54. Stepping Back: Malay Memories

A 1976 excursion through the Malay Peninsula introduced the author to the smell of opium, the Ten Courts of Hell, and a coven of frightening ghosts.

The facade of the historic Raffles Hotel still appears as it did in the mid-1970s. (iStock photo by fotoVoyager)

Serendipity was my constant companion as I continued along the old Hippie Trail.

Upon leaving Lake Toba in North Sumatra, I took the short flight across the Strait of Malacca from Medan, Indonesia, to Penang Island, Malaysia. A few days later, I snagged a local train to Singapore.

In 1976, the Malay Peninsula was still defining its identity. The region was fewer than two decades removed from the era of the old Straits Settlements, the Crown Colony that was a direct legacy of Sir Stamford Raffles and the British East India Company. English remained at least as widely spoken as the Malay language, and most important buildings displayed Victorian and Edwardian architecture. The kampong style so distinctive in Malay communities was not much in evidence.

After Samosir Island, Penang and its main city of George Town seemed the pinnacle of Western civilization. But the temptations of snake temples and erstwhile opium dens couldn’t hold me for too long, especially when an ancient fortune teller took one long look at my palm and told me I was destined to spend most of my life far from home and loved ones. It was time to jalan jalan, as the Malays say. Time to hit the road.

In Singapore, I reconnected with my traveling friends Bert and Bret. We toasted the great W. Somerset Maugham with a sloe-gin Singapore Sling at the old Raffles Hotel, since dwarfed by towering skyscrapers, and made a wee-hours visit to notorious Bugis Street. Foreigners called it “Boogie Street,” because that’s how transgendered performers pranced through its night market: They boogied. (When I returned to Singapore six years later, the street had been “cleaned up.”)

Somewhere along the way, I met a small group of Singapore National University anthropology students who invited me to join them in a rustic fishing village near Kota Baharu. They assured me that tiny Kampong Bachok, located in a remote corner of Malaysia’s Kelantan state, would be a fine place to break the next phase of my journey between Singapore and Bangkok. They just didn’t say anything about the ghosts.

Heritage houses recall British colonial history in George Town on Penang Island. (Depositphotos)

Poppies in Penang

Indeed, I had already encountered the supernatural at Penang. It wasn’t only the opium. At least, I don’t think it was.

The Straits Settlements, with their large Chinese populations, were once the hub of the worldwide opium trade, nowhere perhaps more than George Town. That changed rapidly with Malay independence, as a conservative Muslim government banned its infamous opium dens beginning in the 1950s. But in the mid-1970s, the sickly sweet fragrance of the black tar still reeked from the back rooms of young pilgrims’ palaces like the Hong Kong Bar, where carefully dated photo albums documented decades of guests. (Years later, my younger brother unknowingly stumbled into the same saloon and discovered my smiling face in a photo surrounded by other travelers of questionable repute.)

The opium poppy doesn’t grow here; it is most notoriously a product of the Golden Triangle region where the borders of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar intersect. But the processing of the flower into a thick paste is well-understood by the guardians of several traditional Chinese Taoist temples. Opium tar continues to smear the mouths and tongues of underworld deities in shrines throughout the city.

Penang’s most noted sanctuary may be the Temple of the Azure Cloud, otherwise known as the Snake Temple. For more than two centuries, dozens of resident serpents (specifically pit vipers) have curled around Buddhist-Taoist images, bells and other icons. When the temple was under construction in 1805, its priest, a healer named Chor Soo Kong, welcomed the venomous creatures’ forebears, and they’ve never left. Indeed, their numbers have grown. The sacred smoke of burning incense sedates the snakes and renders them harmless … or so it’s said.

On the beach at Batu Ferringhi, the author had his fortune read by Ba Pak Dinh. (iStock photo by TravelPics)

I had stopped by the Snake Temple on my way to Batu Ferringhi, then a laid-back beach community (since condominium-ized) on the north coast of the island, a short taxi ride from George Town. My Lonely Planet guidebook, Southeast Asia on a Shoestring, sang the praises of Ba Pak (“Father”) Dinh, a lifelong denizen of the golden sands who had pleased author Tony Wheeler with his forecasts of life on the road. For little more than the price of a cup of tea, he would speculate on my future as well.

I found Dinh, wizened beyond his years by the tropical sun, holding court in a thatch-roofed coffee house beside the beach. He must have been younger than I am now, although he didn’t look it. His prognostication, on what lay ahead for me, had a polished authenticity: I’m certain he had delivered the spiel scores of times before. It wasn’t quite “You’re not from around here, are you?” but it came close.

Dinh studied my palm for some minutes, took a deep breath, and smiled. “Your home is far from here. (You think?) You will not spend a lot of your life at your home. I see you as a traveler.” Isn’t that what every young backpacker wants to hear?

Change is constant in Singapore, but the Merlion remains an urban symbol. (iStock photo by Vincent St. Thomas)

The Lion City

By my 26th birthday, on October 14, I was on Boogie Street with Bert and Bret. I couldn’t have imagined that a half-dozen years later I’d be married and living in this “Lion City,” the translation from Malay of the name “Singapura.” My son was born here in 1984, and when Erik was 12, he and I revisited the independent city-state together.

The urban landscape has continued to change dramatically with each passing year. So much of what is identified with modern Singapore didn’t exist on my first visit in 1976, starting with Changi International Airport. Sentosa Island — which now swarms with international mega-resorts, a casino, a Universal Studios theme park and an extensive cablecar system — was still breast-feeding as a place for tourism. I remember it mainly for its Fort Siloso museum of military history, its exhibits recounting the story of Japan’s 1942 invasion of Singapore by land as British guns pointed out to sea.

Singapore has four official languages (English, Malay, Mandarin Chinese and the Tamil tongue of south India), and its multinational character contributes greatly to the diversity of its cuisine. I loved the food in Singapore. (I still do.) The hawker stalls on Orchard Road, the banana-leaf restaurant in Little India on Serangoon Road, and especially the Peranakan (“Nyonya”) eateries in old Chinatown blew me away.

A hawker stall on Singapore’s Orchard Road serves Nyonya cuisine. (Depositphotos)

Peranakan? Yes, that was something completely new to me. Mainly between the 15th and 17th centuries, young traders had immigrated from southern China to the Strait of Malacca, where they took Malay or Indonesian wives. Although the ingredients were not the same, these women (nyonya) learned to adapt their traditional foods to the Chinese appetite, and a hybrid cuisine was born. That became the basis for a rich regional culture that today remains prominent in the old Straits Settlements.

The Chinese influence was especially evident at the Tiger Balm Gardens, which in the mid-1970s were the nearest thing Singapore had to a theme park, albeit a gruesome one. I visited to see hundreds of gaudy statues and giant dioramas depicting tales from Chinese mythology and folklore. Scariest were the Ten Courts of Hell, which illustrated in grisly detail what might happen to sinners in the afterlife. It was enough to make me purchase my own container of the medicated unguent known as Tiger Balm.

A demon threatens sinners in Tiger Balm Gardens’ Ten Courts of Hell. (iStock photo by Kreangchai Rungfamai)

Going jalan jalan

I was still haunted by the Courts of Hell as I disembarked the overnight train from Singapore in Kota Baharu, a tin-mining and pepper-producing center not far from the border of Thailand.

While I have no memory of where I met my student friends, I clearly remember their names and faces. Bhopinder Singh is today a chief immigration officer in Singapore. Raj Kumar is the CEO for a major engineering contractor. Juanita Noroñha has become an Australian citizen with family in Sydney. Joann Craig, whose book Culture Shock: Singapore! became a best-seller among expats, is a retired anthropology professor living in California’s Sonoma Valley.

One of the group — it may have been Raj — had made arrangements for a stay in Bachok village, and all were glad to have me tag along. By day we observed the fishermen return with catches from the South China Sea, watched the women prepare meals, and played with the children. By night we bedded upon rattan mats in a simple shanty and listened to ghost stories from the young men of the kampong.

The east coast of peninsular Malaysia is far more traditional in belief, than the more cosmopolitan west side. It seems everyone has a tale about the hantu, the local spirits. And no one would dare challenge the truth of such stories.

Traditional Kelantan fishing boats moor in an inlet near Kota Baharu. (iStock photo by coleang)

There are apparently hundreds of kinds of hantu — some evil, some friendly, some even companions to the living. Many of them are djinns living in the natural world, in trees and rocks and rivers. Some, like voodoo spirits, can be programmed to cause illness or to do harm. There are hantu raya, great ghosts that perform mighty tasks for their owners, and hantu jamuan, party ghosts, harmless unless you fail to invite them to your shindig. Carrie had nothing on them.

There are ghosts of the sun and the moon and the sea, ghosts with the heads of animals, ghosts who throw stones at people just for fun. Others are, for lack of a better word, tricksters.

“You can buy a toyol,” one of our hosts said. His description made it sound like a small goblin in the form of a naked baby with pointed ears and sharp fangs. Their owners may use these mischievous imps to steal small valuables such as coins or precious rings, he said. That’s why many homes in Bachok village scattered buttons, marbles or sweets on their floors, as an expedient distraction.

And there’s the semengat, as the Malay people call the human soul. My friends in Bachok described it as being about the size of a thumb and able to fly like a bird. When a person is sleeping or ill, the semengat may temporarily leave the body, though it always returns … until that person dies, at which time it is set free.

One of the Bachok youth had an uncle who was widely recognized as a bomoh, or village shaman. He had been conditioned to fear the penanggalan, one of several flying, vampire-like spirits that may be released when a woman dies in pregnancy or gives birth to a stillborn child. “I’ve seen this one,” he whispered. “It is the head of a woman with its insides flying behind it. It wants the blood of children. Its mother, the lang sayur, attacks pregnant women. There’s a hole at the back of her neck. If you catch one, you must stuff her hair into that hole to stop her.”

That might have been too much information. I don’t think any of us slept well that night, for fear that the sounds we heard outside our primitive dwelling may have been, er, supernatural.

Artist’s depiction of the vampire-like penanggalan, trailing its internal organs. (Pinterest image by foxeni)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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