The Malaysian tour guide learns life lessons from foreign tourists in the late 1980s

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In the first part of my story I told of one of my first work assignments as a tour guide in Malaysia, where my “Sifu” Ramli and I brought a group of Australians from Singapore to Kelantan.

Part two begins with a drive from Kelantan on Route 4 to Route 1 – Penang.

Once in Penang, we made our way to the jetty and the colonial-style double-decker ferry to get to the island. The Australians occupied themselves with snapshots during the half-hour drive. One of them said she couldn’t wait to see the Queen Victoria Memorial Clock Tower near Penang Harbor as well as Fort Cornwallis.

I love the Malay name of the state, “Pulau Pinang”, as it tells us a little bit about how the island got its name – from the ubiquitous areca palms. Ramli suggested we go to Balik Pulau first before stopping at the snake temple and then go around the airport area to look for areca palm trees. This was the first time I traveled to this part of Penang and was very surprised that the place was still largely covered by dense jungle.

We could see many tall palm trees on the slopes, but unfortunately they were of little economic value to the local residents who by then had instead started growing the more lucrative durian trees.

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After explaining the palm trees to the tourists, one of them asked, “Is it legal to clear the land to make way for durian plantations?” !

Penang is endowed with rich resources that are perfect for tourism, such as verdant hills, pristine beaches, and many heartwarming stories from the past. I introduced my guests to the local Chinese clan houses, temples and all the many festivals that we celebrate throughout the year.

The columnist introduced his guests to the local Chinese clan houses, temples and all the many festivals that we celebrate throughout the year.

We went to Khoo Kongsi near Chulia Street and I started telling them the story of the arrival of the Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century and how they looked after each other. I also explained to them the various Chinese family names and where their respective ancestors were in China.

I actually have no idea how much the Australians got along with me, although some of them asked a few questions and looked very interested.

Aside from the colonial buildings they loved so much, they also found the local Nyonya culture, Penang food and street names interesting! All of this makes the Straits Settlements Island a travel gem.

On leaving the island, I asked the tourists which aspect of Penang impressed them the most. They said the many stories of the people of Penang and the things they saw along the way were great, as was the coconut milk cendol. That was 34 years ago – I wonder if this special Cendol stand still exists today?

While the way the overseas visitors travel may seem light-hearted and “aimless” to some people, in reality they have adopted a “see / learn-as-you-go” mentality, something I had to learn at the time. I loved chatting with them in person as I was able to find out exactly what they think of tropical countries.

Soon we were back on Federal Route 1, the main artery known for its breathtaking scenery and colorful social fabric. We made a quick stop at Taiping Lake in Perak before heading to Ipoh train station to see the impressive colonial architecture.

Of course when we were in Ipoh we had to go to the old town for a fabulous white coffee before heading to Kampar for its famous curry chicken roll. This delicacy is not only a hit with Asian visitors to Malaysia, Westerners love it too.

There were many roadside stalls along the main street selling all kinds of local products like petai, pomelo, cempedak and durian which caught our guests’ attention that they could smell.

Next up was a two-day stay in Cameron Highlands. Back then, this place wasn’t as developed (or overdeveloped) as it is today. All the place had was tea gardens, vegetable farms, flower gardens, and forests. We stayed at Strawberry Park and went to the Smokehouse for an afternoon with English tea.

In the evening we also took a leisurely walk into the jungle. Some of them screamed in amazement at the sight of a withered rafflesia, the largest flower in the world.

But I didn’t have to tell them anything about the rafflesia – it was they who told me everything they knew about this unique plant. Looks like they really did their homework before coming to Malaysia!

After leaving Cameron Highlands, we made a quick stop in the quaint town of Kuala Kubu Bharu and later visited the Batu Caves in Gombak, Selangor before making our way to Kuala Lumpur. In the city we visited the train station, the Moorish buildings, Chinatown, the museum and the national monument.

Somehow, however, I got the feeling that they were unimpressed by all of this.

During this trip I discovered that many Caucasian tourists had a keen interest in the diverse cultures of the former western colonies. During the Jonker Walk in Melaka, the visitors kept saying: “Unbelievable!” During our tour, they took pictures with their cameras.

It’s also not difficult to see why, as the houses of worship of different religious faiths could be seen either side by side or just a few meters apart. After traveling to 132 countries and territories around the world, I can safely say that this is something unique to Melaka – you won’t find it anywhere else.

I always tell people that Malaysia’s greatest heritage is our diverse community and culture. Unfortunately, today I fear that this beautiful cultural diversity could be impaired.

I think we all miss the days when racial harmony and solidarity were our national symbols. An era when Soh Chin Ann, Santokh Singh and Harun Jusoh became symbols of a united Malaysia in the 1980s.

Our guests had a fruitful and pleasant trip in Malaysia, or at least the peninsula. After spending several days with foreign tourists for the first time in my life, the trip made me rethink the “global village” move and question many things.

The views expressed are solely those of the author.

Leesan, the founder of Apple Vacations, has traveled to 132 countries on six continents and is happy to share his travel stories and insights. He has also authored five books.


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