Rantau Panjang - Sungai Golok: Bittersweet moments of reminiscence
Story and illustration by Wan Chwee Seng
As soon as dusk set in, we heard it, and our spirits sank. The distant blare of a horn was followed by a growing rumble, the screeching of brakes and a stuttering hiss. The familiar sound heralded the arrival of a train _the last train of the day to Rantau Panjang, Kelantan.
|At the railway station|
L to R: The writer, Lim, Kwok
Pak Duk's coffee shop where eight of us teachers stayed in the early 1960s was located strategically at one end of the town. The town's railway station was within sight, however, a clump of trees and a makeshift stall obscured it from our view. From the first floor corridor we watched forlornly as the train chugged past below us, rattled the old iron bridge, before heading northward towards the Thai border town of Sungai Golok.
“Ah! The last train to Gun Hill,*” a long sigh of resignation rose from within the dark recess of a room.The town folks and the neighbouring villagers relied mainly on the train for their transport, as the town was inaccessible by road. During the day, pedestrians and cyclists could cross over to the Thai border town of Sungai Golok by using the narrow walkways that flanked the tracks of the railway bridge. A small immigration post, manned by an officer, stood at the Rantau Panjang’s end of the bridge. Local residents who were mostly familiar to the officers could move freely across the bridge, but visitors were required to present their border passes or passports.
As soon as the immigration post closed, and dusk began to slip into night, shadowy figures could be seen creeping stealthily and silently, like nocturnal predators, along the bank of the river. The border police had begun their nightly task of preventing illegal crossings and curbing smuggling activities.
One night a local temporary teacher appeared unexpectedly at my doorstep.
“Do you like to see something interesting?” he asked.
Interesting? What could I expect to see in a ’cowboy town’ with just a single stretch of unpaved road still lit by oil lamps. I had my doubt, but curiosity got the better of me and I found myself following doggedly behind his silent footsteps. We crept along a side lane of a double-storeyed wooden house, hugging its side and keeping to the dark shadows. Except for the sound of our soft footfalls, a strange silence pervaded the place. The sandy ground beneath our feet and the murky shape of houses on wooden stilts that loomed before us, suggested that we were heading toward the river. We were creeping cautiously from stilt to stilt when the sound of low conversations and the muffled cry of a baby drifted from above us. Had we been spotted? We paused, ears straining in the silence. Sensing there was no unusual activity to indicate our presence had been exposed, we crept quietly to the next stilt and stood in its shadow.
“Look,” my friend said in a barely audible voice.
|The murky outline of a boat|
In the yellow glow a cyclist could be seen pedalling hurriedly with a gunny sack strapped to his bicycle’s rear carrier. The moment he reached the gangplank, the sack seemed to vanish into thin air, as unseen hands plucked it from the carrier. As soon as he retreated the way he had come another cyclist appeared bearing another sack and immediately behind him came another cyclist. I watched in disbelief and with a twinge of apprehension at the endless procession which resembled a column of ants bearing food to their nest.
Suddenly, I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder and my friend motioned me to follow him. We retraced our steps and as soon as we were back in the safety of the house, I asked him,
“Where are the border police?”
“Oh, coincidentally they were all engaged in some kind of jungle-training exercise,” he replied with a faint smile.
"And where are they taking all those goods," I asked.
"Ah, just across the river to one of the warehouses," he replied casually, as if it was common knowledge,
The next morning I woke up to the sound of another rumble. Unlike the depressing rumble of the evening, the morning rumble helped lift our spirits as our link with the outside world had been reconnected. From high above the corridor we watched the early morning commuters_ women balancing baskets of vegetables on their heads, elderly men lugging bundles of fruits, pupils with engorged school bags _streaming down the road leading to the town. Meanwhile, across the road, in a makeshift stall, able-bodied young men drank and smoke as they idled away the morning or perhaps enjoying their well-earned rest. In Pak Dok’s coffee shop, other customers were engaged in animated conversations with no mention of the night’s incident.
There was a sudden blare of horns as a train from Golok pulled into the town’s railway station. Young boys hugging brown paper packets filled with rice could be seen scrambling down the slow- moving train. On board the train while custom officers checked for contraband and taxed the petty traders other kids would scurry from coach to coach to evade the custom officers. Later, I learned about a boy who in an attempt to evade the custom officers had tried to scramble onto the roof of a moving train, but somehow slipped and fell into the river.
The sight and pathetic story left me wondering if poverty had driven these kids to resort to such risky undertaking. I thought of Ghazali, a pupil who used to help us sweep our rooms and was happy and grateful for the few sen that we paid him. His lunch, I noticed, was usually plain white rice with a pinch of sambal and a piece of dried fish. I also remembered a pupil who was often late or absent from class after a night's heavy downpour. When I reprimanded and questioned him he would remain silent with downcast eyes. Then one morning a pupil approached me and asked me not to scold him.
"Why?" I inquired, an edge of irritation creeping into my voice
"Sir, whenever it rains at night he has to keep awake the whole night as the roof leaks and he has to collect the rain water in a pail to keep it from drenching his sleeping place."
For these poor boys the little they saved from the cheaper 'imported' rice, perhaps, went a long way in elevating the family's financial burden.
One sultry morning, as I gazed down from the bedroom’s window at the grocery store directly across the road, I watched with interest as a kid steadily poured rice from a brown packet into a gunny sack. Another kid appeared and followed the same ritual. Then it dawned on me that not all the smuggled rice was meant for domestic consumption. The poor kids were smidgens in a larger scheme of things. While they and their families had to eke out a living others enjoyed luxurious lifestyle from ill-gotten gains.
Forty-seven years have lapsed since I left Rantau Panjang for my hometown, Melaka.
"There's now a plane service to Kota Baru," I told my wife, Siew Leng, as I read the advertisement in the morning papers.
"Why don't we fly to Kota Baru and take a train ride to Rantau Panjang?" my wife suggested, perhaps remembering those days when as a Staff Nurse she used to cycle along the dirt track that ran along the side of the railway lines that led to the outlying villages of Lubok Setol and Gual Periok where she had to assist with the deliveries and make home visits.
|Siew Leng at the Rantau Panjang health clinic's quarters|
Then early this year I received a phone call from Ojang, who was my ex-student in Rantau Panjang English School. He inquired if my wife and I were free to join him and his family at The Grand Continental Hotel in Melaka. It was a happy and emotional meeting for all of us. He informed us Rantau Panjang was no longer the 'cowboy town' we used to know as rapid development had taken place in and around the town.
|Rantau Panjang town in the early sixties|
|Present day Rantau Panjang town|
Photo courtesy of Lt. Col.(Rtd.) Ojang Abdul Rahman
|Pak Duk's coffee shop in 2010|
Photo courtesy of Lt. Col.(Rtd.) Ojang Abdul Rahman
We inquired about the train service from Pasir Mas to Rantau Panjang and learned with a tinge of sadness that the service had already been terminated.
Where railway tracks used to run and a railway station once stood, now well- paved roads and new brick buildings stand in their places and the rumble of the old steam locomotives with their long lonesome calls have been replaced by the drones of cars and roar of motorcycles.
All that remain of those distant past are the forgotten dreams, recurring nightmares and the bittersweet memories of an ex- resident of Rantau Panjang.
* Last train to Gun Hill: A 1959 movie starring Kirk Douglas and Anthony Quinn
Listen to Al Grant sings " Memories are made of this"
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