“Good morning sir. How was your stay?” I greeted, as the bespectacled Chinese gentleman approached the reception counter. He pulled a luggage carrier in one hand, and in the other held an LV passport carrier cum wallet. Two of his fellows, an Indian and a Chinese gentleman followed close behind with their own luggage carriers, and from the satisfied looks on their faces, seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the buffet breakfast served at the Tambun Tavern.
“Good Morning! It was an excellent stay! Ipoh is such a lovely place, with its small-town charm, and warm friendly people! It’s too bad we’re here on a business trip, and can only stay a few days! Next time we shall come and stay for a few weeks!” The man said as he handed in the key access cards of his, and his colleagues for check out.
“Ah! Great to hear. May I ask where you are from?” I asked, as I accepted the three access cards and initiated check-out procedures on the front desk computer.
“Oh, we’re from Singapore. We’re with Accenture, a major consulting firm. We came here on a business trip to consult with some of the local plantations, how they can modernize and streamline their business operations.”
“So you drove up to Ipoh from Singapore? Did you enjoy the road trip? That will be RM240, thanks.” I asked, and the gentleman handed over a corporate AMEX card.
“Yes, it was a great experience! There were so many rest-stops along the way! I particularly enjoyed the Sungai Buloh rest-stop, where there were buskers who were fifty-plus, but jammed like they were in their twenties! Playing old P. Ramlee songs while dressed in colourful batik shirts and wearing dark sunglasses! So cool! And with the Pizza Hut, KFCs, and Dunkin’ Donuts dotting the Federal Expressway, coupled with the regular petrol stations one would never go hungry, or run out of fuel!” The man said. He thanked me as I handed back his corporate AMEX card, and promptly left with his colleagues.
“Thank you for staying with the Tambun Tavern! We hope to see you again!” I bid him goodbye, as the man and his colleagues left with wide smiles on their faces.
“Whew! They didn’t experience anything weird!” Hadi, the cleaner from Indonesia said. He was wiping down the glass doors by the entrance and fell silent after I shot him a warning look. The elevator doors pinged, and out stepped another pair of customers, ready to proceed with check out.
“Good morning, Miss. How was your stay?” I greeted, the lady in a sunflower dress and large white hat pulling a luggage carrier approached the front desk.
“It was excellent! Great to escape from KL for the weekend! Really love the Ipoh food, and the sights! Concubine Lane is especially charming. Will definitely come again!” The lady said as she handed over her room access card.
“That’s great to hear! It would be great to have you again, at the Tambun Tavern on your next trip. That will be RM94, thanks.” I said, proceeding with check-out on the front desk computer.
“Yes! I will definitely write an excellent review for your hotel! And I will definitely bring more friends next time!” the lady beamed, as she handed over her credit card.
“That will be great. Have a safe journey back to KL!” I said, after completing check-out procedures and handing her back her credit card.
“Thanks! Goodbye!” the lady said, taking her credit card, and walking over to join her friend, a tall Indian lady in a blue dress. They both left with their luggage carriers trailing behind them, to enter the large car park where their vehicle was parked, to begin the two-hour drive back to Kuala Lumpur.
“Another pair of guests who didn’t experience anything! It seems the spirits are behaving themselves this month!” Hadi said as the two ladies left.
“Shhh! We don’t want to jinx our good luck! If you speak like that and the spirits start acting up, imagine what would happen!” I snapped at him.
“Okay, Puan Zed…I shall stop talking now,” Hadi said, and he dutifully returned to wiping down the glass doors of the entrance.
The Tambun Tavern was a modern three-star hotel located in the suburb of Tambun, on the outskirts of the capital of the state of Perak, Ipoh. Granted there were other larger hotels that had five-stars, such as the Sunway Lost World of Tambun, just a couple of kilometres from us, famed for its natural hot springs, and the Weil Hotel, in downtown Ipoh, where the movers and shakers of Ipoh wined and dined at, and signed many an important business deal. But for a night’s stay, or a few night’s stay, that came with breakfast, in clean, modern facilities, no hotel or Airbnb could beat the Tambun Tavern, in terms of affordability and service.
There was a singular catch though. Despite being built only recently, in 2008, the Tambun Tavern was beset with ‘supernatural’ sightings. Everything from strange green lights spotted by visitors along the hallway, to small purple creatures being sighted by hotel staff outside the kitchen, to guests experiencing a certain steep drop in temperature in several of the hotel rooms on the second floor, that sent a chill down their spine, which we explained was a problem with air-conditioning, and swiftly rectified with a quick upgrade to a better room, there were plenty of strange incidences that occurred at the Tambun Tavern. Amidst all of the strange occurrences at the Tambun Tavern, there was an unwritten rule that was passed down from receptionist to receptionist at our hotel: Never book anyone to room 303.
“Why not?” I asked Encik Shamsuddin, Or Encik Sham, as he was known. This was way back in 2009 when I was still known as Zafirah to the staff, not Puan Zed, as I was known to the staff now.
“Don’t ask me why. Just don’t do it.” Encik Shamsuddin warned. He was the operations manager of the hotel and was showing me the ropes.
“Okay. Understood.” I said. However, I would learn the hard way, why room 303 should not be booked out. And it was through no fault of my own. Amirul, the new staff member I was training to take over as my replacement, broke that cardinal rule. He checked someone into room 303 when I was not around, and I had to deal with the consequences of his error.
“OH MY GOD! THERE’S A WEIRD OLD LADY IN MY ROOM!” a large, rotund guest cried out, bursting through the fire escape, and rushing over to the front desk. It was 12 midnight, and I was covering the grave-yard shift that night. He was dressed in dark blue silk pyjamas, and his bald head was shiny with sweat. In addition, I noticed he had dashed out of his room so fast, he was still barefoot.
“Sir what are you talking about? Here, have some water, take a deep breath and calm your nerves down.” I said, handing over a complimentary bottle of water, from the front desk which we handed to each customer whenever they checked into the Tambun Tavern.
“Huh…huh…Oh my god! I woke up, right, and there was this old woman! She was sitting on my chest! And when I looked up at her, she had this…this angry look on her face! As if she did not want me to be there! I could not breathe, and was gasping for breath! It was like…like I was frozen there, could not move a muscle at all! Finally, after a long minute or so, that seemed like forever, she finally disappeared, and I could move again! I immediately ran out of my room, and came here! Forgot my room access card even!”
I looked up at the clock. It was five minutes past midnight. I decided to take a risk.
“Ravi? Ravi, could you come to the reception? Thanks?” I radioed, for the 24-hour shift guard.
“Yes, Puan Zed.” Ravigopal, or Ravi, as we called him, acknowledged.
“Feeling better sir?” I asked as we waited for the arrival of the guard.
“Yeah…yeah better.” The man said. Colour had returned to his face when it had been awfully white when he first came running to the front desk. He had gotten his breath back and was not sweating as much as before.
“Yes, Puan Zed?” A tall, Indian man with a beard, and dressed in a black shirt and black trousers greeted me, as he approached the front desk.
“This customer reported a strange old lady in his room. Come, let us inspect his room.” I instructed, retrieving the spare access card from the cabinet next to the front desk.
Five minutes later, we arrived at the door of Room 303. Ravi tapped the room access panel and entered the room. I waited outside with the customer, but still, I peered curiously inside.
“There’s no one here sir,” Ravi reported.
“Huh? Impossible! She was right there! On top of the bed, right on top of me! She did disappear, but she was there! Dressed in a Peranakan outfit, a matching top and trousers of murky green with pink flowers!!” The guest exclaimed.
“Hmmmm…” Ravi checked the in-suite toilet of the room and looked behind the curtains. There was no one.
“The room is rather stuffy sir. And you did not have the air-con on! Would you like to keep the windows opened?” I suggested.
“Oh? I turned it off…because it was so cold.” The man said. I noticed, on the desk next to his bed, folders with the logo ‘ERNST AND YOUNG’, and several documents. I spied the large ‘YTL’ logo, and saw words like ‘Audit’ and ‘Business Processes’.
“Sir you must be working too hard, and you must be imagining things. Here let me open the window for you, and let me get Ravi to bring up a fan for you if you find the air-con too cold?” I asked.
“Yes…Yes…Auditing the YTL cement factory is no joke! Huh…Huh…Yes please bring up a fan for me…” The guest requested.
“Ravi, please bring up one of the tall standing fans from the store to room 303,” I instructed.
“Yes, Puan Zed. Right away.” Ravi acknowledged and departed from the room. I stayed with the guest until he returned, about six or seven minutes later.
“Here you go sir,” Ravi said. He set the fan next to the bed and connected the a/c cable to the electrical outlet on the ground by the bedside typically used by housekeeping for vacuuming the rooms. He turned the fan on, and a blast of cool air started circulating around the room.
“Ah! Ah, that’s much better!” The man said, enjoying the air from the tall fan.
“If there’s nothing else sir, I have to return to the front desk. The reception can’t look after itself you know.” I joked.
“Haha! Of course! Thanks so much! It must have been a nightmare, due to all the stress I had from work! Thanks so much, Puan!” the large man said.
Thankfully, the rest of his stay went without incident. I gave Amirul a big scolding, who kept bowing apologetically.
“So sorry Puan Zed! I was blur! I thought I booked him into room 302! Turns out, it was room 303! Won’t happen again Puan!” He kept bowing and apologizing profusely, so I forgave him. That incident happened in 2013, five years after the Tambun hotel opened in 2008, and thankfully, under my watch, and that of Amirul’s, no other guest was booked into room 303 in the years to come.
Finally, in 2018, at the staff dinner to celebrate ten years of operation, I would finally learn about the identity of the old lady in room 303.
“Ahh! The sotong in kicap sauce and caramelized onions is so nice!” The owner and founder of Tambun Tavern, Datuk Reza Ismail, said, as he tucked into his food heartily. Datuk Reza was a civil engineer by trade, and his construction company held contracts to build both private and government civil engineering projects in Ipoh and the State of Perak.
“Sotong has a lot of cholesterol. Be careful you don’t get a heart attack!” I joked with him, as I ate some fresh vegetables with my rice.
It was one of those famous restaurants on the outskirts of Ipoh. A typical seafood restaurant located in the lush greenery of the jungles on the outskirts of Ipoh, a place that one typically had to drive one to two hours outside of Ipoh Town to get to. But drive, people did, to this restaurant, as the food was so good, and the experience of having dinner on a rustic hut with stilts in the middle of the jungle was an adventure unto itself, with crickets chirping in the distance, and a cool evening breeze flowing through the restaurant.
“Ah well. Tomorrow morning I’ll just run a few more rounds on my usual jog! How is the food, Puan Zed? I hope you’re enjoying it!” Datuk Reza asked with a hearty laugh.
“Yes, I am! In fact, it’s such an honour for me to be placed at the table for the VIPs! I am just a front desk staff! I feel like this is an honour I don’t deserve!” I said humbly, as I took a sip of chilled orange soda.
“You looked after our front desk for ten years! Of course, you must be rewarded! You are a VIP too! It must have been hard, dealing with all those difficult customers!”
“Not at all, Datuk Reza. It was my job. Anyway, it just takes a little bit of effort to read people and find out what they really want, what the real problem is. Most times, people are sad and angry about things in their personal life, or work life, So they just take it out on hotel or customer service staff. It’s our job as front line staff to go the extra mile and provide good service to them.” I said, drawing on my experience of working as a front desk manager in different hotels in Penang and Ipoh over many decades.
“Difficult customers are one thing. What about difficult ghosts?” Datuk Reza asked. His voice lowered to a whisper, and he chuckled as he asked his question.
“Difficult ghosts?” I asked, puzzled.
“Yes. Difficult ghosts. Like the one in room 303.”
“Oh! That one. Well, Amirul and myself didn’t book customers into room 303. Simple as that.” I said, tucking into the dishes once more. I helped myself to some ikan goreng in mint sauce, and my, was it so good.
“Yes. Most wise. Would you like to hear the story behind the ghost in room 303?” Datuk Reza asked, his voice barely above a whisper now.
“Huh? What’s the story behind the ghost in room 303?” I asked, intrigued. I put down my fork and spoon and gave Datuk Reza my undivided attention.
“Long before the Tambun Tavern was built, it used to be the site for many pomelo plantations.”
“Pomelo plantations!” I said, my interest perking up.
“Yes. However, the owners of the pomelo plantations were not…errr…very savvy with the use of the land. They kept planting and harvesting pomelo year after year until finally, the land was exhausted of all its nutrients, and no more pomelo could be harvested from those plantations. So the owners of the plantations put the land up for sale. Cheap, I might add! So I bought the land and decided to clear it to put a modern hotel on the location.”
“I am sensing there is a but somewhere…” I said, taking a sip of orange soda, and urged Datuk Reza to continue with his story.
“Yes. You see, there was a hut on the pomelo plantations. It was occupied by an old lady. What this old lady did was, she sold mosquito coil to the workers living and working on the pomelo plantations. When the plantation owners sold the plantation land, the workers moved on, to find work in construction and other industries, but the old lady simply refused to move.”
“Why not?” I asked.
“Her hut was located on a strategic location. I was informed by people close to her that every evening, the old lady would love to sit outside her hut on an old rocking chair, and watch the sunset of Ipoh.”
“Oh my! It must be such a wonderful sight!” I said. Orange light illuminating rolling grey hills, as darkness fell, amidst purple skies over the town of Ipoh. It was like a scene depicted from an old Chinese painting.
“Yes. And for three years, from 2002 to 2005 she refused to move. I despaired about what to do with her. Well, my patience paid off…and she passed away peacefully in her sleep in 2005. So land clearance and construction began for Tambun Tavern in late 2005, and everything was done in 2008. But during construction, her spirit would wreak havoc at night, I tell you!”
“Really! What happened?” I asked.
“Oh, workers sleeping on the site would wake up in the middle of the night, gasping for breath. To their shock and horror, they would find the spirit of the old lady sitting on their chests, and they would be frozen in place for a long minute or so. It would always take place around midnight, without fail. After that, no worker dared to sleep in the construction site at night, and we had to padlock the site when construction was still going through. Eventually, we pinpointed her to occupying room 303 after construction was complete, and we have instituted a rule to not book any guests into that room ever since.” Datuk Reza explained as he ate more sotong in kicap sauce.
“Ah…I see. Well, I will make sure we continue this practice, for as long as I am working here.” I said stoically.
“Thanks, Puan Zed.” Datuk Reza said with a grateful smile.
Unfortunately, a year later, in 2019, I would retire from working at the Tambun Tavern. My daughter, Sharifah, would get married and finally settle down in KL. She was hired as the accounts payable bookkeeper for a major electronics manufacturer based in Shah Alam, and her husband was the creative director for a small ad agency based in Bukit Bintang, in the heart of Kuala Lumpur. They both met in college and were madly in love. As both she and her husband were working, she requested the aid of myself, and my husband to stay with her, and look after her baby girl, my granddaughter Jasmine Kamaruddin.
It was thus with a heavy heart I bid my colleagues at Tambun Tavern goodbye, packed my things, and moved to the big city of Kuala Lumpur to look after my darling granddaughter. I sometimes wondered as I was watching over Jasmine and keeping house for my daughter, how were things at Tambun Tavern. With the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in 2020, I sincerely prayed for the staff at the hotel, hoping everything would get better soon.
More importantly, I also prayed for the soul of the old lady in room 303, hoping that she could one day find peace, and move on in the after-life.
Cover image by Hưng Nguyễn Việt on Unsplash
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