Thursday, February 7, 2013

In and Out of Singapore

Before leaving for Singapore and Malaysia, our Aussie friend said, “Awright!  Heading to civilized Asia!”  (Only it sounded like “Heddn tuh civileyezed Eyezha!”)  Our first encounter with “civilized Asia” was a customs area with somewhere around a one to one agent to guest ratio.  The person was friendly, and spoke excellent English.  Hmmm.  We then went to the Metro, which is extensive and easily took our train to our hotel’s neighborhood.
We walked out of the Metro station into the balmy evening and the first thing we encountered was a big, open grassy field with trees around it and birds flitting about.  Where we come from, any open area that is not a park is filled with weeds and debris and birds are hard to come by since the Chinese old folks like to catch and eat them.  Also no horns were honking. 
We commenced to walk down the street in the direction of our hotel.  It was a pleasant place with two and three story buildings.  When we came to a side street that needed crossing, cars yielded to us.  This was looking awfully civilized and I was finding myself a little discomfited by the unfamiliar behaviors.
Our hotel is one that I found online and was the best rated cheapish place I could find.  Cheap, like 60 American dollars a night.  It’s a three story, pink thing with nightly and hourly rates.  The rooms are big and clean and the AC works well.  We had a room overlooking the street.

Tiger Beer is a Manly Beer

There are a number of open air dining establishments next door, and we headed down to drink and eat.  Since this seems to be a more Chinese part of the city, the food was Chinese, but with a Malay flair.  We had beer and some yummy stuff, and chatted with the waitress, who was Chinese Malay.  She was amazed to see a couple of white foreigners there since I guess they don’t get down there much.  She was even more amazed that we weren’t with some kind of tour group. 
The places were a bustle with lots of people of Chinese descent celebrating the upcoming New Year.  They were loud and boisterous, and mostly male with a few “sportin’ gals” for company.
The next morning found us mostly rested in spite of some pre dawn noise from some revelers who apparently felt their need to chatter like  meth crazed drunks far surpassed the need that the hotel patrons with streetside rooms had for a full night’s sleep.
Our plans for the day involved finding a bus to take us to Mersing, Malaysia, which is the launching point for the boat to Tioman Island.  We were relying on a couple of guide books to aid us in attaining this goal.  One of them stated that the most economical way to get there was to cross the narrow straight between Singapore and Johor Bahru, Malaysia, via bus, then to catch another bus to Mersing.  According to the book, it’s much more expensive to take a direct bus from Singapore.
My plan was exquisitely thought out.  Using Google maps to guide me, we would catch the Metro, and go two stops to Lavender station, then walk the four blocks to the bus station and book two tickets to Johor Bahru,  then book two tickets to Mersing from Larkin bus station.
With a spring in our steps we stepped out into the sunny, near equatorial morning, packs on our backs, ready for our grand adventure.  While we strolled down the street I had an interesting theme song going through my head—The Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown”.  

We got on the  Metro, got off at the Lavender station, took a wrong turn, backtracked and marched in the morning heat up Lavender Street to the location of the storied Lavender bus terminal.  When we arrived at the cross street where the bus terminal was said to be we did not see the colorful, quaint station that was in the guidebook photo.  Instead we were confronted with a fenced construction sight a block in size and a sign apologizing for our inconvenience.  We circled the block searching for a temporary station of some sort, and found nothing but a large lot full of buses.
We backtracked and crossed the street to inquire at a hostel.  The proprietor informed us that the station had been demolished nine months before, but that we could catch a bus at the Beach Drive station, back the way we had come and another few blocks further, only 15 minutes.  I knew that was a stretch, since the walk there took at least 13 minutes, and his map on the wall showed quite a few blocks to Beach Drive.  Maybe the map did not represent accurate scale.  However, I was full of zeal and decided a walk was in order.  The day was getting hotter, and we were getting hungry, so we stopped for a quick bite, then onward through this wonderfully clean, civilized, Asian city.

After a half hour walk in the blazing sun we reached Beach Drive, and walked down to a city bus stop to check a map.  A couple of old guys offered to help, and after a bit of faulty advice they pointed across the street at some buildings that were partially obscured by a tall hedge in the median.  It was the Beach Drive bus terminal!  Joy!  

Many deities are represented in Singapore.

 We crossed a pedestrian bridge and inquired at the various travel agencies that occupied the ground floor.  Each one informed us that there were no buses to Mersing during the monsoon season, and they did not have buses to Johor Bahru.  Finally one agent allowed that there was a bus that went to Johor Bahru and that we could get there from the Queen Street bus terminal, a mere 25 minute walk in a vaguely western direction.  When I informed him that we had had enough adventurous wandering, he suggested a taxi, a number of which were queued up below. 
A Singapore taxi is a wonderful thing.  They are modern, well air conditioned, and operated by drivers fluent in English.  It was a ten minute drive to the Queen Street bus terminal, which probably would have translated into about a five hour hike through unfamiliar streets, guided by bad directions.  A note to any Singapore travelers: take a taxi.
The Queen Street terminal is really just a couple of 12X12 buildings and an asphalt parking lot.  The tickets to Johor Bahru were being sold by a toothless old guy of Indian descent under an open air lean to.  We got on the well air conditioned bus, and off we went, on our way to Malaysia.
One of the interesting features of guidebooks is that many of the sections appear to be written by people who have not actually been to the places they write about.  It may be possible that they were under the influence of some mind altering substance, or that they suffer from some memory affliction, but the result is a lack of proper direction in how to negotiate some places, such as confusing southeast Asian cities, or even something as straightforward as a port of entry into a country.
The Malaysian port of entry in Johor Bahru is not particularly confusing, but it can be if the guidebook you use tells you that the bus terminal you need to be in is in that place.  It wasn’t and it isn’t.  Inquiries as to how to get to this bus terminal from different police officers and clerks around the place got us down to a taxi station, where we got a taxi to take us to the Larkin Bus Terminal, about a 15 minute ride away.  Note to travelers:  when you go through customs, go downstairs and take a taxi to the Larkin Bus Terminal.
The driver was an amiable guy with 5 daughters and a son and we had a great chat on the way.
Larkin Bus Station is fairly large complex with lots of cool places upstairs to buy clothing and other things.  We had a 90 minute wait for our bus to Mersing, so we had time to browse.  It was somewhere between warm and hot, and when we boarded our bus, we noticed that the air conditioning was not really working, just kind of blowing warm to hot air out the vents.  The seats were awesome, though.  Roomy and cushy.  They reclined well, so I figured that comfy seats trumped AC.  When the bus started moving,  the air cooled slightly, so I figured that a two and a half hour ride wouldn’t be the end of the world.
However, the driver, being a conscientious professional, stopped at the vehicle shop to have the problem dealt with.  We sat in the idling bus, enjoying the steamy hot air being blown on us from the vents above while professional third world mechanics tinkered with the cooling system.  After about 20 minutes of effort, the result was a waterfall of water coming through the big vent in center of the bus.  This drenched a handful of passengers, and though entertaining to us, was kind of depressing for the victims.  After another 25 minutes we were finally transferred to a properly functioning bus and were on our way.
     Dude, I'm busy with this bus.          
Dude, you're getting wet.
Dude, that's water on the floor.

The trip to Mersing was pretty uneventful after that, other that being boarded by police at one point.  They checked ID’s of several guys who were seated ahead of us, and one came back to visit with us.  We were the only foreigners on the bus and he was very friendly, unlike his partners who were making the dudes in front pretty nervous.   I think they were some of the same people that got a shower from the bad air conditioner.  They were not having a pleasant bus traveling experience.  They did not get hauled away, so that accounted for something, I guess.
The bus stopped a couple of times on the highway to pick up passengers including one old guy who had us wait about while he walked back to his house to pack.
We saw some monkeys by the road too, but didn’t pick them up.
Eventually we got to Mersing, and met up with our American friends who had been delayed by a bus adventure of their own, and got a room at the best cheapo hotel in town.
Mersing is a quiet little coastal town, not unlike most towns on the Oregon coast, except its a lot warmer,  the greenery is tropical, and there are no overweight, badly dressed white people.  It does have logging trucks, though since the palm oil plantations need clearing occasionally.
We had gotten in country finally!  We celebrated by eating at a nearby Chineseish restaurant and enjoyed some great curried wild boar and Tiger beers.  We could not help noticing how much the beer costs here.  When you can find it, it has been taxed by the Islamic killjoys to the point where you are paying American prices for your recreational beverages!  (I already knew that this would be the case, but seeing this practice in action is disturbing to those of us who value our freedoms.)
Another factoid gleaned from one of our guide books tells us that Malaysia is a country of mixed religions and ethnicities, with Muslims making up about 50% of the population.  They don’t say what gender, though and if I were to judge the percentages based on the covered heads of women here, I would say that the percentage was closer to that of Saudi Arabia.  Virtually all the women have their heads and necks covered with colorful headgear in keeping with the teachings of the Koran.  No beekeeper or ninja suits, though.  We’ve only been in one small region of the country, though, so I’ll wait to see how the other gals here are get up before jumping to any conclusions.

1 comment:

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