Saturday, August 02, 2008 Malaysia Malaysia / Singapore Singapore

Across to Borneo

...full of taxis, not buses! [IMG_4699]
Johor Bahru bus station [Enlarge]

We thought we'd check out Borneo next, to see if we can find some headhunters. There are no ferries between peninsular Malaysia and Malaysian Borneo, so once again we needed to make a short flight. The main city in Sarawak, the western province of Malaysian Borneo, is Kuching. We could fly there expensively from Singapore with Malaysian Airlines, or cheaply from Johor Bahru (just inside Malaysia on the other side of the causeway) with Air Asia. Obviously, Johor Bahru it was.

We checked out of our clean but rule-obsessed hostel and made our way slowly, with a lunch stop en route, towards Kranji MRT station in the north of the island, from where we could catch a connecting bus to Johor Bahru. While we were on the MRT there was an announcement that people going to Johor Bharu should get off at Woodlands station and use bus number 950. It wasn't what we had planned, but we went with it. We found out later that the 950 is run by SMRT (the MRT company) while the buses from Kranji are run by SBS (not the MRT company), so that's why the MRT company tried, and succeeded, to entice us to leave early. No matter, it was a bus going our way. We stopped at the Singapore end of the causeway and everyone was chucked out to be stamped out of Singapore. Then after passport control, the way it works is that you have to wait for the next number 950 bus to come along—your original bus has taken the previous load of passengers on to the Malaysian side of the causeway. It was here that we discovered why the internet resources recommend Kranji and the 170 bus—there are about four times as many of them as there are 950s. It didn't really matter as we were in no hurry.

The trip across the causeway only took a few minutes and we were turfed off again for Malaysian passport control. As we emerged from the building, passports freshly stamped, it was immediately obvious that we were now in Malaysia rather than Singapore. The polishedness had gone, and there were no signs telling you what you couldn't do. But the downside was that there were also no signs telling you where the bus stop was, and when you found the bus area, no signs telling you where each bus would stop. And horror of horrors, there were no special queueing lanes for each bus. After a bit of mental readjustment we just followed the crowd into a big layby area, where it seemed all the buses stopped.

Eventually a 950 turned up, on which we we were the only passengers all the way to the Kotaraya bus terminal, where we would connect with the Causeway Link Express bus to the airport.

Johor Bahru is Malaysia's third largest city, but its bus station certainly doesn't give away this fact. It was devoid of any activity and curiously uncontaminated by buses. The next bus to the airport was due at 16.10 so we sat down in the waiting lounge to kill the forty-five minute wait. While Glenn went outside for a look around, Isla was approached by the bus station cleaner. He leaned his mop up against the table and struck up a conversation. His English wasn't great (but better than our pathetic attempts at Malay of course) and not knowing how to say what he wanted to, he instead disappeared off and fetched us various leaflets from around the waiting room which he thought would be useful to us. He also brought a great free map of Malaysia, on which he enthusiastically pointed out all the places we could visit. Then another local arrived to join in the conversation. When Glenn came back he found a crowd around Isla's table. The second guy turned out the be a Singaporean, and claimed to be a taxi permit inspector, but his ID said he was a taxi driver. He was very friendly and gave us his wife's business card (we now have a great contact for all our plumbing and project management needs in the Johor Bahru area) and his name and address. Malaysia is just like that—it is the friendliest place we have been by miles and we love it. We feel that Thailand's superficial friendliness is often laced with a mercenary streak, and it can stop abruptly when the person finds out you're not interested in buying anything. But we're discovering that Malaysia's friendliness seems to be completely genuine.

The airport was quiet. We ate some dinner, got our backpacks wrapped in cellophane and checked in. The short Air Asia flight left on time and arrived early at Kuching in Sarawak.

Sarawak is a semi-autonomous state within Malaysia and so although we were on an internal flight, we actually had to pass through border control and get another stamp in our passport. Malays have to do this too, and apparently they even need a permit to come to Borneo and can only stay for a limited time.

As at Kota Bharu airport there were no taxi touts baying for our custom, just a well organised taxi desk where you state your destination, pay your money and get a receipt to give to the driver.

We're big fans of Michael Palin's televised travels. In fact he was the inspiration for us carrying an inflatable globe with us on this trip. Incidentally, we still have the globe, although it's got a bit of a slow puncture somewhere in the Russian Arctic. Anyway, we're sceptical about the way that everywhere Palin goes, he always seems to miraculously turn up in a town just as it's having it's once-in-a-century festival. That would never happen by chance, we've always said... Well, as we got nearer to the centre of town the traffic started to get really bad, and the taxi driver explained that we were going to have to walk the last five minutes to our guest house because the road along the waterfront was closed. We've heard that sort of thing before from taxi drivers who are keen to get their next fare rather than sit in a traffic jam, so we were a bit skeptical. But sure enough, there seemed to be some sort of parade going on. A platoon of Roman soldiers marched past the car window and down the road which lines the waterfront.

We have indeed, completely unknowingly, timed our arrival to coincide with the first night of the annual Kuching festival and rowing regatta!

Map of Day 616

Day 616
Singapore to Kuching

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.