I traveled over the latter half of December, 2015 with my family to Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand. Starting in the 1980s I worked off and on in Hong Kong and Singapore, and I used to visit Malaysia and Thailand with my wife. We grew to love those places. Though we regularly travel the world with our kids, somehow we had not been back to those four SE Asian nations in 18 years.
Over the next few posts I’ll provide observations of our impressions of those cities and countries that we knew so well from the perspective of an 18-year absence. This first narrative, a long one, starts in the middle, documenting my family’s journey from Singapore across Malaysia to Koh Lipe, Thailand. I composed this in real time while it was happening or just after so that I would not forget the details. This story captures the allure of travel to me: the exotic, the unexpected surprises (good and not-so-good), elements of uncertainty, all-in-all a challenge to one’s ability to adapt to changing situations.
For those who care, the mobility sequence is walk, taxi, walk, bus, walk, train, walk, car/pedestrian ferry, walk, taxi, walk, sleep, walk, taxi, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, speed boat ferry, walk, long-tailed boat taxi, wade, walk, motorbike taxi, walk.
We left the Bayview Hotel, Singapore on Dec 23 at 500am by taxi, exactly as planned, to give us lots of buffer to get across the busy causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru, Malaysia to catch our 830am train from J.B. to Butterworth in far NW Malaysia.
The taxi arrived Woodlands (where the causeway is located to Johor Bahru) at 530am. Driver charged SGD32 (about $22); I paid him SGD50 in gratitude for being reliable and coming so early (I’d coordinated the early pickup with him the previous day). It was a huge gratuity, but what goes around comes around. I put my remaining Singapore dollars in my wallet to be changed later (about US$100 equivalent) to Malaysian Ringgits.
We had hoped to take the 730am shuttle train across the causeway to Johor Bahru Central Train Station (which in Malay is called JB Sentral), but the rail ticket office didn’t open until 800am, making it impossible to take the train (??), forcing us to the only remaining option across the causeway from Singapore to Johor Bahru: bus.
Confusion reigned with poor signs as we tried to figure out where and how to find the causeway bus because hordes of Malaysians were streaming into Singapore for work. As I said, it wasn’t signed well and seemed wrong, so we backtracked, and I asked some Singaporean immigration officials. They smiled and agreed it looked wrong, but said to go against the tide of foot traffic anyway.
So we did and followed a baffling labyrinth of dimly lit stairways and overhead corridors that appeared endless. A tropical downpour suddenly dropped buckets on us and everyone going the other way, leaking through the flimsy overhead palm leaf canopy covering the long skyway or blowing in on us laterally, adding to the confusion.
Of course at that hour it was also dark. The heat and humidity were suffocating, and I was laden with 2 heavy shoulder bags because I’d decided against a wimpy roller bag. Overweight and 67 with a bad Achilles heel, I realized how foolish that decision had been. Though I was sweating like a galley slave, I had no strength problem carrying the load. Thank God for thrice weekly sessions with my trainer.
A Dr. Seuss narrative of nutty pathways pales by comparison to the dim and grim florescent corridors, hallways, stairs, and pedestrian bridges we traipsed. At some point we cleared Singapore immigration, but we never saw Malaysian immigration.
Following the pedestrian pathways down to the ground again, we crossed several roadways and medians and came to a line of buses. I boarded the nearest one. It was full, but where was it going? The driver looked at me like I was an idiot when I asked him if it was the bus to Johor Bahru. He just glared and demanded SGD1 each. Sweat was pouring off me, and I had bags and family in tow; no wonder the driver took me for an imbecile, or possibly just a madman. I paid up and found seats in the back of the bus, hoping for the best.
We were not sure where the bus was going, and it was still raining cats and dogs. The driver ground the gears and lurched forward, soon joining a busy line of traffic, but to where? We had no idea where we were driving to and couldn’t see much through the misty windows except blackness and wetness. It seemed like the bus was crossing the causeway, but in the dark and heavy rain and against a sea of headlights coming at us, I couldn’t tell a damn thing about where we were headed.
The bus suddenly halted, and the door opened. We had utterly lost our bearings, but we followed the crowd ahead of us who had left the bus through more ups and downs and corridors and bridges until finally reaching what appeared to the Malaysian immigration screen.
Or I hoped so, anyway. The sterile hall had all the charm of a North Korean prison, a somber mood amplified by the darkness, 100% humidity, and rain. After getting our passports stamped, we followed our noses through more twists and turns and long walkways reminiscent of a bad dream after eating too much fiery curry.
We never had the slightest idea where we were going, and no signs helped because there were none. We finally saw one that read JB SENTRAL, our destination, which gave us hope. After crossing an elevated roadway, we entered a strange, high-ceiling building filled with vendors selling food. Walking around disoriented, I turned to Ruth and said I thought this might be JB Sentral train station simply because of the absurdity that it might actually be that.
Pretty soon I saw a sign for rail tickets, and we realized we had indeed somehow reached our goal. It WAS the train station, and I asked at the ticket counter where our train #2 to Butterworth would board. A nice ticket lady garbed in an Islamic Hajib pointed me to Gate B across a wide concourse.
I squinted up at two huge flatscreen train information signs, one for arrivals and one for departures. Each displayed nothing more than the time, which was at least accurate. Had I not inquired, I would have had no idea where the train boarded.
It was by then almost 730am, and our train departed at 830, so I set off to find a money changer and buy breakfast.
There were no open foreign exchange offices in the station for me to acquire more Malaysian Ringgits; good thing I had ordered $100 in each of four currencies before we left as a hedge against just this sort of problem (Hong Kong dollars, Singapore dollars, Malaysian Ringgits, and Thai Baht). My modest supply of Ringgits allowed us to purchase breakfast.
Food was plentiful, if unfamiliar (small homemade halal donuts, for example, with the consistency of rubber and no flavor whatsoever). We eventually bought what would have to pass for breakfast at the station’s KFC, which was doing a land rush business selling desserts imported from Italy at eight in the morning. I decided to go with the surreal nature of it all, and we sat to munch and wait for our train.
At last we boarded just before 830: Car S4, Seats 11ABCD.
Unfortunately, this was a row with NO WINDOWS, so we moved back to row 10 and begged for people to trade with us. They did because most passengers wanted to sleep and avoid the sun coming in the windows. The conductor was polite but unwilling to assist in relocating us.
Most of the train was freezing cold, our car less so because the A/C was wonky. While other cars were frigid, ours was merely very cool. Every car had two unisex lavs, one with a traditional Asian squat toilet and the other with a Western sit-down toilet. I was surprised to get a choice.
The dining car lady had caked-on eye shadow, an Adam’s apple, and a very deep voice. She didn’t strike me as the usual modest Muslim woman. She didn’t wear a scarf, either, unlike all of the Malaysian women aboard. She kept undesirable music playing at a loud volume all day.
People kept closing blinds on their windows which made viewing impossible except at our row. At one one I walked to the rear of the train for a better view of the passing scenery. I was happy to see the excellent condition of the one-meter gauge rail corridor with its concrete ties and well-maintained roadbed.
The dining car had good visibility but uncomfortable seats that folded up plus that loud and troubling music already mentioned. It was a long 13-hour adventure riding to Butterworth, during which time we bought the dining car lady out of ice and instant noodles.
We had hoped that traversing Kuala Lumpur by train would provide us with interesting views of the capital and largest Malaysian city, but most of the rail journey through K.L. was underground or in trenches. We caught a fleeting glimpse of the famous Petronas twin towers, but little else.
Mostly from South to North across the entire Malay Peninsula we saw a lot of jungle punctuated by endless palm oil plantations. Malaysia produces a good deal of rubber, papaya, and other agricultural products, but palm oil is king.
We arrived at Butterworth’s new train station an hour late in the dark just past 10pm. Exhausted, we endured another long walk up many steps and across more circuitous pedestrian bridges to reach the ferry to George Town on Penang Island. The ferry required archaic silver Malaysia coins no longer in regular circulation, which were dispensed at a special machine. We’d hoarded old Malaysian coins all day on the train in anticipation of this ridiculous ferry fare. It was just a pittance of a fare, too. The ferry folks had an employee monitoring the coin slot turnstiles instead of just taking money and letting people through. Would-be passengers with the wrong or incorrect change were admonished to return to the special machine to acquire the correct change in the outmoded coins. It was an incredibly stupid procedure.
After enduring the late train, long walk, and tortured fare process, we missed the ferry and had to wait. Ferries to George Town only run every 40 minutes after 10pm.
We finally reached George Town, Penang island well past 11pm. I approached the “Teksi” stand and found an Indian version of Sydney Greenstreet from Casablanca who charged us 12 Ringgits (about $3) to drive us at 10mph to the Muntri Mews hotel. As we glided at a snail’s pace along the old streets of George Town, our driver regaled us with stories of Penang island and assured us that, though the British claimed to have founded the place, Malay fishermen and their families had resided on Penang for centuries before the Brits arrived. His own family had moved there from India 6 generations ago.
George Town is in Malaysia, of course, but Muntri Street definitely had an exotic Arab or Indian feel to it. Reading up on it we found that the street had indeed been the center of upper caste Indian life in earlier times. The Muntri Mews Hotel is a gorgeously restored property true to that era and bills itself as a “flashpacker boutique” that blends luxury of today with the grandeur of yesterday. Ruth and I fell in love with it immediately. I am certain it will be the premier property of this trip.
We put the kids to bed at once and went out to explore George Town since we had only a few hours in the town. We soon came upon a weird open-air Chinese nightclub just before midnight and enjoyed two large Tiger Beers in another surreal experience until closing time at 1230am. Two alternating Chinese chanteuses belted out Chinese rock songs while garbed in Christmas getup amidst gaudy Christmas lights. You just can’t make this stuff up! We left laughing at the absurdity of it all.
Next morning Ruth went out early just before 7am and tracked down ferry tickets to Langkawi for cash (paid in dollars, about $66, because we never found a money changer to get Malaysian Ringgits). Turns out we were very lucky to have gotten any tickets on the 830am ferry on Christmas eve, as it was almost sold out.
We showered, repacked, woke the kids, and had a quick breakfast at the Muntri Mews Hotel (delicious), and then another Indian taxi to the ferry dock. there we followed yet another labyrinth of walkways to board a claustrophobic ferry which was freezing cold for the entire 3 hour trip. It did not appear to have sufficient life jackets for the couple of hundred passengers even though heading out into the open ocean. I identified the nearest exits in case of sinking and instructed the kids where to grab life jackets, just in case.
The ferry left George Town very late and didn’t arrive Langkawi until nearly noon. Despite the ninety-plus outside temps, we were bundled up like Eskimos on the ferry and shivering.
By positioning myself close to the main ferry hatch before we docked, I managed to snag my bags in the arrival chaos and get off first. By the time Ruth and the kids joined me, I had located a man who claimed to be selling ferry tickets to Koh Lipe island (R118, about $27 each). First, though, I had to stop at a money exchange business to convert my remaining Singapore dollars to Malaysian Ringgits to pay for the next ferry.
It was reportedly a Muslim holiday (now Christmas eve), and we had been warned that no money changers would be open, but the Langkawi ferry dock was a madhouse of people going places, so every business was open, Islamic holiday or not. The man who claimed to have ferry tickets then took us to a strange outdoor travel office across from the main ferry dock entrance where an old Muslim lady sold us the ferry tickets. That used up most of my Ringgits. She told us to be back there at 100pm sharp to be escorted to the dock for the 230pm ferry. It was 1230pm already, so we rushed to find something to eat.
We spent our remaining Ringgits on lunch at the ferry dock food court (all local cuisines and absolute bedlam) and afterwards to buy six batik scarfs at bargain prices. We rushed back to the ferry ticket lady at 110pm, who turned us over to an old Indian man with a sour disposition. Grunting and complaining, he walked us back across the busy ferry terminal arrival street to the back of the very same food court we’d so hurriedly left 15 minutes before!. There we handed over our passports to some ferry people to copy details and just waited. At just past 2pm, one of the ferry staff people told the (by then) huge crowd of us to follow him to Malaysian immigration and the ferry.
More madness and long queues ensued at a woefully under-staffed, two-person Malaysian immigration desk to have our passports properly stamped for leaving Malaysia and then to follow a queue to the dock. Once there, however, no boat! The ferry arrived at 235 (due in at 130p) and unloaded its passengers. We then boarded and had to give up our passports again into a canvas bag to be given back on Koh Lipe. I strenuously objected and was scolded. I reluctantly threw in our four. I still didn’t like surrendering our passports, something we NEVER do.
The ferry from Langkawi to Koh Lipe left late sometime after 300pm (another claustrophobic boat, this one with almost no life jackets at all and a rudimentary dip-and-pour toilet). We arrived Koh Lipe to an offshore dock around 4pm Thai time (an hour earlier than Malaysia) after a 2 hour ride.
Following long delays and lots more confusion on the crowded floating offshore dock, we transferred to Thai long-tailed boats to get to shore, but the 10 meter boats were too big to make it all the way to the beach. We therefore had to jump over the side onto the uneven rocky bottom and painfully (for me) walk to shore. I was indignant, but sucked it up. We grabbed our luggage which had been haphazardly tossed onto the hot sand and next waited in another chaotic queue to retrieve our passports from the ferry staff.
We were then instructed to fill out Thai arrival forms and wait in yet another long queue for Thai immigration processing at a makeshift beachfront facility. This took 90 minutes, characterized by more mass confusion and world class inefficiency. As I fumed and cursed under my breath in the blazing tropical sun, I could hear and see revelers at a bar next door enjoying cold beer and air conditioning.
Why the ferry people held our passports between Langkawi and Koh Lipe is a mystery. Anyone wishing to skulk off after getting his or her passport back without waiting for Thai immigration could easily have done so. I thought about doing it myself.
While waiting, I bought ferry and van tickets back to the mainland and to Hat Yai (Thailand) train station for our overnight train trip to Bangkok Dec 27 (this was a Dec 24). They took US dollars in payment at a decent $/Baht rate.
Finally we cleared immigration and took motorbike taxis to the Zanom Sunrise Resort, arriving before 6pm on Christmas eve, our two day odyssey finally over. We’ve been relaxing ever since.