11:00am 23/01/2022
[Isshōkenmei] First time with Mat Sallehs (25)
By:Lee San

8.00a.m. some day in late 1987, we picked up five tourists from Australia at Hotel Phoenix Singapore.

Ramli started with a brief welcome speech, followed by the immigration details as we would soon leave Singapore for Malaysia via the Johor Causeway, something I believed he had said over a hundred times by then. Nevertheless, his attitude remained as sincere as ever, uttering each word clearly and explicitly. Obviously he took the first impression he gave to his foreign guests very seriously. Like what the Japanese say, each rendezvous could be the first for both parties.

My first trip was the Batik Route “B” departing from and ending in Singapore. The standard operating procedure for a Mat Salleh group was to set off from the pick-up point at nine in the morning, and check in a hotel by four in the afternoon.

However, my first day out was an exception because we finished the day’s itinerary in Kuantan, which is quite a long drive from Singapore.

I guess probably because these people were so much used to the systematic urban jungle type of cityscape which Singapore portrayed, that they became instantly elated as soon as we drove into Jalan Wong Ah Fook in JB, asking excitedly: can we try that roadside stall?

Well, not entirely impossible, but we were also worried about the cleanliness of the toilet stop, be it a coffee shop or gas station along the way, that they might request later on.

Driving along Federal Route 1, the large swathes of rubber and oil palm plantations, Malay kampungs and Chinese new villages that we were so accustomed to were the favorite photo spots of these Mat Sallehs!

Each time we pulled up at a designated rest stop for tour groups, these people would start buying sugar cane juice, sweet corn and steamed groundnuts on sale there. I wonder whether these people had received their anti-diarrhea jabs before they left home! Of course, we were glad they enjoyed the country and helped boost the local economy.

The way Mat Sallehs travel is very different from how Chinese or Asian travelers do. First and foremost, the guide needs not talk continuously giving them a detailed account on the country’s culture and history and what not. All he needs is to give a 10-20 minute explanation when we arrive at a tourist attraction, followed by another 10 to 20 minutes of free time for them to take pictures and walk around. Of course, every now and then the driver guide would still explain things that show up unexpectedly along the way, such as a mangosteen tree, jackfruit or durian tree. We would leave them alone for most part of the journey so that they could have a short rest, read a book, listen to music, or stare out the window. Occasionally when they come across something interesting, they would ask: what flower is that?

After we arrived in Terengganu on the second day, we put up two nights at Tanjung Jara Resort. One of the group members told us during dinner that this was the kind of travel experience they were looking for, typical Malay houses on stilts!

Five in the next morning, I offered to drive them to a nearby fishing village to wait for the sunrise and see the fishing boats returning with their catch, followed by driving around the fishing village, seeing local fishermen dry the fish under hot sun and monkeys plucking the coconuts. Towards the end of the day, we enjoyed dinner on the beachfront accompanied by a symphony of waves of the majestic South China Sea, while gazing into the star-studded sky. To me, such a job was absolutely relaxing and enjoyable, and as the Mat Sallehs put it, I was paid for my holidays!

Paid for holidays, indeed! I love the way Mat Sallehs travel, and love to chat with them.

The waus, hands-on batik printing experience and top-spinning in Kelantan were totally fascinating to these tourists. Seeing an all-women vendor line-up at the main market of Kota Bharu, they playfully asked: where are all the men? The local snacks on sale here were both visually pleasant and palatable.

Who can deny that the three states on our East Coast make such a culturally rich travel destination?

I’m quite sure when the ECRL railway becomes operational in 2023, the East Coast will emerge as a much sought-after holiday destination!

We had to traverse the Main Range driving along the East-West Highway from Kelantan eastward to Perak on the West Coast of Peninsular Malaysia. A curfew was enforced after dark back in those days due to the communists still active along the Malaysia-Thai border.

In the morning, we submitted a list of passengers to the border police post in Kelantan’s Jeli district before proceeding with our journey along Route 4. Along the way we made a brief stop by the picturesque Banding Lake (upstream of Temenggor Lake). Traffic was very sparse throughout the 3 to 4 hours of journey but the scenery was breathtaking: thick tropical rainforests, verdant hills, pristine lakes, wildlife and occasionally an elephant or two. Such a sight was all the more rewarding for our guests.

From the rustic East Coast, we traveled to the more densely populated West Coast, as the vista became increasingly sophisticated.

Actually I myself enjoyed very much such a way of traveling whereby the accommodation and route were pre-planned but sightseeing details were left to the driver-guide who would slowly share to the guests what popped up before their eyes along the way.

As a matter of fact, these tourists had normally done their homework before leaving their homes. At the same time, I also learned more about my own country from the information they had gathered and shared with me.

From the East Coast to the West, my guests said they were very much looking forward to visiting Penang, one of the three Straits Settlements, soon!

More in the Isshōkenmei series

(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.)


Lee San
Apple Vacations


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