‘Have RM1, will travel’

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The ‘Golden Durian’ landmark in front of the Roxy Hotel in Serian.

Taking advantage of flat bus fare rate, a group of senior citizens get together for one-day nostalgic outing

IT was an exciting outing for Pantan Jiram, 70, as she got to relive the heyday of bus travelling with her friends in Kuching.

The 70-year-old Iban woman was already in the state capital visiting her grandson Bujang, 24, when the plan for this trip came about.

“This is unbelievable! The fare is only RM1 from Kuching to Serian!” she told me at the Electra House, as we waited for our other friends.

It was a sunny morning, at around 8.30am – a perfect day for a bus ride.

The writer and her sister Chang Sing (right) about to board the bus bound for Serian.

Flat-rate fare initiative

The bus that Pantan was talking about was provided by Bus Asia, which was among several public transport companies that responded to the state government’s call for the flat fare rate of RM1 per trip covering urban-suburban links.

Taking effect last year, the move was primarily meant to encourage more people to use public transport, apart from being an initiative to help those from low-income group who would benefit the most from having such connectivity.

In his winding-up speech during the State Legislative Assembly (DUN) sitting in May 2022, Minister of Transport Sarawak Dato Sri Lee Kim Shin had said that the RM1 flat-rate bus fare programme would initially be run in the four districts: Kuching, Sibu, Miri and Bintulu.

“Under this initiative, the state government is doing its best in maintaining and improving our public transport service, including through subsidies, so that we can help alleviate the burden off the people.

“At the same time, it is also in line with our intention to reduce traffic congestion in major urban areas in the state,” Lee was quoted as having said.

Pantan Jiram

‘Once a barbed-wire area’

“Come on! Bus is going to leave soon!” shouted Pantan.

The large vehicle, with air-conditioning and looking sleek in the company’s trademark red colour, was awaiting passengers to board up before departure time at 9am.

Pantan was very eager, claiming for us the front-row seats closest to the driver.

“I still cannot believe it’s only RM1 for such a long trip. My grandson is working today, so I am free all day.

“I must say – this bus is very new, and very clean too. Really good impression.”

The red bus then left Electra House and made its way to the Main Bazaar, where it continued on passing Kuching Civic Centre, Sarawak General Hospital, Jalan Batu Lintang, Jalan Simpang Tiga and Tabuan Jaya, before reaching the stop at Sarawak Heart Centre.

“Oh, we’re approaching Kota Samarahan,” exclaimed Pantan.

There, retired Field Force member Rahmat Salim boarded the bus.

“I take this bus to Serian once a month to see my mother. I actually live very near the heart centre,” the jovial 65-year-old Iban told the writer.

Perhaps it was the infectious camaraderie, plus him being very familiar with the route, Rahmat joined our group and became the ‘unofficial tour guide’.

He seemed to know every place that the bus passed by.

“Well, I was in the Field Force for many years, so yes, I know a little bit of history about these places,” he said.

The bus later made a stop at the bustling Siburan Commercial Centre, where it picked up more passengers bound for Serian. From there, it continued the journey to Beratok, at Mile 21 of the Kuching-Serian Road.

In the mid-1960s during the height of the Communist Insurgency, Beratok was among several ‘barbed-wire areas’ along this stretch where all movements were heavily guarded by the army.

It was a time when Sarawak had just fought off the threat of the Indonesian Confrontation, which was intended as a protest against the formation of Malaysia in 1963.

However, the danger was still there in the form of groups wanting to spread communism in Sarawak, and they did this by launching attacks on remote settlements, located far from towns.

In a Bernama article dated Sept 11, 2021, it quoted Australian historian Vernon Porrit’s words from his book ‘Rise and Fall of Communism in Sarawak’ that on June 30, 1965, the Sarawak government’s Operations Sub-Committee of the State Security Executive Council (Ops SSEC) had implemented the ‘Goodsir Plan’.

Named after then-acting British Commissioner of Police in Sarawak David Goodsir, it was among several counter-insurgency operations set up in response to the Sarawak Communist Organisation (SCO)’s activities during the Insurgency and Indonesian Confrontation periods.

Porrit wrote that this plan involved the resettlement of 7,500 people in five ‘temporary settlements’ along the Kuching-Serian Road in Kuching, which was then known as the ‘First Division’.

By end of 1965, Porrit said 63 suspected communist activists had been identified by the authorities and during the period, the three permanent settlements of Siburan, Beratok and Tapah were built to replace the five temporary settlements, which covered 600 acres (over 240 hectares) and designed to accommodate 8,000 inhabitants – the majority of them were Hakka Chinese.

The stalls selling ‘goreng-gorengan’ are a hit among the shoppers.

‘Of groundnuts and other offerings’

The bus then stopped at Tapah, where Pantan asked everyone: “Was this area named after the fish ‘tapah’ (Wallagonia leerii – striped wallago or helicopter catfish)?

“There must have been a lot of tapah in this area before, right?”

Everyone laughed right before Rahmat answered: “Most probably” – after that, he laughed.

It was about then that a group of women boarded the bus and sat near the group.

“We take this bus for work. We wash dishes at a Chinese restaurant from 11am to 5pm, and use this bus for our ride home.

“It is very convenient, and easy on our purses too,” one of them told the writer.

It was 10.30am when we reached Serian station.

It was a very nice journey from Kuching, with the air-conditioning keeping us comfortable along the way, but once we alighted from the bus, it felt scorching hot.

The sky was cloudless, so we decided to head off to the Serian Wet Market to take cover from the sun.

The market, or ‘tamu’, was crowded. There were many stalls, but what grabbed our attention was the sight of groundnuts – over 10 stalls were selling the same thing!

We later found out that some came from ‘across the border’, meaning from the neighbouring Kalimantan.

Not only that, we also learned that the ones from Indonesia were really huge.

“Buy local ones, madam – same price, but tastier,” said a local hawker, much to our surprise.

Indeed, the price was the same for both, RM8 per kilogramme. Pantan had two kilogrammes of local groundnuts packed, and a kilogramme of the ‘imported’ ones.

Roughly, we counted more than 30 stalls at the wet market, selling many items from fruits, vegetable and jungle produce to traditional clothes, woven products and other handicrafts.

At one stall, there were T-shirts with Sarawak designs laid out with sets of Bidayuh traditional costumes and accessories.

We liked the stalls selling ‘goreng-gorengan’ (deep-fried snacks) near the entrance, and so did many other shoppers who grabbed dozens of orders of fried banana, fried ‘cempedak’, fried yams, fried sweet potatoes, fried gizzards, fried liver, chicken frankfurters, and various other types of sweet and savoury fritters.

A Muslim stall that sells the traditional ‘kuih penganan’ – a deep-fried flour-and-palm-sugar sweet treat.

Old bazaar shops

Pantan met some of her relatives at the market and asked me if I wanted to join her, which I respectfully declined as I wanted to explore this main part of Serian town.

I later joined two women who were taking photographs of the shops and also ‘Buffalo of Serian’, made famous (or perhaps, infamous) by its comically-stunned expression.

The commercial units in Serian appear fairly modern, but there is an old row of two-storey Chinese bazaar shops that could have dated back in the 1950s.

These rustic wooden shops, with perennially-sturdy ‘belian’ (local ironwood) framing and pillars, were still in operation – not to mention, it was really cool to walk along the patios and go inside them.

Cooking utensils such as woks and old-school stoves, tins of biscuits, as well as nostalgia-inducing items like foldable mattresses and mosquito nets could be seen from the ceilings which, by the way, had old fans still rotating ‘wearily’.

The ageing shop-keepers were very pleasant and welcoming, always smiling. I felt that profit was no longer the drive for them; it was more about treating the customers, especially those from out of town, like guests.

These Chinese bazaar shops stood as remnants of Sarawak’s colonial days.

Photo shows the stall run by Ivy Chung at the food court above the wet market.

‘Food? Absolutely!’

The group members later reconnected, and we all agreed that we were hungry!

As such, we went straight to the food court on the top level of the wet market block.

There, we met Ivy Chung, the ‘mee’ (noodle) stall operator, who said the RM1 flat bus fare had really boosted the local economy.

“Throngs of people have been coming to Serian town since the RM1 fare was launched.

“They have definitely been spending money here, and we have the products that they are looking for like local rice, potatoes and tapioca.

“And of course, my ‘mee’ dishes too,” she smiled.

We took the 3pm bus to go back to Kuching and as we passed Serian’s ‘Golden Durian’ landmark in front of the Roxy Hotel, Pantan posed another amusing question: “Why must that durian be gold in colour?”

Her friend answered: “Maybe because Serian is famous for durians. This ‘King of Fruits’ has certainly brought ‘gold’ to the Bidayuhs and the durian farm owners!”

Happy to be in an air-conditioned environment again, we soon dozed off and only woke up as the bus was approaching back to the Electra House.

Once out, we all headed to the open market to treat ourselves with refreshing ‘Kuching Cendol’.

As I slurped spoonfuls of the green rice-flour jelly, coconut jelly and palm sugar concoction, my mind recalled what Premier Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Abang Johari Tun Openg had envisioned for Serian – to turn it into a ‘small New Zealand of Sarawak’.

Remembering the sights that I had seen throughout the one-day outing – the hills and mountains, the rivers, the plantations, the commercial areas, the historical landmarks and of course, the people – I would regard such vision as something very doable.