Imagine a group*, they need not truly exist, placed around a circular table. The scene is one of intense concentration, and all around them can be found only darkness, for many leagues around; the only source of light comes from a single flickering candle that obscures the group’s features and creates a sense of distance as if the rest of creation had simply vanished.
Not to say that this remoteness has upset the group. Far from it: their topic of conversation, centring upon places in a certain region where one can rest their weary bones in places unburdened by distractions, has elicited great enthusiasm. So too has the notion that, for however long, everything else has receded, lying in wait behind a pane of opaque glass.
This is something of importance to the group. They quickly warm to the theme, and, such is the way with these things, they begin to compile a list. It is implicit that these places must fulfil certain criteria; as one may have deduced, these people find magic in places of solitude. They attune themselves to rhythms of an altogether calmer frequency. Perhaps in such times, they note the intricacies of life in a place far different to their own.
Thus, said places must appeal to the solo or lone traveller. They must offer little expectation; ideally, the visitor would have found the place spontaneously or by mistake or become intrigued by their vagueness when described by other sources. In turn, one could infer that such areas may not rank highly in most visited lists and may not hold much clout. No troubadours may sing their praises, and no jester may talk at length about themselves and their lives in such places.
The progression is a natural one. It becomes clear that an ideal spot, at least in this context, holds few distractions and flows with the relaxing place of a stream flowing into an obscure tributary river. They rarely push the visitor to do anything except simply be. They might also provide stimulation, perhaps in the form of a festival or celebration or friendly, sincere interaction with a stranger.
But, mostly, the visitor is left to their own devices. Their presence may well be noted or recognised, but very rarely do their hosts treat them as a curio; they are a fresh face and nothing more. Equally, if the visitor seeks to avoid contact wherever possible, the place should find the sweet spot between open and closed, movement and constriction; in short, open spaces create a sense of detachment from the alienation of no one.
‘Relax, my friends,’ one conversant announces to their fellows, summarising the extent of their talk. ‘I intend to do absolutely nothing. For, in such places, certain charms may reveal themselves, and I may well kick myself if ever I missed them.’ Nods and affirmations abounded, and the group quickly dispersed, tired of their interaction and in search of somewhere where stillness reigns. Here are the places of which they spake.
Watabo’o Beach (Timor-Leste)
The first conversant nominated a stretch of coastline; they evidently enjoyed going to great lengths in search of quiet, for they found it in Timor-Leste, the region’s youngest country.
So said the speaker: Those who head west of Dili, hugging the northern coastline as they do, will soon find Baucau. In asking around at the transport terminus, they hear of a beach at the end of a corkscrew: a place known as Watabo’o. They follow the directions and soon trip down a descending, circular stretch of road, defined by its potholes and the canopy of palms that afford a welcome source of shade.
Soon the road ends. The traveller finds an enclave: a boat workshop, a boarding house, a smaller home flanked by a flat lawn and a bungalow for visitors, and, obscured by trees and undergrowth, a few other homes whose design and inhabitants remained a mystery.
The visitor sets up base in the bungalow, where they choose from one of six beds. Exploration uncovers miles and miles of golden beaches ripe for exploration, fringed by rolling hills and groves of palm trees that offer a peaceful shield to those looking for a touch of solitude or a quiet few beers at the seaside tiki bar.
Absence reigns on Watabo’o. Few people pass through, and so doing, they miss gloriously pure daybreaks, found atop a slight incline that reveals a glorious panoramic swell encompassing the rainforest, the ocean and the coastline mapping the country’s shores to the east.
‘But,’ spake the first, ‘watch out for falling debris, lest ye be brained by falling coconuts.’ As they talked, the individual subconsciously rubbed a mark on their forehead. The spot revealed itself as a faint scar; perhaps they spoke from painful experience.
The coast is a recurring theme for seekers of solitude, perhaps because it heralds water and cuts the world in two.
Maybe that is true, concurred the second. They spoke of a coastal backwater of Malay Borneo, where the ocean and Sungai Gigis converge, carrying the charm of a low-key habitat in their currents. The type of place through which one passes but never stops to observe. They spoke of Mukah.
More likely, Mukah’s hypnotic and relaxing ambience enchants the visitor. Neither the hustle and bustle of Sibu nor the overt and surreal stimulation of Gunung Mulu National Park pervade here. Instead, the township is a place to meander with no real agenda. One will find a river and a beach, evidence of a tribal culture, and religious edifices for those who seek inspiration.
The key, so said the second, is Mukah’s soporific nature. One may well find themselves unencumbered by any pressure save for watching the world, charged by a divine sense of calm. Far from here is the aggression of tourism and touting. In its stead exists a lack of distraction that stimulates focus or nothingness in equal measure.
‘But,’ said the second, ‘you should remember this. If the visitor has a limited grasp of Malay, be it food, language or culture, the food vendors on Taman Boulevard Setiaraja will quickly infer such a deficit. Thus, employing pidgin or sign language, they will communicate if the meat comes from animals or parts of animals the visitor may not have previously ingested. The visitor can then act on such facts as they see fit.’ The second absent-mindedly picked at their teeth with a pick as they spoke, as if reliving one such unexpected taste from the past.
Pontian Kechil (Malaysia)
Sometimes, began the third speaker, you may find a place hidden in plain sight. They referred, of course, to Pontian Kechil, residing in the south of Malaysia on Johor’s western shores. The town’s name exists in records that describe the area. But these scant words reveal little and, so doing, intrigued the third. Their logic followed thus: less information attracts fewer people, greatly heightening the chance of quiet.
It is an inexact science. But in this case, it served the third well; for in finding this little peninsular, served by Larkin Sentral in Johor, they found a small space removed from the busy town behind it. But where is Pontian Besar, the speaker mused to themselves, wondering whether the small town had a larger sibling.
Such thoughts would form and disappear like the sea mist. The visitor would instead take shade on the promenade. There they would marvel that such a small area could convey the impression of so much space.
Charting a course around Pontian divides the peninsular into distinct regions: the street approaching the sea with its eateries and screens; the seafront with its gazebos and stone seats that allow uninterrupted views of the ocean swallowing the sun and regurgitating it from behind the mangrove forest hugging the coastline; more eateries with their distinct yellow seating and red tables resting upon the weathered sea walls; the road stretching past the furthest pier, where vehicles cruise and food stalls become silhouettes in the smoke rising from their wares. And all this, the third said, within a few hundred metres.
The speaker deduced that this openness stemmed from the sea breeze weaving through the wide streets. In short, the third said, Pontian Kechil is a roomy place, and a low-key one; conversation is of the passing, friendly type; at no point does the visitor feel rude for simply staring out to sea. It is defined by its purity, for the gentle hum of activity, rather than cynicism reigns here.
‘But,’ reminded the third, ‘watch for shapes that move in the night. For they are human-sized and may not be the cats or dogs that wander the streets with few cares burdening them, and they may not be where you expect to find them, and they may well disappear into thin air when you seek them out.’ So saying, the third gave a little shudder as if they too had one such encounter of which they spoke.
Tanjung Simpang Mengayau (Borneo)
Warming to the theme, the fourth speaker drove the conversation further east, to Borneo. They alighted on the west coast in Sabah and headed to the island’s northernmost tip.
The fourth talked, at length, about the headland and its meeting point of the South China and Sulu Seas. But they spoke even more eloquently of the lighthouse and the sunsets and that the tip marks a place of absolutes, beyond which this landmass ends, and another begins beyond the far horizon.
Thus, this place wields a melancholy air, so said the fourth speaker. Here, the beaches are windswept, the water is clear, and the overwhelming sensation is of things ending. The visitor may well adopt an air of contemplation as, having struggled to find themselves on the bronze globe in the site’s park, they descend to the tip and watch the ocean swells, knowing full well that the entirety of Borneo lies behind them.
Perhaps one may wonder about their place in the world at such times, pondered the fourth. Or perhaps they might think nothing at all, their mind flattened by the open space confronting them.
‘But,’ the fourth ventured, ‘you should have your wits about you.’ Here they referred to a detour to Kelambu Beach on the approach to the north. So doing, they passed through corridors of rainforest punctuated by giant pools of muddy water. Of a sudden, so spoke the fourth, the same pools would throb, their surfaces would part, and into view would hove a buffalo, evidently cooling itself from the sun’s intense glare. The fourth spoke with a start as if trying to divine what lay behind the submerged beast’s impassive stare.
To be continued ...
*Or perhaps the same scenario involves a single individual holding an imaginary conversation with themselves.