Just a three-hour drive from Kuala Lumpur will have you on the eastern coast of Peninsular Malaysia. The towns of Kuantan and Cherating are fine destinations to savour both the food and the slower pace of life there.
Under an overcast sky, a persistent drizzle was turning into a steady patter when we rounded the corner that led to Chendor Beach. Running late and doubtful that the staff member from the Cherating Turtle Sanctuary would still be waiting for us, I scanned the windswept beach and to my delighted surprise, saw a man standing by the gate with an umbrella.
Two days earlier, I had called the sanctuary to enquire if it was turtle season and been informed that indeed, it was. A cool RM50 would get me a tub of baby turtles to release into the sea. Commercial, I know, but I was short on alternative ideas that would get me that experience. He smilingly handed over a blue tub in which 10 tiny turtles were flipping away, and gleefully, I scampered down to the water’s edge to let them go. One by one, we released them into the surf, each with a silent prayer for safety, and watched in wonder as they took to the waves like pros, surrendering to the sea’s embrace.
Paying the sanctuary officer my RM50, I walked away feeling like I’d just opened the gates of Noah’s Ark on higher ground. Having opened its doors in 1998, the Cherating Turtle Sanctuary has been responsible for two decades of preservation with the support of avid turtle watchers. In total, there are five turtle nesting grounds in Pahang, two of which are on Cherating’s Chendor Beach, the official site of the Cherating Turtle Sanctuary & Information Centre.
When in Cherating, plan a visit for seasonal opportunities to watch turtles lay their eggs deep in the night, generally between April to August – or simply enjoy the pleasure of releasing hatchlings to freedom, like we did.
WHERE TO GO, WHAT TO EAT
City slickers can only handle so much wide-open space, and so a half-hour’s drive will take you from Cherating to Kuantan, where the first thing you’ll want to do is – have a great meal. For a true taste of the East Coast, you’ll have to try the keropok lekor, hot, crisp fish fingers slathered in chilli sauce, and no better place to indulge than the source – the factory at Kampung Peramu Hulu. Here, you’ll see how keropok lekor is made, and get a crunchy, or steamed, portion to take with you.
One of our go-to eats is the Kuantan institution, Sherwood, with its more sophisticated sibling, the Cherating Pop Inn, also known as the Cherating Steakhouse, both of which serve a divine chicken schnitzel slathered in mushroom gravy, with a generous side of rosti. Not exactly local, but entirely satisfying and something we have never left without. Not to mention an achy-breaky cowboy love song from the Pop Inn’s resident singer.
Worry not, you can work off every calorie by diverting off the beaten track to explore a cave temple in a calibre of its own. Millions of years old, Gua Charas, which lies deep within a palm oil estate at nearby Sungai Lembing in Panching, is a limestone and granite massif revered as a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus. Here, deities of different faiths share a vast and dramatic interior, and your visit will gift you not only with a dazzling view at the top, but also enrich you culturally and have you feeling all Indiana Jones.
Reward yourself after with a triumphant wefie against the famed Kuantan sign at the Riverside, plus a wicked serving of mango cheesecake at Kula Cakes – or its sibling, note how restaurants here come in twos – Kula Krim, guaranteed to get you googly-eyed at its rich, homemade ice creams in the most indulgent flavours.
For the less adventurous, an afternoon of clearing out the stores at the huge Kuantan City and East Coast malls works as well, in terms of calory burning. Likewise, an expedition for local food and clothing at one of the city’s bustling weekend pasar malam or night markets, such as the one at the Kuantan Municipal Field, or by the Riverside.
BEACHES AND BEYOND
It goes without saying that the sun worshippers who come to Cherating will invariably head straight for its beaches, yet, it is far less crowded here than at most of the country’s other beachside destinations. Cherating’s relative obscurity has blessed it with seemingly empty beaches, but don’t for a moment assume that there’s not much to do here, as it has its fair share of attractions.
Aside from those endless, white sand beaches fringed by coconut trees, its first-class wave breaks make it a surfer’s paradise. Some of the best surfing waves in Malaysia pound Cherating’s shores during the second half of the year, so you’re likely to see expectant surfers along the coastline, waiting for the perfect swell in favour of the usual banana boat.
Best known for its hipster Club Med – the first in Asia, Cherating has still not lost its village allure. Bustling about their little stores and guesthouses, its friendly kampung folk and eclectic community of local surfers, artists and musicians are ever-ready to share a teh tarik with you and dispense travel tips, imbuing the vicinity with an undeniable laidback charm. Take home a personalized souvenir by painting yourself a batik scarf or sarong at Limbong Art, a batik manufacturing center where you can learn how paint and wax work together to create fabric masterpieces. If painting your own piece seems too much trouble, just pick up a colourful one at Limbong’s souvenir shop.
While you are in Kuantan, a drive through the city center will disclose its beautiful Masjid Sultan Ahmad Shah, a Moorish-Ottoman-inspired delight in white and blue, and there’s even an ATM in the compound, should you have cleaned out your funds at the mall. Spend a pleasant and educational afternoon wandering around the Sultan Abu Bakar Museum, where the stories of Pahang’s royal family wait to be revisited, along with some charming old Malay traditions.
As evening falls, bring out the bikinis and board shorts and head out for a dip in Teluk Cempedak’s soothing warm waters. You can indulge in a whole list of fast food, from bubble tea to burgers and satay at its lively beachfront food chain located right next to the Hyatt Kuantan, complete with a little bazaar full of fun knick-knacks. And, for the sight of tropical moonlight on the waves, take your seat in the soft, white sands and hold your significant other’s hand a little tighter, because this will be the holiday memory that stays with you in a way that no photograph can ever capture.
While we’re on the topic of memories, those little turtles we released will take 20 to 50 years to mature, provided they survive the ravages of time, predators, and the capricious whims of nature itself. Contemplating the millennia that crafted the majestic cave ceiling of Gua Charas, it felt like time had ceased to move.
In truth, it is relentless, and in its passage, few things are ever spared. Yet, among the precious handful that will endure will be those endless beaches and the stars that dance across a tropical sea, here, at two of Malaysia’s most captivating seaside towns.
Cherating Turtle Sanctuary & Information Centre
Balok 26050, Cherating, Kuantan, Pahang
Tel: +609.581 9087 | Open 9:00 am -1:00 pm; 2:00 pm – 5:30 pm (Tues – Thurs); 9:00 am -12:00 pm: 3:00 pm – 5:30 pm (Fri)
Cherating River Tours
Tel: +609.581 9126 or +6017.978 9256
Limbong Art Sdn. Bhd
2/1000 Kg. Cherating Lama
Tel: +609.581 9134
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