Fantasy islands

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Fantasy islands

SIBU BESAR, Malaysia - It looks impossible.

The tallest coconut tree on this island is more than 25 meters, and the resident Robert Buhanudin has volunteered to climb it. He wraps his arms around the scaly trunk and slowly works his way up. About two-thirds of the way to the top, he kicks off his white Adidas sneakers. They tumble down and hit the ground.

Soon enough, his red and blue shirt disappears into the darkness of the branches. Squawking birds fly out of the swaying tree as Mr. Buhanudin pries loose coconut after coconut.

When he shinnies down, he is breathing deeply and shaking. "I've been climbing coconut trees since I was 9, 10 years old," Mr. Buhanudin says. His holds up rough hands. "After the first couple of times, it stops being scary."

It is the second day of a vacation to Sibu Island Resort, one of the few inhabited islands near Malaysia's southern state of Johor. Most of the larger islands are an hour's boat ride through blue, crystal waters.

It is chilly back in Korea. One look at my dry, pale skin peeking out from the cuff of a thick sweater, and one look at a brochure of Sibu Island Resort - blue seas, white sand, coral and an angler's heaven - and the decision was made. I had to go.

I go in search of sun and that vacation high. When you're traveling by yourself, the vacation is not about sharing laughter with friends or family; the joy comes from collecting images. The ultimate high is losing yourself in one picturesque moment.

Sibu Island Resort, not to be confused with Cebu Island in the Philippines, is a relative newcomer to the island-laden resort culture of Malaysia. The northwest coast of Malaysia has long been famous for resort islands such as Penang, Langkawi and Pangkor.

The southeast coast, once largely ignored, has been "rediscovered" as the new frontier. About five years ago, the government became a silent partner in developing the area that has a climate that fluctuates more than the west coast.

From Korea, I take an international flight to Kuala Lumpur, a national flight to Johor, a bus to a jetty at the edge of the coast and a boat to Sibu Island Resort, which is on Sibu Island.

There, I see a scene straight out of the classic television series "Fantasy Island," but with a cultural twist. Musicians meet us singing, "Siiiiiibu Island of Johor!" Instead of leis, several women pass out hard boiled eggs wrapped in gold lace, hanging on a stick. "It's good luck, a favor at weddings," I overhear. You can never have too much luck, but afraid to crush them, I gingerly take only one. My bags piled on a golf cart, I hold on to the stick and walk to my room.

Sibu Island Resort, which opened three years ago, drew 14,000 tourists last year; 40 percent were local, 35 percent from Singapore, 15 percent from Europe, 3 percent from Japan and the rest from other countries. The Europeans, according to resort employees, come looking for a casual getaway. The resort, with four beaches, hiking trails and a nonmotor powered water sport facility, has a rustic charm that makes it ideal for a weekend stay. Many of the visitors request boats for excursions to nearby islands.

The first night, I meet a group of vacationers and go night fishing. We ride a two-level boat for 40 minutes, and set anchor in the vast South China Sea. The ship crew passes out red or yellow plastic wheels and nylon strings. After wrapping the weighted string around the wheel, I drop the hook into the ocean. And wait.

Singaporeans are famous for going boating in the sea when it gets dark, fishing for snappers all night long and heading back home early in the morning. You can either fish off a boat, or dock your boat at an island pier.

But on this night, the fish are not biting. I give up and walk to the second floor, where a group of Asian tourists are singing. The stars are out. While the boat sways gently, I sit down to look for the Big Dipper and fall asleep.

The second day, we take a boat to the fishing village of Kampong Duku, on the island of Sibu Besar. A woman crouches by the dock, weaving a net. A marmalade cat keeps pawing at the net, which on closer inspection has a tiny fish trapped in the edges. In the afternoon heat, 10 children play galahpanjag, a traditional Malay game that looks like hopscotch.

The trip feels strangely like a visit to someone's home, rather than a casual trip to a fake "traditional" village. The village is 200 years old, and now has 190 inhabitants. About 20 families inhabit the 8-hectare island, which also has a school.

The islanders used to fish, but the trawling was ruining the coral. The older generation still make traps to catch fish, but the younger people are starting to look to the nearby resort for other forms of employment. The island is now caught in a transition from old to new.

The hosts invited us into their homes for "tea and treats." An afternoon feast was more like it. One of the villagers, Aziza Benti Mohmazen, offers a meal on her living room floor. I still fondly recall Mrs. Mohmazen's home-cooked meal of curry puff, potato with curried fish, and jelly made of brown sugar, coconut, milk and gelatin.

The villagers then call us together to watch someone climb a coconut tree. Mr. Buhanudin is the first tree climber I have ever met, and so I go on collecting images.

Sibu Island is also known for nearby scuba diving. We go snorkeling off a small island instead. The sights are not the most spectacular, and the biting little fish are annoying. But as it is our last full day, everyone is festive.

When we return to Sibu Island, there are two hours until dinner, which is to be a buffet of Malaysian, Chinese and Indian food. I wander to a hut filled with watersports equipment. After an unsuccessful attempt at windsurfing, I try canoeing to a nearby rock of an island. Sitting in the canoe, I reach down and touch the cold sea. Two other villagers join me and as we race around the uninhabited island, the sun starts setting. I am without a cellular phone, a laptop, friends, or even anyone who speak my language. And for one moment, it's a wonderful isolation.

by Joe Yong-hee

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