East Coast of Malaysia- 1987
Updated: Jan 20
This narrative forms part of our one year-round-the-world honeymoon adventure (1986-1987(. We depart Singapore, Malaysia, heading north along the east coast of Malaysia.
NORTH BY NORTHEAST
The streets of Singapore were deserted at 5 am, the normally bustling thoroughfares quiet in the hazy tropical morning mist. Our brief stay in Singapore had rejuvenated us after two months of dirt cheap but difficult travels in Indonesia. We enjoyed uncrowded leisurely strolls about town, without being constantly harassed from street vendors. The air was fresh, without noxious open sewers vapours.
Here was a sterile environment in the midst of a region better known for abject poverty, sickness and misery. Small wonder Singapore was favoured by western backpackers who'd been on the dusty trail for many months; we’d heard these stories before, during and after our stay:
“Golly, it’s just like New York, only cleaner.” “You feel just like your back at home.” “Singapore ain’t like the rest of the region, that’s for sure.” "You can drink the water!"
We’d travelled halfway around the world only to revel in the illusion of being back in the west; it strangely felt like home. We thought Singapore an ideal place to live as an expat, because one could have the blessings of modern technologies, yet still enjoy flying
to exotic ports-of-call in a couple of hours.
The fantasy was quickly shattered as soon as we crossed the bridge to Johare, Malaysia. Here the buildings seemed unkempt in the early morning light, the streets filthy, animals on the loose, mud covered laneways from the incessant rain.
At the bus depot, hustlers signalled a return of the chase for tourist dollars. Yet Malaysia was moving forward much faster than Indonesia; the bus up the east coast departed on time, with two drivers and only twelve passengers on board. And, we’d get to watch a couple of videos, a technology just landing in the region, soon ubiquitous.
We’d parted company with our Aussie travel mates Sue and Lou, who’d provided much humour through high and low travel days for the past 6 weeks. We made plans to meet up again in Thailand, as they headed to the Cameroon Highlands, while we wanted to get to the beach.
Our bus ride in southern Malaysia was uneventful, except it poured rain all day. The monsoon season was nearly over on the east coast; we were catching its tail end. At Kuantan, we stood in the bus depot watching sheets of rain, a torrent of water rushing down from the heavens. We hadn’t seen monsoons such as this since the refreshing rains of Jogjakarta. I reached into my pack for my Far West Gore-Tex jacket purchased in Vernon, BC, to put it to the acid test.
I slipped the hood over my head, fastened the velcro tab, zipped up my jacket, and stepped into the deluge. It was raining to beat the band, but the jacket held true to its claim; not a drop inside. Throughout the trip, I was offered many inducements to sell this jacket, but decided it was the ideal item for a round-the-world traveller: lightweight, wind and water tight, and very comfortable. No chance I would I sell it. Gore-Tex would soon become the gold standard for extreme outerwear.
At the way station, we feasted on a tasty cheap lunch of noodles with clams and oyster sauce (mie goreng) and steamed chilli chicken (nasi ayam), cooked by a friendly Malay woman. We boarded another bus for the quick trip to Cherating, well recommended by our guidebook, the "yellow bible:" SouthEast Asia on the Cheap.
We were deposited a quarter mile from the beach as the rains stopped. There were three or four beach bungalow outfits near the beach; we chose Hussaien’s Bungalows where we were offered a small wooden cabin by our friendly host: double bed with mosquito net, a table, and a porch with a deck, table and benches. The view featured South China Sea waves crashing the shore, framed by palm trees and ten miles of golden sand sweeping away to the south.
For less than $10 a night, Hussaien’s provided basic accommodation, a full breakfast and a sumptuous dinner for two. We initially planned to stay a day or two, as we were quite amped up to be in Thailand for some of the best beaches in Asia. As things turned out, we stayed at Hussaien’s a week.
The village, locally called a Kampong, was situated at the north end of the beach, abutting huge cliffs. The bay stretched away to the south as far as the eye could see. Huge turquoise kingfishers perched on wires over monsoon streams, palm trees weighed down by huge coconuts, the entire scene very soothing.
Our compound featured five bungalows, plus a main house supporting the owners. The Malays reminded us of Fijians, always smiling warm very friendly. The first two days, the rain beat down hard on our bungalow's corrugated steel roof of the bungalow; it was a pleasure to lie in bed and sleep away the day. Neglected diaries brought up to date, much time was spent in the restaurant with a squad of low budget travellers.
We quickly became acquainted, as our host Hussaien forced us to eat communally, forcing interaction. Too often, western travellers sit off in corners, unwilling to strike up a conversation. The Germans are notorious for sticking to their own countrymen, which leaves us to ask why they left home in the first place? And this was in an era before smart phones!
Bob the chef, a comrade from the Djakarta-Sumatra-Penang sojourn, appeared at the huts the second day of our stay. He’d descended from the Cameroon Highlands (still no sign of Jim Thompson). Bob brought along a shortwave radio purchased in Penang, so we sat at his bungalow in the still of the jungle night, listening to the America’s Cup race finals from Perth, Australia.
We represented a mini United Nations: Holland, U.K., Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canadians, a harmonious group, the conversation roaming across a spectrum of social, political, and economic subjects. The Dutch couple had just returned from six weeks in Borneo. Journalists travelling with a portable typewriter, we heard them clicking away in their bungalow, an unusual sound on the old dusty trail.
The weather turned fine after a couple of days; we spent a considerable time on the beach. The tropical sun at 4 degrees north of the equator was relentless, important to recuse ourselves from the noon day sun (mad dogs and Englishmen). The body surfing was great fun, many an hour crashing among the waves propelling us onto shore like missiles.
CLOSE ENCOUNTER WITH CAMBODIAN REFUGEES
Another lazy day in the tropics: reading Willie Maugham’s riveting "The Gentleman in The Parlour," lounging on golden sands, sun shining brightly, seas calm, palm trees sway, basking in the glow of our tropical ease. Reading Maugham’s account of travels in SE Asia, I was thinking of all the interesting strange characters he'd met.
No sooner had that thought passed when two young men appeared out of the jungle. I naturally assumed they wanted to sell us something, in the great SE Asian tradition, even on this quiet, remote beach.
Upon further inspection, these two didn’t seem Malay; their features more Chinese. To our surprise, Cheung, the taller of the two, explained in very good English they were Cambodian refugees, sequestered in a large camp about 2 kms down the beach (we’d seen the lights of these quarters at night).
He told us this tale:
The pair snuck out of camp that morning hoping to find westerners sympathetic to their plight who would mail letters for them. These conveyed their plight in the camp, addressed to prominent Cambodians living around the world.
The letters told the tale of how these refugees landed in Malaysia.
They fled the Pol Pot holocaust (documented in the The Killing Fields) by escaping to overland Thailand in 1979 - a treacherous journey. Cheung lost his entire family, murdered in cold blood by ruthless Khmer Rouge soldiers. This genocide was akin to Hitler’s massacre of Jews, Gypsies, artists, musicians and many others during WW11.
Our narrator was able to flee the country due to Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia, who finally overthrew Pol Pot and “liberated” the people. Numerous Cambodians were slaughtered by retreating Khmer Rouge soldiers or by booby traps planted along the escape route to Thailand.
Once in Thailand, the refugees were housed in mega-camps; the Dutch couple staying at Hussaien’s had recently returned from one of these in Northern Thailand, reporting at least 100,000 Cambodians exiled in Thailand, hoping to be re-settled in western countries. After six long years in the Thai camps, our narrator explained how Malaysian authorities arrived seeking Muslim Cambodians, known as the Chans.
While the vast majority of Cambodians are Buddhists, the Chan minority numbered at least 200,000 at its peak before the genocide. The Malay government, following the tenants of Mohammed which decrees Muslims must provide shelter for their own, were inspired to provide shelter to only Chan refugees.
Desperate to escape Thai camps, over 200 Khmer Buddhists agreed to be interviewed by the Malay government, “instant coverts” to Islam; they were transfered to camps at Cherating, which housed 1,200 Cambodians - down the beach from us.
Once in Cherating, however, things changed; Muslim Chans treated the “converts” inhumanely. Violence was a daily occurrence; several Buddhists were sent to hospital for refusing to pray at required times, strict tenants of Islam.
The Buddhists tried to enlist the United Nations High Commission on Refugees to plead their case, as they wanted to return to Buddhism. This, of course, created even more tension within the camp.
These Cambodians were in a bit of a pickle, totally out of sorts in this Muslim state, the laws of the Koran as alien to them as to a Christian. We asked them about the general conditions in the camp. They said it was very clean, compared to the Thai camps, and food was sufficient. The camp was disease free, and the water pure and plentiful
They asked us if we could post letters outside of the area, as their mail was being screened at the camp. We agreed to perform this task later when we headed up the coast; the letters had postage affixed. Perhaps through contact with the outside world, their plight would be heard and something done to alleviate the situation.
We only heard one side of this story; there was no way of knowing how the Chans had been treated by Buddhists in Cambodia. The pair sported such sad looks on their faces, however that it was hard to doubt the misery they’d been through; we sat transfixed listening to the story.
We were aware of the situation in Cambodia, having recently seen The Killing Fields, and accounts of problems facing that nation. In fact, we were entertaining the idea of crossing over to see the famed ruins at Angkor Wat, but the border yet remained closed to foreigners in those turbulent times. We did eventually get to Cambodia in 2013 and found a terribly sad place.
ROLLING DOWN THE RIVER
Our last day at Cherating, we hired a boat and guide for a leisurely paddle down the Cherating River. We'd been conned into it the previous evening by the head guide, a smooth operator. He claimed we had an excellent chance to observe huge snakes, gibbons, monkeys and lots of birds, especially hornbills. His fee was normally $8, but as it was the end of the monsoon, only $5 for us.
The group debated the matter, one of those times where if we don’t do it, we'll miss something; if we go, it will likely be a scam. Of course, we signed on, and of course, it was a scam, but we made the most of our adventure.
On tour day, we discovered we'd be joined by five other travellers we’d never met. They were dead serious about the safari, bedecked in the tourist designer adventure clothing, kakis, Tilley Hats and what not.
We climbed aboard hand-made wooden canoes, quite comfortable for our group. We meandered through thick jungle, the sun almost obscured by the canopy. Our guide became agitated as we had not sighted any wildlife whatsoever- not even one bird! We became more boisterous due to this charade, which annoyed the tourists in the next canoe, who were intent on seeing something, anything.
They eventually paddled off on their own; their attempts to get us to hush up were met with more derision. Later, they claimed they’d seen a monkey – no big deal, as we could visit a monkey anytime at Hussaien’s, as he had a pet gibbon chained to a pole next to his restaurant.
Our guide claimed it was a first: no animals had been spotted on his tour (somehow we doubted it). We chastised him without mercy: over for his fee (basically, he was a liability, as we did all the paddling), but paid him off. When we thought about it later, we chalked it up as another traveller’s tale to add to the list.
AWI’S GUESTHOUSE ON STILTS
We packed our bags, our next destination Kuala Terrenganu. Martin, an American expat working in Kuala Lumpur, showed up at the little resort with a car; as he was driving up the coast to K.T., he offered to give us a lift, along with a Kiwi couple on their way to Thailand.
Chef Bob, who appeared with regularity, was on his way to Brunei to inquire about a cook’s jobs on the oil rigs. This was the last time we saw him, just another soul pulling a vanishing act.
It was a pleasant drive along the east coast of Malaysia; the day sunny, the road hugging the coast. We remarked that it was much more interesting to travel by car in SE Asia, as our movements had been dictated by bus-boat-train thus far (add in the occasional taxi-bemo-tuk-tuk-donkey cart et al…).
There were numerous beaches to explore along the coast, but we proceeded directly to K.T., as Martin wanted to check out Malay batik vendors. We arrived early in the afternoon, found K.T. situated along the banks of a river 2 km inland. We explored the market, full of handicrafts; Martin purchased several exquisite batiks with gold filigree.
After parting company with Martin and the Kiwis, we caught a small boat across the river to Dujong Besong (Mermaid Island). A guest house had been recommended by the yellow bible; we gave the book its due, as we would never have found these exotic locales places if we hadn’t subscribed to its offerings.
After a bit of searching, we found Awi’s Guest House (no longer yellow, as the book claimed). The inexpensive room rate included breakfast, and coffee and tea all day, as in Bali. Two other couples were staying at this unique resort, situated on stilts overhanging the river, as if on a floating hotel, a central courtyard filled with plants. The deck afforded an excellent view of non-stop river traffic.
Vancouver John and Glenda had arrived only 2 hours before us. It was time to compare notes from the coconut telegraph, for they ca,me from where we were headed, and vice versa. Since there weren’t any restaurants on the island, we caught a small water taxi back to town for a tasty dinner in one of the many noodle stalls.
Returning later that evening was wild. First, as we waited for the ferry to get us across the river, we encountered a massive rat lying in the middle of the road. We’d actually become accustomed to seeing these pesky rodents in this part of the world; they were as common as cats. This fellow was a champion, about a foot long and almost as high. At first, we thought it was dead; eventually waddled across the road. None of the locals paid any attention.
Next, upon crossing the river, we realized the tide had risen dramatically, which meant we had to wade in water for a quarter mile from the launch to Awi’s, at times above our knees, on a moonless pitch black night. It was pretty disgusting, given the fact the water was foul with garbage and waste products, of which kinds we could only imagine in the dark, despite the help of our flashlights.
At one point, Glenda lost her her left flip flop, and had an especially hard go of it. Another footnote for our traveller’s terror tales.
Once back at the guesthouse, sleeping was a delight, drifting off to the sounds of the river directly beneath us lapping at the shore. In the morning, Awi, a most gracious host, fed us a breakfast of pancakes, homemade buns and fresh-brewed coffee.
To relieve oneself at Awi’s Guest House, the bathroom consisted of a privy with a hole in the wooden planks. We could only imagine the contents of the river the previous night as we plodded along in the dark- not good.
We stayed at Awi’s an extra night, as the little house on stilts next to the river was enchanting. With John and Glenda, we marched back to town to purchase fresh seafood and local fruit from the small market. We cooked a magnificent dinner at Awi’s in the communal kitchen, quaffing quarts of cheap Heineken beer. While preparing the fresh tuna, as John was scaling it on the deck our dinner plunged over the side! Fortunately, the tide was out, it landed on the bank, but the job of retrieving it was rather disgusting.
The next day, we set off early to beat the heat, parting company with John and Glenda, who were headed down the coast to spend a day or two at Cherating. Later, we we;d look for the hotel recommended in Kota Bahru, near the Thai border. We weren’t in a hurry, and decided to slow travel along the coast.
Travel was much easier in Malaysia than Indonesia, and soon we arrived in K.B. The hotel in question was the "Ideal Traveller," close to the bus depot (a bonus due to the ridiculously huge packs we lugged around the world). We were the only guests, a clean and comfortable lodge.
Owner Mrs. Kang was distraught by the lack of guests.
“Last year, my hotel full every day,” she lamented. “Now, it’s always empty. Could you ask Tony Wheeler why my place is not listed in his yellow book?”
We promised we would inquire about this next time we saw him.
Something magical happened every evening in a parking lot opposite the bus depot. Near sunset, a night market sprang up, featuring authentic Malay foods. We were thrilled with an array of exotic offerings; after touring the colourful stalls, settled on curried whole crab, roast spice chicken on bamboo skewers, lobsters, spring rolls, shrimp spice cake and curried rice, a very memorable meal in a series of gourmet feasts which had began in Medan.
Awake before dawn, we caught the first bus from Kota Bahru to the Thai border. In the sweet tropical morning light, we glided past rice paddies and coconut groves tended by Malays in giant straw hats. At the no man’s land border between Malaysia and Thailand, an open expanse absent of crops and dwellings. Duly deposited at a bridge, we were approached by young Malays who offered a great exchange rate for our Malay Ringitts.
We trekked across the bridge between Thailand and Malaysia, we catching the first glimpse of the fabled Thai long-tailed boats. Long steel shafts protruded from high-powered engines, perhaps from a small aircraft, piloted by Thais who zipped along with great abandon, creating an infernal racket (which, in retrospect, was quiet compared to the Chao Phrya in Bangkok).