When I returned from my trip to Queensland in 2019, I learned that there would be an annular solar eclipse in just a few days, and that it would be visible in Malaysia.
Just about, anyway. The solar eclipse would only be visible from a few places in Malaysia: near one end of Sarawak, and at the end of Johor.
I wasn’t quite in the mood to get on another flight so soon, so Sarawak was out. But Johor was on the peninsular, and the eclipse site was a place called Tanjung Piai (Piai Cape). It was also coincidentally the southernmost point of mainland Asia. This made it a very feasible road trip.
I decided I wasn’t going to miss a ‘ring of fire’ solar eclipse, especially when it meant viewing it from the southernmost end of continental Asia. So, I didn’t bother to unpack, and simply re-packed for an impromptu trip down to Johor.
On the way south, I stopped by Melaka to catch up with my friend Anoi, who is always up for road trips. (Her husband, not so much.) When I told her what I was driving down for, she immediately called her husband to tell him that she and the kids would be coming down with me to see the solar eclipse. We made a pit stop to her house, bundled everyone into my Yaris, and set off.
The 2019 Solar Eclipse Fest at Tanjung Piai, Johor
It had been a long time since I was last in Tanjung Piai. Back then, there was only a seafood restaurant, and though people knew it was the southernmost point of Asia, there wasn’t anything there to advertise it.
But when we arrived, I saw the place had changed. The mangrove forest around the cape had been gazetted a State Park, and the wetland is now also a Ramsar site. A huge monolith proclaimed Tanjung Piai’s geographical claim to fame.
A banner was up, welcoming visitors who came for the solar eclipse. The banner took the opportunity to inform us of two other phenomena at the site, the spring tide between 23-26 December, and the migratory bird season that was still ongoing up to February 2020.
Anticipating the unusual visitor numbers, the authorities had set up a temporary parking area some distance from the park entrance. Buses shuttled visitors back and forth.
Once inside, we saw that the usual parking area had been turned into festival grounds. Rows of white, pointy tents sheltered early visitors from universities, schools, and astronomy institutions. There was a science bus on the side, for the children. And since this is Malaysia, you can’t possibly have a gathering without someone organising food. Local food businesses set up stalls for the day, selling local staples and trending foods.
There were rows of telescopes as well; their owners fussed over them, preparing to capture the most perfect solar eclipse images. A screen dominated the stage under a larger tent, displaying a live feed of the sun.
How to make a solar eclipse accessible to the blind
It was still some time yet to the eclipse, so we drifted around the table displays under the tents. Under one, there was an astronomy workshop with teachers from the Southeast Asian region. Elsewhere, we saw the Press Department, and the National Science Centre. Under another tent a little way away, a group of Muslims held congregational prayer.
One booth in particular caught my attention. On the table was what looked to be a solar eclipse diagram, but embossed. The accompanying explanation was in Braille.
But… surely an eclipse is a phenomenon for the sighted?
The folks at the booth were happy to explain. They were from the National Planetarium, and were testing out a method called sonification to study information from sunlight beyond the visible range. Developed by a blind professor, the method involves converting the sun’s wave radiation (spanning visible as well as non-visible light) into sound waves. They showed us the speaker where we could hear the sound. It changes, and isn’t a single tone.
Since the sunlight would be converted into sound, this means that a blind person can now ‘hear’ sunlight. And since the sound changes as the sun is blocked during an eclipse, a blind person could – sort of – hear an eclipse too!
I thought it was a cool, inclusive idea. The National Planetarium were there with schoolchildren from a school for the blind; they had partnered with the school to see how the children felt about the technology.
Watching the 26 December 2019 solar eclipse in Tanjung Piai
The moment approached. We joined the people gathered expectantly under the main tent, watching the screen. Protective spectacles were handed out to everyone.
When the eclipse began, we put on the glasses and looked up to the sky. The telescope owners all generously allowed anyone to look into their telescopes after they took their photos. I learned to put the eclipse glasses over my iPhone camera to take semi-competent photos of the eclipse, but you really do need expert camerawork to take truly good photos.
The eclipse took only a few minutes to slowly coalesce into the textbook ‘ring of fire’, which lasted but a few moments. Then the moon slowly continued on its way, and in a few minutes more, it was all over.
Road trip to Tanjung Piai
Even without an eclipse happening there, Tanjung Piai itself is a neat little place to visit. As the sole destination, it may not be up there with the heavyweight tourism draws like Taman Negara, or Cameron Highlands. It takes just over 4 hours just to get there, driving non-stop from Kuala Lumpur. While it is a Ramsar site, there are many mangrove wetland sites closer to Kuala Lumpur than Tanjung Piai.
However, it makes for the perfect terminus of a multi-stop road trip south from Kuala Lumpur, or a stop on a road trip north from Singapore.
Plan to enjoy nature-related activities at Tanjung Piai’s mangroves, such as birdwatching, fishing, and camping. Another Johor State Park, Kukup Island, is nearby. You can easily visit both on the same trip. For more information, check out the Johor Nature Parks website.
Where to stay for going to Tanjung Piai
Unless you’re camping in Tanjung Piai, there are no accommodation options there. This State Park is very small, after all. Instead, stay in the nearby small town of Pontian Kechil if you’re looking for conventional hotel accommodations. Pontian Kechil town is only half an hour from Tanjung Piai. We stayed at the Princess Hotel, and found it adequate.
If you’re up for more offbeat accommodation options, you can also explore options around the fishing village of Kukup, which is across Pulau Kukup (Kukup Island). Here you can find chalets and overwater hotels, raft chalets and B&Bs.
Did it ever occur to you that a solar eclipse could be experienced by blind people?
I’ve never seen a solar eclipse, so it’s cool that they organize a festival around it. It’s especially awesome that science is allowing those who are visually impaired a different way to experience the solar eclipse. On a different note, it’d be cool to visit a fishing village while there Kukup sounds pretty cool.
The sonification was definitely an interesting and unexpected discovery. It’s quite special when the eclipse happens where you are. There was one before this one that was visible somewhere in the US, and my friend there literally drove across country to see it!