29 October 2014

Knock Knock Knock : A Travel Horror Tale

Asia is a continent rich with cultural taboos, myths, legends and superstitions that permeate every aspect of life. Never open an umbrella in the house in case you unleash a spirit indoors, red must be worn during Chinese New Year for auspiciousness, do not eat with a pair of mismatched chopsticks or your life will be full of odds, poking a set of chopsticks into a bowl of rice will invite hungry ghosts to your dinner table, you can hex your enemy by hitting a photo of him with a slipper (打小人)... the list of supernatural beliefs and practices scroll like the Great Wall of China.

And when it comes to travelling, a whole baggage full of dos and don'ts apply. Amongst these 'spiritual rules' to be observed during travel, one stands out as the most commonly followed and practiced... that of knocking the door of one's hotel room three times before opening it and entering the room for the first time. This simple 'ritual' is performed to announce your arrival so that spirit/s in the room, if any, are not startled and offended by your intrusion of their space.

The origin of this popular practice is hard to trace but it could have its roots in the 1800s during the height of triad feuds in Shanghai. Hotel murders of gang members were rife, and in-room suicides were a more convenient way to go. Faced with the dread of cleaning up rooms where death occurred, chambermaids took to knocking on the doors to inform lingering spirits of their presence so that they may be left alone to do their housekeeping duties in peace. Over time, this Taoist tradition rubbed off on travellers and became an essential part of ensuring a safe stay overseas.

Quite a lot of friends I've travelled with practice this knocking ritual. As for me, I never believed in all that hocus pocus and secretly roll my eyes while scoffing my friends' superstitious behaviour. Do they need to knock on the closet and fridge doors before opening them too? What if the spirit was out when we checked into the room only to return and find us sleeping in its bed?

I ascribe to the logic that if you believe something exists, it will manifest. Be it in physical form or in one's imagination. So if you don't believe that ghosts haunt a room, then there won't be any spook dwelling inside.

But I soon found out, not believing in something doesn't mean it is not there...

During a solo cycling trip to one of Malaysia's eastern beach resorts in Johor, I checked into a resortel that felt as tired as my legs after a day on the pedal. As usual, I can't wait to drop off my pannier bag, get out of my sweat-soaked cycling gears, take a hot shower and recuperate.

I opened the door to my room, like I always do, without knocking first.

The frills-free room with mismatched furnishings and tacky dressing up was as basic as the rest of the resortel. A minimal effort at maintaining the fixtures was evident but I was glad to have a queen-sized bed all to myself.

All washed up and just as I was ready to tucker in for the night, I heard three knocks on the door. It's almost midnight. Who could it be?

I opened the door but no one was outside. Thinking that my exhausted mind must've imagined the knock, I got back into bed but before I could lay my head down, the knocks came again. Flustered that some kid may be pranking my room, I shot out of bed to open the door hoping to surprise the prankster but again, the corridor leading to my room was empty. "Nasty bugger with quick feet," I thought to myself.

So I ran out of my room to try and catch whoever was disturbing my sleep.

As I ran down the corridor and turned the corner, I saw what looked like a girl crawling down a stairway at the opposite block.

I was stunned by the unnatural way of her movements but thought that perhaps she was sick or hurt and needed help.

I raced down from the second floor that my unit was on and started towards the opposite block but when I turned back, there she was on the linkway of my block heading in the direction of my room!

A flash of fear gripped me. "Something's not right," I told myself, thinking that a couple of thieves must be in cahoots to lure me out of my room in order to rob me.

So I decided to run back to my room but as soon as I stepped onto the ground floor's corridor, a figure crept out... and it's the same girl!

With my heart at my throat, I shot past her to continue down the corridor while thinking to myself that the resortel could use some major renovations. Or at least have a paint job and change the awful colours of those out of place neon borders that outline the corners.

My dash back to the room was cut short when a hand suddenly appeared on the wall. It was a left hand. "No ring on the fourth finger, she must be single,"

As the hand slowly walked the wall towards me, adrenalin found my legs again and I started down the corridor of disastrous colours.

Out of the corner of my eye, I don't remember seeing a body attached to that hand.

Finally, I came to the stairway that leads to the second level and a harrowing sight greeted me... bad graffiti!

At a time when Penang's wall doodles by
Ernest Zacharevic had raised graffiti into an artform, surely the "Stop Running" message can be less of those blood-written horror movie cliches and be communicated in a more artistic form.

Oh, and there was that creepy leg. Confirm got athlete's foot.

Totally terrified by the unnatural encounters by now, I decided to take another flight of stairs next to this to get to the upper floor.

But when I reached the second level, a headless figure stood in my path. Feeling faint from the shock, my eyes grew blurry as I collapsed onto the ground.

The figure started to float towards me. I shut my eyes and recited the Lord's Prayer... then Hail Marys... then the Heart Sutra... then the Kamasutra.

When I opened my eyes again, the figure had disappeared and I tumbled back into my room.

Sleep was fitful that night. I kept having the feeling that someone was watching me.

Here's another travel don't... when travelling alone, ask for a single bed and not a queen or king-sized bed as the unoccupied side is an invitation for something to sleep next to you. If you have to sleep on a double bed, remove the pillow from the unoccupied side so that the bed is only meant for one person.

The next morning, I couldn't wait to get out of the hotel. After a quick shower, I was about to put on my facial toner, eye cream, rejuvenating serum, skin repairing complex, hydrating moisturiser, and sunblock when a message appeared on the mirror... "Waiting for you".

Delay No More... I rushed out of the room.

Checking out at the reception I asked the staff if they've seen a skinny lady with short hair at night and reluctantly, he related the story of a girl murdered in Room 301 49 days ago. Her head, left hand and one of her legs were severed and never found. She was killed while waiting for her boyfriend to meet her at the room. The killer has yet to be identified.

Since that night, I now perform the full rituals when checking in to a hotel that goes beyond just knocking on the door, but announcing the number of days I'll be staying when in the room, flushing the toilet to get rid of bad luck, covering the mirrors at night, placing my shoes in opposite directions away from the bed, Strewing belongings on empty chairs and seats, and removing the other pillow if I'm sleeping alone on a huge bed.

We may choose not to believe in things we don't see but that doesn't mean the unseen forces don't exist. As the saying goes... better be safe than sorry!

Okay, apart from the ritual of knocking and other superstitious practices, the story in this post is purely FICTIONAL and FABRICATED in the spirit of Halloween with a travel theme.

The photos were shot with my mobile phone on location at Bayu Balau Beach Resort at Tanjung Balau and Sin Hin Hotel at Sungai Rengit (Pengerang). My gratitude to Hoh Siow Har for being a sport to crazy pose for the photos because we were bored with nothing better to do at the resort but to bring a travel myth to life.

Happy Halloween and safe travels ya all! :o)

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