Sunday, July 13, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia / Thailand Thailand

How not to travel to Malaysia

LaLaanta Hideaway Resort, Koh Lanta. [IMG_4546]
Our bungalow [Enlarge]

As we said in our crap Taiwan post, our plan for the next phase of our trip is to cross into Malaysia and then head down the peninsula towards Singapore. When we took our open water diving course, we asked the dive shop for recommendations for a good cheap place to do lots of dives and increase our experience. They suggested the Perhentian Islands, which just happen to be more or less on our way to Singapore. So fully rested after two weeks in paradise that's where we decided to go next. The islands are about 20 km off the east coast of Malaysia, in the north of the peninsula, just across the border from Thailand. Not far from Koh Lanta, really.

But this is South East Asia, where 'not far' always seems to translate to a marathon of hot dusty travelling.

The border between Thailand and Malaysia has six crossings: four by road and two by rail. Pretty much all the routes converge on the southern city of Hat Yai, so we set an initial course for there. Through our resort in Koh Lanta we were able to book a minibus to get us to Trang, a large-ish town to the south-east of Lanta. On the way we got caught up in a tropical rainstorm but it passed before we got turfed out at Trang.

We arrived in the centre of Trang at about 10:15 and were deposited straight into the hands of a load of touts, as usual. We spent a few moments trying to find someone selling minibuses to Hat Yai. There was nothing immediately obvious so we asked a westerner who'd just pulled up on a motorbike, and who from the look of him clearly lived in Hat Yai. He couldn't help us, but while we were talking to him, we were approached by a local man in his seventies. In excellent English he asked if we needed help. When we said we were looking for a bus to Hat Yai, he volunteered to take us in his car to the right place. Our scam-o-meter twitched a little but we felt like letting this one play out and see where we ended up. As we walked together to his car he explained that when he had been a student in the US and Australia, locals had often given him a ride when he was stuck, so now he repays those favours in his home town. It also gives him time to practice his English.

It took a couple of stops to find the right bus. During the journey we found out that our new friend had been on Koh Lak during the 2004 Tsunami. Since he retired he's been a tour guide, leading eco-trips to the national park there. Almost every day he would go down to the beach to try to drum up business with the tourists, but on the morning of December 26th, he had an appointment with a resort owner, so he had a lie in. As a result he didn't go down to the beach as usual—a decision which could well have saved his life. In the aftermath of the disaster he volunteered as a Thai-English interpreter, communicating between medical staff and patients in the hospital in Phuket. He is still in contact with some of the people he helped in the weeks afterwards.

It took a while with several false starts, but eventually he found us a public bus to Hat Yai, leaving at 11:15 from the main bus station in Trang. The scam-o-meter had been wrong, and this had in fact been a case of a kind local simply helping us out. It's such a shame that the scumbags in Thailand do so much to spoil the country's reputation for kindness and hospitality. We boarded the bus and waved our new friend off. We were the only farangs (foreigners) on the bus today, but only the small children were unselfconscious enough to stare at us. At 11:30-ish the bus began to move. It trundled around town picking up people until every seat was full.

As time ticked away and the GPS told us we were making glacial progress towards Hat Yai, we found ourselves wishing that we'd just gone with the touts when we first arrived into Trang. We would have paid more for a tourist minibus but it would have got us to Hat Yai in plenty of time to catch the train we ideally wanted: the 14:40 to Butterworth in Malaysia. The only train to Butterworth until the next day. But on our distinctly non-express bus it took more than three hours to get to Hat Yai. We told the steward we wanted the train station, and he got the driver to drop us at a big traffic circle with only ten minutes to go until the train was due to leave. As we consulted the GPS to find the direction to the station, we were not impressed to discover that we had been dropped over a kilometre away from it!

We started walking quickly but when a passing sawngthaew (a kind of big tuk-tuk) offered its services at a non-scamtasic price we gratefully jumped in and told the driver to make a beeline for the station toute suite. Glenn put the GPS away so that we would be ready to jump out at the station and make a dash for the ticket office. But after about four minutes and a few turns we seemed to be heading in completely the wrong direction. So out came the GPS again and it confirmed that we were indeed doing just that. Glenn knocked on the window but the driver was too focused on his windscreen to notice. So then Glenn hung out the side of the sawgthaew and put his head in through the side window of the cab, which caused the driver to look a little surprised. After a brief exchange which comprised lots of choo-choo miming, the driver suddenly seemed to understand and did a virtual handbrake turn.

We arrived at the station about two minutes before the train was due to leave. Of course Thai trains rarely run on time but we just knew that this one would be sure to set a new record for punctuality. Glenn ran ahead to the ticket window and Isla watched as he paused for a moment and then turned and walked away. The train was on time... And full! Every single seat was taken. From first class sleeper to third class benches, there was no availability and so after the frantic panic to get to the station it turned out that we had made it, but we still were not going to be taking the train to Butterworth that day.

Plan B... We crossed the street to a sprinkling of minibus offices. "We'd like to go to Penang please." (Penang is the island next to Butterworth, which was where we were actually headed. Georgetown is the main city on the island and is the old British colonial capital of Malaya—and that's where we were staying the night).

The minibus agent looked glum. He had just sold the last two tickets to Penang not ten minutes previously. What a coincidence. But being a very helpful agent he could arrange a private taxi for us! We went door-to-door, but always got the same response. Either they had sensed that we would be good for a taxi and closed ranks, or there really were no spaces on the minibuses.

This journey was starting to look like a mess. In our efforts to avoid the touts all we seemed to be doing was digging a hole for ourselves. Yet again we cursed ourselves for being too optimistic with our travel plans. Because we like to plan a whole journey in advance so that we have the security of knowing that we're not going to be stranded anywhere, we had booked a hotel in Penang, onward travel to the Perhentian Islands tomorrow, and our accommodation for the first few days in Perhentian. But as we discovered, we still managed to get stranded, because we didn't conceive of the possibility that the train across the border would be completely full. We either need to chill out and take these multi-stage journeys one step at a time, or just pay the goddamn tourist touts to take us on the whole journey we want to do.

Now we had a simple choice: spend the night in Hat Yai and write off the hotel, the onward tickets and the first night's accommodation in Perhentian; or punish our wallet some more and stump up for the taxi. After doing some sums the taxi came out as the logical choice.

Our 'taxi' driver was Malaysian, had obviously come to Hat Yai with a delivery of some sort, and had been waiting for some farang to come along and pay him to drive home. The joy of being those idiots. The border crossing, 50 km south of Hat Yai, was very busy, and the driver told us to get out of the car and walk through the border. As we stood in the huge queue for Thai passport control the driver drove straight past us, through the gate and off around the corner out of sight. We then confounded our annoying day with a minute of utter panic as we remembered that (in the briefest moment of lost concentration) we had left all our stuff in the car! As we stood there wondering how we could have been so absolutely stupid for the umpteenth time today, and realising that we didn't even have the driver's licence plate number, we caught a glimpse of him through the crowds: he had parked up and was standing waiting for us on the other side.

Back in the car the driver told us that the reason all the transport was fully booked and the border was so busy is that it was Sunday afternoon and so many Thais work in Kuala Lumpur during the week. We passed through the other stages in the border crossing without incident and at last we were fully checked, controlled, stamped and immigrated, and speeding south on a wide highway admiring our new ninety-day Malaysian visas which had been thoughtfully squeezed into a space on an already crowded page of our passports.

It was dark when we arrived on the car ferry into Georgetown on Pulau Penang (Penang Island). Georgetown is a funny mix of British colonial and Chinese architecture. It's a bit shabby and grubby, but it seems OK, even in the dark. Our bed for the night is in Hutton Lodge, just off Georgetown's main street: Penang Road. The staff are friendly and very helpful, and the shower is probably the best one we've had in Asia—gallons of hot water at a decent pressure. Having spent a little while walking around town to get something to eat and find an ATM, we notice that Malaysia doesn't seem to have the same problem with touts as Thailand. It seems at first glance to be a lot more laid back. Things are looking up.

Map of Day 597

Day 597
Koh Lanta Yai to George Town

This map shows the route we took in this post. Click it to see larger maps of our whole route at flickr.

Maps are taken from the CIA World Factbook.