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Destination: Malaysia

Soloing in 'Bali Hai'

Taking a break from bustling Singapore on tiny Tioman Island

October 04, 1998|SUSAN E. JAMES | James is a writer who lives in La Canada Flintridge

TIOMAN ISLAND, Malaysia — It was to be a journey back in time as the small plane lifted off from Singapore for the 50-minute flight to Tioman Island, a dot in the South China Sea off the east coast of Malaysia. The glittering crowns of Singapore's ultramodern skyscrapers slipped away into a blurred mirage, and within minutes we were flying over the rubber plantations of the southern Malay peninsula. Just beyond the horizon was Tioman, reputedly so beautiful that it was the model for Bali Hai in "South Pacific."

I was on a business trip to Singapore, and after a week of meeting-packed days in stuffy offices, I had managed to free three days for a badly needed time out. I chose Tioman based on its reputation as "still unspoiled," even though my timing was risky: It was February, the end of the monsoon season, which starts in November.

In my state of eager expectation, I marveled at everything I could see from the plane, even the rubber plantations. From the ground, rubber trees in their ordered rows look spindly, sparse and unremarkable. From the air, the starburst clusters of their palm-like tops were as closely woven as an intricate carpet. In between, languorous rivers looking like loops of polished metal, their surfaces colored by sediments from the plantations, wound around shallow hills to gray sand beaches.

Ahead, lying on the curve of the Earth, a flotilla of islands, some no more than lumps of gray-green foliage, spread out toward the horizon. I had a sudden vision of some geologic pastry chef running mad, his pastry horn full of molten rock, squirting zigzags, squiggles and blobs of islands whose bizarre forms quickly hardened as they came into contact with the sea.

Forty minutes after takeoff, the shadowed shape of Tioman Island broke the horizon. Sharp peaks covered by dense jungle descended in serried layers to white coral beaches and turquoise waters. Beneath the undulating ocean swells, the outline of Tioman's coral reef could just be seen. The island's signature twin peaks beckoned to us, as they have to voyagers for centuries. In my head I could hear Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Bali Hai" and the lilting refrain: "Here am I, your special island, come to me, come to me." By the time we banked for landing at the tiny airport, I thought I could see Bloody Mary bringing Lt. Cable ashore to meet her daughter and seal their destinies.

Pulau Tioman, as the island is known in Malay, is home to barely 200 people. In peak season they often are outnumbered by vacationers--Malaysians, Singaporeans and Australians.

As in many seaside destinations, pollution is a fact of life on Tioman and can be a problem. The coral in front of the hotel had seen far better days, and I wondered at times about the canal from the interior of the island that emptied onto the hotel's beach. In places like Monkey Bay, which is more or less protected as a government-designated underwater preserve, the coral reef was still a living presence.

But all in all, Tioman lived up to my expectations. Even the monsoon pattern brought no more than an occasional shower.

*

I stayed at the Best Western Berjaya Tioman Beach Resort--the only real hotel on the island. It also has the only Western-style restaurant, though I preferred the Malay menu standby, satay (marinated grilled meat) with fruit and rice. Along with the restaurant, cafes and snack bars, the Berjaya has several bars serving alcohol. (Tioman is part of Malaysia, a Muslim country, and alcohol is supposed to be served only to non-Muslims.)

I could have availed myself of the resort's tennis courts and 18-hole golf course, but chose to indulge in snorkeling and pool lounging. Scuba was available, and the hotel has a small sandy beach for ocean dipping; most of the beaches on this volcanic island are fairly rocky.

There is no town to speak of on Tioman; the largest village, at the little airport, has a bank, a post office and a couple of stores selling necessities such as flashlight batteries and aspirin.

Tioman is a sleepy place. Not much happens. The sea washes over the coral reef, and the palms and tamarisks stir gently in the breeze. Even the small water snake I noticed in a jungle stream not far from my hotel seemed to be taking a nap in the tropical afternoon heat.

Time has little value on Tioman Island. During monsoon season, when each day's weather is a question mark, showers of rain, stray patches of sun and shifting patterns of cloud may be the only indications of the passage of the hours.

One afternoon I walked through a village so quiet that my attention was grabbed by two schoolgirls playing a board game in a shady corner. Water taxis sat motionless at anchor in the canal that functions as the island's main anchorage. A sign on the local grammar school read, "My school is my castle," and certainly Tioman is remote enough to be anyone's idea of a South Seas castle, even one as enchanted as Bali Hai.

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