Sun and Serenity on Sibu Island, Malaysia.
Sibu Island, Malaysia
Do you possess a treasured travel memory that you often drift back to when you’re having a shit day? When you’re snowed under at work? Or when the neighbours are drilling again? Perhaps even in the middle of the night when you simply cannot get to sleep. For me that memory is of Sibu Island (Pulau Sibu) in Malaysia. A tropical paradise I often wish I could return to in order to escape the stresses and struggles of daily life.
Such a place couldn’t and shouldn’t be easy to get to. From the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru, my friend Lisa and I took a public bus to the tumbleweed outpost of Simpang Tenggaroh. From there, a taxi rattled us through an extensive stretch of no-man’s-land before arriving at Tanjung Leman Jetty. The jetty was incredibly sleepy, home to little more than a ticket office, a cheerless stone waiting room and the world’s emptiest KFC. I didn’t partake.
After much thumb-twiddling, our pre-arranged speedboat showed up. A private transfer to Sibu, no less, which Lisa had arranged. We clambered aboard, put on our life jackets and within minutes were humming through The South China Sea. It was a magical moment, the wind rushing through my hair as we closed in on my first tropical island experience. The journey took forty minutes, but felt like it flew by in about five.
Sun and Serenity on Sibu Island, Malaysia.
Lisa worked at a resort called Sea Gypsy Village, but their chalets proved a little expensive for my budget. Thus I cut a deal with Twin Beach Resort on Sibu Island’s western side. I’d read that the resort was basic and really peaceful, even in May when the hot weather was in full swing and the sea at its calmest.
Indeed this was true of Sibu in general, which was nowhere near as developed as nearby Tioman Island. “Twin Beach!” called our captain, as the boat rumbled to a gradual stop at the entrance to a long, wooden jetty.
I was so full of anticipation as I made my way down the jetty. There was a light breeze on my face, a pleasing silence and not a soul to be seen, just what I’d been hoping for. Talk about idyllic, this was quite literally the isolated island getaway that had existed in my mind’s eye.
By the time I stepped onto the beach, the captain had already whizzed Lisa away to Sea Gypsy Village. I’d been expecting someone to come and greet me, but there was nobody. And I mean no one, not even another beachgoer. I can still feel that perfect silence, only occasionally broken by the sound of the waves gently lapping the shoreline.
Eventually, with a bit of poking around between the various wooden chalets, I found the manager in his closet of an office. “Thomas?” “Uh… Leighton”. “Ah, ok. Yes… welcome to Twin Beach! Please, come with me“.
Twin Beach Resort.
My modest chalet faced the sea and had its own porch. “Are there other guests?” I asked the manager as he departed, a ring of keys jangling in his hand. “One or two, but they are touring some local islands today. Now, it’s just you”.
Inside, I found myself a touch surprised by how rickety everything was. Basically, I had a single room with a bathroom, very small, but cosy enough in its own way. There had been a huge price difference if I’d wanted the air con activated. Hence I made do with the raspy old fan, which just about kept me cool.
Admittedly, I didn’t quite know what to do with myself at first. I had come to completely chill out, to grab some serenity and sun. And that was certainly what I was going to get. I thought I’d had some rest back in Johor Bahru after a month on the road in Thailand. But this was next-level chilling. No historic sights to track down, zero restaurants to browse. Hmm, I thought, as I sat down on the porch, staring out to sea. Before I knew what had happened an hour had drifted by.
That first afternoon ebbed away in the same manner as all my days at Twin Beach Resort. First, I took a walk down Sunset Beach, the main stretch of sand. The other strip, Sunrise Beach, was accessible through the woods, but not a patch on its sister.
Sibu Island, Malaysia.
I took somewhere between four to six swims a day. The water was incredible: warm, deliciously turquoise and populated by swarms of darting multicoloured fish. On a few occasions, I dared to swim far out for excellent views across the seemingly wobbly jetty.
When I couldn’t be bothered to stroll or swim, I’d drop into a beach hammock positioned roughly halfway between my chalet and the sea. Then set my iTunes playlist to random and let everything melt away. This is the specific memory I was talking about back in the opening paragraph, my definitive go-to slab of escapism when I really need it.
My nightly rate included breakfast, lunch and dinner. Twin Beach had only one restaurant, so you had to deal with whatever they gave you. The food was average at best, but generous portions at least. In fact, it often felt the chef just threw together whatever ingredients happened to be in front of him. The whole thing was more than a bit lazy, especially when they served me the exact same meal two days in a row. Really?
Twin Beach Resort.
On day three I felt ready to take a walk to Sea Gypsy Village. Lisa had given me rough directions, and warned that parts of the trail were somewhat precarious. But I was not to be dissuaded, setting off with my backpack, a hand towel and a bottle of water.
Before long, the trail took me away from Twin Beach and onto a stone path that ran through a section of thin woodland. Luckily, there were pockets of shade here and there that provided respite from the burning sun.
The further I progressed, the less cared for everything seemed to be. So this is what Sibu looked like in between resorts. Fallen branches, little hillocks of gathered plastic bottles and an occasional crumbly bridge. Still charming in its own way, but not something you’d put on a postcard.
I ended up making the walk to Sea Gypsy Village around three or four times during my stay. The most handsome section of the walk took me through Sari Pacifica Resort. This was definitely Sibu’s swankiest complex, a meticulous garden village home to a dozen large, tasteful beach bungalows.
Sari Pacifica Resort.
Moreover, Sari Pacifica has its own pool, a delightful spot that always had me tempted to take a cheeky dip. Somehow, I resisted, not wanting to get in trouble. I do recall one afternoon exchanging pleasantries with a Chinese family. They were huddled together around a group of chairs eating from pots of instant noodles they’d brought with them from the homeland. Which gave me a giggle.
From the pool, I’d cut down onto the resort’s gorgeous beach. There was never anyone there, so I always made sure to stop a moment. To close my eyes, feel the breeze and thank my lucky stars that life had allowed me to rest a while in this lovely corner of Earth.
I had to walk all the way down Sari Pacifica Beach to access the final and most challenging part of the route.
Here, I’d carefully pick my way over the jagged rocks to get onto the beach at Sea Gyspy Resort. Yes, I needed to negotiate these same rocks on the way back at night in the dark. Luckily, Lisa loaned me one of the office torches so that I could see where I was going. And avoid what would surely have been a broken bone or two, if not worse.
Sibu Island, Malaysia.
Sea Gypsy Village Resort is undeniably pretty and green, with a cosy beach that’s every bit as impressive as the one I had at Twin Beach. Generally, there were more guests knocking around, but nothing that spoiled the vibe.
While the chalets weren’t quite as fancy as those at Sari Pacifica, they were a clear upgrade on my shack at Twin Beach. Not that I regretted my choice of resort. After all, as Lisa was keen to point out, Sea Gypsy Village attracted families and even had a creche for kids. Furthermore, they had a dive centre onsite and a qualified instructor. As a result, this place was always going to be busier.
I invariably hung out at the bar-restaurant. When Lisa wasn’t on duty, we might play scrabble or order pancakes. They had a small library in one corner. So one afternoon I did a bit of reading from crappy detective novels and out-of-date Malaysia Lonely Planet guides.
The cocktails were great, though I often wondered if I might have to make them myself. Somehow, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as Jack Nicholson. “You set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em back, Lloyd”.
Sea Gypsy Village Resort.
We enjoyed a wonderful barbecue dinner one evening at Sea Gypsy Village. As soon as I smelled those sizzling burgers, I knew there was no way I’d be rushing back to Twin Beach for another plate of hurried hodgepodge.
Towards the end of the week, Lisa and I were sitting in the restaurant plotting a trip. Sibu had been great, but I was thinking of an adventure before I called time on Malaysia. As soon as she mentioned Tioman Island, with its world class snorkelling, jungle hikes and turtle sanctuary, I knew we’d picked a winner.
On that final night at Twin Beach, I loaded up my backpack, took a swim and drank in one last Sibu Island dusk. At long last I had ticked a tropical island getaway off my bucket list. And it felt good. Next, I was hoping, Tioman Island would sign off my Malaysian escapades on a high. “Thank you Sibu, thank you kindly”.
Like this? Then why not check out my other reports from around Malaysia.
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