My Dad passed away in May 1971. For the Christmas holidays that year (which ran for 7 weeks) I was sent packing off to the hamlet of Sitiawan in the state of Perak. My uncle Mark lived there and sending me away provided my mother a much needed break to recover from the traumatic events of the year.
This was hardly my first trip there (and far from my last.) I knew the place well. The town itself was built on the junction of two roads. One could walk around the entire town in 10 minutes. It was also 7 miles away from the resort seaside town of Lumut (now a Naval base) which in turn was a 30 cent ferry ride from my favorite island, Pangkor. The gentle, pace of life was so different from the “big” city that I grew and lived in. Don’t get me wrong, I love the city but only in a place like Lumut could I witness a malay boy slap the lapping sea water to summon a wild dolphin which he would swim and play with every evening.
Uncle Mark (my Dad’s cousin… in the pic above at his 25th wedding anniversary) was like a second father to me. He was a man of respect in town… sort of an Andy Griffith in a Malaysian Mayberry. Rights of passage I would have missed with my Dad’s demise were supplemented by time spent with uncle Mark in Sitiawan. Some of these included: my first inebriating taste of “toddy” at the tender age of 13, digging for cockles in the mud of the Sitiawan river, “kopi ganja”, a coffee blend that included marijuana served at a local coffee shop (or so I was told), line fishing for squid and prawns, picking sour mangos off a tree and eating them with salt, seeing my first dead person who had committed suicide by hanging himself in front of the local movie theater and of course trips to Pangkor.
The journey there was an adventure in itself. My favorite route was taking a train to Michelle Yeoh’s hometown of Ipoh. From there it would be a bus or cab ride to Sitiawan where you hopped on to another (local) bus to Lumut. From there one would get on to a ferry across to the fishing village on Pangkor. Half the village was built on stilts over the water and teeming with all sorts of fish trading activity. You can see some of the village in this pic of me on my last visit there in 1981. Then you either walked or took one of the 2 cabs to the beach on the other side of the island.
Earlier visits were mostly family affairs often including my cousin, Anna, (pictured on the left) who was like a sister to me as I was growing up. We usually stayed at the government “rest house” and frolicked by and in the warm, salty sea for most of the day. Often the fishing boats came to shore and we would buy fresh catch for dinner. On one of these trips I learned a hard lesson in the local belief in “animism”. I was warned time and time again not to “kenching” (pee) by a tree lest the “datuk” (spirit) of the tree should become upset with me. I of course disregarded these warnings and that night my little boy penis painfully swelled into an ugly mushroom. My dad brought over a “pawang” (the local shaman) who while laughing at me performed a ritual and gave me an ointment of vinegar and tumeric to be applied 3 times a day to my tender nether region. I also had to go “apologize” to the tree spirit. So, there was no swimming for me the next 2 days which was torture for an 8 year old vacationing by the sea.
It was on another trip there where I last ran into my cousin, Lelly. We were both 9 or 10 years old at the time. Mind you, we have not seen each other in over 36 years. She now lives in Brighton, England and we only reconnected a short time ago through the internet. She claims that her last memory of me was of me swimming out and driving off the roof of this fishing boat. Now, through our blogs we have been getting reacquainted… and I have since discovered such a cool person who I’m proud to call my Cuz!
When I was old enough to travel on my own (I started at 12), trips to Pangkor became my escape to sanity. There was always a stop in Sitiawan to visit with Uncle Mark… then off for R&R on the island. I would usually stay at the “hotel” which was a collection of attap huts that were rented out for $1.50 a night. These rustic huts usually slept 2-3 comfortably and were frequented by backpacking Aussie student tourists. Here is a pic of my friend, Aziz in one of those huts. Nights included swims and sitting around the fire on the beach trading stories, food and joints. Kien and I also made several trips to Pangkor together… once with a troop of Girl Guides. We’ve shared lots of adventures there that we still smile fondly at.
I hear the place has developed quite a bit since I was last there. It’s no longer “relatively untouched” and is now a much sought after resort area. I guess time and development marches on. For me, Pangkor and Sitiawan will always be the places I went to regain my sanity in the gentler days of my youth.
And so ends another edition of Picture Daze. Check out the sidebar for other editions.