Some time around 4pm we arrived at the town of Lumut on the west coast of Malaysia. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the ferries were still running back and forth from Pulau Pangkor (Pangkor Island), meaning we could stay on the island that night. With ferry tickets in hand we boarded a steel death-trap. The smell of diesel carbon monoxide was giddying. We sat ourselves as close to the emergency exit as possible and commented that it looked rusted tightly closed, as the captain locked the two steel doors behind the last passenger. This was the start to our 6 days on Pangkor Island, Malaysia!
(If you love adventure, be sure to read my post- 5 awesome natural attractions in Victoria, Australia that most tourists miss out on.)
Roughly half an hour later we breathed a huge sigh of relief (and some fresh air) while clambering onto the jetty at Pangkor town. The town was small but crazy, with a bazillion pink taxis, scooters going every which way and bewildered looking tourists gazing around. The day was getting long and we were all exhausted so we checked into a new-ish looking motel run by a sweet tiny little Chinese lady who spoke not a word of English. The room was small, basic and clean and we were more than happy to stop for the day.
From the small window of our room we could see a rather spectacular muslim mosque adorned with intricate blue-green tiles and gilding which glittered in the late afternoon sun. Below us was a mound of dirt where several street dogs were curling up for the night and one was tearing apart a low-flying bird for dinner. Monkeys danced and lept between power lines and the extremely loud melodic chanting poured from the mosque, creating a unique and interesting atmosphere in the humid evening.
We slept well and were woken early by the very loud (think megaphones) -but not irritating- chanting from the same temple. It was quite exotic actually. The sound mixed with the heat and humidity as first light broke over Pangkor town had us excited about what the day had in store for us. Our tiny Chinese host was out the back below our window doing early morning tai-chi, and seemed to radiate happiness and contentedness.
Shops in Malaysia do not open prior to 10am, even on Pangkor so we had a crappy breakfast of 7-11 rubbish (the ONLY thing open) before walking the three km to the other side of the island. Thankfully we had enough sense to grab a few litres of water at the 7-11. Malaysia is hot and mercilessly humid all year round. 3km is not far but we were SO grateful for that water in the heat. It was not even 8am and the humidity was stifling, we were drenched with sweat especially as we had to take turns carrying baby.
The walk to Coral bay beach on the other side of the island was interesting as we passed schools, homes, a massive hospital and police station and pop-up stalls all along the way. We were feeling happy to be away from the city and were loving the island vibe. Everyone was friendly and genuinely interested in the odd mixed couple with the cute coloured baby. Nahko was having a ball waving to people and smiling his gummy smile to anybody who passed. Quite a few people stopped and said hello or waved as they rode on by.
I am so grateful that we only packed carry-on luggage or this trek would have been a WHOLE lot different! You can read my story on why and HOW we only ever travel with carry-on luggage here 🙂
We arrived at Coral bay and stopped for 3/4 of an hour or so on the beach. There was a huge tree overhanging the beach and we rested while Nahko slept on his daddy’s jumper in the shade. At first glance, the beach looked BEAUTIFUL. Smooth boulders and yellow sand gave way to sparkling blue-green water, and lush tropical jungle came right to the waters edge in some places.
After a good rest we caught a taxi to Nipah Bay, about 6km north which would be our final destination on Pangkor. Nipah Bay is the cheaper ‘backpacker’ area of Pangkor, but since we were there in the off season it was all but deserted and we were more than happy with that. The village was nothing more than some shanty stalls, 2 small supermarkets, an excellent family-run restaurant on the beach and a handful of cheap and mostly cheerful motels.
We checked into a motel and spent that afternoon and night lazing in the air conditioning in our room, watching terrible bollywood sagas and dozing on and off. Even Bubs was happy with this arrangement!
The next day we were up early and off to explore this beautiful corner of the world! Nipah Bay had a great vibe and we were so impressed with the genuine kindness and consideration of others. Actually everywhere we went in Malaysia, people were courteous and genuinely kindhearted. Of course everyone is out to make a dollar, and it’s understandable that they will squeeze as much as they can out of tourists because lets face it, a lot of Malaysians are living in poverty and a lot of tourists are loaded by their standards.
Being compassionate and courteous, and not treating the locals as slaves (as some tourists like to do) we got on just fine. In fact we made some great friends and by the end of our stay we had met and chatted to pretty much all of the locals in Nipah Bay.
The second and subsequent night, we stayed at the ‘Waterfall cabins’, which are located at the back of town about 10 minutes walk from the beach. There are new rooms, only 4 months old and older ones, 4 years old. Me being a bit of a tight-a*se suggested we go for the older cabins which upon a quick inspection looked to be fine. It wasnt until we got into the room and had a good look around that we noticed how filthy the bedding was. I’m no princess and have slept in some pretty rough places having been in the army for a few years, but this was YUK. Definitely should have paid the extra few bucks and gone for the new cabins which we were told were lovely. We never did get around to peeking inside one.
We didn’t want to offend the little Chinese lady running the place by asking for a clean sheet (stupid) so we bought a sarong which we laid over the bed at night. It was okay and at least there were no bed bugs. The bathroom was definitely a ‘shoes on’ affair and the roof leaked substantially during heavy rain, but not above the bed. The air con worked well and generally speaking we were comfortable enough.
Nipah Bay beach was absolutely spectacular. It made Coral bay look bleh in comparison. Gentle blue-green waves washed onto the coarse white coral sands. Large smooth boulders and lush dark green jungle with palm trees overhanging the water were everywhere. Hammocks and swinging ropes hung from the trees and the brightly coloured tropical fish could be seen from the shore.
Sadly, this absolute paradise has be ruined by the hand of man. I tried not to photograph the mess but in some ways I wish I had documented it now. What appears to be a garden of Eden at first glance is smothered with garbage in every direction. Plastic bottles and bags are everywhere. The water is full of them. What once would have been pristine beaches are strewn with litter as far as the eye can see. Malaysia does not have proper effluent systems in place, and raw sewerage commonly runs into waterways. This along with oil, spilled fuel, washing water and whatever other mank humans can produce. Pangkor is no exception and sadly everything makes its way to the beautiful ocean.
The water itself and the sand is highly contaminated. Even though it didn’t look too bad when we were there, it was obvious that nasty parasites and bacteria abound. The locals are accustomed to the water and boat tour operators and fishermen spend all day in it, however tourists need to be wary of becoming sick. Both my husband and son swam in it with no dramas. I only swam once and ended up with highly irritated ‘girl bits’ for the next 2 weeks. Scary and unpleasant. That’s probably TMI but I would want to know if I were considering swimming.
The beaches were both breathtakingly beautiful and heartbreakingly tainted. I couldn’t help imagine how stunning it would have been before humans descended on the place. It must have truly been a paradise to behold. With a lot of elbow grease and proper planning, Pangkor Island has the potential to be bought back to it’s former glory. It’s doubtful that the Malaysian government will make this happen.
Although the beaches are badly damaged, Pangkor is still very much worth a visit. The unique island vibe is really special and there are many activities to keep yourself busy. We hiked to a waterfall in the jungle, took a boat tour of the surrounding islands, walked to the next bay which had reggae music on the beach and a whole restaurant dedicated to pancakes. We saw some incredible birds and were surprised to discover tiny squirrels in the trees! I got chased by a wild boar one evening when pacing the street trying to get baby to sleep. Scary at the time but apparently the boars there are timid and will back off if you stamp your feet and stare them down. I must have looked like a mad woman running down the street while bubs laughed hysterically at the change of pace!
Some other activities on Pangkor include 4-wheel motorbike tours in the jungle or you can hire a scooter to discover the whole island yourself. There is snorkeling, scuba diving and the most incredible pink sunsets over the water to take in. One of the greatest attractions are Pangkors’ locals. Be sure to say Hi to sweet Agma. She works at the pop-up clothing stall at the far southern end by the watch tower. She was absolutely in love with Nahko. Although she spoke very little english, she came by every day on her way to work for a cuddle. She even took him under one arm for a scooter ride (while Jack & I died inside, not realizing what she was doing until she had gone!) But she went very slowly and bought him back in one piece, phew!
The food on Pangkor was incredible! We went to the same place each evening and it was our main meal of the day as we were wary of street food (often seafood) which had been sitting out in the heat all day. The ‘Thai Foods Project’, run by three generations of the same family was always super fresh and the tastes were amazing! Despite the name, most of the food was Malay. Each dish was entree-sized, so we chose 3 or 4 different dishes each night to share between us. That along with a can of coke for myself and watermelon freeze for Jack cost no more than $30 ringgit a night, roughly $10 Australian. And that included a large bottle of drinking water as we left. I was too scared to try the watermelon, wondering what kind of water it had been grown in and if the ice was clean but Jack had no dramas. Not once did we have any issues with the food, it was always top quality.
The staff at the ‘Thai Foods Project’ consisted of a 40-something chef and his 5 sons who were the waitstaff. They were really a lovely family.The whole place was overseen by the tiny matriach -the Chef’s Mama- who spoke not a word of english and was absolutely the boss of the whole show. The Chef’s wife and sisters prepared the food and cleaning out the back, and the whole place ran like clockwork. Every night they had plenty of patrons. I can only imagine what it must be like during peak season! One by one the family inquisitively asked about us, where we were from and what a cute baby we had. By the last night there were photos and farewell hugs and free roti chenai for Bubs. It was awesome 🙂
Pangkor Island was an incredible experience unlike anywhere we’ve ever been. Sometimes rough and dirty, but also beautiful with a genuine and kind island vibe. Would we recommend going?
As always we’d love to hear your thoughts! Have you visited Malaysia or Pulau Pangkor? Let us know in the comments below.
Until next time, happy travels!