Pulau Bidong, Malaysia. Those words alone send shivers down my spine. Many Vietnamese “boat people” risked their lives post-Vietnam War and some 250,000 passed through Bidong from 1975 through 1991. Despite the number of refugees who “accessed” the island, many former inhabitants remain tight-lipped about their experience in the camp.
My parents fled with my four siblings. I was born on the island. My parents have only given us bits and pieces of what life was really like on the camp, and most of my siblings were too young to remember their time there. Growing up, I was always teased by my relatives because I was born on Bidong. They would call me “stateless”. I am ethnic Chinese with parents from Vietnam, born on this makeshift refugee camp in Malaysia, but grew up in Canada from a very early age. To say I’ve suffered from identity issues is an understatement. I even have a difficult time when people ask “where are you from?” or “what’s your background?” It typically ends with me rambling for several minutes and a number of eyes glazing over.
For the last several years, I’ve had this overwhelming desire to revisit this still-abandoned island. This fact is rather shocking to me, as Pulau Bidong was once said to be the most densely populated place on earth, housing 40,000 refugees in a space about the size of a football field. For it to have no permanent residents seems somewhat undignified. Granted, they did just build a new jetty, and the area does see some traffic from neighbouring towns like Pulau Redang and Merang...that is, when it isn’t monsoon season (more on that later).
Journey to the Island
So my journey began. To access Bidong, you need to get to Malaysia. You’re more than likely going to fly in to Kuala Lumpur. From KL, you need to head northeast about 500kms (six or seven hours by bus) to Kuala Terengganu. From Terangganu, it is about a 30 minute taxi to the islands’ gateway – Merang. From Merang, you can hire a local tour company or “boatman” to take you the 45 minutes or so to your destination. The boat charter will cost about 600RM or $200 USD for 5-8 hours. I recommend booking through a tour company in advance.
This being said, I arrived in Merang thinking I would easily be able to hire a boatman to take me to Bidong. Wrong! Though the weather was nice, it was still officially monsoon season for the next two weeks and the boatmen are either too lazy or too smart to want to deal with the choppy waters. It’s only a 45 minute ride, but I suppose a lot could happen out on the open seas; namely me falling out of the boat and drowning because I can’t swim for shit.
After some smooth talking (e.g. more ringgits) I convinced a local boatman from Redang to take me to the island. The waters were a bit rough, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before...cough cough stupid Star Ferry in Hong Kong. I was beaming with anticipation the entire ride, but also trying to fight back tears as well. I’m generally a pretty emotional person, and the idea of going back to Bidong was like taking my life back full circle. It had become something I needed to do, something I had to accomplish and conquer in my life. I didn’t think I would be complete without this visit. I know it sounds corny, but it’s the truth. I felt that strongly about it.
When approaching Bidong, you begin to see a silhouette of a rather large island with a hilltop centred in the middle of the island. As you get closer, the silhouette gets larger until you can see the detail of the thick jungle forest. The new jetty looks a little out of place, but it made docking easy and the island less menacing.
A quick walk into the jungle to the eastside of the island reveals an urban explorers dream; ruins of a once bustling refugee camp with deteriorating church and Buddhist temple, collapsed homes (huts), evidence of sewage and garbage facilities, and tributes to loved ones who were not lucky enough to make it, or who were simply lost at sea.
Somewhat shocking is the new garbage littered all over the island – broken glass bottles, plastic water bottles, and pop cans strewn along the beachside. On the opposite end of the island (northeast), there is an absolutely pristine beach with the softest white sand I’ve ever felt. Strangely, there is some evidence that there is a buried boat (or at least part of one) in the beach sand. For a solitary moment, I thought I was on some sort of private island paradise...and in reality, I was.
Words Do Nothing
Though I am trying to tell some sort of epic story and journey of me going home, I really can’t find the words to explain how I felt. It was literally as though my life was made more fulfilling, that I saw something that I needed to see, to feel, to touch, and to document. No one can take this adventure away from me or tell me how I should have felt. It is just one of those things where neither words nor pictures could capture the essence of what the experience meant to me. I am at peace.