KUALA LUMPUR — Transportation within and outside the country has seen a sea change since 1957 with air travel no more the privilege of the rich and ship journeys almost unheard of.
Road travel was a day-long affair on narrow trunk roads and rail trips long-drawn journeys in coaches powered by coal engines.
Long before Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) and klia2 were built, there was the Sungai Besi Airport now used by the Royal Malaysian Air Force and later the Subang International Airport.
Lawyer Datuk Kulasegaran Sabaratnam was only 19 in 1956 when he flew to London to read law.
The Penang-born teenager took a DC-3 propeller aircraft out of Butterworth Airport to Singapore, marking the start of a five-day odyssey.
In Singapore, he stayed at the iconic Raffles Hotel and “I could not complain about that”.
In the golden age of air travel, airlines bore the cost of accommodation for stopovers, often in reputable establishments.
“It was okay I suppose,” recalled the 79-year-old, “as it met the needs of the moment in the country’s history.’’
From Singapore, he flew to Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he stayed at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, a beautiful beach hotel. Then, it was on to Bombay (now Mumbai) for a night and on to Turkey before landing in Frankfurt.
Then it was on to the United Kingdom.
He flew on British Overseas Airways Corporation four-engined Constellation aircraft (before the company became British Airways).
“It was a memorable and epic journey that I will remember for the rest of my life,” he said.
Kulasegaran, who flies frequently these days, said airports in Malaysia had numerous creature comforts with lounges and eateries to make passengers more comfortable.
“I don’t think there was a restaurant at the Butterworth airport,” he said.
Lakshmi Rasappan was 18 when she left Namakkal in Tamil Nadu, India, on Aug 12, 1958 to begin a new life here with her Malayan husband.
For the next seven days, home was the Rajula, a passenger ship from Madras (now Chennai), to Port Swettenham (now Port Klang).
“In those days, there were only two ships that transported people between India and Malaysia, the Rajula and the State of Madras,” said the 76-year-old.
Although pregnant at the time, she recalls the journey to be smooth-sailing.
“Travelling by ship was common back then because air travel was expensive and we could not afford it,” said Lakshmi.
The next time she travelled between the two countries was by air in 1990.
By then, air travel was becoming increasingly accessible to most with the Subang International Airport, later known as the Sultan Abdul Aziz Shah Airport, operating full swing.
These days, the septuagenarian says travelling to her birthplace is a breeze thanks to budget airlines such as AirAsia which flies to Trichy in Tamil Nadu.
“Now it only takes around four hours by flight,” says Lakshmi, who became a Malaysian citizen in 2013.
Retired teacher Alexandrina Savari, 76 was posted in Batu Pahat, Johor, after completing teacher’s training in 1963.
For the next five years, she travelled to her hometown of Ipoh, Perak via boat, taxi and bus.
“From Batu Pahat I would cross the river by boat to Muar, take a bus or taxi to Malacca and Kuala Lumpur and finally catch a taxi to Ipoh,” she recalled.
“Those days, it was not so expensive to take a cab — my trips were always less than 10 dollars.”
Road travel was difficult in the 1950s and 1960s with the narrow trunk road barely adequate for traffic.
“The trunk road wound through small towns. Travelling from KL to Ipoh would take four to five hours with a stop at Tanjung Malim for a break,” she said.
In 1982, when the expressway was completed, road travel became a breeze with travelling time almost cut by half.
“It’s so much more convenient now as it only takes two hours from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh,” said Alexandrina.
“Sometimes I take the high speed train to Ipoh because senior citizens get half price and it only takes a few hours.”
The launch of the High Speed Electric Train Service (ETS) in 2010 also marked a milestone in Malaysia’s railway progress, cutting travel time significantly.
Between 1957 and 1958, Alexandrina recalls taking the train from Ipoh to Bukit Mertajam to attend the St Anne’s Feast.
“We used to take a coal engine train and it would leave around 8am and we would only arrive in Bukit Mertajam at 4pm,” she said with a laugh.