We lurched to a stop on the highway, the driver pointing down a dirt path and saying something in Malay. This must be my stop; I gather my bags and hop off the dilapidated local bus from Kuantan, making the mistake of setting my pack back down on a bench inhabited by giant red ants as I try to get my bearings. I stared down the empty dirt road that I assume leads to Cherating with trepidation as I spied one of the guesthouses mentioned in the five year old guide book I picked up in ruins, nothing more than a rotting collection of wooden panels and beams, the welcome sign swinging lazily from it’s last remaining hinge. Even in Penang the bus attendants thought I was telling them the wrong name when I said I wanted to come here. This does not bode well for me.
Cursing silently as I notice the ants storming my pack, I brush off the ones I can see and swing it over my shoulders, causing one or two hidden ones to attack my waistline as I clip myself in. Lovely. It’s barely 9am, and fortunately the sun is still at bay just enough for me to walk comfortably with all of my belongings, for once not dripping in sweat after two minutes. Cherating is a ghost town. The air sits heavily upon its empty streets, flags hang limply and chairs sit upside down on café tables behind bamboo slat curtains, not a single inhabitant to be seen. If this were the desert vultures would be circling, the lonely caw caw of crows echoing through the air. Instead I am at a lost beach; macaques silently scale long deserted buildings, mutely slinking along power lines, letting only the occasional birdsong and crashing waves break the suffocating silence. I eye them warily as I walk past, remembering previous encounters.
The reason for the unusually empty streets and closed shops is nothing sinister, although it feels a bit post-apocalyptic; today marks the beginning of Ramadan. Today is the first day of a month full of prayer and fasting. Nothing opens up until after 5 or 6 in the evening….I am going to starve here. I think this small village also runs on island time, and the eerie emptiness I initially intruded on was in part simply because it was still early. I ran into a local who directed me to a budget guesthouse up the road a ways, and after I got settled in I walked around town again and discovered the first signs of life; a scattering of people on the beach, neighbors sitting in the shade gossiping, convenience shop owners opening their doors as the sun peaked in the sky. The restaurants and cafés are all still closed, but it is Ramadan after all.
As it turns out, there are quite a few expats and long termers here in Cherating. The hostel I am in hosts more than a few people who arrived last month thinking they were only staying for a couple of days, yet still they remain. One German girl, who had been here before for three weeks and, after a short stint up north is back again for another two weeks, laughed as she told me “it’s like Hotel California.” Instantly I was hit with a wave of nostalgia, pulled back to the Irishman in New Zealand, Maia and I belting out this Eagles classic with gusto every Friday for karaoke night…and for just a moment I longed to be back.
I am beginning to understand the allure of this beach village. The beach itself is nearly empty, it seems everyone knows each other by name, and trails dart off from the white sands into various jungle openings just waiting to be explored. A German traveler told me about a nearby beach where you can watch turtles lay their eggs and offered to take me there, a group of us is going there tonight. On the walk back across the receding tide lines I stumbled across a massive jellyfish three times the size of a large dinner plate caught out in the sand, later finding two more unfortunate non-polyps farther along the beach. So there are massive jellyfish in the water, good to know. A river runs along the back of the village and you can go on night tours to surround yourself with fireflies in the mangroves as you float through the dark waters, or you can rent a kayak for an hour or two, or even go fishing. I can see how this place would grab you, pull you in, and bring you back again and again (even if not physically). I tend to be a restless person, I’ve found that if I’m not doing something productive- or at least active- I get anxious, feeling like I’m wasting time and ready to pack up and leave yet again. But sometimes just being still can boost your well-being, a needed break for your body and mind. I tend to think a lot when I have a lot of time on my hands, maybe that’s why I’m always on the move. Maybe I don’t want to think, I don’t want to do any soul searching, I just want to live in the moment and do, do, do.
Who knows what this place holds for me, maybe I will fall under the spell of it’s charm, maybe I will allow myself more than a day of rest, reflection and re-centering…maybe I will actually be able to do nothing and be content. I have been lugging around this stupid hammock that I got pressured into buying my first night in Bangkok, and with the help of my new German friend it now hangs behind me invitingly as I sit writing this on my bungalow porch, so I have a feeling I will at least need to put it to good use.
It is Ramadan, after all.