An Eid Story -or- Don’t Change Plans at the Last Minute, Then Be Cheap

The wheels on the bus go round and round, unless the bus is stuck in traffic on Eid.

Dateline: Malaysia. I’m traveling with a good buddy from Germany, and we’re on the bus from the colonial port city of Malacca en route to a European-style chalet in the verdant Cameron Highlands to meet up with the birthday gang from Bali. Suddenly, I get the bright idea to backtrack south to Singapore and get in a little city life after our Highlands adventure and before beaching it up in the Perhentian Islands.

So, we get to the chalet and do a little internet research. The flights to Singapore from Penang, the town with the nearest commercial airport, are more than what we were willing to pay and scheduled train departures were all full. What we hadn’t counted on was Eid (the end of Ramadan) taking place in Malaysia and the rest of the Muslim world that very weekend, during which thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people would be traveling around the country, making merry for themselves and making hell for all the luckless foreigners who hadn’t checked to see there was a holiday that weekend.

At the bus station in the Highlands, the ticket agents all warn that buses back to Kuala Lumpur are filling up and that buying tickets the next day would be virtually impossible. One company sold tickets from the Highlands to Singapore with a stop in KL, but at a steep holiday markup. Being cheap, we decide we’d pay the regular fare to KL, then get tickets on to Singapore from there. Oh, why in all the Creator’s great green hills and valleys did we do that?

We get to what used to be KL’s main bus terminal and it’s jammed with holiday travelers—mostly young men off from their construction jobs in the capital and heading somewhere else in the country to see their families. By the time we arrive, we’ve missed the few departures for Singapore and the remaining buses are either completely full or not leaving for another 9 or 10 hours. We take the metro (also jammed) to the new and improved bus terminal, from which almost all buses to the south of the country depart, and find out the few remaining seats to Singapore are on luxury buses and cost three times the normal fare. Figures.

What to do, what to do? Eureka: take the bus to Johor Bahru—the southernmost city in Malaysia, just across the causeway from Singapore—then take the commuter route into Sin City! There was a bus leaving within the hour and it cost not even half the price of the luxury bus. We snag a can of MSG-loaded Pringles knock-offs and a pack of bean-paste rolls (num!) from the 7-11 and we’re off to JB.

Along the way, however, we hit Spring-Break-in-Florida-style traffic as everybody, their mother, their grandmother, their great-grandmother, their grandkids, their dog, their neighbor, and their play-cousin Roscoe decides to take to the highway for the holiday. Soon, we realize that we’re in a race against time as the buses that cross the causeway from Malaysia into Singapore stop running just before midnight. With no contingency plan should we get stuck in JB, we chew our nails to the quick hoping the bus can sprout wings. And lo, we make it to the crowded, ramshackle bus terminal in enough time to run real, real fast across the parking lot just to wait in a long, long line of Malaysians, Singaporeans, and a sprinkling of cheap-ass Westerners (who didn’t want to ante up for the luxury bus) aiming to cross the border before it closes.

After two or three buses fill up and head off, we finally crowd onto one along with the daily commuters, packed and sealed tightly in a lumbering proletarian transporter with the a/c set on Arctic. First stop: the Malaysian customs and immigration office. We peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped out of Malaysia, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier. We cross the causeway separating Peninsular Malaysia from the island of Singapore, but I don’t see much because it’s dark outside and my face is pressed into the back of someone’s head anyway. Sing’s customs and immigration office is next, and we peel out of the bus, split up into lines based on national origin, get stamped into Singapore, then herded back onto a bus which may or may not be the one we departed moments earlier.

The time is almost 1am and we’re tired and hungry and though we reach our destination safely and physically unharmed, we’re emotionally scarred by the figurative crush of holiday travel and the literal crush of some dude’s scalp pressed against my nose on a bus. Please be sure to remind me of this the next time I get one of my last-minute bright ideas. And make sure you know the date of Eid before traveling by bus in Malaysia.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Malacca in Pictures

As evidenced by the Dutch-built Stadthuys, the over 230-year-old Hindu temple, and the Chinese-inflected Kampung Kling Mosque, Malaysia’s multicultural colonial port of Malacca has been fought over and ruled by a succession of Asian and European powers since it was first established over 600 years ago. Offering safe harbor during the ferocious monsoon season for trading ships threading between China and India—a virtual crossroads of the world—the city pulled in abundant riches and a pallet of cultures.

Tossed like a hot potato between the Malays, the Javanese, the Vietnamese, the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the English, Malacca is home to architecture, food, religion, music, and other traditions that reflect the various flags flown over the city, and which influence the dominant cultures (Malay, Chinese, Indian, mixes of the three) that populate it today. Malacca’s tangled history and relaxed, Caribbean-like atmosphere make it a popular stop on the backpacker trail, but there are still a few secluded corners that occasionally go tourist-free. Here are a few of Malacca’s beauty spots.

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

 

Prepping for Asia

This summer, I’ll be joining a group of friends in Southeast Asia to celebrate our buddy Mike‘s birthday. Mike is on a Fulbright teaching fellowship in rural Malaysia, but we all plan on bouncing through several countries in the region throughout the month of August, coming together at various points along the way.

A few weeks ago, I found a decent (i.e. less than $1500) round-trip ticket to Southeast Asia, arriving at Singapore and departing from Bangkok. This week, I’ve been buying tickets between cities in the area, connecting the dots of the trip and stirring up a little bit of excitement for what will be my second visit to the region, but my first time in three countries: Singapore, Indonesia, and Thailand.

Low-cost carrier Air Asia will be shuttling me first between Singapore and Bali ($80), where I’ll be joining Mike and crew for the birthday bash; then I’ll hop aboard a bus, ferry, and train to get to Jakarta (thanks to The Man in Seat Sixty-One for all the excellent in-depth info about rail journeys in Indonesia), followed by an Air Asia hop to Bangkok ($102), Lufthansa flight to and from Kuala Lumpur ($104!!!), and bus travel around the Cameron Highlands and coastal islands of Malaysia. The purchase of plane tickets is truly one of the significant pleasures in my life.

So stay tuned to Fly Brother for developments on the upcoming Whirlwind SE Asia Tour 2012 and other travel tidbits and commentary. And don’t forget, you’re always welcome to tag along!

Please don’t forget to follow me on Twitter @FlyBrother, and “like” me on Facebook! You can subscribe, too! ;-)

Sometimes, Even Fly Brothers Can’t See Past the End of their Noses

Silly Me in Malaysia


MALAYSIA — Kuala Lumpur.

At this point in my journey, after two months and nine countries, I was operating on borrowed funds and becoming just the slightest bit panicky about where the next cash infusion would be coming from. The original plan had been to have enough money stacked to hang out in Brazil for a few months without having to work full-time in order to bang out a few chapters of a novel. Very quickly, zat plen vent kaput.

Meanwhile, I was still on the dream tour, passing through the Kingdom of Malaysia for a couple days en route to Hong Kong, and crashing with a gangly CouchSurfer of Chinese parentage named Dan. A writer and web designer, Dan took a day off of work to show me around his city, peopled with a mix of Asian ethnicities and served by a modern and extensive transport system. Accustomed to giving tours of KL, Dan had a whole itinerary planned, involving mosques and markets. Our first stop: KL City Centre to check out the Petronas Towers, those twin silver, Islamic-inspired spires of Entrapment fame and one-time tallest building(s) in the world. We knew we wouldn’t be able to go to the top, since tickets had to be procured first thing in the morning. In the end, though, we never made it out of the park and shopping mall at the base of the towers.

See, what had happened was, I had found a few teaching job leads online; a couple in Brazil, one in Berlin, and another back in the States. I needed to get my CV sent out to each school, pronto. Immediately. Right away.

There were two Starbucks beneath the towers, both with painfully slow wireless Internet, both chock full o’ foreigners trying to access said Internet simultaneously. What started out as a quick five-minute email ended up takng an hour. Then. we decided to get some food and as we were finishing, it began to rain. I felt like I could squeeze in another couple of emails and a Skype phone call or two. And after another almost two hours, Dan let me know in his calm, measured manner, that most of the places on our sightseeing list had closed. I was in town for only two days and had spent five hours in a mall, most of it hunched over a laptop at Starbucks. Talk about misplaced priorities.

Dan had been gracious enough to take off from work and drive me into the capital city of a country to which I had no clue when I’d be returning on a continent I’d never been before. And because of a very American sense of single-mindedness and goal-oriented-ness, I missed out on who knows how many sights, sounds, and other random and beautiful experiences stressing over something that could have been taken care of during one of my many pending airport layovers (especially considering all major East Asian airports have free or cheap Internet access).

Work-related stress without even having a job, while on vacation. Ain’t that a…?!

Here’s to trying my damndest to never make that mistake again. Cheers, Dan!

Petronas Towers, Kuala Lumpur