'Bus adventurer' explores hidden gems in Malaysian small towns


‘I really hope that people will be inspired to get to know Malaysia a little better. You don’t need a lot of money. Just a healthy curiosity and you can just hop on a bus and start your journey right now,’ says Lam, (aka Fufu), who writes books about bus journeys in Malaysia. Photo: Ong Soon Hin/The Star

Lam Ching Fu and his bus journey stories are back! Four years after his first self-published travelogue My Journey By Bus, Fufu (as he is more affectionately called) has released the sequel, this time detailing trips to the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, including to Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan.

The Chinese version of "Part II" was launched in October 2020, and the English version hit bookshelves recently. It features stories, photographs, maps and illustrations from 37 towns and villages including Mentakab, Sungai Lekok, Marang, Dungun, Kuala Lipis, Gua Musang and Kota Baru.

Fufu, 43, left his engineering job to live out his bus travel dream eight years ago. He had studied Civil and Environmental Engineering at Japan’s Hiroshima University and lived in Japan for five years and had also spent time in Singapore, Germany and Brazil.

Upon returning to Malaysia after his studies and travels, he worked in the Design and Planning department at Gamuda Berhad. From December 2015 to July in 2016, he began hopping on local buses, travelling across the peninsula, armed with only a cellphone camera!

“I just wanted to ‘Cuti-cuti Malaysia’ at that time, but later I decided I to write about it. I have a very good memory and so when I look through my photos and FB posts, it is easy for me to write about the things I saw and did then, even though a lot of time has passed in between. Of course, I also had to do a fair amount of research and update information along the way,” said Fufu, during a recent interview in Kuala Lumpur.

Fufu’s second book, which details his adventures in the East Coast states of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan. Photo: Lam Ching Fu Fufu’s second book, which details his adventures in the East Coast states of Pahang, Terengganu and Kelantan. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

It’s taken longer than he initially envisioned to get the second book published because of the pandemic, some personal medical issues as well as family challenges.

Nonetheless, he has persevered and today is ready to share new stories with the world.

As with his previous publication, at the start of each quaint little story, Fufu details where he stayed, what mode of transportation he took to get to his destination, how much it cost him and how long each trip took. The end of each chapter is marked with a simple, flat road map of all the interesting landmarks in the town.

Thanks to his background in transportation and city planning, Fufu was able to put all this together himself.

“I used the layout and structure which I had used for my thesis in uni, and so I was able to do all of the work myself rather than have to spend on outsourcing that part of the book to someone,” he explained.

An exhibition showcasing Fufu’s photographs, notes and travel paraphernalia  at Hin Bus Depot in George Town, Penang last November. Photo: Lam Ching Fu An exhibition showcasing Fufu’s photographs, notes and travel paraphernalia at Hin Bus Depot in George Town, Penang last November. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

The new book encompasses many things including friendships, nature, travel, history, heritage, architecture, science and trivia.

Fufu admits to not having any concrete plans along the way, and just going with the flow – whether it took him squid jigging in the South China Sea off the coast of Marang, Terengganu, reliving his chemistry lessons at a match factory in Kampung Sungai Keladi in Kelantan or hunting for the elusive “Cendawan Susu Harimau” in Taman Negara in Pahang.

“I just took the first bus I could catch out of KL, and made my way to the next destination following suggestions from people I met along the way or from Facebook or Google recommendations,” he said.

“As for stories to expand on, I tried to choose tales that were a little out of the ordinary,” said the former SMK Methodist student from Tanjung Malim, Perak.

At his first stop in Mentakab, for example, Fufu said he was totally floored by the iron grilles that he noticed on the gates, doors and windows of the homes in the villages there.

In Mentakab, Fufu was captivated by the town's vintage gates and ornate window grilles. Photo: Lam Ching Fu In Mentakab, Fufu was captivated by the town's vintage gates and ornate window grilles. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

“You always read about ceramic tiles from Penang and Melaka. I wonder why nobody has paid much attention to the iron grilles which are so beautiful. It’s such a fascinating element of heritage and architecture,” he said, adding that he was drawn to these charming features of the homes.

In the book he writes: “Functionally, the addition of iron grilles to doors and windows means an added layer of protection against intruders. Aesthetically, they enhance the beauty of a building. As the sun casts a shadow over these grilles, geometric patterns form against the walls and floor, creating living art, which changes its form with the movement of the sun throughout the day.”

In his writing, Fufu also recalls his travels through Europe and the many different styles of grilles he came across there.

Many of the stories in the book follow this route; where Fufu observes something and then compares and contrasts to his own memories. His observation skills, earnestness, enthusiasm and love for Malaysia all combine to make this book a worthwhile read.

“I guess it’s a guide book of sorts for the Pantai Timur, which is so different from the west coast. I really hope that people will be inspired to get to know Malaysia a little better. You don’t need a lot of money. Just a healthy curiosity and you can just hop on a bus and start your journey right now,” said Fufu.

Breadmaker Mrs Tan preparing a plate of roti paung over a charcoal fire in  Kampung Cina in Terengganu. Photo: Lam Ching Fu Breadmaker Mrs Tan preparing a plate of roti paung over a charcoal fire in Kampung Cina in Terengganu. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

For just RM7, for example, Fufu took a bus from Mentakab to Jerantut, where he was fascinated by the purple buildings. “I loved the fact that they didn’t want to just duplicate the street art from, say, George Town. Instead, they thought of an original idea and decided to paint all the buildings in their town purple, creating their own identity,” he said.

In Jerantut, Fufu befriended Melvin Ng, the owner of Hotel Seri Emas, where he put up for the night.

“Melvin told me about a new hiking attraction, Bukit Seladang, in Sungai Lekok, and he even drove me there bright and early the next morning!”

Fufu was pleasantly surprised that many people he met along the way, like Melvin, were very kind and hospitable and eager to show him “their” Malaysia.

Take for instance, the bread connoisseur couple who in their golden years continue to make roti paung in Teng Lang Po or Kampung Cina in Terengganu.

A street view of Jerantut’s ‘Purple Town’ buildings. Photo: Lam Ching Fu A street view of Jerantut’s ‘Purple Town’ buildings. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

In his “Roti Paung” chapter, Fufu concluded that “humans are very much like bread.”

“Without constant kneading (trials in life), patiently awaiting fermentation (growth) and being baked (forged) over fire, one cannot have a sweet fragrance and soft texture rising in the oven,” he writes.

His simple philosophies, like this one, are strewn throughout the book in a charming manner.

In Penarik, Fufu found himself enchanted by the stunning beaches and crystal clear waters, he recalled, yet equally captivated by 77-year-old Pak Ali (Tengku Mohd Ali Tengku Mansor) and his “Rumah Botol”.

Pak Ali has dedicated nearly 20 years to collecting debris that drifts onto the shores, showcasing them in his colourful seaside museum. Over the years, he has tirelessly gathered thousands of bottles and assorted trash, turning his passion into a meaningful mission.

“We had a great chat, and I was so humbled and touched that this one man has been able to do so much for the environment and create such a huge impact,” said Fufu.

‘Terrapuri offers the opportunity to discover and admire Terengganu’s world class wood carvings up close,’ says Fufu. Photo: Lam Ching Fu ‘Terrapuri offers the opportunity to discover and admire Terengganu’s world class wood carvings up close,’ says Fufu. Photo: Lam Ching Fu

“It was also Pak Ali who encouraged me to visit Terrapuri nearby. He even lent me his grandson’s bicycle so I could get there without too much trouble!”

Terrapuri, in Kuala Baru, Terengganu, is a luxury beach resort Heritage Village which focuses on conserving and restoring classic Malay houses of Terengganu and features 29 antique houses, each around 100 years old. The resort’s layout was inspired by the 17th-century Terengganu Palace and its surroundings.

“Terrapuri offers the opportunity to discover and admire Terengganu’s world class wood carvings up close.”

He writes in his book that the carvings are used to adorn doors, windows, railings, eaves of roofs and walls.

The carvings frequently incorporate symbols that serve as metaphors and analogies, illustrating folklore, proverbs, beliefs and legends. These include iconic representations such as the bunga tanjung, kepala cicak, kuda laut, or ayam berlaga, each carrying its own rich cultural significance.

As Fufu’s bus journey stories unfold in the pages of his sequel, it becomes clear that his passion for exploration and his knack for storytelling have woven together a tapestry of Malaysia’s hidden treasures.

With his second book, Fufu has not only crafted a captivating travelogue but also ignited a spark of wanderlust within us all. With each turn of the page, we are reminded that the world is brimming with wonders waiting to be discovered, and that the greatest adventures often begin with a single step – or in Fufu’s case, a bus ride.

More info on Lam Ching Fu’s books here.

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