Popular Posts

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Rantau Panjang - Sungai Golok: Bridge over Sungai Golok

The Star
Oct.15th, 2007

Rantau Panjang-Sungai Golok: Bridge over Sungai Golok


ONE morning I stood at the corridor of the double-storey rented house and gazed forlornly at the railway bridge that spanned Sungai Golok.
The bridge with its black iron girders now loomed dark and ominous against the breaking light of dawn.
The river was swollen with the previous night’s rain, its waters a raging torrent that swept away everything in its path. The morning reverie was broken by the sight of a boat laden with goods and passengers making its way under the bridge. The boatman had somehow misjudged the clearance height of the bridge because of the rising water.
The boat’s roof grazed one of the girders of the bridge and the boat keeled over. Goods and passengers were sent rolling and tumbling like ten pins over the side of the boat. They were quickly seized by the swirling water and swept downstream by the swift current.
Fortunately, most of those on board managed to swim to the banks, while others were rescued by the villagers. The morning incident somehow stirred the settled sediment of my memory of the first time I crossed the bridge.
I remember it was exactly a week after my arrival in Rantau Panjang in 1961. I was sipping thick black coffee in a shop when three elderly Chinese men in green uniforms strolled in. One was tall, the other was of medium height and the third man was stocky with a receding hairline.
Ah Kong, the proprietor of the coffee shop, introduced me to the three men who joined me for a drink. They said they were members of the border police force and their main duty was to patrol the Malaysian-Thai border and to help curb the rampant smuggling activities. Then Foo, the stocky man, said: 

“Cikgu, have you been to Golok?"
“No,” I replied.

“Like to go tomorrow morning?”
“Er? yes, but I have no border pass.” I replied hesitantly.
“No, problem,” he said with a broad grin.
The next morning, at the appointed time, Foo appeared at Ah Kong’s coffee shop with two bicycles.
“ Are we going to cycle across?” I asked anxiously.
“Yes,” he answered.
We cycled along the laterite road which had turned into a treacherous stretch after the monsoon rain and was now deeply furrowed by bicycle-wheel marks. When we reached the railway tracks, we dismounted and wheeled our bicycles along the slippery dirt track until we came to the bridge.
Foo waved to the immigration officer manning the post who waved back in acknowledgement. I thought it would be a breeze to cycle across the bridge. However, that thought quickly dissipated when I saw the bridge up close.

Railway tracks ran across the middle of the bridge, with narrow walkways on either side. The walkways consisted of iron strips with gaping holes between them. I pushed and guided the bicycle’s wheels along the strips while trying my best not to step into the holes.

Iron strips with gaping holes

Meanwhile, Foo was pushing his bicycle easily and steadily across the bridge; it was obvious that he had done this many times before. Below us, the river raged. The sight of it made my hands tremble.
We were halfway across the bridge when we heard a distant rumble.
“Hurry up! The train is coming!” yelled Foo.
The rumble grew louder and I could hear the long, shrill blare of the train’s horn.
The chilling sound made my hands tremble more and my legs seemed to buckle. I glanced round and saw that Foo had already reached the big circular pillar of the bridge and was well ensconced on top of it.
The rumble grew louder and the bridge beneath me started to rattle as if it was hit by an earthquake.
I finally made it to the pillar. Foo helped haul up the bicycle. I jumped onto the pillar in the nick of time as the train swept past me with a thunderous roar, sending a gust of wind which hit my face and body and almost threw me off-balance.
After I had regained my composure, we continued our journey across the bridge. I gave a big sigh of relief when we finally made it to the other side. We stopped at a roadside ice-kacang stall; I dug into the cool shaved ice, richly flavoured with thick syrup, to calm my frayed nerves.
We then proceeded to a Chinese restaurant where we shared a plate of char kuay teow. As we tucked into the savoury dish, the harrowing experience of the morning was soon forgotten.
Late that evening, when we went back the way we came, my steps were steadier. I had started out inexperienced and frightened but returned home a more self-assured man. From that short crossing, a friendship was forged. Foo helped me settle and adjust to my new environment and was always there to lend a helping hand.
A few months later, Foo left the border police force to join the Federal Reserve Unit. I lost touch with him for some time.
One day he appeared unexpectedly at my doorsteps. He had retired from the police force by then. He was still stocky and exuberant. But his hairline had receded further and his once sparse black hair now had streaks of white.
We had a drink at Ah Kong’s coffee shop.
“Like to go across?” I whispered out of earshot of the curious customers.
“Er? yes, but I have no border pass,” he replied with a bashful smile.
“No problem,” I assured him.
Later that day, we crossed the same old bridge that he had taken me across years ago. The bridge was a blurred and inconspicuous structure in the gathering darkness. I led the way while he followed with slow and cautious steps. Beneath us, the once raging water was a murky stream that meandered sluggishly between exposed sandbanks towards the distant sea.
We headed for the same restaurant and ordered a plate of fried kuay teow. As we picked at the strands of kuay teow with our chopsticks, we reminisced about the good old times.
Much water has since flowed under the bridge but I will always remember the experience of that first crossing and cherish the memory of the friendship it helped to foster.

No comments:

Post a Comment