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|Malaysia: Bedbugs crashed my 30th|
Photo: KEVIN THOMPSON
Help! Bedbug bites – more than 80 of them, some of which had ballooned into perfectly formed, fluid-filled domes – covered my face, neck and body. I was getting looks suggesting everything from pity to revulsion. And that was just from my boyfriend.
This hadn't been part of the plan when I was packing sarongs and bikinis for the perfect holiday to celebrate my 30th birthday. I envisaged lazy days by the sea and cocktails at sunset. An appearance that put people off their food wasn't what I had in mind. If this was what turning 30 meant, it was even worse than I had expected.
Everything that could have gone wrong had done so. Our hotel room, in a "three-star" beach resort on Langkawi, an island off the north-west coast of Malaysia, was miserable. It had an iron-shaped burn in the carpet, dribbly water pressure and thin, musty-smelling orange towels. It was also buzzing with mosquitoes, which my boyfriend and I initially took to be the culprits for these bites.
The itching was so intense that we decided to go to the local hospital for a second opinion. The bites were in rows of three, a telltale sign, I was told, of bedbugs (it is said they like to have breakfast, lunch and dinner). The doctor said my reaction was one of the worst he had ever seen and dosed me up on antibiotics and antihistamines that knocked me out.
I was beginning to think the trip was jinxed. We had gone to Malaysia only because Bangkok airport was occupied by political protesters and we couldn't get into Thailand. We managed to get flights to Kuala Lumpur at the 11th hour, but had not had time to organise onward flights or hotels.
We bought a guidebook as soon as we arrived in KL. With its pristine rainforest, mountains and palm-fringed beaches, Langkawi, just an hour's flight from the Malaysian capital, sounded good. Sitting in an internet café surrounded by teenagers playing explosively noisy computer games, we booked return flights on AirAsia for about 500 Malaysian ringgits (£85) each and then searched for accommodation. The hotel we selected in Pantai Tengah, a strip of beach resorts and restaurants adjoining Pantai Cenang, sounded promising. We managed to get a double room for about 180 Malaysian ringgits (£31) a night – amazing given that a public holiday was coming up (so amazing, indeed, that maybe we should have been warned).
With just three days to go until my birthday, despite the fact that some of the bites were now weeping, I was determined not to let a lot of bedbugs spoil the holiday. I prayed that the swelling would come down in time – and set about finding somewhere nicer on the island to stay.
We checked out (the management agreed to a 50 per cent reduction but I had to sign a disclaimer) and returned to the nearest internet café. We checked several websites. The north of the island looked less developed and more promising, but hotels there tended not only to be smarter but more expensive. We stumbled across a place called the Berjaya Resort, said to be set in the rainforest overlooking the sea. There was an online rate of 450 Malaysian ringgits (£78) a night for a deluxe chalet. It was far more than we had planned to spend, but it looked too good to resist after all our bad luck. We booked and jumped into a taxi.
When we arrived, we were driven to our chalet through green and tangled forest in one of the resort's open-sided shuttle buses. Some of the wooden chalets were set over the water, but ours was tucked into the hillside among teak trees, wild mango, sandalwood and banana plants. From our terrace, high in the trees, we could see the low evening sun shimmering on the sea below. We dumped our backpacks, eager to explore, but not without first checking the bed. It had clean, crisp, white sheets. Ditto the towels. Things were looking up.
We jumped on another shuttle down to the beach, an arch of white sand backed by a lagoon and mountainous rainforest. White-bellied sea eagles soared overhead and friendly myna birds chirruped and chattered as we took in the view: the beach swept towards huge granite boulders at the water's edge and there was a small, lush island just off shore.
After a couple of days there, lounging on the beach, walking in the forest and drinking beers on our terrace at sunset, the memories of the holiday's disastrous start were receding as fast as my bites.
On the morning of my birthday, we woke to the sound of crab-eating macaques trundling around on the terrace. We watched the troop going about its monkey business, looking for the green bananas that grew near our chalet and rummaging through a beach bag I had carelessly left out overnight. When our thoughts turned to food, we took a taxi to the nearby marina at Telaga Harbour Park, where we joined locals at a small café for a delicious breakfast of roti canai (a kind of flat bread) and lentil dal eaten with our hands. It become our staple in Malaysia.
From the beach at our resort, we could see the Panorama Langkawi cable car, one of the island's most popular attractions, as it snaked its way up the mountainside. After breakfast, we queued for a capsule, all the while hoping that whoever was on bolt-tightening duty was on the ball: the cable car made its way up to 680 metres (2,230ft) above sea level at an incline of 42 degrees. On the journey towards the summit of Mount Machincang we passed over the Telaga Tujuh (Seven Wells) waterfall and huge birds of prey gliding on the thermals. At the top, we took timorous steps over a stainless steel bridge that crosses a ravine with vertiginous views of the drop below. All around were views over green carpets of rainforest and miles of ocean.
After a day with our heads in the clouds, we came back down to earth for dinner at a Thai restaurant on stilts over the water at the resort. Icy white wine complemented a meal of spicy papaya salad, sticky rice and chicken curry. There was a warm sea breeze and the moonlight danced on the water. I found myself thinking that birthdays didn't come better than this. But back at the chalet, I found they did: a chocolate cake had found its way into the fridge, courtesy of the Berjaya staff. Better still, as we sat on the terrace, three flying lemurs appeared. Peculiar-looking creatures, like monkey-bat hybrids, they glided effortlessly from tree to tree in the rainforest canopy above us. This holiday may have given more pertinence to the adage "sleep tight, and don't let the bed bugs bite", but maybe turning 30 was not so bad after all.
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