Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part II: Malaysia

A trip taken years ago: Part II: Malaysia

When we arrived at the Malaysian border, a fight suddenly broke out in the front of our car. One man who knew karate definitely had the advantage, but it was quickly broken up by other travelers. The karate man said in a loud Israeli accent, “I can’t believe it! Six years traveling and this is the first time something like this happens!”

The other yelled, “This is a tourist in Asia! Look these are the tourists!”

We couldn’t understand what he meant. Did he mean only the Israeli or all of us? He was too over-excited and had too little English-language ability to make himself clear. He certainly looked like a tourist himself, although I could not make out his nationality.

When we got off the train in Butterworth, I kidded my fellow complainer from the night before about having been in the vicinity of the fight. “You just start trouble wherever you go.”

He laughed and said the fight had something to do with the woman who was with the man of unknown nationality. “She’s another story,” he chuckled, referring to the origin of the trouble. She was a good-looking blonde with only a leopard-skinned vest for a shirt. “Some of the other travelers have already seen her in Delhi and other places around Asia. She always attaches herself to some tourist with money. That guy was an asshole (the unknown nationality), but I guess she figured he had more funds.”

I would have liked to hear more, but the Australian was buying a train ticket to Singapore and we wanted to catch the next ferry to Penang. With so many travelers on the train, the best cheap hotels would surely be quickly filled. We got the last room in ours, and a couple of people who came later were satisfied with a mattress in the hallway.

We traveled far out of our way to visit Penang, since we had traveled from the east coast of Thailand and planned to travel down the east coast of Malaysia, but Penang was on Malaysia’s west coast. In other words, an extra two days on trains and buses, but we had high expectations. Penang is quite a cosmopolitan city, boasting substantial populations of Chinese, Indians and Malays. It has Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples, Malay mosques and relics of British colonialism.

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Our guidebook praised a type of fish fondue, which it called “steamboat”. We sat at a table that had a cooker underneath and boiling water in its center. There were skewers with various kinds of fish, mussels, shrimp, etc. The skewers were dipped into the water the cook, and then eaten with one of two different kinds of sauce. The skewers are painted different colors depending on their price. After we finished eating, the empty skewers were counted to calculate our bill.

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An obligatory excursion in Penang is to Kek Lok Si Temple (I guess that “Si” is Cantonese for the word “Sa”, i.e., “temple”, although I cannot affirm this; another double-muddle). Our guidebook stated that there were buses every five minutes, but we waited an hour for one. We wanted to see the famous Pagoda of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The temple is divided into three parts: the lower part Chinese, the middle Thai, and the upper part Burmese. We found that a fourth culture had been added below the Chinese section: kitsch. To arrive at the temple, we had to walk through a long, steep, narrow passageway line with souvenir shops selling the most god-awful junk you can imagine.

Before we were allowed to climb to the uppermost part, we were required to give a donation. Apparently we did not give enough, but no sooner had we written our names in the book than a sour-faced monk crossed them out. But it really was quite an impressive place.

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We took a ride to one of Penang’s beaches figuring that it would be a good way to see some of the island. The bus was terribly overcrowded, and the beach and water were dirty, despite the presence of some expensive hotels there.

The Botanical Gardens were filled with locals getting themselves photographed while feeding some of the numerous monkeys. Young couples tried to find a spot where they would not be observed, and young Malaysian woman in traditional clothing were walking around as well as some in jogging suits running..

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We walked around savoring Penang’s culture and life.

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The locals could have cared less; they were lined up en masse to see Return of the Jedi early in the afternoon. But we did run into a couple of Italian friends, whom we had met the previous year on the east coast of Sri Lanka. They raved about Chinese pasta in Malaysia. He was a teacher, one of many unemployed ones in Italy he said, with little hope of finding a job. She had taken a year’s leave from some office job and was dreading its imminent end.

We wanted to travel down the east coast of Malaysia for two reasons. Friends had given us some not completely accurate information that it was the rainy season on the west coast and the dry season on the east coast. In addition, the west coast was more modern, dominated by Chinese, and the east coast was populated mostly by people of Malay descent who had retained more of their traditional culture.

We bought bus tickets from some unfriendly women in a travel agency, who became even more unfriendly when we declined to buy a ticket past Kota Bharu, our destination. We arrived at Butterworth bus station early in the morning and secured our seats. There were a couple of other foreigners on the bus and one outside, who seemed quite confused. He ran back and forth between the buses and ticket counters. Everyone he asked pointed in a different direction, and they seemed to be having a great deal of fun doing it. Departure time was nearing, and he was becoming panicky. As we rode off, we saw him running in the opposite direction.

We stopped for the mandatory refreshment pause after only one hour. It appeared that the bus company had an agreement with several restaurants along the way regardless of the time of the day. We were at the first one for a long time, perhaps an hour, and were getting rather restless. The journey was long enough without such interruptions, but then we discovered the reason for the wait. Another bus pulled in with our lost traveler from the Butterworth station and delivered him to us. They had called ahead and asked our bus to wait for him. He was rather uncommunicative about his experience when I asked him about it at the next rest stop.

After arriving in Kota Bharu, we lugged our packs around looking for a hotel room only to discover that all the cheap ones were full, except for one offering only dormitory accommodations where it was rumored that the middle-aged Malaysian proprietress — whom everyone called Mama — was very fond of young Western men. We returned to one hotel where we had declined to take a room a half hour earlier because it was too expensive. The room we had refused was no longer available, and we were forced to take one that was even more expensive.

We walked around the town the first evening. There was a night market, but it was filthy and rats scurried back and forth. The town closed down early, so we decided to seek a restaurant while there was still one open. We found a Chinse one that was rather full, but upon entering we were met by a stench that quickly drove us back out. We went to a Malay restaurant where two very friendly young men served us food so disgusting that we could not eat it, and then finally found another Chinese restaurant that was not bad.

The next day, we walked down to a very colorful market by the river. Sundry fruits and vegetables of various sizes, shapes and colors were on sales. There was also a lot of meat, fish, batiks, music cassettes (remember them?), etc. It was a photographer’s paradise, not to mention a paradise for flies and rats.

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We had picked up a brochure at the local tourist office which suggested: “If you go along the Kelanta River, you will see a picturesque string of raft houses near the banks. Their occupants have been living in these bamboo structures for years, and it is fascinating to watch them go about their daily routine.”

When we arrived, an old man was just pulling up his pants after having relieved himself. The river stunk; it was nothing more than a dirty cesspool. The raft houses were shabby hovels, and I found nothing “fascinating” about the inhabitants’ daily routine. Their routine was pure drudgery, and there was nothing picturesque about their use of the river as toilet, wash basin and kitchen sink. It was not without surprise when we read that there was cholera in Kota Bharu and the whole of the east coast. We shuddered at the thought of the previous evening’s meal and the tidbits that we had tried at the market.

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We were sitting at a table eating some chapatis with curry sauce prior to departing from the town, and an old man came and sat down at our table. Despite having bad teeth, he was smiling the whole time. He said something in a language that we could not understand, but he seemed little perturbed by our confusion. He continued smiling and repeated what seemed to be a request. Someone finally translated for me. The old man wanted three dollars, and by his manner it appeared as if he were sure he would get it. We gestured to him negatively and gave him nothing. When we got up and left the restaurant, he also stood up and followed us, still certain that his request would be granted. When he finally did comprehend that we were not going to give him anything, he stopped short, shocked and in a state of disbelief. He stood with such a confused look on his face, as if our refusal were so incredible that he could not believe it. Had he had a dream or vision of me giving him money?!

The bus was crowded, and we incurred the wrath of a local woman when we did not allow her to put several large bundles in the space where we had our feet. We were determined to take our time at the next stop in Kuala Trenganu and find a good, cheap hotel. We went down the road where our guide book informed us that was a good hotel, but of course in the wrong direction. After doubling back, we finally find a hotel behind the bus station that was less than optimal, but we had given up finding another one.

The hotel was really terrible, the toilet was filthy and there was excrement lying around it. The light was not working, and we needed our flashlight. There were only men in the restaurant below the hotel, and they stared with greedy eyes at any Western woman who might enter.

We found a Chinse restaurant where there were two other tourists and we talked about the cholera epidemic. They said they were not worried, because they had been vaccinated. They were somewhat disconcerted when we told them that not only were the vaccinations not very effective, they were not even recommended by the World Health Organization. They swore they were going to leave Malaysia immediately.

In a depressed mood, we went to the tourist office to find out where we could go. We wanted to go to Tioman Island of the southeastern coast. A friendly woman in the office shook her head negatively. She said that unfortunately it as the start of a two-week holiday and that all the hotels would surely be full. She claimed that we would have trouble finding a room anywhere we went.

Dejected, we returned to our hotel, packed our bags and took a bus about 50 kilometers south to Rantau Abang, famous for the gargantuan turtles that come up onto the beach to lay their eggs in the summer. It was a relief to be out of cities and back on a beach again. We rented a spartan bungalow: four walls, a floor, a ceiling and a bed. The beach was far from clean. It was littered with bottles and papers. Still, the water as refreshing.

As we lay on the beach, a large group of Malaysian schoolgirls appeared. Of course, they were fully clothed, including scarves to prevent their hair from being seen. In their blue and white costumes with the blue water and sky as well as the white sand as a backdrop, they reminded me of pictures of penguin colonies. They giggled at the sight of men and women in bathing suits, and a few of the bolder ones took pictures of us. Consequently, we took pictures of them too.


A Malaysian family came and rented the same size bungalow, which we had rented for two, but into which they fit 10 people. After they had all begun to take showers (there was only one tap with a bucket), we realized that we had better hurry if we wanted to do the same. I walked back to the toilets to look for another tap, but there was none to be found. They were flushed sporadically by one of the hotel employees carrying water there in a bucket.

In the evening, most people gathered at a small restaurant attached to the bungalows. One enterprising young Malaysian had set up a fast food stand where he sold “turtle burgers” and “turtle dogs”, although they were not made from turtle meat.

Some of the young men had brought a guitar and went on the beach close to the restaurant to play. However, most of them were more attracted by the video in the restaurant. An American comedy from some television series with mostly Afro-Americans was shown in the original. I could not imagine that the Malaysians understood the dialect, and they only laughed at every fifth or sixth joke. Then a disco dance contest was shown, and even the guitar players came to watch. There were some decadent couples dressed ludicrously with insipid commentary and questions from a host. The Malaysian youths were fascinated and sat with their eyes glued to the screen. The ragged travelers of Rantau Abang were only poor substitutes for the Westerners in their imagination. The longed for the meretricious concoctions of the film and television industry, and the charlatans on the screen were more real to them than the flow of Westerners who passed daily through their midst.

We went to bed early and set our alarm for 2 a.m., since the giant turtles only come up on the beach at night. We walked down the beach until we came to a fence with a gate and a one-dollar admission fee. The beaches were rented to private individuals. The renters had to give four thousand turtle eggs per year to the government, which hatches them to try and insure the survival of the species. The rest were sold and consumed as delicacies.

We walked quite a ways and began to wonder what we were doing there in the middle of the night. Then we saw a large crowd of approx. 100 people crowded around a giant turtle. No lights were allowed, so as not to disturb the beast during its egg-laying. Often weighing a half ton, they can live to be 1,000 years old (or so I was told). The had been coming undisturbed to this beach for hundreds of years. Recently, however, they had been met by hordes of two-legged creatures.

As soon as the guards had assured that the turtle had laid its eggs, permission was given to use camera flashes and flashlights. The poor beast was set upon by 100 frantic people, pushing and shoving, touching it and blinding it with their lights. The turtle first went in the wrong direction, perhaps confused by the large crowd. People were desperately trying to get the best view and picture of it before it reentered the water. It was total mass hysteria.

I noted the direction it was headed and chose a spot alongside of its path, refusing to let myself be pushed away. When the impressive beast passed by me, someone grabbed my arm. I pulled it away, but immediately it was grabbed again. This happened twice more without my turning around, because I was more intent on looking at the turtle. Then a female voice, which belonged to the grabbing arm, said to me in German: “I hope you’re not going to get too close!”

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I then noticed that she was also trying to pull some young boys away at the same time. If I had not been so dumbfounded, I probably would have said something nasty to her. I gave her a look of disbelief and turned my attention back to the turtle, which finally found its way to the water despite the sand that some Malaysians were throwing in its face. It was an awesome scene as the gigantic, clumsy beast entered the water, began to move its fins gracefully and swam away. The moonlight and the clearness of the water allowed us to observe it for the first several meters before it rejoined the dark, deep depths of the ocean.

We traveled farther down the coast in search of a good beach. Our guide book said Cheraton as the place. It looked like a good spot when we got there. We rented a cabin not far from the beach. The manageress suggested that we leave our valuables with her, because a tourist had been robbed at knife-point the previous evening. She said not worry; she had a gun.

We walked out to the beach, and — surprise — found it rather dirty. It was low tide and we had to walk a half kilometer in knee-deep water before we could swim. There was a lot of cow dung on the beach, and later we were told and locals used it as a public toilet in the mornings.

Back at our cabin, we decided to wash and went to the compound’s communal shower. It consisted of a well and a bucket, only the water was not exactly clean. The toilet was a piece of corrugate metal slanted at an angle.

That night in a restaurant we met the German woman who had played game warden the night before in Rantau Abang. She laughed cynically when we told her that we had taken the bus. She said she did not know that anyone did that and she had hitch-hiked. It must be added that although she was past her prime, she was still a bit attractive with her blonde hair and was traveling alone. She never had to wait long for a ride.

We met someone in Cheraton who said that Tioman Island was not crowded and it was easy to get rooms. We decided to continue south, and while we were waiting for the bus, we stuck out our thumbs and soon found ourselves in an air-conditioned car with a very friendly government official. It certainly was a lot more comfortable than a bus and a good opportunity to talk to a friendly, intelligent Malaysian.

We arrived in the city of Kuantan at 10 a.m. and checked for buses onward. The next bus to Mersing, our next destination, was 12 hour later at 10 p.m. We decided to try our luck at hitching again, and got a ride after a half hour for 10 km to the next village. The landscape changed after Kuantan, becoming much dryer and more sparsely populated. There was little traffic as we attempted hitching again and soon grew despondent. There was a small bus terminal across the street from where we were hitching, and we learned that a local bus was just about to depart for the next town south. We hopped on, and a long afternoon of four, slow, bumpy bus rides began. Each bus went about 10 km and then turned around and went back. The schedules were coordinated, so that when a bus arrived at its southernmost destination, another coming from the south was there to meet it. We barely had time to jump off one bus and get onto the next.

At Mersing, we found a clean budget hotel with a fan and private bath. Then we ran into some Spanish people that we had met on the boat from Koh Samui. They raved about Tioman, from where they had just come.

It was a five-hour ride on a small boat to Tioman the next morning. The water had a beautiful color, and we passed a few idyllic-looking islands. Tioman looked gorgeous from the boat: long, white sand beaches and lush, green vegetation. The movie South Pacific was filmed there.


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Once ashore, the beach had a bit of litter, but it was the cleanest we had seen in Malaysia. There was a small lagoon that filled up at high tide, and which also served as a cesspool and sewer for the village.

There was a big, expensive hotel, but we found a room a twenty-minute walk away from it that was okay, but nothing special. The manager was a friendly young guy, but a bit lazy. He promised to make us some good, local food, but could never arrange to procure the ingredients. The restaurants were not much different. In one there was no fish, and in the next the cook had no desire to work. The guest house belonged to manager’s brother-in-law, and he had only been working there for a short while. He had been arrested on the mainland three times for drugs, and his relatives hoped that he would be rehabilitate on Tioman. He said that the laws had become stricter, and that if he was caught one more time, he would receive the death penalty.

One day, we hiked over the small mountain on the island to the other side. It was a pleasant walk of a couple hours, but got caught in a downpour. We sought refuge with a native woman and her three daughters, who had a small shelter without walls in an area where they were engaged in agricultural pursuits. They laughed and giggled but brandished some dangerous-looking knives at the same time. I could not tell whether they were meant as protection against us or if it was just part of their joking.

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Rubber tree


There was a nice beach on the other side of the island and the wreck of a boat that had brought Vietnamese boat people there several years previously. There had been a refugee center for them on a nearby island at some time in the past. Some enterprising locals had set up a small restaurant and guest house, something for travelers who considered the meager huts on the other side as too touristy.

The ride back to the mainland several days later seemed longer than the way out, and in fact is was. The chain attached to the rudder broke, and we went in circles for a while until it was secured with a rope.

Malaysia has since become a rich country, and I imagine that the places we visited have changed considerably for the better.


The cleanliness of Singapore was a welcome change after Malaysia. There was a lot of construction, and the city was changing fast. An American, whom we met there, claim they were tearing down all the interesting parts of the city. In the small section of Chinatown that had not fallen prey to bulldozers, peddlers were hawking pictures of transvestites, although we did not see any of the latter.

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The Chinese receptionist at our hotel scowled whenever we asked him for the key. He would throw his feet up on the desk in front of us and respond with short, curt answers to our questions. After I also became unfriendly and threw the keys on the desk when we went out, he smiled for the first time.

The food markets were fantastic! New, very hygienic ones had been constructed with running water, but still with the same variety of delicious food as previously: Chinese, Indian and Malay. Choosing a dish was quite difficult, because there were so many good things to choose from.

Mechtild had to return home, since she only had six weeks of vacation, but I still had four more weeks and flew to Jakarta.


8 thoughts on “Encounters with Strangers on the Road: Part II: Malaysia

    1. Thanks very much! I think times have changed, and travel has become a mass phenomenom. There are just so many people on the road that people no longer seem to notice other travelers and even try to ignore them. In the past, when you arrived at a cheap guest house, you often sat and talked to the others there, exchanged travel tips and stories. That doesn’t happen much these days for me either.


    2. I thought that these series of posts on this trip long ago had some of my most interesting stories, although not great pictures (taken with a cheap camera and digitalized from slides years later). Really happy that you and perhaps 2 or 3 other people are reading it, but I guess it is too long for the attention span of many. They need the rapid changes of video sequences such as on music videos and seem to have lost the ability to focus on one photo or a longer text.


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