The little girl on our yellow ferry spotted them first. We had caught the ferry from the busy jetty at Lumut, and were chugging across the warm Straits of Melaka, when she clapped her hands and pointed to the sky.
“Look Mummy, look. Angels. Angels with big beaks! Sister Claire never said that angels have big beaks!”
Here blonde mother in a sundress and sunglasses shaded her eyes and looked up. So did we. Her father, burly, sun-tanned and freckles, ruffled her hair, grinned and said, as the flock swooped down and flew low over the boat, “Ah! I know what they are. They aren’t angels, Julie, they’re hornbills. We’re lucky: They’re flying to Pangkor. We’ll meet them there.”
Encounter with angels
We did. When we checked into our room, they were there to greet us. They sat on our balcony and scrutinised us with beady black eyes. Inspection over, they squawked, spread their wings and flew away in their flap-glide-flap-glide flight. They had every right to pry: they were the original inhabitants of our coral sea getaway: Pangkor Island, Malaysia.
We lost track of little Julie and her parents that first day. Or perhaps we couldn’t identify them in the mass of friendly Caucasians of all shapes and sizes. They, and we, dawdled over a leisurely meal on the sun deck. We then beach-combed for coral and shells as the surf foamed warm over our toes, and had a relaxing Balinese massage. Long afternoons on vacations are for drowsing on beach chairs, splashing in the pool, followed by sundowners and a barbecue. After which we were serenaded with orchids and wine, unlimbered to a quartet from the Philippines, and watched the moon set slowly over a silvered bay.
Even travel scribes can unwind on special occasions. Then work called.
Pangkor Island is a wooded peak thrusting out of a coral sea. It is studded with dramatic rounded boulders, crowned with a rainforest, and fringed with surf-whispering beaches as soft and shimmering as silver dust. A pink taxi, driven by a saturnine islander, spun us round hairpin bends, through dense rainforests, down to a fishing cove where colourful skiffs bobbed on their own reflections. Malay fishermen had colonised the island after the hornbills. A fair amount of their catch went to an excellent fish processing plant, in which girls worked dexterously, driers roared and desiccated sea-food glittered in plastic packages. We avoided the red sea-slug oil, bought what was, reputedly, the best anchovies in Asia: fortifying Friday fare for many delectable months. Before we left, we learnt that Chinese traders had played a significant role in setting up the plant. A van driver of obvious Han origins said, “You see Chinee temple. Velly corofur.” We thanked him for his advice and drove on.
The Tao temple was radiant in crimson, gold and blue, set against a forested hill. Among its icons was that of a silky-haired, chubby-faced, seer. We asked a gardener, attending to a rock-pool flashing with carp, who the idol represented. He said, “Chinee Long-life” It did look like one of the Chinese Immortals. Taoism preaches harmony with nature and people with lifestyles attuned to the world around them should certainly have extended longevity!
The Dutch, who came after the Chinese, were not so fortunate. They built a trading fort here but though they survived for some time they weren’t accepted by the locals and had to leave. Their so-called ‘fort’ features a canon and beautifully built parapet walls and terraces, but is more a restored location than a conserved monument. There is an interesting engraving on a huge, protected boulder facing the fort. It shows a large feline attacking a small human. One legend has it that it depicts a tiger killing the son of the Dutch commander. Another tale says it is symbolic of the Malays evicting the Netherlanders.
Long after the Dutch had left, the Tamils were brought in as labourers by the British. We visited their Kali temple: more a shrine than a temple in the towering, inward-looking, southern style. The pujari was born and brought up in Britain, but trained in the Vedic traditions in Chennai. His parishioners, however, were unwilling to subject themselves to the protracted old rituals. They wanted their marriage ceremonies to be short, day-time affairs and would even prefer to have them in hotels, where the reception could be a non-veg one. He seemed to indicate that as he was an employee of the community, he had to toe its line. We sympathised with him: change might be necessary for survival but it can be irksome sometimes.
Indian tourists, however, have become increasingly daring. They joined us in a coral-reef cruise in a bay at one corner of Pangkor. We put-putted past rounded boulders that looked like shrouded hobgoblins and crones and then anchored in waters as clear as molten sapphires. To our surprise our Indian-origin, fellow travellers, shrugged off their clothes, appeared in swimming costumes, donned snorkels, and paddled happily gazing down at the bright reef fish and coral gardens below. That was our last day on Pangkor.
Even after a lifetime of travelling, there are some places which have a special niche in our memories. Pangkor is one such place. We met Julie and her parents on the ferry out and, when the hornbills followed our wake and Pangkor Island grew smaller and smaller on the blue coral sea, our eyes filmed. We cleared our throats hurriedly and asked the little girl if she had fed her angels. She nodded her head solemnly and said, “Actually, they’re really hornbills but they guard us like angels, don’t they?”
We agreed, of course. Fantasies often become real when one escapes to a coral island, as we had, on our wedding anniversary.