. It’s all the little things that visitors do to upset the balance of life on any island – not just Tioman.

 

Take the monkeys, for example. Eddie, the friendly owner of the Puteri Salang Inn and my favourite ‘uncle’ on Tioman, told me about The Monkeys of Death. Okay, fine. They don’t wander around attempting to kill people – last I heard. They do, however, attempt to break and enter… guest rooms (no, I’m not kidding). Doors and windows have been forced open by these insatiable creatures, and even the restaurant staff have to sleep in the kitchen in shifts, or the kitchens will be raided by the monkeys. Any guesses for how the monkeys developed a taste for human food, instead of the abundant natural produce growing in the dense jungle covering most of the island? That’s right! Ignorant, selfish visitors who will insist on feeding the monkeys despite being told repeatedly not to do so. The monkeys are, apparently, now batshit crazy, according to Eddie (okay, he didn’t say those exact words, but he made it clear that monkeys were insane, thanks to visitors who keep feeding them).

 

Then we have the day tripper snorkelers coming in from resorts on other beaches. Visitors who want to swim with the pretty fishes. Which they have every right to do – of course! It gets ugly, however, when we start introducing foreign items into their diet. Bread? How is bread in the natural diet of fishes? Is there an underwater sandwich shop that they don’t tell the humans about? The marine life is abundant enough, even off less popular snorkeling spots like the south of Salang beach, that you don’t have to feed them to get a glimpse of the underwater denizens.  If you think that your stretch of beach is pretty sparse in terms of marine life, ask dive shop staff or the staff at your inn which areas provide good snorkeling. B & J is one of the more eco-aware dive operations on Tioman, and they are very friendly, so they’re a good place to start.

 

Another thing that some visitors don’t realize is that excessive, careless snorkeling alone can kill coral. I’ve seen snorkelers using fins – at low tide – just off the beach. Now, this is really unnecessary. For one, at low tide, the corals are much closer to the surface. Thus, they are more vulnerable to the sediment kicked up by snorkelers’ fins. If you’re not a confident swimmer and you think you need fins, don’t kick hard, at the very least, when you’re snorkeling at low tide. If you’re not planning to cover longer distances when snorkeling off the beach, then you really don’t need the fins. You’d probably be better served by a life vest, which would be much less destructive than fins. And for the love of all that is good on this earth – please don’t molest the fish. It’s not sociable, and it upsets them (you don’t like being grabbed by strangers in a non-sexy way, do you?).

 

Which brings us to #2: We depend on the oceans for life.

 

The marine life at Tioman is so pretty that it’s easy to forget the reef isn’t just there for show. It’s quite literally a life and death matter. Even if you’re not interested in keeping the reef healthy because it’s the right thing to do, you should be interested in keeping it healthy, period. Why? Because ultimately, we need the oceans to survive; it’s self-interest, if nothing else. Let’s take sharks, for example. What would happen if all the sharks in the world went extinct?

 

The answer is pretty obvious: we’d be screwed. Not immediately, maybe not for 20, 30, even 50 years, but we would be very, very screwed. When you remove the predator that’s sitting right at the top of the food chain, things can only go downhill from there. That’s an extreme example, but the same is true for the coral. Generally, where there is healthy coral, there will be abundant marine life. The coral isn’t just pretty to look at; it’s both home and hunting grounds for the various reef denizens, from fish to rays, turtles, and pelagics. If the corals are gone, so is the marine life.

 

And Another Thing…

 

I realize that I love Tioman precisely because its beauty is in danger. It’s in danger from the volume of visitors that arrive on its shores each summer. It’s in danger from over-commercialization and over-development. It’s in danger from losing its laid-back vibe to demanding tourists who expect 5-star service from what is essentially a cluster of huts perched on the sand-dusted toes of massive, virgin jungle covering rocky headland. Its corals are in danger from clueless tourists, and its marine life is in danger from ignorance, lazy litterbugs, and little packets of bread sold for RM15 each.

 

So do me a favour: go to Tioman, enjoy the scenery, have your Eden moment at that charming little waterfall in the jungle, and hang out with the fish that come in all colours of the rainbow.

 

However.

 

Unless you want Tioman to go the way of other  lost paradises, do yourself and other travelers a favour. Respect the island as much as you admire it – toss your trash where it belongs, don’t kill the corals or molest the fish, and for goodness’ sake: keep your baguette to yourself.