There is a two week gap in my travel diary covering my exit from Thailand and my journey south into Malaysia, yet it has a significance beyond the absence. What follows therefore is a series of recollections.
I can’t recall how I got to the Thai-Malaysian border – it was either by bus or train. The overwhelming impression that remains of Sungai Golok is of the seediness and whiff of criminality which is common to many such border towns, but to a greater degree than found a week or two earlier in Ranong. There is a fascination about them, so, having really savoured my travels through Thailand I lingered awhile wandering through the town. I’m glad I did because lying on the ground in a dusty sideroad I found a Malaysian banknote, 10 (?) ringgit.
I crossed the border into Malaysia and entered the town of Rantau Panjang only to belatedly realise that it was a Friday. Malaysia, and particularly the state of Kelantan is strictly Muslim. The banks were all shut, so I couldn’t exchange any travellers cheques into ringgit. If I hadn’t found that banknote across the border, there was no way I could have caught the bus to Kota Bharu, my day’s destination.
I stayed at Mummy’s hostel, presumably in the dorm, because, of course, the bank’s were still shut. But ‘Mummy’, real name Mary Chew, was sympathetic to my plight. She ass a garrulous ageing ex-singer who has been ‘Mummy’ for eight and a half years to each year’s generation of travellers. Our hints, poems, road-lore and spare passport photos got written into her journals for our followers to read and maybe learn from. (One of them eight years later was Son No.1! Sadly, he never met Mummy because she had died a couple of years before )
I set off for the night market and an evening meal with Brian, another English guy staying there. On the way back we were about to pass a Chinese temple, but paused because of a commotion taking place within. The folk were trying to capture a small monkey which was too high up a pillar for them to reach. No worries, said I, and put my six foot plus height to its designated use and got hold of the creature which promptly bit my thumb.
Brian and I were continuing our stroll back to Mummy’s when I suddenly felt an incredibly intense pain in my stomach. I described it then as being like a red hot iron band being fitted around a barrel. It was so intense that I was doubled over. When we reached Mummy’s, a taxi was called to take me to the local hospital where I was placed in a wheelchair and a bed was booked for me.
Brian pushed me through the corridors and as we passed the toilets, I realised that I needed to go – urgently. Luckily the only western, as opposed to the squat, toilet was vacant. I sat and voided everything, and was wheeled on. Realising that I was going to stay overnight, alone, I then did something very stupid: I asked Brian to take my concealed money belt containing my travellers cheques and ask Mummy to look after them.
I was placed in a curtained off cubicle with four beds where I was examined by an English speaking doctor who told me that he’d qualified in the UK. That reassured me, but being told that the guy in the bed diagonally opposite had infectious meningitis didn’t. His wife was with him, and she slept on a chair, her arms draped over him.
We were woken up at jam subuh, the pre-dawn prayer time for Muslims, which neither the meningitis sufferer nor I took part in. I did feel much better, although I was not taken with the ‘western’ style breakfast which I was given – I really don’t like sweet milky tea.
So I was very pleased to be given the all-clear by the doctor who told me that I “was much too intelligent to be there.” Eh?
When I got back to Mummy’s, Brian had gone – with my travellers cheques. Apart from proving the doctor wrong in his assessment of me, this left me with the predicament of travelling without any money the length of the east coast of Malaysia to Singapore where I had an account. I was fortunate that a couple staying in the hostel were willing to buy my recording Walkman for enough to pay my way for the few days it took to get there.
Moral: However sick you are, don’t trust new acquaintances, especially the English.