I had travelled to Malaysia a few times between 1999 and 2004, when Mahathir Mohammed was ruling the roost in the country as its unquestioned leader and Prime Minister. The economic turnaround he stitched after collapse of the ‘Asian Tigers’, whereby the free falling currencies of prospering South East Asian countries such as Malaysia and Thailand brought them to the brink, was hailed internationally. He chose Japanese investment over ‘unreliable’ western economic partners and changed the country into a mega manufacturing hub with emphasis on infrastructure building, shipping and logistics to support the makeover.
Officers of Indian Railways get railway passes on foreign railway systems on mutual hospitality basis. The entitlements on the foreign railways depend on the status in the home railway. Therefore, when I travelled to Malaysia and Thailand with my wife in 1999 I used passes to travel by rail from Singapore to Pedang Besar, the border of Malaysia with Thailand. We had stopped over a few days each to enjoy, Melacca, Kuala Lumpur, Ipoh and Penang. I can never forget the kind railway station master of Pedang Besar who arranged a taxi for us to get to the Thailand border from where we secured visa ‘on arrival’ to tour the country. The station master extended assistance to a railwayman from another country because it does not matter where you come from, the railway fraternity is unique the world over.
After that Malaysia was regularly on my list of backpacking trips. With free tickets, thanks to frequent flier points on Air India, Malaysia was one country I could afford while in government service when ‘peanuts’ was the most appropriate description for government salaries and many of us were treated like monkeys by the employer! I remember, in 2004, staying in a small room with common bath and toilet facilities, opposite the Kuala Lumpur bus station for RM 5, when the exchange rate was Rs 11 to a RM, if my memory serves me right. Those were the days when decent accommodation with a full blown breakfast option was available in the Kuala Lumpur city centre for RM 30. Hence, I was appalled by the RM 252 charged by Bukit Gambang Resort City in 2015!
The breakfast lounge was full at 8 am. The BGRC was playing host to many groups over the weekend. Early in the morning I saw groups wearing distinctive T-shirts taking part in Tai Chi, the ancient intense Chinese martial art form which is growing in popularity as one that imparts health benefits and improves longevity. Many companies such as Toshiba and Senheng Electricals were conducting offsite meetings with emphasis on group activities. Besides, there were large contingents from the University of Pahang and Under-19 sports teams at breakfast. What touched me most was a group of physically and mentally challenged who came together under “Project Shine”. That they were enjoying the experience would be an understatement.
What a spread it was for breakfast. Besides conjee, curries, rice and noodles the Continental selection was varied too. I was curious to see a counter that announced ‘Indian Vegetarian’. What it had was waffles with maple syrup! I gorged on yellow watermelons and crispy red apples at the end of a huge meal of scrambled eggs, croissants, waffles, bread pudding with custard and repeated helpings of mango juice. Children enjoyed the wide selection of cereals and drinks. People did not waste food despite the large amount of it available.
I decided to explore a bit of Kuantan after breakfast. I lined up to visit the Sungai Pandan waterfalls, Tanjung Lumpur and city centre of Kuantan. The Sungai Pandan waterfalls, about 40 km from BGRC, is a popular picnic spot for people in the area and it being a Sunday the place was getting busier by the hour. The road to the waterfall goes through oil palm plantations and active rock quarries. I was charged RM 5 as foreigner entry fee and was made to make entries in a register. There are paid and free car parks; I chose the latter. Food stalls were being set up when I reached there. School children had pitched camps there, perhaps for outdoor activity over the weekend. The cascading waterfall was not so copious, perhaps due to the season, but shallow sandy ponds and streams provided children and adults options to have fun. What amazed me most was that everyone from kid to adults was fully clothed in the water, complete with headdress. Not a single male exposed even the upper body. A few of them wore knee high bathing trunks.
Tanjung Lumpur is listed as a ‘must visit’ in reports of tourists. The traditional fishing village at the mouth of the Kuantan River is among the earliest to be opened up by the Malays in Kuantan. Tanjung Lumpur and the city of Kuantan are divided by the river and a modern bridge provides access between the two. The view of the Kuantan skyline from the bridge is lovely with the magnificent Sultan Ahmed State Mosque dominating it. I caused a mini traffic jam stopping on the bridge to take a few photographs. Tanjung Lumpur has many restaurants serving seafood and almost all of them had Ikan Bakar added to the name of the restaurant, which means grilled fish. I spent some time on the beach fronting the Kuantan Resort Hotel watching splendidly coloured trawlers returning to the fish landing centre with their catch.
Kuantan, the ninth largest city in Malaysia, is the state capital of Pahang, which is the third largest state in Malaysia. The city has history dating back to the 15th century and is one where modern and colonial era buildings mesh seamlessly such as in the Mahakota Square. The arrival of Chinese and Indian traders, tin miners and development of rubber plantations in the late 19th century gave a fillip to the local economy. The Malaysian government has identified Kuantan as a future growth centre and has made several strategic investments in SEZ and petroleum exploration. Tourism is also high on the agenda for investment. I spent some time walking on the paved Kuantan River Esplanade watching motorised boats going across the sign board of the city set up on the bank facing that of the city.
Despite the heavy breakfast I was getting signs that I had to dip into another meal. I headed back to BGRC and dropped into the Mama & Nana store for another round of rice and beef curry. The young woman at the counter flashed a brilliant smile, perhaps thanking me for the repeat. This time, however, the rice was warm and the curry tasted even better. I had scheduled to do the Safari Park ride in the evening in the Resort City. When I boarded the Tram I was told that I have to take a ticket for the entrance and that after 5 pm most of the attractions are closed. That was a fiasco. One thing was clear though, room tariff entitled you to only a free breakfast; rest of the facilities have to be paid for.
It was time to have another round of beer. I went across to the shop where I had clandestinely procured a couple of cans yesterday. I went through the process once again. The young man fetched the cans from a cooler, where it was concealed behind an array of soft drinks. He made sure he had no other customers to service. He told me that alcohol is not openly sold because the Malay Muslims are not supposed to drink. I sat in the car and polished off the Carlsberg and Heineken beer cans, before walking into the Mama & Nana restaurant once again. By now they knew that I would only drink cold water, available free, and that I would have rice. The young woman fetched me a place of hot rice and I had it with a dry beef preparation, something that resembled the traditional Kerala beef ularthu, and a portion of excellent fish curry. Quantities are almost unlimited and hence, the price of Rm 6.50 for the meal was a steal. At another store I found RO plants, from where one could fill water for as low as 10 cents a litre. It seemed to be a promotional feature by the company that manufactured the machines. People had queued up with large containers to fill up from the two machines at the store.
It was a day when I had to change plans of driving to Singapore tomorrow. But, more about that in the next instalment of the blog.