The ‘invisible hand’ has worked wonders for me all my life. And it did again this day. Some time after I had posted the blog for day 39 I got an email from N Mohan, a resident of Bangalore, who I had not known till he communication arrived. Having read that I was exploring border crossing options between Thailand and Malaysia, he came up with the information that there is a land crossing at Sungaiko Lok (Thailand) and Rantau Panjang (Malaysia). He sent me a link that was most useful in deciding to take that crossing. He had reached out to me at the most opportune moment because I was not able to get any additional information in Phatthalung and was mentally prepared for a diverted route. I had experienced something similar when I was at my wits end about getting to Cambodia after having been denied entry to drive through Vietnam. At the time, Mathew Thomas, another Facebook friend, suggested the southern route in Lao PDR to Siem Reap. And that worked. These are guardian angels that He sets up on your way to ensure safety and protection. I have no other means to describe such incidents.
Mohan offered a suggestion about route maps too. I had detailed in the blog about my misery with Google Maps and how it frequently shut down at the most inopportune times. I did what he asked me to – upgrade to a newer version. With that done, I had absolutely no issues during the drive to the Malaysian border. Voice guidance and GPS worked perfectly well to take me to the borders without a single wrong turn. The road infrastructure was, once again, top class with sign posting absolutely brilliant. Even a person like me, who can lose his way on a straight road (an adaptation from Manoj, a friend in Warsaw), could not despite many tries! However, there were many road checks by heavily armed police personnel, examining personal baggage and a few freight trucks. I was stopped just once, but when I told them that I was on a drive from India, I was let through without any check. The stickers on the car helped too, as also that I was alone.
About 60 km from Sungaiko Luk, the Thailand side of the border crossing, I was overcome by a few doubts. Road signs started appearing for Tak Bai and Ta Ba border crossings into Malaysia. Nevertheless, I pushed on in the direction of Sungaiko Luk. When Google Maps showed a diversion, 4 km short of the Tak Bai ferry crossing, I spotted a traffic policeman on his rounds. I asked him for directions and was told to take the diversion to Sungaiko Luk in case I wanted to drive through to Malaysia, which I did. The Sungaiko Luk – Rantau Panjang border crossing is via a small bridge over the Goluk River. Immigration formalities on the Thailand side did not take time, the officer was initially hesitant to accept the immigration papers for the car given at the Poi Pet border. His supervisor asked him to file it. At the Customs station a junior official helped me find the correct person to stamp and sign the Carnet.
When I drove over the bridge to the Malaysian side I was not sure how to handle the immigration and Customs because not a single instruction was in English. I saw a line of cars driving through a lane and getting passports, or what looked like them, stamped. I too joined the queue and was pleasantly surprised when my passport was accepted, visa examined and entry stamped in less than five minutes. All this, while I was seated in the car. I did not have to fill up an arrival/departure form or any other. The officer also confirmed that I did not require any immigration clearance for the car and asked me to drive through to Customs. A few metres away there were two lanes, one for vehicles with goods and the other without. I drove through the Green Channel and passed through the Customs barrier. I could have driven on but for the Carnet formality. At the exit of the ICQS (Immigration, Customs, Quarantine and Security) complex I parked the car and approached the Customs station. And that is when I met the next guardian angel – Faizah (pronounced Fayeezah).
She was one among the three Customs officials manning the inward gate. I handed over the Carnet to her and asked for it to be stamped. She offered a chair and went in search of the authority who had to do the needful. She returned in a short while and requested me to wait a while. While doing that I asked if she could help me with getting insurance for the car as well as to exchange currency. She said would after the Carnet is stamped. While waiting for that I told her about the expedition and she said, “You are brave man, I respect”. The senior officer came to the gate with the Carnet and without any fuss the job was done. I had to only tell them what had to be filled up where. Then Faizah took over. She took me to a counter where she thought the insurance could be done. Some discussion later she decided to take me in her car further down the road in search of insurers. Each one of them was closed for lunch – I lost an hour after entering Malaysia, which is +8 GMT against +7 GMT in Thailand! Then she took me to the Duty Free Shop, where she thought she could get currency exchanged for me. That also proved futile, but she would not give up. She requested one of the guys in the shop to take me, safely, on his bike to a money changer. The woman was very reluctant to accept USD and when I persisted she gave me an appalling rate. I accepted it as I needed local currency for the insurance. Then I suggested to Faizah that we could have lunch and try the insurers after 2.30 pm.
We went to a small restaurant and she ordered Nasi Goreng Pathaya, basically fried rice with chicken and egg. I was parched because it was hot and humid. I ordered iced tea. The smiling middle aged woman brought me sweetened milk tea with pots of ice cubes. Even though that was not what I had asked for it was delectable and, naturally, I asked for a refill. The fried rice too was tasty and filling. In the car and over the meal we exchanged a lot of information. She was very friendly and forthcoming; I became certain that I have journeyed with this soul in the past. I may have accepted Mohan’s suggestion to take this border crossing to meet up with her again! It is only travel that can help to connect up such dots in your life and see a larger picture.
Faizah is a 40 year old divorcee with three children, the oldest being 17. Of course, I did not believe her at first because she did not look a day older than 25! Her mother stays with her and helps out with the children and home. She is the youngest of three siblings – her brother works in Kuala Lumpur and her sister too works with the Customs department in Rantau Panjang. She does a lot of overtime to meet her financial commitments. In fact, this day she is on a double shift, 6 am to 2 pm and onwards to 10 pm. She seemed to be quite popular in the place and kept on telling people that her Uncle had come to visit her from India! When I asked her why she was doing all this for me, which is something I could not have expected even in my own country, she said that I should be comfortable in her country. I could not believe what I was hearing and experiencing. She mentioned that it is not often that Kelantan gets foreign tourists; she wanted me to know that they are a friendly people in a beautiful land. Yes, people make the land and Faizah exemplified it. She kept on telling me that I should tour Kelantan again with family and I invited her to ‘God’s Own Country’. I do not know if I will ever see her again or interact with her, but she has etched herself indelibly in my mind, with her charming demeanour and helpful attitude. Goodwill, certainly, knows no boundaries.
Rantau Panjang is a very small town, but very well known. Besides it being a popular border crossing its claim to fame is as one of the foremost towns in Malaysia for smuggling. Fuel oil, cooking oil and sugar are cheaper in Malaysia than in Thailand and hence, are smuggled in large quantities for sale across the border. Vehicles are specially modified for this purpose with additional tanks and dummy boot. Enterprise will find expression in innovative ways.
I had to get to a WiFi point to get directions to the hotel in Pasir Puteh. Till I got to one I drove on in the direction of Pasir Puteh with the help of road signs and general directions that Faizah had given me. Closer to Pasir Puteh I drove into a restaurant that promised WiFi. I ordered a mango shake and connected to the Net. Arwana Hotel was at Tok Bali, quite some distance from Pasir Puteh. It was hot and getting hotter. I had to change the room initially allotted because the air conditioning was not effective.
I walked around a bit and found that the place has nothing in the immediate vicinity to offer, except a dry dock and boat repair facility, where I spent some time. The receptionist told me that I could check with the travel desk in the morning about how I could fill the extra day in Pasir Puteh. The Koipitiam is a restaurant in the complex. I ordered chicken noodles for dinner. The chef produced a beauty and came across to ask if I enjoyed the meal. He promised to cook me an excellent fried rice dish the next day.