Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Trust in Southeast Asia

I arrived in Singapore at 1 a.m., planning to sleep in the airport and then take the first available bus to Malaysia. Instead, using the airport's free internet, I found that there was a train leaving for Jerantut, Malaysia at 4:45 a.m.

While I was considering my options, a smiling local woman wearing a Muslim head scarf and with a handful of kids in tow offered to give me a ride to the train station, saying she was going that way anyway. Picking up a good vibe from the woman but reminding myself that I should be leery of strangers who offer to give me a ride at 2:30 a.m., I thanked her and instead found a shuttle bus to the train station.

At the station, I ate a bowl of laksa (a spicy noodle soup combining Chinese and Malay elements) and waited for the ticket window to open at 4 a.m., only to learn that all tickets were sold out until the next day.

After sleeping for an hour on a train station bench, I went outside in the dark to look for a taxi. I found a row of taxis but no drivers. When I was about to give up, three men walked out of the train station and got into one of the taxis. I ran up to them and asked where I could find a driver, saying that I wanted to go to the nearest rapid transit station. The taxi driver told me that he had just finished a 12-hour shift, and was taking his friends home, but that he would take me to the nearest rapid transit station for free, since it was close.

After I got in he told me he would take me all the way across town to the bus terminal, for free, and I started to worry about his motives. In some places in the world, taxi drivers are known to rob people, or worse. But true to his word, he took me all the way to the bus terminal, gave me good advice for my journey, and refused money when I tried to pay him.

As a solo traveler I have trained myself to be wary of people and to be ultra cautious for my safety, but time and again in Southeast Asia the locals shower me with kindness and prove my wariness unwarranted. No doubt I could have safely accepted the ride from the woman in the airport, too.

In many places in the world, travellers must be very vigilant to not be overcharged or short changed, but in Malaysia when I accidentally handed a teenage waiter two bills vastly larger than what I owed, obviously mistaking them for smaller bills, the waiter was quick to correct my mistake. He could have easily kept the money, which might have been a week's pay for him.

In Melaka, Malaysia, the toilet attendant was fast asleep but moments after I took this photo a customer walked up, left her payment on the table next to the sleeping attendant, and walked into the bathroom.

Whenever I leave Japan for a country that uses the Roman alphabet, I am always stunned at how different life feels when I am once again literate. The primary language in Malaysia is Malay, but street signs are always bilingual in Malay and English, and English is widely spoken along with other languages including Chinese and Tamil.

In the past Malay was written in an Arabic-type script, but under the Portuguese colonizers in the 17th century, the alphabet replaced earlier scripts, making travel in Malaysia very easy for westerners like me.

I really enjoyed the way that words adopted from English are spelled in Malay, using a spelling that seems to be more simple and phonetic. For example, "minit" means minute, and "polis" are police. Other easily-recognizable words I saw written in Malay are kampus, karnival, butik, texsi, arkitek, projek, struktur, kaunter tiket, bas and domestik.

Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, most of the population doesn't drink alcohol, smoke tobacco or eat pork, and many guesthouses prohibit these activities on the premises. Because there is a high tax on alcohol, a cocktail costs about the same as a night in a hostel bed, about $3. To save my ringit (Malaysian currency), I decided to do like the Malaysians do, and I refrained from drinking while in Malaysia.

In Malaysia I visited the historical trading port of Melaka (Malacca), on the Straits of Malacca, and Taman Negara, one of the world's oldest rainforests. But I'll save those for my next posts.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lovely lovely post, Kimi. I am very glad you had good encounters with the locals when you were in South East Asia. Of course there are exceptions to any rule - there are undoubtedly folks there who are not as honest/well meaning. But yes, I do agree with you that by and large, South East Asians are a warm, helpful, and friendly lot.

Very much looking forward to your other posts. Do show us your take of Melaka, Taman Negara, and more of Singapore!