“SELAMAT pagi. Sudah sarapan?” (Good morning. Have you had your breakfast?)
The greeting is nothing out of the ordinary in Malaysia but coming from a Mat Salleh?
The heavy downpour earlier on is now a light drizzle as the much-awaited motor boat makes its final approach to the quiet bay where my group has been waiting for more than half an hour.
I’m slightly taken aback to see a Caucasian behind the wheel. His fluent Malay further deepens my curiosity. I had not expected to find a foreigner so deep in the interior of northern Kedah. Or to be exact, at the eastern edge of Pedu Lake, one of the largest manmade reservoirs in the country.
“Selamat pagi Marc,” my friend Fitri Ismail responds. It is obvious that Fitri, who works with the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission, knows the skipper well.
I’ve been to Pedu Lake several times before but this boat ride is a first for me. The lake looks much larger when I’m this close to the water. The cloudy sky and thinly-veiled mist make the surroundings look rather mysterious.
The boat skims effortlessly over the lake and one can be forgiven for thinking that Marc Rossetti is an old hand at this. He manoeuvres the craft skillfully and steers clear of the numerous protruding tree trunks in the water. Then, when the coast is clear, he sets a course directly for a brown double-storey house boat in the distance.
Despite the lack of obstacles, Rosetti maintains a low speed. “Safety is very important to all of us here. Furthermore, going fast will create turbulence and disturb the aquatic animals living in the water,” he explains, his right index finger gesturing towards the imaginary depths of the lake. A native of Italy, Rosetti has been living in Switzerland for more than 10 years.
As he takes a break from talking to concentrate on the thickening mist that’s suddenly moving in our direction, I turn to Fitri for more information about my new acquaintance. “I came across Marc several weeks back when MCMC together with the Padang Terap Pusat Internet 1 Malaysia (PI1M) cluster started the ‘Menarik Di....’ initiative.
“At that time I was tasked with identifying places of interest around this area,” explains Fitri, adding: “Marc had just arrived and was helping out with the chores at the Seri Mahawangsa House Boat. In return, Amir Wahab, the house boat’s owner, let him stay for free.”
Realising that he’s the subject of our conversation, Rosetti chips in to fill in the gaps in the story. “It was around the first week of July this year when I crossed the Malaysia-Thailand border at the Bukit Kayu Hitam checkpoint. My initial intention was to head straight for Penang and spend a few days there before heading off to Kuala Lumpur. Then, while waiting to get my passport stamped, I struck up a conversation with a couple from Kuala Nerang. They sang praises about Pedu Lake and right at that moment, I decided to change my plans.”
Hitching a ride from the couple, Rosetti soon found his way to Amir’s place where he stayed for five days before moving on to Penang. The Italian, who found peace and solace during his brief sojourn at Pedu Lake, soon found the Pearl of the Orient too noisy and crowded for his liking. By the third day, Rosetti had succumbed to the longings of his heart. He packed his bags, checked out of his Cintra Street dormitory, and headed back north.
MYSTERIES OF THE LAKE
“Kita sudah sampai!” Rosetti announces our arrival excitedly. With the 20-minute journey over, I quickly set about exploring the house boat with Amir. The upstairs dormitory is simple but well-kept. Amir tells me that his guests love the wide corridor leading to the dormitory. “I purposely leave the side facing the lake open to allow the cool breeze in. On hot and humid nights my guests like to place their mattresses on the deck here. Nothing beats being lulled to sleep by Mother Nature,” shares Amir who is from a nearby village in Pedu.
The rain finally stops but the sky remains overcast. Standing by the railing, we both look out at the 52 square kilometre reservoir which was officially opened by the then Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj on May 12, 1969.
The affable Amir appears to know Pedu like the back of his hands and effortlessly points out all the interesting places within sight. “See those two tree trunks jutting out from the water on your right? That’s the best place to fish. Guests have come back with sebarau, toman and baung weighing more than 2kg,” he says, eyes dancing, before bringing my attention to the distant eastern hills.
“There’s a large natural salt lick near there. I usually bring guests during dawn or dusk to see the animals coming in droves to get their daily mineral supplements,” he adds, before revealing that a herd of wild elephants have been spotted frequenting the place recently.
THE SHREWD BUSINESSMAN
Revealing a little about his past, Amir confides that he used to work with Desa Utara Pedu Lake Resort. Starting off as a general worker, he slowly climbed the corporate ladder to become a food and beverage executive. Aware of his lack of paper qualifications, Amir worked diligently and tried to learn as much as he could during that time.
Unfortunately, the resort closed down in 2010 due to a series of problems with plumetting tourist arrivals taking centre stage. “Despite being unemployed, I resisted the temptation to move elsewhere. I felt as if my fate and Pedu Lake’s were intertwined. I persevered for three years, subsisting on my savings accumulated during my working years. During that time I noticed that tourists were still coming to Pedu, albeit in smaller numbers, and many of them lamented the lack of accommodation.”
The shrewd businessman in Amir immediately realised that a viable business opportunity was at hand. He did his research and sorted out his source of funding. Finally in 2013, the Seri Mahawangsa House Boat came into fruition.
“At the beginning, I used to move the house boat all over the place to allow my guests the opportunity to experience different parts of the lake. I thought that they’d be happy to wake up to a different scenery each day. I was wrong,” confides Amir, wryly. “Most of my guests are from overseas as well as other parts of Malaysia like KL, Ipoh and Johor Baru. Based on feedback received, these travellers wanted the house boat to remain stationary and only take the occasional motor boat ride out when necessary.”
When asked about his choice for the house boat’s current location, Amir’s answer is simple. “This is the only place in the lake that has Internet reception.” He merely shrugs his shoulders when I ask him to explain this strange phenomenon. “I really don’t know how. None of the people I’ve met can explain this either.”
PARADISE ON EARTH
Looking at his watch, Amir suddenly grabs a packet of instant noodles and asks Fitri and me to remove our shoes before joining him outside by the edge of the water. “Don’t worry. He does this to everyone,” says a bemused Rosetti, noting our bewildered expressions.
The minutes tick as we all sit with our feet dangling freely in the water. The passing minutes seem like hours. Then, just as I’m thinking that everything’s fine, I begin to feel something nibbling at my feet. Soon one nibble turns into several. Below, the water is teeming with little fish, each busy “attacking” my exposed feet.
“Welcome to the one and only natural freshwater fish spa in Malaysia which features lampam sungai. Don’t be afraid, the fish are merely removing the dead skin from your feet. Stay here for another 15 minutes and your feet will not only be clean but also as smooth as a baby’s bottom,” says Amir with a playful chuckle.
During the “treatment”, I learn that south Sabah and Taman Negara in Pahang are the other places in the country that offer such cleansing services. But Amir quickly points out that both those places use kelah fish to get the work done. “Personally, I think that lampam sungai does a better job as they have smaller bodies and mouths. Their size allows them to squeeze between our toes easily,” he explains, before leaning back to rest.
My feet feel significantly softer after I lift them out of the water. Smiling, Rosetti looks at me and gives a thumbs up. I return his gesture, pleased with the outcome. This must surely be the highlight of my visit to Pedu Lake.
Before I know it, it’s already time to bid farewell. As the boat glides away, I see Amir open the packet of instant noodles and place the yellowish mass in the water. “That’s his way of saying thank you to the fish. The noodles are their reward,” explains Rosetti, a contented expression on his face.
Reflecting on the things I’ve experienced during my visit here, it suddenly becomes clear to me why Rosetti had opted to remain. Devoid of stress, traffic jams and pollution, Pedu Lake is indeed paradise on earth.