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 screech of brakes and a stuttering hiss. The sound heralded the arrival of a train – the last train of the day to Rantau Panjang in Kelantan.
Pak Duk’s coffeeshop where we, teachers, stayed in the early 1960s was located strategically at one end of the town and was within sight of the railway station.
However, a clump of trees and a makeshift stall obscured it from our view. From our vantage point on the first floor of an open verandah, we watched forlornly as the train chugged past below us, rattling the iron bridge that straddled Sungai Golok before heading northward towards the Thai border town of Sungai Kolok.
As it faded into the distance and disappeared in the gathering darkness, a deepening gloom descended upon the place. Rantau Panjang town then was still inaccessible by road and so the thought of our only physical link with the outside world being temporary severed, left us with a sinking feeling of being forgotten and forsaken.
During the day the local residents could cross over to the town of Sungai Kolok by using the narrow walkways that flanked the tracks of the railway bridge. An immigration post manned by one or two officers stood at Rantau Panjang’s end of the bridge and while local residents were usually allowed free access to Sungai Kolok, visitors needed border passes or other valid travel documents.
Sungai Golok, which formed a natural boundary between the two towns, also provided a convenient and expedient way of accessing both. Although it was illegal to cross the river by boat, shallow boats plied daily between the two towns.
Once the immigration post closed, murky figures could be seen creeping stealthily along the river bank. The border police had begun their nightly patrol of curbing illegal crossings and the rampant smuggling activities.
Without electricity, only the pale glow of oil lamps lit the town’s lonely stretch of unpaved road, while faint threads of light filtered through closed shutters of old wooden shophouses. Added to the gloom was the solemn stillness, broken only by the incessant chirping of crickets and the myriad sounds of other nocturnal insects.
Just across the waters, a nebulous glow lit the low night sky of Sungai Kolok town. The Thai border town had come alive. From the brightly neon-lit coffeeshops, the fragrance of fried noodles and the tantalising aroma of grilled chicken tingled the nostrils of food lovers, while the soft strains of ramvong beckoned the night-time revellers.
The residents of Rantau Panjang, meanwhile, were already getting ready for bed, as the town was virtually void of entertaiment, except for the occasional performance of the itinerant dikir barat troupe.
In the mid-1960s when the town was supplied with electricity, a makeshift theatre with plaited bamboo walls, palm-thatched roof and hard-beaten earth floor was constructed to cater to the entertainment needs of the local residents. Sitting on hard wooden benches, we would sometimes join the local audience to watch Hindi or Malay movies.
One morning, one of my pupils, Mohd Nor, approached me and said: “Sir, there is a good Elvis movie in Sungai Kolok.”
“I don’t think I want to see it, Mohd Nor. It is quite a far walk to the town,” I replied.
“It’s very near, Sir, if you go by boat. I can take you across in my father’s sampan.”
“Only 10 sen for the fare, Sir,” he said with a sparkle in his eyes.
Since I had not watched an English movie for some time and did not want to disappoint him, I finally agreed to his suggestion.
A weekend morning found Mohd Nor waiting for me at the river bank. He was soon paddling the boat confidently across the shallow water and within minutes we had reached the other side.
I paid him the fare and walked the short distance to the town centre. The theatre stood amidst a row of nondescript brick buildings, but it was easily discernable at a distance as a huge billboard with a hand-painted picture of Elvis Presley and the words “Jailhouse Rock” was prominently displayed in front of the theatre.
The moment I stepped into the theatre and my eyes adjusted to the dimly-lit hall, I noticed it was furnished with cushioned seats, while ceiling fans whirled overhead. The lights were switched off and the projectors came alive. I settled back to enjoy the show. Above the confused murmur of voices in English, a stentorian voice in Thai filled the hall.
“Must be an annoucement,” I thought to myself.
Then as the voice continued, it dawned on me that a narrator was giving a running commentary on the dialogue and action, and even romantic scenes were not spared from his comments. The continuous, monotonous narration was lulling me to sleep and I found myself sliding deeper into my seat. Fortunately, Elvis was given the liberty to render his songs without any interruption and so my eyes would snap open whenever Elvis’s voice came on.
It was mid-afternoon when the movie ended and as I had not made any prior arrangement with Mohd Nor for my return trip, I prepared myself for the long walk in the heat to the Sungai Golok bridge.
“Cikgu, want a ride to Rantau Panjang?” a voice behind me inquired in a deep Kelantanese accent.
I recognised the familiar figure of a trishaw rider from Rantau Panjang and the thought of the long walk made me accept his offer without hesitation.
The trishaw was soon gliding along the town’s well-paved asphalt road which ended at the edge of the town and then began to bounce along a bumpy dirt track pitted with potholes and flanked by tall grass.
A soft breeze ruffled my hair and my eyes flitted from side to side as I took in the vista. My movement must have caught the rider’s attention and perhaps thinking I was worried of being waylaid by armed robbers, he glanced at me and in an assuring voice said: “Cikgu, don’t be afraid. I have a pistol right under the passenger seat.”
Thereafter, whenever the trishaw hit a bump or swerved, I was more worried of the pistol going off than of being waylaid by robbers.
I was relieved when we finally reached the railway bridge. Then as I walked past the immigration post, I gave a cursory wave to the officer on duty, while my thoughts drifted to the still unused border pass, now frayed and discoloured, safely tucked away in my wallet.
Today, years on, whenever I think of my stint in Rantau Panjang, it brings back fond memories of a town that was once inaccessible by road and served by a steam locomotive.
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