SUN, SEA, SAND & COCONUTS

Figure 1: Sun, Sea, Sand and Coconuts in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu

Some say dreams are made of sun, sea , sand and coconuts, while some think a coconut is a definition of a taste of paradise. But where ever you are, the coconut has the ability to transport you to some beautiful tropical coastline in your mind. It is as if you were lying on some fine white sandy beach, sipping coconut water in beautiful Terengganu.

 

But do you know how much work goes into your coconut drink? And I don’t mean the sweat behind preparing some exotic coconut water cocktails in the bar or in the kitchen of a restaurant.  I mean the hard work behind getting the coconuts off the trees, some reaching to more than 60 or 70 feet high. In coconut farms in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, coconut farmers use monkeys to pick coconuts. Thailand took coconut plucking to the next level by having a Buddhist-inspired school in Surat Thani to train monkeys.  The school it seemed is funded to teach monkeys how to pick coconuts without use of force or violence.  The practice of using  pig-tailed macaques to pick coconuts started since around 400 years ago (https://www.npr.org Eliza Barkley,2011). Malaysia too has a school in Padang Halban, Kelantan, run by a 63 year old grandfather, Wan Ibrahim Wan Mat (news.com.au, April 2018) to train macaques to pick coconuts.

 

But while travelling around Terengganu one morning, I came across a young man (not a macaque monkey) picking coconuts off a tree on a beach in Mangkuk (Fig 1).  Mangkuk is a peaceful paradise, situated in between the Setiu River and the blue South China Sea.  It is a mix of old and new – traditional Malay houses, with unvarnished timber aged by sea breeze laden with salts and resort-like concrete beach houses. It is populated by hundreds of swaying coconut trees, casuarinas, grazing cows and goats. Occasionally a kampong boy cycles past. The fine white sandy beach stretches from as far as the eyes could see, sometimes tainted by discarded plastic bottles. The breeze blows softly from the sea on most days. The monsoon months however (between November to February), bring endless rain, strong winds and raging seas (Fig 2). During the monsoons, the raging seas would mean fishermen would have to look for alternative source of income.

 

Figure 2: The angry sea during the monsoons, raging on the beaches in Kampong Telaga Papan, Chalok

 

I met a Malay gentleman, his hand holding on to a line dangling from the top of one coconut tree. As I looked up, I saw a boy perched on  top of the tree. The boy would select specific bunches, tie them with the string, and the man on the ground would hoist the bunches safely down to the ground. This the boy would do for several times until he was satisfied there were no more nice pickings.  He would work his way down while clasping the trunk with ease without the use of any gadget or safety harness. Then they would pick another two or three coconut trees to select more bunches of coconuts. It seemed that even though the coconut trees grow in land belonging to some land owner in the kampong, coconut plucking from these trees are a gesture of charity by the land owner.

 

I remember some 50 years ago, seeing one Indian man climbing a coconut tree in my own kampong. He would use a ring made from plant fibre, attached around his ankles before he started the climb. This ring would really hasten his climbing speed.  But this Malay boy Amin did not use any gadget on his feet nor a safety harness on his body. Amin, probably 15 or 16 years old, was slim, with an athletic build and long limbs, browned by the tropical sun. He was fearless. He had been plucking coconuts since he was 14 years old, learning the art from his grandfather.

 

Figure 3: Amin picked coconuts off the trees in Mangkuk, Penarik, Terengganu

 

 

 

Figure 4: Amin happily climbing down the coconut tree with no harness of any kind.

 

 

 

 

 

It seemed a monkey can pick about 1,600 coconuts a day in Thailand, and about 800 coconuts a day in Malaysia.  A boy  like Amin probably could pluck about 80 coconuts a day. But the difference is in the delivery and the target market. Monkeys throw down coconuts from the top of the tree, which could break the fruits.  But climbers like Amin would deliver beautiful green coconuts safely in one piece, perhaps more for tourists like me to savour the coconut water.

 

But would you pluck coconuts for the money? Maybe, if it is the only means of earning a few ringgit a day.  But plucking coconuts may not be for the faint-hearted though…

 

The Sanctuary

Fig 1: The fishermen’s boat getting a push out to sea to the waiting fishing vessels
Fig 2: If you’re an avid rider, Telaga Papan will give you hours of riding pleasure

I was suddenly awakened by the cold breeze sweeping through the tent.  The  morning was so still  I could  hear the thud of a tiny casuarina seed on the roof of the tent.  The entire stretch of the beach suddenly came alive with squid rigging.  A local boy strutted past happily with his meagre catch of four squids. As I turned to take a peep at the sea, I was greeted by a delightful shimmering  carpet of calm sea in the first blush of the sun.

 

The azan rang clear, breaking the silence.  The birds were chirping excitedly, exchanging calls while perched at the top of the casuarina trees. A shoal of tiny fishes jump in and out of the water in chorus, fleeing the relentless pursuit of predator fishes.  A small boat was chugging by, with the fisherman standing  stoic on the bow, a posture reminiscent of a warrior in anticipation.  It was the break of dawn.  The sun was bursting through the myriad of pink and orange clouds, like cotton candies suspended in the horizon.  It was truly a sight to behold.  Telaga Papan was the perfect setting for one seeking spiritual inspiration and closeness to god through endless hours of zikir, dua and night prayer.  But for me, I was just grateful to be a temporary guest of utopia (Fig 1&2).

 

Telaga Papan is no longer the exclusive enclave it once was planned to be.  It was targeted to be a high-end development project of a serene, quiet beach resort for the rich by the Terengganu state.  The estate development was designed to be large, wooden resort-like beach houses.  Unfortunately many were built too far out to sea.  The sea had been fiercely eroding the beach-front, uprooting the casuarinas, washing away the sand and depositing it elsewhere.  A few of the resort houses were laid to waste by the relentless sea and the state development project was duly abandoned.

 

Telaga Papan is now a hive of activity, although of a different kind. The fishermen have invaded the exclusive beach.  They found the beach rather convenient, bringing in their fishing boats (Fig 3) and selling off their catch of the day on-site.  It has lately become a routine for the village people, coming to Telaga Papan on their motorcycles or lorries, armed with baskets, waiting for the fishing boats to come ashore with their catch. But of late the fishes have gotten smaller. The bigger ones have been netted off by the big fishing trawlers belonging to Thai nationals.

 

The monsoons will be coming again this year.  For four months a year, from end of October till February of the following year, there will be a lot of rain and little sunshine.  But the other eight months more than make up for it, promising beautiful dawns, exceptional sunsets, clear skies and memorable riding experiences on the beach of Telaga Papan. Then there is the fresh fish……bakar tawar, where little spice is used.  Its delightful flavor is derived entirely from the freshness of the fish  and the hot black chilli dip.