Here, on the east coast of Malaysia, just beyond the town of Kuantan, it is difficult to tell where the sand ends and the water begins. I am at a white sandy beach called Teluk Cempedak (pronounced Chempadak), which shimmers beneath the moonlight along the South China Sea. Casuarina and pine trees line the coast, their leaves fluttering in the light breeze. Then, as sunlight nudges the horizon, the beach comes to life, as it has for centuries.
Between March and September each year, the life you see is of turtles laying eggs. At other times, the bounce, the life, come from the fishing community leaving for their catch each morning. But this idyllic tranquillity has been shattered in the past—by war, and by its aftermath. In the early 1940s, this region was devastated when the Japanese invaded Malaya. Forty years later, hundreds of Vietnamese turned up in their sampans, seeking a place that would have them, fleeing the Communist state. They could build a semblance of life, before they were flown back to Vietnam, after spending nearly a decade in the country now known as Malaysia.
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The turtles lay their eggs at Rantau Abang, north of Kuantan. Archaeologists believe that a Khmer city lies buried under the vast Lake Chini, a series of 12 connecting waterways about 60km west of the town. Between June and September, Chini is carpeted in lotus blossoms. There is a cave where you find a reclining Buddha.
That’s a good posture to adopt in this part of Malaya—reclining, the better if it is in a hammock. The east coast of Malaysia is called the sleepier coast, which suits the fishing village of Beserah just fine. Nobody is in a hurry in that village, and it seems as though they measure their time not in hours, not in days, but in seasons.
One warm morning I decided to explore what the tourist office had enthusiastically called a forest reserve near the beach. The officer had a bored look, and he handed me some brochures grumpily. The brochure promised me birds, insects, squirrels and monkeys. I saw none of those, and the forest itself failed to inspire, but there was another inspiring sight, of the water beneath, which was enchanting. As I climbed higher, the scattered rocks along the seashore looked like giant hippopotami lying in water, their thick hides glistening as waves lashed against them.
Water travellers: Vietnamese refugees came to Malaysia in sampans. AFP
The British navy suffered one of its most humiliating defeats not far from this beach. During World War II, the Japanese had landed in southern Thailand on 8 December, and raced southward, defeating the British in Kota Bharu, Malaya, heading towards Singapore. To repel them, Britain sent two major warships, Prince of Wales and Repulse. Singapore saw off those ships with much fanfare.
But the royal navy was unprepared for aerial attack, and it had no aerial defence of its own. The two ships became proverbial sitting ducks, and the Japanese bombed them, sending them sinking in the South China Sea. British morale suffered a major blow; Singapore was to fall within nine weeks.
Beyond the forest, on the other side, was the more secluded beach, Tanjung Pelindung. It means the cape of refuge, and there is a sound reason why it is called that. During the Japanese invasion, villagers from places such as Beserah fled to this secluded spot on the coast to take refuge, hoping they would not get discovered. Decades later, Vietnamese seeking refuge turned up on these beaches.
Asia has a peculiar fascination with the tragic and the morbid. There is an ahistoric sense, where businesses appropriate the past, obliterate the meaning, and bet on collective amnesia to create an opportunity to make money. Tragedies get transformed into brand names, into objects of commerce. For example, Beijing has a restaurant which recreates the Mao era of Cultural Revolution, with waiters in Mao-style uniforms, and a dish with chilli called The East is Red, an anthem from those times. A Malaysian textile company used to make casual wear and branded it British India. In Kuantan, a bar at an upscale hotel is called the Sampan. Made out of a converted boat, it is like any other bar, except that it has a poignant story.
A sampan is a Chinese houseboat, about 15ft long, in which families can stay. This sampan was the real thing in every sense: It had carried Vietnamese refugees to Malaysia, and the hotel had bought the boat and donated the proceeds to a fund for refugee relief. Once the political situation stabilized in Vietnam, Malaysia decided to send most refugees back, many against their will. That made the story so poignant: The refugees lost everything in Vietnam, came in a boat to Malaysia; their boat was sold, and after some time, they had to return to Vietnam, completing two journeys too many.
As I thought of the sad way the wheel turned for them, the sky changed its colour, from being shiny yellow to mellow crimson, the water turning the hue of a generous Bloody Mary.
Later that evening, I walked on the beach with some tourists who were staying at my hotel. We saw newly hatched turtles. The turtles were small—some could fit the palm of your hand. They calmed down when you patted them gently. The breeze blew gently; the moon was back. With high tide, the female turtles would surface, coming ashore to lay eggs.
Malaysia may have returned the boat people to Vietnam; it still had room for turtles.
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