As promised, further news from the rest of my little trip.
As I explained, I headed over to a tiny village called Wakuf Bharu as this is the
nearest place to Kota Bharu where one can jump onto the jungle train. I'd heard
of a small guesthouse ideally placed next to the platform, making the 0530
departure plain sailing.
Wakuf Bharu Guest House is a new operation run and owned by Yan Eng, a
Malay Chinese. In this village, all time is suspended. When you arrive at his
guest house, you don't do any of the things you normally do when looking for
a room. First, you sit for approximately two hours getting to know your host
intimately, thankfully made a little easier by Yan Engs reasonable grasp of
We drank Chinese tea, ate tiny sweet bananas and fresh Papaya fruit picked
from his garden, whilst Yan Eng told me about all his travels through Europe
some twenty years ago now.
He's very proud of his guest house, and he is most confident of its potential as
it is still very much in its infancy - it's only been running FOUR years (!). Yan
Eng wouldn't hear of me checking in, until I had read every, yes every, single
remark in his meticulously kept comments book. All thoughts of hooking up with
other travellers for my forthcoming trip here were definitely laid to rest as I
noted a mere four people had stayed here in the last two months!
That said, if the comments in his book were anything to go by, I was in for a
very special treat. You see, this isn't a place where you check in to you're
room then go out and explore. This is Yan Eng's home, and whilst you are
staying there you belong to him! In his own words "I look after you, Dim (Tim)" -
a sentence often heard throughout Asia and not one that automatically instils
confidence. But in this case, very true and genuine.
Some time later I was shown to my room, which was actually quite nice and
as clean as I have seen in Asia, with not too much wildlife for company. The
usual toilet/cold shower combo was great! The squat loo was mounted
several feet up in the middle of the totally tiled room, truly a proper "throne".
At 2pm sharp (give or take an hour) - Yan Eng showed me around his back
yard to see his prize winning birds, on the way to his brothers house where
we would drink coffee (a daily ritual). Brother, Ban Yun, lived in what we
would call a tin shed, the sort you see all over Asia and always wonder what
it was like to live in. Now I could find out.
I was introduced to various people who just happened to be there at the time,
the quality of the English (and thus the quality of the conversation) going into a
I was looking forward to the coffee, as I've missed my regular dose of caffeine. I
was not to be disappointed on the caffeine front at least - Chinese coffee
comes with the spoon firmly "standing up" - in fact a whisk would have been a
more appropriate utensil!
I tried Yan Engs tobacco, locally grown. They don't use rizla papers, but dried
coconut leaf which naturally coil's up as it dries. Difficult to explain, about the size of a piece of straw. You carefully un-furl it, lay just a couple of strands of
tobacco within then just let go! It snaps shut and you've got yourself a roll-up!
The only problem is it tastes a bit like I imagine the Sunday Telegraph would, if
you were to roll that up and set fire to it. And with so little tobacco, the whole
operation seems a little pointless but perhaps more healthy - which may
explain why Yan Eng smokes them continuously. Anyway, I left him a large
pack of British Golden Virginia to be getting on with - it'll probably last the next
ten years at his rate!
Whilst sat in Ban Yun's house, as you do in anyone's house, I looked around
the truly monumental amount of "possessions" which covered the chicken wire
mesh walls and hung from the roof. These ranged from humming bird nests, a
bicycle frame and a sieve to various agricultural implements and a "welcome"
sign as you'd find at the entrance to an international hotel. All this was
decorated with strings of flags for Guinness and Carlsberg, of the kind you
sometimes see in Britain around beer gardens and which for some reason all
Asians insist on using for decorating their entire homes. Pride of place was a
locked glass cabinet, the kind used for displaying gems in a jewellery shop, all
shelves empty except for the main central one which accommodated one
carefully arranged used spark-plug. Add pile upon pile of newspaper and egg
cartons, cover generously with thick cobwebs and you've got the picture!
As I looked around, my eyes kept returning to Ban Yun's desk, where he was
now sat. Amongst all the mess, was a seriously out of date calendar, a huge
pile of used juss-stick ends and......the naked bodies of Barbie and Ken. You
know, Barbie and Ken as in the doll.
Whilst in conversation with Yan Eng various visitors passed through, the latest
was sat at Ban Yun's desk. Yan Eng rabbled on continuously but I couldn't
concentrate as Ban Yun started stabbing poor Barbie repeatedly. Noticing my
fear of impending doom at the hands of a possessed Chinese man, Yan Eng
informed me his brother was a witch doctor (more correctly "Chinese
Spiritual Healer"). Of course, the Chinese are mostly atheist but think much of
spiritual healing (as well as ground up Tigers) for the well being of mind and
I settled, and watched the performance unfold before me. Ban Yun then
turned his instrument of torture (a little pointy kind of letter opening knife) on a
piece of paper upon which was a diagram of the human body with lots of
symbols, which meant absolutely nothing to me. He went into what I can only
describe as a trance, his eye balls rolled around in opposite directions and he
continuously made a burping noise of the kind you hear when your dog is
immanently going to be sick behind the sofa. He then stood up, removed this
Muslim women's head scarf (something you rarely see, and yes they do have
hair) and proceeded to rub the piece of paper all over her head whilst
continuing with the burping noise. Then it was all over. Wow, what a strange
Over the next two days I was to watch many people being "treated". Ban Yun
hold's his clinics every afternoon, Fridays being busiest here as this is day of
rest in this Islamic state. A wide range of people would pass through his
house, from young to old, male and female. I noticed many though were Muslim
women, they all looked very nervous and I suspect them visiting Ban Yun was
strictly top secret. He treats people for whatever mind problem they may have,
for example one man wanted good luck and strength for a sporting event the
following day, and one women wanted to feel at ease with family problems,
into which I didn't enquire too much further.
After a trip to the fields to cut vegetables for tonight's dinner which never
actually happened, Yan Eng and I wobbled our way along the dirt tracks on his
scooter to visit his various friends. We rode barely fast enough to stay on two
wheels, and came too close to falling into drainage ditches for my comfort. Day
turned to evening, and I was to discover all Yan Eng's friends keep large
amounts of Beer Chang for events such as this.
I can't tell you how special it felt to be visiting all these homes. Real homes, real people and real lives. You just don't see this on the tourist trail. I also can't tell
you how my very empty stomach was beginning to feel as yet another beer
can was placed in front of me accompanied by "Dim, DRINK, I look after you
As we wend our way along to another house, thankfully it seemed Yan Eng's
riding skills improved with each beer he consumed. This house also doubled as
the polling station for the forthcoming elections, and was hectic with people
coming and going. We'd visited here to treat one of Yan Engs best friends
who had a nasty looking rash across his chest. You see, Yan Eng is
a "medicine doctor". He disappeared into the jungle, and came out with two
hand fulls of various ingredients. In seconds, he transformed a bunch of dry
grass into a brilliantly made brush. All the other ingredients went into his
mouth, which he would use to grind up the mixture for the next twenty
minutes. Then, carefully positioning his patient (or should that be victim) he
spat the bright red mixture all over the affected area. I never quite understood
where the hand made brush came into this operation. The patient was
instructed to wear this mixture for the next four days.
One of the ingredients was the Betel nut - something which Indian men like to
chew socially. It's incredibly hot and turn your entire mouth and surrounding
area blood red. The Indians spit the remains out - the Chinese "swallow". I
opted for the Indian method, then looked around for a fire extinguisher with no
Our final call was to another house, where an illegal card game was in
progress around the back. Islamic states as in this region don't take too kindly
to card games, and boy did they all jump when I poked my head around the
corner!! In celebration of my visit, someone dug out a dusty bottle of red wine
(rare as hen's teeth in Asia). I don't know how many years red wine can be
kept, but this one was definitely well beyond that limit. It tasted simply
awful - worse than a Sainsbury's home brand. But, one thing you don't do in
Asia is turn down hospitality.
By now I'd given up all hope of getting a meal, and Yan Eng became overly
excited at my support for his idea of visiting the local disco. Although this is the
most hard line Islamic part of Malaysia, being close to the Thai border means
there are small Thai communities and therefore places where you can get a
drink and have some fun. And of course, Yan Eng knows them all. "I look
after you Dim"!
A mistake on my part, the word "disco" conjured up images of bars, dance
floors full of beautiful women, loud funky music and crowds of happy going
young people. I should have known better really. Take a small room, tile it from
top to bottom, throw in a few plastic garden chairs and tables, hang some
white fairy lights from the roof then wheel in two speakers each the size of a
large chest freezer - and you've got yourself a Malay night-spot! So I wasn't
to be disappointed on one count - the loud music. I can't tell you how bad the
acoustics can be in a small tile room - just believe me, it's not good.
Every cloud has a silver lining - and this one came in the form of a beautiful Thai woman whose name escapes me. In fact the entire nights conversation
escapes me, largely due to yet more beer, my lack of Thai language and hers
of English, and my complete and total loss of hearing. But, we all had a
wonderful time. So wonderful in fact I simply can't remember getting home and
to this day am amazed that Yan Eng and his scooter got us home without
"I look after you, Dim". He did indeed!
Quite predictably, I hear you all say (those who are still reading) - I never
awoke at 5am to catch my train. I didn't possess an alarm clock, and Yan Eng
didn't even know what one looked like. And my body clock was having serious
difficulties, and was even considering a visit to the witch doctor at one point.
Later, much later, I surfaced to share breakfast with my new drinking partner. I
could manage the rice and tea, but the raw small birds' eggs and cold curry
chicken just were not selling themselves to me. I did my best, but when Yan
Eng popped to the toilet I am ashamed to admit I produced a cunningly hidden
carrier bag and popped the rest inside for disposal at some convenient point
later in the day!
With Yan Eng out for the count I was able to slip away for a few hours to
explore the local village. It didn't go too far, but was interesting none the less. I
watched the men at prayer time in the mosque and shopped around for a new
bandana. The relentless sun has forced me to use this essential hippy
garment lately, and I'd purchased a beautifully made one in Thailand last week.
Unfortunately though last night I'd given it to un-named Thai girl as a pledge of my un-dying love.
It is with some amazement that here, today, in the middle of this tiny village the
only thing I could find that would come close to a bandana was a large
Liverpool FC flag. I mean, here? So now, I look like the quintessential English
football hooligan. But at least my bald spot won't get scorched!
I soon enough found my way back to the railway platform, the hub of life here.
This is where everyone hangs out - and where I met Florence Sukin. A tiny, I
mean tiny, Muslim women whose age I found difficult to place. She knows Yan
Eng well, as has worked with him to get the guest house off the ground. From
what I can determine, she hang's around the platform all day, waiting for the
infrequent trains, collars any travellers (few and far between) and a) tries to
get them into the guest house or b) tries to get them to book a jungle trek with a
company that pays her some commission or c) in the event of a) or b) failing,
tries to marry them.
As I'd lost the only day I had spare for jungle trekking by missing today's train,
and I was already staying in Yan Engs place, the options were limited to (c).
This meant that Florence attached herself to me relentlessly and hung onto
every word I spoke (even though she couldn't really understand me) - flattering
I managed to break away only when I said I must meet Yan Eng for the
afternoon coffee ritual (I gambled this was strictly a male only event and she
wouldn't invite herself).
After a busy Friday witch doctoring session, I promised to take Yan Eng out to
buy him a meal. My main motive, apart from one of friendship, was because I
was bloody starving and wanted to avoid any drinking at ALL costs! Well, I
nearly achieved the latter. We still had to make a few medicine doctor calls
first. I met Aa, and really nice Thai guy whom has what they unanimously
agree is the early throws of Parkinson's disease. I know little about this terrible
disease, but was quite upset to see this young guy suffering with apparently
little prospect of treatment. Still, it didn't stop him producing a bottle of the local
stuff - rice wine. Though pouring it was a messy business. I've heard enough
about home made rice wines in Asia to know that my still empty belly was not
going to accept this in any quantity. So, I made my one glass last as long as it
took to get Yan Eng suitably drunk - and greeted every attempt at re-filling
mine with a stupid tourist look which suggested I just couldn't drink any more.
We finally found a place to eat - where of course Florence happened to be
also. How do these guys communicate? Yan Eng never went near a phone!
Anyway, I managed to get my hands on a reasonably palatable meal, only got
mildly drunk and we had a really pleasant evening just chatting. Florence is a
really likeable woman, very funny, if slightly mad. I forced Yan Eng to get us
home (though when Florence turned up there too at the same time as we
wobbled up, it dawned on me that there was a) two Florences or b) we were
just round the corner from home.
By this point I am thinking of only one thing - I HAVE to be on that train in the
morning. And what's more, I couldn't rely on Yan Eng to get me up. So, later
than I'd hoped, I ascended the steps to my room. Predictably, Florence either a)
didn't understand or b) wasn't having any of it - when I grant her goodnight,
and followed me up.
Flatteringly, in an attempt to woo me she removed her head scarf and
before I could run jumped up and planted one on my lips! Males amongst my
readership will probably all be shouting at their screens right now - but it was
a bit scary and I simply don't know enough about the whole women- Muslim
thing to know what the do's and don'ts are here - so I did my best teenage
whimper and fled to my room and locked the door!!
Relying on my battered internal clock meant very intermittent sleep, as its alarm
sounded about once every hour. So, once I made it to 0430 I got up. Whey
hey - I'd done it, now I could get on that train!!
Yan Eng rose shortly after, and knocked me up another rice treat, neatly
packaged in a banana leaf for my journey, whilst I took a cold shower. As I
floated around in my sarong waiting to dry, Florence arrived (had she gone
home?) - to see me off!
I took time to enter my historic remarks about my visit to Wakuf Bharu Guest
house into the comments book - and wondered how my experiences here
measured up to previous guest's. I bet they were all good, but all individual. I
also pondered on the success on Yan Eng's pride and joy - I truly believe it will
get busier for him. I, and no doubt many others, promised to recommend his
guest house to all travellers aiming for the jungle train. Its location is ideal, it's
clean and good value - but, I hope it doesn't get too busy. He assures me that
he will always "look after" every guest the same way, and that if he's too busy
to do so he will assign a friend to "take care of you". If, or more likely when, it
does get more busy, it will surely loose some of this personal touch. It has to,
no man could drink that much beer every night! And so I, along with a few
other travellers this year, feel privileged to have been here now, and
experienced Yan Eng's un-ending hospitality (and that of his friends). I feel I
have discovered something whilst it's at its best - perhaps like when travellers
in the 1960's discovered Phuket as an island paradise before it became the
pricey tourist trap it is today.
The whole two days/nights accommodation and food cost me RM20 (that's £3 at
current rate) - plus a bit for the few beers they'd let me buy. Yan Eng looked
offended when I tried to give him some more money for everything. He truly
did "look after you, Dim"!!
So, I said my goodbye's to Yan Eng, and was duly escorted to the platform by
the ever present Florence. As my train rumbled to a halt, she gave me a paper
serviette, which was covered, and I mean covered, in the tiniest English
writing - a poem and various other compliments she'd written for me. She must
have been up all night to have done this. How nice, I felt honoured that she'd
done all this for me. With Asian trains not being renowned for hanging around
at stations - I through my pack through a convenient window, gave Florence a
quick hug then legged it onto the train. I was at last (and quite unexpectedly)
able to something you just can't do on English trains anymore. I was able to
hang out the window waving as we moved off, just like they do in all Second World War movies when heading off for the front line. You can't do this in
England nowadays because a) the windows don't open and b) there is a
surprising lack of any women prepared to run along the platform waving at
Goodbye to Yan Eng, to Florence and everyone else I met - and to Wakuf
Bharu. A truly unique experience for me!
I am on the road again - the jungle awaits.