FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF MALAYSIA — January 1980
As the external air is introduced into the cabin, the temperature becomes slightly warmer. The huge engines drone on, carrying the aircraft in an ever widening circle above the coastline. All eyes are on the windows and there are cries of,
‘Oh look at the island…look at the mainland…’
The aircraft banks for its final approach, and the Pearl of the Orient, sparkles in the shimmering sea. The dense green of the tropical foliage shimmers in the tropical heat haze. Patches of brown are interspersed with flashes of blue from inland waters.
As the aircraft passes over the island, the built up areas become more clearly defined. Modern high rise building jostle with Kampong areas and market places to form a multi-coloured mosaic.
All of our immigration procedures have been completed and our immigration cards have been filled out. The RAAF Flight attendants walk down the aisles with large plastic bags, to be filled with half eaten biscuits and other inflight debris. Some of the children are experiencing difficulty with their ears, as the large Royal Australian Air Force jet makes final landing preparations for landing at Malaysia’s newest airport on the island of Penang. The children are chattering with excitement and the adults are thinking about the years ahead. Not all are wondering what the next two to three years will be like; as some of the passengers are returning for a second or third tour of duty.
Touch down- the air of excitement and expectation increases. One journey has ended and another is about to begin. This is the place that we will call home for the next three years. All the lectures about culture shock, the injections and what to do and what to wear and say, have all been stepping stones to this point. The packing and placement of personal belongings in storage and the good byes to family and friends, and now we have arrived in Pulau Pinang, Penang, the Pearl of the Orient.
There is a thump and a squeal of tires and we land smoothly and the aircraft taxies down the runway. As she rolls to a stop in the docking bay, we start to gather our hand luggage ready to disembark. A male voice booms over the intercom interrupting our preparations,
‘Ladies and gentleman, please remain seated for your final briefing.’
Another briefing, that’s all we need. It is mercifully short. A final wrap up of expected behaviours and you are representatives of the Australian government while you are residing of the island, during your tour of duty etc. and what to expect as you go through customs.
Some passengers are travelling on to Singapore and they and their families disembark first. Making farewells to the cabin crew we walk through the boarding tunnel and into life in Malaysia.
The first impression is of desks and the smell of wet paint, together with the chatter of voices in a language few of us understand. I was thinking, some language lessons would have come in handy. Oh the beauty of hindsight.
There is a huge imposing sign that says, HEALTH DEPARTMENT, a smiling Asian nurse sits at a shiny new desk, and she takes our yellow WHO books and checks that all our vaccinations have been completed. We now shuffle across to an even bigger, taller desk with an even bigger sign. This sign proclaims CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION. We hand over our passports and immigration cards, and they are thoroughly scrutinised by two uniformed gentlemen, one smiling, and one scowling. Like Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Each piece of paper, each page is being read and reread. Owing to the height of the desk, as the names of the children are called, the offspring in question is lifted aloft to desk height, allowing photos and faces to be compared. That fact that some families had been travelling for over a week made this a fractious experience.
Passports and embarkation papers in hand, now embellished with the special visa entry stamps, and the admonishment of not to lose, deface, misplace or otherwise cause damage to the embarkation cards, we are herded up by Butterworth administration personnel and directed out of the processing area of the entry foyer to the baggage collection area.
As we stand waiting for our luggage to appear on the carousel, we glance around the partially completed terminal, wondering from which direction the next assault will come. Most of the children are tired and grumpy from the ten hour trip and irritable at the restrictions placed on them by anxious parents. Adults and children alike are beginning to perspire in the unaccustomed heat and the air condition is not working properly. Most of the adults simply want to change out of their travelling clothes and grab a cold beer.
Once the baggage is delivered, the Transport and Movements staff from Butterworth shepherd us all downstairs and towards to the waiting yellow buses.
At the bottom of the stairs there is yet another welcoming group this time there are some women in the group; obviously the wives welcoming committee with their roneoed sheets of information. Muttering hello, we immediately forget the names and gratefully climb into our allotted buses. One of the welcoming committee attaches herself to our bewildered and tired little group and consulting yet another list, we finally leave the airport for — destination unknown.
Malaysian buses and traffic almost defy description. The bus crashes gears, as it rattles and clanks its way along the airport road. Unfortunately those sitting in the rear seats of the bus have an uninterrupted view of the devil may care attitude which afflicts the drivers of any form of motor vehicle in Malaysia.
The younger children are beginning to cry, they are hot, hungry and tired and the older children are so excited they can hardly sit still, but strangely silent as they try to take in all the images around them. The sights, the sounds, the smells, and, well everything is new and different. The adults are too tired to think properly, it is getting dark as only can in the tropics, no twilight just darker and most have been up before dawn eastern standard time.
As the bus continues on its self-destruct mission, we are all on sensory overload. The sheer multitude of the sights, sounds, and smells is like a living kaleidoscope. There are high rise building and traditional kampongs made from local materials with roofs thatched with palm fronds rubbing shoulders. Small meticulously tended market gardens thrive at the road side where a weed does not dare show its face.
These buildings share space with chickens scratching in the dust and motor bike riders with incredible loads, including one man with his wife and five children on a scooter that is known locally as a ‘step-through’ or a ‘put-put’, playing tag with red lorries and yellow busses. Pushbike riders weave in and out of the traffic with a fatalistic nonchalance that is terrifying. Trishaw drivers are racing each other through the throng, with their cargo hanging on for dear life, adding to the mayhem. All these riders and drivers have one thing in common, their hand seems grafted to a horn or bell of their vehicle, the noise is overwhelming.
The bus hurls itself past ancient temples and mosques and through small market areas. The air is redolent with the smell of chillies and prawn paste, mixed with the eau de parfum of the monnie drains and decaying tropical vegetation it is a little hard on our unaccustomed senses.
We whizz past the sea wall in Gurney Drive, and we can see the fisherman scudding along in their small lowset fishing vessels and groups of men sitting on the beach drying or mending their nets; readying them for the next day’s catch or simply standing around a fire talking and smoking.
Now we are approaching the married quarters area of Tanjong Tokong and Tanjong Bungah. There is a clamour behind the bus and we notice that a swarm of motor bike riders is forming, like some weird form of rear guard. As a family is off loaded at their new home, several of the bike riders detach from the group and zero in on the hapless new resident. We find out shortly, when it is our turn that these are the scouts for the local tradespeople.
As none of us know where we are going to live, it was a pleasant surprise to be driven up a pleasant tree lined street and for the bus to stop in front of a large two storied cream house.
The corporal from Housing waits patiently as family Fitches gathers their odds and ends, including children and staggers off the bus. He is the keeper of a huge collection of keys and with the air of a conjurer producing a rabbit out of a hat, he selects a set and opens the door to our new home. He gallops through the house showing us the various rooms, complete with furniture and explaining the mysterious workings of the gas cylinder and the welcome package supplied by the NAAFI. Then wishing us good luck and handing over yet more paperwork, he disappears back on to the bus, which trundles off to its next destination.
His exit through the gate is the signal for the grocery boys to swarm in like bees around a honey pot. They thrust catalogues into our hands with earnest proclamations that their stores are the cheapest and the best. After many terima kasihs (thank you) and we will let you know tomorrow, they are gone and peace and quiet settles on our shattered little group.
We are grateful we have followed the instructions we were given in Australia, and our suitcases contain essentials like linen for bedding, towels, books, toys, cooking gear and toiletries enough to last until our trunks arrive by sea. One benefit of traveling on a service aircraft was we have a hefty baggage allowance.
Our thoughtful next door neighbours have arranged a gas cylinder and fitted it and provide unfrozen bread, butter and tomatoes, some beer and soft drink and leave us to our own devices. We dig the large jar of vegemite out of our luggage and have a small celebratory feast.
Exhaustion takes over, we climb the stairs and make our beds. Leaving everything else packed we fall into bed, to sleep. So ends our first night in Malaysia.