In the middle of March I did a road trip to Malaysia in search of a lighthouse in Tumpat, in Malaysia’s north-eastern state of Kelantan. The eastern line of the Malayan Railways ends at this small town near the coast just a short distance from Thailand’s southern border.
I’m still sorting out my lighthouse story. But driving diagonally across the Malaysian peninsula, from Subang airport in Selangor through the country’s central mountains and over to Islamic-ruled Kelantan turned up plenty of interesting sights and a few surprises.
My old friend Chin Kin Yong met me with his car at the airport and we shared driving duty over the next five days. Barely two hours after we set off, we made an unplanned stop in Bentong, Pahang, that proved an event in itself, with unexpected turns that would occupy me over the next few weeks. I’ve described that in earlier posts.
We should have taken under seven hours to get to Kota Baru, the capital of Kelantan, but in the end we took closer to eight hours with stops along the way.
Away from the big cities, Malaysia is an incredibly beautiful country. Wide highways and single-carriage country roads. Rainforest-covered hills and mountains. Plantations. Limestone outcrops. Rivers, lakes and the sea. Small towns and quiet villages where most things appear to remain where they used to be despite the passage of time.
By the end of Day 2, I felt I’d been away from Singapore for a week.
In small-town Malaysia, people are friendly to strangers, I discovered at our first stop, Bentong. And it proved true in other places too. If you asked directions, or stopped by a shop to poke around and take pictures, they let you and smiled for a photo too.
A short drive out of Bentong, we find the town of Raub with a prominent office for the Employees’ Provident Fund or KWSP as it’s referred to these days.
On a whim we stop to check on the savings I have from the four years I worked in Kuala Lumpur, from 1976 to 1980.
“This is a very old account,” the smiling officer says. His colleagues gather around his desktop terminal to peer at the screen. Consult, consult, consult.
Amazingly, he doesn’t ask why I’ve come all the way from Singapore to the middle of Pahang to check on my savings. Apparently, if I had all the right documents, I could apply right here and now to withdraw my savings. But I don’t.
He hands me a set of forms to fill and tells me I will be able to get my money after making the necessary applications with all the required documents. “You can do it in Johor Baru or Kuala Lumpur also,” he says.
“But got money or not?” I ask.
“Got!” he assures me, as he proceeds to make a printout of my account.
“Hey. Nice,” I say and thank him.
Friendliest government counter service I’ve had in a long time.
We head for Kelantan through new highways, small roads and magnificient views, until the limestone outcrops tell us we are near Gua Musang, Kelantan. We stop for a glass of orange-hued tea that is too sweet.
It’s a hot afternoon and it looks like we’ll make Kota Baru in good time.
But at Manik Urai, just outside Kota Baru, we spot a crowd and pull up to take a look. A big evening market for villagers is under way and people are walking towards it from all directions.
Plenty of food, from barbecued chicken and satay to Kelantan-style rice and curries, as well as makeshift stalls selling clothes, toys, drinks and pirated movie DVDs. It dawns on us that we’re the only outsiders, and the only men in bermudas because all the Muslim men wear long trousers, but nobody seems to mind us snapping pictures as we go.
For some reason I dislike Kota Baru within the first 30 minutes of arriving. The hotel that looked good on Tripadvisor and had such positive reviews is a letdown. The lobby is so dark, and there’s such a musty smell in the air on our floor.
Dinner at the restaurant next door is passable. Although everything looks good, everything is too sweet, even the Tomyam soup. Clearly they missed the sugar memo here.
By morning, and after a breakfast of roti canai with (sweetened) curry, I know we won’t be staying a second night in Kota Baru. I’m beginning to notice dusty streets and eating places too close to the roadsides, a sure sign that if I stay too long I’ll start grumbling.
My friend Kin Yong is the best travelling buddy because he’s Mr Anything Can Do. Stay an extra day? Fine. Leave today? Okay.
But first we head for the famous Khadijah Market, Kota Baru’s sprawling wet market in a three-storey complex. I remember visiting the market on my first and only previous visit, in 1976, and finding it fascinating for the array of fresh produce and cooked food, and how women were in charge of almost all the stalls.
It’s still a colourful, bustling place and my trusty iPhone camera will have to do to capture the great pictures I see in every direction.
After the market, Kin Yong and I head for Tumpat, which is just 30 minutes out of Kota Baru.
It’s not hard to find the railway station, and I am thrilled to recognise the Malayan Railway staff quarters in their distinctive designs and beige and brown colour scheme. You can spot the railway settlements across the peninsula because the British used a template to build communities of railway workers at every stop.
We find the lighthouse I’ve been hoping to see for the longest time, as well as the railway officers’ guest house where my father stayed in February 1952.
But that’s another story.