Unfortunately their start wasn’t as early as intended, because the train was delayed at the station for an hour. It was a tedious stop, go ride. Confusion at getting a Singapore stamp out, but no Malaysia stamp in the passport give us a nagging doubt at whether we had missed something at the custom stop. In reality how could they have but it was strange and no explanation given.
We’d booked the ‘Swiss Inn’, a mid range hotel in China Town, which we’d stayed in on our last visit. With the price basically staying the same, we were a bit reluctant to book it again as we knew how standards can slip all too easily. After the slow train journey, we didn’t step into the hotel till late in the afternoon. The reception was as remembered, and the staff still smartly attired which was a good sign, not so promising was when we approached front desk.
“Hi, I’ve got a reservation’, Knox started giving his name.
He spotted a flustered flick of files. “Sorry Sir, but your reservation was cancelled because you didn’t turn up”.
“Well, I let you know what train I’d be arriving on, and it wouldn’t have been too hard for you to find out if it was late”, Knox put it to the clerk.
After a fumbling to see if they’d any rooms, he offered a standard windowless room.
“We have allocated your booking to someone else”, he informed.
“This is ridiculous”, an irritated Knox replied. “We expect to have what you confirmed with us”.
As if by magic we were re-allocated what we originally asked for, because the other people had not arrived yet. The couple arriving behind us had the same problem but they weren’t so lucky.
Nothing much had changed with the hotel interior, except that the corridors were now faded and the rooms aged with scuffed worn furniture. The mid-range title with its business and professional clientele was now a haven for backpackers offering discounted deals, free Internet, and a disappointing breakfast. What was a treat for us a few years back was now a very average run of the mill hotel. It was clean and adequate though and would do for our stay.
Thunder rippled across the threatening sky as lightening flashed. We had remembered KL from the last trip and the fabulous spectacle of the Petronas Towers, once the tallest building in the world. This enormous office block with its shopping centre base had been a fascinating experience then but failed to ignite the blue touch paper on this visit. It wasn’t just the great hulk but the whole of the city’s so-called ‘Golden Triangle’ that fell flat. There was a lack of enthusiasm and atmosphere in the shops.
Large malls were bereft of people, making them soulless, and smaller outlets lacked the individuality of imagination to catch the eye that was so vibrant in Singapore. This was the place for us to keep our money in our pockets. The rain poured as we jumped in a taxi and proceeded to sit in a traffic jam for an age.
“Traffic’s crazy here”, said the cabbie stating the obvious.
At that point a horn blared from another vehicle, and a guy wound his window down shouting obscenities at another driver. The taxi driver laughed aloud with a touch of insanity.
“You see?” he said taking his hands of the wheel and waving them about.
“Always an argument!”
“It sure looks crazy”, We agreed.
“Many shootings here. People have no patience. There have been 6 shootings in a few months”.
He turned around to add effect looking inanely at us, eager for us to be listening.
“Just last week, a man got out of a car to tell the other driver to move on. The owner of the second vehicle got out and yelled back. The first man then took out a gun and shot him. Ha-ha! Crazy!” he finished, still with his unsettling snigger.
“Oh my god that’s terrible”, we stressed. With the nervousness caused by the cab drivers story telling style, we thought he was a nutter. Why was he laughing at someone being shot?
“Crazy, crazy!” he voiced again with a bang of his hands on the wheel and a shake of the head.
Miko’s imagination ran a muck.
“Is he a weirdo? Will we get out of this car alive? He might have a gun. Where is his ID? I can’t see an ID hanging up. Oh shit!” her thoughts whistled through her mind. She nudged Knox and whispered some of her uneasy feelings to him.
“Its fine” he chuckled quietly back at her, trying to keep the calm. Her heart was in her mouth until the taxi reached their destination. Knox agreed that the drivers account was a tad on the loopy side in its relating as we bolted into Delaney’s Irish bar.
The pub was decked out in the Shamrocks, Guinness and leprechaun paraphernalia that one comes to expect in such places, but being the only customers it wasn’t exactly a good old Irish shindig. Its big downside came when we read through the cocktail list. Distasteful drink titles such as “Irish car bomb’, ‘Suicide bomber’, and ‘Gunner’, was a recipe for disaster and didn’t fill one with merriment. It was an example of the associations that one made because of a troublesome past and the assumption that the names would be appreciated with a jovial attitude. We downed the last of the imitation Irish meal and left quick smart.
KL was a frustration. The verdict was blighted hope. We questioned, ‘did we really need to come here?’ We both had made the decision to return to Malaysia and spend a month at a small island called Pangkor on its West coast. This had been an enjoyable retreat for us 5 years previous.
The experience of KL though was dampening enthusiasm for the country. Miko had been on a bit of a downer since arriving in Malaysia after the high of Singapore and her instincts nagged at her concerning the logic of this part of the journey. In our minds it was good riddens to KL.
After a needless sweaty rush caused by hotel desk mis-information and haggling with greedy cabbies, we boarded a bus bound for Lumet. The 4-hour bus journey was quiet and anticipation hung in the air as the stress free music filtered in an easier mood. On arrival we struggled across a few streets to the jetty and caught the ferry for the 30 minute ride, past the navel base, and out to the island.
The familiarity of the surroundings evoked memories. The drive from the jetty wound its way along the tight, hilly and at times very steep shore-hugging road. It was a relief to find no large-scale development had taken place. In fact it appeared nothing had changed at all with the dense forested interior still in command. This was the complete opposite of what we had experienced in Palolem.
When the jungle thinned and they came out on to the straight of Teluk Nipah Cove’, a glimpse of the beach left question marks. The sight of a red ship in the bay, and energetic speedboats left an uncomfortable feel in Knox’s belly, and did nothing to dispel Miko’s foreboding. The sand did look quiet if only the dull, grey skies would change.
De ja vu slapped us in the face when we pulled up at ‘Seagull’. The owners were a mature couple and their appearance hadn’t altered. He was still sat, music book on stand tentatively strumming a cord on his guitar, while she had her half-moon reading glasses resting on the edge of her nose as she fingered through an old cracked book. The open sided dining hall where they hobbied was empty and the huts crammed in front of the two storey lodgings were equally quiet. Certainly not a bad thing as peace and quiet was what they wished for but this was eerily frozen in time. Rather than the expected swimming pool and renovations so keenly talked about before, the surrounds were over-grown with tall grass, weeds, and a few withering outhouses. The fairy tale feel had slowed the pace right down to forgetful. Even the price remained the same and we reckoned they could have regressed it if they had tried. There was no problem getting a room in the main building as only one of the 24 were occupied, and the huts were no busier. It was only when we got to the so-called 4* room that serious considerations into other available options zeroed in.
The whole building was in slow decay. The shabby wooden furniture creaked with the time worn bare floorboards. The upholstery of the once respectable easy chairs were frayed and doused with a hundred stains. Ragged cobwebs drooped like fading banners in the corners of the dusty decrepit walls and an arrow stuck to the ‘holey’ ceiling pointed to Mecca. In the pairs mind an invisible arrow flashed above the door pointing an emergency exit from Malaysia.
“That is minging!” Miko hollered when she threw back the stale quilt to reveal a few eternally sleeping insects and a number of stomach churning suspect hairs. It looked like the last person had slept here years ago and it hadn’t been changed. The month at Pangkor was falling apart like the dilapidated rooms.
Outside it was still lovely to see the thick, lush jungle, all be it behind a taller fence. Maybe it was the wrong time of season but the dozens of trooping monkeys were reduced to the sighting of an odd few. It wasn’t an exciting process eating out but it gave us time to discuss.
The ordinary restaurants only opened for a few hours at routine times such as breakfast and dinner, and gave vegetarians a rough time with the feeble meat-orientated menu. We decided to sleep on our dilemma once the bedding had been changed of course.
The next morning we made for the beach. The time capsule affliction of Seagull was a resort wide phenomena. Proposed new bars and restaurants had never materialized and the ‘run-down factor had been in operation. Boredom seemed to envelope the few zombified faces that had bothered to visit the collection of twelve or so guesthouses. We looked at a few other rooms but prices didn’t match the standard.
Teluk-Nipah’s, white sands and sheltered bay was the last box to tick and the only thing left to keep us here. In the one place you don’t want change, it will occur.
The bulk of steel anchored in the middle of this once tranquil bay, turned out to be a navy dive vessel and it wasn’t for moving. At one entrance to the cove stretched between the main island and an eyelet, lay a huge floating crane. The immediate concern though was on the beach itself. As if someone had treaded the hot sands, emptying a few trash-cans we grimaced as we dodged past the scattered rubbish. The constant sea traffic left a scum in the gentle wash while the slap of the jet ski’s and speed boats only a few meters from the shore left it impossible to have a dip at ease without the fear of having ones block knocked off.
We lay for an hour and the decision was made. A couple of phone calls and an email had flights changed and hotel 81 booked. We would leave Malaysia tomorrow and Singapore a couple of days after.
On the Friday they got up later than expected. We looked at each other and asked if we were doing the right thing. Knox’s philosophy was that it wasn’t the case of right or wrong. Taking this fate into consideration we followed the path that was opening up in front of us and in this way dealt with the present. The heart said, ‘Leave Malaysia in the past and move on’. This whole adventure was set up for new discoveries.
We choose to get an earlier ferry than they needed. Decisions liked this played the day and gave a whirlwind journey. Everything conspired to aid us because we had listened to our hearts. Life was as simple as that. Hurdles arose and problems were surmounted. At Lumet the information given was only a slice of the truth.
“Transnational’ had no room left out to KL and said there was only one seat left on the coach to Singapore. We felt an “Oh shit’, reaction building. We drew back from the counter not sure of our next move. Although we had a hunch that there would be other companies working the KL to Singapore route, they first of all had to get out of Lumet.
“Are you going to KL?” came the voice over our shoulder.
We turned and saw a young man a few meters away who repeated the question. “Are you going to KL?”
“Yes, my partner and I”, Knox replied with surprise.
“I’ll take you in my car”, he offered. “20 Ringgit each”.
We went for it. After the guy and another citizen bounced the parked car that hemmed them in out of their way we were ready to rock’n’roll.
Throughout the journey we made small talk with the driver, over the sounds of his pumping stereo that blared western pop tunes from the radio. His name was Arwan and he was on a weeks leave from the navy. To help him pay for his petrol he waited around the bus stand until an opportunity came. Today we were it!
In his broken English he told them of his 5 years as a sailor. After the devastating tsunami he and his shipmates had worked in Indonesia as well as the Andaman and Nicobar Islands. We were fascinated, shaking our heads in amazement and understanding what they knew he must have seen. People who didn’t know this guy would think he was just a ‘little boy racer’, who liked loud dance music and brushing his hair every 2 minutes. Because of the language barrier Arwan was mostly quiet as he drove along. We couldn’t believe it when he put a tape on of some really tacky pop with outrageous sexually explicit lyrics. We had a few embarrassed giggles at the words, and kept it zipped. As the sun set, an unexpected flick to an Islamic radio channel, playing its haunting instrumentless singing call to prayer, created an air of absurdity. We didn’t see how it all lined up in the religious context. Neither were we surprised at seeing the contradictions as they had grown up witnessing many. We closed our eyes and reflected on the day’s events and the approaching arrival in the city. There was a definite cause for thanks.
The road trip had taken three and half hours including the time to negotiate the heavy traffic, about an hour quicker than the coach would have been. After a sweaty climb we were in Puduraya station.
Miko waited with fingers crossed while Knox dived into the melee surrounding about 20 counters. Many indicated trips to Singapore but the first 4 were sold out. Not to be put off he continued and struck lucky.
At 9.30 we had two tickets for the night bus-leaving at 10pm. Phew! What a feeling, as we left the chaos of the terminus and lugged the bags down to the stands underground. Engines growled as walkie-talkie runners came and went directing passenger lines. It wasn’t until 10.15 that the queue was moved up the road ramp to street level.
Other groups hung around and their’s was instructed to an area at the side of the busy junction. In a few minutes an older coach edged through the crawling traffic and pulled up. It was a bumpy and innocuous 5 and a half hour ride to the border. At the outward immigration post, Knox’s worries were answered. We explained how Malaysian authorities are forbidden to stamp at woodlands, as it is Singapore territory, and they are reluctant to stop the train twice. This complicated system needed to be clearer in the officer’s own heads to prevent them having to ask silly questions.
When the driver pulled up at Singapore immigration he ordered the few remaining passengers to remove all luggage. A gut feeling over his shifty mood made us ensure the driver would be bringing us all the way to Singapore centre.
The Bus man confirmed he would. Singapore at last! But the checking queue here was horrendous, and the immigration officers pernickety. After a long process they trailed their luggage out the other end and looked to get back on the bus as quickly as possible. A drove of coaches in the parking area didn’t seem to harbour the one they wanted.
“How on earth are we going to find ours in all this?”
It was no surprise to us, to find the driver had vamoosed.
“He’s gone”, said another driver when they asked.
“He had no permit, so he couldn’t come through”.
The remaining passengers mingled dithery. We enquired of other drivers to see if they had spaces for all the passengers and the three dollars each was a lot less expensive than a taxi would have been.
14 hours after leaving Seagull we arrived at Hotel 81, on Bencoolen Street at 6am. We were frazzled yet amazed at the romp we just took. Unfortunately we couldn’t occupy the room until 8am. Even though we were asleep on our feet we passed time with a big breakfast in a 24 hr cafe.