Monsoon nights in Malaysia

Excerpt from Naked in Budapest: travels with a passionate nomad (Available as an e-book)

I’m publishing this excerpt for a friend who sails to  this wonderful island today.

Monsoon nights on Pulau Perhentian Kecil, Malaysia

“Paddling along the water’s edge crabs scurry away at my approach, ducking into the safety of their holes and when I step off the beach I’m absorbed into lush forest. Something scuttles into the undergrowth in front of me and I freeze: there are scorpions and other biting things here and I have no shoes on. Moments later, when nothing else moves, I carry on, watching where my feet land. Climbing over exposed roots and dirt I see nothing dangerous and in minutes reach Coral Bay, the other side of the island. Sitting under a tree I watch palm squirrels, with their reddish bottlebrush tails, chasing each other up and down palm trees with amazing speed and agility: this beach too is deserted, except for a man playing a flute.

The wind and waves are building up when I return to Long Beach hours later and with the tide now high, men are pushing boats further up the beach and the rooster’s long tail blows over his body as he struts on the sand in front of the restaurant.

That night, as I sit under the net canopy on my bed feeling like an Elizabethan woman in a four-poster, the rain starts. It almost drowns the loud calls of the geckos, the singing lizard. I’ve been told to count the number of their calls; seven or more refrains and luck will be mine. Tonight the only gecko that’s audible is the one who lives under the eaves of my one-room chalet with its million dollar views. I count one, two, three and four. His song always peters out after three or four calls, no luck for me tonight. Despite the noise of the storm I sleep well and wake to a changed landscape. The path leading to the toilet and shower area is a river and I dare not walk without sandals – in fear of biting, stinging, creepy-crawlies hidden in the rushing water.

For 48 hours we are bombarded with non-stop torrential rain, thunder, lightning and wind. The rain-dimpled beach is rearranged. Little creeks flood, gentle slopes and pathways become waterfalls and rivers carrying a variety of rubbish: the generator fails and palms sway, looking like umbrellas on a windy street. A green wheelbarrow, a large blue plastic drum, a palm-tree trunk and a two-metre long monitor lizard are swept along in the violent rush. While the rubbish hurries out to sea and the wheelbarrow is rescued, the monitor lizard escapes the waves at the last minute, nonchalantly walking back up the beach, looking like a staunch, bandy-legged, bull terrier and his head sways side to side, his tongue exploring the air.

As I watch, a metre of sand is sucked out to sea. Rocks are now visible where smooth sand once lay and the constant noise of the wind sounds like planes taking off so we have to talk loudly to be heard. I order rice for breakfast and local coffee made with sweetened tinned milk. I’m sure the kitchen staff are male despite their female clothes: Mr Rooster joins me for breakfast and three tomcats fight.

The pounding rain bounces and splatters up and down on the ground, almost looking like a musical score for sound waves. It’s writing a percussion symphony of sound, light and action, the only string instruments provided by swallows who dart back and forth, enjoying the rain, soaring and then with a sudden folding of wings, swooping in a fearless free-fall. It’s a dramatic interlude and I sit on the bottom step and absorb the wild atmosphere as waves lick my feet.

While others spend the day in bed, writing and reading and sleeping, I’m too excited to do anything but sit in the eye of the storm. Asia has honed my ability to spend hours doing nothing, not even the writing I’d planned. The owner of Shake Shak was right; I have caught the island disease. ‘It’s fatal’ he’d said, ‘you may never leave here.’ The Lazy Virus he called it and I’m happy to sink into its inertia, it hardly seems possible that at times I’ve been so busy that I’ve cleaned my teeth while sitting on the toilet.

The owners struggle to fix the generator, divert water that pours through the restaurant and still cook meals. They remain cheerful and between tasks someone provides background music on a well-worn guitar: their repertoire is small, the words often different to the original, but we join in, even me with my flat voice.

Despite the storm some holidaymakers have come down the beach for dinner at our restaurant. After they’ve eaten, the tide has backed the creek up; creating a swirling body of water they have to cross. We, the Moonlight guests and staff, give them advice. ‘Here’s a raincoat,’ Khaleck, Moonlight’s owner says, as he rips a hole in a black rubbish bag.

‘Don’t go down there, stay away from the waves.’

‘Use the trunk as a bridge.’

‘Come back three feet, it’s shallower there.’

‘Hold hands as you go through the water.’

We shine torches as they attempt to get through the water and debris, retreating when it gets too deep, something floats past, or brushes against a leg. A man walks across the palm-tree trunk that lies across the rushing water, his arms are stretched out like a high-wire artist and his success inspires his partner to try. She’s halfway along the temporary bridge when the log rolls. She is soaked, up to her waist in the swirling water and instead of continuing she comes back through the flotsam and jetsam to our side. Shortly afterwards, the waves subside momentarily and she makes a successful dash to the accompaniment of our cheers.

The next morning sunrays make sporadic forays into Long Beach and it seems the monsoon is nearly over. As soon as that thought appears, the rain comes back with vengeance and, for another day and night, the torrential rain continues while we share a celebration.

Naoko, a Japanese woman, also travelling on her own, celebrates her birthday. The kitchen produces a cake for her. We push tables together and sit in candle and lantern light, enjoying the fun and laughter that surviving a storm has produced – periodically a cry of horror emerges from someone as a rivulet under the table changes course and flows unexpectedly over their foot. Sand, that forms the floor covering, is washing through the cracks in the wood, while a decorative waterfall has formed halfway up the stairs: we name it the Moonlight Cascade.

Over coffee and cake, we’re told tales of shipwrecks, murder and pirates and how the beach was renamed. They tell us it used to be called Ghost Bay and locals would rarely come here; we hear about a refugee camp for Vietnamese boat people and I’m told that young men who work in the tourist trade find it hard to find ‘good Muslim girls’ to marry.”

© Heather Hapeta

I’m off to the Rainforest World Music Festival

In June,  I’m off to the  Rainforest World Music Festival (follow @kiwitravwriter on Twitter using #RWMF)  which has again been voted, as one of the 25 best International Festivals by renowned world music magazine, Songlines. This is it 4th consecutive year to be awarded the accolade.

Rainforest World Music Festival stands among other renowned festivals like WOMAD in  Australia and New Zealand, and the Ulsan World Music Festival, South Korea. According to the editorial team of Songlines the “Selection of the festival is based on the broad representation of the quality and scope of music festivals around the world”

Now in its 16th year the the festival is  held annually in Kuching, Sarawak (Malaysia) and  has put Sarawak on the world map with its “dazzling performances from across the globe” which  attracts more than 20,000 international and local festival-goers to Borneo for three days of daytime music workshops and action-packed nightly shows. This year it will be held June 28-30 – and I’ll be there too!

Sarawak Tourism Board’s (STB) CEO Dato Rashid Khan said,” The event has no doubt been a contributor of tourist arrivals to the state and as the organizer of the festival, we are proud to note that our efforts have been recognized for the 4th consecutive year. We are putting together another great act this year and are finalizing the bands”.

I’ll be staying at the Damai Beach Resort while at the music festival and then after that I’m off exploring  Sarawak, then the rest of Borneo. ( Sabah, Kalimantan, Brunei.) Should be lots of stories for me to find in 6 weeks .. follow this blog or like me Facebook to see links to my stories.

Tickets to the festival can  be bought online. For more information see

Night market, Kota Bharu, Malaysia
I’m looking forward to more Malaysian food

Happy Chinese New Year

Chinese New Year: travelling in Penang, Malaysia, (a couple of years ago)  temporary stages were all around the city during the days leading to the Chinese New Year. Large semi-solid structures are at temples or outside affluent establishments or homes where people have financially supported the theatre or opera that is about to be staged.

Happy Thai new year
Happy Thai new year

For a few days before New Year opera plays nightly. Outside a supermarket two colourful dragons cavort, their fluttering eyelashes making the dance look flirtatious. As in many warm climates, evenings are when places come alive in a different way to the daytime busy-ness. Locals wander the streets talking to neighbours, eating meals in noisy gaggles and now in the Chinese New Year, watch local theatre.

As with all travellers, I too watch the theatre of life that unfolds itself daily, hourly, minute by minute and as part of that kaleidoscope, watch the shows. To a Western ear the sounds are often discordant, loud, and too highly pitched.  Each evening I wander the streets of Georgetown, watch the opera and gradually my ears become accustomed to the tone.

Men, often dressed as women, are in colourful clothes and the story usually seems to be about long-lost loves or love betrayed;  well that’s how I, with no knowledge of any Chinese language, interpret them.

Four or five men, sitting behind screens, make up the orchestra, and during long speeches or songs from the stage, I could hear their conversations and watch as huge plumes of cigarette smoke drift from around the screens and out to the audience.

The audience emerges from the shadows of alleyways, shops and homes as the band tune their instruments. I am given a sheet of newspaper to sit on, others sat on their rickshaw, bike, or chair carried from home, while yet others sat on newspaper too. Most smoke. Adding to the pall of smoke is the token money burnt in temple grounds as people make offerings to their ancestors.

If you can, spend  some time on the road early in the western-calendar year. Leave New Zealand  ( or whatever country you live in) after your New Years eve party and picnic the next day, then start counting. Counting the celebrations you can indulge in. Chinese New Year is usually first, both it and Islam’s end of Ramadan, the next new year, aren’t fixed dates but are lunar events so check for the dates. Then finally, in mid April – the Buddhist New Year.

Four fabulous New Years in a short space of time, all celebrated in very different ways and all wonderful times to be travelling and learning more about how other cultures enjoy the change of year.

To the Chinese community – Have a happy New Year!

NOTE: See photos of the Chinese New Zealand in Christchurch elsewhere on this site