End of 1987, I joined Reliance Travel, the country’s premier travel agency, to officially start my career in this industry.
Other than outbound tours, it’s Reliance Sightseeing was also doing inbound tours from Europe, Australia, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As such, we could see the “Reliance” coaches at all major tourist spots across the country. The blue and white batik uniform designed by Reliance itself would spontaneously exude a deep sense of pride in the wearers.
Reporting for work on the first day, I remember my supervisor Chong told me: Although you don’t have any practical experience as a tour guide, your CV is quite impressive. Just learn while you work!
As expected, I was given a probationary driver-guide post, which was actually what I had wanted, as I could take the opportunity to travel around the country for free. However, the moment I met the two Malay fellow driver-guides, I subconsciously told myself I had a lot to buck up, as they were all very professional people, neatly dressed with quite accented Queen’s English. As for me, all I could afford was broken Manglish!
Moreover, the job’s nature was such that I had to spend 7 to 12 days with the Mat Salleh tourists, travelling overland to places like Singapore or Phuket across the Malay Peninsula.
To be honest, I was a little curious back then: How come Reliance would hire someone so crippled in English to be driver-guide? That said, a driver-guide responsible for ferrying foreign tourists all over Malaysia in a seven-seater back then was not required to possess a tour guide’s certificate warranted by the tourist promotion board. Of course, the same is also not required today.
As a matter of fact, I was actually quite confident of myself. Anyway, what foreign tourists needed was someone familiar with this country, not someone with a diploma in English language, huh! I had the essential knowledge, I told myself, and indeed this attitude later proved to be working!
In reality, Reliance Travel was a travel company that had really good foresight. They knew more than three decades ago that Mat Salleh tourists longed to see the nature and culture of Southeast Asia. They wanted to know how we tapped the rubber, how the monkeys harvested coconuts, how we netted fish, our diverse religions, customs and wedding ceremonies. While these might appear so common and trivial to many of us, to them they were “classics” that must not be missed.
Moreover, the itinerary had to be slow-paced and relaxing, not too many people in a group. Because of that, the combi van slowly became the preferred mode of transport, stopping anywhere along the way as desired. Although the cost for a small group could be relatively high, it wasn’t an issue at all, as they paid in US dollars!
Notably, Reliance Travel’s classic “Batik Route” specifically designed for English-speaking tourists, was very well acclaimed and had won a number of industrial awards.
So, very soon I started my job as a probationary driver-guide, following the more experienced Ramli Ahmad who would sit at the tour guide seat in front while I was behind the wheel.
We took off from KL around noon, travelling south to Singapore via the JB causeway, and put up at the 4-star Hotel Phoenix. Not bad for Reliance staff, right? I was thinking quality accommodation and food should be the standard for a high quality travel agency!
So, I got the rare chance of sleeping in a luxurious hotel, enjoying an international buffet spread and spa! That should fully energise me for the next day’s work!
The so-called “Batik Route” was a fun-packed multifaceted route on Peninsular Malaysia linking the many tourist attractions from state to state, experiencing very different aspects of even the same culture.
These Mat Salleh tourists very much enjoyed the diverse cultural and ethnic offerings here, along with our mouth-watering delicacies, religions and customs. Of course, we also incorporated the most classical elements of both Singapore and Thailand as well!
There were two different components of “Batik Route” — Route “A” from Singapore to Phuket via Melaka, KL, Pangkor, Ipoh, Penang and Hat Yai; and Route “B” from Singapore via Kuantan, Terengganu, Kelantan, the East-West Highway, Penang, Ipoh, Pangkor, Cameron Highlands, KL, Melaka, and back to Singapore.
My first group was on Route”B” as an assistant to Ramli, starting from Singapore and ending in Singapore.
I was quite nervous even though I was only responsible for driving because… that was the first time in my life I officially took a group!
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has travelled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)