IT was a Sunday and Ipoh was quiet.
Most of the shops in the older part of town were closed, their metal folding doors shut and the streets mostly empty.
The only things that didn’t seem to be empty were the city’s bus terminals.
They were packed with foreign workers, just like our bus.
My friend Irene and I were the only Malaysians on Bus 116.
The faces around us were Indonesian, Bangladeshi and Filipino, all out in full force because it was the weekend.
This was their neighbourhood; they were the locals and we were the visitors.
This isn’t just happening in Ipoh, of course.
You would think you were in a foreign country if you visited certain parts of Kuala Lumpur.
One of my earliest memories of KL was sitting in my dad’s car as he drove along Jalan Tun Tan Siew Sin.
I used to see white-haired Chinese uncles in thin, semi-transparent pagoda T-shirts chatting and drinking tea where the old Metrojaya used to be and wonder what they were talking about.
Old people’s stuff, I thought.
Now those old men have disappeared and in their place are Nepali and Burmese workers with their own restaurants, parcel delivery businesses and money transfer services.
You can even find foreign-language newspapers and magazines in their shops. Impressive, you have to admit.
Migration and the movement of people have always fascinated me.
I have often wondered when newcomers agree to call a new place home and how much time it takes for them to settle in.
At one of the bus stops in Ipoh, a young Bangladeshi came on board and greeted our bus driver enthusiastically: “Hello uncle, how are you? I miss you lah.”
We thought this was hilarious and found it impossible to keep a straight face, but the heart of the matter was that the Bangladeshi had become a local and was a regular on the driver’s bus.
Three years ago in Krabi, Thailand, I met a young shop attendant whose family had travelled by land from Nepal some 30 years ago.
He told me how his parents had packed their belongings and left their homeland, and how they had crossed the border and entered India and Burma before finally deciding to end their journey in Thailand.
“What made them decide on Thailand, or Krabi?” I asked.
He wasn’t sure. “Maybe because Krabi is different, because no beaches in Nepal,” he said.
I asked him why they had left home in the first place.
He wasn’t certain about that either. He had never asked his parents.
When I asked him whether he had ever gone to Nepal, he said he hadn’t.
“No. Never gone back.”
I have met many immigrants on my travels.
At times they come across as more interesting than natural-born citizens — at least, they’ve certainly led far more interesting lives than others.
I used to wonder how a person could decide that it was time to leave home and look elsewhere.
Now I have come to realise that this can’t be a question that’s too difficult to answer: the starting point is usually one’s existing circumstances, especially when a certain “something” that would make life as perfect as possible is lacking.
In search of that certain “something”, people uproot themselves and move.
Human beings have always been on the search for better things.
A more comfortable cave to live in, a river to catch fish in and grow crops nearby, a safe home away from fierce animals — the circumstances may have changed but the underlying reasons will be the same.
In 2013, I went to Krabi for a second time.
I wanted to say hello to the Nepali shop attendant I had met the year before, so I went to the same place where I had seen him.
I wanted to ask him some more questions.
I passed the row of shops again and again on the two days I spent in Ao Nang, but didn’t find the man.
Was he on holiday somewhere? Had he finally gone to visit Nepal?
Or had he moved to another town in Thailand?
Maybe I should have asked someone, but I didn’t know who to ask.
Two days later, I found myself at the Thai-Malaysian border at Dannok, waiting to cross over and go back home.
I passed two Thai men at the checkpoint, each holding their passports and carrying a huge blue-and-red striped plastic bag.
Just like how the earth continues to spin, people will continue to move in search of a better life until they are happy.
*Anis also writes at Five Foot Traveller.