The KTM commuter train finally stopped at the ramshackle station of Perlubahan Klang. We had reached the end of the line of a trip that started at the Batu Caves at the other end. The distance between the two stations didn’t seem too far when viewed from the route map. I didn’t realize that I was on a real train on a route meant to cover great distances and not on the monorail that wound its way around the city and its fringes. It took a whole two hours and countless stops for me to realize this. As the train moved farther and farther from KL the scenery turned more rural. The trip was very comfortable but except for the shop houses at Klang there wasn’t much to see from the train windows.
There was hardly anyone on the train car as I stepped out into the bright afternoon sunshine. The dock was just a few steps from the station past a some Indian eateries. Following the sign that read “Pualu Ketam boat,” I found myself at a small table manned by a Chinese girl who sold me a two tickets fr RM 7 each. One was for the trip to the island and the other for the return. The boat had just arrived a couple of minutes earlier and a few passengers were heading down the gangplank to the boat.
A few seats were occupied and I sat at a window seat at the center row. The a/c was cold and there was something showing on the large television mounted on the wall. It took about 15 minutes before the boat departed more than half-full. The blue and white speed boat was old but it seemed fairly sea worthy as it skidded over the waters past some islets and mangroves.
About a quarter to an hour, the boat docked at a small pier and a few passengers stood-up. I grabbed my backpack and was about to stand-up when an elderly Chinese man with a woman I presumed to be his wife told me that it wasn’t Pulau Ketam yet which was the next isalnd. Hmmm… perhaps my overall look (backpack and fisherman pants) signaled TOURIST!
The boat then proceeded to the next island and we all disembarked and walked up the gangplank and to a large covered cement pier. I followed the crowd and the Chinese couple ahead of me. People seemed to know everyone as departing and arriving passengers greeted each other.
If it weren’t for the hotel a few meters from the pier and the rows upon rows of restaurants lining the small road to the center of the small town, Pulau Ketam would seem like it’s totally out of the tourist trail. There were more locals than tourists and all the stores merely sold food and everyday items rather than tourist junk. Absolutely no sign of a “Pulau Ketam– the Forgotten City” (as one travel brochure called it) t-shirt.
Honestly, when I reached a small roundabout with a large cauldron and two temples which seemed to be the town center, I was a little disappointed. It was pretty but there didn’t seem to be anything else. I thought of going back to the boat which was due to leave in about 30 minutes but the thought of the long train ride led me to stay. I could kill a couple of hours in this town and still make it back to KL before dark in time for dinner, I told myself.
Looking blankly at a low wall with Chinese characters and contemplating on what to do, Mr. Chinese came swinging by on a bicycle. He was sight-seeing too. He asked me if I was staying the night or was going back to KL. I answered to the latter. At a small blue house overlooking a tributary of the river, a small Chinese-looking film crew was cooling their heels while a Malay guy explained a few things about the temple to them. They seemed to be making a feature.
Seeing Mr. Chinese on a bike reminded me of my long-overdue resolve to learn to ride one. It’s one of the best ways to explore the nooks and crannies of places such as this one. In the meantime, I had to make do with my legs. With no clear sense of orientation or where I wanted to go, I simply took to the backstreets and discovered a quaint town of beautiful colored houses and a relaxed vibe.
Across the bigger temple with its sculpture of floating dragons that seemed to float on air was a small locked house. Behind it was a concrete yard overlooking a canal. A couple of large wooden tables held statues of deities, a couple of which had their heads covered with scraps of newspapers. Several hand drums with long handles (how I drooled over them) lay on one side packets of yellow paper with Chinese characters. Discards from an old temple?
An air of sleepiness pervaded the town. Perhaps the heat of the day drove everyone inside. Even the vendors were quiet; their goods spread unguarded on tables near the open shop fronts. Business was slow in the restaurants all purveying seafood. It was a relief to just walk past them without anyone shoving a plastic menu on your face. I espied a couple of whites having a meal in one of the round wooden tables and they seemed just as surprise to see me as I with them.
The population seemed to be largely Chinse going by the looks of the town people and the names of the stores. It was a just a few weeks to the Chinese Lunar New Year which probably explains the freshly-painted and cleaned houses. One lady was perched on a stool busy wiping off probably a year’s worth of soot and grime on the red spirit house on her front yard.
If a rainbow had dropped from the sky and splattered on land painting all the houses, this would be the place. I spent a couple of hours just quietly admiring the beautiful houses painted in bright hues of the rainbow. It was remarkable how the people of a small simple town on a small village could spend so much energy to make even the most simple wooden house so colorful with. At each turn of the corner, I would come across a house more lovely than the previous one. It was a pure delight to simply stroll along the narrow streets with hardly any people. It would have been perfect if not for the trash on the canals and a few scruffy yards.
By the time I walked back to the boat to catch the 4:30 trip, I wished I had known there were accommodations in the island as I would have wanted to stay longer and catch the sunset on the river.
The boat was already at the dock waiting for passengers heading back to Perlabuhan Klang. School had just let out and a gang of school children in their brown and white uniforms clambered on a wooden ferry to take them to the nearby islands where they lived.
I took my seat (window, center row) as more people got in, some with boxes and sacks they put at the front of the cabin. The door closed and we sped across the quiet waters of the river. In a couple of hours the sun would set painting the water a lovely shade of orange just like some of the houses. As I slunk in my seat and looked at the mangroves on the short, I knew I would be back and this time stay.
The most memorable places are those that take time to grow on you. There are no “ooohhhhssss” nor “aaaahhhhssss.” Only quiet meditative appreciation. It’s as close as you can get to being enchanted.