Kuantan in Pahang state of Malaysia is a small seaside city that could be a family holiday destination. Our group arrived in Kuantan on a Thursday in the evening in September after a four-hour bus ride from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan.The spectacular scenery was continuous green trees palm plantations hills streams rivers with only a few rest stops widely spaced in between throughout the 300 kilometer drive.
Our guide Francis is a Chinese from Penang who has made Kuantan his home. During the long drive we listened to a well practiced lecture on just about every aspect of producing palm oil that could be spoken about. (This is a very popular topic with every Malaysian at least those I met in the Kuantan area.) We asked about what to see and do with special emphasis on observing the turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. Francis works very closely with the turtle sanctuary as a volunteer and he agreed to take us on tour that same evening. September is the last month of nesting season so it's not likely nesting turtles arrive at the beach every evening. He could guarantee that we would release hatchlings into the sea.
Around 5 pm we checked into the MS Garden Hotel around seven years in operation. It is similar in size and amenities as the Chiang Mai Hills Hotel. The guest room was spacious with plenty of room for a triple bed. We were anticipating the night tour to the turtle sanctuary on Cherating Beach a 47 kilometer drive north of Kuantan. The turtle sanctuary was initiated in 1994 and the beach in Cherating is the only beach in the world where four species of turtles lay their eggs from February to September each year.
During the drive Francis pointed out the different types of restaurants on the road. If the sign had Chinese it was sure to offer Chinese food. When the sign included the word Tohm Yum it was Malay restaurant with spicy hot curries and of course their own version of Thai tohm yum soup. It's the local custom for restaurants to stay open late because the last prayer ends at 8.30 pm and supper meal is taken after that.
The turtle sanctuary is financially supported by NGO's private donations and by the Club Med resort. Adjacent to the sancturary is the Cherating Beach Asia's first Club Med location. We arrived there about 9 pm in the dark because lights are not permitted to shine into the sea from the sanctuary or from the Club Med. We had a stroll with informative commentary observing the rows of buried turtle eggs marked with signs noting the date of collection and estimated date of hatching. Eggshell pieces from the previous day gathering of hatchlings still lay on top of the sand.
Francis led us to the forested roadside for some tips on survival in the jungle. Holding the flashlight at eye level is the fastest way to catch reflection in the eyes of an insect or animal in the dark jungle. Suddenly there was a reflection. The two of us without a flashlight thought the reflection was a big piece of white plastic one of us thought it must be a white python!! A white cat was curled up having a nap before a late night forage into the forest.
Returning to the sanctuary the big moment was nearing when a ranger showed us about 20 newly hatched turtles. Each turtle fit onto the palm of one hand. Some little ones were very active moving their flippers in swimming motion. They seemed to calm down when patted gently on the head. Some of the little ones were very quiet. We were not sure the placid ones would even survive their first swim from the beach into the waves. The breeze blew gently around us. The full moon was out. If the incoming tide was high we would have been invited to stay to observe female turtles coming ashore to lay eggs. As it was a late hour we thought we should return to the city.
Francis hosted us to beverage and sandwich at a popular coffee shop. It's a very well known shop for specially roasting the beans with butter. The hour was late. The packed place had lots of smokers sitting on the open air terrace. We moved inside to enjoy a light meal and more conversation. We got to know more about Francis who had been a banker by profession. After surviving a near fatal accident he felt his calling should be saving the environment. He applied for forest ranger working in this field for nearly ten years. It was very satisfying but when he had a family to support he decided to use that precious knowledge in the tourism field. During school holidays he arranges four-day camping adventures for school children. Though some parents are concerned about the "rough and ready" conditions of the camp all children have successfully complete the program.
The next morning we toured the largest and longest tin mine in the world at Sungai Lembing about 40 minutes drive west of Kuantan. Our guide/drive Harbans of Sikh descent was kind and spoke English Malay and Chinese. We could not visit the interior of the mine that has been out of business for over 20 years due to the very low selling price of tin in the world market. The former British manager's house has been renovated into a marvelous museum with all types of graphics posters models and some rooms were even eerie examples of what it's like to be in the deep in the bowels of mine tunnels. The best experience was to be amid all the 4th grade school children who were making a field trip from Terrengun state. The boys wore uniforms of white shirts and khaki trousers and the little girls wore traditional scarves and long skirts. All the children loved their ‘adidas' sports shoes.
Driving through the small community we noticed the surrounding buildings and former miners quarters were nearly falling down. We stopped at one of several swinging bridges and walked over the river. During the rainy season the Sungai Lembing river floods and the water level rises over 35 feet in height.
Back to the city we enjoyed Chinese food in the Continental Hotel and a Thai waitress served us. The mega mall just opposite the MS Garden Hotel was a very busy place on Friday afternoon. Very similar to Chiangmai the three storey building was mostly mobile phone shops.
In the evening after a buffet an additional treat was folk dancing by a Malaysian troupe of 6 men and 6 women. The lively program included dances of Chinese Malay Indian and Portugese influence.
The next day five tour buses filled to the brim with 200 passengers headed off to visit the royal residence of the Sultan of Pahang located about 30 kilometers away in Pekanm an area at the mouth of the river. During December and January each year it is heavily flooded. At the door the Sultan's cousin greeted a sea of women who were all determined to have a photo taken with him. (The Sultan and family were visiting their private home in London so 226 women had run of the house!)
According to our guide Zamhuri the Malaysian government pays each the Sultan of each state annually while the government is owner of the buildings and estate. It's possible for average citizens to live on this estate and they pay a very nominal fee to rent the land. However not each family is employed by the Sultan.
The sizeable vast halls decorated in yellow the family's royal color were very impressive. The dining area seated at least 1000 persons. The throne room seating area was arranged according to title yellow cushions for royalty green cushions for government officials and blue cushions for ordinary citizens.
The public reception room had a winding staircase baby grand piano and very large central hall. About 20 young Malaysians dressed in black uniform stood at semi attention are members of the Sultan's personal bodyguards numbering 50 in all. The bodyguards were helpful as photographers for us standing here and there and sitting where allowed to do so.
I interviewed one young man who had been a policeman for two years and resides in the royal estate. He has been abroad once to accompany the Sultan who takes 10 bodyguards with him when he travels. Seniority does prevail for being chosen to travel out of country. When I asked a young woman bodyguard if one room were the prayer hall she said yes and replied in broken English would I like to pray?
The biggest surprise later was that particular room was opened. It had long tables that were held cups of tea coffee and snacks. The snacks were steamed bananas stuffed with dried ground fish bite size crisp ‘dim sum' stuffed with boiled egg slices and peanuts and vanilla angel sponge cake. More group photos taken with the Royal host. We were felt honored to have permission to view the interior of the royal residence which is not a run of the mill tour.
We continued the tour with a visit to a Silk weaving cottage industry. Each village house was on stilts (very typical to Central Thailand average wooden homes) with colorful rowboats neatly stacked on ground level. The silk village was only three years old. The style of the center and the looms could have been airlifted from Chiang Mai. Tea was served by young men pouring the hot brew with cream and sugar in a long stream from one cup to another. I thought it was for a frothy cappuccino effect but I found out later it was to cool the tea.
We returned to the hotel. On the way back we were able to interview Zamhuri. He had led tour groups to Chiang Mai from Malaysia. The drawback for Malays is the few Halal restaurants in Chiang Mai. His groups took private tour coach from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. Presently he is employed with the Malaysian Tourism Organization and designs tourism websites. He's also a Rotarian.
Departing from Kuantan the return bus ride to Kuala Lumpur was in mostly pleasant weather. But by the time of mid ride we stopped at a food court looking rather familiar to food courts in Thailand. The stall holder motioned for us to pick up a plate and help ourselves. As we ate he came around with his pad and pencil and computed our food choice. We paid him after we finished eating.
We arrived at the airport in plenty of time to catch the plane back to Bangkok and then on to Chiangmai.
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