On 'rural' kampung residents:
There's some truth that rural folk are easier to get along with the urban city-dwellers. At least in Sungai Lembing, SJ and I had no problem going up to people and talking to them - even in my halting Malay and less-than-perfect Mandarin. We were invited into houses, given lessons on the tin-mining and personal histories and given drinks for our trouble. Never once were we asked for money or photographs. Anyway, in 'rural' Malaysia, the divide between what people elsewhere might perceive as suburban and rural isn't very clear: residents in Sungai Lembing drove motorcycles (cars too expensive, they said), had large houses built of both bluffs of the Kenau River (vacated in December due to flooding) and many had lived in the town for years after the tin mines shut down.
Sungai Lembing is not technically in decline, although almost 75% of the shops in the town centre are shuttered during the day. It is busy every morning till around noon, when the hikers and trekkers leave. It's absolutely dead at night. So I assume most residents are either involved in renting guest houses, conducting tours or manning the remaining stores. Sand mining still goes on upriver.
3 types of travellers
After all the travelling and meeting people, I've concluded there are 3 types of travellers:
1) First, there are the wannabe backpackers. People like me and SJ. Who hold regular jobs, and are just passing through. We have the money and are willing to pay a bit more for comfort, even though we profess that we can handle the cheapest accommodations available. We take on the mantle of daring travellers because we have no tour guide, travel light and rough it out on buses. (Believe it or not, almost everyone back home thought we were quite mad to put our holiday at the mercy of the Malaysian public transport system). We have a clear, if not fixed, itinerary, and we've done our research. I don't think I could've just gone to Kuantan without the one week worth of research I dug up.
2) Then, there are the North American and European hostelites - those for whom the term 'backpacker' was invented for. The Malaysians, SJ and I really admire their guts: they travel for years (a Canadian girl was doing 5 years), and they're willing to rough it out in the toughest conditions (Kuantan in May without air-conditioning at night). We admit they have different values from us Asians - how can they just leave their family for years, without income, at working age? - but we don't want to judge. Perhaps where they come from they're taught to think as individuals first. That has benefits too.
(Although I felt that they exist in a kind of western backpacker bubble - on Saturday night in Kuantan, with the pasar malam (night market) in full effect, I invited some of them to go out to get some food and teach them some basic Malay. But they were more interested in staying in the hostel and watching DVDs. The Malaysians said that most were interested in going to the beach or going to the bars).
3) Finally, there are the wanderers, the crazy travellers. This title goes out to Choon Chyuan and Alex, two Malaysian guys from Melaka who we met while they were on their semester break. No destination, no itinerary, no preparation. They just go, looking for interesting places, getting by on the hospitality of all around them. They're so far the only people I know who have the balls to hitch-hike in Malaysia.