Unbrave Girl Gone Wild: Beach Break Survival Guide

July 11, 2010

I have never been what you might call a “beach person.” It has taken me thirty-four years, a number of third degree sunburns and some regretful spandex purchases to admit this, but it’s true: I don’t like the beach. I realize that confessing this may not make me very popular (I probably also shouldn’t mention that I’m not particularly fond of puppies or snow cones either, should I? Yes, there’s something seriously wrong with me… but, rest assured, I do love kittens and rainbows, so I’m not completely evil, right?!). But the fact is that me and the beach just don’t get along so well.

Part of this I blame on heredity. You see, my people are a land people, prone to activities like farming and electrical engineering — you know, things that might result in the drowning of lots of chickens or getting you accidentally electrocuted should you attempt to do them in water. We tend to live in the middle of the country far away from the ocean — which is for the best, really, as my people also have a high tendency to fall into large bodies of water (Or at least I do. But I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this as I remember a certain ill-fated canoe trip that I took with my sisters once that ended with the three of us submerged in muddy river water. Maybe the whole falling-into-water thing is recessive trait exhibited only in the females of my family?).

In addition to heredity (and my ill-fated history with a number of small water-bearing vessels), I’ve never had the physique of a beach person. My skin doesn’t bronze; it blotches. While my arms usually get tan, my chest and back burn and my legs remain an incandescent shade of white. Should I forget to cover them up with a sarong or beach towel, there’s always the chance that the sunlight reflected off my thighs could easily blind the other beach-goers.

Also, being a girl of certain, ummm, proportions, I tend to look ridiculous in anything teeny, tiny and frilly. I stay away from bikinis or anything with wimpy little spaghetti straps that could easily snap should I have a few too many slices of bacon at the breakfast buffet.. or, you know, eat the entire tray of French toast. Instead I opt for full coverage options reminiscent of the bathing suits worn in the 1920’s or, say, in the Middle East.

But probably the biggest reason why I’ve never been so keen on beaches is because the beach wants to KILL me. Sure, beaches are beautiful and sunny and full of people who do actually look good in skimpy spandex numbers (as well as a few who don’t but are blissfully unaware of this fact). But, as we all know, it’s often the most beautiful things in nature that will KILL you; like, tigers, Mt. Everest and, ummm, bacon.

While beautiful, the beach is rife with numerous ways you could die. You could be attacked by a shark or a herd of angry jellyfish. You could be whipped out to sea by a riptide. You could drown under a tidal wave. You could get run over by a jet ski or harpooned by a whale hunter. Or you could be blinded by the thighs of your fellow beach-goer, causing you to accidentally walk into someone’s sand castle, which then incites a riot and ends in your murder via sand trowel.

And those are only the things that could happen to you should you be participating in mundane beach activities like sunbathing and swimming and staring at your fellow beach-goer’s thighs! Don’t even get me started with the countless ways you could die should you take up something truly dangerous like, say, boogie-boarding! It’s really any wonder anyone survives a day at the beach!

When given the choice of places to vacation, I very rarely choose the beach. Instead I prefer to spend my time-off some place where there’s ample air conditioning and absolutely no chance of being stung by jellyfish. But having just survived a grueling two months of working on a rice farm, where I didn’t get swallowed by pythons and only fell into the rice paddy once (okay, maybe three times… but, really, who’s counting?!), I figured I might just be up for the challenge of surviving an entire week at the beach.

Of course, this past week hasn’t been easy! So, should, you too, be facing the terrifying prospect of a beach vacation, I present you with my tips to help you survive it (Just, remember, keep away from the boogie-boards!):

Choose Your Own Death Trap… Err, Destination

First you’ll need to choose your beach vacation destination carefully. Remember the purpose of your beach vacation is to relax (I know, I know, it will be hard to relax while worrying about all the possible ways you could DIE… or blind your fellow beach-goers… but you’ll just have to try!). You’ll want to make sure you choose a place that’s quiet and low-key and doesn’t have a lot of things that might distract you — like shopping malls or amusement parks or nightclubs or, say, streets.

I spent my beach vacation on Tioman Island, off the eastern coast of Malaysia in the South China Sea. Considered one of the world’s most beautiful islands, Tioman consists primarily of uninhabited mountains and jungle. The only inhabited bits are the handful of beach villages scattered along the fringe of the island. Each of the villages is only about a mile long and they’re occupied primarily by family-owned hotels, shops and cafes. There are no fast food joints or chain restaurants or people trying to sell you a time-share there. The most hustley and bustley village on the island is Tekek, where the main harbor, ferry station and a number of government buildings are housed. Tekek features the island’s only airport, its only ATM and its only street (complete with island’s only cars!).

I spent the majority of my week in the village of Air Batang, which doesn’t have anything fancy like cars or magic machines that give you money. The only “road” is a concrete path, just wide enough for a motorbike to get through, that runs parallel to the beach. Entertainment options include beach activities (just remember to stay away from the boogie boards!) or trying to avoid being chased by monkeys (a lot harder than it sounds). Being a Muslim village, hardly any of the restaurants and shops sell alcohol, so you might want to brush up on how to make moonshine from a coconut tree before going there (Apparently, it can be done. According to this article, the resultant drink, when consumed, feels just like “drinking liquor or real wine or whatever”… mmmm, “whatever”…). Of course, you could also just refrain from drinking alcohol… but that sounds a bit rash, don’t you think?

Seeing as there were very few things to do in the village, it was the perfect place for me to relax after the past two months of rice farming — especially since I’m one of those people that would rather amputate my own leg than, say, go scuba diving. After walking up and down the concrete path a few times (and narrowly escaping monkey attack), there was little else for me to do besides sit on the beach and relax (while trying not to think of all the ways I could DIE) or sit on the rickety porch of my chalet and relax (while hoping the porch didn’t cave in and cause me to DIE). Overall, it was a very relaxing break (that is, when I wasn’t thinking about how I could DIE).

Be Beach-Body Ready

Prior to leaving the farm for my beach break, my body was, admittedly, nowhere near being beach-ready. All the manual labor I did on the farm did little to combat my steady diet of rice and fried stuff. My pants were already starting to feel dangerously tight, so the idea of walking around without any pants on the beach wasn’t sounding very appealing (besides, with my thighs increasing in girth, there was the increased chance of accidental blindings).

In addition to my increase in size, there was also the matter of my decrease in, umm, hygiene. It’s not that I was trying to be less hygienic. It’s just that if you spend six hours of your day submerged in mud you start to become one with the mud. I was taking at least two showers a day, but no matter how hard I scrubbed, I always seemed to be sporting a thin film of rice paddy muck. I usually did laundry twice a week, but my clothes were forever tattooed with mud, sweat and mystery stains. My toenails had turned a permanent shade of gross. I had developed a nasty rash on my left knee. And my face had started to break out due to my excessive sweating (and possibly my excessive diet of fried stuff).

A recent infestation of bed bugs in my room had made me even more rigorous in my showering and laundry washing, but to little avail. One night, I felt something crawling across my chest, and when I looked down I discovered a bed bug scurrying out of my bra. That’s when I knew I had lost the battle against filth and parasites. (That’s also when I completely freaked out — I mean there was a bed bug in my bra, people. Once I saw a goat giving birth; I used to think this was the most horrifying thing that I had ever seen. I have to say the bed bug in my bra totally trumped that goat).
While there was nothing I could do about my recent rice-induced weight gain, I figured I could at least attempt to hit the beach as muck-free and parasite-free as possible. I spent the day before I left the farm fumigating my luggage and washing every item of clothing I owned at least twice (the delicates got an extra spin through the rinse cycle).

The night before I left for Tioman Island, I booked a hotel room in a nice hotel (you know, one of those hotel rooms that has glass in the windows rather than, ummm, chicken wire). There, I spent the evening taking a couple dozen hot showers, painting my toe nails and inspecting my undies for bed bugs. By the time I was island-bound, my toenails were a brilliant shade of hot pink… as was my skin from having been scrubbed raw for approximately twelve hours.

Arrive in Style

Most tourists arrive on Tioman Island via one of the ferries from the mainland. Packed up to its poop decks in budget backpackers and screaming children, the ferry has the same amount of charm as a Third World public bus, minus the luggage racks (instead the luggage on the ferry is stowed anywhere it will fit including tied haphazardly to the front of the boat) and the, ummm, chickens (the chickens, apparently, use a different mode of transportation to get to the island… and, frankly, I don’t blame them).

I, on the other hand, arrived at the island via a sixty-one-foot, three-story, four-bedroom, luxury yacht. Possibly it was the heaven’s way of apologizing for the traumatic bed-bug-in-my-bra experience, but I somehow found myself invited by a friend in Singapore to join him on a yacht cruise from Singapore to Tioman Island. What better way to recover from two arduous months of rice paddy weeding (as well as brace myself for the week ahead of fighting off death on a tropical island) than to be personally escorted ashore in a swanky luxury yacht?

When we pulled up to the harbor in Tekek, our yacht was definitely the most pimped out ride in town. A crowd of villagers came running out on to the dock to gawk, and the other yacht-goers on their rinky-dink one- and two-story yachts just stared. I, of course, tried to pretend like I belonged on huge luxury yacht (this basically consisted of my looking haughtily at everyone through my sunglasses while making sure there weren’t any bed bugs crawling out of my bra).

Downgrade Slowly

While I knew my life of luxury yacht accommodations wouldn’t last long and I’d be back to rubbing shoulders (and possibly sharing parasites) with the riff-raff on the public ferry, I felt it was important to transition slowly from possible-hotel-chain-heiress status to possible-parasite-host status. After two nights on the yacht, my friend and I spent a night at the Berjaya, the island’s only four star resort.

This is where I learned an important lesson about beach vacations: the more money you’re willing to shell out, the closer your room will be to the beach. Seeing as I wasn’t the one footing the bill for our first night, we ended up with a chalet directly on the beach. Relishing my newfound luxury lifestyle, I started referring to the section of beach in front of the chalet we were staying in as “my front yard”. When sitting on the front porch, I’d practice the haughty sneer I picked up while on the yacht. Every time a vacationing family or honeymooning couple (usually refugees from the chalets that were not on the beach) would dare to enter “my front yard” I’d wave a beach umbrella at them menacingly and grumble about how the neighborhood was really going downhill.

After my friend returned to Singapore the next day and took all alternative forms of payment with him (like, ummm, his credit card), I decided I wasn’t quite ready to relinquish resort-living, so I booked two more nights in the cheapest chalet I could get on the grounds. Still way above my budget (that is if I was one of those people who actually knew how to budget), my new digs were tucked in a back corner of the resort that was often frequented by monitor lizards. In order to get to the beach, I had to walk past a soccer field, the mini-bus garage, the front lobby, the gift shop, the game lounge, a Chinese restaurant, a barbecue restaurant and an outdoor bar… all while attempting to avoid being chased by monkeys (again, this is much harder to do than it sounds!). Aside from the distant location, my new “budget” chalet was pretty similar in appearance and amenities to my beachfront chalet. The only difference was that the porch furniture had been discretely placed inside the room; as if to delicately suggest that you might not want to sit outside — where everyone could see your shame.

After my three days at the resort, I was finally ready to face the big bad world of budget travel (and not just, ummm, “budget” travel), and I headed over to Air Batang, where there were a lot more cheaper options to chose from. I spent one night in a dingy chalet at the end of the village that promised a view of the beach (if you stood on the plastic chair on your porch and jumped up and down a few times), but also promised the possibility of contracting meningitis every time you were forced to touch the filthy light switch. The next day I moved to the neighboring hotel where I was given a chalet halfway up a hill. While I could barely even hear the sea from my new shack, my room was clean and I had a cozy porch situated under a mango tree.

I was happy with my new place until the toilet broke that afternoon, and I was forced to move to yet another hut even farther up the hill. Located a good ten meters away from any of the other guest accommodations, my new chalet looked like it hadn’t been inhabited for a while (at least not inhabited by people… judging from the regular deposits of gecko poop on the bed, it appeared my new shack was quite popular among the lizard population). While the toilet worked, the water and electricity would periodically give out. The windows had been covered in a rough wire fencing more often seen in a barnyard than, say, on a window. The tiny, cramped porch sported only one chair as if to suggest this chalet was reserved especially for people like me — people who like to travel on their own… and who are prone to harboring bed bugs in their bra (and, hence, have no hope of making any friends).

Bring Along a Friend (Or Your Favorite Rice Farmer)

Admittedly, maybe another reason why I’ve never been much of a beach person is because beach vacations are not so much fun for the solo traveller. There’s no one to keep an eye on your stuff when you decide to risk DEATH by actually submerging your body in the ocean (or “The Big Watery Pit of DEATH” as I like to call it). There’s no one to join you at the beachside bar for chit chat and beers (or coconut tree whiskey). There’s no one to sit across from you at the romantic, beachside table for two (or to help you sneer at the happy couples who are sitting across from each other at romantic beachside tables for two).

Tioman Island, like most beach vacation destinations, doesn’t attract many single visitors. Instead the island was packed all the way up to its coral reefs in vacationing French families, gaggles of British girls in bikinis and, of course, the requisite happy couples. After spending my first night in Air Batang on my own, eating my dinner for one at a beachside table built for two, I couldn’t help feeling a bit lonely. Sure, I’m used to traveling on my own, and I had even been looking forward to getting some alone time after spending two months cooped up on a rice farm with a whole bunch of rice farmers. But alone time isn’t nearly as much fun when you’re surrounded by a bunch of happy people who seem to be very happy because they are very much un-alone… Plus, it’s even less fun when the waiter keeps on asking you where all your friends are.

Then my supervisor on the rice farm, Mr. Choi, called me and announced that he wanted to join me for a night on my beach vacation. While I was surprised at first (and slightly alarmed that I might have given him the wrong idea by accepting all his gifts of sickles), I was happy when he showed up. It was nice to have someone to hang out with again… even if we were getting lots of weird looks from the locals that suggested not a lot of white girls vacation on Tioman Island with their favorite rice farmer!

Like me, Mr. Choi didn’t seem to be very much of a beach person. He hadn’t packed his swimming trunks, and he showed absolutely no interest in going near the ocean (or “risking DEATH” as I like to call it).

He also didn’t seem to be much of “take it easy” kind of person. On his first day on the island, we hiked the two miles from Air Batang to Tekek and back again. On his second day, he surprised me by taking me on a jungle trek along the bay to the north of the village (unfortunately seeing as “jungle trek” was not on my imagined itinerary for the day, I hadn’t thought to wear appropriate clothing… and that is how I ended up scrambling up muddy ropes and scooting down huge rocks in a skirt and flip flops).

Halfway through our impromptu jungle trek, we stopped at a cafe on the bay for a coffee. As I was dabbing at my mud-encrusted ankles with a napkin and sipping at my coffee, he admitted that his first impression of me when I first arrived on the farm hadn’t been a good one. “When I first saw you,” he said, “I thought maybe this girl can’t do anything. Maybe this girl is too soft. What can this girl do on our farm? But three hours in the rice paddy and you’re okay. You can walk really far, and you’re okay. I think, maybe you can do anything.” I was instantly warmed by his vote of confidence (if a bit offended that his first impression of me was that I was weak and lazy).

That afternoon, Mr. Choi left on the ferry back to the mainland. With two more nights on the island on my own, I tried to keep what he said to me in mind. Sure, I may not look like a beach person. I may not tan like a beach person or wear skimpy spandex like a beach person or even be a beach person. But, I could do anything!

Every afternoon I marched out to the beach in my full-coverage spandex and my thigh-covering sarong and sat on the beach staring out at the sea. Every once in a while, I’d see a snorkeler or a scuba diver or a boogie boarder and think “Hey, I could do that! But not now… Maybe on my next beach vacation.”


I've blathered on long enough! Now it's your turn!

  1. On September 27, 2012 at 6:45 am Indie Gandolfi said:

    Never mind death by beach, how about death by MONSTROUS KILLER LIZARD!! This was the experience of a girlfriend and I when we spent a week on Tioman…
    Admire you deeply for spending so long in the rice paddies, a day was enough for me. Know what you mean about huts not meant for human habitation. Mosquitos love me and the feeling is NOT mutual, so no, I did not want to cuddle up with several for the night.
    Still, gotta admit, Tioman is beautiful 🙂
    Love your posts and will keep reading for sure!!
    Indie x

    Just in case you want to read 🙂


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